Friday 11 July 2014

Teatime Extra: Historical Reconstruction (The Missing Episodes)

This is a pertinent one because I want to do a complete watch-through and obviously there's a big stumbling block of those 97 episodes the BBC taped over, incinerated or just plain lost. This is an improvement, of course, and the number was a lot higher when I first became a fan. Its a disappointment every new fan experiences to find that you physically can't appreciate the whole of the series you've fallen in love with.

We're in a better position than most, though. The missing episodes of say, The Avengers, are simply gone. The missing episodes of Doctor Who all have surviving audio recordings made by fans and so we have ways and means available to us.

There are the official BBC releases, for one thing. Every missing episode has been released as a narrated audio and selected episodes have been animated as part of DVDs where the majority of the story survives. I applaud the dedication this shows but I will not be using these official releases in my watch-through.

The reason is that when the newly recovered episode of Galaxy 4 was released as part of The Aztecs Special Edition with an abridged reconstruction of the rest of the story, I can to a realisation: I didn't remember a single moment of the story! Nothing, it was as if it was all new to me. I don't know why but the audios left little impression on me.

As to the animated episodes, they are good even if The Reign Of Terror is edited a bit too fast to fit the style of the surviving episodes. I didn't mind when I watched them but the point of this watch-through is to experience Doctor Who in as close a fashion to the original transmission order as possible.

Enter Loose Cannon Productions. Loose Cannon were a fan group who took the audio recordings and married them to whatever images survive: Australian censor clips, publicity photographs and, of course, telesnaps. Telesnaps are a very odd artefacts: essentially what happened was a man called John Cura was employed by producers and directors to sit in front of his television and take photographs every couple of seconds. These were used for future reference since the recordings weren't likely to be available. Now they form an invaluable visual reference for most of the missing episodes. They don't exist for all episodes but Loose Cannon have done excellent work with whatever they can find.

These videos are, frankly, the closest thing we'll get to actually watching these episodes in many cases and that's why I'm using them.

(The Loose Cannon website seems to be inactive, their having finished their project many years ago but the recons are almost all available on Youtube and through *cough* the other usual means.)

Thursday 10 July 2014

On mementos

They arrived yesterday: two ceremonial knives, an Eqyptian short sword and a Turkish dagger, brought to me by my father. Decorative pieces, blunt as butter knives but pretty nice as decorations go. They used to belong to my grandmother, gifts from my grandfather on a couple of their foreign holidays in the 1960s (my grandparents got in on the package holiday thing early, usually ditching the package tour to find their own way as soon as they could).

My grandmother died recently and my father gave me the knives because he remembered how I'd liked them when I was a kid. My grandmother had a huge hand in raising me, though I never knew my grandfather who died of stomach cancer a few years before I was born. I grew up with his boomerang hanging over my bed, a good luck charm and a sort of talisman in times of trouble.

It was a real one too, not tourist shop tat but the genuine article given to him by an aboriginal friend he made when he was working over there. A deadly weapon, technically speaking, if not for the fact he'd ruined the aerodynamics by drilling two holes in it to fit a chain so it would hang on a wall.

And now they're both gone and I have these mementos so whenever I see his boomerang or the swords hanging on my wall I can think of them and remember. I can remember the grandmother who sat with me after school when my parents had to work and the stories she told me of the husband she loved, the man who gave up a modest fortune in family money to marry an unsuitable “foreign looking” girl and who took her on adventures all over the world. I can remember the woman who spent a great deal of the Second World War quietly pairing up gay servicemen in blatant defiance of the law, who encouraged me in my love of science fiction and reading and quietly almost silently, taught me the moral lessons that made me the man I am today.

I did get to tell her that. She never believed me, never realised how big an influence she was on me but I did let her know and even though I wasn't there to say goodbye at the end, separated by geography, I know she knew how special she was to me.

I take that comfort and I make it part of the memories I keep in the swords. 

Wednesday 9 July 2014

Saturday Teatime 1.4: The Edge of Destruction

(Yes, I am calling this The Edge Of Destruction like the VHS, the DVD, the Doctor Who Magazine polls and, in fairness, the title card of the first episode. Yes, when I was growing up and fans were brought up proper this was called Inside The Spaceship but general social pressure seems to have out-voted me on that one.)

An interesting thing about Doctor Who fandom is that we're as obsessed with how the series was made as we are about what makes it on screen. Doctor Who Magazine's news pages regularly carry whole-page articles about what order the next series is going to be filmed in. I subscribed to Star Trek Magazine for a while in the late 90s and they never went that far: they'd mention upcoming guest stars or the director if it was a cast member but things like production order never entered into it except when they needed to explain why actors were remembering making episodes in the wrong order.

Production details are a big thing to Doctor Who fans, though, so I know that this two-parter has the production code Serial C; that it ends the thirteen episode run the BBC ordered before renewing the series for a full season; and that it is set entirely aboard the TARDIS and features only the four regular cast members because the series ran out of money.

Yes, this was a story made entirely to balance the books. Sets are expensive and hiring guest actors is time-consuming. In Star Trek this problem is easily solved: those series take place on starships or space stations with lots of standing sets and a cast of nine or ten characters. Doctor Who, by contrast, has a single standing set (the TARDIS console room) and a far smaller recurring cast. Even when its cast is at its largest in Season Eight there'll only be six regulars and one of those is the villain. Here we have four people, the console room set, the food machine room built for the first episode of The Daleks and whatever other space can be made by moving the walls around. On the plus side we have story editor David Whitaker on writing duties, a fact that will come to mean wonderful things in the future even if not just yet.

So it is with some reluctance I admit the opening of the story does not grab me, in fact I don't like it at all. I've only watched this story once and these opening scenes are the reason why. At the end of The Daleks the TARDIS took off and everyone was knocked unconscious by an unexplained explosion. This story is about working out what's wrong with the TARDIS, sorting out the tensions between the four characters and delivering two science lessons of varying quality but first we get this horrible bit of time-consuming faffing about.

Okay, so everyone wakes up and all of them are acting odd: Barbara and Ian don't recognise the Doctor or the TARDIS; the Doctor is half-conscious and babbling; and Susan moves slowly and cautiously, reacting to everything on a time delay. The director is obviously going for weird and alienating but the simple fact is it comes across as nothing more than actors missing their cues and forgetting their lines. Considering we're talking about an era when scenes did go out where actors miss their cues and forget their lines this is deeply unfortunate. William Russell suffers the most. I don't think Russell is a bad actor but Ian is a very narrowly-written part who tends to switch between anger, amusement, bewilderment and very little else. Divorcing Ian even from that limited range and having him react to everything as if he has a concussion is not a recipe for success.
Dear BBC,
Then Susan threatens Ian with a pair of long-bladed scissors and proceeds to stab up a mattress whilst screaming hysterically. Not unnaturally, and here we return to the Doctor Who fan's deep knowledge of production history, this led to the series' first serious viewer complaints about the series. The cavemen and Daleks might have been a bit too scary for some children but at least they weren't doing anything that could be imitated by kids with lethal results. This is a character going nuts with a household implement you could actually kill someone with. These days the BBC has rules about “imitable violence and peril” so that, for instance, when all the A-positives walk up on the roofs in The Christmas Invasion you won't see even a single child up there.

These opening scenes dominate my memory of my first viewing and I was glad to see that everyone aside from Susan settles down by the end of episode 1 and we get onto the meat of the story: the tensions between the crew.
Doctor Who: he's one groovy dude.
Something is clearly wrong with the TARDIS, a fact communicated by odd incidents like the doors opening on their own, Susan fainting when she touches the console, and later on when the clock and everyone's watches begin to melt. Everything weird in this story is put down to the fault, which doesn't quite make sense. The idea, put forward by Barbara in an interpretation of events even Jacqueline Hill can't quite sell, is that the TARDIS is trying to communicate with its occupants that they're in danger. From this we get the origin of the idea that the TARDIS is sentient, or at least self-aware, though this theory suffers from a few holes. The first hole is that the Ship has chosen to communicate in the most obtuse, obscure manner possible considering that she knows her existence is under threat. The other is that at no point is the Great Mattress Scissor Massacre explained, Susan simply snaps out of her paranoia in time for the climax.

I don't go in for shipping, but if I did...
Here we come to the saving grace of the story because once you're past the jarring early scenes and the explanations that make no sense the four regulars put in strong performances. The big one is Barbara yelling at the Doctor when he starts to accuse her and Ian of sabotage. She points out, stridently, that the Doctor would have been killed several times over if not for the two of them pulling his fat out of the fryer. Its powerful, its delivered with conviction and by the end of the story the Doctor is far more respectful of her. They have a lovely scene just before the end that ends with the Doctor offering her his arm. There's a respect there that will underlie the whole of their relationship from now on.

There are similarly powerful moments with Ian, including a moment where he graciously steps in and accepts the Doctor's contrition without forcing him to actually apologise. The two men are coming to an equality in their relationship which is just as well since the continuing softening of Hartnell's performance, especially in that last scene with Barbara, means he'll be ready to share Ian's leading man position just as soon as he's done becoming a hero. We'll get there but the hostility hasn't died completely yet. He's willing to throw Ian and Barbara out of the TARDIS when he thinks they're against him no matter where they've landed and in spite of Susan's objections.

Oh, yes, Susan, who doesn't get an apology of any kind. During the final crisis of the story the Doctor lies to Susan and Barbara, telling them they have more time than they actually do before the Ship is destroyed. Afterwards he doesn't apologise for this but he does concede to Barbara that she was right in her interpretation of events and from that moment things between the Doctor and Barbara settle down. He lied to Susan, too, though but even after everything the story puts Susan through she gets no apologies, no words of comfort, she's just expected to bounce back and forget that her grandfather came very, very close to abandoning and possibly murdering her teachers. Susan actually goes through more than most of the others in this story yet it isn't judged worthy of comment at the end.

An apology would certainly have been a better use of screen time between the Doctor and Susan than having him explain, for the second time in five minutes, how the whole problem with the TARDIS was down to a stuck switch.

Ah, yes, the Fast Return Switch, clearly labelled on the TARDIS console in felt tip. What stands out about this isn't the sheer low-tech degree of mechanical fault because complex mechanisms are broken by small faults all the time. No, what stands out is how boring the explanation is with the Doctor whipping out a pencil torch and using the on-button to demonstrate to Susan (who is, lest we forget, an alien genius from a society that can build time machines) how a switch works when it was entirely obvious what had happened from the dialogue the Doctor and Ian shared when they discovered the fault.

Worse, this scene follows Hartnell delivering a great speech to camera explaining how solar systems are formed through the accretion of matter which actually comes out quite poetic. We get a fun but largely useless science lesson (at least at the schoolboy level the series is currently pitching for) followed by a practical but unbelievably boring one. The educational aspect of the series isn't going to last long and this, even more than the condensation bit in the next serial, shows us exactly why.

Next Episode: Marco Polo

Tuesday 8 July 2014

Re-reading my first comic

The other day, going through some boxes I'd had in storage at my parents' house, I found the first comic I ever read. Well, the first American comic, the actual first comic I ever read was Sonic The Comic #2 (I missed the first issue and I've been trying to find those comics for years). This first US comic was X-Factor #112 (dated July 1995). My grandmother bought it for me when I was eleven, back when corner newsagents still stocked US comics.

I read it again last night for the first time since that afternoon in my granny's kitchen in 1995. I was actually surprised that it was quite good. I tend to slag off nineties comics a bit, especially Marvel, but this was a nicely plotted little piece. Oh, the exposition is terrible but maybe there's a bit of nostalgia at work because I really enjoyed the over-the-top hyperbole John Francis Moore puts into his caption boxes. Here's a sample, quoted verbatim:

They search in silence until they locate their prey - - and then these hunters - - living weapons of circuitry fused flesh - - announce themselves with seismic intensity.”

You'd never get anything like that these days. That might be a good thing but since those days narrative captions and thought bubbles have sort of merged together. As much as I like Peter Parker and Batman's internal monologues I think there might be room for a bit of third person every now and then.

Of course, there are nineties tropes in evidence of which I am less fond. The main villains of the issue are Japanese Yakuza cyborgs. You can't get more nineties than Japanese Yakuza cyborgs with, of course, minutely detailed circuitry all over their skin and black hair highlighted in almost-neon blue. Then there's the anatomy of the female assassin Fatale (the two settings of '90s codenames: they were either direct to the point of idiotic bluntness or completely meaningless, this later demonstrated by a quick cutaway to recurring X-Factor annoyance Random). Look at her: herpelvis ends at about mid-thigh, her waist is improbably tiny and her breasts frankly defy description. That said, Jeff Matsuda is the guest penciller on the issue and he does have a distinctive style, not exactly anatomically precise and perhaps a little at odds with his inker (Al Milgrim, as it happens, before he moved into pencilling). I swear there's one panel where Forge (a man) has bigger tits than Mystique (not exactly a modestly-proportioned woman at the best of timees). Actually, speaking of those two...

Something that struck me with this comic is that we're in the early days of Mystique being a prisoner/member of X-Factor. I don't know how long she was about before this issue but there's what looks very much like the first instance of her, shall we say, aggressive flirtation with Forge. Now, I love the Mystique/Forge relationship, as screwed up, unhealthy and sometimes murderous as it gets. I know I bang on about the more stable and emotionally healthy relationships that DC used to go in for but there's something to be said for an irredeemable black hat lady pushing against a hero's boundaries.

Times change, though, and I even noticed a bit of subtext between Mystique and Polaris. Polaris chucks an EMP at the Yakuza cyborgs, leaving them twitching in pain on the floor. Look at the last panel: Mystique's smile says it all, that sense that her interest in Polaris has changed now she's proved dangerous and assertive, plus the fact that Mystique's face is framed by (and seemingly looking directly at) Lorna's hips and bottom. To be clear: there has never been a moment in the existence of this character when she wasn't queer. Chris Claremont conceived her as gay and she's generally been written as bi under most writers and she is clearly checking out Lorna's bum in that last panel.

Or I've developed a dirty mind in the last 19 years, one or the other.

(Scans used under the terms of fair use.)

Monday 7 July 2014

A Tale of 1 Gamer #2 (army list)

Since budgeting is a big part of this project I dashed off a quick army list in lieu of having any idea of how I actually wanted to paint these models (coming up with my own hold colour scheme is proving a little challenging). The throng, in theory, is composed thus:

Prince Dammin Asgarsson
Dwarf Lord (145) armed with hand weapon engraved with 1 Rune of Fury (25, +1 Attack) and wearing Gromril armour engraved the Master Rune of Gromril (30, 1+ armour save) and 2 Runes of Fortitude (50, +1 Toughness and 5+ Ward) save. 250 points
Master Engineer Hodor Grimmhammer
Master Engineer (70) armed with Dwarf handgun (12) wearing Gromril armour engraved with 1 Rune of Shielding (25, Ward save against shooting attacks and magic missiles). 107 point
20 Dwarf Warriors (160) armed with hand weapons and shields (15) with full command (30). 175 points
20 Dwarf Warriors (160) armed with hand weapons and shields (15) with full command (30). 175 points
20 Longbeards (240) armed with hand weapons and shields (20) with full command (30). 290 points
16 Thunderers (192) armed with Dwarf handguns with full command (30). 222 points
Cannon (120). 120 points
Gyrocopter (80) with brimstone gun (free upgrade). 80 points
20 Miners (200) armed with great weapons with full command (30) and steam drill (25). 255 points
10 Iron Drakes (150) armed with Drakeguns with full command (30), Ironwarder armed with brace of drakefire pistols (free). 180 points
Organ Gun (120) engraved with 1 Rune of Forging (25, re-roll artillery dice misfires). 145 points

Total: 1999 points

That's a grand total of fourteen kits, four of which I already own. The budget allows me about two kits a month so it should all be over by Christmas, just in time for the new campaign in January.

It's a stolidly generalist sort of army so I can experiment with what works and what doesn't. I've got blocks of close combat infantry, missile troops, war machines and a Gyrocopter. The runic items are pretty much just whatever would fit in the points left over and since they only exist on paper I'll experiment with different combos in some test games. This army also continues my habit of turning every army into a horde with a massive 114 individual Dwarfs to paint.

By the time I'm finished with that I might even have finished a whole lance of Bretonnian Knights. 

Saturday 5 July 2014

Saturday Teatime 1.3: The Daleks

Once you read a few of these projects you start to see some patterns emerging. For instance, just about everyone falls in love with Jacqueline Hill; everyone concludes that Susan was a flawed idea; and everyone ends up a bit down on Terry Nation.

This last one isn't entirely unfair. Nation's writing (and occasionally his work ethic) had some severe problems but he also had a writing career on Doctor Who extending from 1963 to 1979. Yes, this is mainly due to the fact he held the copyright on the Daleks and had first refusal on writing the script whenever the BBC wanted to use them but there are other factors. He was commissioned to write a second script for the series before anyone decided the Daleks needed to return.

And you know what? I don't want to be down on Terry Nation. The first Doctor Who story I ever saw was Planet Of The Daleks and that story made me fall in love with the series. So here as we meet him and his most famous creations for the first time (sorry if you're the world's only massive Kraal fan) let's forget about the future and just enjoy ourselves. And that isn't difficult, there's a lot to like here and much of the Terry Nation Cliché Bingo Card fails to make an appearance (if nothing else it would be hard to self-plagiarise on your first script).
So let's give Nation some props because one thing he is absolutely fantastic at is set pieces. This is because his approach to science-fiction is very much the 1950s Flash Gordon movie serial form. Luckily, Nation's script is paired with a designer who realises this and turns in a bunch of sets and monsters that were a bit retro even in 1963 and so aged oddly well. Lucky for Nation, for us fans and for the survival of the series but considerably less so for designer Ray Cusick. Cusick was a fantastic designer who did a lot of work in the early years of the series, not least of which were the TARDIS console room and the Dalek casing. Everyone counts him as one of the series' most important visionaries. Everyone, that is, except Terry Nation, Terry Nation's lawyers and the BBC Royalties Payments Department.

Yes, it was a work-for-hire job and so he got a small bonus (£50, I believe) because it was great work and received not a penny or even an on-screen credit since.

So the production is on the same page as the writer and in some cases several pages ahead. We're doing movie serial sci-fi from ten years ago here, which is probably a good thing to be doing on TV when no one had really done ongoing science-fiction before. On this note its probably time to note that my theme of “early Doctor Who was more modern than I thought” pretty much curls up and dies here because no modern series would have Ian suggesting they all split up to search the seemingly deserted city without a post-modern joke asking if he'd ever seen a horror movie.

Good set pieces are a very important part of adventure serials, arguably the most important part. You get the set piece then a pause when some talky stuff happens that sets up the next big set piece and after that cycle repeats a couple of times you get the cliffhanger. Nation turns in some very pacey numbers here: escaping the Dalek cell, the lift scene, and the expedition party leaping across a very modestly proportioned chasm. Another very movie serial element of the plot if that there are basically two stories here. The first four episodes are about the four regulars exploring Skaro, encountering and being captured by the Daleks and then escaping whilst quickly helping out some more photogenic locals. It could have ended right there at the end of episode four but then Ian reveals that the Daleks took the fluid link from him when he was captured and now they can't leave. Thus begins adventure two: an arduous journey through the wilderness of Skaro so they can enter the city from an unexpected angle, beat the baddies and go home. Well, try to get home.

The reason I link this to the Flash Gordon movie serial format is because those serials tended to reuse sets, either by using them for different places or by setting a couple of stories in the same place. Don't get me wrong: this works, especially at this stage where individual episode titles mean we're dealing with a continuous series rather than separate stories.

It works because a lot of effort is made to build the world of Skaro before our eyes. As previously noted this world-building is enhanced by the set design and the fantastic, dry ice shrouded model of the Dalek city but it all extends from the decision to start with an episode featuring only the four regulars with nary a Dalek, Thal or ostentatiously camp schoolboy to distract us from the exploration of Skaro. Other characters are introduced slowly: first a Dalek sucker menacing Barbara (there will never be a better Doctor Who scream), then the Daleks themselves followed by Susan meeting the Thal Alydon...
Actually, best to stop there a mo. More Thals turn up later but the scene between Susan and Alydon requires some short examination because it contains the very first racefail in Doctor Who. I'd completely forgotten the scene and expected to start talking about racism two essays from now in Marco Polo but there it is: a Jewish girl kneeling on the floor, staring fascinated at a towering Aryan man and declaring him “perfect”. An Aryan whose people will later be involved in an act of genocide. This is especially problematic as one of the qualities that got Carole Ann Ford the job was her “Unearthly” elfin appearance or, to put it another way, her non-standard beauty.

Oh, there's far, far worse to come but monsters are born in this scene when we find out that the mechanical Daleks share their planet with pretty people and guess who ends the story annihilated and who gets to rebuild civilisation?

Not that even the Daleks are monsters yet. I mean, they clearly eat. This might seem like an insignificant detail but at this stage we're still looking even at the bad aliens as creatures who have civilisation and needs such as food and shelter. The whole plotline with the Thals is about them suffering a bad harvest and striking out in search of new food supplies. There's a sense of history to the two societies and not just in the scene where the Doctor is treated to a short history and astronomy lesson from Diony (Terry Nation Bingo Card: cross out Sole Female Guest Character). There's also the nature of the Thal's pacifism.

The story requires that the Thals end up fighting the Daleks so, obviously, they're going to come around but the story allows that pacifism might not be a mistake here. Ian and Barbara argue the point with Barbara pragmatically pointing out that if the Thals don't fight she and Ian can never leave Skaro whilst Ian is more sympathetic to their beliefs. It all comes down, in the end, to whether or not the Thals really believe in pacifism or if its a fear of conflict brought on by the consequences of the last war. This is a world where food is hard to grow because most of the planet has been devastated by neutron bombs so its not difficult to understand the perspective. Ian proves to Alydon there are things he'll fight for when Ian threatens to take Diony to the Dalek city as a prisoner, whereupon Alydon proves that even in pacifist societies they have action movies as he delivers a leading man uppercut to Ian's chin. It's that realisation that spurs Alydon to action and to recruit volunteers to aid him in storming the city (Terry Nation Bingo Card: cross out Prosaic Speech About Bravery).

I'm not going to argue that this story is entirely respectful to pacifism, it does largely reject the philosophy, but it at least phrases it as a debate and floats the idea that there are circumstances where pacifism is a reasonable response. There are worse ways to treat pacifism, we'll be dealing with some of them later in the '60s.

And then there are the Daleks, did I mention them? One of the things about Nation's 1960s scripts are that the Daleks are very much a work in progress and will vary quite a bit between stories. It won't be until The Daleks' Master Plan that Nation will settle on the default characterisation the Daleks become known for and even then the last few steps will be taken by David Whitaker in Season Four. That's the future, though, and we'll never see these Daleks again: Daleks who refer to themselves as “I” an awful lot, who grow vegetables for food and have large stores of toilet paper (bit weird, that one). The static electricity thing gets a token mention in their next story but pretty much disappears from there, mainly because it is very, very limiting.

The Daleks are almost people here, very alien and well on their way to being monsters but essentially still people. Doctor Who doesn't do monsters just yet. Even when monsters start to be a thing, when the series resurrects the Daleks for a rematch, they're very much a unique case for the rest of the Hartnell era. That's one of Nation's enduring legacies in the series: he created the first monsters and when he took his ball and swanned off to America the series began to generate more and more monsters in an attempt to capture the magic again.

Like most of Nation's legacies, it's a mixed one. 

Friday 4 July 2014

Dwarf names are fun!

I doesn't feel like a proper army project until you've named a few characters, does it? Giving the characters names and backstory is one of the things that stop a game from being just a very pretty mathematical exercise.

And these are Dwarfs so I get to be really ostentatious with the naming! You can go one of two ways with these things. The first is to find two names of Celtic or Scandinavian origin and slap '”sson” or “sdottir” at the end of the the second one. The other route is to come up with some medieval title in place of a family name like Grudgebearer or Longshanks.

Thus we have my Thane Dammin Asgarsson of Karak Norn, a poor hold in the mountains by Athel Loren. He's accompanied on whatever mission I choose to send him on once I know what this campaign is about by the Master Engineer Hodor Grimmhammer and the Old Guard of his Longbeards Storr Thunderbrow.

I still haven't worked out a name for the Organ Gun. I'm trying to come up with something better than “Old Reliable” since Organ Guns aren't that old by Dwarf standards.

Thursday 3 July 2014

A Tale of 1 Gamer #1 (Army selection and first purchases)

Now that I've got the Doctor Who watch-through off the ground its time to get on with another project I've been meaning to get around to for some time: doing my own version of White Dwarf's classic Tale Of Four Gamers series.

Okay, so the quick rundown: in A Tale Of Four Gamers a quartet of GW staffers were set the task of collecting an army to a strict budget and timetable. In 2005 they were given £50 to start and £25 a month thereafter. Adjusting for inflation (and the fact I'm not actually trying to simulate a pocket money based economic model) I've decided to go with £75 for this first month and £50 thereafter, paid into the hobby budget on the first of every month.

Now, I do have a big project going on at the same time as this: my Bretonnians. I already have all the models I need for that, unless and until there's a new Army Book, so that wasn't a good candidate for this series. I'm going to be using the Brets in a campaign next year with some friends and one idea that's floating about right now is that we might have secondary factions for each player.

I was going to do Wood Elves, the natural allies of Bretonnia, and I went into the store fully expecting to walk out with some Glade Guard and Wildwood Rangers, maybe order the Glade Lord with great weapon. There is, however, a character in the Bretonnia book that's always sounded interesting.

Well, I say a “character”, he's really just a name and a picture of some heraldry: Graeme, Friend Of Dwarfs. As I say, the Wood Elves are the natural allies of Bretonnia and Dwarfs are more matey with the Empire. Linking Dwarfs and Bretonnia just offers more opportunities to do something different with my background. Right now I'm imagining that Graeme was an ambassador to one of the Dwarf holds in the Grey Mountains and he's gone a bit native: can't stand wine anymore, loves beer, a bit too friendly with the common man and far too technically minded for his fellow Bretonnians.

Thus I ended up leaving the store with a bag full of Dwarfs. So, on to this month's bit of accountancy:

Starting budget: £75

King Belegar Ironhammer (£13)
Grimm Burlockson (£13)
10 Dwarf Hammerers/Longbeards (£30)
1 Dwarf Cannon/Organ Gun (£15.50) (mail order)

Remainder: £3.50

It might not seem a lot but I did buy two characters straight off the bat since they're more expensive pound for pound. A general and a support character should be enough for a while, especially in quite an elite army. I'll build the infantry set as Longbeards just so I'm starting off with a Core choice, an old habit of mine but one I'm not disposed to break. The cannon I'm not sure what to do with except I knew I wasn't going to have a Dwarf army without at least one. Right now I'm leaning towards the Organ Gun because they look cool but I have to wait for it to arrive so I've ample time to ponder and work out what they actually do. Look, I've spent five years playing Vampire Counts, I haven't had a shooting phase in half a decade, okay

Now to build the things and work out how to paint them. They're Grey Mountain Dwarfs which apparently means they're quite poor. Lots of greens, perhaps, which would also offer a nice contrast to my Bretonnians who'll all be in rich colours like reds, blues and golds.

I'm really looking forward to this. 

Wednesday 2 July 2014

Saturday Teatime 1.2: 100,000 BC

(Yes, I'm doing these on days other than Saturday because I worked out I didn't have a three year project in me. At two a week it's a year and a half and that seems a decent length of time to me.)

In a way 100,000 BC is the first story in Doctor Who to be declared non-canon. The beginning of the series will be retold twice, first in David Whitaker's novelisation of The Daleks and again in the first Peter Cushing movie. These days with video, DVD, YouTube, Netflix. torrent sites and projects like this we take as gospel the televised version of events but back then you didn't have much of a chance. You either saw 100,000 BC when it first aired or you didn't have another chance until 1981 and The Five Faces Of Doctor Who repeats. The novelisation you could put on your shelf and read whenever you liked and once the movie made it to television it was a bank holiday staple for decades.

So 100,000 BC is surplus to requirements, yes? Well, yes and no. These three episodes represent three of five weeks in Doctor Who's history where no one knows what a Dalek looks like. Once you've got Daleks the appeal of cavemen arguing about fire pales somewhat, which is actually a pity. This is a very good story: pacy, well-directed, well-acted and with a strong underlying theme of fear woven throughout.

Actually, let's start with the theme of fear which motivates much of what we see in this story. Last time I made a comment about how An Unearthly Child felt surprisingly modern in some ways but these three episodes actually feel like the sort of story modern Doctor Who might tell if it did an old-fashioned “pure” historical. One of the big innovations of modern Who is to write a story around a theme: Vincent And The Doctor is all about Vincent's emotional state, his depression and his joy so even his inevitable suicide isn't seen as a defeat. Here, forty-one years before Russell T. Davies holds his first tone meeting we see Verity Lambert, Waris Hussein and Anthony Coburn get the trick right with a production that is literally all about fear.

Old Mother fears fire because she fears change; Za fears the tribe will turn on him if he can't make fire; Hur is afraid her father will give her to Kal instead of Za; Ian fears the strange new world he finds himself in; Susan fears for her grandfather's safety; the Doctor fears the mob of cavemen who capture him and demand he makes fire; and Barbara, in one of Jacqueline Hill's best scenes as Barbara, breaks down in tears as the TARDIS crew flee from the Cave of Skulls. You might think I'd be a bit hard on that last scene, especially coupled with the similar fit of tears Susan goes through when the Doctor disappears but both women get strong, empowering scenes later on: Barbara explaining compassion to Hur and Susan leaping on the back of a caveman as she spearheads the attack to save the Doctor, not to mention her "flaming skulls" plan which is both awesome and gruesome.
I just love how into it Carole Ann Ford looks

Like I said with An Unearthly Child and as I'm sure I'll say again over the next two seasons: there are far worse times to be a female companion than under Verity Lambert's producership. I'll have plenty of opportunities to lay tribute at those particular feet so let's talk instead about Waris Hussein's directing.

First off I have to say this: a lot of the praise I'm about to heap on Hussein is probably not just down to his being a good director (which he most definitely was) but also to the fact that Doctor Who is just starting. In the black and white years the series was produced almost-continuously, to the point where cast members disappear for an episode or two at a time so they can have a holiday. The series is being made on a very fast production line and that has all sorts of consequences: actors get fatigued, sub-standard scripts make it to screen because there's simply no time to replace or rewrite them; and sometimes things just plain looked like a good idea on paper but turned out to less so in practice. All these issues and more we'll grapple with throughout the Sixties and beyond but here, a couple of weeks into the series, these issues don't exist. Everyone is fresh and raring to do, the first scripts have considerable polish and everyone has had time to work out what they want to do with what they've got.

Alethea Charlton as the cat's mother
What Waris Hussein wants to do, incidentally, is most interesting with the cave people. Anthony Coburn puts in some good work here as well by giving them great turns of phrase: Kal doesn't understand the Doctor's pipe and matches so says he makes fire come from his fingers and has smoke in his mouth. Its Hussein's direction that makes them alien through hunched postures and animal movements, jerky motions as if they feel constantly under threat which ties in well with Hur not understanding compassion except in terms of a mother protecting her child, she doesn't even understand the word “friend”. Alethea Charlton as Hur, incidentally, is an absolute highlight of the story as she completely embraces the non-human movement style.

On the side of the TARDIS crew, as I say, the highlight of both directing and acting is Barbara's breakdown in the middle episode (or the third, if you're counting from An Unearthly Child, as is more normal). In later years the first trip in the TARDIS is an occasion for wonder and wide-eyed amazement but here it is terrifying and in pre-history it doesn't even have the allure Barbara will find in later historical adventures: the chance to meet people she's only read about.

This actually brings us to another way in which 100,000 BC is often forgotten: there's a slight (far from universal) tendency to skip it when listing the pure historicals and start with Marco Polo. This isn't entirely unfair, we're not actually exploring history here. Over the next couple of seasons the historical stories will tend to feature one or both of a) a famous historical figure; or, b) a historical event, though not necessarily a famous one. In spite of the title we've come to known from our programme guides there's nothing to suggest even an approximate date for this story to take place in and, this being pre-history, there are no famous historical figures. Instead we see solidly fictional cave people in a solidly fictional drama about the discovery of fire. We're in pulp adventure territory with comic strip cavemen menacing our children's serial heroes. Seeing as I like the story an awful lot it seems churlish to complain but it gives the lie to the idea that Doctor Who dropped the educational aspects of its mandate on some kind of fixed curve: the first historical features no reference to any sort of authentic history, just a Boy's Own adventure setting that happens to be set in the past. There isn't even a real explanation of how to start a campfire, which given the ways in which later stories will fail to make magnetism and condensation interesting, is probably a blessing.

If any of these seem like criticisms (and, in my view, they are not) then the best way to consider it is this: the historical is obviously not done cooking. This is a fantastic adventure story but we aren't in the “pure historical” territory the Hartnell era will become associated with.

In a way this is reflective of the series in general. This is the story where the Doctor picks up a rock, subtly but obviously with the intention of braining a wounded Za so they can escape. All that stops him is Ian and he makes a feeble excuse about how he was going to ask Za to draw the route back to the TARDIS in the soil. There's a way to go before he becomes the Doctor, either as we understand the character or as Hartnell is generally remembered. There are hints though, like the scene where he tricks Kal into brandishing the bloodstained rock/knife he used to kill Old Mother. It's a victory he wins through cleverness, dispatching an enemy through sheer bluff. This is the Doctor we want, even if his next move is to incite the other cave people to throw stones at Kal and drive him off. He is, honestly, a bit of a bully and a bit of a sulker at this point, glorying in being cleverer than a bunch of starving primitives and leading them on to ostracise someone who threatens him.

He does not, in short, have a worthy adversary yet but that's about to change.

Next Episode: The Daleks

Tuesday 1 July 2014

The slightly more than Two Minute Hate

SallyP did a post recently about characters she hates and since its Tuesday and I have no ideas and no silly photos to share I might as well give this a go. If nothing else its a good opportunity for self-examination.

Lucas Bishop
This is more of a symbolic thing. Bishop as a character has never done much of anything to offend me. However, he was created at a time when comic companies felt no reason to follow through on a character's point. The point of Bishop as originally introduced was that he was from one of the endless dystopian futures X-Men continuity spawns whenever it gets bored and in that future an X-Man had betrayed the X-Men, killed them all and things had gone to hell in a handbasket from there. He ended up in the present and decided to work out who the traitor was and fix history.

This took years to resolve and not in the modern way where it was built to slowly but continuously. No, this was the 1990s and so Bishop would grumble about it every now and again, maybe accuse Gambit of being a bit shifty and then the storyline would be forgotten about until a company-wide event turned up that vaguely suited what little had been set-up.

Since then Bishop has knocked around the X-Men comics with nothing really to do. At one point, for a different crossover event, his dystopian future gained a new origin and he gained a new mission to hunt down and kill a new X-Judas (he also gained a pretty sweet futuristic plane from... somewhere).

All because he didn't have much of a point in the first place.

New 52 Iris West
There are New 52 series I like and The Flash is even one of them most of the time but there is one problem and that is how Iris no longer knows that Barry is the Flash. The erasure of their marriage I can sort of take (through the numbness of repetition, if nothing else) but almost since the day she was created the point of Iris was to be the superhero girlfriend who could be trusted with a secret. Barry and Iris had been married since the Sixties and she knew his secret the whole time.

I'm lead to believe the storyline was a rebuke to a Superman editor (not sure which one, Kurt Swann, perhaps?) who said Lois Lane should never be allowed to make the link between Superman and Clark Kent because women can't keep a secret.

Which brings us to our next hate figure...

The Original Gwen Stacy
This one's political. You see, just by existing Gwen turns Peter Parker into an emotional abuser. That Peter very strictly protects his secret identity is a big thing about the character but with Gwen it was... too far. I mean, for one thing they were actually engaged and for another she blamed Spider-Man for the death of her father, a fact that obviously caused her significant pain. Peter nobly (or stupidly, depending on your point of view) decided against telling her “No, it was Doctor Octopus who killed him, I'm Spider-Man and you know I would never hurt you.”

No, instead he kept the bloody secret, lied to the woman he was going to marry and then she died. This was a good thing, frankly, because the only thing more relationship-destroying than a lie is lots and lots of lies. Gwen was never able to properly come to terms with her father's death because she never knew all the facts and blamed someone who constantly appeared in her life and she died, in part, because she didn't even know she was at risk.

Frankly, every one of these issues is dealt with by Brian Michael Bendis' Ultimate Spider-Man with its punk rock chick version of Gwen. She goes through the same process of hating Spider-Man and for the same reason but she discovers Peter's identity and goes through a process of dealing with her issues.

This just goes to show that no character is entirely beyond redemption. Just get a good writer with a good angle and I can go from hating a character to loving them. I was genuinely shocked when Ultimate Gwen died (seem to die? I'm very much not sure on that point) whilst her original death left me feeling nothing much of anything.