Tights and Capes: How Superheroes Changed The World

To admit to liking superhero comics is akin to confessing a hideous social disease. They are the core of the geek’s domain, loved by spotty, greasy man-boys who live in their parent’s basement and masturbate to pictures of Katee Sackhoff and Tricia Helfer (they’ve moved on from Sarah Michelle Gellar). These borderline autistic creatures spend all day on internet chatrooms or World of Warcrack, having no real-world social skills, and live for the day that they can dress up as their favourite superhero and cruise the halls of the local convention looking desperately for a woman who knows the difference between Guy Gardner and Kyle Rayner.

If this is true, why are superhero films so popular at the moment? And why have they been a regular feature of cinemas for over a decade? Since Brian Singer’s version of X-Men in 2000, superheroes have been coming out of the closet and dusting off their capes for the big screen. Of course, X-Men wasn’t the first superhero movie. It wasn’t the first good superhero movie. But it was the first, good successful superhero movie since Batman Returns eight years previously. Since Singer’s triumph, superheroes have made over $150 million per film almost every year. Surely geeks don’t have that much disposable income, do they?

Well, no. Of course not. The real reason runs quite deeply into the human psyche. People like superheroes. They always have. From the Norse epics of Beowulf to the spandex-clad super-teams of Joss Whedon’s up-coming Avengers, people can’t get enough of them.

"Who do you think they could get to play you, Nick?"
"Why, Mister Samuel L Jackson, of course. That's not even open to debate, Doctor Pym."

What is it about the superhero that we love? Is it simply the ‘hero’ part? Of course, that is part of it. We like protagonists in stories – that’s what they’re for. We follow their struggles and conflicts, hoping that they will pull through while secretly knowing that they almost certainly will. Superheroes tickle something else in our brains. They tackle problems that normal people just can’t deal with, so the stories can be much wider in scope – literally anything can happen. They are bigger, brighter, better than the rest of us. They climb so much higher, and have so much further to fall. They have powers or skills beyond that which is possible for us normal folk. That’s why they’re super.

Finding the earliest superhero isn’t an easy task. Where do we draw the line? Was Jesus a superhero? He certainly had superhuman powers, tried to help people and had a mysterious origin story.

Probably not...

If we take a superhero to be a work of modern fiction (somewhat arbitrarily), we could point to Spring-Heeled Jack, the folkloric figure that was immortalized in a series of ‘penny dreadfuls’ in the 1860’s. He was a diabolic bogeyman in his original form, jumping out on young ladies and traumatizing them in unspecified (but probably fairly obvious) ways, before escaping by leaping over impossibly tall obstacles. He later became more of a crime-fighter, relying on his disguise and his gadgets to catch or kill criminals. Interestingly, sightings of a figure matching the description of Spring-Heeled Jack are still occurring today, some 175 years after he was first reported. He almost certainly inspired later characters, such as Russell Thorndike’s Reverend Doctor Syn from 1915’s A Tale of the Romney Marsh. Syn was a 18th century Oxford scholar whose wife ran away with his best friend, so he took up piracy and smuggling in order to get revenge on the cuckolding cad. He donned the disguise of the Scarecrow in order to rally other smugglers to him and defeat the Revenue men. Syn was undoubtedly an anti-hero, standing up against the perceived criminality of taxation on imports to areas of Kent and Sussex. Essentially, he was the Han Solo of 1700’s England.

In 1919, another masked vigilante appeared on the scene. Don Diego de la Vega buckled his swash across the pages of America’s All-Story Weekly, penned by Johnston McCulley, and was seen as recently as 2005. He was more popularly known by the Spanish word for ‘fox’: Zorro! Zorro fought against the corruption of the Spanish-controlled state of California with his lightning-quick rapier and his trusty steed, Tornado. He maintained Zorro as a secret identity, posing as the foppish Don Diego to allay suspicion and donning the cape and mask to combat injustice and protect the poor. Zorro became a template for later masked vigilantes such as Batman and V.

The 1930’s witnessed an explosion of superheroes and became known as the Golden Age. Radio serials like The Green Hornet and The Shadow appeared, pulp fiction novels and newspaper serials introduced Mandrake the Magician, The Phantom, Doc Savage: Man of Bronze. But it was comic books that really decided the future of the genre, with a plethora of titles springing up, including Action Comics, Detective Comics, Wonder Comics, Timely Comics and Marvel Comics (among many other, less well-known and shorter lived titles). Many long-standing heroes were born in this period, notably Superman, Batman, Namor the Sub-Mariner, the Blue Beetle and the Sandman.

Superman was the archetype, first appearing in 1938’s Action Comics #1, created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Superman has become an icon of American values and culture, embodying “Truth, Justice and the American Way”, and his trademark outfit (Red and blue with underpants over his tights) created an enduring convention that influenced virtually every hero that came later. His origin story tells us that he is an immigrant, the supposed last survivor of the planet Krypton, sent to Earth by his father, Jor-El. His birth name is Kal-El, and his alter-ego, Clark Kent, is a bumbling and mild-mannered reporter for the Daily Planet newspaper, allowing him to keep an eye on breaking news of disasters and other situations that may need the hand of Superman. Superman is ridiculously over-powered, with flight, virtual invulnerability, heat vision, x-ray vision, super breath, super speed and super strength being the core of his powers, gifted him by the yellow sun of Earth. His main weakness is, of course, radioactive lumps of his home planet (Kryptonite), but he also suffers from the human side of his character and his desire to protect the people of his adopted world. He is highly moral, often attempting to persuade others to give up their villainous ways.

Superman’s main rival is the ‘mad scientist’ Lex Luthor. Luthor is bent on world domination but has no super powers. He is, however, incredibly intelligent and a technological genius. He, like his nemesis, has evolved over time, but he is still essentially the same evil and obsessed science geek. The conflict between him and Superman, based on their childhood friendship, is one of Science Vs Superpowers (or could be interpreted as Knowledge Vs Magic). He is easily the most well-known of Superman’s foes and definitely the most recognisable, with his bald head and evil grin.

The Boy Scout

Less than a year after Superman’s debut, Detective Comics #27 introduced a different kind of hero, almost the polar opposite of Superman. Superman drew his power from the sun, but Bob Kane’s hero was far more comfortable in the darkness. The Batman wore black and grey, covered his face and had no super powers, relying on his fearsome intellect and honed physical skills (as well as a range of technological wizardry). He modeled his costume on the bat theme to strike fear into criminals, using psychological warfare to gain the upper hand, and was motivated by revenge for the murder of his parents when he was a small boy. Bruce Wayne, his alter-ego, is a slightly foppish billionaire playboy, similar to Zorro’s de la Vega, but he uses his vast wealth to fund his night-time excursions into the criminal underworld of Gotham City. Batman is deeply flawed in a way that Superman is not, and many commentators (and many of the writers) have explored this aspect of the character. For the first couple of years of the comic, Batman would happily use guns and kill criminals, but this soon changed and Batman became more moralistic.

Batman was the first hero to have a ‘Rogues Gallery’ of iconic, repeating villains. These were, like the Batman himself, larger than life and representative of some intense trauma. The most famous is, of course, the Clown Prince of Crime, the Joker, representing the ‘Trickster’ archetype of Jungian psychology. He is an unrepentant psychopath, gleefully leaving death and chaos in his wake and constantly taunting Batman for being as psychologically damaged as any inmate of Arkham Asylum (Gotham City’s fictional madhouse). Over the years since his introduction, the Joker has killed the second Robin (Jason Todd), paralysed Barbara Gordon (Batgirl and the daughter of Jim Gordon – went on to become Oracle), and murdered several hundred (if not more) residents of Gotham. He has corrupted several of his doctors in Arkham, including his psychiatrist Harleen Quinzel, who became his girlfriend/sidekick Harley Quinn. His relationship with Batman is complicated. On the one hand, he is the Batman’s archenemy, while on the other hand, the pair have more in common with each other than they do with those with whom they side. This idea has been explored by several writers, notably Grant Morrison in Batman: Arkham Asylum.

Batman represents the yin to Superman’s yang, embodying the darkness that is necessary to balance out the light.

Tights are for girls?
Really?

The titles which would eventually amalgamate into DC Comics (Detective Comics, Action Comics, All-Star comics and a host of others) kept churning out characters in the 1940’s, with only a few that would eventually become Marvel Comics characters appearing. DC characters born in this decade include Flash, Green Lantern, Green Arrow, Aquaman, Joker, Catwoman, The Atom, Black Canary, Robin the Boy Wonder and Wonder Woman.

Marvel managed Captain America and…um…

Perhaps the most interesting of DC’s output in the 40’s was Wonder Woman. Created by William Moulton Marston, inventor of the polygraph lie detector, Wonder Woman was intended to be a feminist icon, a reaction to the male-dominated superhero world. Although technically not the first female superhero (Sheena, Queen of the Jungle had debuted four years previously), she was the most iconic, able to hold her own in the male hero world. Her role was to “triumph not with fists or firepower, but with love”, according to Marston. Her powers of super strength, speed, agility, stamina and flight were augmented by her use of ‘magical’ devices including her Lasso of Truth (which forced those bound by it to tell the truth) and her indestructible bracelets which she used to deflect bullets. She is an unmatched military tactician, expert martial artist and god-like wisdom and compassion, although she is quite prepared to use lethal force if she deems it necessary, setting her apart from Superman and Batman.

Marston himself was a feminist, often writing about what he believed to be the inequalities of modern gender politics. He clearly loved women, as he lived in a polyamorous relationship with his wife, Elizabeth (also a psychologist and credited with being a co-creator of Wonder Woman), and Olive Byrne. These two women formed the basis of the character. Marston claimed that they represented the type of women that should rule the world, having temperaments far better suited to the role than men. He did not want to create a hero that was simply a masculinised woman, nor a stereotypical comic-book woman, suitable only for romantic or support roles (although Wonder Woman’s first job in the Justice Society of America was as their secretary).

Wonder Woman: Feminist Icon

The 1950’s introduced new versions of familiar heroes, with Hal Jordan taking over as Green Lantern and Barry Allen donning the Flash costume, as well as the introduction of Supergirl, Kal-El’s cousin Kara Zor-El, but it was the 1960’s that saw a true blossoming of the superhero, with DC’s rival, Marvel Comics, really coming into its own. Stan Lee helped created dozens of new heroes in the 60’s, including (but by no means limited to) Spider-Man, The Incredible Hulk, The Fantastic Four, Thor, Iron Man, Daredevil, The Silver Surfer and the X-Men. He worked with a range of collaborators, most famously Steve Ditko (who designed Spider-Man) and Jack Kirby (responsible for the looks of The Fantastic Four, Iron Man, Hulk and a raft of others), but it was Stan’s creative mind that formed the basis for the heroes. Marvel took the idea of teams of heroes from DC’s Justice Society and ran with it, having a huge number of their characters join teams or partner with other heroes for an issue or two. Marvel’s stories also explored sociological issues in a way that DC didn’t at the time, dealing with racism, bullying, religion, high school, Communism and more. Marvel’s heroes weren’t all muscular and good-looking. The Fantastic Four’s Thing looked like a monster, as did the X-Men’s Beast and Nightcrawler, highlighting prejudice based on appearances. They also focused on ‘real world’ problems faced by their characters, making them easier to relate to than DC’s god-like creations.

Marvel’s rise has continued in the movie world. DC’s Superman had some success with Christopher Reeve in the late 70’s and early 80’s, but the attempted reboot, Superman Returns (2006) was a flop, largely due to the weak plot and gaping plot holes (he almost died from being stabbed with a splinter of kryptonite, but is then able to lift a mountain of the stuff and hurl it into space? Really?), but Man of Steel, written by David S Goyer and Christopher Nolan (the team responsible for DC’s successful Batman franchise, which has its final installment being released later this year), is due out in 2013 so that may change. Marvel, on the other hand, has just produced the third biggest opening day box office in UK cinema history (making £2.5 million, about £1 million behind Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix) with its new Joss Whedon-helmed ensemble movie Avengers Assemble. This follows a four year build up in the shape of two Iron Man movies, an Incredible Hulk movie, a Thor movie and a Captain America movie. In that four year period, but unrelated to the Avengers, Marvel have also released Punisher: War Zone, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, X-Men First Class, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance and two animated Hulk features. They also have the Spider-Man reboot due out later this year and, of course, fifteen or so earlier movies based on their characters. DC have a handful of films based on their Vertigo label, including Constantine, A History of Violence and V for Vendetta, none of which made big box office, and their successful Christopher Nolan/Christian Bale Batman franchise, which did. They also produced the Ryan Reynolds Green Lantern which barely broke even, Watchmen which didn’t do much better, and Jonah Hex, which bombed.

In the ratings war, Marvel are winning. But this has always been Marvel’s tactic: flood the market with hundreds of different titles, designed to appeal to as wide an audience as possible, while DC have usually focused on a smaller groups of titles and explored them in more depth. Except Superman, who is still pretty shallow. DC are certainly more ‘adult’ (whatever that means) than Marvel and have been more comfortable publishing ‘darker’ stories than Marvel. This is a result of the Comics Code Authority and their system of authorising works that submitted to their code of conduct. Both DC and Marvel released titles that were not submitted, DC under its Vertigo banner and Marvel’s Epic Comics, but DC has arguably produced the most famous titles. Vertigo printed titles from Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, Alan Moore, Garth Ennis, Jamie Delano, Mark Millar, Mike Carey and Warren Ellis, to name but a few. Many of these writers have been recognised for their excellent stories, especially Gaiman, Moore and Morrison.

Alan Moore: the most famous beard in comics

So who will win out in the end? Does there have to be a winner? I certainly hope not. With any luck, both of these companies, as well as the many small publishers who put out comic titles, will last for many years to come, thrilling and entertaining us with their spandex-clad muscle-men and partially clad pneumatic women. They are the epic poetry of our generation, our version of gods and monsters. They belong to each and every one of us and we have a responsibility to add to the canon and support these Cassandras for as long as we possibly can. The minds that gave us superheroes have shaped the world, with lie detectors, web-casting restraint guns, bullet-resistant materials and more.

Maybe one day, I’ll own my very own Batmobile…

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A Rag-Tag Fugitive Fleet: Addendum

Further to my reflections on American TV shows over the last few days, someone pointed out that there is not much of a commentary included. I added a few thoughts to the end of the second post, but clearly that was not enough. So I thought I’d try to expand on that.

What effect did these shows have on me as an individual, and my generation?

This is going to be problematic. I can certainly try to explore the effect that they had on me, but beyond that it will have to be conjecture at best.

Firstly then, what is the nature of a hero? Traditionally, a hero was semi-divine, featuring in the mythology of ancient Greece. They were superhuman in some way, admired for their courage or other noble qualities, and often engaged in a feat of self-sacrifice. This definition has been modernised somewhat, taking into account literary heroes, which are simply (and slightly erroneously) seen as the main protagonist of a work of fiction, someone who is generally associated with positive qualities. Often a modern hero will be an everyman, an ordinary person in an extraordinary situation who rises to the challenge facing them. In the real world, of course, a hero is just someone who is respected for some kind of achievement, often showing bravery by risking their own life, but we aren’t interested in real life here!

John McClane: Not a real-life hero

Heroes are central to our emotional landscapes, meaning that we need heroes (either real or imaginary) in order to give us something to aspire to. They have the touch of perfection, but almost inevitably with enough of a flaw to be attainable by mere mortals. At least, that’s how it seems. Most of us are actually far too real, too normal, too boring, to ever achieve heroic status, however hard we may try. Besides, most of us look ridiculous in spandex. But we have invented heros ever since we started thinking, almost. The ancient Greeks had heroes, the Egyptians, the Scandinavians, the Celts. We have always needed someone with the physical and mental strength to stand up for the little people, to face down the tyrant, to win the day.

An action show, or movie, needs a hero (or possibly an antihero, but more of them in a bit), as well as a foil for them, a villain of some sort. This could be, in the case of some of the TV shows discussed before, a villain of the week, a one-off bad guy who is defeated before the hero moves on. Or it could be a recurring bad guy, or succession of essentially identical bad guys working for one uber-villain. Battlestar Galactica is a perfect example of the latter, with the Cylons repeatedly throwing themselves at the fleet, following the orders of the Imperious Leader, while an example of the former would be Knight Rider, where Michael Knight would drive around looking for desperate people that he could help. The A-Team, of course, would fall somewhere between the two, as they would often be fighting a villain of the week while simultaneously trying to avoid capture by the military police led by Colonel Decker. Heroes need someone to fight who represents the bad in the world. This could be repressive authority, the ‘tyranny of evil men’, corporate greed. It needs to be something that affects ordinary people, people who, for whatever reason, are powerless against it.

This man is Satan's representative on Earth.
Possibly.

80s heroes embraced the anti-authority angle with gusto. The A-Team, The Dukes of Hazzard and Airwolf all feature heroes who work against the accepted face of government in some way, although all are sympathetic characters. Hannibal and co. are wrongly convicted of a crime, the Duke boys are charming rogues guilty of nothing more than a little illicit booze smuggling and Stringfellow Hawke was being blackmailed to work for a distinctly dubious and secretive arm of government. The audience is firmly on the side of the rebel, especially in America, where the rebel is part of their national history. The American nation was born out of rebellion (specifically rebellion against the British – just watch any Mel Gibson film of the last fifteen years), so it is fitting that their heroes should now take on that role. Quite often, various branches of Federal government are used as the villain, be it the CIA, the FBI, local law enforcement or whatever. This shows us that although Americans are fiercely proud of their rebellious beginnings, they do not necessarily trust the systems put in place for the protection of their nation. This was especially odd in the 80s, when America was deep in the Cold War, following a strong anti-communist policy. The idea of heroes going around helping people who were unable to help themselves was a deeply communistic one, totally at odds with the capitalist American dream. And yet these heroes flourished.

Yee-Haw, as I believe the phrase is.

The rebel is iconic, it runs through folklore and history. American history in particular is full of these men – and they are almost exclusively men: Patrick Henry; George Washington; Sam Houston. This carries through into television and film: Han Solo; Jim Stark; Tyler Durden. The 80s were more open to the idea of the rebel in television than earlier decades, partly because of the oppressive political climate, partly because of the decreasing cost of producing television shows combined with larger budgets, which made it easier to churn out action and science-fiction shows with reasonable (if not excellent) production values. Glen Larson and Stephen Cannell, among others, were used to capitalize on this situation with their huge outpouring of shows. But these shows were made by men, starred men and dealt with male relationships. The female roles were generally little more than eye candy, without any depth or importance to the plot, mostly there just to be kissed by the heroes and occasionally get kidnapped. The A-Team in particular was criticised for being sexist, and indeed some of the stars were openly hostile to the idea of including regular female cast members. It’s true that very few action shows from that period had female leads: in the late 70s, Wonder Woman, as portrayed by Lynda Carter, had pranced across the small screen in her satin tights, Lindsay Wagner was playing The Bionic Woman at around the same time, and the classic Charlie’s Angels kept karate kicking for a year or two longer. But as the 80s dawned, these shows disappeared, leaving women to fill the fluff roles, supporting the more traditionally ‘heroic’ men.

Good morning, Angels!

The depiction of violence is another area where these shows stand out. Famously, The A-Team never killed anyone, despite spraying bullets and explosives around like champagne on the winner’s podium. Michael Knight rarely (if ever) fired a gun, but did manage to run half a dozen cars off the road in every 45 minute episode (this may be an exaggeration). Airwolf launched missiles and rockets with wild abandon, Blue Thunder‘s cannon almost never stopped firing and even the Duke boys forced Hazzard County to spend the GDP of a medium-sized South American country on replacement police cars. And yet no-one ever died. No blood was ever spilt. The reason for this was obvious, of course: prime time television couldn’t allow it. The exceptions to this rule were Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, as they were only shooting aliens and robots, which was somehow more acceptable to the censor’s sensibilities. This violence, harmless as it may appear to a generation dulled by Quentin Tarantino and the Coen brothers, was problematic at the time. Networks worried that even this level of ‘cartoon’ violence would be disliked by parents, although relatively few complaints were received. It has been suggested that the over-the-top violence was the cause of the demise of these shows, as viewers eventually preferred less ‘masculine’ shows, turning instead to more family themed programming.

The 80s action style lived on for a few more years in the cinema, evolving eventually into the antihero movies of Leon and The Boondock Saints, characters who will do whatever it takes to do the right thing, even if that means shooting a whole bunch of people in the face. No A-Team style cartoon violence there, although the motives (help people who cannot help themselves) remain the same. The targets changed too, becoming more focused on organised crime rather than corrupt government or local criminals. Today, of course, we have a range of villains to shoot at. Our post-modern take on the action movie means that we can’t throw a brick into a crowd without hitting someone that we can call a villain: lawyers, capitalists, terrorists, gangers, activists, bent coppers, the list is virtually endless. But the reasons, and the rebellious nature of our heroes, remains. How many cop shows or movies haven’t featured a cop arguing with his or her superiors about the best way to deal with a criminal? How many shootouts don’t involve hundreds of bullets missing their targets? How many car chases don’t involve one of the chasing cars crashing into civilian traffic at an intersection? These shows have helped to shape the collective unconsciousness. We now expect to see these conventions acted out, even if we dismiss them as clichéd, and feel somehow cheated when they are ignored.

Chicks with guns: Sexy. And a little worrying.

The sexism angle is still with us. Strong female characters are more accepted, but still not common, and the argument remains that most of them are simply masculinised, rather than being strong in their own right. Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2: Judgement Day has lost the femininity and innocence of the first film and bulked up, becoming muscular, dressing in baggy, form-hiding combat trousers, and failing to be the mother-figure that young John Connor needs. Milla Jovovich in the Resident Evil series is a combat expert with some superhuman abilities, turning her into nothing more than a robotic killing machine. Some films are more effective, namely Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and House of Flying Daggers, which attempt to show women operating in a masculine society without losing their femininity. Crouching Tiger… presents the character of Yu Shu Lien as submissive to the masculine society but still able to operate as a warrior, maintaining both her masculine role and her feminine one.

But did the 80s shows change us? Did they make us see the world in a certain way? Judging by the recent run of 80s series being rebooted or made into Hollywood movies, I’d venture to suggest that they have made a lasting impression on my generation: The A-Team, The Dukes of Hazzard, Miami Vice, Charlie’s Angels, G.I. Joe, Battlestar Galactica. The rebel-as-hero archetype is still with us, as is the antihero, although both predate the 80s by hundreds of years, it was that decade that saw them truly come into their own. Heroes are not infallible, and we don’t want them to be. Superman is the least interesting of the mainstream superheroes, largely because he is too close to perfection. There is no way for us to relate to him. In the recent reboot of that franchise, the film-makers had to give him both a son (to give his enemies a new way to hurt him) and a literal mountain of Kryptonite! Batman, on the other hand, is really quite damaged and flawed. He is much darker and the audience likes him for it, recognising some of their own flaws behind that mask.

The 80s heroes were more innocent in many ways, hovering on the fringes of criminality without ever venturing in too deep. That would have been too disturbing for the young audience. Somewhere along the line, we lost that innocence. As a result, TV heroes have lost a lot of their power to thrill and excite us.

I think that’s a bad thing. What do you think?

A Rag-Tag Fugitive Fleet Part 2

To start the second part of my nostalgic trip back to the 80s I would like to look at what we have seen so far: Science Fiction, in the form of Battlestar Galactica, in which friendship in the face of overwhelming odds will see you to success; Action, in the form of The A-Team, in which camaraderie in the face of corrupt, oppressive government will see you to success; Action/Science Fiction, in the form of Knight Rider, in which a refusal to use guns and a certain purity of heart (as well as a technologically advanced Pontiac) will see you to success; Action/Comedy, in the form of The Dukes of Hazzard, in which a strong family unit in the face of corrupt, if inept, law and government will see you to success.

I’m seeing a pattern develop…

So, moving on from these well-known shows, I thought I’d throw in a couple of lesser known ones that I have fond (if vague) memories of. I’ll kick off with Manimal and Automan. These were both very short-lived, with Manimal managing just eight episodes and Automan racking up twelve. Manimal starred Simon MacCorkindale as Dr Jonathan Chase, a rich traveller with the ‘mystical’ (i.e. unexplained) ability to turn into any animal. He used this remarkable talent to (yep, you’ve guessed it) fight crime! He would assist his friend, Detective Brooke MacKenzie, in solving crimes and bringing criminals to justice by turning into a hawk. Or a panther. Mainly those two. Honestly, it’s almost as if they blew their budget for transformation sequences pretty early on, and besides, they only had access to a hawk and a panther for much of the filming anyway. This was pretty much what had happened. Chase would sometimes turn into another animal in each episode, but they wouldn’t show it happening. Stan Winston (of Terminator, Predator and Aliens fame) created the transformation effects, but, if we’re being totally honest, it isn’t his best work. Not even close.

Stan was kind of phoning it in at this stage

Automan was perhaps even worse. Starring Desi Arnaz Jr (son of Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball) as Walter Nebicher, crappy cop but computer programmer extraordinaire, who creates an Artificial Intelligence programme capable of generating a solid, real-world body (played by Chuck Wagner, best known in Britain as ‘Who?’). Together, Walter and Automan would drive around the city in a computer generated Lamborghini Countach which could somehow make 90 degree turns (probably with the magic of computering), and solve crimes. One could be forgiven for suggesting that the show’s creators were trying to jump on the Tron bandwagon, because they totally were, even to the extent of hiring senior crew from the film. Visually, there were obvious similarities (although the movie used expensive hand painted animation for their suit effects, while the television series used reflective tape and spotlights), and thematically Automan was essentially an inversion of the Tron concept.

"Dude. This is a really crappy show."
"I know, man. I know."

On the slighty less shitty side, we have vehicles other than cars to entertain us. Firstly, a motorcycle. Street Hawk was another short-lived series starring Rex Smith as the unlikely sounding Jesse Mach, injured cop and dirt-bike rider, who is selected for a Secret Government Project (TM) involving a prototype motorbike. He becomes The Street Hawk, vigilante crime-fighter. Yeah, it’s basically Knight Rider with a much smaller budget and only two wheels. The bike had a ‘hyperthrust’ mode, which supposedly propelled it at speeds of three hundred miles per hour, but it was mainly used for jumping traffic at junctions. There was little in the way of uniqueness about the show, following as it did the same formula as the far more successful and iconic Knight Rider, and it folded after thirteen episodes. It wasn’t a bad show, as these things are measured. It was just eclipsed by a bigger budget and better concept.

In 1983 a movie starring Roy Scheider was released, called Blue Thunder. It featured a high-tech stealth and combat helicopter (called Blue Thunder) being tested by a Viet Nam veteran with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder over the streets of LA. Yeah, good call. This film inspired a short-lived television series following pretty much the same format. James Farentino took over the Roy Scheider role, and was supported by Dana Carvey (better known as Garth from Wayne’s World) and Bubba Smith (better known as Hightower from the Police Academy movies). The helicopter itself was a modified Aérospatiale Gazelle, with a front end so ugly only its mother (or possibly a very drunk Apache Longbow) could love it. Although it had the moderate success of the movie to build on, it too only lasted for a disappointing eleven episodes. Why was that? Well, compare this:

To this:

That’s right: Airwolf. Airwolf thrashed Blue Thunder in the ratings war, and it’s not too hard to see why. Firstly, the helicopter itself looked so much more high-tech. Secondly, the actors were much better (insomuch as Ernest Borgnine and Jan-Michael Vincent can be considered ‘better actors’ than anyone). And thirdly, character names. Blue Thunder‘s hero revelled in the name Frank Chaney, while Airwolf blasted that into obscurity with the fabulous Stringfellow Hawke. Yeah, that’s right. Stringfellow Hawke: any name that conjured up a bird of prey and a lapdancing club couldn’t have been more masculine unless his middle names were Chuck and Norris.

The plot was slightly more complex than that of Blue Thunder, in that Stringfellow Hawke used to be a test pilot for the FIRM, a division of the CIA. His collection of artwork is stolen by the FIRM and he is tasked with retrieving the stolen helicopter from its inventor, Dr Moffet, and returning it to Archangel, Director of the FIRM. Except, rather predictably, Hawke doesn’t return it. He stashes it in the desert to use as leverage against Archangel for the return of his brother, who is missing in action. Archangel offers him protection from the other interested parties in government if Hawke agrees to fly covert missions for him. Cue much flying around the desert blowing shit up.

Series one was a serious examination of Cold War politics, with the FIRM (dressed in white) sending Hawke to deal with threats to the US Government, while always looking for an opportunity to reclaim Airwolf from him. But the studio decided that it was too dark, and from the second series toned it down into another action-adventure show, Knight Rider with rotor blades, with the FIRM and Hawke acting as partners in a crime-fighting organisation. This took something away from the show, removing the antagonism between Hawke and the ‘good guys’, and lowered the show to more standard fare. It struggled on for two more seasons with the original cast, and one season with an entirely new cast (and recycled shots of the helicopter flying), before finally being cancelled.

Flight is one of the themes of the next show on the list, albeit clumsily done. This Stephen J Cannell produced show starred William Katt as Ralph Hinkley (or Hanley), a high school teacher who is given a suit by alien beings which grants him superheroic abilities. The Greatest American Hero was a primarily a comedy show, centered around the premise that Ralph didn’t know how to use the suit properly (he lost the instruction manual) and had to learn its abilities by trial and error. Much hilarity ensued.

Would you really want to be rescued by this guy?

The Greatest American Hero ran for three seasons, making it one of the more successful shows on this list, but there were differences in opinion between Cannell and the series executives about the direction that the show would take. Cannell envisioned it as a way to explore realistic, normal, everyday problems, but the executives wanted a more mainstream, simplistic hero show. The executives won, for the most part, although Cannell did score a few points along the way. It remained an interesting show to watch, and it was genuinely funny in places, but it was always struggling to be better than it was allowed to be and eventually failed as a result.

Our final show has already been referenced, and since we started with a science-fiction show we might as well end on one. At the end of the 70s, Star Wars was busy shattering records and rewriting the sci-fi bible, so the studios cast around for a way to cash in. We have already seen how Battlestar Galactica was sued by 20th Century Fox, but despite this Universal Studios released a feature based on one of their old properties, one that had been knocking around in various forms since the 1920s. Buck Rogers in the 25th Century was well-received, which prompted a TV series that survived for two seasons. It centred around an astronaut, Captain William ‘Buck’ Rogers, who was piloting a space shuttle that suffered a malfunction, freezing Rogers for over five centuries. He was rescued by the inhabitants of New Chicago and joined the Earth Defense.

Could this be much more of a Star Wars rip-off?
Or more obviously 80s?

Buck, played by Gil Gerard, was a truly heroic character. He was both a lover and a fighter, sweeping a succession of ladies off of their silver shoes while being chased by the beautiful but evil Princess Ardala (Pamela Hensley). His close companion was the beautiful Wilma Deering, a Colonel in the Earth Defense played by Erin Gray. Just in case you don’t know, she looked like this:

Any excuse...

Although sometimes she looked more like this:

Ok, I'll stop now...

Anyway, Buck and Wilma spent much of their time defending Earth from invasion, while trying to get Buck to fit in to 25th century society. They were helped in this by Twiki, the child-sized robot, and Dr Theopolis, the hyper-intelligent Speak & Spell. Buck Rogers… was highly camp space-opera. There was no depth, no social commentary, just space ships, spandex and robots. It was cheesy and fun, although the second season attempted a more serious tone, largely as a result of Gerard himself pressuring the producers. The character of Hawk, a member of a bird based alien race, was introduced, allowing the programme makers to explore religious and mythological themes, as well as ecological and racist themes and ideas on evolution. Unfortunately, the show stalled due to falling ratings and was cancelled after the second series.

So what have we learnt on our trawl through the American imports? Hopefully, we can see a formula developing. We know that a hero, or heroes, are often, in some way, rebellious or anti-authoritarian. This sits well with the American image, or at least with the image that Americans like to believe in. They are the rebellious country, after all, born from colonial oppression and the subsequent revolution. The A-Team were wrongly accused and imprisoned. Stringfellow Hawke was blackmailed into working for ‘The Man’. Michael Knight was fighting crime under a false identity. Starbuck and Apollo broke the rules to get the job done. The Duke Boys were petty criminals fighting government corruption. Even Buck Rogers was fighting royalist oppressors.

Next, we can assume that Americans like their heroes male. None of these shows have female leads, and none of the female stars are particularly strong. Except this one:

What?

Sorry.

Anyway, most of these shows were decidedly masculine, not only in casting but in attitude as well. On the set of The A-Team, George Peppard famously told supporting actress Marla Heasley (who played reporter Tawnia Baker on the show), “we don’t want you on the show…for some reason they think they need a girl”. This sentiment was echoed much later by Dirk Benedict, who called it “a guys show” and “the last truly masculine show”. This underlying sexism ran through most of the 80s shows, certainly the American ones that were shown on British TV. I suspect our homegrown shows were no better, although I do recall a lot of Miss Marple being watched in our house.

Did this affect us growing up? I believe it did. So many studies have shown what a profound influence television can have on a young mind that it seems impossible that it didn’t have an effect. But what? How were we changed by what we watched? Well, I suspect that our view of heroic activity was certainly influenced. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I know what I think of when the words ‘action hero’ are mentioned, and it isn’t Mark Wahlberg. Am I sexist? No, I don’t think so, not in the way most people think of as being sexist, although I do subscribe to a reasonably old-fashioned ideal of manhood, whereby you hold doors open for women, let them go first, give up your seat on a bus or train and so on. These actions are sometimes considered sexist, which I think is a little harsh. After all, I also hold doors open for men.

Well, the point is that these shows are bound to have coloured our views of heroism. A real hero (a real man, if you like) is a bit of a rebel. He doesn’t bow down to ‘The Man’, doesn’t give in to the oppressor. He will fight for those who cannot fight for themselves and will risk his life for a righteous cause, all while wearing a flannel shirt and blue jeans (or possibly spandex or suede). Moustaches are heroic, goatees are evil. Any group will consist of people who are experts in their particular field, and whose skills compliment each other perfectly.

And if there is a woman in the group, she’ll probably look like this:

Last one, I promise

An Entirely Arbitrary Top Ten Movies

This is my list of the top ten movies that I think are excellent at this moment in time. I fully expect you to disagree with my list, to hurl abuse at me for not including x,y or z. Good. This is in no way going to represent the movies that I think are the best ever. I may not even give satisfactory reasons for my choices. I am going entirely on instinct and allowing that to guide me. I’ll probably look at this list tomorrow and ask myself what I was drinking.

That is the beauty of movies. One day, a film will be everything you need to see, to hear, to experience. The next day it might seem to be a total piece of crap. Ever seen a film in the cinema and thought it was great, then got it on DVD and realised that it was actually a bag of arse? I certainly have.

So, in no particular order, let’s get started.

Number 1: Fight Club dir. David Fincher (1999)

What can be said about this gem? The Chuck Palahniuk novel was masterfully adapted into this violent, funny and intelligent actioner, with star turns from Edward Norton, Brad Pitt and Helena Bonham Carter (among others). Its simplifying of male relationships and masculine aggression is satisfying without dumbing down, and the ‘twist’ (such as it is) is handled well. The film explores consumer culture without being preachy, using the source material excellently. It is dark and stylish, cool without trying too hard, touching without being saccharine.

If you haven’t seen this film, where have you been for the last thirteen years? If you doubt Brad Pitt’s acting ability, you need to see this film. If you’ve ever shopped at IKEA, you need to watch this film. If you’ve ever wanted to destroy something beautiful…well, you get the picture.

Number 2: High Fidelity dir. Stephen Frears (2000)

A lesser known John Cusack vehicle, with supporting roles and cameos from Jack Black, Todd Louiso, Iben Hjejle, Tim Robbins, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Joan Cusack, Lisa Bonet, Lili Taylor, Sara Gilbert and Bruce Springsteen. Quite a cast, I’m sure you’ll agree, and they are all excellent choices for the roles they have been given. The movie is adapted from a novel by Brit author Nick Hornby, and the story is transplanted from London to Chicago, but the director and cast handle it really well. The novel focuses on the whirlwind of emotions stirred up when Rob (John Cusack) is dumped by his girlfriend Laura (Iben Hjejle). This prompts a bout of navel-gazing and soul-searching as Rob seeks out his Top Five, All Time, Most Memorable Break-Ups in order to discover why he keeps getting dumped.

Most of the story revolves around Rob’s record store and his love (or obsession) with pop music. Everything is described in terms of the emotions in music; the soundtrack supports this with tunes from Dylan, Elton John, Joan Jett & the Blackhearts, Al Green and a marvellous version of Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get It On performed by Jack Black.

If you like music and feel that it has had a profound effect on you, or if you’ve ever been dumped, or in love, watch this film. It’s one of the few films that actually brings a lump to my throat and a tear to my eye.

Number 3: The Shawshank Redemption dir. Frank Darabont (1994)

So the third film in my list is another adaptation, this time from Stephen King. Tim Robbins plays Andy Dufresne, a banker sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of his wife and her lover. He is sent to Shawshank, where he suffers the usual prison unpleasantness, but he befriends the prison ‘fixer’, Red Redding, played by Morgan Freeman. Dufresne uses his skills in accountancy to get on the good side of the guards, led by the sadistic Captain Hadley (Clancy Brown), and eventually helps Warden Norton (Bob Gunton) to embezzle funds from an inmate labour scheme.

Despite everything that happens to Dufresne, he never gives up hope, and that is the message of this movie: they cannot take your hope if you don’t let them. The Shawshank Redemption is a beautifully uplifting movie, helped by remarkable performances, stunning direction and excellently crafted story. The film is narrated by Freeman, with his instantly recognisable inflections, and spans several decades, showing the institutionalisation of the characters as they spend the best years of their lives behind the walls of Shawshank.

This is a wonderful film and deserves a place in every film fan’s collection.

Number 4: Raiders of the Lost Ark dir. Stephen Spielberg (1981)

I was born in 1975, so I was probably 8 years old when I saw this film. I challenge any 8 year-old boy to watch Indiana Jones buckle his swash across the Egyptian landscape without immediately wanting a brown leather jacket, dusty fedora and bullwhip. Jones (Harrison Ford in one of his finest roles) is the ultimate action hero: he is as flawed as he is brilliant.

The plot is a glorious blend of pulp action, Nazi bad guys, biblical occultism and rocky romance. It even has a monkey. What more could you ask for? The cat-and-mouse game of chase with the Nazi antagonists is genuinely fun, high praise indeed. Klaus Kinski famously turned down the part of Major Toht, calling the script “moronically shitty”, but the $384 million box office would suggest that the audiences disagreed.

Raiders… is a film that doesn’t take itself too seriously, but wears its enthusiasm proudly on its sleeve. It is a true romp, with actors that really seem to be enjoying themselves. The villains are stereotypical; sneering, perverse Nazi torturers, brilliant and amoral French archeologists. The heroes are equally stereotypical; Jones switches between bookish nerd and stubbly action man with aplomb.

As a film, it is simple and wonderful. I could watch this every day for the rest of my life and I probably would never get bored. It deserves a place in every film fan’s DVD collection and is the only film on this list that I will allow no disagreement. If you don’t like Raiders… you don’t like films. Simple.

Number 5: Blade Runner dir. Ridley Scott (1982)

The first science fiction film on the list and the second Harrison Ford vehicle, Blade Runner tells the story of Rick Deckard, hired to chase down and ‘retire’ four androids (known as replicants) who have returned to Earth to try to extend their short lives. The film has had several incarnations, culminating in the Final Cut in 2007. This version was the only one that Ridley Scott had full creative control over, removing the noir style voice-over, altering the unicorn dream and many other little tweaks.

Personally, I quite liked the voice-over, despite the fact that it was mainly used to highlight the important plot points for the hard of thinking. I felt that it gave the film an old-school noir feeling, reminiscent of the detective films of the 40s.

The changes made to the film go some way towards answering the question of Deckard’s existence: Is he a replicant himself? Scott has made his opinion clear, but ultimately it is down to the individual viewer to decide on their own.

The film is based, albeit loosely, on Philip K Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? but is far more coherent. Dick was a renowned drug user and his novels often reflect that aspect of his life, questioning ideas of humanity, paranoia, authority and so on. The film entertains some of these notions, but does so in a far more controlled way, showing Deckard as a man haunted by his own life, emotionally involved in the fate of those he is tasked with ‘retiring’.

The most outstanding feature of the film is the look of it. From the smoky, dimly lit interiors to the stark silhouettes of the cityscape, the film looks futuristic, even thirty years after its release. The lack of CGI lends a gritty realism to the world, making it far more believable than modern attempts at the genre.

Overall, Blade Runner is a wonderful film, fantastically acted, brilliantly scripted, beautifully shot.

Number 6: Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope dir. George Lucas (1977)

Originally released as plain old Star Wars, this is the one that started it all. Spawning two sequels, three prequels, two spin-off movies, Tv series, video games a-plenty and more merchandise than it is possible to recount, Star Wars genuinely changed the world of film forever. The cast were mostly unknowns, with the exceptions of Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan and Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin, and the story fantastic. Harrison Ford again features, this time as the smuggler Han Solo, with Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker and Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia. The film also features arguably the most iconic movie villain ever, in the six-foot six form of Darth Vader, Dark Lord of the Sith and Emperor Palpatine’s right hand man.

I will accept that A New Hope is not the best of the films, but it is the one that came first, and it introduced me to an astounding universe of adventure, laser swords, bizarre creatures, beautiful princesses, charming rogues, spaceships, other worlds, epic battles and robots. I will never forget the way I felt as I watched the film for the first time, aged four. It began a lifelong love affair with science fiction (and was ultimately responsible for my feelings of betrayal when Phantom Menace was released), and will always hold a special place in my heart. It is by far the most innocent of the six movies, and although the storylines are not completely worked out (Luke kissing his sister ‘for luck’ is possibly one of the more creepy moments when viewed in retrospect) it is still a wonderful experience to watch.

Number 7: The Big Lebowski dir. Joel and Ethan Coen (1998)

The Big Lebowski stars Jeff Bridges as Jeffrey Lebowski, AKA The Dude, LA’s finest stoner and bowler. The plot centres around a case of mistaken identity and kidnapping, as Bunny Lebowski (Tara Reid), the wife of disabled millionaire Jeffrey Lebowski (David Huddlestone), disappears. Dumb hijinks ensue, but really the plot of the film is not important, despite the many twists and turns that the Coens shoehorn into the two-hour runtime. The real joy of this movie is the way in which the Dude drifts from one disaster to the next, ably assisted by his best friends, the Viet Nam veteran Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) and the put-upon Donny (Steve Buscemi).

The dialogue and character portrayals are excellent, with some scene stealing turns from Lebowski’s aide Brandt (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Jesus Quintana (John Turturro) and the Stranger (Sam Elliott), and really the dialogue is the main reason to watch the film. Bridges and Co. really create the sense of reality despite the bizarre situations, and it is hard to watch without laughing out loud as long as you don’t get caught up trying to follow the plot. It is a film in which very little of importance happens, much like the Dude’s life, which centres around bowling, driving around and the occasional acid flashback. Walter’s ‘Nam inspired rants and inability to accept defeat are endearing rather than annoying, and Donny, despite rarely being noticed by the other characters, is genuinely sympathetic.

I have perhaps been a little harsh on the plot. It isn’t that the plot isn’t important, more that it is merely a vehicle for moving the main characters around and allowing them space to indulge in conversation. This is a truly character driven movie and would be just as enjoyable if the main characters weren’t seeking compensation for the Dude’s soiled rug, or chasing the missing $1 million around LA. One of the Coen brothers best films.

Number 8: Watchmen dir. Zack Snyder (2009)

I know that this is going to annoy fanboys across the internet, but I don’t care. I liked this movie. I am also a huge fan of the graphic novel, and I was really quite worried when I heard that it was being adapted for the big screen, especially when I heard it was being directed by Zack ‘300‘ Snyder. I was pleasantly surprised. Yes, it is different to the graphic novel; of course it is. Alan Moore’s comic is unfilmable. The version that finally made it to the cinemas is a good attempt, and works very well as a stand-alone story.

The plot follows the investigation into the murder of retired hero, The Comedian (played with eerie menace by Jeffrey Dean Morgan). The investigation is led by sociopathic vigilante, Rorschach (a wonderfully unhinged Jackie Earle Haley), complete with voice-over extracts of his stream-of-consciousness journal.

The action is heavily stylised, as one would expect, which fits the tone of the film well, and the lighting, set design and soundtrack all add up to a stunning spectacle. The denouement is well handled, with genuine pathos, unusual for a superhero film. There are some drawbacks, of course, but these are minor compared to the positives. Richard Nixon (Robert Wisden) looks far too much like a caricature, rather than the actual ex-president, and Dr Manhattan (Billy Crudup) spends a disturbing amount of time being all blue and naked, but other than that the whole film is a satisfying watch and a very good example of the superhero genre.

Number 9: X-Men dir. Bryan Singer (2000)

The one that arguably started the craze for comic book adaptions, X-Men stars Hugh Jackman as fanboy favourite Wolverine, as he is inducted into Charles Xavier’s team of superheroes, the X-Men. The humans are discovering that mutants walk among them, capable of incredible feats, and they are rightly scared. Xavier believes that humans and mutant can live together in harmony, but his old friend Magneto (Sir Ian McKellen) is a survivor of the Nazi concentration camps, and he knows what the dark side of human nature can lead to. Therefore, the film has three distinct groups, none of whom are typical bad guys. The humans are largely unrepresented in the film, except by the bigoted Senator Kelly (Bruce Davison), who changes his tune of hate and begs forgiveness from equally bigoted Storm (Halle Berry).

The story is solid, supported by talented actors and assured special effects. The influence on the genre is unarguable too, with this film spawning two sequels, one prequel and a spin-off (so-far), as well as triggering a surge in comic book movies, from Iron Man, Spider Man, Superman, Batman, Hulk, Thor, Green Lantern, Captain America, John Constantine, Kick-Ass, Scott Pilgrim and on and on and on. This popularity shows little sign of slowing down, with big budget movies for The Avengers, Spider Man, Judge Dredd, Batman and Superman all due for release in the next few years. Good news for geeks!

Number 10: The Usual Suspects dir. Bryan Singer (1995)

So, for the last film on my list, I have gone for another Bryan Singer helmed project. The Usual Suspects is a cleverly constructed whodunnit, told by Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey) to Special Agent Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) in the office of Sgt Jeff Rabin (Dan Hedaya) of the NYPD. Kint was arrested after a boat was destroyed in San Pedro but has FBI protection. Kujan is desperate to get to the truth as he is obsessed with finding and arresting Dean Keaton (Gabriel Byrne).

The film is genuinely incredible, with strong performances from the ensemble cast, and an engrossing, well told story. The shadowy antagonist is alluded to throughout, and served as one of the advertising tricks for the film: ‘Who is Keyser Soze?’ – a question I won’t answer here, on the off-chance that you have not seen it!

The Usual Suspects was not a huge commercial success on its release, but its relatively low budget of $6 million did mean that it began to make its money back reasonably quickly. Since then it has gone on to become a massive cult success and gained a strong mainstream following as well.

This film demands a second viewing, if only to see all the clues that you missed first time round, and the denouement of this film is second to none.

Right, that’s this list of random films completed, and I’m already thinking of films I should have included. So here is a quick list of the top ten films that didn’t make it:

1) Casablanca

2) It’s a Wonderful Life

3) Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers

4) Clerks

5) Mad Max

6) Reservoir Dogs

7) The Dark Knight

8) Ocean’s Eleven

9) Unforgiven

10) Akira

An Arrow in the Knee

'Mind if I smoke?'

On the 11th November 2011, Bethesda Softworks released the fifth in their fantasy role-playing series The Elder Scrolls. The game is set in the icy northern province of Skyrim and, like its predecessors, is an open world game, allowing the player to wander the extensive map at will, ignoring or engaging with the various quest lines as they see fit.

Skyrim builds on the world created for the earlier games with technological advances in NPC interactions, character animation and graphical improvements. It offers the choice of first or third person gameplay, although the third person view is not as easy to control as most third person games, and the character animation is a little simplistic compared to NPCs and enemies. The game also introduces dragons into the series as random enemies, led by the Dragon Lord Alduin, the focus of the main quest line.

Bethesda has been criticised for releasing the game before it had been tested properly, as many bugs have come to light since release, including the game becoming painfully slow as one’s save file becomes larger and larger, dragons flying backwards and so on. The company has promised that these issues will be addressed through patches.

The focus on character development has been simplified from the earlier games, with levelling up awarding an increase in either Magicka, Health or Stamina, as well as one perk to purchase from any of the skills. These perks allow different bonuses to the skill, such as additional damage and so on. Using the skills in-game increases their level and once you have increased enough skills, you are granted the next level. The perks are dependent on the level of the controlling skill, so you cannot, for example, craft dragon scale armour until you have reached level 100 in the Smithing skill and have purchased the preceding perks.

So what is it like to play?

Well, the extensive world map allows hours of aimless wandering with random creature encounters and bandit attacks to keep things interesting. The game engine allows you to collect ingredients for alchemical potion making, as well as catching fish and mining for various ores with which you can smelt materials and forge armour and weapons. Which is nice. It would be vastly improved if you could design the look of the weapons and armour yourself, of course, rather than be stuck with the generic ones. Even a simple collection of modular parts that you could choose from to assemble weapons, and a selection of armour styles that changed in finish depending on material perhaps. Even being able to choose the colour of your armour and weapons would add a little more of a personalised feel.

The main storylines are interesting and challenging enough to keep you playing through, although many of the side missions become boring after a while as they tend to follow very similar paths: find this person and kill them, steal this item, clear this dungeon… If you are a completist, you may find yourself growing frustrated with the lack of diversity in the side quests, but there is still a sense of satisfaction in becoming the head of the Companions, or a master assassin.

The main quests involve the Stormcloak rebellion and the return of the dragons to Skyrim. You can choose to side with the native Stormcloaks or take up with the controlling Empire. Your choices directly affect the outcome of the game and the way that people act and react to you. You can become a wanted criminal across the land, or a welcome hero in this time of need. It’s up to you.

Is it worth purchasing?

Well, yes. Clearly. It’s huge and engrossing, with a suitably epic feel, helped in part by the soaring Jeremy Soule soundtrack and sweeping vistas.

Let it snow...

As you can see, it is graphically impressive, with a good sense of distance and some realism. The NPCs you meet are a reasonably physically diverse bunch (although all the guards look eerily similar) but the limited vocal utterances of the non-essential NPCs can get really old really quick! The voice acting of the main cast is generally very good, with a few well-known actors, including Christopher Plummer, Max Von Sydow, Joan Allen and (one of my first childhood crushes) Lynda Carter (only mentioned here for an excuse to include this picture…)

Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman. I would…

 Anyway, the game is excellent. Well worth the massive investment of time it requires to play to completion. Of course, if you don’t like RPGs, you will want to avoid it like the cliché, as it is pretty much the finest RPG on the market. It features a solid, branching storyline, excellent graphics, competent writing and immersive gameplay.

What more do you want?
Oh, Ok then. At the recent DICE 2012 convention in Los Angeles, Bethesda’s creative lead, Todd Howard, revealed a few of the ideas that his team have been exploring for possible future DLC. He was careful to point out that these were all just ideas, and he was in no way saying that they would become DLC, just that they were looking at various options. Some of the ideas he did mention were dragon and other epic mounts, the use of the XBox’s Kinect system for Dragon Shouts, additional weapons such as spears, the ability to adopt children and the ability to hire/use minions.
Dragon mounts? Hell yeah! Bring it on!

Sci-Fi/Fantasy and Snobbishness

Science fiction and Fantasy (and we may as well take a leaf from the booksellers and lump Horror in with them as well) have always been seen as a lesser cousin to ‘proper’ literary fiction. Many articles have been written on the subject and many words thrown into the arena.

So why am I bothering to add my own?

Well, it’s simple. I’m a fan and an aspiring writer of so-called ‘genre’ fiction, and I therefore feel the need to defend my chosen form of escapism.

Last year the BBC hosted its World Book Night, a celebration of the written word, with copies of 25 titles to be handed out to thousands of people. A noble intention that I am sure none of us would take issue with. This was their choice of titles:

Kate Atkinson – Case Histories

Margaret Atwood – The Blind Assassin

Alan Bennett – A Life Like Other People’s

John le Carré – The Spy Who Came in From the Cold

Lee Child – Killing Floor

Carol Ann Duffy – The World’s Wife

Mark Haddon – The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Seamus Heaney – Selected Poems

Marian Keyes – Rachel’s Holiday

Mohsin Hamid – The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Ben Macintyre – Agent Zigzag

Gabriel García Márquez – Love in the Time of Cholera

Yann Martel – Life of Pi

Alexander Masters – Stuart: A Life Backwards

Rohinton Mistry – A Fine Balance

David Mitchell – Cloud Atlas

Toni Morrison – Beloved

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – Half of a Yellow Sun

David Nicholls – One Day

Philip Pullman – Northern Lights

Erich Maria Remarque – All Quiet on the Western Front

CJ Sansom – Dissolution

Nigel Slater – Toast

Muriel Spark – The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

Sarah Waters – Fingersmith

These titles are, no doubt, all exceedingly well written and worthy. But are they representative of the type of books that people actually read? Or is it an elitist list, designed to tell us what we should be reading? Is it descriptive or prescriptive? Only two of these titles (Cloud Atlas and Northern Lights) could be classed as Science Fiction or Fantasy, and Cloud Atlas is more of a philosophical journey and literary exercise than a true SF novel. But a glance through the best selling lists for last year will throw up names like Stephanie Meyer, George RR Martin, Terry Pratchett, JK Rowling and so on. Statistically, the ‘genre’ fiction market represents far more than 8% of book sales. So why isn’t this represented?

Fantasy author Stephen Hunt, along with 85 other authors, wrote an open letter to the BBC complaining about the ‘sneering derogatory tone’ adopted towards genre fiction. The BBCs reaction? Fairly predictable. Read it (and Stephen Hunt’s well informed rant, at http://www.sfcrowsnest.com/articles/news/2011/One-Genre-to-bring-them-all-and-in-the-darkness-bind-them-15938.php

Margaret Atwood would, possibly, disagree with the sentiments expressed by Stephen Hunt et al, if the oft-repeated comments about The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake are to be believed. She is repeatedly quoted as having denied writing science fiction (calling it “spaceships and monsters”), preferring instead the sobriquet ‘speculative fiction’. It is usually suggested that she was refusing to be classified as a Sci-Fi author in case it damaged her standing as a serious writer, but she has since claimed that she uses the terms speculative fiction and social science-fiction to differentiate her work from those stories that contain “things we can’t yet do”. Well, she won the Arthur C Clarke Award for The Handmaid’s Tale. Read it and decide for yourself. In my opinion, it is science-fiction, similar in some ways to Nineteen Eighty-Four or Brave New World. Just not as good. And more than a little preachy…

So what is it about SF&F (and Horror) that eludes mainstream appeal? When you consider that some of the high points of the genre in over the last few hundred years are so well-known that they have become part of the English language and are firmly embedded in popular culture, it seems doubly strange that an interest in or affection for SF&F(&H) is still seen as an adolescent fascination at best, just plain weird at worst. Think about Dracula, Frankenstein, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Brave New World, War of the Worlds, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea and so many others. Think about the way that SF&F has embraced the new technologies – early genre films include the classics Nosferatu, Metropolis, and the early short A Man In The Moon. SF&F films today include some of the highest earning films in history. According to Wikipedia (and therefore probably wrong) eight of the top ten grossing movies in history belong within the SF&F genre bracket (assuming we accept the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise into that group).

I would like to think that the majority of people enjoy the genre, and could class themselves as fans but choose not to. Why is that? Well, let’s be honest, SF&F fans have a certain…reputation, don’t they?

I know! I’m treading on thin ice a little, but hey! I’m a fan too! These are my people I’m insulting here. But it’s true. Fanboys (and they are mostly male) take ‘weird’ to a whole new level. They redefine what it is to be a social outcast and have suffered for it. Of course, some of them kind of deserve that suffering…

Spandex: it's a privilege, not a right!

These days, being a fan is slowly losing its pejorative status due to the commercial success of a raft of Marvel and DC comic characters, but for a grown man to admit any more than a casual knowledge of comic-dom is still akin to admitting a bizarre sexual fantasy. In fact, I suspect more men would prefer to admit a penchant for being buggered than admit that they know why Issue #38 of Detective Comics is important (answers on a postcard!).

OK, maybe that’s an exaggeration. But people will happily sit for two hours, watching a bloke in spandex fight bad guys on rooftops, yet still claim that comic books are for kids. Obviously, these people should be forced at gunpoint to read Watchmen but that may be a rant for another day.

Some of the earliest stories ever written down are fantasy. Myths, legends, religions and other fairy tales (I know, that was a cheap shot) all rely on the frankly unbelievable for their appeal. The Scandinavian Sagas are the precursors of The Lord of the Rings. And what is Superman but a retelling of the Jesus story? Only with more laser death beams than the original, obviously.

Let’s be honest – the human race is moved forward by those individuals who are capable of seeing what doesn’t exist and making the dream a reality. We need these people. Without the nerds and geeks, our computers wouldn’t work. There would be no internet, no space program, no mobile phones. We would still be sitting in caves, eating raw meat and dying at twenty of toothache.

So let us work together, ladies and gentlemen, to usher in a new dawn. A world where genre fiction is celebrated as the true saviour of the human race. A world where you can wear your Starfleet Academy uniform to the pub and not be kicked in the beer garden. A world in which all things are possible.

Even if they aren’t plausible.