Monday, May 28, 2007

Miscellany: 28 May 2007

Goodness, I'm running behind here. Where shall we start?

- I'm not going to get into the merits of the Heroes for Hire #13 controversy, simply because I've already touched on it in passing in the April sales column. However, I did think Joe Quesada's spin at Newsarama was remarkable. Essentially, it came down to "Sexual overtones? What sexual overtones? This concept of 'tentacle rape' is a mystery to me."

Quesada normally has more sense than that, when presented with controversy that he wasn't intentionally baiting. I'm actually inclined to believe him when he says he's never heard the reference, simply because I can't imagine his spin would be this clumsy if he actually understood what people were talking about. But by the same token, "tentacle rape" was the standard derisive manga cliche for years - and not entirely without some basis. And manga is, you know, the single biggest rising force in the American comics market.

So if I'm an investor in Marvel Comics, or even somebody over in the marketing department, I'm thinking something along these lines. Our business, these days, is mainly based on licensing of our family-friendly range of characters. Our editor-in-chief apparently (i) can't see a problem with a cover that he's approved for a title certified as suitable for children of nine, even though on any reasonable view it's wildly sexualised and it's been widely interpreted as having deeply unpleasant misogynist overtones; (ii) doesn't understand how to deal with the criticism he got for it; and (iii) by his own admission, is almost completely ignorant of his main competition.

If I'm in that position, I start genuinely wondering whether this is the man for the job. Because either he's incredibly dumb, or incredibly ignorant of the market I'm paying him to understand, or he understands perfectly well but thinks that disingenuous flippancy is somehow a suitable response. On any reading, I'm not thrilled, surely?

- Mind you, the marketing department are almost as stupid in their own right. They've just promoted the new Fantastic Four movie by releasing 40,000 US quarters with a picture of the Silver Surfer on one side. These are actual US quarters with the picture added.

The Mint isn't happy. They take the view that this is the illegal defacement of currency, and punishable by a fine. Which seems pretty self-evident to me. Guerilla marketing types do have a tendency to think that they're Special, and that obviously the law wasn't meant to apply to somebody like them, but actually, this is pretty much what were trying to present by making it illegal to mess about with legal coinage. Silly people.

- Big Brother starts its new season on Wednesday, which should be very entertaining from a media-watcher standpoint. Channel 4 are under a huge amount of pressure not to screw this one up. On the one hand, it's one of their big earners, and it needs to drag in the crowds. On the other hand, they've just been slaughtered by Ofcom over Celebrity Big Brother earlier this year, which was one of the most complained-about shows in history, after most of the audience decided that Channel 4 was presenting racist bullying as populist entertainment. The subsequent investigation has shown that some of Channel 4's comments at the time, about what had happened in the house, were, you know, kind of, er, well, not strictly accurate. As such.

Big Brother has been in danger of losing the plot for several years now, and CBB marked the point where it finally screwed up on a major scale. The first season of Big Brother was presented as a "social experiment" and featured relatively normal people who had no idea of how big the audiences would be. Over the next couple of years, it deteriorated into a gameshow, but still understood that the point of the show was to watch a bunch of people interact over an extended period.

The trouble started with season four, in which the contestants got on famously and settled down to enjoy two and a half months of very, very little happening. Featuring arguably some of the most boring television ever inflicted on the British public, most of the entertainment value came from watching Dermot O'Leary on Big Brother's Little Brother attempt to extract half an hour of daily discussion from the contestants' tea-making habits.

Since then, Channel 4 and the show producers, Endemol, have been absolutely petrified about the possibility that things might not happen, and so they've drowned the show in ill-conceived twists and manufactured conflict, in a desperate attempt to guarantee shouting. Lessons really should have been learned after season six, in which the security staff had to enter the set to break up a fight. Instead, Endemol seem to have decided that this was remarkably edgy, ground-breaking television, and that they needed to give themselves a good firm pat on the back for being so very clever.

After the disastrous CBB season, the pressure is on to deliver a successful show with nothing controversial at all. They've spent years being gratuitously vicious to the contestants, but there's really nowhere to go but fun and happiness if they want to pull this off. Do they know how to do it? Do they have the confidence in the format to make it work without bending over backwards to engineer a fight? I'm not sure they do, but I think it could be fascinating watching them try to get out of this situation.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Judgment Day 2007

It's time for another PPV already. Judgment Day is one of the generic regular shows which would formerly have been brand-specific, but the WWE is sticking to its new format of featuring matches from Raw, Smackdown and ECW on every show. This is good news if you're a member of the ECW crew, since at least you now have a remote chance of getting a PPV pay-off. But it also means that we have the increasingly ludicrous spectacle of three "world titles" being defended on the same show promoted by the same company.

The WWE doesn't quite seem to appreciate how silly this is - they're in love with their own titles and seem to think that more titles must, by definition, be a good thing. But you don't want to be too blatant about the fact that your world champion is, in fact, even in storyline, just the champion of the twenty-odd healthy guys on the Smackdown roster.

It also means that a lot of the secondary titles are getting lost in the shuffle. Neither of the tag belts is being defended on this show. (And if we're going to have all three rosters appearing on every PPV, why on earth do we need two sets of tag titles in the first place?) There's nothing with the Women's Title, or the Cruiserweight Title, or even Raw's secondary singles belt, the Intercontinental Title. Most of these titles even have obvious challengers in place, but there's just no room for them on the show.

Judgment Day is a PPV in the UK, so if I want to watch this, I'll have to pay for it. And it's an odd card.

1. Raw World Title: John Cena v The Great Khali. The website lists this as the top match on the show, but it was downplayed on Monday night, and it's hard to believe they can seriously be intending to put it on as the main event. The Great Khali is a giant from India. He's arguably the single worst professional wrestler in North America today. Shawn Michaels managed to get a semi-passable match out of him a few weeks back, but he did it by getting Khali to stand still while Shawn bounced off him for several minutes. Actually asking Khali to do anything is a terrible risk - the most rudimentary wrestling moves appear to challenge him enormously. For a while, his finisher was a judo chop to the forehead, apparently selected on the basis that even Khali couldn't screw that up.

Now, there's a place in wrestling for people like Khali, as big freaks of nature to wow the live crowd. It doesn't work as well on television, where the sense of scale is largely lost. And if you push him as unstoppable for long enough, at some point you've got to address the question of why he isn't the champion. (Actually making him the champion is out of the question, because he doesn't have the talent.)

So poor John Cena will have to wrestle the Great Khali and try to make sure it isn't entirely horrible. Now, Cena's fine, but ultimately he's only as good as his opponent. With a really good opponent, he can have great matches. With the Great Khali... many people are bracing themselves for a train wreck. But the WWE are well aware of Khali's limitations - one of the reasons they had him fighting Cena backstage on Monday night was so that they could pre-tape it - so they'll have put some thought into this. They'll be doing everything in their power to distract from the big lug's fundamental lack of talent.

But it won't be any good. The best hope is that it could be an entertaining catastrophe, but I wouldn't even put money on that. I think they'll manage to get it to the level of "dull but not embarrassing", and everyone will be very disappointed.

Cena is obviously retaining - there's simply no way they could put the belt on Khali and expect him to headline the show. Khali's been built strongly enough that he could take a clean defeat without any real damage, so hopefully Cena just pins him and we can move on to a proper match at the next show.

2. Smackdown World Title: Edge v Batista. Now this gets a little complicated. The Undertaker won the World Heavyweight Championship at Wrestlemania and defended it successfully against Batista at Backlash. Then he hurt his arm, so he'll be out for a good few months. The original plan was to have Mr Kennedy cash in his "money in the bank" title shot and win the title. But then Mr Kennedy also hurt his arm, and he'll be out for a good few months too. So Edge got to beat Kennedy in a short, contrived match to win his title shot, and then cashed it in to beat the Undertaker (immediately after a half-hour cage match and a Mark Henry run-in) and win the title. Clear?

So Edge is the undeserving champion, and since he's got to fight somebody on this show, he's going to fight Undertaker's opponent Batista. There's no real storyline to this, but they should be able to get a months out of this pairing, since it's a fresh match-up. Edge has been on Raw for years, and all his potential opponents on Smackdown are new. Edge will undoubtedly retain, no doubt using some dastardly cheating to set up a rematch on the next show. Edge is very talented, so the match will probably be quite good.

3. ECW World Title: Vince McMahon, Shane McMahon & Umaga v. Bobby Lashley. Vince McMahon won the ECW title by pinning Bobby Lashley in a three-on-one handicap match at Backlash, which is a ridiculous piece of hubris since he's really getting on in years. The angle is meant to be that it's a travesty - his partners did all the work, he hopped in at the end for the pin, and he never actually defends the title. It's a little unclear how the rules work for this rematch - in order to win the title back, is it good enough for Lashley to pin any of his opponents, or does he have to pin Vince?

The ECW title is a bit of a joke, but if we're going to pretend that the third show has any value at all, they really can't afford to treat it like this for too long. Lashley ought to get his revenge and reclaim his title here, in what should be an over-plotted piece of absurdity. Sometimes these matches work, but the feud hasn't quite clicked, and I'm not expecting much.

With the ECW roster looking decidedly shaky, the future looks bleak for Bobby Lashley - his only obvious opponent is Gene Snitsky, and really, who wants to see that?

4. United States Title, best of 3 falls: Chris Benoit v MVP. Benoit and MVP have been feuding over Smackdown's secondary title for a while now, and the basic format is established - MVP puts up a surprisingly good showing against the technical expertise of Benoit, but always loses in the end. Surely he's got to win the title in the end, since he's meant to be one of the rising stars on the show. And this has got to be the time. Mind you, I said that last month.

It's a weird storyline, since MVP is meant to be the bad guy, and they're almost presenting him as a doggedly persistent fighter. Perhaps the pay-off is that MVP finally wins with good old-fashioned cheating, after failing with the straight wrestling over the last couple of months. In any event, the previous matches have been pretty good, and this one should be no different.

5. Elijah Burke v CM Punk. This is ECW's second-tier storyline. CM Punk, formerly a darling of the indie scene, has been reasonably successful in his role as a rookie star. Elijah Burke is the leader of the New Breed, a faction composed of random ECW villains arbitrarily grouped together. The weirdly-plotted storyline involves CM Punk agreeing to join the New Breed, screwing about wth them for a couple of weeks, and then just turning on them. They could have got months out of this material, but they rushed through it in double quick time.

Punk still looks a little like an indie wrestler who hasn't quite adjusted to the WWE house style. A lot of purists will tell you that the WWE house style is needlessly limiting and oppressive, and that they'd be better advised to let everyone work in their own style and get on with it. Maybe so, but that's not the style CM Punk is being paid to wrestle in, and he's trying his best to perform in a style that doesn't really play to his strengths.

Still, he's got talent, and Elijah Burke has had some good matches as well, when you consider the sort of opponents he's generally been lumbered with. They have a real opportunity to try and shine on a major show (by ECW standards) and I'm sure they'll be pulling out all the stops. This should be a good midcard match.

6. Shawn Michaels v Randy Orton. A weird last-minute addition to the card, as if they suddenly realised they'd left two of the major Raw characters off the show, and paired them up without giving much more thought to it. There is essentially no storyline to this, although they went through the motions of a set-up on Monday night's Raw. Orton is still in the doghouse after being kicked off the European tour, so chances are Michaels is winning. It should be a good, if pointless, match - Michaels is always very good, and Orton can be great when he's motivated. And when he's trying to get back in favour with the company, he's very motivated.

7. Carlito v Ric Flair. A mid-card Raw storyline. The idea is that the veteran Ric Flair took Carlito under his wing for a while, but Carlito has finally turned on him and gone back to his old ways. Apparently Carlito thinks his character works better as a villain. This story has been dawdling along quite happily for quite some time, and the live crowds don't seem especially interested. Don't be surprised if this is shoved in between two of the headline matches - the WWE quite often sandwiches a weak match between the main and semi-main events, on the logic that it gives the crowd a break between the important stuff. Normally it's the women's match (and rightly so), but there's no women's match on this PPV, and that makes Carlito the obvious candidate.

Since this is the first match after Carlito turned heel, he ought to win. It won't be too bad, with Flair in the ring.

Worth buying? Erm... it's a bit underheated in terms of story build, isn't it? Only one of the three world title matches really holds any promise of being good, but it's the one with no plot. The ECW thing isn't really working, and Cena/Khali will be somewhere between mediocre and catastrophic. On the other hand, Michaels/Orton and the US Title match should be good, and Burke/Punk has some possibilities.

But... yeah, it's not a surefire winner, is it? I'll wait to see the reports on this show before I shell out any money on it.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Eurovision 2007

A slightly underwhelming Eurovision Song Contest this year, I thought. Last year, Finland won with their rock zombies Lordi, while Lithuania put in an impressive contribution with a supergroup of respected local musicians in a display of glorious contempt for the whole fiasco. (They still came sixth.)

This year, things are more subdued. The arrival of the eastern bloc nations has completely changed the contest, since they all vote for one another - partly out of loyalty, partly because they share similar tastes, and partly because the major eastern nations tend to enter established acts who already have a fanbase in the neighbouring countries. As a result, none of the western countries got past the semi-finals. Except the ones who got a bye, either through being major funders of the show, or through placing high last year. The UK qualifies automatically each year on the "giving lots of money" basis, which really annoys the countries that take the show seriously.

Serbia won with an utterly dreary power ballad, the appeal of which eludes me. You can see it here if you really want, but I'm not going to bother embedding it. Interestingly, the Balkan nations all vote heavily for one another (by a phone vote, at that), which I suppose is nice in a way.

The Germans continued their annual tour of wholly inappropriate musical genres with a swing number, the Finns entered a cut-price version of Evanescence, and most other countries opted for Europop or the usual plaintive wailing about spreading love across national borders. Only the Ukrainians seemed in the mood for complete insanity, getting a top three position with this remarkable effort:-

It's hard to top that, if you're going for the novelty vote. It helps that Verka Serduchka is a well-established act in that part of the world. He used to have his own chat show in the former Soviet states.

The French had a stab with this thing, but the basic gag (the lyrics are a hideously mangled combination of English and French) is a bit of a French domestic gag - most other countries aren't as bothered about their linguistic purity. Still, at least they remembered to write a tune.

Sweden made an interesting bid for the David Bowie / Glam Rock vote. It's also the one of the few songs from this year that you can genuinely imagine somebody buying without irony.

But... is it just me, or have they lifted the verse from Edison Lighthouse's "Love Grows Where My Rosemary Goes"?

The Russians continued their policy of entering genuine local pop acts - Serebro were manufactured for this contest, but include somebody from an established band, and a girl from the Russian version of Fame Academy. Once again, they were rewarded with more votes than they truly deserve - especially because the girls didn't sing it very well. It sounds much better on this official promo video, but it's still full of unintentionally hilarious garbled English. (Yes, the chorus really is "Oh, don't call me funny bunny / I'll blow your money money / I'll get you to my bad ass spinning for you / Oh, I'll make it easy, honey / I'll take your money, yummy / I got my bitches standing up next to me.") But to be fair, hearing this version, I can start to see what people saw in it. By the way, this is the single edit; the Eurovision performance doesn't have the Michael Jackson stuff in the middle.

Meanwhile, over in Georgia, the memo about "three minute pop songs" seems to have got lost somewhere. Either that, or the Georgians really, really like Bjork. This is Not Eurovision on a very fundamental level. There's too much to take in on a first listen, and it's just too musically odd for transcontinental mass appeal. But all credit to them, because it's actually quite good. I voted for it. It's just hopelessly wrong for this contest.

And what about the British? Well, we came second last - only Ireland and Malta voted for us. And even that strikes me as generous, because the UK voting public thought the way forward was to reunite Scooch.

Don't watch it. Really, don't. Every time I hear this song, I wish I was French.

Did you press play? You fool. Don't say I didn't warn you.

Quite why anyone thought the rest of Europe would be interested in some camp people pretending to be air stewards is beyond me, and I think it's based on a very outdated notion of what the Eurovision electorate is voting for. Schmaltz does well, and so does spectacle. And established acts. But just plain tackiness... no. This is dire, and deserved to go home with nothing. It's not selling at home either, by the way - it's been available on download for weeks, and it hasn't made the top 75.

We're lucky that we automatically qualify for the final on financial grounds, because we really did deserve to get relegated over this thing.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Welcome to Italy.

The Scottish Parliamentary Election turned out to be even more of a fiasco than I was expecting. The introduction of automated counting machines actually delayed the results by the better part of a day - which virtually guarantees that that system won't be used for the next general election.

The number of spoiled ballots was through the roof, presumably because people were confused by the multiple voting systems. Some of them are intentionally spoiled, of course. But 100,000 spoiled ballots is totally unacceptable. This is a small country. 100,000 spoiled ballots is a significant proportion of the vote. It would be bad enough at any time, but this was a particularly close election.

We also had seven counts suspended; several more delayed due to transport problems in gathering the votes; and one disrupted by a man with a golf club who smashed up a polling station and started tearing up ballots before the police arrived to subdue him. (And quite why we're using EZ-smash ballot boxes these days is an interesting question in itself. A money-saving measure, presumably.)

This is a fiasco, and a judicial investigation seems almost inevitable. I wouldn't be at all surprised to see a rash of legal challenges, as well, especially from the minor parties who just missed out on getting list MSPs.

And the end result? SNP 47, Labour 46, Conservative 17, Lib Dem 16, Green 2, and Margo McDonald as an independent. Now, that means we're heading for either a minority government or a rainbow coalition, because you need 65 for a majority, and no two parties combined can achieve that. (Well, SNP/Labour could, but that's an obvious non-starter.)

The Conservatives have already said they won't enter a coalition with anyone, so the only viable option seems to be SNP/Lib Dem/Green - which makes 65, just. In practice, McDonald would probably vote with that coalition too.

But the SNP will be holding out for their beloved referendum on independence, while the Lib Dems have already said that it's a non-starter. Somebody is going to have to blink here - otherwise, it's going to be a chaotic minority government for the next few years. Realistically, the SNP should be the ones to move. Their democratic mandate for the referendum isn't spectacular. It's their core policy, but it's implacably opposed by everyone else. They're the largest individual party, sure, but not by much. And they only achieved around a third of the votes cast, on a 50% turnout. Polls have consistently shown that the SNP would lose this referendum if they actually called it, and that would put the question back on the shelf for decades to come - so politically, they're probably best to compromise and not have the vote at all.

If the SNP and the Lib Dems can't reach terms, then we have the awkward prospect of the Lib/Lab coalition (which would be the single largest block) trying to run the country as a minority government. I don't see that happening. It looks like, for the first time, we're going to have a completely different government in Scotland to the one in England, and that should really test the bounds of the devolution settlement. Up till now, the two governments have tended to co-operate. But there are provisions in the Scotland Act for them to sue one another, and I wouldn't be at all surprised if that starts to happen over the next few years. Interesting times.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Exciting ladder action

Here we go - I knew I'd find an embeddable version somewhere.

The story, for those joining us late: the frankly insane DDT Iron Man Heavymetalweight Title is defended under 24/7 rules (like the old WWF Hardcore Title). Even outside a match, you can win by pinning the champion at any time, as long as there's a referee handy to count the pin. Clear?

Now, there are also scheduled title defences, and here's one from 1 April this year. It's a six-man battle royal with a ten minute time limit. (Which is a bit pointless, because, you know, 24/7 - but the WWF used to do the same thing.) If the champion lasts ten minutes then he retains the title.

The challengers are Poison Sawada JULIE, Mango Fukuda, Gorgeous Matsuno, Naoshi Sano and Antonio Honda.

The champion is a stepladder. It fell on the previous champion a few weeks ago and pinned him.

Now, you might be assuming that it's just a matter of lying on top of the ladder. But no. The stepladder is a fighting champion. It kicks out of pinfalls. So you have to wear the ladder down...

Ladder defends title in Battle Royal
Uploaded by crazedfan

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Election day!

- It's the Scottish national elections today. This should be a big one, because the polls suggest a very strong possibility of the SNP becoming the largest party. That would mean, for the first time since devolution, a completely different government in Scotland to the one in Westminster. And then we'll see how this devolution settlement really works.

Most of the campaign has been banging on about independence. I have no idea why. The polls show that the SNP would lose a referendum on independence. Their plan is to have one in a few years time. I have my doubts that the SNP is going to do such a stellar job at running the country that their central policy is going to be riding a wave of popularity mid-term.

Somehow we've contrived to come up with the most complicated electoral system known to man. You have two votes for the Scottish Parliament itself - one for the local MSP, and another for the top-up list. And you have another vote for the local council which is done by single transferable vote - a completely different form of proportional representation where you rank the candidates by numbers. To call this convoluted would be an understatement. It's virtually incomprehensible to half the public.

- Oh, and thanks to everyone who flagged up more astoundingly bizarre DDT videos after the last post. (If you only read the original, scroll down to check the update and skim the comments thread for assorted DDT weirdness.) I've also managed to, er, get hold of the full version of the Iron Man Title defence from their April 1 show, in which the defending champion - a stepladder - proudly battles five opponents, none of whom seem to have quite appreciated that the champ isn't alive. It's man versus inanimate object, and it's inspired. Unfortunatley, it's not on Youtube, but if anyone can find it...