Monday 30 June 2014

Painting challenge failed satisfactorily

(It has to be admitted I've actually forgotten how my camera works, its been so long since I finished a model. Still, photos should improve again with practice.)

My determination to finish a 16-man unit in a day failed but, as the title, suggests I failed to a satisfactory standard. I got the base colours and inks done on every model, drybrushed the fleshtones and bows and even got the monk finished.

I got a bit obsessed with the monk, in all honesty, probably because I was watching Cadfael as I painted. He's hardly a production number but I feel I did good work on him. Most likely he'll pull double duty amongst my bowmen and in the Stirwood Outlaws warband I'm building for a local Mordhiem campaign. I've always loved the little extras you get on the Bretonnian command sprues: the monk, the mangy dog, the keg of ale, the snail. Yes, there really is a snail on the Peasant command sprue.

Learnt a few lessons, too. Doing the block colours as a 16-man batch was challenging given the different sculpts in the set but for the details I'll work on one design at a time. With any luck I'll be able to finish off the detail work in a couple of afternoon sessions.

After that I'll move up the social order somewhat and make a start on my Knights Errant.

Sunday 29 June 2014

One Day Speed Painting Challenge

So for the first time in a while it's Sunday and I have nothing to do. No barbecue to go to, no friends around this weekend, no family obligations, nothing needs cleaning or washing. What's more the weather has turned grotty so going for a nice walk is sort of a non-starter.

What I do have is the grey horde of Bretonnia sitting there atop my shelves, their longbows, polearms and lances pointed at me accusingly. I really need to get some of these things painted, break the block that's settled on my hobby over the last month.

Right: one wet Sunday, a stack of Companion Chronicles to listen to, 16 Peasant Bowmen and a vague sense of how I want to paint them (Artois heraldry: red and black). Results posted Monday. 

Saturday 28 June 2014

Saturday Teatime 1.1: An Unearthly Child

Well, one of the first things to note here is that I watched the untransmitted pilot version completely by mistake. I was going to skip it and start with the transmitted first episode but those jolly people at 2Entertain had other ideas and included the pilot on the Play All function.

(A quick note about what we mean by the “pilot episode” here. This name was given retrospectively and isn't how the episode was intended. It wasn't a proof of concept piece like, say, the hour-long version of Sherlock: A Study In Pink. This was filmed for transmission and remounted due to technical issues. If it had gone off without a hitch it would have been the one and only version of An Unearthly Child. As it is those issues arose and the opportunity was taken to tweak the script and direction for a second shoot. For reasons we'll most likely return to throughout the black-and-white series this was actually easier to do than just re-filming the scenes affected by technical issues.)

On the one hand this mistake enhances the project and on another compromises it fatally. There are interesting observations to be made on how the second, transmitted version polished the first (and we'll get there) but it also means that my first stop on this project to experience Doctor Who as a linear, evolving text was an episode that doesn't actually contribute to that evolution. Still, this is where we are and I can no more pretend my reading of An Unearthly Child isn't informed by the pilot than I can pretend it isn't informed by the other twenty-plus years of my fandom.

One of the things seeing the pilot reveals is that from day one the idea of a hostile, untrustworthy Doctor was something the production team knew couldn't last. This is perhaps the greatest shift between the two versions of An Unearthly Child: the Doctor's reaction to Ian and Barbara intruding on his life is markedly different.

In the pilot the Doctor is hostile from the off: confrontational with Ian and Barbara and outwardly cruel to Susan when we finally enter the TARDIS. He even calls her a “stupid child!”. Given the previous scenes lead us to suppose Susan is locked in a perfectly mundane police box it even seems likely he might hit her. In the final version Hartnell is more whimsical through these scenes. He's condescending, yes, but with an edge of charm and when he tells Ian “You don't understand and I knew that you wouldn't.” it hardly seems malicious, just weary and amused. Oddly, in the pilot, it's clear the Doctor kidnaps Ian and Barbara to prevent their knowledge of the TARDIS from contaminating history whilst the second version has him panic and take off so Susan won't leave him. Wait, hang on...

Pull back a second, I'm ignoring half the episode and focussing on the Doctor, which is more than An Unearthly Child ever does so rewind and start again. Set the co-ordinates for 5.16pm on Saturday 23rd November 1963 and see the moment for what it really is:

What we have is 25 minutes of television based on slowly increasing weirdness in which the Doctor is one of the last elements introduced. The title, delivered within a bewilderingly psychedelic effects sequence and to the strains of gloriously weird music, has an implied question mark attached to it. The Doctor, rather the fact that Susan's grandfather is a doctor, gets a mention in Ian's first scene (the episode's third) but even when Hartnell appears his link to the mentioned grandfather is obscure for several minutes.

So absent the Doctor, lacking even that name when he appears, what do we have? The episode is named for Susan, Barbara is the first named character to get a line (the actual first line goes to a random schoolboy who says “Oooh, yes,” in a very camp manner over a girl's shoulder) and Ian seems to rank equal to her as a fellow investigator.

The first element to be introduced is an unexplained police telephone box (free for use of public, officers and cars respond to urgent calls) in the middle of a junkyard, a junkyard whose gates open of their own accord to let the camera in. It's that last detail that makes the junkyard into an uncanny space and lends the police box some mystique once the camera chooses it as a focus. The camera zooms in on the police box doors, blurs and resolves again into a school noticeboard. We go from the uncanny space of inexplicably mysterious police boxes to the mundane world of school sports, house news and camp schoolboys mocking girls in the corridors.

Susan intrudes on this world: a girl who knows too much about science and too little about the ordinary world. Her very ordinary teachers, Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright, are suspicious and decide to follow her home. The story makes a point of contrasting Susan with her teachers: whilst Susan dances as if mesmerised by everyday music we get lines that establish Ian as the cool teacher who knows about pop singers and Barbara as the maternal sort who lends books and offers extra tutoring.

So the two ordinary characters follow the uncanny one home, leaving their space and entering hers: the junkyard at 76 Totters Lane. Reasons for Susan's behaviour, or parts of her behaviour, are offered by both teachers: Ian declares she's a genius, Barbara implies parental neglect for Susan's social oddities and they briefly wonder if it all might just be down to that most mundane explanation of teenage strangeness: a boy. Nevertheless, they follow her into the junkyard, into her space and gradually the ordinary world recedes. Strange objects scattered through junkyard lead to the entrance of the mysterious grandfather and a confrontation that sees Barbara barge straight out of “our” world and into the most uncanny space yet: the TARDIS console room, bigger on the inside than the out.

From a modern perspective you'd be forgiven for assuming the series will continue as this episode sets out: with Susan as the focus. It isn't an unfamiliar set-up these days: we have a “special” person and two perceptive but outwardly ordinary people of either gender who fall into her orbit and thus into her adventures. It's a familiar set-up from any number of teen genre shows these days: Buffy The Vampire Slayer in particular. The not-unnatural assumption is that Ian and Barbara will discover Susan's “Unearthly” secret and perform the dual role of sidekicks and emotional support network in her adventures as Willow and Xander do in Buffy, or Chloe Sullivan and Pete Ross in the early seasons of Smallville.

So who is the mysterious grandfather in this formulation? Taking our two modern examples above he can either be a knowledgeable, guiding figure like Buffy's Rupert Giles or an antagonistic one like Smallville's Lex Luthor. Given the Doctor's behaviour in this episode either option is available.

It can't last, of course. We're decades away from the makers of such series making the leap of realising that younger viewers will empathise more with a younger leading protagonists so episode title or no episode title Susan is not destined to be our hero. Protagonist rights will settle on Ian as action man before finally resting on the Doctor's shoulders when he becomes the single enduring character the series has to offer. Susan's agency will be a sticking point in a lot of the next ten essays but I'm going to make a statement right now:

I don't believe Susan Foreman would have worked out better as a boy. The problem isn't that she's female given the praise anyone who does one of these projects reserves for Jacqueline Hill as Barbara. A female character doesn't need to be treated the way the series will treat Susan, especially on Verity Lambert's watch. The problem is that she is young, in particular that she's the Doctor's granddaughter. We'll revisit this theme I'm sure, as all criticism of Susan necessarily focusses on it, but the familial link makes her subordinate in an unavoidable way. With the three other regulars all being older than her and all possessed of a role that makes them socially responsible for her she doesn't have much chance of agency at this stage in the history of storytelling. This would be equally true for Samuel Foreman as it is for Susan Foreman.

With which thought we close out the episode on desolate plain in an unknown time and place with a sinister shadow creeping across the ground towards that uncanny police box...

Next Episode: 100,000 BC

Friday 27 June 2014

Time, Space and Saturday Teatime prologue

This is a project I've been meaning to get around to for years: a full watch-through of classic Doctor Who from An Unearthly Child to the 1996 TV Movie stopping at all stations.

Why am I doing this? Well, I'd bet my view of the new series would be different if I'd watched it in random order over the course of over half my life. I saw my first Doctor Who story (Planet of the Daleks, as it happens) in 1992 when I was nine and watched the recently rediscovered The Enemy Of The World three weeks ago. Aside from that one unreleased episode of The Underwater Menace it took me 21 years to experience the complete canon in no real order and at the whim of the BBC's video and DVD schedule.

So now I have the chance: the very-nearly-almost complete canon of surviving episodes on shiny disc and a full set of Loose Cannon missing episode reconstructions. As I say, I've seen it all before but never in order, the way a series is supposed to be experienced.

As a project this is, of course, inspired and indebted to those who have gone before: Robert Shearman and Toby Hadoke's Running Through Corridors (which someday might even reach its second volume), Hannah J. Rothman's Twitter Who (which recently did), Lawrence Miles and Tat Wood's About Time and Philip Sandifer's TARDIS Eruditorum (currently hosted at his blog Philip Sandifer Writer). I heartily recommend all of them.

Much as I love Sandifer's essays its Rothman's approach I intend to imitate. This here is one fan's journey through 697 episodes of Doctor Who, seeing how I experience it as a series rather than as isolated stories.

And tomorrow we begin, at that mysterious junkyard at 76 Totter's Lane...

Next Episode: An Unearthly Child

Thursday 26 June 2014

Audio review: The New Adventures of Bernice Summerfield

I approached this box set with mixed feelings. On the one hand I grew up reading the New Adventures novels, I have immense nostalgia for them. On the other, Big Finish's revisitations of the era have been of mixed quality to say the least. The sticking point has usually been Ace, her New Adventures version being so different from either Sophie Aldred's TV portrayal or the one she's developed in the years since. Hardly a surprise, then, that she's always had trouble capturing a character whose development she entirely skipped. There's also the matter that reverting Bernice's ongoing adventures to a Doctor Who series could be a massive backwards step for the character.

Over its four episodes this box set addresses my concerns one-by-one. For a start the box isn't set during the New Adventures but in Bernice's later life. The set opens with The Revolution by Nev Fountain which very much sets up the fact that no matter whose name comes higher on the cover this is a Bernice Summerfield series guest-starring the Doctor and Ace. Bernice is the first character to appear and when the Doctor does turn up he's not at his best: recovering from cryogenic freezing, confused and without a plan.

The core of The Revolution is a comedy religion versus comedy science plot but its main job is to establish the Doctor and Benny's relationship. It's also good to see McCoy playing comedy scenes in a New Adventures nostalgia trip. The “Dark Doctor” might be the New Adventures legacy that's widely remembered but there were as many stories where the Seventh Doctor was a lighter, comedic figure as in the darker vein. Kate Orman books, in particular. God, I miss Kate Orman books.

The “this is a Bernice Summerfield story for definite” vein continues with Good Night Sweet Ladies by Una McCormack which has Bernice flying determinedly solo. Broadly speaking its a ghost story but spoilers forbid me from revealing who the ghost is. Curiously, though, of the four stories this is the one most based in the history of Bernice in the New Adventures.

Ace turns up in Random Ghosts by Guy Adams on a world where everyone wakes without memories of the previous days they spent on the planet. They all have recording devices that remind them of events every morning. The story skips from scene to scene without giving establishing context which is dislocating but, ultimately, not too hard to follow. It's actually interesting to see at what point the characters begin to edit their “reminders”, to consciously remove their bad memories. Bernice even has a relationship here and wonders about how valid it is, since their history as a couple is essentially reported to her every morning instead of actually experienced.

Random Ghosts also does a better job than usual getting Bernice and Ace's relationship to work: close but fractious, two experienced adventurers with very different methods. The portrayal of Ace also pretty much sidesteps the problems I mentioned above. This isn't “Space Ace” of the New Adventures but rather the Ace briefly glimpsed in UNIT: Dominion (a box set with a whole lot of continuity oddities but damn entertaining). It might come off a little odd to old foggies like me who remember the hardened space marine she became but the fact is those books are about twenty years old and not as well remembered by fandom at large as they are by me. Certainly given past attempts to capture the book version of Ace I'll take a version that doesn't quite fit continuity but that Sophie Aldred can play.

Which brings us to the final play: The Lights Of Skaro by James Goss. A Dalek story, you'll be unsurprised to discover, and so a story that plugs a visible gap in the New Adventures canon. Virgin never came to an agreement with Terry Nation for use of the Daleks so they made a few background appearances but never featured in a full novel (to be honest I don't know if Virgin Books even tried to get a license our of Nation). Bernice's mother was killed when the Daleks conquered the colony they lived on and her father went missing in a space battle against a Dalek fleet.

The scene where Bernice meets the Dalek Emperor is pure gold and some of the best acting I've seen from Lisa Bowerman even after all these years.

The Lights Of Skaro ties the cast together at last: Bowerman, McCoy and Aldred reunited. Having spent three hours setting up the separate components of the cast and their relationships (except the well-established relationship between Ace and the Seventh Doctor) it all comes together beautifully. Terry Molloy's cameo at the start of the disc is odd and seems to go nowhere, though, and I wonder if I'm missing something.

All three characters have long established relationships with the Daleks and Lights covers all of them, in some cases from both directions. There have been a lot of stories dealing with how the Doctor views the Dalek but here Goss does a great job looking at the long history the Daleks have with the Doctor. There's even an explanation of why there were sculptures in the Dalek city during their first story. That might sound like fan wank on an epic scale but believe me its a very significant scene.

Being a Doctor Who and not a Bernice Summerfield set there's an Extras disc which I admit to only half listening to in hopes there'd be some news of whether there was going to be a return to series as it left off in Missing Persons. Not that I'd mind more New Adventures audios in this vein given the evidence, I just miss Peter. 

Wednesday 25 June 2014

On wargamer generosity

It is a truth universally acknowledged amongst wargamers that a backlog is inevitable. Things get bought on impulse or you get something to expand an army before moving off in a different direction or even on to another army. Thus we wargamers usually have a few (okay, a lot of) useless models lying around waiting for the day we "get around" to them.

There is an alternative, of course: make the backlog somebody else's problem. So it was that I was at a barbecue on Saturday, telling my friend Dave I was considering resurrecting my Ork army for 7th ed. "Considering", mind you! Half an hour later he presents me with a cardboard box containing about 30 Boyz, 5 Nobz, 4 Burna Boyz and their mandatory Mek, a converted Warboss, a very dusty Trukk, a very lonely Bomb Squig and that really cool Space Marine Terminator Chaplain (I checked, he did want to give me that). Surprised, I remembered that he's planning an Imperial Guard detachment for his Dark Angels and offered to hunt up some Cadian Shock Troops I bought for my Lost And The Damned and never built.

I don't know if it's just my immediate circle of wargaming friends that are this generous but this isn't a rare scenario. Payment isn't even always necessary. Back in January my friend and eternal rival Matt fell in love with the new Dwarfs and decided to start an army. I reminded him I had some Dwarfs I hadn't used in years and said he was welcome to them.

"Some", incidentally, was the better part of a hundred. Aside from a few character models I was fond of I handed him a complete army. Financially speaking I probably did myself out of two or three hundred quid there.

It all comes around, though, and that's the thing, I'm sure some day Matt will end up putting something he finds useless my way. Quite besides which those hundred Dwarfs were doing me no good where they were: in a shoe box, under my bed just waiting for a family of spiders to see its real estate potential. I hadn't used the army for the better part of six years and even then I played maybe half a dozen games before realising that a slow-moving missile-heavy army wasn't to my taste. It felt like a change of pace when I bought it but it just didn't suit me.

(This isn't me saying Dwarfs are poorly designed just that the style doesn't suit bloodthirsty, combat-lovin' me.)

So, yes, now I suppose I'm committed to an Ork army. 

Monday 23 June 2014

Comics Ramble: Black Canary and Zatanna: Bloodspell by Paul Dini

or, Paul Dini joins the resistance against the New 52

Paul Dini is certainly no stranger to the concept of reboots: he was one of the prime architects behind the DC Animated Universe of the 1990s/early-2000s and with his comics he tends towards an accessible style of done-in-ones that very consciously work on their own rather than as part of a larger continuity. He loves his mythos as much as the next comics pro but he's always been magnificently unconcerned with what such-and-such character did in so-and-so issue of whatever title a few years ago.

Part of this is how he came up in DC: Batman The Animated Series used broad archetypes of the established characters and worked them up from there, contradicting and adding to the original concept as they went and they were so good half of it was incorporated into the comics. Reboots, or at least self-contained storytelling, is Dini's established wheelhouse.

So you can imagine my slight surprise when Dini puts out a book that ignores the blank slate of the New 52.

Okay, brass tacks: Bloodspell opens with Zatanna and Black Canary's first meeting when Zee was a child and moves to the near-present with Dinah foiling a casino robbery, a case that turns mystical on her and so she teams up with Zatanna. This is all very much in Dini's style: a clean, crisp rendition of a classic team-up structure (Type A character on Type A case that becomes Type B case, enter Type B character) but spruced up a bit.

The sprucing up takes the form of delightful character set pieces including our heroes goofing off in a toy store and flashbacks to past meetings. One of the best scenes, for my money, is Zee's first day in the Justice League when she was “a geeky newbie sporting a terrified smile and the worst 'grown-up' hairdo I'd ever seen”, according to Black Canary. It's this scene more than any other that wears its pre-Flashpoint colours on its sleeve with cameos from J'onn, Ralph Dibny and a Z-list villain called the Key. We even get to see Dinah's terrible JLI-era costume in a later scene, plus she teams up with “her” Green Arrow for a few pages.

You can see where I'm going with this: the presentation isn't just pre-Flashpoint, it's aggressively pre-Flashpoint.

Not that it's pointless, the pre-Flashpoint setting lends the story emotional context. As far as I'm aware the New 52 versions of Dinah and Zee have never met whereas here their friendship is old enough and deep enough that they can go shopping together; talk to one another as equals; have funny stories about each other; and one can talk to the other whilst she's in the bath without it being weird.

This all could have been left out, though. Ultimately, Ollie doesn't need to be there: aside from a short scene of pillow talk his plot functions could be taken over by Batgirl (and even then I don't think there'd be many complaints...). Dini writes completely original flashbacks to his title characters' earlier meetings: modern Zee could have encountered the Birds Of Prey or consulted on a mystical-themed mission for Team 7. It doesn't even call back to Dini's previous run on Zatanna's solo series. This could be tweaked into a New 52 story with relative ease.

I wouldn't care as much, though, would I?

This continues an odd theme from DC's “Digital First” anthologies Legends Of The Dark Knight and Adventures Of Superman that whilst the mainstream of DC's output is focussed on building a new continuity in the Dini/Timm mould building from the archetypes up, re-visitations of their old continuity have emerged as a new form of fanservice.

Yes, this started off as a review but it rather got away from me. That's why I call these posts “Rambles” instead of reviews. You want the review part of the review then the bottom line is this: it's fun, it's frothy, it's self-contained with an efficiently written plot and well-honed characterisation plus a nice magical mystery woven in but any element of that description was pretty obvious from the sentence “Black Canary and Zatanna: Bloodspell by Paul Dini”.