Thursday, July 16, 2015

Robert Louis Stevenson, The Suicide Club (1882)

Stevenson, Robert Louis, The Suicide Club, London: Chatto & Windus, 1882

The Suicide Club at Goodreads
The Suicide Club at IBList

Rating: 7/10

For more Friday's Forgotten Books, please visit Patti Abbott's blog.

The three novelettes that make up Robert Louis Stevenson's The Suicide Club are interlinked tales that form a part of his New Arabian Nights project. Along with the second cycle of stories in the first volume of New Arabian Nights, these stories were originally published in London Magazine between June and October of 1878. New Arabian Nights collected tales modeled after the Thousand and One Nights, only here it is the narrator (Stevenson) transcribing tales recounted to him by an "Arabian author." The stories are certainly inspired by the format of the original Arabian Nights, which collects a large number of stories and fragments, some interrelated while others standalone (though this depends on which version is at hand since most translations feature selections from the tales rather than the complete works). Though there are allusions to the past, Stevenson's stories are distinctly wrapped up in Victorian conventions and are an important chapter in the development of the Victorian mystery, and by extension the development of the mystery genre. These works are also important forerunners in the evolution of the modern short story.

The Suicide Club is a triptych of individual narratives focusing on separate characters, while interlinking a single main plot. The concept is excellent, though Stevenson's aim is adventure rather than mystery or moral conundrum, both of which are serious potential avenues. To the modern reader this is unfortunate, since the strengths of each of these stories is the heightened suspense and mystery. Despite the emphasis on adventure, the three tales are nonetheless enjoyable and certainly well written.

Story of the Young Man with the Cream Tarts
First published in London Magazine, 1878

Seeking adventure, Prince Florizel of Bohemia and his friend Colonel Geraldine, enter an oyster bar in disguise. Boredom is soon alleviated with the appearance of a young man offering patrons cream tarts. Some accept the pastries while others decline, and in the cases where the pastries are not accepted, the young man must himself eat the tart. Curious, the two friends seek the young man's acquaintance and take an immediate liking to him. Through this encounter they learn of a Suicide Club, an organization that caters to men wishing to put an end to their lives.

The strongest part of the story is its middle. The opening is certainly original but the logic is at times lacking, whereas the end is plunged into adventure and hinges on some plot conveniences. The middle, however, is well paced and builds itself nicely in revealing the method in which the victim is selected. It also contains the most interesting character of any of the stories, a certain Mr. Malthus.

Story of the Physician and the Saratoga Trunk
First published in London Magazine, 1878

While the previous story's best portion is its second third, the second story's strength is in its third. With somewhat comical tone we are introduced to Silas Q. Scuddamore, a moody American from Bangor, Maine, whose uncertain emotions deliver him into a conniving plot. Silas Scuddamore manages to get wrapped up in having to dispose of a corpse, and due to his sensitive nature, this makes for a strong sequence with a Saratoga trunk.

Interestingly, the title is not entirely accurate in the sense that the story is not about the physician and is clearly not his story. The trunk, however, and more accurately its contents, does play a large role. It should instead be titled "Story of the American and the Saratoga Trunk." Or "Story of the American Tourist and The Bohemian Corpse."

The Adventures of the Hansom Cab
First published in London Magazine, 1878

The final story's best portion is its beginning. In fact, the opening to "The Adventures of the Hansom Cab" is one of the better introductions to any story I have come across for some time. A man is picked up by a cab and brought over to a house where a party is being held. It appears the host has sent several cabs throughout London to find single gentlemen and deliver them to the house. Our curious and brave protagonist attends the party, and hiding behind some curtains (a classic trope), he watches as the host slowly sends guests away on the pretext that their invitation was a misunderstanding. The gentleman's involvement with the remainder of the plot begs the reader to wonder at the need for such a hyperbolic ruse, but the first portion of the story is so strong that we can forgive the rest when it begins to falter.

Since each story has a stronger third, it might be interesting to re-visit this work and create a version that begins with the Hansom Cab, continues with the Cream Tarts, and finished with the Saratoga Trunk. Of course there would be no resolution to the main plot, but even Stevenson rushed his own resolution via an odd decision. The final conflict, a dual between our Bohemian prince and the president of the Suicide Club, is presented away from the action, with two minor characters waiting to know who comes up victorious. Potentially tense, the scene lacks suspense as it is brief, not to mention that it is obvious which party will come out victorious, and which will fall at the blade of the sword.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The 4400: Terrible Swift Sword

Terrible Swift Sword (episode 3.11)
Directed by Scott Peters
Written by Ira Steven Behr, Bruce Miller & Craig Sweeny
Guest starring Brennan Elliott, Summer Glau, Jeffrey Combs, Sean Marquette
First aired 20 August 2006
Rating 7/10

Previous episode: The Gospel According to Collier
Next episode: Fifty-Fifty

"Terrible Swift Sword" continues to escalate the notion that Jordan Collier is Christ. In addition to his leadership role and the apostelic presence of such figures as Shawn Farrell, Kevin Burkhoff, Richard Tyler, Tess Doerner, Kyle Barldwin and so forth, each with his/her own specific individual role amid the collective pursuits of the 4400, is a nicely framed shot of our Jesus figure (see above). The ripples in the water form a distinct halo, and the moon/planet looming overhead separates him from the Earth, while in the surrounding skies we notice a heavenly glow. Finally, behind Collier are three plaques, one of them in the shape of a pyramid; three plaques and a pyramid point directly to the concept of a trinity. And I haven't even mentioned that Collier looks like a conventional Jesus figure. It is appropriate that someone who once donned expensive suits and ties, and who later wandered the country in the habits of a hobo, has now merged the two and settled into the style of a clean-cut bearded dude dressed in the comfy yet nonetheless stylish jumpsuit that is not defined by any particular class. In fact, he's dressed like a senior citizen, but one who can afford the better brands.

The episode's title is from Julia Ward Howe's 1861 "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," which links the American Civil War with the final biblical apocalypse. This title is an appropriate capsule for the episode, which deals with a global civil war that is the biblical apocalypse. The plot is launched on the premise that the NTAC night shift took a collective nap while the captured members of the Nova group walk out of their maximum security cells. The initial assumption is that the Nova group is being reassembled, but the viewer is given (and expects) that instead the release is part of Collier's great plan.

The re-introduction of impersonator Boyd Gelder is a welcome addition to the story-line, and there is a well rendered scene with a twist as we are witness to an unusual flirtatious moment between JC and the beautiful Devon (played by the beautiful Jody Thompson) transform into something entirely different.

It's this Devon/Gelder scene that plunges us into yet another interesting character switcheroo, yet one an a psychological level. Once a vehement anti-Collier forerunner, Richard Tyler's loyalties are slipping from recent confidant Shawn and toward Collier himself and his greater purpose. Conversely, Shawn was once Collier's right hand and has always looked up to and admired him. The recent alliance between Shawn and Richard against Richard's own daughter Isabelle was the better portion of an otherwise often irritating plot-line. This duo took shape conveniently during Collier's absence, and now the two men, both presented throughout the series as upholders of basic moral good, are on opposite ground, at either end of the ambiguously moral Collier spectrum. This character parade is among the better conceived and played out portions of the series.

With the growing tensions of the 4400 situation, the previously interesting Diane/April/Ben triangle is diminished due to its small scale nature. To quote the great American prophet Rick Blaine: "it doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world." In light of the escalating threats of Armageddon, April and her heartache become almost irritating. The story-line is conveniently halted, which I approve of since it needed to be ended prior to the season finale, and because it needed to be done quickly so it doesn't usurp more time from the more interesting developments.

Another plot point that comes to an end is that of Kyle Baldwin. Now out of prison for killing Collier he is again set aside, this time with the purpose to extend Collier's regime. I've always liked Kyle, and I sympathize with the notion of losing him a third time (as in a sidebar Tom is struggling with the thought of losing him again: first through a coma, then through prison, and now through recruitment). There is an efficient and important moment of forgiveness between JC and Kyle that essentially shuts the door on the latter character and if we do meet him in season four it will likely be incidental.

(Kyle has helped to prove how my counting of 4400 members is pointless. For one thing, he was always number 4401 as he was the intended target for the spot that Shawn took. Though Shawn was taken in his place and enhanced with healing powers, Kyle nonetheless managed to become enhanced as well, and has hence always been a member of the 4400. In addition to Kyle, we will soon realize the vastness of 4400 expansion.)

Another recently returned character proves her necessity as a plot progression device. The not always interesting Alana Mareva appears to have returned so that Tom can have someone to privately vent his frustrations with (so the audience can eavesdrop) and receive emotional support, and to cook penne arabiata (so she claims). Yet really she is here to help plot progression. We are presented with the fascinating mystery of how did the NTAC night staff fall into communal platonic sleep while the former Nova members walked out of their cells. Instead of having our officers investigate and figure it out, we have former 4400 Centre instructor pop up with how she had a student who was able to alter oxygen levels in the blood. Must've been him. Mystery solved let's move on toward the finale.

The episode has among the strongest finishes we've yet scene, and plot aside, there is a strong element of unity among the more interesting 4400 members, which is strengthened by Shawn's own return to the Collier school of thought. Also good set-up for the fourth season.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, January 1969

Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, Vol. 14, No. 1, Richard E. Decker, publisher, Ernest M. Hutter, editor, January 1969. 160 pages

AHMM January 1969 at Goodreads

Overall: 6/10

Other AHMM issues reviewed:
AHMM, July 1965
AHMM, April 1964

For more of this week's Friday's Forgotten Books, please visit Todd Mason's site.

(Note that I will be adding more photos shortly, or creating a separate post.)

The January 1969 issue of AHMM replaces the usual "Alfred Hitchcock" introduction with a colourful "Merry Christmas and Happy New Year." Moreover, the usual signature at the end of each story (at least when there's space to print it) is now encircled by a yuletide wreath. Moreover, inside is a full page subscription offer at the "Christmas Gift Rate" of $6.00 (which I can't place in proper context as I was not yet alive). I can, however, compare it to the current annual subscription rate of $34.97 USD (or $49.97 if, like me, you live in a foreign land). That is quite the Chritmas Gift Rate, and I'm tempted to fill it out and send it in to see the response, but I wouldn't want to damage the (browning) issue and certainly not that page add printed all in (of course) green.

Overall the issue is quite good with only one flop (Edwin P. Hicks's "Chaviski's Christmas"), and while there are no spectacular stories, there are some good ones. My favourite is Jack Ritchie's "Dropout" (though I tend to be partial to his shorts), but I also like those by Richard Deming, Miel Tanburn and the issue's novelette by Ed Lacy. What highlights this issue is the variety: two quick shorts with surprise endings, some private investigators, criminal protagonists, some humour, a serial killer and even a UFO.

"A Born Killer" by Max Van Derveer. 5/10

Peter Holiday is a born killer, literally, despite a strong affinity to dogs and children. He discovered this killing ability while a soldier in Vietnam, yet now that he is back on peaceful U.S. soil, in his multi-million-dollar estate, his need to kill hasn't evaporated, and he is overwhelmed with boredom and restlessness. Fellow soldier Larry Pole locates Holiday at home, telling him he had always been aware of his need to kill, and convinces Holiday to kill a man Pole claims to have abused his daughter. Holiday agrees, and things proceed with less direction than one would expect. With the somewhat lame ending I was left wondering why there were so many plot elements. It's not a bad story, especially with a plot progression not at all predictable, but for a slightly longer story that was so involved in its character, it needed better direction and a better finish; what we get is almost a punchline, and not a satisfying one.

Van Derveer's story "The Kidnappers," from AHMM July 1965, is better, and is reviewed here.

"Holiday" by Hal Ellson. 5/10

This story's title is also the name of the protagonist in the previous story. (The next story, however, is not titled Peters.) Roger Peters is on holiday seeking some prescribed rest, but instead wallows in an incredibly hot climate where the men are many and predatory. At the resort he encounters the beautiful and seemingly elusive Miss Boyd, who quickly traps him into taking her to a dance club. Eventually, while dancing with one of her many pursuers, she disappears, and Roger feels responsible for her well being. A short story that takes too long in getting anywhere, and ends in a kind of joke. Some interesting sentence work to keep the attention, but lacking in most areas.

"Chaviski's Christmas" by Edwin P. Hicks. 4/10

Retired former chief of detectives Joe Chaviski shows up at the station on Christmas Eve hoping to replace an officer as a means to end the boredom of his lonely life. Given the chance he soon ends up involved in a minor case of stolen presents, which escalates into something far greater. I suppose we need a holiday story, especially after the first two involved a sunny locale and a psycho killer. "Chaviski's Christmas" is too obvious both in plot and intention, and the humour does not work. I suppose using props as dated as explosive cigars doesn't help, but neither do the saccharin elements.

"Dropout" by Jack Ritchie. 7/10

A small town sheriff drags an out-of-town lawyer to help in recording the confession of a safe-cracker the police have just caught. The authorities are concerned that if they don't take care of the thief's rights and act by the book, his case will be rejected by the court. Jack Ritchie is among the most reliable of mystery short story authors of the 1960s and 70s, and this story does not disappoint. Though written with humourous intentions, there is nonetheless more to the story than at first expected.

Interestingly, this story is similar to Talmage Powell's "The Privileges of Crime" which appeared in AHMM March 1967 (and included in the anthology Alfred Hitchcock's Tales to Be Read with Caution, which I review here). Evidently the human rights movement affected all facets of society, and left behind are satirical pieces of pulp fiction toying with notions of the rights of obvious criminals. I'm certainly no expert in the history of criminal law in the US, so perhaps there is more to this trend than awareness of civil rights, such as the historical case of Miranda v. Arizona of 1966.

Others by Jatck Ritchie include "That Russian!" and "Silence is Gold."

"The Guide's Story" by Dion Henderson. 5/10

Snowed out on the first big day of hunting season, men gather in a local eatery and discuss the bank robbery that morning while state police investig
ate. Expert guide and wisecracker Joe Grignon has his own theory as to how the robbery might have been done. Amusing story with some humour that works, though the mystery is not so mysterious and the suspense is lacking. There is discussion on the possibilities of crimes committed on hunting day, from stray bullets to pre-sold deer carcasses, yet this story focuses instead on a bank robbery. Of course the crime is tied to the bustling day of hunting and the stalling affects of a snow day, but the story is more telling of its character than of its crime. Grignon is the focus, his expert guide skills, knowledge of the area and its people, and his humour that essentially elevates him above the townsfolk, the visiting hunter tourists and the state police.

"The Man in the Chair" by Clayton Matthews. 6/10

A small town is visited by a shady city character who settles at the barber shop for information, and soon begins to extort the local shop owners for protection money. But when he tries to take the barber's son under his wing, tensions begin to brew. Another straightforward story focusing on character, as the townsfolk outweigh the plot. This one is narrated by Jed's companion who is conveniently present at the important moments (he does hang out at the barbershop after all), and who has a special understanding of what is transpiring. There is a minor twist at the end, but it is more of a semi-twist and does not interfere or alter the plot progression, though it does elevate a certain point, and helps to assure us that the victor in the battle of character is truly victorious.

"Compromised Confessional" by Margaret E. Brown. 5/10

Two men attempt to extort the members of St. Jerome's church via the church confessional. Lt. Kelly and partner Peter Swenson investigate. An interesting idea not too well delivered as the shift from criminals to police is unnecessary, and the story could have been presented solely through the police point of view. (Alternately, the story could also have been presented solely through the criminal point of view, but would not have been as interesting with the actual outcome.) Author Brown most likely wanted to

"Night Strike" by Miel Tanburn. 6/10

A very short story in which one older man convinces another to commit a random act of murder. Retired loner first-person narrator visits the library to read about history's greats, and on one of those visits he meets Meltzer, a man who gains the sense of power through murder. He claims to have killed several people, all strangers with no connection to him, and each time careful not to leave clued. Wanting also to gain some sense of power, Our protagonist is curious to attempt the deed. Appropriately short and energetic, the story has a nice little twist. It's brevity and speed is what makes the little twist work.

"Money Tree" by Jamie Sandaval. 5/10

Confident and intimidating Taps Enderman arrives at the Carstairs Manufacturing Company one afternoon and forces a manager to write him a cheque out to cash.

I was left unaffected by the twist ending, though the progression was quite good. Unfortunately the dated language, occasionally awkward dialogue and sexism (despite it being a part of the dis-likable Taps) weaken the short piece.

"Highly Recommended" by Michael Brett. 6/10

Aging mobster Harry Grant visits hitman extraordinaire Darbash with a proposal to do away with an arrogant fellow mobster. Though Darbash's fees are incredibly high, his skill and ability to take down targets without awakening suspicion toward the victim are enough for Grant and others to continue hiring him. A good little piece that implicates the entire crime scene in a never-ending loop of distrust and extermination.

"Favor" by Stephen Wasylyk. 5/10

Lawyer John Stoneman receives a reliable tip that a former air force buddy who runs a small airfield is being targeted. Since the old buddy saved his life during the war, he feels compelled to help, and his investigation brings him to a much wanted criminal. Not a bad concept with the way it wraps up, but too conveniently plotted.

"A Name in the Phone Book" by Erlene Hubly. 6/10

In good fun shortly before the holidays, a young couple pull a prank by sending Ferd Lumpp, the funniest name in the phone book, a Christmas greeting with the note, "Remember Miami?" Little do they know that this seemingly nonsensical question means quite a bit to Ferd, who is determined to seek out the pair of strangers.

What we expect will happen does happen, yet the story, devoid of any twist, works well in its structure and doesn't require a twist. If we expect one we will be disappointed, but I can't imagine anyone expecting something other than what we're given. The tragedy and sense of absurdity are present and welcome in a way we don't often encounter in such brief tales. The lives of the young couple, Jonathan in Law school and Patricia at home waiting to be married, contrast well with Ferd's mid-life isolation. Though we know little of Ferd's personality, we do manage to sympathize, and this is the result of the author's great decision to have Patricia feel guilty for their prank, and her small tokens of friendliness toward the friendless Ferd, who will never know of her kind gestures. A good, solid read which manages, in its ten pages, to create some interesting characters.

"The Skim" by Richard Deming. 6/10

With this entry, Richard Deming plunges us into the back-story and plot so clearly and succinctly that he shows talent in the short form suspense story. Eddie Adamski works for brother-in-law Long Jake Attila selling numbers for an illegal lottery. While boss Attila is a cheapskate, wife Nancy spends more than he earns, and the stress of life with these two is sending Eddie over the edge. Until he and lover hazel plot to skim from the daily earnings Eddie brings back to Attila. A difficult task since Attila is so tight with money and so distrustful of everyone that his system is tight, with daily checks and thorough quarterly audits. Eddie nonetheless develops a skimming plan that will allow him and Hazel to flee with thousands just before the next quarterly.

A good story but a little too well plotted in the sense that the outcome is expected and even convenient. Things tie together too neatly yet that is also indicative of Demming's ability to weave together such a tightly contained little mystery. He was certainly one of the better and consistent regular contributors to AHMM at the time. There is a nice little touch in a minor detail, [spoiler alert] in that despite Eddie's horrible (deserved?) doom, he manages to ensure Hazel's safety, which elevates his character.

"Problem of Christmas" by Al Nussbaum. 6/10

A very short story with a twist. Travelling generator salesman George Dell is heading home to Chicago to his wife for Christmas ahead on an incoming storm. Once a wild and conniving womanizer salesman, through a colleague he discovered sincerity that led to better sales and a wife. The little twist is not the most original, though not expected (at least not by me), though as I've mentioned of other stories, this one's brevity (three pages) and quickness doesn't allow the reader to stop and consider the details. Quick and fun but certainly nothing earth-shattering.

"A Singular Quarry" by Ed Lacy. 6/10

Detective William Ash is hired to investigate the death of a man who has just made a fortune by selling the rarest of unflawed diamonds. His widow is convinced the death was murder, that her husband discovered the diamonds in a nearby quarry, and that there were aliens involved. Not the illegal aliens from across state lines, but those extraterrestrials from across space lines. An interesting minor science fiction mystery, highly enjoyable. Lacy is not troubled with mixing elements of sci-fi and detective mystery, which is great, though while I enjoy the mixing of genres, and I did genuinely enjoy this story, I'm not sure it was entirely necessary.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

William Hardy, Lady Killer (1956)

Hardy, William, Lady Killer, NY: Dodd, Mead & Company; London: Hamish Hamilton, 1957
______, Lady Killer, Dell [299], November 1958 (my edition, pictured)
______, Lady Killer, Penguin, 1961

Lady Killer at Goodreads
Lady Killer at IBList

Rating: 5/10

For more Friday's Forgotten Books, please visit Patti Abbott's blog.

The 22 November 1957 edition of The Spectator blurbs that Lady Killer is a "readable" crime novel featuring "yet another mild-mannered man" in a work that adds "little to what Mr. Iles did, once and for all, in Malice Aforethought." I'm not familiar with Francis Iles's novel, though it appears to hold up well, while William Hardy's Lady Killer seems to have been immortalized in lukewarm a Spectator review blurb. In fact, I had to manually add the novel to Goodreads where it did not yet exist, though a small number of little-read Hardy works do (intermingling, incidentally, with other books written by other William Hardies).

In Lady Killer, mild-mannered Earl Borstleman decides, on his fortieth birthday to kill his wife. As a mathematician he feels he can, via the supreme logic afforded by his intellect, produce a perfect crime. With some pondering, both patient and impatient, he settles on a plan to confuse the crime amid others, to essentially kill five unrelated women in his college town, and insert wife into victim slot number three. Conveniently, a bright student, a recent returnee from the Korean War, would fit in nicely to take the fall for the crimes, and Prof. Borstleman could live happily in his little OCD world.

The flaws in the novel are numerous, yet as the reviewer of The Spectator pointed out over half a century ago, it is readable. Quick, somewhat enjoyable, somewhat interesting. Utterly flawed.

"It was a beautiful day, and the fear and ugliness back there had nothing to do with her or with Bob or with the world they lived in." (49) Korean War vet Bob Adams is haunted by his experiences in battle and harbours much anger toward the world. Evidently he witnessed the killing of a superior standing beside him, and is having difficulty coping. (Though he performs well in class and manages to date a pretty young classmate.) Unfortunately for him ugliness exists even in a small American college town (and this could have been a nice sidelong theme throughout the work), as he is soon to become the prime suspect in a series of killings. With the avowed logician Borstleman acting less than logical, you'd think Bob would have little to worry about, but author Hardy weaves the plot in such a way that the ugliness of this world is one made up of coincidence.

The problem with Borstleman's logic is plentiful. Though it is understood eventually that the killing is driving him loopy, his careful planning of the first murder is less than careful. He tells himself he mustn't do anything out of the ordinary, yet the night of the murder he invites two students to his home for coffee, which he hasn't done in many years. He tells himself to select five unrelated women to be his victims, and then chooses the department's secretary Emily Joyner as victim number one; though perhaps Joyner hasn't actually met Sarah Borstleman, the two are immediately linked to Earl himself. He tells himself to space out the murders, to commit one a month, and then kills landlady Nancy Miller a mere two weeks following the killing of Joyner, and then is impatient to do away with wife Sarah.

The greatest flaw, however, is believing that a man as obsessive compulsive, as neat and clean, as orderly as Borstleman would ever marry a woman such as Sarah. She smokes, is untidy, wears appalling house dresses, and overall grates on Earl for countless reasons. This topic is never approached.

And yet the novel does manage to be readable and somewhat enjoyable. The locale is well constructed and the scenes are quite visual. There is even some suspense in various parts. The novel begins well enough as we follow Borstleman planning and committing the first murder. Then the point of view shifts from a limited third person to complete omniscience, which is jarring just as we were made comfortable in Borstelman's skin. Moreover, with the shifts in point of view we experience shifts in tone, and Hardy includes some humour with the bumbling local police, which does not work one bit.

Readable, but there are enough readable works out there that I would not recommend it, and allow Lady Killer to live in two obscure reviews: The Spectator and at Casual Debris.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

The 4400: The Gospel According to Collier

The Gospel According to Collier (episode 3.10)
Directed by Frederick E.O. Toye (Fred Toye)
Written by Ian Steven Behr & Craig Sweeny, story by Adam Levy
Guest starring Brennan Elliott, Tom McBeath
First aired 13 August 2006
Rating 5/10

Previous episode: The Starzl Mutation
Next episode: Terrible Swift Sword

The much anticipated return of Jordan Collier is highlighted by a lackluster episode. The previous entry ended with the exciting appearance of Collier at the dreaded Isabelle/Shawn nuptials, only to be followed up with standard fare. The episode plays out as though it was laid out on a belt line and moved along mechanically, picking up the requisite plot points along the way.

One problem is that the episode crams encyclopedic forty-four hundred mythos elements into forty-four minutes, important elements that could have better suited two episodes, or to have been initially developed over earlier episodes. Or over forty-four hundred minutes. Collier is here firmly established as a prophet helping to bring about Armageddon.

I've previously discussed Collier's association with Jesus Christ, as alluded to by his name. His connection to biblical prophets is distinctly clear via this episode's title, "The Gospel According to Collier," and the journey laid out for Collier. According to Matthew's gospel (and incidentally we'll recall that Isabelle killed Collier's Matthew), Christ spent forty nights in the wilderness, and we learn that Collier's death sent him on a journey throughout the urban U.S. wilderness spewing his prophesies and gaining loyal followers. His congregation was made up of the homeless and destitute, yet they believed so much in the man that they called him "The Prophet," and artists painted massive murals of the man all across the country. Rather than cramming all these details alongside his actual return and the ensuing ripple effect, his appearances could have at least been alluded to earlier so that the episode needn't devote so much time to this line of investigation, and focus more on the effects of his return. I understand a summer show with only thirteen episodes is limited in content compared to year-long shows, but we really didn't need the episode "Graduation Day."

A problem with the wandering prophet account is that the vast likenesses of a man as renowned as Collier would no doubt have come to the attention of NTAC of the 4400 Centre. Regardless that his following was restricted to the destitute, the frequently ignored, all those paintings of him all across the country and stored on an online database should have alerted either national security or the talents of the 4400.

Now he has returned to the 4400 Centre, and soon to visit his killer Kyle Baldwin in prison in an attempt to know who he is. The logic here is unfortunately lacking. He does not recall who he is and yet appears at Isabelle and Shawn's wedding calling out to Shawn Farrell. While it is possible he came across a link between himself and Shawn, the way he seemed to stumble upon an old news article linking himself to Kyle, why does he flee as soon as he calls out to Shawn if he visits the centre to discover his identity, or confirm it is JC? I place particular emphasis on the confirming JC detail since he must suspect he is Jordan Collier as he hides out in one of Collier's own empty houses (an important plot detail to bring NTAC to his nutty vision-filled journal). Moreover, why does he not simply wait for the sought-after confirmation from Shawn and instead make his way to prison for an interview with Kyle? When there, since he has already linked himself back to his life as Jordan Collier, living in his house and crashing the wedding of the century at his own centre, why would he ask an unknowing guard when Kyle yells out his name, "Is that who I am?" And would prison security allow a man who looks such as mess as Collier does into the government facility to chat with a convicted assassin?

Yet it is the ease along which everything transpires that leads me to the word lackluster, as in lacking in vitality (not in brightness). Rather than surging forth with tension and anticipation, everything pieces itself together so easily and so conveniently you'd think NTAC was trapped in an episode of Scooby Doo, Where Are You? Tom manages to get Alana back as her help is invaluable (so we're led to believe, though her involvement is kind of neat), and Kyle is released from prison seemingly overnight, though he committed crimes other than murder, such as bearing illegal firearms, discharging them in public, and intent to kill. Even Isabelle forgives Shawn so simply when he flees their wedding, though it was the only purpose she seemed to have aside from producing promicen for Ryland.

And finally, to cap off the lack of luster, Isabelle apologizes to Collier for her involvement in his death, and he tells her no one wants her so she should leave, and she leaves. (Had I known that was all it took to get rid of her, I would have told her to go when she was still a baby.)

Though Alana has returned, seemingly for good, while appearing to have left the more interesting Gary Navaro behind, Kyle's return is welcome, as he was among my favourite characters in the show's initial season; hopefully he will be well utilized and not just tossed aside with an occasional cameo.

Another returned 4400 character, though she never left but has lately been unfortunately under-utilized, is Maia. With the re-appearance of Diana's sister April comes sensitive yet studly photographer Ben Saunders (finely played by Albertan Brennan Elliott). Surprisingly, Diana has a love interest, and more surprisingly, it is the more interestingly developed plot of the episode. April re-appears unexpectedly with Ben, and Maia dutifully informs her mother that she will be marrying her sister's boyfriend. Things develop nicely, with affection quickly growing between the two, and as expected the two hook up, and Diana hides their developing relationship as April cries heartbroken in her apartment. The story-line works as the chemistry between the two actors is solid, and Jacqueline McKenzie as Diana plays the falling in love part quite nicely.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

The 4400: The Starzl Mutation

The Starzl Mutation (episode 3.9)
Directed by Allison Liddi-Brown
Written by Amy Berg and Craig Sweeny
Guest starring Brian George,
First aired 6 August 2006
Rating 7/10

Previous episode: The Ballad of Kevin and Tess
Next episode: The Gospel According to Collier

When a male hustler is lured to his death, FBI agents Mulder and Scully are brought in to investigate. Confused at being called in for a random homicide, they are soon struck by the state of the corpse: this is definitely a case for The X-Files.

No wait. I made a slight error. Please allow me a re-take.

When a male hustler is lured to his death, NTAC agents Baldwin and Skouris are brought in to investigate. Confused at being called in for a random homicide, they are soon struck by the state of the corpse: this is definitely a case related to The 4400.

As season three of The 4400 progresses, we find ourselves firmly embedded in X-Files formulae. The opening of episode nine is mysterious as well as creepy, featuring some nice make-up effects. The victim seems to have decomposed overnight. It turns out [spoilers galore] after two more corpses are discovered, that someone is targeting the innocent carriers of the Starzl Mutation. This mutation is extremely rare, isolated to Seattle when it formed as the result of a flawed radiation machine that affected a number of patients at a Seattle hospital, who in turn passed it down to their offspring. The mutation was named after the company that manufactured the radiation machine.

Moreover, we learn that Ryland's new company is developing a branch of military with 4400 abilities via the promicen harvested from Isabelle. The soldier targetting the Starzl victims is hoping to eliminate them since it is believed that if someone with the mutation were to copulate with a 4400 and produce offspring, those children would be, in every instance, promicen-positive. This is a neat way of tying the 4400 to Seattle and to the importance of 2004, when the mutation is in its second generation.

The creating of abilities, however, pretty much ruins my attempt to keep track of the number of remaining 4400s, since they can be produced quite efficiently. Hitman Darren adds one, though his death then removes one. I suppose I can continue with the original members alone, though I'd also continue to include Dr. Burkhoff and Isabelle in the total, since they are more "natural" 4400s.

Along with all this drama the agents are getting closer to discovering that Isabelle is working with Ryland, and he even gives Tom a nice little clue: "Enjoy your nephew's wedding."

The story-line does have a major flaw. What leads our agents to discovering that there is something fishy about the death of Lieutenant Darren Piersahl is fishy itself. The soldier's father tells them that Darren was killed in a helicopter crash that killed six, yet the helicopter that was shot down could only hold a maximum of four. I believe that with so much being invested in such a major secret government plot, the players would have concocted a better story.

The secondary story-line featured is the escalation of the Isabelle threat, and in this episode it's well presented as we examine her union with Shawn from a different angle, removing Isabelle's bratty behaviour in the process. Thanks to the talents of 4400 member Claudio Borghi, who has laced a cigar with his unique ability to allow others to see the future, or at least a possible future, Shawn catches a glimpse of the world if he marries Isabelle, and this short vision transforms him to a daemon-looking Shawn as he strangles father-in-law Richard Tyler to death. (Why Richard doesn't telekinetically toss an object at Shawn is not explained--he cannot toss Shawn as we're informed in the previous episode that his ability only works on inorganic objects.) Yet when he attempts to walk away from the marriage, the future envisioned is one of apocalyptic chaos, and in the previewed moment, he fails to save the life uncle Tommy Baldwin. He confides these visions to Richard, and the two men continue to be deadlocked in their dealings with daughter-fiancee.

Yet a wrench is thrown in with the wonderful final moment: the return of Jordan Collier! I've been waiting for the moment of JC's return, and the show does well in bringing him in at such a fundamental moment. How does his re-appearance help shape the seemingly inescapable bleak future visions? Unfortunately we won't know since, conveniently, Shawn has finished the cigar. I'm certain a call to Borghi would produce another, but I'm also the series won't consider that fact as it might just end the built-up suspense.

"Do you know who I am?"
As in the previous episode, there is a nice Marco moment when he asks Diane about Maia, who responds that she asks about him a lot. A few seconds delivers good character consistency and series continuity.

Borghi is played by familiar character actor Brian George, who is perhaps best recognized as the restaurateur Baby Bhatt in Seinfeld, but also plays Dr. Koothrappali, Raj's father, in Bing Bang Theory, Dr, Bashir's father in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, another doctor in The X-Files, and numerous other projects since the mid-1980s. He's also done a good deal of voice acting, from various DC Comics and diverse video game projects, to Bob Fish in the highly entertaining Bob and Margaret.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The 4400: The Ballad of Kevin and Tess

The 4400: The Ballad of Kevin and Tess (Episode 3.8)
Directed by Scott Peters
Written by Ira Steven Behr and Craig Sweeny
Guest starring Summer Glau, Jeffrey Combs, Neil Hopkins
First aired 30 July 2006
Rating: 8/10

Previous episode: Blink
Next episode: The Starzl Mutation

"My mind is not compromised."

A lengthy abstinence from The 4400 has led me to re-read my latest episode reviews in order to remember what was going on. Surprisingly only a few smaller details had slipped my mind, and impatiently I passed over much of my text (but I did look at the pictures). What surprised me most was that I was actually keeping track of the 4400 numbers, and at last count we were at 4,363 after learning in episode 3.6 that Gary Navarro had killed eight.

So far this third season we had a strong beginning followed by a couple of weak episodes which were highlighted by the welcome exile of human holodeck Alana. I am still most interested in nutty professor Kevin Burkhoff and his promicen experiments, and least interested in Isabelle's bratty whining. In this episode we get more of the former and thankfully very little of the latter.

The Re-animator returns in full misshapen form as the series decides to focus on its more interesting characters. The opening sequence once again recalls X-Files formula, as Burkhoff is kidnapped by shady government types, men in black, and mercilessly shot to death. Of course we'll recall that his fabricated promicen ability is instant healing (though according to him it doesn't always work), so we aren't surprised that his corpse disappears from the back of they shady van. Later we see the bullet holes healing quickly on their own, which presents a problem: the bullets are still inside him. You would think that being shot at such close range would cause the slugs to travel right through the good doctor's body, but there was no evidence whatsoever of this. So perhaps his body simply consumed the bullets altogether.

Along with the return of Kevin B, we are treated with the return of Tess Doerner, the schizophrenic girl from episode "Wake-Up Call" (2.1). There is genuine affection between this two and its nice to see them reunited. However, they shed their innocence from their time at the psychiatric ward and become a powerful pair of renegades, which is a great transformation. The two are experimenting on Diana Skouris, convinced that it is for the betterment of humanity, yet this is glossed over since we never learn by Burkhoff is so convinced of his research (whatever that is) to believe Diana would be among humanity's saviours. Whether brilliant and foresighted or downright mad, I found myself rooting for the pair. Overshadowed by their goals is the union of their abilities. The idea that a brilliant-minded man is nearly invincible with his Wolverine self-healing powers is travelling renegade with a woman with unbelievable hypnotic abilities is a threat of its own. The show did well in revealing Tess's ability by not telling us straight out as it normally does ("my power is..."; "John is a returnee who has the ability to..."), but by simply letting the story unfold and allowing us to catch on as we watch. Still we can wonder at the extent or limitations of her hypnotic ability. This achievement is one of the episode's strength. Believable also in that the unique beauty of Summer Glau is hypnotic on its own.

It's great that such a powerful pairing is kept distant from both the good guys and the bad. Schizophrenics cannot function within the boundaries of constructed society, so it's also appropriate that they are on the lam, Bruce Banner style.

An interesting side-note to Diana's unwilling inclusion in Burkhoff's promicen-injecting experiments is that Maia present Diana with a drawing of her as a monster that visited her in her dreams. It's not just a clue to Burkhoff injecting her with promicen, one of many until the reveal, but also innately suggests that Maia believes members of the 4400 are monsters, and by extension that she herself is a monster. I doubt this was intentional but it is nonetheless there, and would have been an interesting angle to explore, yet I don't believe the show was interested in this idea. At least not at this point.

And in another corner of the 4400 universe... Richard's telekinesis is finally being explored, and it is undoubtedly clear that his special ability was not just his sperm. The neatest moment in this thread is the shot of Richard graduating his target practice from crumpled pieces of paper to kitchen knives, and that moment when a knife is thrown to reveal a photo of Isabelle, followed by a concerned look from daddy Richard. Is this a challenge? A consideration that he might need to end Isabelle's life? The notion that morally straight father Richard Tyler is the one who must take down daemon daughter Isabelle is a great detail, and hopefully we'll be taken down this path. With a romance potentially brewing between Richard and confidante Heather Toby, perhaps she and her ability will play a role in this hoped-for sequence.

Isabelle in the meanwhile is becoming increasingly annoying, though thankfully her presence in this episode is brief and well handled. Yet here too it is with Richard that our sympathies lie, and his response, verbal and gestures, are indicative of the talent of Mr. Mahershala Ali.

The episode's final sequence unites Isabelle with the shady X-Files characters, and ends with a distinct imitation of an X-Files moment: the reveal of a high security freezer stories a multitude of vials of promicen, all sucked out of Isabelle.

Maybe they sent you back to keep me alive so I can...
finish me album
There is a minor and unnecessary though nonetheless interesting thread involving Shawn and famous bad boy rocker Nick Crowley (quite well played by Neil Hopkins). The scene involves a drugged-out rock star that fanboy Shawn inadvertently saves, and who expects him and his healing hands to be around every time he overdoses. The final moment and Crowley's angry disappointment are a great character-revealing finish. Perhaps the story-line was needed to keep Shawn in the episode, or perhaps simply as filler. I do like the contrast between a story of a man needing a healer to constantly save him from peril, and the story of Dr. Burkhoff who requires no external hands as he is an instant self-healer. Possibly the intention of this side narrative is to illustrate how truly powerful Burkhoff now is; a greater asset in some respects as Shawn, due to the implication that while Shawn is vulnerable, especially with his ties to Isabelle, while Burkhoff is potentially immortal.

Finally, to cap off this lengthy article, there is a nice moment between Diana and Marco. We haven't yet seen them together since Diana broke off their relationship, and the moment they first do make contact, at Dr. Burkhoff's apartment, the awkward moment and Marco's "Hi" are all a nice testament to continuity. Marco's ongoing concern for Diana is appropriate and accurate to both the situation and the character.

Among the many episodes co-scripted by Ira Steven Behr and Craig Sweeny, "The Ballad of Kevin and Tess" is directed by The 4400 co-creator Scott Peters.

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