Sunday, October 28, 2007

X-Axis comments thread - 28 October 2007

This week, Cable & Deadpool guest stars the Fantastic Four; X-Men leads into the crossover; X-Men: First Class spends a whole issue fighting the Hulk; and Foolkiller makes an apparently intentional bid to be the most unpleasant mainstream comic of the year.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Cyber Sunday 2007

Of all the WWE's pay per views, Cyber Sunday has a strong claim to the worst name of them all. Wrestlemania is corny, but hey, it was the eighties. Cyber Sunday is only in its second year, and still sounds like it was coined over a decade ago. But that's what this show is all about - extremely rudimentary "interactivity."

What this means, in practice, is that there's a three-way vote for each match, and whatever the fans opt for, they get. Incidentally, this is a free vote on the company website, not a premium rate phoneline job, so at least they can't be accused of milking the fans on that element of it.

Obviously this is a risky strategy for a scripted show. It makes it hard to plan. You might assume that, being a wrestling promotion, they would just do the sensible thing and ignore the results. But, surprisingly, that's apparently not the policy. I have serious doubts about at least one of the results from last year, but the credible wrestling journalists insist that the company does indeed run with the real votes, and that unwanted matches have aired at least twice in the past. There have also been some matches that, if not exactly unwanted, seemed a touch underprepared.

Instead of rigging the vote, the WWE's strategy is to write weekly TV that blatantly steers people towards the right answer, or to make sure the options simply don't matter. This year, they also opened the voting several weeks ago for the major matches, which theoretically should give them plenty of warning of any upsets. Still, you never know.

1. World Heavyweight Title: Batista v. The Undertaker. This is the Smackdown title, which Batista won last month. Batista and the Undertaker had an extended feud over the belt earlier this year, so I can't imagine the WWE wants to do it all over again. That storyline ended with Undertaker winning the title at Wrestlemania. The plan was for a lengthy reign, but Undertaker injured himself legitimately and dropped the belt to Edge only a month later so that he could spend a few months recovering.

So the plan might be to get the belt back on Undertaker and return to the originally scheduled story. On the other hand, Edge is due back soon as well, and they might decide they want to go back to his title reign, which was also cut short by injury. (This belt is cursed. Even the WWE has acknowledged it, pointing out that virtually every champion from the last two years has either suffered a major injury or left the company.) Still, this is clearly a match that they felt they had to do, and couldn't leave up to the vote. They've also tried, in the past, to provide at least one title change on this show to push the idea that your votes count. I suspect Undertaker wins in an above-average match.

The vote is to determine which retired wrestler you want as referee - JBL, Mick Foley or Steve Austin. They're obviously assuming it'll be Austin, even though he hasn't appeared on the show to promote the angle at all. Then again, nor has Foley - the entire promotion for this aspect has consisted of JBL, now a commentator, campaigning for your votes. As he's a heel, he won't win.

2. WWE Championship: Randy Orton v. ???. The Raw title. You might recall that the last PPV was thrown into chaos by a last-minute injury to John Cena, who had been champion for over a year. The show turned out to feature some frenzied and chaotic booking, as Cena's scheduled opponent Randy Orton was awarded the title, lost it to Triple H, and won it back again all in the same night. (Triple H also found time to defend the title successfully against Umaga in the middle of the show for good measure.)

With that burst of insanity out of the way, it's back to business as usual, and we can be relatively confident that Orton will be not be losing the title in his first defence. So, you get to vote on who he beats!

The options are Shawn Michaels, Jeff Hardy and Mr Kennedy. Kennedy is a bad guy, so he obviously isn't winning a vote against two beloved babyfaces, and we need say no more about him. Shawn Michaels is obviously the expected winner. He's a former world champion, he's very good, and he has a legitimate reason to fight Orton - in storyline, Orton was responsible for the injury that put Michaels on the shelf for the last few months. Michaels has also reportedly returned to wrestling rather more quickly than his doctors might have recommended, but his matches over the last couple of weeks looked fine.

There is an outside possibility that Jeff Hardy might get it, though. Hardy is the Intercontinental Champion, a title that doesn't generally mean very much at all. But he's been around for years, and the fans adore him. He's never had a shot at the world title, he's never main evented a PPV, and there's a definite possibility that fans might figure this is their chance to send a message. After all, they must realise that if they don't vote for Shawn Michaels, they'll still get the match in a month or two anyway. If they don't vote for Jeff Hardy tomorrow, chances are they won't see it at all. Jeff was being pushed surprisingly hard on Monday night, which makes me wonder whether the early voting was closer than you'd expect.

Orton/Hardy would be a good match, as would Orton/Michaels. Orton/Kennedy would be a bizarre heel/heel mismatch, but it won't happen anyway. The champ retains on any view, and it should be good.

3. ECW World Title: CM Punk v. ???. One of the less predictable votes of the night, because CM Punk is a babyface champion, and so this is a vote between three heels - obese monster Big Daddy V, sixties throwback John Morrison, and (intentionally) irritating reality-show cast-off Mike Mizanin. The fact that a midcarder like Mizanin is even in this vote shows how thin the ECW roster is - a point that they're trying to address by bringing up more wrestlers from development, and unofficially merging ECW and Smackdown with a supposed "talent exchange deal". This was basically a bone thrown to the Sci-Fi Channel to encourage them to renew the ECW weekly show for another year.

It's hard to predict how the fans will vote, given three options, all of whom they're supposed to hate. Big Daddy V is clearly supposed to be the most dominant one, but why would you vote for him? His matches are uniformly awful, and if you're just going by the storyline, wouldn't you support the babyface champion by voting for the weakest challenger, Miz?

The sensible option is to vote for Morrison, which should at least guarantee a decent match. As the writers seem to be decidedly inconsistent about pushing CM Punk, even though he's the champion, I wouldn't be entirely shocked to see either Morrison or Big Daddy V win the title if they get voted in. Miz... well, he's the Miz, and there's no way his running feud with lifetime midcarder Balls Mahoney is suddenly going to turn into a title match. There's a place for somebody like Miz, who's charismatically irritating and can wrestle acceptably, but he's not a headline act.

Most likely, though, CM Punk wins against any of the challengers. If they were that bothered about a title change, they wouldn't be putting it up to a vote. If he fights Morrison, it'll be good. If he fights V, which I suspect is more likely, it'll be atrocious.

4. Triple H v. Umaga. In an act of monumental folly, Triple H pinned Umaga clean at the last PPV in a midcard-style match, thus badly eroding Umaga's unstoppable image. They've been trying to rebuild it over the last month, but, meh. I couldn't care less about this one, to be honest. I'm sure it'll be a fine match technically, but what's the point when the hero already won decisively last month?

The vote, for what it's worth, is between a cage match, a first blood match and a street fight. Two of those, you'll note, allow the match to end without a pinfall, so clearly somebody's figured out that they can't have Umaga lose convincingly two months running, and they're hoping for a back door to avoid Triple H getting pinned either. Ah, politics.

Triple H will win, probably clean, in the most face-saving way they can devise. If you vote for a street fight, though, he'll just pin Umaga clean.

5. Rey Mysterio v. Finlay. This largely random feud rambles into a second month, after a baffling match last month which I'm not even going to try to explain, largely because I'm not entirely convinced any of the writers understood it either. Once again it's a "pick the stipulation" vote - no DQ, stretcher match or (honest) "shillelagh on a pole." I suspect the fans will go for the no-frills no-DQ option, which actually guarantees the best match.

They had a good match last month until the insane finish kicked in, and they're both very reliable wrestlers. This should be good. Rey probably wins - he's the good guy, he got beaten up badly last month, and the story isn't working well enough to justify another rematch.

6. Matt Hardy v MVP. One of Smackdown's more successful storylines. Matt and MVP are the odd couple tag team champions. The idea is that Matt (the hero) and MVP (his rival) are stuck with one another after winning the tag titles, and they're actually turning into a semi-workable team. For once, this has been quite well written. Even though the duo hate each other, they still want to hold onto the tag titles, and so they're actually trying to work together. But Matt still wants to win MVP's United States Title, and MVP is hoping that if he buddies up for long enough, Matt will lose interest and focus on the team instead.

This works because Matt and MVP are reasonably well-defined characters and it's just about plausible that, as written, they could put aside their differences to try and hold onto their titles. MVP isn't a psychotic killer, he's just a bit of a dick, so he's the sort of bad guy that Matt Hardy can at least try to work with.

But the United States Title is not on the line in this match - in fact, it hasn't been defended on television since July, as near as I can make out. Instead, we have the weirdest vote of the night. Do you want a wrestling match, a boxing match, or a mixed martial arts match?

On his own website, Matt Hardy is apparently begging people to vote for a wrestling match. He has a point. Worked boxing matches are invariably terrible. Worked MMA matches just confuse the audience. Most wrestling fans don't know enough about MMA to understand when wrestlers try and do more convincing, modern submission wrestling, and the promotion hasn't really put the effort into educating them. So if they do a "proper" MMA match, it won't work. And if they do a professional wrestling match under MMA rules, well, it won't look anything like an MMA match and people won't get what they voted for. The wrestling match is the best bet - but it's the vanilla option, so you probably won't get it. I suspect it's going to be MMA, and it'll be a mess.

Just to complicate matters further, Hardy suffered a nasty cut to the head during the Smackdown tapings on Tuesday, when he apparently got lacerated by Rey Mysterio's knee brace during a tag match. Apparently it's a pretty bad injury, but Hardy is still planning to work on Sunday - not a very smart idea, from the sound of it. No doubt they'll work around it and turn the injury into the story of the match, but I suspect that'll force them to keep it relatively short. If possible, Matt should probably win, but you can continue the story either way.

Worth buying? Well, it's on Sky Sports 3 over here, so the question doesn't arise. There's certainly the possibility of some good wrestling on this one, but there's also the risk of a horrid Big Daddy V match and Matt Hardy working tentatively around a head injury for ten minutes. Oh, and there's bound to be a lot of filler, with only six matches announced. Definitely a fan show.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

X-Axis comments thread - 21 October 2007

This week on the X-Axis, a look back at the freshly-cancelled New Excalibur. What was the book about? Plus, the first issue of Jamie McKelvie's Suburban Glamour.


Ratatouille came out ages ago in America, but it's only been out in Britain for a couple of weeks.

By the way, for once, I went to see this at the Dominion, an independent cinema just round the corner from my flat. The Dominion is a strange little place, which has obviously decided that it can't compete with the multiplexes on range. Therefore, it's going to compete on quality - albeit a slightly retro idea of quality. They've now torn out half the seating in their two main screens, and replaced them with... sofas. Seriously. You get a two-person sofa and a footstool. And side tables. With Pringles. (For those people in odd-numbered groups, they also have ridiculous leather armchairs.)

It looks very strange indeed - not least because half the auditorium is still traditional cinema seating. It's like having a visible class division. But it's very comfortable, I'll give them that. And hey, if you're going to compete on quality of seating, you might as well go to town on it.

Anyway, Ratatouille.

The film got great reviews in America and Britain, but it's been one of Pixar's smaller box office successes - although, of course, it was huge in France. I liked it, but I can see why it wasn't up there with Toy Story, and to be honest, I'm a little bit surprised by the scale of critical acclaim it's had. It's good, perhaps even very good, but it's not great.

The concept, if you don't know: Remy, a rat who dreams of becoming a chef, becomes separated from his clan and ends up in the Paris restaurant once run by his now-deceased culinary idol Gousteau. He ends up forming an unlikely duo with the talentless Linguini, a low-ranking kitchen worker who relies entirely on Remy's prompting to cook anything. As Remy happens to be a genius, Linguini's non-existent cooking skills attract more and more attention...

On its own terms, Ratatouille works very well. The problem is that its own terms may not be quite what some people are looking for from a Pixar movie. It's not especially funny, for one thing. There's some good comedy in it, but nothing to compare with the pre-movie short, Lifted. It's more of a gentle fairy tale. If you thought Cars dragged in the middle, well, this might not be for you.

And while the central metaphor of gourmet cuisine as self-actualisation might play well with film critics, I'm not sure how well it works for people who haven't got the faintest interest in the subject. There was a similar "let's get back to well-founded elitism" undercurrent in The Incredibles, and I have no problem with that - Brad Bird thinks true excellence should be celebrated, and that we should stop pretending everything is excellent. That message is, if anything, even more deeply embedded in a film like Ratatouille, which is practically a celebration of elitism. The finest thing you can do in this film is to be a culinary genius; the next finest thing is to help one. Bird tries to balance that with an egalitarian message - anyone could turn out to be elite - but I'm not sure the end result is quite what audiences want to hear.

But Pixar are more concerned about telling their story, and quite right too. It's a gentle and endearing film. There's an interesting decision that the rats can only talk to one another, which requires them to be able to shift from anthropomorphic to normal rats depending on who they're dealing with. They pull that off wonderfully. And, as is obligatory to mention in any Pixar film, the quality of the computer animation continues to get subtly better and better. The water is particularly impressive in this one.

A good film, but a slower one than people might be expecting from the makers of Toy Story and The Incredibles - both of which, to be honest, are still more entertaining in my book.

By the way, it turns out that Lifted is freely available on the web. So here it is.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Can I interest you in a phone vote?

I wouldn't particularly want to be Dermot O'Leary right now. In about half an hour, he's due to go on air as the new host of ITV's The X-Factor and spend two hours shilling the phone vote lines.

It's not an ideal week to be doing that job. ITV have finally released the report into their phone vote irregularities - or rather, a summary, as the full version is apparently deemed too embarrassing to release. And if the version that's come out is the edited edition, heaven only knows what the full one must be like.

The BBC already fell on its sword a few weeks ago over an assortment of largely trivial viewer-deception issues. They ran a couple of phone-in quizzes on TV shows (with the proceeds going to charity) where fake winners were announced after technical problems. They faked phone-in callers to a couple of radio shows that were actually pre-recorded. A show that nobody's ever heard of on the Asian Network overruled the results of a movie award that was supposed to be determined by listeners' votes, because the real winner wasn't available for interview. And a long-serving producer was punished severely (I forget how) for the cardinal sin of mis-naming the Blue Peter cat because the most popular name selected by the kiddies was, somehow, thought to be inappropriate.

All this generated some terrible publicity for the BBC, because the other networks weren't coming clean at all. But with the benefit of hindsight, the BBC probably made the right move. They cleared decks before the other broadcasters could announce the results of their investigation. They were seen to do something about it. They never ran premium rate phonelines for gain (as a matter of policy, the BBC always gives the proceeds to charity). And, in comparison with ITV, their sins look fairly trivial.

ITV, in contrast, uses phone-in votes as a moneyspinner. This is where the cultural problem comes in. Take local radio. They do tons of phone-in votes. Win tickets for concerts, and so forth. In my experience (and I know people in the industry), they've always been a bit cavalier about selecting their winners honestly. They have something of a tendency to give prizes to their mates, frankly. But, crucially, this is not motivated by a desire to screw the listener. It's only in recent years that the stations have been able to charge people for entry to these competitions. In the past, you just ran a competition on air, and as long as it sounded okay, nobody was really losing out. Well, except the callers, but what's the price of a phone call?

A lot of audience members would probably have been a bit disillusioned by the above, but they'd have got over it.

The problem comes when you make premium rate phone-ins a central part of your business, and start running competitions where making money is a primary (or at least a major) goal. At that point, you've got to have a cultural change towards running them above board, because otherwise you're tricking people into spending money on entering a dodgy competition. Money that you get to keep. Audiences don't like that. They start using words like "fraud."

The Deloitte investigation into ITV reportedly concludes that the network made £7.8m from uncounted phone votes alone. Most of this comes from continuing to invite votes on air for a few minutes after the lines have closed, and I'm inclined to believe that it's sloppiness rather than criminal intent. But boy, does it look bad.

Others are harder to justify. Dire Pop Idol knock-off Soapstar Superstar (don't ask) simply ignored the premium-rate votes when it didn't like the results. The beloved presenter duo Ant & Dec ran several shows in which competition winners weren't selected at random at all, but by a combination of whether they happened to live in the right place for the film crew, and whether a researcher thought they would be entertaining on screen. Whether this is fraud (in either the popular or the legal sense) may be open to debate, but it seems pretty clearly over the line into illegality of some sort.

This is a particularly tricky one for A&D, as they have an executive producer credit on their show, and have always spoken proudly of their creative input. Now ITV are trying to distance them from the fiasco by calling it a "vanity credit." They've just announced that they'll be giving all the phone vote proceeds from their next series to charity, which is a desperation PR move that will cost ITV an awful lot of money. They may well be right that Ant and Dec are good enough presenters to be worth the cost of redeeming in the public eye, mind you. They're not easily replaced.

The fundamental problem here, though, isn't really about the cost of phone calls. It's the fact that the audience has finally figured out that primetime entertainment is a carnival sideshow, and they are the marks. At least the BBC can say with credibility that they never took money from the public. ITV can't.

Something tells me the number of votes will be down for this year's X-Factor, no matter how well Dermot O'Leary shills it.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

X-Axis comments thread - 14 October

This week: X-Factor wraps up the Isolationist storyline, X-Men: Die By The Sword stakes its claim for the most inaccurately titled miniseries of the year, and DC's Simon Dark launches as a new ongoing title. Comments?

Thursday, October 11, 2007


Charlie Brooker's Screenwipe is broadcast on the little-viewed wasteland that is BBC4, which makes these segments worth posting.

Brooker's usual schtick is over-the-top vitriol with a bit of randomness thrown in, plus a hefty chunk of utter disdain for the stupid. Large chunks of Screenwipe are really just a televised version of his TV review column in the Guardian. In the case of the early episodes, this was often literally the case - Brooker reading out his favourite reviews word for word. But there's been an increasing shift towards genuine exploration of how TV gets made, and even his reviews of mainstream TV are now punchily edited with footage to illustrate his point. Here's a neat little demolition of the X-Factor, for example. (By the way, the "If you hit me at..." drop was a running joke on that episode, which is why it shows up out of the blue near the end.)

After that was broadcast, the show went on to produce a spectacularly cynical "boot camp" episode in which all four categories were edited with exactly the same structure. Here are the contestants, the early auditions are going badly, the assigned judge is depressed at lunchtime and is filmed making a supposed phone call to a friend about how badly it's going, oh wait, things are looking up after lunch, here's a woman with a personal tragedy, hurrah she can sing, the end, repeat x3. Is the public much less media literate than everyone claims, or do they just not care? And if they don't care about the fact that it's wildly distorted from the truth... why do they care enough to watch? It's all very strange.

Anyhow, there's a lot of this sort of thing on Screenwipe. But sometimes Brooker drops the act altogether, to do something like the first three minutes of this next clip, about the coverage of the Madeline McCann investigation.

Now, in fairness to the news channels, the McCann family did go out of their way to court media attention at first - or, at least, to harness it for their own ends. But his basic point is entirely valid. The Sky News aircraft clip is jawdropping in its tactlessness, one of those occasional moments when you realise that no matter how cynical and contemptuous you may be about the media, you aren't cynical and contemptuous enough.

The disappearance of Madeline McCann is, of course, a tragedy for those who actually know her. But is it of any wider importance? Not especially. Nobody is suggesting that there's a major problem with child abductions in Portugal. There is no wider issue here, just a human interest story. Why is it on the news? Because people are interested, and most people don't care sufficiently to draw a distinction between "things the public find interesting" and "things that the public have an interest in." Broadcasters don't care, because human interest stories draw ratings and hey, what's the point in news coverage that nobody watches? Participants don't generally care, because they usually welcome the attention. Journalists don't care because, hey, they only went into the job to get on telly. And the public don't care because, frankly, most of the things that really affect them are excruciatingly dull. Much better just to elect somebody who sounds plausible and let them worry about the principles of macroeconomics.

But sometimes you get a case like this where the coverage really is grotesque and, arguably, shows up TV news for what much of it has become - not a source of useful information, not a meaningful part of the national debate, but merely a veneer of legitimacy for voyeurism.

This is a great broadside on the news channels, all the more effective for being unusually restrained.

Monday, October 08, 2007

X-Axis comments thread - 7 October

This week: Exiles and Uncanny X-Men complete storylines; Wolverine plays at literary allusions; Hugs: Bloodpond finally reaches the top of my review pile, several months after it actually came out; and Vinyl Underground is... yeah, well.

Comment away.

And since Vinyl Underground turns out to be virtually devoid of music, here's an interesting illustration of how a good video can turn around a fairly dreary single. "I Want More" by Faithless is basically their usual schtick - moderately pleasant dance music, with a man lecturing us politely about the need to be nicer to one another.

Here's the original video, which I didn't even know about until I searched YouTube. Frankly, it's a rather boring piece of cultural tourism.

But take off half of the vocals, and relocate to North Korea, and you have a rather more interesting piece of cultural tourism. (And yes, this IS the official video that was used in the UK.)

(It's the penultimate shot that makes it work for me.)

Saturday, October 06, 2007

No Mercy 2007

PPV time again, and this should be an interesting one - though not necessarily for the right reasons. Let's recap.

To judge from their TV shows, the WWE mentally gave up on No Mercy a while ago. A whole load of planned storylines were severely disrupted when the WWE was forced to suspend a whole load of guys for buying drugs online. Those suspensions only ended last week (and that's after the WWE fudged the dates to shorten them), leaving no time to meaningfully programme the missing wrestlers into matches for No Mercy.

Meanwhile, they haven't been able to make any progress with the supposed major storyline about Vince McMahon's long-lost son. Instead, we've had three weeks of mediocre comedy based on the revelation that Vince's son is the midget wrestler Hornswoggle. This seems to have been designed as a stalling device to keep the plot ticking over until Mr Kennedy returned to television, but a lot of viewers seem to have regarded it as the actual end - and, not surprisingly, they think it's a lousy pay-off to weeks of build. Returning to the original storyline could be an uphill struggle.

Anyway, everyone returned to TV this week, and the rumour mill says that the threat of congressional hearings seems to have receded - apparently Washington has figure out that they really have better things to do with their time than regulate, at the highest possible level, an industry consisting of one company. (Not that the industry isn't in dire need of regulation - but at the end of the day, it's a relative handful of employees and there are certainly better things that congressional committees could and should be doing with their time.) So things seemed to be back on track.

The main event of Monday night's Raw saw the WWE Champion John Cena fighting Mr Kennedy in a non-title match. About a minute in, Cena tore his right pectoral and, in keeping with the wrestling industry's ever-disturbing "show must go on" mentality, continued to wrestle the rest of the match despite being blatantly unable to use his right arm. After winning as planned, Cena went on to do the scripted post-match angle where Randy Orton came out and laid him out to promote their WWE Championship match on Sunday.

Unfortunately, after the show, it quickly became clear that there was not the slightest possibility of Cena participating in any sort of match on Sunday, even in a token role to lose his title in the ring. He had surgery on Tuesday and he'll be out until next summer.

So ends John Cena's 380-day title reign, during which time he has toured and wrestled continuously without a break, all while performing an extensive promotional schedule - the longest reign as champion since Hulk Hogan, who held the title from 1984 to 1988. At least Cena will be getting a well-deserved break.

To their credit, the WWE did run news stories about Cena's injury on their website, and on Tuesday's ECW show, they announced clearly and unequivocally that Cena was injured and that he would not be wrestling in the advertised match on Sunday. The video was edited so as to imply that the injury was inflicted by Orton, which isn't true. But that's just them making the best they can of the situation to try and put some heat on the bad guy.

To judge from the crowd reaction, I'm not sure they believed it. It's entirely possible some people will be buying Sunday's show in the confident expectation of seeing a match which they know full well the WWE has cancelled. That's wrestling for you. But this is where we now find ourselves - and the following mesmerising main event.

1. WWE Championship: ????? v ?????. Yes, that's right, the official announcement on the WWE Championship Match for Sunday is that... there will be one. Who's in it? Nobody knows. The WWE still hadn't decided by Thursday, by which time Smackdown had already been taped. They seem to have taken the view that if there's no time to promote the match properly, they might as well leave it a mystery and try to turn that to their advantage. After all, they are promising a new champion, for the first time in over a year, and that means a major storyline development on any view.

If you want to nitpick, strictly speaking the WWE shouldn't actually be promising a new champion, because the match could always end in a draw. But the WWE are understandably confident that that won't happen.

Common sense says that Randy Orton will be in this match, because they've advertised him as half of the main event, and he's got nothing else to do. Besides, rumour has it that they were planning to make him the champion anyway, so they might as well go ahead. If they can sell audiences on the idea that Orton won the title in dubious circumstances after injuring the legitimate champion in an assault, well, there are worse starting points for a heel title run.

Who does Orton fight? The only other major wrestler on Raw who isn't doing anything is Mr Kennedy, but that would be a heel/heel match. Jeff Hardy, the Intercontinental Champion, isn't on the show either, but I don't think anyone would buy him as a world title contender. They need somebody who, in the eyes of the casual fans, could plausibly win the title.

Triple H is now the number one babyface on Raw, but he's already wrestling against Umaga. They could roll the two matches into one, by adding Orton and making it a three-way. Then again, that may not be egotistical enough for Triple H. As the boss's son-in-law (and the head writer's husband), he has enormous influence over the way the shows are written, which he seems to use primarily to present himself as God. This has reached laughably absurd levels in recent weeks - behold as Hunter mightily defeats five men at once, including the tag team champions!

So the idea of Hunter pinning Umaga clean and then going on later in the night to beat Orton as well... well, I could very much see that happening. It's a godawful idea, but it would stroke his ego, and therefore it's a real possibility.

Another outside possibility is to bring in somebody completely new. The TV shows over the last couple of weeks have featured enigmatic videos - known as Save_Us.222 and Savior.Self - in which numbers and file names flash across the screen. Both videos include the text "Oct 7", which is Sunday's date, so at the very least, most people are expecting some sort of significant development. This is apparently a plot originally pitched a few months back (and shelved during the post-Benoit fall-out) as a way of promoting the return of Chris Jericho or the arrival of the New Hart Foundation. Both acts are genuinely signed. The video also includes some obvious hints to suggest that it could be neither of them - notably, Savior.Self has three numbers which, going by their position in the alphabet, would translate as HBK.

Conventional wisdom, though, still holds that Save_Us.222 is the return of Chris Jericho. He could show up on Sunday, out of the blue, to win the title. That would be a stupid move. Jericho's return, properly promoted, would be a respectable draw. But if they're panicking, they might do it.

2. World Heavyweight Title, Punjabi Prison Match: Batista v. The Great Khali. Over on Smackdown, their title match is going ahead as scheduled. Which is not a good thing. Batista won the belt last month in a fairly mediocre match, and now he has to try and extract a watchable rematch from Khali under this absurd stipulation.

The Punjabi Prison is an outrageously convoluted bells-and-whistles cage, designed to be the Great Khali's signature gimmick match. The rules are TNAriffic. Repeat after me: "It's really very simple..."

There are two bamboo cages, one immediately surrounding the ring apron, and one further out. To win, you have to escape from both cages. Unlike a normal WWE cage match, pinfalls and submissions don't count. (So, logically, the "match" ought to consist of both wrestlers racing for the exit at full speed.) The inner cage has four doors, each of which is manned by a referee. On the request of either wrestler, a door will be opened for sixty seconds, after which it will be closed and locked for the remainder of the match. Again, nobody really seems to have thought this through. If you escape during the first, second or third door, then that means that your opponent can get out simply by... asking the referee to open the remaining door. Whoo.

They've only done this match once before, and it was a disaster. It was originally booked as a match between the Undertaker and Khali, but Khali was suspended for health reasons shortly before the show (due to, ahem, "elevated liver enzymes"), and his place was taken by the Big Show. So, yes, the Great Khali did not participate in the only previous instance of his own signature match. The match itself was fairly mediocre, but it did establish one more major failure in the set design: bamboo is quite thick, and if you surround the ring with two bamboo cages, the audience can't see in properly. Genius.

Then again, since it's a Great Khali match, the less we see of it, the better.

This will be fucking awful. I can't wait. Oh, and Batista will win, obviously - they're not stupid enough to put the belt back on Khali.

3. ECW Championship: CM Punk v. Big Daddy V. In another absolutely bizarre piece of booking, ECW ran a three-week tournament to win a title shot at No Mercy, and then ended up giving the match to the giant Big Daddy V, who wasn't even in the tournament. There's nothing like completely ignoring your stipulations to piss off the audience, and not in a good way. If the audience stops believing that the advertised stipulations will be delivered, then you've got a serious problem.

Big Daddy V is the guy who used to be known as Viscera. He's big, he's fat, and he's not very good. I don't see CM Punk having a good match with him. Frankly, I don't see anyone having a good match with him.

The winner is difficult to predict. If they put the ECW Title on long-time jobber Viscera, they've completely lost their minds. Yes, I know it's only the ECW title, but Viscera has been a nobody for years. At least with CM Punk you've got a champion who hasn't been clearly marked out as a loser, and at least John Morrison was somebody you could pitch with some plausibility as a rising star. But Viscera? Come off it.

On the other hand, his bizarre last-minute addition to the storyline smacks of a change of plan, and he's been written as such a dominant character that it would be downright weird for CM Punk to beat him cleanly here. Especially because Punk has foolishly adopted a finishing move where he puts his opponent in a fireman's carry and then throws him into the air - a move he certainly won't be performing on Big Daddy V.

I'm guessing that Punk retains on some sort of fluke win, perhaps after interference from V's manager Matt Striker backfires. Something like that. Big Daddy V as a world champion is just too silly to contemplate.

4. WWE Women's Title: Candice Michelle v. Beth Phoenix. Is this storyline still going? Meh. Last month, Candice just managed to retain her title with a roll-up. This time, I suspect Beth wins. Can't say I care particularly either way. They both work hard, and heaven knows we've seen far worse women's matches than this, but it's just going to be a break between more important matches on the card.

5. Triple H v Umaga. Inexplicably booked with only a week's proper build, this ought to be a much bigger match. Triple H is booked as virtually unstoppable. Umaga is the same - as long as you politely overlook the fact that he lost to Jeff Hardy a few weeks ago before his drug suspension. And if you put two wrestlers who hardly ever lose in a ring together, that usually sells tickets.

So if they've got any sense, they'll do a DQ finish and build to a rematch. Or, better yet, Umaga will win, thus giving the supposed babyface Triple H an excuse to seek revenge. He's decisively won every match since his return (aside from a couple of silly gimmick handicap matches) and it's now time for a heel to get the upper hand for a longer-term storyline.

The stupidest possible ending would be a clean win for Triple H, which would throw away months of possible rematches, do nothing to strengthen Triple H's image (already positioned unequivocally as "god"), and critically damage Umaga as a villain. Only a total moron would book that finish, but given the way Triple H has been written in recent weeks, I have a sinking feeling that a total moron will book that finish.

If they do a proper competitive match to build to an ongoing storyline - in other words, if Triple H sets aside his ego for the moment to concentrate on having a good match and telling a good long-term story - then this could be decent. If Triple H just massacres him, well, don't say I didn't warn you.

6. Rey Mysterio v. Finlay. Filler match, spinning vaguely off a half-formed Smackdown storyline which seems to be building towards a comeback for commentator JBL. In the meantime, this is the obligatory match where a prominent babyface (Mysterio) is paired up with an upper midcard heel (Finlay) so that they can get him on the show. They're both excellent wrestlers, and since Finlay doesn't seem to be the main focus of the storyline, I expect Mysterio to win in a strong undercard match.

Worth buying? Er... on merit? Heavens, no. Of the three main title matches, the Smackdown and ECW offerings are almost guaranteed to be dreadful, while the Raw one is just a blank. But some fans will buy it for the new champion, and others will just be enthralled by the trainwreck possibilities of the show.