Monday, January 14, 2019

Space: Above and Beyond #3

Space: Above and Beyond #3

From X-Files scribes, something poorly acted this way comes

"Whatever It Takes, Part Three”
Writer – Roy Thomas
Pencils – Yanick Paquette
Inks – Armando Gil
Letterer – John Costanza
Colorist – Digital Chameleon
Editor – Len Browsn
Associate Editor – Jonathan Michael Baylis
March 1996

It should have been easy. For show runners Glen Morgan and James Wong, handling the writing of a great TV show was second nature by this point. The pair had been working together since high school, writing scripts for 21 Jump Street, The Commish and long run of success on The X-files.

That last part was instrumental in landing the space war drama Space: Above And Beyond, which the much younger and hopelessly addicted to X-Files me put a lot of hope into. The show followed the adventures of a squad of Space Aviators codenamed “Wildcards” as they graduated from the academy and fought their personal demons while battling against an alien space fleet called “the Chig.” It sounds like a winning combination of elements, but for me something didn’t gel.

If you watch the first episode (sorry about the crummy audio), you’ll perhaps see why. The two-hour pilot is filled with every war movie cliché you can think of and the characters come off more as lists of stock plots than they do real people. 

Take West, our young male lead. He only joins after being bumped from his place beside the love of his life on a space colony trip. But joining the space aviators means a chance for payback too, as the alien Chig attack the colony ship before it reaches its destination, abducting twenty-three people and killing the rest. With West, we have a driven young man wanting revenge.

And not just on the aliens, either. West was bumped from that colony ship because the government gave equal rights to clones grown in vats. His seat was taken by one of these clones due to a government edict. So he's kind of hacked off at them too.

The clones were created as warriors. Seems we had some problems with some androids we created that went rogue. These baddies were called Silicates and after attaining sentience they went all Terminator on us. Our leaders decided to swell the ranks fighting them by growing an army of artificially gestated humans. Identified by a belly button on the back of the neck, these cloned beings are termed “Tanks”, "Nipple-Necks", or “In Vitroes.” After the war, they were treated less than fairly by humans, being subject to racism and prejudice.

And since West hates them more than most for taking away his chance to die beside his girlfriend, Wong and Morgan throw in a Tank as part of the squadron. But not just ANY Tank. Nope, Hawkes (above) has to be the most mavericky and undisciplined rogue you’ve even seen. Of course, the pair has to overcome their mutual distain for each other and learn to work as a team. Oh, and Hawkes has to learn to trust his teammates to have his back, which he does only after one of them pledges loyalty to him and then is killed by an alien.

Our leader in this mess of young aviators is Vansen, a woman who watched her parents get killed by silicates when she was just a kid. She was forced to hide in an attic crawlspace with her two siblings when the androids burst in. She still bears the scars on her palms where her sisters bit her while trying to scream.

Maybe all of this sounds okay to you, but it is pretty clear after painstakingly watching the two-hour premier that this was dreck. The acting by most of the young leads was wooden, especially Morgan Weisser’s West. The direction is uneven, as if it was filmed by someone watching Starship Troopers and not understanding it was satire. Examples would be things like when the premier aviator squad gets toasted in battle with the aliens, our young cadets rush over to watch the injured rolled in on stretchers while other med-techs casually toss full body bags on the curb for pickup. it comes off as too on the nose.

And some parts feel forced. Vansen has to show herself to be worthy of being in command, so Wong and Morgan have her team of green recruits go on a mission to Mars of “critical importance” with no seasoned commander. The only reason for this is to give Vansen the opportunity to lead and make good decisions, which she does by capturing an alien whose ship crashes near the relay they are fixing. An alien that they accidentally murder by giving it a drink of water in the gills along its neck.

The show didn’t work for me. Back in 1996, I tuned out right about that alien death part and didn’t see the end until just Saturday while writing this review. Sure, the show has R. Lee Ermey as the drill sergeant Major Bougus and he does his standard heart of iron training montage stuff. But it is awkward to hear him read lines like “In space no one can hear you scream unless it is the battle cry of the United States Marines.” And when he pronounces the made up name of the space ships…sheesh, so embarrassing. He is clearly better than this entire production.

And I'm not kidding when I say it contains every war movie scene they could shoehorn in. Flag draped coffin funeral ceremony complete with weeping mother being handed the folded flag? Check! Scene of maverick character vowing to be a better solider over grave of dead comrade? Check! Scene of nubes being blown off by experienced aviators in bar causing bar brawl? Check! Scene of experienced aviators being brought back in body bags in front of nube aviators? Check! Scene of explosions in the sky/on TV while aviators are on leave with their family prompting them to be called back to base for active duty? Check! The maverick screwing up a training mission, so the drill sergeant can yell that the squad doesn’t need to worry about the enemy, just the maverick? Check!

The pilot is like EVERY war movie rolled into a pile and sprinkled with ample amounts of space dust.

And while it did garner two Emmy and one Saturn nomination, the show was cancelled after one season of 23 episodes. It has since ranked as number 50 on IGN’s top 50 Sci-Fi TV Shows, but I’m not certain what the writers and editors of IGN were smoking. I dumped out after the first episode and didn’t look back.

That didn’t stop Topps comics from taking the license and turning out a three-issue comic that retold the pilot and a two issue follow up subtitled The Gauntlet.

What I hold my hot little hands here is issue number three of the retelling of the pilot, at the part where the show gets past all the training and melodrama and jumps right into what sold most of us on the show in the first place: spaceship shootouts. No less a talent than Roy Thomas gives his all writing it (from Wong and Morgan’s script). Yanic Paquette and Armando Gil illustrate with more flair than your standard tie-in. As a tv show remake issue it ends up BETTER than the show it comes from, primarily because the actors and director are not in any way involved.

Let’s jump in and give it a look, shall we?

We begin with Nathan West painting the “Above and Beyond” on the side of his ship. Captain Vansen rushes up to him to tell him they’ve got their orders for a ship assignment, something they’ve been waiting on since they got back from their solo Mars mission and the attack they watched from his parent’s house. Look at that beautiful aircraft!

In the tv show this scene is cringe-worthy because West grins like it’s the happiest day of his life, not like he is grimly determined to mete out some justice on the aliens that killed his girlfriend and squadmate. It is an awkward choice the actor and director made to have him smile so wide. And after he does, West and Vansen run off-screen like happy school children only to come face-to-face with this…

Here it shortcuts to the horrors of war without showing us gleeful inductees glad to finally get into the fight only to suddenly face the grim reality in a very trite manner. The transition in the single panel moves directly to concern without that awkward smile on West’s face and it makes all the difference in how the scenes play. Also we don’t have someone tossing body bags of dead aviators on the sidewalk like they were laundry sacks going to a drycleaner. Instead we get a swarm of activity around the few survivors and West being strong armed out of the way. There are dead guys in the background, but they are being treated with the reverence you would expect of fallen war heroes.

The briefing of the plan plays out much like it did in the show…

…with West acting all indigent at not being one of the squadrons who are set to meet the enemy head-on. At least we shorten R. Lee’s salute scene to just the one as the “SA-43 Endo/Exo-Atmospheric Attack Jet” fighters take off. And yeah, that is a silly name and I almost spit-took when I heard R. Lee say it in the show. Nice of them to reduce it to “Hammerheads” later on.

And is it just me or do even the impressive space scenes look better in comic book form? This is the squad flying to their new space battleship and encountering a lone bogey…

…that they don’t catch. Just like with the downed ship they find on Mars, this ends up being a big “gotcha” later on. 

Wong and Morgan placed so much importance on this one group of pilots that it unbalances the story in my opinion. They are always in the right place at the right time. Of course, they find this out immediately after they dock with the carrier…

…and are rushed into an emergency briefing with their new commander, McQueen, who also happens to be a Tank like Hawkes.

And just like Hawkes, McQueen is a maverick who runs the show HIS way, typically by throwing around tables. Also by setting up incredibly dangerous traps for the enemy ships by stationing fighters in the middle of asteroid belts (which in this universe are extremely dangerous…as opposed to how they would be in reality!). However, if they do this risky thing…Payback time!

The scar-faced squadron commander wraps up his pep talk and we get shots of our two male leads almost wishing each other good luck.

And then it is "hide in the deadly asteroid field and scientific knowledge be damned" time. Too bad, Red-4! You were killed by people’s perceptions of how an asteroid field works.

Sadly, the enemy changes course at the last moment and it looks as all this hiding (not to mention Red-4’s sacrifice) will be for naught. The enemy will fly in the other direction. And that’s when Hawkes gets his chance to pull a stunt that would get anyone else court marshalled…

Putting on a little Ramones “Blitzkrieg Bop”, which was wrongly attributed to Pink Floyd earlier in the show (as if these kids were unable to google things at leisure), Hawkes disobeys orders and makes like a decoy for the enemy ships.

And look at all those enemy ships! Paquette and Gil have a field day here and the overly dramatic showing comes off as impressive. Hawkes makes it back alive, of course...

…And he does so leading a large contingent of the enemy forces after him…

…But without some assistance from McQueen, Hawkes would be a smear on the side of a space rock. With the word “Downtown”…

…Vansen springs the trap on these fighters and we have some bright fun dogfights to watch.

While it is probably the most impressive thing on the tv show, the intensity of these scenes in the comic comes off better. The vibrant purple of the attacking craft and the graphics Paquette and Gil come up with are worth the book’s asking price.

In comic form, the script zings and we don’t have distractingly bad acting to detract from it. I am falling for Space: Above and Beyond as long as it is just graphic novels. 

As for the battle itself, our young heroes are acquitting themselves well right up until Shane is about to be blasted out of the sky and no one can get to her. 

Luckily someone draws a bead on the alien and squeezes, but it turns out not to be any of her Wildcards squadmates…

…but is instead a salvo from the inbound fleet of Earth carriers who have just passed through a wormhole behind the enemy. This tight pincher maneuver inflicts heavy causalities on the Chigs, eventually leading to their retreat.

So our young combat pilots are hailed as heroes…

… at least until they aren’t by their new squadron commander McQueen, who is still plenty sore at Hawkes.

Even thought he does send a toast back his way while West moons over the picture of his dead girlfriend…

…reciting the last words of his speech he wrote to her when they shipped out to the colony, but he got left behind. Something about how much he loved her and whatnot, while he tosses the medal away.

Morgan and Wong had five years of this series scripted out, but it wasn’t meant to be. The show came on Sundays, a horrid day for shows given that football can sometimes preempt them. Whatever the cause, by the end of season one it had dismal ratings. The last show was a cliffhanger with most of the cast either missing or apparently killed with only Hawkes and West remaining. It was written with the show cancellation hanging over its head.

I can’t say that I miss the actual show, but more Thomas, Paquette, and Gil Space comics would be much appreciated.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

First Wave #1

First Wave #1

Similar hook, now in Canadian

"Heart of a Killer, Part One”
Writer – James Anthony Kuhoric
Pencils and Inks– Dan Parsons
Letterer – Mark L. Haynes
Colorist – Terry Letterman
Editor-in-Chief – Arthur Loy Holcomb
December 2000

After "V" at the start of the week, we now have how twenty years later interpreted the same story concept. Chris Brancato, of Species II, Boomtown, and Hoodlum fame, developed this Canadian science fiction drama television series called First Wave back in 1998. The series aired on the Space Channel in Canada and was picked up by the Sci-Fi Channel (before the “y’s” were added to its name) early in its run for stateside showings. In an unusual move, Sci-Fi expanded its pick-up to a 66-episode order, meaning we got three seasons of First Wave before it was really out of the gate.

The ratings fell off quickly though and no fourth season was ordered.

The series premise was simple: Aliens, hidden among us are preparing to wipe us out and only one man, Lawrence “Cade” Foster, can stop them! Cade was designated by the aliens as experimental subject 117 after they did a kind of biblical Job action to him by ruining his credit, getting him fired from his security consultant job, and framing him for the murder of his wife. This usually results in their subjects giving up, but it only made Cade mad. He used his detective skills to uncover the blueprints to the alien’s plans, hidden in (of all places) a set of previously undiscovered quatrains of Nostradamus. Now he fights the first wave of the alien invasion steps, knowing that in wave two nineteen million people will be killed.

Sounds a little hammy and silly, but it’s a workable enough X-Files riff. Sebastian Spence plays Cade and he’s likeable enough. I only know this because it appears the entirety of the show was uploaded to YouTube and I’ve sat through two-thirds of the first episode. I’m not rushing to watch more, mind you, but I could see how it would fill a program spot between two better shows without a viewer fumbling for the remote. Here’s that YouTube search if you’re inclined to see what you may have missed.

The idea of the aliens, called Gua, looking a bit like us is explained away in that they are disembodied spirits in metal orbs that have been implanted in specially bioengineered human husks. They are faster, stronger, heal quicker from injury, and have some odd supernatural powers. They got oppressed on their own homeworld thousands of years ago, beat back the invasion and decided to do unto the universe before it did unto them again. Earth is just the unlucky recipient of that pay-it-forward beat-down. The explanation of how Nostradamus’s prophecies fit into this came around season three when we learn of ANOTHER alien race with the gift of precognition who are going planet-to-planet seeding each with instructions on how to defeat the Gua.

I haven’t skimmed through these, but Cade didn’t always act alone. He got a hacker buddy named Eddie that was sort of Microchip to Cade’s Punisher. They also meet up with a “good” Gua named Joshua who does not believe in his people’s aggressive ways. The male audience might have been waning a bit around the “season three” stage because the show runners threw in ex-porn star and “actress” Traci Lords as Jordan Radcliffe. Radcliffe leads an anti-Gua resistance cell called Raven Nation or some such…I really can’t tell. 

It has the look of a bad porno for most of the latter seasons. The sets are non-existent in much of this, so the show is shot in extremely low light to cover up. Everything is kind of a muddy mess.

First Wave did get a novel by Chris Brancato and Karen Holmes, aimed at the…*ahem*…YA market published in June 2000. The show also got six issues of a comic book series published by Andromeda Entertainment encompassing four storylines, each with a byline. This is issue one of the first story, a two-parter called Heart of A Killer. All the comics were written by James Anthony Kuhoric and all but one featured the art of Dan Parsons.

The book…is pretty much the same as the show. It’s not great, being hamstrung by the slightly silly premise, but it is a workable quick read. In no way would it be worth that $2.99 cover price way back eighteen years ago. And unlike the X-Files books, I’m not certain there was a big enough following of these to generate much in the way of sales. I expect they were produced as a loss leader to generate interest in the show, most of the others serving as background on Cade or Jordan Radcliffe or major turning points in the plot. This one looks closest to the feel of an episode of the show, which was basically having Cade expose an alien plot while not getting caught by the authorities himself for that “killed his wife” thing that was still unresolved.

We begin in a Riker’s Island men’s prison shower with three gents about to tell this other prisoner “shank you very much”.

The poor naked guy is pinned…

…and skewered straight on. At this point, I have no idea what their beef with him was, but it is pretty clear that they’ve won.

Which is where I’d be wrong.

Because this inmate is clearly one of our Gua aliens. And obviously his biogenetic shell allows him to recover from that wound in an instant. Appears he’s in the mood for some payback.

He tosses the guys holding his arms aside like they are toddlers and starts twisting necks…

…before you know it, there’s only our stabber left alive. Our Gua gives him a chance to tell him who ordered the hit. Unfortunately, he may have already killed the guy that did know and this fella is just part of the muscle. Which is too bad for him.

Because the Gua have ways of killing you without even laying a finger on you, apparently.

So he uses his brain to flash-fry the last attacker and then leaves his smoking skeleton for the prison guards to clean up. I will say all that melting flesh has to play hell with the shower drains.

Okay, so when I first read this I had no idea about the Gua, or Cade’s mission or the series backstory and I’ll admit…this opening worked well for me. I thought First Wave was an X-Files clone with a “monster-of-the-week” premise and Cade wandering around trying to find proof. While some of that IS what First Wave is about, the “always aliens” plotline is very limiting and I found myself less enthusiastic about the show and where this story could go.

I mean what good can an alien in prison do to help an invasion of our planet? This isn’t like being close to high places in government or industry. Not sure I see the reason for this…

…except as a plotline that works to emphasize Cole’s vulnerability by sending him willingly into prison when he’s a wanted felon. But before we get to that, the book tries to sum up the series premise in two pages.

And doesn’t quite do it justice, which might be for the best. This still leaves a bit of mystery around all these rough edges and sparse wording.

Then suddenly we get an overly long exposition dump stating that Cade’s on his way into Rikers, where he really shouldn’t go, prompted by the mysterious death of the three inmates and he’s already figured out the Gua killer-alien’s identity. Talk about taking the wind out of the story. It would be kind of neat to have Cade have to mix with the population and then learn the guys identity or something, but no. He just knows, folks.

And while knowing is half the battle, the other half is not getting caught and put behind bars himself. That task is within his buddy Eddie’s wheelhouse. As is information on the killer.

And apparently video games. While Eddie settles in for some Space Invaders, Cade uses the reporter credentials his friend has made for him to play the real-life version.

He starts by blending in, not creating a scene or drawing attention to himself by asking weird questions. Or, you know, the EXACT OPPOSITE OF THAT.

“Is it possible it was aliens? Who am I again? Uh…I’m Fade Coster of the Lone Gunman newsblog, why do you ask?”

Whatever it is in this response that gives Cade a reason to think Gua, I can’t figure out. The guy (not Gua) might know Martial arts, maybe? Some kind of advance fighting style and muscles that don’t quit? There are guys that can take out three attackers, is what I'm saying. I mean, Bruce Lee would have handed three guys their heads in no short order. Yet Cade is sure enough to notify Eddie right away, and when that is happening his appearance doesn’t go unnoticed by this prison guard.

Meanwhile Harris is just sitting in his cell with his eyes all aglow waiting for Cade to find him, one assumes.

And Cade is out here smooth-talking this prison admin lady so he can get access to Harris. It’s one of those completely implausible series of cliché lines…

…that totally work in this instance.

Mainly because if it didn’t, we’d have no story. And speaking of stories, it looks like Cade’s "telling stories" is about to catch up with him.

While our guard has figured out Cade’s identity, he hasn’t figured out that Cade's just gotten a private interview with Harris. Cade allows Harris to play dumb for a bit…

But Harris knows the score. 

He doesn’t cook Cade with his mind powers because our guard shows up to bash Cade’s face into the glass and call in the NYPD on him.

And somehow that the book won’t go into explaining, Cade is allowed into general prison population on Rikers, without the messy details of a trial or a lawyer or any of that mess. He just trades his suit for orange pajamas and in he goes. He does meet Jynx, that guy who knows how everything works in the joint you see in every prison movie.

Jynx can tell you about everything in here, like how the food smells worse than it tastes and about who to avoid…

Yeah, the Brotherhood. That’s who you avoid. Not doing to good there, Jynxie! Seems you can tell everything about prison except for the fact that you are named Jynx for a reason.

It looks like they want a piece of Cade, too. A not so well drawn piece. That neck motion in panel three is impossible by anything other than an action figure.

It’s like five on one and Cade is barely holding his own for a bit, then he gets pinned and an unlikely protector shows up…

…aww! What’s a nice Gua like you doing in a place like this, Harris?

And that is where we say goodbye to First Wave, lucky readers. The Crapbox didn’t see any of the other five, so I don’t know how this ends. I’m not distraught about that fact at all. What little promise the book was riding on since that first sequence has long since dissipated and I’m no longer interested. Same goes for the episodes on YouTube. Pretty sad when you can’t give sci-fi away.