castle rock
castle rock
Scenic downtown Castle Rock

Castle Rock is Hulu’s finely-crafted ode to Stephen King’s intricate world-building. The series is faithful to the author’s voice and deep sense of nostalgia, and brimming over with familiar names and references. Originally released on July 25 and with the first season still unfolding, it has already been renewed for a second season. If it can grow past the limits of the familiar and the nostalgic, I am heartily behind it.

“People say, ‘It wasn’t me. It was this place.’ And they were right.”

So many threads from King’s mythos are knit together here that anyone familiar with his work will have no problem finding their bearings. The show is built layer upon layer, with a deeply felt sense of the community and its people. It highlights the skill King has always had of making his world big enough for his characters to have lives outside the confines of any particular story.

castle rock
Henry meets …someone

Castle Rock also evokes all the familiar themes of King’s work. It features good, decent, damaged people fighting their dark sides and often failing. There are the expected flashbacks to twelve-year-olds facing the origins of coming horror, godly true believers and evil incarnate, pedophiles, and magical African-Americans. And, of course, there is well-placed classic rock and blues.

“Nothing stays dead in this town.”

The cast is outstanding. André Holland plays Henry Matthew Deaver, death-row attorney and prodigal son at the heart of the unfolding mystery. Bill Skarsgård is…unnatural…as The Kid, a nameless prisoner discovered in a pit at Shawshank State Penitentiary. Scott Glenn gives retired sheriff Alan Pangborn a determined vitality, while Melanie Lynskey’s Molly Strand shows a quiet desperation beneath her ambition. Rounding out the main cast are Jane Levy as Jackie Torrance, writer and font of local knowledge, and Noel Fisher as Dennis Zalewski, a Shawshank prison guard who sets the story in motion while trying to do the right thing.

Assorted minor characters are well represented by the talented likes of Ann Cusack, Terry O’Quinn, Frances Conroy, and Rory Culkin, among many other.

castle rock
Sissy Spacek, the Once and Future Queen

But the absolute standout is Sissy Spacek. She brings the same convincing blend of fragility and strength to Ruth, Henry’s fierce and failing mother, as she did to her portrayal of Carrie in 1976. Episode 7, “The Queen”, is a star-turn.

Castle Rock‘s Needful Things

As good as Castle Rock is, it isn’t perfect. It takes itself very seriously, and the portentousness does wear after a while. At times the plot twists broadcast themselves, as when Alan teaches Ruth how to do sleight-of-hand. And a few characters have (so-far) opaque or non-existent motivations. This ends up creating inconsistencies in otherwise beautifully drawn characters. One false note is Jackie Torrance’s actions upon meeting the Kid. Another is Alan Pangborn’s wild goose chase. Both are clearly the needs of the plot, and not natural reactions from the characters. The sudden addition of Henry’s son to the goings on also feels like a set-up rather than a character-driven decision.

And just and aside:  While this is definitely a show for adult audiences, the graphic depiction of animal deaths surprised me. Human carnage? Not a problem. But I didn’t expect the Mr. Jingles stand-in to meet that particular fate on-screen.

The emerging evil in Castle Rock is signaled by wildfires, mass shootings, suicides, and ugly family conflicts. But while all the trappings and affected characters are comfortably familiar, the show has not so far taken that familiarity in a new or challenging direction. Castle Rock is a wonderfully done pastiche of all things King, but I am interested in seeing it grow beyond that. There are still three more episodes for Season One.

I guess we’ll just have to stay tuned.

misfits and monsters

Bobcat Goldthwait’s Misfits &Monsters is, not surprisingly, pretty strange. Goldthwait–a man known for his incredibly dark sense of humor– writes, produces, and directs the new comedy series airing on TruTV with a fully self-aware sense of the absurd. So far, the half-hour episodes play more like Tales from the Crypt than the Twilight Zone. Foul language abounds, blood flows freely, and even the background characters are scathingly cynical. Truly, there is something for everyone.

It Begins With Bubba
misfits & monsters
Seth Green is not a werewolf in this show

Misfits & Monsters begins its run with “Bubba the Bear”, a fairly standard tale of a children’s cartoon come to life. Seth Green (Robot Chicken, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) stars as a mild-mannered voiceover actor whose work comes back to bite him. Bubba the Bear is the role he inherited when the original voice actor had a breakdown and was institutionalized. But Bubba isn’t happy with how he is portrayed, and breaks into the real world to make his point. Graphically.

The episode’s dialogue is at once predictable and surprisingly, deeply snarky. Confronted by Bubba, Green’s character justifies his work with,“Stuttering’s just a tradition…like Porky Pig, Daffy Duck, Hugh Grant.” And when Bubba comes for revenge, he declares it “time to get all Revenant on your ass.” 

“Bubba” ends exactly as you expect it to, which is quite all right.

A Shaggy Dog Tale
misfits & monsters
A political animal

The second episode is “Face in the Car Lot”, a 1970s-set extravaganza of politicians and other creatures of the night. Starring David Koechner (Anchorman, The Office) as car-salesman turned presidential candidate Del Wainwright and Tara Lynne Barr as the plucky reporter trying to prove he’s a werewolf, this episode plays like an extended comedy sketch.

When asked what scandals may come up during the campaign, Wainwright confesses, “I ate a toddler once. When I was a werewolf.” This is not enough to derail his campaign–not by a long shot. A hippy vampire shows up with evidence of the crime, but  the political machine just keeps rolling. Many of the lines are lifted almost verbatim from current commentary, tweaked lightly for lycanthropy. It is at once enjoyably silly and quite uncomfortable to watch.

More Misfits & Monsters, Please

There are six more episodes to round out the first season, but TruTV doesn’t give viewers the opportunity to binge. Which, based on the first two installments, I totally would. What I’ve seen so far of Misfits & Monsters is refreshingly goofy. The show is smart enough to be interesting but not so full of itself to wear out its welcome. The stories presented thus far are pretty standard, with the plot twists broadcast early on. But Goldthwait still gives them enough of a snarky twist to make their conclusions funny and satisfying anyway.

I would have to categorize Misfits & Monsters, broadly, as familiar tales well-told. And I look forward to more of that in the rest of the season.

harlan ellison

harlan ellisonHarlan Ellison died last week at the age of 84. He was a genuine legend in science fiction, by all accounts larger than life and twice as abrasive. I never met the man, but he has still been a part of my life for decades.

When I was around eleven years old I found a paperback copy of Again, Dangerous Visions stuck on the basement shelf where unwanted paperbacks ended up. It was the sequel to his transgressive 1967 anthology–and it was enough to suck me in and show me how sharp science fiction could be. Later, I read the man himself–the glorious I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, and Deathbird Stories.  I watched the supremely 70’s film version of A Boy and His Dog on VHS. I learned the empowering mantra “Pay the writer”.

Over the course of his long career Ellison published more than 1700 works, ranging from short stories to screenplays to essays, from comic books to literary criticisms. He was recognized with multiple Hugo, Nebula, and Edgar awards for works that changed the face of science fiction on page and on screen. He earned the World Fantasy Lifetime Achievement Award and the Horror Writers Association Lifetime Achievement Award, was named Grand Master by the Science Fiction Writers Association and by the World Horror Convention, and was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame.

But none of that matters if you don’t read him.

Unfortunately, it often takes the passing of a major author to inspire people to discover, or rediscover, their work. So it is with Harlan Ellison. Even though he continued to write prolifically, his heyday was the sixties and seventies when he was at the forefront of New Wave science fiction with his dangerous anthologies and subversive short stories.

These are a few of his works that I consider essential:

dangerous visionsStories
“A Boy and His Dog”
“I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream”
“”Repent, Harlequin!” Said the Ticktockman”
“Shattered Like a Glass Goblin”
“The Whimper of Whipped Dogs”
“Soft Monkey”
“Jeffty Is Five”

Collections

I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream
The Beast that Shouted Love at the Heart of the World
Deathbird Stories
Shatterday
Angry Candy
The Essential Ellison: a 50-Year Retrospective Revised & Expanded

Nonfiction
The Glass Teat

Television episodes
The Outer Limits   “Soldier” and “Demon with a Glass Hand”
Star Trek   “The City on the Edge of Forever”
The Starlost “Voyage of Discovery”
Masters of Science Fiction “The Discarded”

As editor
Dangerous Visions
Again, Dangerous Visions

Graphic novels
Phoenix Without Ashes

There’s plenty to say of Harlan Ellison as a person, good and bad–and it’s all out there for the googling. But as I mentioned earlier, I never had the opportunity to meet him. I had only his vast body of work to judge him by. And by those lights, he was a star.

The Terror, AMC’s  new horror series, is well worth your time. Based on Dan Simmons’s 2007 novel and executive produced by Ridley Scott, it is the fictionalized retelling of Captain Sir John Franklin’s lost 1845 expedition to find the Northwest Passage. In this version, the fantastic elements intensify an already harrowing tale, where the natural world is as much a monster as the supernatural threats that plague the doomed men.

At the cairn

The cast is full of many familiar faces, all in fine form. Jared Harris (Resident Evil: Apocalypse, The Expanse) stars as Captain Francis Crozier, a veteran of previous Arctic expeditions and commander of the Erebus. Ciarán Hinds (Excalibur, Game of Thrones, Justice League) plays Captain Sir John Franklin, commander of the Terror and of the expedition. Tobias Menzies (Game of Thrones) is Commander James Fitzjames, second in command of the Terror. Paul Ready (Tipping the Velvet) plays the sympathetic and humane ship’s surgeon. Rounding out the main cast are Ian Hart (Harry Potter, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D) as ice master Thomas Blankly, Adam Nagaitis as the devious, low-ranking mate Cornelius Hickey, and Nive Nielsen as Lady Silence, the daughter of a slain Inuit man.

The characters’ backgrounds of prejudice, piety, ambition and failure are briefly and efficiently given. The prior arctic experience of much of the crew looms over the current endeavor–the men know what danger faces them, and know how much luck will be needed to survive the trip.

The first three episodes build on the repercussions of Captain Franklin’s decision not to seek a sheltered bay for the winter. The Terror and the Erebus become frozen into the ice pack. Spring comes without a thaw, rations spoil, and exploratory parties end with the accidental shooting of an Inuit man and an animal attack on the men. What might be a bear begins to stalk the ships’ crews, killing Captain Franklin and several others.

Premature hope for The Terror’s men

The Terror shows great restraint in spinning its bleak and unnerving tale. The plot bides its time, building tension with patience and attention to detail, from the class distinctions to the technology to the china on the captain’s table. The camera lingers on everything–the bleak arctic landscape, a sailor’s wasted corpse, a drafty seat-of-ease–with similar portent. The sense of discomfort has no particular source, making it hard to shrug off. Everything, and nothing, may be a threat.

This subtle sense of danger seeping through every frame of The Terror creates a brooding, gothic quality in the show. The shrouded, monochrome landscape and the dark hulks of the ships, the half-seen creature menacing the men are all part of the oppression.

The violence when it comes is shocking not because it is over the top but because it is long- anticipated, abrupt, and only partially seen. The characters (save one) do not get any clearer view of what attacks them than does the audience.  Bodies are not recovered. The form of the monster is only suspected. The sprays of blood over the snow are so copious and dark as to be almost dreamlike. But the resulting damage is realistically, almost clinically, portrayed, and the overall effect is one of detached yet pervasive horror.

With three episodes currently available for streaming, and seven still to air, The Terror has already created a compelling and thoroughly disturbing mystery. It would be a shame to waste it.

Stan and friends
Stan and friends

IFC’s Stan Against Evil is a slight and subversively funny show that is somehow, less than the sum of its parts. Stomping along in the wake of Ash vs Evil Dead’s success, Stan Against Evil is charmingly well-cast and cheerfully quirky, yet saddled with predictable plotting and a very thin mythology. But it still manages to throw some worthwhile curve-ball jokes into the mix, and it’s definitely worth a look.

The set-up is pretty simple. The small, rural town of Willard’s Mill, New Hampshire is cursed. It seems that back in 1693, the evil Constable Eccles burned 172 witches at the stake. Since then, every constable the town has ever had has died in office. Except one.

And that’s how we get our hero, Stanley Miller (played by the magnificently crusty John C. McGinley). He somehow survived long enough to resign his post after attacking a witch at his wife’s funeral.

Stan’s replacement is Evie (Janet Varney, veering wildly between competent and oblivious), a transplant from the city, divorced and with a daughter who functions more as a character trait than a character.

The small core cast rounds out with Leon (Nate Mooney) the Barney Fife-esque deputy who is friendly, loyal, and truly and deeply perverted, and Denise (Deborah Baker Jr.), Stan’s unlikely daughter played as a bizarre take on the manic pixie dream girl.

Are you a good witch, or a bad witch?
Are you a good witch, or a bad witch?

In many ways Stan Against Evil simply retools the basic premise of Ash with new characters and a new location, but it fails to aspire to anything more. It lacks (so far) a larger theme or a detectable sense of purpose. The characters generally just show up, kill some monsters, and go home in time for dinner. There is also a lack of skepticism from any of the characters that makes the show feel even more formulaic and one-note, since everyone is on the same page from the first ten minutes of episode one.

It’s hard to tell exactly when the show is set—the combination of flip phones, old cars, and references to Tinder make it hard to pin down, as do Stan’s perpetually 1970’s cultural reference points. There is also an unexpected Buffy library vibe, as our heroes must rely on hard copy books for the information they need to fight evil. The option of looking anything up online does not exist in this particular reality.

My impression is that Stan Against Evil plays more as a sketch comedy than as a series. The actors all inhabit their characters fully, and each is nicely fleshed out–but they don’t really mesh into a dynamic group. Over the course of eight episodes there is no character development, no learning curve, and no layers to be peeled back.

Contributing to the character stasis, this is very much a monster-of-the-week style of show, loaded with cheese-tastic special effects but with precious little continuity and even less common sense. The scripts are perfunctory and remarkably superficial, broadcasting their twists like a toddler with a secret. What you see is what you get, in half-hour increments.

But Stan Against Evil is still very funny. Created by comedian Dana Gould (The Simpsons), the show is full of background gags and oddball references that keep it lively. And McGinley as Stan delivers some of the best throw-away lines—when he goes off on something, the turns of phrase are remarkably, crudely, hilariously accurate.

All eight episodes are available on demand now from IFC, and despite its shortcomings I highly recommend binging it. Stan Against Evil is empty calories, but it is sharp enough, charming enough, and funny enough to make it worth the small investment of time.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

And as always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!

 

Last night saw the premieres of two shows I’ve been waiting for: Westworld on HBO and Ash vs Evil Dead’s second season on Starz. The results were a mixed bag, but hope springs eternal.

***

HBO's Westworld
HBO’s Westworld

I have been looking forward to HBO’s take on Westworld for a long time. I have fond memories of being scared silly by Yul Brenner in the 1973 version of it. This Westworld was worth the wait. It unfolds in a sprawling, utterly realistic Wild West theme park where android ‘hosts’ provide a full immersion experience for their paying guests—‘newcomers’, as their programming dubs the human visitors. In the original film, the hosts were more traditionally robotic. The current approach gives us a truer AI, and with an ideological slant towards Battlestar Galactica rather than Ex Machina.

The new Westworld begins brilliantly, with the barest bones of the original film’s concept. The cast is top-notch, the writing superb, and the convolutions of the plot promise deep and strange directions to come. The pacing is precise, with loops and repetitions that become the story’s wheels within wheels.

There is much to think about, here, about the line between the real and the artificial. In what was possibly my favorite scene, a robot host visibly, visceraly adapts its programming to both follow its embedded script and incorporate discordant (and, what should have been unreadable) new information. And while Ed Harris is cold and creepy as the primary villain, he’s not nearly as terrifying as Yul Brenner was. But then again, I don’t think we’ve seen even a fraction of what his character is capable of. Next week can’t come soon enough.

***

Ash vs Evil Dead, back in action
Ash vs Evil Dead, back in action

On the other side of the spectrum, the return of Ash vs Evil Dead was disappointing. Season one successfully incorporated a semi-serious subplot. But as Ash vs Evil Dead starts season two, it seems to have given up too much of its crazy humor to retain its original charm. While the gore is still cheesy and exuberantly over the top, the show actually feels more like the original Evil Dead film, now—more threatening, less loopy fun. But there’s more missing than just silliness.

Part of the episode’s problem is that it felt very rushed, as if plot and character development had been purposefully sacrificed for incessant action. The end of last season saw Ash and company taking a truce and heading to Jacksonville, Florida. Season two starts with the immediate reversal of the road trip. By the first commercial they are back in Ash’s home town, where lots of random events happen—some campy, some supernatural, some just padding. But none of it is consistent. The episode is a mash up of too many ideas with not enough time allowed for them to gel into a reason to keep watching.

I’m hoping that episode two takes a deep breath and slows it down a little. There are more than enough plot elements to work with, and Ruby is still riding the line between nemesis and ally. The qualities that made the Evil Dead franchise so endearing are still there, if the show’s writers and producers are willing to pick out the strongest ones and run with them. Again.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

And as always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!

 

 

The middle-school heroes of Stranger Things

Stranger Things, Netflix’s latest series, launched its first eight episode season on July 15. I had to drag myself away after the first three episodes to write this review, because it is simply that good. Created by Ross and Matt Duffer, Stranger Things uses pop culture familiarity as its hook, and then moves the story along rapidly while still paying a huge amount of attention to detail and character development. I’ll be watching the rest in one long gulp very soon.

Set in the small rural town of Hawkins, Indiana, Stranger Things begins its tale on November 6, 1983 with the mysterious disappearance of a young boy. From there things really do only get stranger.

Titled “Chapter One: The Vanishing of Will Byers”, the first episode plays like a mash-up of all the classic horror and fantasy films of the 1980s—there are elements that remind me of Aliens, The Shining, Silver Bullet, E.T., Firestarter, Halloween, Poltergeist, The Goonies…even the town center is reminiscent of Back to the Future, and the missing boy’s house looks an awful lot like the cabin from Evil Dead. In addition to tidy downtown Hawkins, the action ranges through woods, fields, a deep quarry, and a convenient government-run laboratory. It all looks familiar. We’ve been scared here before. But Stranger Things is not just a derivative of all these touchstones and references. It manages to be something original and disturbing in its own right.

Things are getting strange
Things are getting strange

Winona Ryder is back as Joyce Byers, the missing boy’s mother. She plays the character as worn thin and harried and histrionic, and she smokes with the same intensity she did in Heathers. Her attempts to find her son look a great deal like a descent into insanity.

Matthew Modine is cool and slick as the primary bad guy, Dr. Brenner. He works at Hawkins National Laboratory for the Department of Energy and is aligned with government agents and the CIA, among darker things.

David Harbour is the hard drinking local police chief, Hopper. In only three episodes he has already been given a colorful backstory and fascinating growth, and a deep well of personal tragedy to draw from.

Even with the adult star power, the juvenile characters are the main focus—especially since the missing boy was part of their group. With the exception of a couple of older siblings, the kids are in the 11 and 12 year old age range that Stephen King is so fond of. It ties neatly to the many King-like plot details.

The group of boys are introduced as Dungeons and Dragons players, then as now shorthand for a certain kind of nerd.  Finn Wolfhard is Mike, the leader of the gang and someone who looks quite a bit like the brother in Poltergeist. Gaten Matarazzo is Dustin, very much playing him as Chunk from The Goonies. Caleb McLaughlin rounds out the group as smart-mouthed, skeptical, and practical Lucas. To add to the mix there is the high school crowd, with Charlie Heaton as the missing boy’s older brother, Johnathan, and Natalia Dyer as Mike’s older sister Nancy. And there is also a mysterious, semi-verbal little girl named Eleven (played by Millie Brown), who is connected to both Brenner and the missing boy.

Teenage wasteland
Teenage wasteland

A theme of communication is dominant, so far. The initial episodes are heavy with ham radio, walkie talkies, wiretapping, ghostly phone calls, psychic powers, and weird electrical disturbances harnessed as a rough Ouija board. There is a lot going on, much of it messy, but it is just controlled enough to be engrossing. The only complaint I can make is that the periodic flashbacks are too blunt, and move things along with backstory info dumps.

Stranger Things is at once creepy, sentimental, realistic and action-driven. The Duffer brothers have a great eye for family dynamics and a clear affection for the cinematic 1980s. The combination of powerful storytelling, exceptional acting, and well-done nostalgia is totally worth the look back.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

And as always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!

Preacher, the comic book-inspired series that debuted on May 22 on AMC, is so far a cautiously-paced, blackly funny critical darling of a show. I am not familiar with the original Vertigo comic book, so I can’t compare the adaptation to its source material. But three episodes in to a ten episode run I am enjoying Preacher immensely. There is a catchy if still-murky premise, a sly wink to its unavoidable irreverence, and a great attention to character details that I hope the show will sustain.

The Preacher himself
The Preacher himself

Preacher takes place in the dusty Texas town of Annville, where Jesse Custer has returned from a life roughly lived to serve (unsuccessfully) a shrinking flock at the failing All Saints Congregational Church. He still drinks heavily, still smokes like a chimney, and cannot quite abandon his ability (and willingness) to beat the crap out of deserving people. He refuses the bait when his ex, Tulip, shows up to try to persuade him to take on another “job”. She won’t take his no as a final answer. The vampire Cassidy literally falls from the sky into the middle of Jesse’s fight with his past. Then the mysterious alien force comes knocking and finds a home in Jesse, and the series can rightly begin.

That summary brings us to the end of the pilot. It isn’t until halfway through episode 3 that Jesse begins to explore the power he only discovered at the end of episode 2. Cautiously paced, indeed.

The charming Tulip O'Hare
The charming Tulip O’Hare

The main characters are likeable in a really bad decision kind of way. Dominic Cooper broods with charm as the rumpled, doubting Jesse Custer, Ruth Negga is sweet, wickedly sarcastic, and dangerous as Tulip O’Hare, and Joseph Gilgun is cheerfully deranged as Cassidy (So far, the dissolute, 119 year old vampire Cassidy is my favorite character. His accent is almost impenetrable and his habits are disgusting. Blood may be the life but booze is more fun, and boredom appears to be his primary enemy. And somehow, improbably, he is Jesse’s best friend).

Because of the strength of the casting the characters all have surprising depth to them, considering how little information we actually have about them and what drives them. Even the secondary and supporting players are rounded out, written with a great deal of intelligence, sympathy, and cutting wit.

And Cassidy, the resident vampire
And Cassidy, the resident vampire

But then, Preacher’s dominant trait seems to be its dark, sharp humor—which ranges from panicky Russian Satanists to news reports of Tom Cruise exploding, and from a frequently referenced “bunny sound” to a cocktail of “rubbing alcohol, coffee machine descaler, and a bit of the stuff dripping off the back of the air conditioning unit”. There are several…invigorating…fight scenes, perversions, fetishes, and debauchery, struggles with faith, and a strong moral center who is not actually our hero. Sunglasses are used to great effect. And there is an exceptional soundtrack, with Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash leading the way.

Since the tangled past is already well known to the characters, they don’t spend any time rehashing it for the audience’s benefit. What is referenced is not well-explained, but there is a distinct air of Big Mysteries to be revealed somewhere down the line. It takes a little work to keep up, but the show is interesting, and not knowing the context is not such a big deal. Yet. But it will be.

It’s that cautious pacing. At this point, it’s beginning to feel nearly soap-opera slow—like the first season of True Detective, but funny. We are still finishing the set-up. Many things are beginning, but the threads are not connected, yet, and the writers aren’t tipping their hand. Right now there are many questions and many hints as to what may be coming, but the story arc hasn’t truly begun to bend. The first three episodes have been laying a lot of groundwork without filling in too many details. They have given us a fascinating peepshow of abilities, potentials, and motivations, with enough quirks and jokes to make us care.

But now I think Preacher’s plot needs to speed up and dabble a little more deeply in exposition to keep the audience fully involved. Going into episode 4, I am hoping for some serious, plot-making action. Three weeks is a long time to go without it.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

And as always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!

JourneyQuest--our heroes
JourneyQuest–our heroes

JourneyQuest is a light, silly, dead-on-target web series about a group of differently-competent adventurers who may be on an epic quest. Or not. Anything’s possible, really. There have been quite a few surprising turns already in the available seasons, and there will be more coming soon.

JourneyQuest is the brainchild of  Dead Gentlemen Productions  of Seattle, Tacoma, and Los Angeles, and Zombie Orpheus Entertainment. The first season came out in 2010, and the second in 2012. Collectively, both seasons only take about two hours to watch (including the bloopers and outtakes after each episode), and in JourneyQuest time everything happens over the course of a couple of days. It hardly even counts as binge-watching.

As far as the initial plot goes, the party is in search of the legendary Sword of Fighting hidden in the fearsome Temple of Some Dooms, and there is some disagreement over who is actually supposed to be the Chosen One.

Oh, Perf.
Oh, Perf.

Played with believable goofiness, the characters are a typical adventuring party, reasonably balanced if not entirely in their right minds. Christian Doyle is, oddly enough, the romantic lead as the awkward and semi-inept wizard Perf–his memorized spells are Mending, Vague, and Conjure Milk, which he uses defensively. His love interest is the elf ranger, Nara, played with disdain and occasional drugged wonder by Anne Kennedy Brady. Brian Lewis plays Carrow, a sincere and unfortunately undead cleric, while the not-too-bright but painfully enthusiastic fighter Glorion is played by Kevin Pitman.

There is even a framing story. As the documentarian human bard, Wren, Emilie Rommel Shimkus is almost unbearably perky—yet she becomes the love interest of Rilk, the most level-headed and handsome of the orcs, played by Jesse Lee Keeter.

Other personalities romping about include the Assassin, the legendary bard Silver Tom, the multilingual orc scholar Strong Like Bull, the socialist barbarian king Karn and his queen, Starling, Death personified, and an assortment of orcs, zombies, nobles, peasants, and functionaries who round out the story.

JourneyQuest, when things happen.
JourneyQuest, when things happen.

There is plenty of action going on besides the main adventure. There are self-help meetings for evil-holics, Orcs mocking humans: “Don’t kill me! I live in an indefensible village and have no martial training!”, and other pop-culture tropes played as in-world tropes. At one point, Perf gets into a classic internet grammar argument with a group of attacking orcs, because he apparently speaks orcish better than they do. And the orcish, while not a truly created language, sounds good because it is spoken with convincing intonation and feeling (and subtitles. Always subtitles.).

On that note, the dialogue is hilarious. With lines like “Vast waves of murderness”, “Why does he smell like crying?”, and “Being undead? It kind of itches”, there are plenty of catchphrases to choose from. One liners abound.

go around. But there are no sly asides here. I am glad they don’t break the fourth wall. That would actually take away some of the fun, because these characters are all fully a part of their world.

Because besides being funny, the writing is also good. Real feelings develop in and between these characters, and we can honestly care about them and be invested in their outcomes. JourneyQuest plays out the way a really good D & D campaign should—with well-loved characters and enough chaos and danger to keep it interesting.  The last few episodes in the second season have a more serious tone to them–lives are threatened, and feelings get hurt–because by this point the story has become complicated and some darkish things have happened.

On the technical side, I think the special effects are restrained and therefore well-done–nothing looks half-baked or amateurish, and no effects are bigger than the actual story. Sets and locations are evocative and far above the cheesiness of many other shoestring productions (and having cut my teeth on Star Trek TOS, I have a high tolerance for Styrofoam props). The costumes are simple, color coded, and stereotypical–what they wear is what they do. The Dead Gentlemen seem to have borrowed a few gags from other sources—Men In Black, Shaun of the Dead, Blackadder, Dune—but they work well in the general disarray of the party’s evolving adventure.

In addition to JourneyQuest, Dead Gentlemen Productions is also responsible for the Demon Hunters and The Gamers movie series, as well as assorted other shorts and web series. They do keep busy. Right now, principal photography for a third season of JourneyQuest has finished and they are working on post-production polishing. I am more than ready for it.

Onward!

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

And as always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!

The charming crew of Red Dwarf
The charming young crew of Red Dwarf

Before the wonder of the interwebs, there was the wonder of public broadcasting—and its heavy reliance on British television series for content. PBS introduced me to the surreal world of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, the sarcastic one of Black Adder, and the utterly silly one of the plucky, persistent Red Dwarf.

While less pop-culturally ubiquitous than some other shows I could name (cough*Star Trek*cough), the BBC science fiction series Red Dwarf is a lovably dopey, deep-space, time warping  adventure that originally aired in 1988 and has chugged along (with some intermittent down time) ever since. Fueled by ideas from their 1984 radio sketch series Dave Hollins: Space Cadet, Rob Grant and Doug Naylor created Red Dwarf as a half-hour situation comedy. It is something of an acquired taste, being goofy and jokey rather than going for a cutting wit, but I found it hard not to fall in with the simple fun of it.

The Red Dwarf of the title actually refers not to the star type, but to an enormous mining ship where the show’s action happens. Our story begins some three million years in the future with the awakening from stasis of one Dave Lister (played by Craig Charles), the Red Dwarf’s lowest ranking crewman and possibly the last surviving human. Because of a malfunction in the stasis equipment, Lister managed to ride out a radiation leak that killed (almost) everyone else aboard ship. Chris Barrie plays the aptly named and insufferable hologram Arnold Rimmer (Lister’s former supervisor), who, when alive three million years ago, caused the radioactive disaster that killed the entire crew.

To add to the social mix, Lister’s pregnant cat also managed to escape the disaster, and now her mutated descendant, Cat (Danny John-Jules), is a suave humanoid with excellent taste in clothing and generally feline habits. There is also Kryten (played for the bulk of the series by Robert Llewellyn), a rather neurotic service mechanoid salvaged from another wrecked ship, as well as the Red Dwarf’s senile computer, Holly (played alternately by Norman Lovett and Hattie Hayridge). Lister even gets a love interest, the intermittently dead Kristine Kochanski (played by Clare Grogan and then Chloe Annett), who joins the main Red Dwarf crew from another dimension.

Hard at work
Hard at work

With a set-up like this, it’s no surprise that over the course of the ten aired seasons there were several wacky evolutionary outcomes, a few parallel universes, random visitors, distorted time, assorted slobbishness and priggery, and a great deal of pining for Fiji and Indian food. (Truly, the last episode I recall in any detail involved–surprise!–time travel and leftover chicken vindaloo evolving into a monster.) Fertile comedic ground, that. In addition to its own signature bits, the show referenced and parodied a wide variety of movies, only some of them science fiction. Star Wars, The Terminator, and Blade Runner were all fair game, but so were High Noon, Pride and Prejudice, and Casablanca. With all of humanity dead, someone had to keep the culture alive.

At the height of the show’s popularity in 1992 there was, of course, an attempted American version that tried to copy too much from the original and quickly lost its way (John Laroquette in Fawlty Towers, anyone?). Called Red Dwarf USA (how original), this version never made it beyond two different takes on a pilot episode. Cast and then recast with mainly American actors and retelling the first episode of the original series, the script underwent what became a largely-unused rewrite by Grant and Naylor in an effort to make it, well, funny. Ultimately neither pilot was ever broadcast, and the plan to Americanize Red Dwarf was abandoned.

The show originally ran from 1988 through 1993 then from 1997 through 1999, returned as a miniseries in 2009, and began a new series run in 2012. The first six series were written by the original team of Rob Grant and Doug Naylor. Then, in 1995 Grant left the show. While Naylor continued producing the scripts with the contributions of various other writers, Grant’s leaving had a serious impact on the show’s long-term survival. There was a three year gap between series VI and VII, and the BBC declined to continue with a series IX. An animated Christmas special made in 1999, but the series itself did not return until a rather meta, three episode miniseries (IX) was broadcast in 2009. This continued the tradition of convoluted timelines by having the Red Dwarf characters travel backwards to return as characters in a Red Dwarf TV show airing in 2009. Series X aired late in 2012, and series XI expected to air sometime in 2016 and XII in 2017.

The crew of Red Dwarf, still lost in spacetime
The crew of Red Dwarf, still lost in spacetime

Doug Naylor has been working on a film version since 1999, but funding and script issues have prevented it (so far) from happening. However, his creation has still made it past the small screen. Red Dwarf has inspired its share of novels, with two written by the collaborative persona of “Grant Naylor” and another two written individually by Doug Naylor and Rob Grant. It also spawned a magazine called Red Dwarf Smegazine which had its run from 1992 to 1994. Red Dwarf: The Roleplaying Game was released in 2003 to positive reviews. And more recently, an Australian theater group has staged their own versions of selected episodes.

But these are the expected ups and downs of a long-running franchise. So even though the heyday of Red Dwarf  has passed, love for the show goes merrily on. The first ten seasons’ episodes are widely available for sampling, and the interactive official Red Dwarf website is an excellent source for updates, merchandise, convention information, and fan-club links if you chose to dive all the way in. I advise it. They are quite an active community. And they probably have vindaloo.

 

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

And as always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!