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The Journeyman Project 3: Better Late Than Never

Well, so much for big ideas.

Suffice to say I had a modicum of personal drama the past couple of months. Alas, others have commented as eloquently or moreso than I could on Captain America: Civil War.

However, I do have a loose end that deserves tying up. I was going to write a series on adventure games and by jingo, that’s what I intend to do.

‘Better late than never’ has a bit of a double meaning for us today; better I be a while getting back to this blog than not at all, thus I’ll resume my reviews of Adventure Games. And this one was one I encountered a very long time after first hearing of it: Presto Studio’s 1998 saga The Journeyman Project 3: Legacy of Time.

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Your view in the game: bottom centre is your current disguise, bottom right, Arthur’s interface

As I said back at the end of March, my interest in adventure games dates back to Myst and Riven. When I first played Riven in the late 90’s, CD ROM was still how it was all done. By and by, we happened upon the discovery that one of the (five) discs that Riven ran on also had a demo for Legacy of Time.

Only in recent times and the rise of GOG.com was I able to chase it down and experience it in its entirety, and so I have.

In the Journeyman Project series, you play an agent of Earth’s Temporal Security Agency. Earth is a junior partner of an interstellar alliance called the Symbiotry. A traitor to the Agency, on the run since trying to sabotage Earth’s entrance into the Symbiotry, is trying to get your attention from across the millennia.

Now, an enemy is moving towards Earth which the Symbiotry is powerless to stop. The Symbiotry realize that they seek ‘the Legacy,’ a relic of a vanished ancient, advanced alien civilization that was deposited on Earth and its hiding place concealed from history. It exists in three parts, in times and places once thought to be myths: El Dorado, Atlantis and Shangri-La.

You have to travel to each of these time periods, interact with their inhabitants, learn their mythology, and, with the help of your AI partner Arthur, solve the myriad little puzzles standing between you and the safety of humanity.

This is much more the traditional point-and-click adventure game than Myst is. Unlike Myst, you collect an inventory of objects used to do anything from repairing a machine, reaching a lever, cutting a rope, or even bribing your way into somewhere. Some objects also go together to craft something you’ll need later, or are used in a different time period than where you find them.

From a gameplay point of view, the game has aged modestly well. As with Syberia, the process of moving around is cumbersome. Although from a first-person perspective, advancing to the next area is represented by a slow movement of the camera with a ponderous footstep effect. You can skip them by keeping one hand on the escape key, but nevertheless, it’s an unnecessary addition to what is essentially the same journey from still image to still image that Riven uses.

You can move at leisure between the three time periods if you get stuck and you’ll come back to the last point you left when you return.

The puzzles themselves are, for the most part, quite artful. In a number of cases, there is actually more than one variation on the solution. I first discovered this in Shangri-La. There, you have to lubricate a rusty prayer wheel that’s part of a sort of combination lock. I discovered in separate playthroughs that there are two ways to do this: either using a bowl of yak butter from Shangri-La itself, or one of olive oil from Atlantis. This ameliorates my big problem with Syberia, in that if one approach requires collecting an item that is easily overlooked, I still have a chance to solve it in a way that doesn’t involve scouring all three game worlds for whatever it is.

When you do get stuck, that’s largely what Arthur is for: he’s the hint machine. You can adjust in the game’s settings how much help he gives you, but he’ll give successive and more pointed hints on request if you’re really stumped. He also adds little witticisms and observations that are often based on the real histories of the civilizatons the game settings are based on. He kind of reminds me of Bob in the Dresden Files.

The downside is that the ‘witticisms’ can vary enormously from ‘actually pretty funny’ to ‘will you shut up already.’ It’s especially obnoxious in that it wrecks the tone from moment to moment. The first time you visit Shangri-La, shortly after its destruction (ever after you go back to before then) you find a dead monk, and Arthur is suitably sombre and horrified. Then a couple of moves later he’s declaring his desire to yodel into the Himalayas. Maybe his emotional subroutines are corrupted or something.

Otherwise, the character interactions are somewhat variable. Legacy is like Myst in that it uses real actors on a bluescreen and integrated into the environment – Full Motion Video – rather than building CGI characters – something that would have been really hard to do well at the time. You use your time travel suit to assume the appearance of people you meet, and interact with other people in their form. It has a strategic element, especially in Atlantis, because you get different results depending on who you pretend to be.

That said, it can be a bit of a guessing game chasing down which disguise will accomplish anything. I recognize one or two actors from 90’s shows like Star Trek: the Next Generaton, but the acting is forced or amateurish, though never to the point of seeming lazy. There’s a particularly quirky performance from the Lama of Shangri-La, whom Arthur dubs ‘Lama Blinky.’ I suspect the studio lights were getting in the actor’s eyes a bit. Mostly, though, the writing is just clunky. There’s a lot of what Tropers call ‘As You Know’ dialogue, with characters elaborating at length on things they know the person you claim to be already knows, or infodumping on you under a guise of idle chit-chat. It’s like an undercover mission in a kids’ tv show.

I must here give full credit to the game for doing something I didn’t think I had a right to expect: to the best of my knowledge, the actors are (mostly) from the right part of the world for the parts they’re playing. I kind of worried I was going to be watching a bunch of Anglo-Saxons in wigs and silly accents. But, judging from the surnames in the credits, the Atlanteans are mainly Greek, south European or Middle Eastern (or American immigrants therefrom, at least), the El Dorado people are Latin and/or Native American (I think), and the monks of Shangri-La are all East Asian (albeit not Tibetans or Nepalese). Not bad, considering. And, by and large, there’s not an excessive amount of stereotype. Talk of magic and spirituality isn’t much more pronounced in the Native Americans than in the other two groups. A couple of the Doradoans (Doradii? Doradoi?) seem a bit over the top, though. So far as I’m any judge, there is no particular Asian stereotype common to the Shangri-La characters. As for the Atlanteans, the only thing in the game that makes me cringe is the hammily cheerful African ferryman, who, while technically a slave, professes to be perfectly content with his lot. Swing, and a big, racist miss.

Visually, the game looks lovely. The graphics are low-res even by the standards of their time, but the designers lovingly studied the aesthetics of real-world civilizations to build these places. The Inca and Nazca lent a lot to El Dorado. If they’d had hot air balloons, this is what they’d have looked like, I daresay. Rather than do the usual thing and make Atlantis look like an idealized Classical city, they went for a lavish Minoan look. Much more plausible and unfamiliar to modern eyes. And, speaking as the grandson of a Buddhist, I had to laugh when I realized that the monastery of Shangri-La is basically the Potala Palace in Lhasa and the Boudhanath in Kathmandu in the wake of a head-on collision.

Actually, on that note, there’s something about this game that really jumped out at me. You remember how I said that you pick up some real-life historical trivia from Arthur pertaining to the real civilizations these settings were based on? Nowhere is that more true than in Shangri-La. Possibly because Tibetan civilization is better documented than Nazca or Minoan. Anyway, the game takes a stab at having educational content – it vaguely reminds me of Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego – but while you’ll pick up tidbits about ancient South America and the Mediterranean, this game contains virtually a grade-school level introduction to Tibetan Buddhism!

Talk to the Lama, and it’s all there: reincarnation, the Four Noble Truths, enlightenment, Nirvana. The whole shebang. The famous mantra Om Mani Padme Hum is even a key to one of the puzzles! I actually found out a few things about the mythology I hadn’t previously heard of.

It tickles my affections because Buddhism is the one religion I’ve ever even considered follwing, and as a secular code of ethics it still retains its charm. You can solve the three worlds in any order you like, but I think that the developers intended for you to do Shangri-La last – which I ended up doing in my first playthrough. The origins of the ancient alien artefact are expressed using the wheel of reincarnation as a metaphor, and there’s an extra step in finishing the level that’s analogous to enlightenment.

Which makes it a little distressing when you remember that you’re visiting all three civilizations a few days before their destruction. There’s no suggestion that we’re even trying to avert that and save all the characters we’ve gotten to know. If there’d been some kind of Temporal Prime Directive, as they say on Star Trek, that would’ve have at least acknowledged it. It’s a plot hole that jumped out at me my second run through, and left it with a rather melancholy air.

However, that omission aside, the game is quite clever, beautifully designed, and unexpectedly charming. Amateur-hour acting and writing aside, it’s a lot of fun, and kicks off a free-floating sense of nostalgia for a 90’s kid. Time travelling in pursuit of ancient alien artefacts was the kind of plot I’d have gone absolutely ga-ga over in those days. I’m glad I caught up with it.

Or it travelled through time via the GOG machine to catch up with me, I suppose.

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Posted by on July 18, 2016 in Video Game

 

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Terms of Enlistment: I’m On Board

I’m interested in writing, and if you want to write science fiction, then a handy resource is the website Atomic Rockets. Not exactly a wiki, but an extensive resource for scientific and artistic precedents for a number of tropes and tricks in the field of space settings, starships and futuristic tech.

Doing Science Fiction Spring a few months back gave me the idea of shopping around it looking for any names of authors I hadn’t heard of, and stumbled upon one that caught my eye as being a relatively recent military sci-fi, and a little different than most.

Terms of Enlistment by German-American author Marko Kloos features Andrew Grayson, a plebeian living in a decrepit, dead-end public housing project in the megacity that used to be Boston. He’s made up his mind to leave the foul air, squalid housing, black marketeering and inedible synthetic food dole to enlist in the military, as a way to make his fortune and as a final insult to his dying deadbeat father, who himself washed out of the Basic Training program.

Grayson endures the rigors of Basic, has a heady romance with a hotshot young pilot-to-be, and then is dismayed to find himself assigned to the Territorial Army, rather than to the spacegoing navy or marines. His duty is to fight agents of minor governments and rebels, proxies of the other super blocs running the Earth, and sometimes his own fellow plebs when they rise up.

However, following a disastrous fight against uncannily well-armed rioters in Detroit, Grayson narrowly avoids being scapegoated with the help of his highly-honoured sergeant and is transferred to being a technical rating in the navy. But no sooner are his beloved and he reunited than they are sent to a colony world under threat, and find themselves in the middle of the very first alien invasion humankind has ever undergone.

If I seem to have given a rather more indepth explanation of the plot than usual, it’s because any less would make this story seem a lot more two dimensional than it is. It’s written in first person, but otherwise is the first in a series written in the classic ‘Military Career’ narrative that includes such vaunted series as Horatio Hornblower, Sharpe and Honor Harrington.

In that context, the plot structure of the story is a bit odd. Not bad, just odd. Grayson starts out in the Territorials, has two engagements, is in the process of learning the ropes, hits his first crisis and…transfers to another branch. All the characters built up around him are set aside – not discarded, but no longer active in the story – and it’s as if it all starts over again. The author is playing a long game here, and one supposes that the first round of buildup is going to prove important later. Still, it would be nice if I had some assurance of that. My personal preference is that the first book in a series should be able to stand on its own. Sabriel is a good example of this, as are longer series like the Laundry and Dresden Files and the early Honor Harrington books. But even books like the Hunger Games or Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone are structured in such a way that the narrative is tied off at the end – you know there’s more to come, but you’ve been satisfied for the time being. Ending on a complete cliffhanger – also something Leviathan and Divergent do – don’t so much entice you to read the next book as require you to.

That said, if I was going to be required to read this series, I wouldn’t mind. It reminds me of a lot of things. The government dole and dilapidated housing Grayson rises from reminds me of the dolists from the People’s Republic of Haven in Honor Harrington. The dismal lifestyle on a polluted Earth and the popularity of exodus to new colonies among the stars evokes Blade Runner.

It’s interesting to note that the author has himself done soldiering. And that’s probably behind the fact that while it has resemblances to both, I find it more palatable than, say Ender’s Game or Starship Troopers (the movie, that is).

A lot of the story is taken up with Grayson’s endurance of Basic, the initial training course that tests new recruits before they’re dispatched to their service branches and more specialized training. But it’s kind of interesting and nuanced to show the trainers as tough-but-fair, the training intensive but not inhumane.

Despite occasional echoes of Nineteen Eighty-Four in the society – a huge underclass in a world of political super-blocs operating under limited rules of conflict – there is no political indoctrination or brainwashing. Despite the echoes of Ender’s Game – a young man confronted with the oncoming threat to humankind – the uniformed characters are rough-edged, flawed, but well-rounded characters, not a monotony of violent psychopaths. They also develop esprit de corps, respecting and working with each other, rather than being trained the Ender’s Game/Divergent way of fighting and bullying one another.

At the same time, the society has noticeably changed in positive ways as well. Nobody bats an eye at gender integration of the military – as in Starship Troopers, even the showers are co-ed – and enormous leaps in technology have taken place.

I suppose if anything I’m not completely sold on the nanny-state dystopia that Grayson grows up in, when a cyber punk coporatocracy a la Blade Runner seems a lot more relevant (and likely) at this point in history, and in the setting as depicted, but that’s dangerously close to the ‘not what I would have written’ style of critique. I do like the idea that terraforming other planets has rendered them habitable but not exactly familiar or pleasant, and the aliens are, to put it mildly, quite unusual.

This is a young adult book, I think. There’s very little nuanced political commentary of a work aimed at older readers. It is interesting and varied, not ultra-profound, but a fascinating everyman perspective, not relentlessly bleak or loudly ideological. At the same time, it is, essentially, a jolly good read.

 
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Posted by on August 12, 2015 in Book

 

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Jurassic World: Extinction of a Classic

I was six years old when Jurassic Park came out. As a young Dinosaur buff, this was a remarkable experience: iconic creatures of the ancient past brought to life in a way that totally blew away the lumbering, ungainly stop-motion lizards and puppets of productions past. It was a movie that helped define a generation, redefined the popular image of Dinosaurs and set a new standard for special effects. Given that stunning contribution, the very last thing we needed was another one… I admit, the raptor/Chris Pratt stuff was pretty cool. Just a pity this was the movie it was in…

Twenty years after the disaster on Isla Nublar, the original Jurassic Park has been replaced by Jurassic World, a massive and incredibly popular theme park. Eager to maintain their spectacular profits, they’ve taken things to the next level and created a new Dinosaur from scratch, Indominus rex, a super-dinosaur hybrid with the viciousness, size and cunning turned up to eleven. Owen Grady, an ex-serviceman and now Velociraptor trainer is forced into drastic action to protect the head administrator of Jurassic World, his sometime girlfriend, her nephews and all the innocent visitors from a gory doom, while opposing both the hubristic scientist Henry Wu, one of the masterminds of the original Jurassic Park project, and the bombastic corporate man who wants to militarize the Dinosaurs.

And it was with that last point that I realized why, in particular, this Jurassic Park sequel bugged me so much. Because it isn’t Jurassic Park, it’s Aliens. The Velociraptors are the Aliens, the Indominus is the Queen, the military/corporate guy is the military/corporate guy, and the strung-out, terrified business lady is…I dunno, the one Marine who starts crying and saying ‘this can’t be happening’ partway through? But instead of having memorable heroes played by the likes of Sigourney Weaver and Lance Henriksen, we’ve got Chris Pratt, generic white Anglo-Saxon protagonist #18445 and that neckbeard in the control room. And instead of Newt, the traumatized yet brave little girl, we have generic brothers-who-don’t-get-along set #11233.

A lot of people who share my interests were rolling our eyes at the fact that the franchise that once pioneered a new image for Dinosaurs has now gotten so attached to that image that they refuse to take a step beyond it by, for example, remembering to put feathers on the raptors. But that was by far the least of it. As a friend of mine mentioned after we’d left the cinema, a good marketing move would be to release a special cut of the movie that removes all the humans. Because the human characters are almost to the last individual rage-inducingly obnoxious.

Actually, Pratt’s character is alright if only because he’s the only one who acts like he has a brain and realizes how totally absurd everyone else’s behaviour is. The leading lady is that kind of headstrong (read: shrill) corporate-lady archetype with a cellphone always on the go, an inability to keep her word to children and a sense of dignity and poise about as firm and unwavering as a block of silky tofu. Although credit where it’s due, not many people can sprint or forge through the rainforest in stiletto heels. The CEO tries to act like he has principles and ethics but just comes across as a hotshot and a Modern Major General of the business world. When things start coming unravelled the military/corporate guy, already a blowhard, spends all his screentime gazing at the carnage like he’s trying desperately not to masturbate at the sight. Control-room-neckbeard-guy is only slightly above-average for the pathetic parody of milennials that we’re all routinely called upon to somehow find funny these days, and the kids are the stereotypes from every teen-with-a-kid-brother set from every movie ever.

What’s particularly bizarre is how the human characters keep stealing screen time from the Dinosaurs. In particular the kids: they’re there to spend time with their aunt (the shrill corporate lady) and doing their best to have fun while coping with the unspoken knowledge that their parents are finalizing a divorce in their absence. And my question is, why the hell is this even here? Do you think I showed up to a movie about genetically engineered Dinosaurs to listen to an angsty preteen and his indifferent big brother trying to bond? Their presence sort of serves the plot, in the same way that the two kids in the first movie did, but we didn’t require a lot of background on their home life for them to have character development in a situation that involved wilderness survival and Dinosaurs!

As for the Dinosaurs themselves, the raptors and the fictional Indominus are the only ones that spend the movie as more than window-dressing. It’s kind of funny how the T-Rex doesn’t really show up until the very end in a way that suggests the writers going, “Oh, crap, we just remembered this is a Jurassic Park movie!” The CGI is alright but very obvious compared to the animatronics of the original. The cinematography is of the Michael Bay cameraman-with-epilepsy school of not letting you get a really good look at the action or the CG creatures – which might explain why one character gets a howl of “IT CAN CAMOUFLAAAAGE” as his last words because it isn’t completely obvious at first that this is the case.

What gets me is that the first two Jurassic Park movies managed to drive a dramatic plot of being chased by Dinosaurs while still paying lip service to actual animal behaviour. In this movie – and this is also part of where the Aliens reference comes from – the Dinosaurs aren’t dangerous and extraordinary creatures, they’re just kind of…monsters. Even to the point of seeming evil at times. For example, when the pterosaurs (which are, admittedly, not Dinosaurs) get out of their enclosure, they immediately swoop, Hitchcock-esque, onto the public and start massacring them, because…reasons, I guess.

The first Jurassic Park movie (and arguably the second one) had a theme of wondering at these iconic animals from long ago whilst at the same time tragic in our inability to share a world with them, a doom brought back to life by corporate greed and hubris. At hardly any point in the movie are we invited to marvel at these creatures. The theme-park ambience removes any sense of discovering these animals in a natural state, something that again you get from the first two movies. Personally, I think a day at Jurassic World looks like it would be more exhausting and stressful than fun. And as for a theme against corporate greed and immorality? They seem to be trying for that (again aping Aliens) but it might have been a little more palatable if it wasn’t for the demented amount of product placement sharing the screen with it!

I’ve been saying for ages now that Hollywood seems determined to rehash, cheapen and homogenize every unique or outstanding thing they’ve ever created, and Jurassic World was exactly the committee-designed, money-grubbing piece of tripe I expected it to be. Jurassic Park was great because it was unique, cutting-edge and evoked a range of emotions. Jurassic World makes a ton of references, hangs them on a framework that is fundamentally identical to every action movie ever created (except Mad Max: Fury Road, of course) and doesn’t care if it actually achieves anything special or memorable or unique as long as the money rolls in. And if it doesn’t care, then why should I?

 
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Posted by on June 13, 2015 in Movie

 

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The Rhesus Chart: A Changing Trend

While this summer’s weather has thus far been rather disappointing, I will say that it delivered something I’ve been waiting eagerly for: the opportunity to follow up on some predictions I’ve made in the past.

Two weeks ago Charles Stross added a new volume to his Laundry Files novels, the Rhesus Chart, featuring Bob Howard, a geeky computer programmer and computational demonologist working for the Laundry, otherwise known as the Counter-Possession Unit of Special Operations Executive. Its mission: to defend the United Kingdom against the supernatural vermin from beyond spacetime that threaten to eat our brains.

To recap briefly, the Laundry novels are based in a Lovecraftian universe, which stresses how insignificant humankind is in the vast emptiness of the universe and the immensity of time. And then, it fills time and space up with a hierarchy of beings so anathema to humankind, that they’re dangerous even when they aren’t trying to be.

Initially, the Laundry books were a kind of spooky comedy – Bob’s dry sense of humour and pop-culture references form his coping mechanism and his work politicking stressed him out more than the supernatural alien horrors. Bob’s – and his wife’s – rising status in the organization has brought them into contact, not only with terrifyingly powerful intelligences from beyond, but also the humans who fall down and worship them, usually in nauseatingly cruel rites. And the ultimate cosmic alignment – ‘when the stars are right’ in Lovecraft’s language and CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN in Laundry codetalk – is beginning.

In the Rhesus Chart, Bob has begun to move up into management, and to experiment in the use of the powers his rise has brought with it. And from that point of view, things are amiss: his experiments in occult early warning systems end up exposing a frightening rash of deaths by intantaneous dementia, and the cause – a form of vampirism – is running up against some strange walls of denial inside his organization. Just to make it worse, Bob’s unstable ex-girlfriend, now employed by one of London’s major investment banks, is back on the inside, and she’s brought her blood-hungry team along with her…

The previous book, the Apocalypse Codex, struck me at the time as being a bit of a middle-chapter laying in a lot of stuff that needed doing before it could be applied to book-yet-to-come. And indeed, that seems to be the case: Bob’s marital tensions, his new ally Pete and new higher-up Lockhart were all introduced in the last book and most of the payoff is to be found in the Rhesus Chart.

And it seemed at first that the Rhesus Chart wasn’t going to get a whole lot further. For one thing, the number of times Stross has used the ‘internal threat’ storyline (four if you count the novellas) is getting a little wearisome. For another thing, while the intricacies of the previous books are part of the reason I have re-read them many times, I feel like this one has been bulked out with lots of ‘let’s recap’ conversations, to the point I can’t get lost because I’m being whacked around the head with the all the important points on a regular basis, as well as the personal drama that Bob contends with as his ex returns to the Laundry fold (see what I did there?) which doesn’t really seem to pay off, at least not yet. I’m also starting to detect what seems like the odd inconsistency: it sometimes seems like the nature of the Laundry org chart mutates every book, as do some of the rules and terminology of the organization, and Bob’s former manager, Andy (with whom he’s now on equal terms) seems to have lost several IQ points since last I saw him.

From a storytelling standpoint, the sense of creepiness-out-of-sight which is, I think, a key factor of Cosmic Horror, has been losing its efficacy a little since the last book since, although the remained in shadow from our perspetive, the villains and characters outside of Bob’s immediate circle have been getting chapters from their perspective a lot more. It’s been an odd change and one which is, to me, removing the creepiness that gave the books a lot of their punch.

That said, I’m enjoying Bob’s character development: as the stakes to Bob, personally, have gone up, he’s gotten a lot more focused. The humour has been dialling down slowly since the Fuller Memorandum, and it’s done so at a pace entirely appropriate to the rising stakes. The twist ending of this book, and the personal cost to Bob and his wife Mo, have done a great job of getting me excited for the next round. Bob’s changing perspective has been interesting as he advances up the ladder has been fascinating, and increases the foreboding for when CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN kicks off properly. The power play happening behind the scenes in the Laundry increases the sense of insignificance, and the cost has ramped up the tension for things to get really hairy – or tentacle-y – down the line.

While it’s not laugh-out-loud funny any more, the confluence of business and civil service procedure and supernatural weirdness continues to amuse – I particularly like the vampire team brainstorming sessions. All things considered, apart from some pop-culture references, including to Bob’s American counterpart, Harry Dresden, surprisingly little hay is made of all the vampire-related content, but it’s a geeky good time regardless.

So I’m seriously excited for how things are going. The maintenance of that excitement will be that the next book makes something of the various threads set up or spun through this book. Another small battle laying groundwork for the big showdown is, I think, going to be one too many and it will start feeling a bit workaday. But Stross has done well so far, so let us wait and see.

Just don’t sit with your back to any dimensional portals.

 
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Posted by on August 23, 2014 in Book

 

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Saturday Supplemental: A Brief History of Doctor Who

With yet another Doctor Who special on the books for this Christmas, I thought that, as with my comments on Star Trek, a little context might be called for.

As I’ve said before, there are three franchises that set the style for popular science fiction: Star Wars, Star Trek, and Doctor Who. Of the three, Doctor Who is the oldest, starting on the BBC in 1963. Two schoolteachers, curious about the uncanny knowledge of one of their pupils, follow her to her home, which turns out to be a police telephone booth. Or so it seems. Within, it is in fact an enormous, impossibly advanced machine, able to travel instantly through space and time, called the TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimensions In Space). And its master is an eccentric scientist known only as the Doctor.

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From top left: 1. William Hartnell 2. Patrick Troughton 3. Jon Pertwee 4. Tom Baker 5. Peter Davison 6. Colin Baker 7. Sylvester McCoy 8.Paul McGann 9. Christopher Eccleston 10. David Tennant 11. Matt Smith…12. Peter Capaldi still pending

Over time, we learned that the Doctor is in fact an alien; a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey, a freethinking, good-hearted (and also two-hearted) voluntary exile from a society once described as ‘dusty old senators,’ with an offbeat intellect and strong sense of right and wrong. He’s regularly accompanied by at least one or two, usually younger, female companions whom he can explain things to, and thus to the audience. He has a recurring rogue’s gallery: the genocidal Daleks, the implacable Cybermen, and his dark counterpart, renegade Time Lord the Master.

This was, and is, the most basic formula of the show. Not much else about it is constant. Doctor Who in its original form was a really long-runner, from 1963 to 1989. William Hartnell, known ever since as the First Doctor, was nearing the end of his career (and, sadly, his life) when he started the role. When he left in 1966, it was revealed (that is, invented) that Time Lords had multiple (later specified to 13) lives. At the end of each, he would ‘regenerate,’ altering his appearance and the balance of his personality. Altogether, there were seven Doctors in the original run of the series.

It’s difficult, given its scale, to encapsulate what Doctor Who is. As I said in my Day of the Doctor article, it was basically a scenario upon which a great diversity of stories could be grafted, but it lacked the explicit mission statement of Star Trek. It was a lot more flexible because it wasn’t designed specifically to showcase an idealism or vision of any sort.

Which isn’t to say it couldn’t do that. The 3rd Doctor serial “Doctor Who and the Silurians” could almost have been a Star Trek episode. And while it looked campy as heck even in the late 80s, the anti-Thatcher and pro-gay rights subtext of the 7th Doctor’s “The Happiness Patrol” was, I thought, quite impressive.

The usual framework was, and remains: the TARDIS appears somewhere, the Doctor finds out that the people who live there have a problem, with mysterious disappearances/alien attacks/whatever. The Doctor investigates, his companion in tow, finds a solution that either sets things right or, perhaps more often, clears the way for the locals to do it themselves, and then he moves on.

After that, each story is probably best appreciated on its own merits. I’ve seen at least some episodes of Doctors 3, 4, 5, 7, 9, 10 and 11, and there’s something to be said for all of them. They can range from drama (“The Curse of Peladon”) to comedy (“The Sun Makers”) to horror (“Blink”). Still, I think a lot of people would agree that the heyday of the classic series was the period from 1971 to 1984, the tenures of Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker and Peter Davison.

The first two Doctors, William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton seem less thoroughly remembered. They lacked the distinctive costumes of their successors, a lot of the mythology hadn’t evolved yet; their episodes haven’t held up as well because they’re in black and white; and, indeed a number of their serials were destroyed in a BBC archives purge. Happily, though, a number of them have since been recovered or reconstructed. Troughton did become a big hit on the convention circuit once it began. He was actually at one when he died.

Pertwee was the first Doctor to become iconic in the role to the point of typecasting (luckily, he loved being the Doctor) and his tenure is defined by a strong focus on his character and many benchmark moments for him, including the introduction of his most beloved companion, Sarah Jane Smith. It also spent some time with him grounded on Earth and working with the special ops group UNIT, which framed a lot of somewhat politically loaded stories concerning military responses, human fallibility and interpersonal drama.

Baker captured the darkly comedic, countercultural side of the character with his off-the-cuff lunacy, insanely long scarf and tendency to offer a candy to any passing monstrosity. For a long time, if you asked most people to think of Doctor Who, they’d picture him. He ultimately held the post the longest, at seven years, and his serials contained a greater variety in content, setting and themes than Pertwee’s. Incidentally, it was during this period that Douglas Adams spent time as the series’ writer and script editor.

Davison was a younger, more big-brotherly Doctor, and arguably one of the first attempts to make him a genuinely conflicted character. Baker had his melancholy, even disturbing side, but Davison’s Doctor could sometimes be excessively soft-hearted and naive. Also he wore a celery stalk on his lapel for some reason.

An eccentricity that may have been a bit ominous, because, it is generally agreed, the low point for the series came with the advent of Colin Baker (no relation to Tom) as the Sixth Doctor. This was through no fault of his, I should say, but of assorted political and creative wranglings in the BBC and an ongoing effort to re-tool and ‘brand’ the series. The Doctor now had a dreadfully loud technicolour outfit, a lot of villains and plot elements from previous Doctors started getting recycled, sometimes to excess, and the use of companions as sexy fanservice had markedly increased. The Doctor could exhibit deeply unsettling outbursts and his serials became very dark and violent. Baker only lasted two seasons and was replaced by the Seventh Doctor, Sylvester McCoy (or Radagast the Brown, as he’s known these days).

The branding efforts continued, notably with a costume festooned in question marks. The dark side was rolled back, though not eliminated. It regained some thoughtful depth (sometimes at the cost of coherence) and was also the first to dabble in mythology arcs. Ultimately, the series ended in 1989, returning briefly to introduce an 8th Doctor, Paul McGann, for a TV movie in 1996.

We shall never know where any of the hints dropped in McCoy’s day might have led, and in any case to try and establish a continuity for Doctor Who at that late stage seems a bit pointless. So many hands contributed to it over so long that which mythology additions and story elements stuck and which got retconned out of existence was pretty much a crapshoot. The rules of time travel were whatever the current serial’s plot required, and the Doctor could utterly defeat, say, the Daleks or Cybermen a hundred times and still run into them again. The purely episodic style meant that cast changes, be it the Doctor or his companions, are often abrupt and seem rather dismissive.

Go through the whole series and count how many aliens left racial memories or secret plans for their return on Earth; “the Daemons,” “Pyramids of Mars,” “Image of the Fendahl,” “City of Death,” “the Stones of Blood,” “Battlefield,” “the Satan Pit.” That hair guy on Ancient Aliens never had it so good. While the show often professed a respect for science and reason over tyranny and violence, it was at best dodgy on hard scientific or historical accuracy.

Among the few points that stuck were the 12-regeneration limit (“Keeper of Traken”) the fact that they have two hearts (“the Daemons”) and the origin story for the Daleks. That is, their second origin story, in “Genesis of the Daleks.”

Probably what will put a lot of people off it today is the special effects, which are limited and crude by today’s standards, as can be the overacting that goes on in reaction to them. I like the creativity of them, myself. I may not look at them as say “oh, that’s realistic,” but I do tend to say, “oh that’s a very clever way to do that.” I think that in those days, TV had more in common with theatre than, as now, with movies. They ask, as Shakespeare did, for you to ‘eke out [their] performance with your mind.’

The lack of a rigid mythology is frustrating, but also liberating in a show this long. The fans can indulge, relish the scraps of mythology that they find personally compelling. It can be, and is, many things to many people.

In 2005 Russel T. Davies achieved a dream of his, to bring Doctor Who back afresh, and he did this while attempting to marry the old traditions and the new. The Doctor was the wandering adventurer, with a companion or two in tow, finding all manner of alien menaces and saving people and planets, usually Earth.

He also began to build a clearer continuity, something expected of television series in the new century; now the Doctor was the last Time Lord, having wiped out both his own people and the Daleks in a last-ditch attempt to halt a terrible war. So far we’ve seen a Ninth, Tenth and Eleventh Doctor each going through quite compelling phases of coping with that experience. It lent the series a new emotional punch, something which Tennant seemed to capture particularly well, along with reflecting a lot of the best of the eccentric comic Doctors. With the advent of Matt Smith as the 11th Doctor, Davies handed the torch off to his writer, Steven Moffat.

The new series has distinguished itself with a regard for the effect of big cosmic events on the little people, examining the consequences – not always positive – of the Doctor’s impact in the long term, and his adventures’ impact on him. Eccleston’s (9th) high point was in “The Doctor Dances” when he exclaims “Just this once, everybody lives!” It’s further exemplified in Smith’s premier episode, when he says “In 900 years of time and space, I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t important.” It also explores the relationship between the Doctor and his companions, who are often his moral compass and foil, as well as exposition conduits.

Having said that, the new series is attracting its share of criticism, especially since Moffat took over. A lot of them, I feel, can be traced to the attempt to make a cohesive long-term story arc and mythology, because after having burst in shining colours in every direction for 26 years, trying to get Doctor Who to turn into a unified laser beam of a story causes a lot of collateral damage.

There’s been a creeping tendency throughout the new series that got really bad late in Tennant’s run for the Doctor to exhibit a sort of machismo about his status as the hero of the piece. Similarly, his sidekicks have gotten increasingly worshipful of him. In a way, this makes sense, given the cumulative effect of his adventures, but in “Day of the Doctor” we can see that it’s getting the better of storytelling.

This seeps over into an increasingly violent show: gunplay has been introduced, albeit often not the Doctor doing it, in ways that make it cool and heroic (“Time of Angels,” “A Town Called Mercy”) whereas when Eccleston picked up a gun (“Dalek”) it was a clear sign there was something wrong with him. A shocking deviation from, as Tennant so excellently put it, “a man who never would.”

And, much like in the late 80s, the series is beginning to repeat itself a fair bit. One of the things that cooled me on the show was that the seasonal arcs, always promising something dreadful and profound happening, fell into a pattern of the entire Earth/Universe being menaced by a monster. You start to wonder how the Doctor gets any sleep without the cosmos imploding. The recycling of monsters themselves was getting wearisome.

Especially the Daleks. For perspective, consider: the 4th Doctor, in 7 years, fought the Daleks twice. Doctors 9-11, in the same span, have fought them eight times. And this is after they were supposedly wiped out in the Time War and, seemingly, wiped out again in “Bad Wolf” and then again in “The Stolen Earth.” Obviously this was common practice in the old days (but even then), but back then we weren’t trying to build a consistent story arc.

The stakes oftentimes felt a bit toothless anyway because of the prevalance of excuse-by-technobabble and Deus Ex Machina devices (several of them at once in some cases). Look at the sonic screwdriver. Believe it or not, the Doctor actually used it to undo screws once in while in the old days. Now it’s a magic wand that abuses suspension of disbelief beyond all tolerance.

The point where I finally quit watching was “the Hungry Earth” which re-introduces the Silurians and the 11th Doctor’s efforts to avert a war between them and humanity. We already saw this! The Third Doctor did this (twice, if you count “the Sea Devils”), and did it well, no matter how bad the special effects were! It indicates both a dearth of ideas and, despite the enthusiasm of the writers in general, is a bit disrespectful of the character’s heritage.

Strangest of all, to me at least, has been the use of romantic tension. The character of River Song, teased along as the Doctor’s destined wife, was prefaced by companion Martha’s torch for him, and even earlier by an unfulfilled mutual attraction between the Doctor and Rose.

The BBC during the 70s and 80s forbade such teases because it was considered family entertainment (albeit with companions like Leela and Peri who dressed “for the dads” as they described it) so it was deemed improper for there to be any suggestion of “hanky-panky in the TARDIS.” Thus has it been that the Doctor was an asexual character, which was sometimes used to underscore his alienness. In principle I don’t object to this content (except to the stupid phallic humour around the sonic screwdriver), but I have to ask: why did this need to be here? Do romance subplots have to be put in everything? Why wasn’t the Doctor as friend, teacher and enigma good enough?

River Song’s especially irritating because the way she upstages the Doctor left me, in “Time of Angels” feeling like I was watching the show that Moffat wanted to be making, instead of Doctor Who! Even in the old days, the companions, male or female, could be at least basically intelligent, decent people. Moffat’s women are, infamously, cardboard cutouts, and the way the Doctor and other men behave around them reflects a dunderheaded Mars/Venus sitcom dynamic. I knew we were in trouble when River said of the trademark TARDIS sound, “It’s not supposed to make that noise: YOU leave the brakes on!” This is Doctor Who, not How I Met Your Mother!

He also has a tendency (done three times now) to have the Doctor meet his companions as children, make a deep impression on them, and then meet them again after they’ve grown up, inevitably as highly sexualized adults, deftly upgrading from absurd to creepy.

So Doctor Who is in trouble: the writing quality is suffering, partly from being marketed to what marketing people think of as 20-somethings, partly from excessive enthusiasm and flat-out bad writing. The long arcs became attempts to disguise vagueness as profundity, and often conflict with the, occasionally rather distasteful, short-run gags and gimmicks in certain episodes. The CG effects are generic and tiresome, and so, increasingly, are the stories. The attempts to build huge epics while at the same time trying to tell the unconstrained-by-canon stories of the classic series, are causing more clutter than coherence, even to the point that the number of Doctors is suddenly up in the air. The attempts to brand the series with two very similar, young Doctors while at the same time fetishizing the Doctor out of proportion to his actual (considerable) appeal are a combination of new vices and the ones that afflicted it in the late 80s. I also fear that it causes even fans to dismiss the storytelling, creativity and performances of the classic series because it’s ‘old,’ while neglecting their great merits.

But it need not be past saving. No Doctor hasn’t had at least one good adventure. I have hopes that the new, older Doctor will sober things down a bit, and help recapture the older traditions.

Doctor Who is, and has always been, a show with near infinite possibilities, a male lead who (usually) stands out for his intellect and nonviolent ways, in contrast to many such leads in fiction, and, I might add, the most epic theme song ever created.

Merry Christmas

 
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Posted by on December 21, 2013 in Saturday Supplemental, Television

 

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