Doctor Who – The Smugglers (1967)

The Doctor is furious when Polly and Ben show up in the TARDIS and tries to explain to them that they’re now stuck with him indefinitely because he still can’t control where the TARDIS lands. They end up somewhere on the shore of Cornwall. Although they’re shocked to be so far out of London, they still don’t believe the Doctor when he tells them that they still don’t know when they are. They go to a church where a man threatens them with a blunderbuss. From the man’s clothes, the Doctor deduces that they are in the seventeenth century. They learn that he’s a churchwarden named Joseph and he’s afraid of a pirate crew that served under a man named Avery. Unfortunately, they also learn that the TARDIS will be submerged in the tide. In gratitude to the Doctor for fixing his dislocated finger, Joseph gives him a strange clue, telling him that the “Deadman’s secret key” is “Smallwood, Ringword, Gurney.” After they leave for the local inn to wait out the tide, Joseph, who was a pirate himself under Avery, is killed by men sent by Samuel Pike, Avery’s successor as captain and who is after Avery’s hidden treasure. Pike’s goons had seen the Doctor and the others and suspect that Joseph sold the secret of Avery’s treasure to them. The pirates abduct the Doctor and wound Ben. Worse, the local squire ends up arresting Polly and Ben on suspicion of Joseph’s murder.

The Doctor manages to charm Pike out of some charitable treatment, as Polly and Ben use twentieth-century technology to convince their jailer that they serve a warlock and escape. After doing their own investigation at the scene of Joseph’s murder, Polly tries to present evidence they found to the squire, only to stumble across Pike and the squire, who has been running a smuggling ring, making a business deal. Meanwhile in the church Ben comes across Josiah Blake, a government revenue agent, but before they can leave the squire shows up with Polly. When the squire accuses Ben and Polly of working for Pike, Blake, who came to investigate reports that the squire was corrupt to begin with, pretends to believe him and takes the Doctor’s companions into his custody. After escaping from the ship, the Doctor comes across Ben, Polly, and Blake, who leaves to get a militia for help. The Doctor figures out that Joseph’s clue referred to names in the local graveyard, but one of Pike’s men, who wants the treasure for himself, arrives and forces the Doctor to tell him the clue. Pike shows up and dispatches the traitor, and tells the Doctor that if he doesn’t help him find the treasure he’ll start massacring the locals. Just as the treasure is found, Blake’s militia appears and successfully fights the pirate crew. Blake and the squire, who was of course betrayed by Pike, defeat and kill Pike. As the battle wraps up, the Doctor, Polly, and Ben slip away back to the TARDIS. After the TARDIS teleports again, the Doctor announces that they’ve arrived at the “coldest place in the world.”

Continuity Notes

Actually a production note, but regardless it’s worth pointing out that this is the first “Doctor Who” episode to be filmed on location. The interior shots were still done at the London studio, but the exterior shots were actually filmed in Cornwall.

This is also, as the penultimate serial in Hartnell’s run, the last regular serial to star the First Doctor from beginning to the very end.

Comments

When I started off with the recaps, the historicals quickly became the episodes I looked forward to watching the most. Now I anticipate them with a little dread. I think I’ve said before that I do wish the 2005 series would bring back the “pure” historicals, but seeing their decline during the First Doctor era I can understand why the production crew did away with them in the first place and why there hasn’t been a revival in all the decades the show has been on. To be fair, if you’ve been following along with me, you’d probably agree that the problems aren’t entirely inherent to the historicals; since the original production team and supporting cast left, there have been other wider drops in quality as well. Overall the rich and surprisingly complex writing in the early episodes has largely vanished. The hints at backstory, attempts at world-building, and in-depth characterizations of even secondary characters that made the early First Doctor era such a pleasure are mostly if not entirely gone, and that has especially damaged the historicals, which once exhibited the sturdiest scripts.

However, while “The Smugglers” doesn’t live up to the strong, early historicals like “The Aztecs”, it does represent a small leap in the right direction. Even though the story is built on broad cliches, it doesn’t aim for mostly comedy like “The Romans” and isn’t as egregious as “The Gunslingers.” There’s even a couple of nice nods to the historical backdrop, like Polly having to pretend she’s a man all throughout the story and Ben constantly getting in trouble for lacking reverence toward authority. Also the story is nicely paced, even though it does get obvious that the showrunners didn’t quite know how to make the story entertaining without some action scenes. Since like so many of the later First Doctor episodes the episodes only exist on tape, stills, and seconds of footage recorded for Australian censors, it is hard to tell how effective the action was, though.

The one thing the better or at least the more entertaining historicals had in common was that they always had a broader plot or theme that worked in the premise of the show. “The Aztecs” brought up the question of changing history, “Marco Polo” had the Doctor and crew have to maneuver to get the TARDIS away from actual historical figures, and “The Reign of Terror” was built around the idea of time travelers stuck in a volatile period of time. Unlike those, by the final scene, “The Smugglers” is just a paint-by-numbers pirate story with the Doctor and his companions filling the role of the usual protagonists. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with the Doctor popping up in a completely different genre, and in fact some brilliant episodes come out of that sort of thing, but – and maybe this is just personal taste – I think the writers had a tough assignment in making a pirate story interesting.

Speaking of the Doctor, these episodes are known in “Who” lore as the episodes that convinced the showrunners that Hartnell’s health was bad enough that he could not be relied on to carry the role of the Doctor much further. Despite that, Hartnell, as is usual with the historicals, puts in a good performance that hits its heights when the Doctor plays up the role of a seventeenth century gentleman and tries to get on the good side of Pike. There are still a few hints, however, like Hartnell looking exhausted in the last scenes of the episodes (which was covered with a bit of dialogue from Polly) and the fact that the scene where the Doctor is dragged out of the inn by the pirates doesn’t feature Hartnell at all but a dummy poorly disguised as Hartnell.

“The Smugglers” is by no means a must-see, but, like with “The War Machines,” there are small signs that the production crew is finally hitting the mark once again. While it’s good that the First Doctor era is ending with an uptick, it’s a shame that we’re not wrapping up with the same level of quality we saw in the days of Barbara, Ian, and Susan – or will we?

Spiritual Warfare Part 5: Bananas Are the Ultimate Weapon

First, a confession:  I cheated a little.

Maybe cheated isn’t the right word, but I did break my own promise to myself that I’d come at this game raw.  I ended up looking at a walkthrough on GameFAQ, to spare myself the horror of trying to find another key.  Luckily, I found out that, in a rare instance of the lazy programming working in my favor, the keys respawn after a fairly short period.  This is a bigger deal than you realize, for reasons I’ll get into below.

For now, though, I want to address something mentioned by Adam, author of the walkthrough, when he said he went ahead and wrote the walkthrough (which to date is the only one on GameFAQs) because he thought Spiritual Warfare was a pretty good game, if only because the – to put it kindly – source material is so good.

I can’t really agree.  After all, here’s a game where the programming is so obviously flawed there’s no rhyme or reason to the way enemies drop items, where characters bleed into the backgrounds like they’re transparent ghosts, and there’s more than a couple of areas where the only way to progress is to suck it up and take damage.  On the other hand, it does at least meet all of the basic criteria for a game, and it is playable.  I’ll admit that on any list of Worst Video Games of All Time Spiritual Warfare should be down from, say, the infamous Plumbers Don’t Wear Tieswhich was about as much of a video game as the chapter selection menu on a DVD is  a video game.  But I will say, in defense of Plumbers Don’t Wear Ties, it did give us this:

As for Spiritual Warfare, I think you can make a defense that it isn’t bad, but at the same time…if you want to play it, there’s just no reason not to play Legend of Zelda instead.

Anyway, the last time we joined NotLink for his adventures in Dawkinsville, he was frustrated by coming to a locked door without a key after having to run through a hurricane of bullets.  Now I know that doesn’t seem like a big deal, especially if you’re going through a Zelda model, but of course in Wisdom Tree fashion this game takes a simple idea and turns it into another lash on the cat-o’-nine-tails.  Keys are few and far in between in this game, and they’re not at all contingent on the area you happen to be exploring.  Let me explain:  in Legend of Zelda, while late in the game you did have the option to buy keys and you could use different keys in different labyrinths, for the most part you were expected to be able to use the same keys in the same labyrinth.  Not so in Spiritual Welfare, where for example there’s a key but no locked door in the Airport area, while there’s a locked door but no key in the Warehouse area.   So obviously you can’t rely on finding a key to that locked door you came across anywhere nearby.  Here’s a pro-tip:  exploit the hell out of the key respawning thing and just grab two or three keys from the same room.  As an ancillary to that, here’s another pro-tip:  play a Zelda game, or just about any other game, instead.

Okay, I have to give credit where it’s due.  When I went back to the airport to get a respawned key, I did notice that there’s an area in the Airport where you can get a heart container by climbing into the airport baggage carousel.  Even here it’s a little buggy – it’s pretty obvious the programmer or programmers didn’t know how or didn’t want to bother with making the conveyor belts actually work against the player’s own movements – but it’s actually a pretty clever way to hide a bonus item in a game that takes place in a modern setting.  Another thing I noticed is that you can heal without the use of items or going through those annoying Bible quizzes.  There’s an option on the menu for “Prayer,” which lets you heal at the expense of your “spirit” – those dove thingies that are the game’s equivalent of Rupees.  It does raise the theological question of why God is sending you out to face flying demons and toughs armed with guns that shoot bullets as big as the human body, and you still have to beg him not to let you die…yet it is a decent game mechanic that actually uses the game’s Christian motif in an original way, rather than slaps it over something else.

But what Spiritual Warfare giveth, Spiritual Warfare taketh away.  Hence the forklift drivers that want you dead, who are such hardcore atheists they can’t be converted.  Also they’re pretty fast, they move at random, they can move blocks around allowing them to block your path of escape, and they attack you in the narrowest spaces possible.  Now I’ll admit I’m not as good a video game player as I was back when I was 13, but I hope this helps you understand why my life is so low in so many of these screenshots.

Also for a while now I’ve been noticing that the game has its equivalent of the teleporting whistle from The Legend of Zelda:  train stations.  Try to use them and you’ll be told you need a ticket.  Admittedly I haven’t really been putting my whole ass into this game (although as you may have noticed I’ve been finding the heart containers alright, but honestly they’re easier to find than they were in any of the Zelda games I’ve played), but I’m pretty sure I haven’t overlooked it.  So here’s a prophecy:  it will turn up near the end of the game, when the ability to teleport to the game’s different regions will no longer be useful. God help me, I have become psychically attuned to this game.

Even the Bible quizzes, which just inherently sucked to begin with, are getting worse.

Yeah, I’m playing a crappy Christian video game;  the answer could totally be one of the guys from the other major world religions!

But I didn’t know then that NotLink was in for another crappy, overly difficult boss fight.  For, in fact, that’s what was behind the sealed door in the Warehouse.  Like most of the other boss fights, there’s a puzzle element:  here you run at the bottom of the screen while the boss runs in and out of the room and fires  heat seeking bullet-bomb things (really) at you.  When the bullet-bomb thing is fired, one or two sections of the wall separating you from the boss will glow purple.  You’re supposed to run to a spot under that brick, so that the bullet-bomb will hit it and explode.  When part of the wall is blasted away, it reveals ladders that you can eventually use to climb up to where the boss is.  While where the boss fires the bullet-bomb and where the bullet-bomb lands is determined by where you’re standing, where the bricks glow is completely random.  This means that sometimes a section of the wall will glow near the top of the wall where it’s literally impossible to get the bullet-bomb to go, and it will glow there, in the exact same spot, four times in a row.  Worse if you’re running to catch a glowing section on the far left of the screen or just trying to dodge one of the bullet-bombs, it’s really easy to accidentally go through the door and leave the boss room, which means you’ll have to start over again completely…and, yes, it happened to me.  Weirdest and most frustrating of all, you can blast some of the bricks with your own bombs to clear a path, but you’re not given any indication of which ones.  The game only lets you know when enough of the wall has been cleared that you can blast the rest of the path away with your own bombs by the fact that the boss just doesn’t show up again.  That’s nice of him.

So, in sum, what starts out as a puzzle-based boss fight quickly turns into a test of patience based on pure luck.

Also, as with all the other boss fights, there’s an angel right through the door.  What, so it was the angel who was shooting heat-seeking missiles at me?  I don’t remember any biblical patriarchs or apostles having their faith tested that way.  “Peter, thy faith shall be tested, by me running back and forth above you, and firing magic explosives that shall follow the heat of your flesh, and you must lure the explosives toward the bricks that glow.”  -John 22:3-4.

Well, whatever sadistic plan the angels had in mind (as if Bible quizzes for NotLink’s right not to die horribly was not enough), I did get the Boots that let me walk over the lava spilling out onto the streets of Dawkinsville.  Conveniently enough, one such nightmare street linked the Warehouse to a new area, creatively titled Hotels.  To be honest, this is my favorite part of the game so far.  For starters, it’s not a maze of madness and despair like the Warehouse zone.   For another, NotLink and every enemy with any red on them in the region looks more maroon than they did elsewhere in the game. It’s not bad programming, it’s a deliberate aesthetic choice!  And finally, it just featured this building:

If this building doesn’t show up as the game’s final boss, I’ll be disappointed…well, more than I already am.  Also the game tries to help God pull an Old Testament on you all over again, but I’ve learned my lesson.  Enjoy Hell, casino goers!  God’s okay with me getting shot at, but not okay with me going anywhere where there’s drinking or gambling no matter how many souls I can save by slapping them with fruit.

There really wasn’t much to this area, sadly, except I did uncover the best weapon in the game:  the banana.  It actually reaches across the room, unlike any other weapon in the game.   How convenient…and it means I’m nearing the end of the game!  

I don’t get why it’s the banana, though.  Unless…

I guess the banana is so much the “atheist’s nightmare” that it just literally flies across the room, whacks atheists in the face (in a totally non-sexual way, of course), and turns them into evangelicals immediately.  It all makes sense now, especially if it turns out this game was in fact programmed by Kirk Cameron.

The Forsaken: Dr. Caligari (1989)

Although I announced I would start it as a feature, I’m not entirely sure what to do with “The Forsaken.”  The original plan was just to cover TV shows that were either failed pilots or at most lasted only a season.  But I thought that might be too limited, so I’m going to instead start out with a movie that’s fairly obscure and still relatively hard to get on DVD.  Maybe that makes the original concept meaningless in a time when you can often, if not usually, find even the most obscure movies posted on YouTube or for sale online on homemade DVDs, but, hey, I’m my own writer, editor, and producer.  So, to quote the immortal words of Eric Cartman, “Whatever, whatever.  I do what I want, I do what I want.”

Besides, I’d be failing my moral duty if I didn’t take even the slightest excuse to share one of my own absolute favorites, Dr. Caligari.  No, no,  not Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari from 1920;  I’m talking about its 1989 sequel.

The titular Caligari here is the granddaughter of the Dr. Caligari from the 1920 film, although she acts much more like a cross between a female Dr. Freud and a subdued and postmodern incarnation of Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS.  Caligari presides over the CIA (not that one; the Caligari Insane Asylum, of course), but her unorthodox habit of keeping her patients in line by drugging and having sex with them has roused the suspicion of her colleagues, Ramona and Gus.  However, even they can’t guess at Caligari’s plans to use her star patient, a neurotic housewife apparently plagued by a phobia about pregnancy, Mrs. Van Houten, to perform the world’s first “libido transplant.”

As you can probably guess from the visuals, the movie really isn’t a horror film except in a loose sense.  Nor is it really a straightforward avant garde take on the source material;  if anything, it really feels more like a loving spoof of David Lynch with some mid-career Ken Russell thrown in for good measure than a bona fide experimental postmodern “art film.”  What the film does have in common with the original is that it draws constantly on the warped, surrealist visuals of German Expressionism, but even then those are filtered heavily through a late ’80s art deco aesthetic.  It’s safer to place Dr. Caligari in its own category altogether, even though frankly it does a better job of conjuring up the spirit of Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari than even Robert Bloch’s 1962 remake.

Part of Dr. Caligari‘s renegade and impossible to label nature is that it was directed and co-written by Stephen Sayadian, whose all too brief film career specialized in the very niche field of avant garde porn.  His only other major film was Cafe Flesh, a stylish sci-fi porn where the premise has the survivors of a nuclear holocaust divided between a vast majority of people who are practically eunuchs and a small minority who can still sexually perform.  The government mandates that the latter publicly perform sex acts before the former (oh, and it also had a surprisingly awesome soundtrack).  Unlike Cafe Flesh, Dr. Caligari can’t accurately be called a porno either, in spite of a couple breast shots (one of which is completely warped to nightmarish degrees) and a scene involving cunnilingus via a TV screen (it’s better seen than described), but the film is awash with psychosexual symbolism and references to sex and reproduction.  You might even call Dr. Caligari the world’s first purely intellectual and abstract porno.  It’s as good a brief description as any.

Its pure, undiluted strangeness alone makes it notable, but there’s much more to it.  Dr. Caligari is the rare type of film that has both a healthy sense of humor about itself and is completely, unflinchingly committed to the universe it has constructed around it.  Characters strike unnatural, melodramatic poses and pop flamboyantly in and out of scenes.  The dialogue is with the rare exception deliberately stilted and artificial, often delivered in a practiced monotone (especially by Dr. Caligari herself) and peppered with non sequitors  and philosophical quotes like “That’s the funny thing about desire.  If it isn’t crude, it isn’t pure.”  A cannibalistic serial killer re-enacts one of his murders with himself in drag as the victim.  And Dr. Caligari ends one scene by counting in German and suddenly dropping vertically out of view.

Sure, it has flaws.  A few scenes drag, and when the said serial killer character gets introduced he seems to get more than his fair share of screen time for the middle portion of the movie.  For all that, though, this is one of the few movies I would unhesitatingly slap on my list of “Top Favorite Films of All Time.”  Its cleverness and humor comes through in every visual and scene. Most of all, it’s one of precious few movies where you can honestly say that there’s nothing else quite like it out there.

From what I can tell, many others have agreed with me since 1989, but for some reason Dr. Caligari never really seemed to reach much of an audience.  Critics (at least the ones specializing in underground cinema) loved it and it was a hit in the American urban midnight theater circuit of the early ’90s, but it never got much of a wide release and remained unreleased on DVD until 2002 – and even then it was only through a small outfit called Excalibur Films that usually only releases pornography, and which will advertise sex toys on the same page you can buy a copy of the DVD from.  Despite any relative success it had, it was also Stephen Sayadin’s last film, something I find as inexplicable as it is unfortunate.  If you’re one of a special, privileged species of film geek, you can get it on Laserdisc, on which it apparently had a pretty (if still relatively) large run;  it sometimes  turns up on VHS (my quasi-artsy mom-and-pop rental joint had a copy, which was how I was introduced and indoctrinated), and Excalibur still sells the DVD.  Given the film’s obscurity, you can find a surprisingly large number of clips here and there online – although still not enough, in my opinion.

Even though it’s a little hard to find by post-Internet standards, it’s still worth it.  Even if you like cult cinema but hate what usually gets termed “art films” there’s a pretty good chance you might dig it.  Give it a chance, and feel free to join those of us who are still working to give this movie the cult recognition it never quite got in the years after its release.

Doctor Who – The War Machines (1966)

The Doctor lands in 1966 London with Dodo. Right away the Doctor notices a newly constructed tower and tells Dodo he can sense something “alien” and “powerful” about it, similar to the feelings he had when he first encountered the Daleks. Pretending to be a scientist and his secretary, the Doctor and Dodo enter the tower and meet Dr. Brett, the inventor of a new computer system, WOTAN, that is capable of independent thought but has “no imaginative parts.” Brett boasts that WOTAN will be linked to other government and military computer systems across the Western world and even the Doctor is disconcerted by WOTAN’s capabilities.

While the Doctor attends the press conference announcing the existence of WOTAN, Brett’s assistant, Polly, takes Dodo to a nightclub. Dodo feels ill and remembers being exposed to a high-pitched noise while in WOTAN’s room, and then disappears after a sailor named Ben gets into a fight with a man harassing Polly. Behind the scenes of the press conference, WOTAN manages to brainwash Brett, one other scientist, and the tower’s chief of security. WOTAN declares its intent to “develop the planet further,” by naturally enslaving or wiping out humanity. It turns out that WOTAN also managed to take over Dodo’s mind, and enlists her in the goal of acquiring the Doctor’s valuable mind.

WOTAN begins construction of war machines in an abandoned warehouse with the intention of starting his invasion of the world with London. Dodo gets the Doctor on the phone with WOTAN, where he is exposed to and overwhelmed by the hypnotizing noise, but the noise only shocks him. Because Dodo assumes the Doctor has been enlisted in WOTAN’s army, the Doctor realizes what’s happened and deprograms her, a process that puts her out of commission. After Polly also disappears, the Doctor asks for Ben’s help. Ben does find Polly, but she has already been brainwashed and is helping WOTAN’s other minions in building a robotic army. Ben narrowly escapes from being drafted into WOTAN’s labor force and warns the Doctor and another scientist, Sir Charles. The Doctor wants to attack WOTAN directly, but Sir Charles refuses to believe that WOTAN is involved and instead gets the British government to sic soldiers on the war machines, one of which is unleashed on the squadron. The Doctor watches as the soldiers prove to be pretty much helpless. As the soldiers retreat, the Doctor stands before the machine, forcing it to stop since its programming was not complete. With Ben’s help, the Doctor later captures another machine and reprograms it to attack the tower and destroy WOTAN. Against the Doctor’s objections, Ben sets out on his own to rescue Polly, which he manages to do just before the machine destroys WOTAN and breaks its hypnotic control over the others.

Later, outside the TARDIS, Polly and Ben meet the Doctor with news from Dodo, who had been sent into “the country” to recuperate. They tell him that Dodo has decided to stay in London. The Doctor grumbles about Dodo’s ingratitude and slips inside the TARDIS. Ben remembers that he was supposed to give the Doctor a key from Dodo and they enter the TARDIS using the key, just as it takes off.

Continuity Notes

It isn’t explicitly stated at all, but it’s possible that the Doctor feels like he’s detecting the presence of the Daleks because he is. Arguably this serial takes place roughly at the same time as a later serial that will take place in 1966 London, “Evil of the Daleks.”

I think this exchange is the first hint that the Doctor is very old indeed:

Dodo: “It feels like it’s been ages!”
Doctor: “Oh, when you’ve been around as long as I have, you won’t use that term quite so freely.”

There’s a couple of continuity “goofs.” Years before the flap with the Doctor being described as “half-human” in the American movie, WOTAN describes the Doctor as “human.” Also, for some reason, WOTAN names the Doctor as “Doctor Who.” It kind of reminds me of how much effort in remembering his own continuity Stan Lee put into his Silver Age stories.

Finally, this is the first series that takes place entirely in the audience’s present day, excluding “The Planet of Giants.” In a way, it also introduces the idea of the Doctor as a protector of Earth rather than purely a traveler, which would become a persistent idea for the rest of both the classic and new series, especially when it comes to the Pewtree and Tennant Doctors.

Comments

The First Doctor era has been characterized by abrupt and uncomfortable changes in companions from Susan on, but nothing has quite prepared us for the shuffling off of Dodo. I know she was an unpopular companion and that the amount of detail on her background and personality has been minimal – that is, all but non-existent – but still, the episode might as well have had the words [REMOVE DODO, INSERT NEW COMPANIONS HERE] flash across the screen. Hell, not only do they have her around to introduce her replacements, but she’s off-screen during her own farewell! Now that is cold.

To be fair, the new companions do get one of the better introductions. Unlike Dodo, they actually have personalities beyond one single trait (in Dodo’s case, absent-mindedness); Polly is uptight but hip and friendly, and Ben is a professional everyman. It is true that Ben and Polly exist as part of the showrunners’ attempt to grab at the youth demographic; the fact that the characters appear at a nightclub and use mod-slang says that much. Still, they at least feel like distinctive characters out of the gate, rather than afterthoughts (Dodo) or replacements for Susan (Vicki).

Now, for the episode itself, it will be difficult to simply damn it with faint praise, given how aggressively lackluster the whole third series has been. So I won’t say “The War Machines” is good, but it does show signs of improvement from what we’ve seen before. Having the Doctor fight a menace in the present day is old hat now, yet in the context of the other First Doctor episodes it seems a promising new direction, and it does seem like the showrunners have finally given up on simply replicating the exactstatus quo the show had in the first series. Now the whole “getting rid of Dido and bringing in Polly and Ben” thing is still jarring and just an example of lazy writing, the villain WOTAN is dull, the plot just never really goes as far as it should, and most of the show’s “action” basically consists of soldiers running around and accomplishing nothing while the Doctor watches from the sidelines – in other words, we’re far from the highs hit in “The Dalek Invasion of Earth.” It reminds me a lot of the low-budget ’50s and ’60s sci-fi films that have lengthy scenes of scientists and military types talking about the unfolding crisis without ever really getting involved. And, in fact, we don’t even get a confrontation between WOTAN, who only ever gets a couple of lines, and the Doctor. Instead he just programs one of WOTAN’s robots to kill their master and that’s it. Still, in the end it does feel as if the showrunners are once again putting some effort into things, and having watched the rest of series three myself that makes all the difference.

The Simpsons, Season 1, Episode 3, “Homer’s Odyssey”

Well, it didn’t take them that long before they made a reference to the Odyssey.  

Now I did say that I didn’t want these write-ups to be “reviews” in the strict sense, mostly because I’m more interested in exploring The Simpsons as a cultural phenomenon (but also because I think I suck at reviewing comedy, although in my defense it is one of the hardest elements of entertainment to explain).  However, I should say off the bat that this episode was strange to watch, because – even more so than with the last two episodes of the first season – the jokes were few and far between.  I should add right away that I think this was deliberate, and in a lot of ways the whole episode felt like more of a quasi-dramatic American sitcom than any I’ve watched yet, just with the occasional touches of the surreal made possible by the wonderful possibilities of animation.  In fact, “Homer’s Odyssey” is interesting to watch just because it contains within it a couple of potential “alternate universe” Simpsons series “in utero” – one that had a more realistic and even a dramatic bent, and one that would have been a working-class comedy like Roseanne except centered around a lazy but well-meaning father instead of a hard-working but cynical mother.

“Homer’s Odyssey” gives the viewer a familiar sight:  Homer goofing off at work to the point that he causes a hazardous accident right in front of Bart and his class during a field trip.  From there, though, it’s strange waters.  Homer doesn’t launch a zany scheme or a bizarre career change;  instead he’s so depressed that he’s failed the family and that Marge had to return to her job as a rollerskating waitress that he plans to commit suicide (although he intends to do so in simultaneously the most impractical, hilarious, and painful way imaginable).   When Marge and the kids rush to save him from a watery grave, Homer ends up rescuing them from a dangerous intersection.  This launches him into a crusade to get the town council to set up a stop sign at the intersection, which they do casually and with great apathy, but that doesn’t stop Homer from taking it as a life-affirming triumph.  From then on, Homer dedicates himself as Springfield’s number one safety advocate, finally leading him to confront his former employers at the nuclear power plant.  Mr. Burns gives Homer the diabolical choice of either remaining an unemployed and broke hero of principle or accepting a paying job as the nuclear plant’s chief safety inspector which would nonetheless force Homer to betray his newfound principles.  Much of his own surprise, Homer is stunned by the ethical dilemma, but decides to accept on the rationale that he could actually be a force for safety competence at the plant (which is not what happens in the slightest, but I digress).

We don’t get as scathing and thorough a look at the world of adult employment in the same way we got a look at institutionalized education in “Bart the Genius”, but regardless the episode does touch on a lot of things about modern America.  I said I suck at reviewing comedy, and maybe that’s true, yet I like to think I know enough to realize that comedy is about telling the truth, especially the truths we don’t like to think about.  In the opening act, we already see Bart punished after being set up by the “good, smart kids” Sheri and Teri  (I do wish they were developed more;  I kind of like the idea of them as malevolent versions of Lisa Simpson).  Then Bart, Sherri, Terri and the rest of their class are herded into the nuclear power plant to watch a very thinly veiled propaganda film that cheerfully explains with a friendly cartoon character why the existence of nuclear waste isn’t a big deal.  Homer does deserve to get fired, but in a society where one is defined mostly by their job and their paycheck he is so destroyed as a person he sets out to kill himself.   Another sitcom or drama would have been more explicit about Homer failing his responsibility as a “brreadwinner.”  Maybe it’s meant to be subtle, or lines making it more explicit were cut at some point, but in the end it makes it more depressing and real – especially the point that it’s not the job that’s important and validating to Americans like Homer, but just being able to claim that they get a paycheck at all.  Then there’s Mr. Burns, who makes his debut as Springfield’s leading plutocrat.  Now Mr. Burns hasn’t quite “crossed the line into supervillainy” yet by trying to block out the sun, but he shows no regard whatsoever to actually improving his plant’s safety record;  he only cares about getting the public off his back, even if it means putting the guy who by his own admission  “caused more accidents around here than any other employee and a few doozies nobody else ever found out about.”

However, there are gentler and kinder ideas here too.  Homer’s despair is very sincere, but so is his later enthusiasm for improving the community.  When Mr. Burns plays Mephistopheles by getting Homer to trade in his heroism for a steady income, Homer actually hesitates when Burns orders him to tell his supporters that the plant is safe (when Burns points out that he’s about to turn down a better-paying job for his principles, Homer admits it’s a little “far-fetched”).  There isn’t really a moral here;  it’s pretty obvious even here, and without knowledge of the episodes to come, that Homer is going to revert back to his doughnut-inhaling, accident-prone self.  Hell, he knows this.  And yet we do end knowing that Homer for all his flaws is a fundamentally well-meaning person, and the sense that maybe there is more to life than just wading through a job you can barely stand to just occasionally pick up a paycheck.  It’s that balance between cynicism and optimism that will drive the episodes that come, even here in the first season where Moe’s tavern looks completely different and where Mr. Smiths is black.

Favorite Lines and Gags 

Is the “Dumb Things I Gotta Do Today” sticky notepad on the Simpsons’ refrigerator a They Might Be Giants reference?  Or vice versa?

Mr. Burns to Homer:  “You’re not as stupid as you look. Or sound.  Or our best testing indicates.”

Vampirella vs. Lady Death

Like any good nerd, I do love to shell out the bucks for a good intercompany crossover.  It makes the fans happy by putting together characters who could only logically meet in fan fiction, and it makes the shareholders happy by getting your own competitor to actually promote your product (and vice versa).  Even better, usually (emphasis on usually) writers and editors have just enough sense to make such crossovers delightfully thematic.  Thus we have Batman Versus The Punisher, Green Lantern/Silver Surfer, Captain America Meets Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS…oh, oops, that’s my own fan fiction, at least until the glorious day a DC editor’s car breaks down outside my apartment.  Anyway, one of the more obscure but just as theme-appropriate intercompany crossovers was the not one, but two Vampirella vs. Lady Death series.

Scene may or may not represent what actually occurs in the comics.

Today I’m going to discuss the second crossover between the two characters, Vampirella vs. Lady Death.  Given my own neurotic obsession with doing things in order, normally I would have written up the first crossover, but…honestly, it was so dull I couldn’t think of anything to say about it.  Not to say that the second crossover is that much better, but…hey, it’s got Nazis!  With all that aside, I give you Vampirella vs. Lady Death or, as I like to call it, Boobs vs. Tits!

I’ve already talked about Lady Death  and my love for Chaos! Comics that breaks through the borders of ironic and comes back around again.  So let me introduce Vampirella.

Vampirella is one of those odd characters that you can’t really describe as “obscure”, but at the same time has a cult following that’s not all that visible.  In fact, today she’s probably less known as an icon of comics horror and more as the reason why Roger Daltry’s career hit a nadir so low that the world’s most brilliant mathematicians still struggle to calculate it.  But there’s much more to the character than just one infamously terrible straight-to-video movie.  If you can get past that Vampirella was originally more of a damsel in distress (despite being the title character) than the kick-ass “bad girl” heroine later writers turned her into, her original ’60s comic series published by Warren is for the most part an underappreciated gem, merging horror, sci-fi, and pure camp in a way that for some reason could only really be done in the 1960s.  There are good points after her character was revived in the ’90s by Harris, and in fact her gory, skimpy adventures were presented by big names in the comic industry like Kurt Busiek, Adam Hughes, Amanda Conner, Grant Morrison, and Mark Millar.  To be honest, I haven’t read much Vampirella aside from some of the original ’60s comics, but I do plan to actually review some of the ’90s comics in this space sooner or later.  Also it’s worth mentioning that even though Harris gave up on comics years ago Dynamite Comics got the rights and is currently publishing Vampirella comics.  I haven’t read Dynamite’s Vampirella either, but regardless I do encourage you to check them out for yourself.  The thought of a comics industry without a property as flagrantly campy as Vampirella depresses me to no end…

…but not as much as this crossover ended up depressing me.

Sure, it starts off promisingly.  There’s plenty of fetish fuel in that one image alone, and they’ve already got characters’ logos showing up in dialogue balloons, which is one of my favorite little things about comics.  Also I have to admit that the premise seems absolutely perfect and even kind of gutsy.  Dr. Midwinter, a mad scientist/neo-Nazi cult leader/immortal occultist, has entered an alliance with Lady Death based on the promise of the immortal life of Vampirella’s friend, Pantha.  With Lady Death’s help, he plans to start a (never described) cataclysm that would kill everyone not of “Aryan” descent, but only after Vampirella and her lover, Dixie, are lured to Dr. Midwinter’s stronghold and destroyed.  All well and good, but  four pages and the writer screws up even Lady Death’s continuity.  I’ll probably be the first and last person in the entire history of the Internet to complain about someone mishandling Chaos! Comics continuity, but by 2000 when this was published Lady Death had been softened up a bit in her own universe.  She was the “avatar of death” by this time, which the crossover does get right, but she also no longer wanted or needed to wipe out the human race in order to escape from Hell, like in her earlier stories.  Yet that’s pretty much her motive here.  Come on, comic, it’s important to get these points correct.

Actually, it is pretty important, since it calls attention to one of the crossover’s biggest plotholes.  Lady Death flat-out tells Midwinter she wants to wipe out humanity (although she also says just two pages later that she’s just under orders from Death itself, but whatever).   The story never spells out exactly how Midwinter expects to kill the “blood enemies of the master race”, except that his plan depends on Lady Death’s powers.  Now if Lady Death has access to that kind of power, and it’s exactly what she wants, what’s stopping her?  Why does she need Midwinter’s help or Pantha’s soul at all?  And how would she be able to pull it off anyway?  Before she needed the help of an undead mass murdering teenager;  in fact, that was the entire point of her character originally.  I know I’m nitpicking, and you can’t expect an intricate, airtight plot from something like this, except…we’re just a few pages in!   At least save the plot holes the size of Vampirella’s breasts until the halfway point.

Anyway, Vampirella and Dixie conquer the neo-Nazi horde with bloody gusto.  That’s to be expected, along with the occasional gorn shot…

What I wasn’t quite expecting was that these comics would have more one-liners than a Freddy Krueger impersonator convention.  Sure, it’s in character for Vampirella, but…the Nazi mad scientist?  Lady Death too?

VAMPIRELLA AND LADY DEATH:  “Save the innuendo, creep!  You’re a cliche away from going down on death!”

“An interesting choice of words, Vampirella, but I’ll decide who gets intimate with death tonight!”

MIDWINTER:  “I’m sorry, Sigrid.  Blood may be thicker than water, but it’s no substitute when you’re really thirsty!”  (Said after Midwinter without remorse shoots his niece to death when Dixie takes her hostage;  is “half-a-dimensional villain” a term?)

MIDWINTER:  “Trust me, I’m a doctor!  But perhaps you’d value a second opinion!”

VAMPIRELLA:  “You sound disappointed!  Who were you expecting?  Eva Braun?”

Far be it from me, a lowly Internet pop culture reviewer, to impart lessons on someone who has actually gotten something published professionally, but here’s a general pro-tip about writing adventure stories that I learned from the screenwriter of Batman Forever.  If you have a wise-cracking protagonist, generally you should set them up with other characters and/or against villains who can be the straight men.  Otherwise you just might end up with a story where everyone seems to be channeling Mr. Freeze from Batman & Robin.  The weirdest thing is that, while Lady Death actually starts acting more like Lady Death by the second issue, Dr. Midwinter is the worst offender.  It really makes you wonder if it was driven insane because he was very traumatized by the stereotype that Nazis don’t have a sense of humor.

Well, Lady Death defeats Vampirella with the Spear of Longinus – which Midwinter has, as all Nazis in these types of stories do – and with more than a little help from the fact that Vampirella thought it would be a good idea to drink the blood of someone who proudly announces she’s the “avatar of death” every ten minutes.

So the first issue ends with Vampirella dying – definitively, no fooling, dying.  How’s she going to get out of this one?!

Well…the story continues in the regular Vampirella series, which I didn’t read.  Luckily (?) for me, the second and final issue of the crossover has a three-page info dump summing up what happened.  Her soul was sent back to 1969, and ended up in her own past body, and she managed to get the Pantha of the past and Pendragon (another Vampirella supporting character) to help send her soul back to the present, and the spear magically heals her even though it was just used to kill her, and there’s something about a Satanic biker gang.  Eh, I’ve read over the exposition explosion five times and it still doesn’t make sense, so let’s just say “she passed out and got better.”

Vampirella isn’t the only one who’s gone through a traumatic experience between issues.  Lady Death has had something of a personality transfusion.  Not only is she no longer cracking innuendos and one-liners, but she’s not talking about killing the entire human race anymore and acting more like the hard-edged but basically quasi-benevolent Amazon she was over in her own stories at this time.  Instead she talks more about her “warrior code” – it’s the discerning writer’s tactic for getting a villainous character to act in a way that benefits the protagonist for no logical reason!   Oh, and of course she turns against Midwinter, because…I have no idea.  It’s implied that Lady Death takes her job as death’s avatar so seriously she feels personally offended by immortals walking around, which is an idea I kind of like, but she just completely drops the whole “killing billions of people in one night” thing she was so thrilled about just last issue.

Lady Death and Vampirella do get into another fight, which this time Vampirella wins.  But after that it’s basically your standard issue “heroes team up to fight a villain” story, which is…such a waste.

On the other hand, maybe I’m just not the target audience for this comic.  Forget the storytelling, the plot, characterization, the dialogue.  There’s one just as crucial aspect to this crossover that I just can’t appreciate…

Being a trash culture archaeologist serious about the many academic aspects of his work, I actually conducted a study with five heterosexual men as my subjects.  Carefully selected from a pool down the hall from my day job office, I queried them using techniques perfected by the nation’s foremost sociological and psychological authorities.

The results surprised me.  Despite the…ah, lack of realism in the characters’ erotic features, the participants in the study both overall gave an average rating to the erotic appeal of the comics, despite the gore, torture, and Holocaust elements.  At the same time, one of the respondents did give highly negative ratings overall.  Two interesting comments (all of which can be seen below) were “I don’t see the comics as lesbian positive!” (it’s easy to see why the comics didn’t win any GLAAD awards) and “The Internet has forever skewed my perception of erotic” (tell me about it).

So since the response to the special qualities of the comics wasn’t overwhelming, I guess maybe I’m not that out of touch after all.  This is especially true for the second issue, which traps to wrap up the story with not a homoerotic wrestling battle between Vampirella and Lady Death in a pool of Aryan blood, but actual pathos.  Midwinter manages to kill Dixie.  Vampirella pleads with Lady Death to bring her back to life, but Lady Death states that Dixie’s death was inevitable and instead invites Vampirella to take a bloody reprisal from Midwinter, who is then hurled off a tower and impaled by a gloating Lady Death who promises that in the afterlife he’ll learn the true meaning of torture and evil (she got as fed up with his one-liners as I did, I assume).  Thus our story – and the ’90s run of Vampirella – ends with Vampirella mourning Dixie and angrily renouncing her life of selfless heroism, while Lady Death fulfills her promise to Vampirella that she would conduct Dixie’s soul to the afterlife.

Thus the ’90s Vampirella ends not with a whimper, but a bad intercompany crossover.

Well, okay, this might say more about the kind of radioactive junk I expose myself to, but…honestly I wouldn’t describe this as terrible.  The art is decent with some nice touches, like Vampirella coming armed with grenades that have phrases like “Hi there!” etched on them.  And while the dialogue is a bland mush of cliches and there’s more plot hole than plot, it’s still not aggressively bad and completely a Script-o-Matic affair like so many low-tier superhero comics from the ’90s comics boom.

What makes it a bad read isn’t so much what Vampirella vs. Lady Death is but what it might have been.  Maybe the writer wasn’t really to blame and was under a mandate to portray Lady Death sympathetically, but letting the plot turn into the typical “protagonists fight then team up” affair really kills the story, brings it back to life, and drives a stake through the heart.  Now by most standards it probably wouldn’t have been a lot better, but at least it would have been more fun if it had been a real versus story.  Just have the Nazis working on some mystical means to destroy all non-Germanic people, but Lady Death betrays them and hijacks their experiment  in order to destroy the entire human race, forcing Vampirella to race against the clock or even team up with the Nazis instead to stop her.

It’s possible the scriptwriter felt obligated, officially or otherwise, to make Lady Death a more straightforward protagonist.  And admittedly, like I complained about before, it would have been more accurate to her portrayal over in Chaos! at the time.  Still, Lady Death began as someone who wanted to condemn the entire human race to an apocalypse at the hands of a zombie plague – not a plague of mindless zombies, but of zombies that get marching orders from a sadistic serial killer – just out of a desire for revenge for things done to her by people dead for centuries and so she could beat a curse preventing her from returning to Earth. With all that, it’s pretty safe to make her a bona fide villain.

Alas, it was not to be.  The whole thing has just put me off of intercompany crossovers.  If they can waste so many seemingly obvious ideas, and adhere so strictly to formula, then why not just stick to fan fiction?  What’s the point?

Dammit! Okay, I give up.  Take my money!