Monday 30 March 2015

Rose, ten years on

(This was meant to post on the actual anniversary but for some reason all the posts I queued just didn't go up.)

Its funny to think that Doctor Who has been back for ten years now and not just in the “Bloody hell, I was twenty-one when this started” sense. I suppose its because I fell into this fandom in the early Nineties when the show was not only dead but a cultural joke remembered for its wobbly sets and wobblier acting (not entirely unfairly, mind). I watched repeats when they were on, bought the videos when the repeats stopped and eventually started reading the Virgin-era novels which I was the perfect age to appreciate (i.e. 12, so the sex and violence really did seem “mature” to me). There were the two Pertwee-starring radio dramas but that petered off into nothing because of awfulness. Doctor Who was great but, sadly, it was probably never coming back to TV.

Then 1996 happened and it definitely wasn't coming back after that.

Ah yes, the TV Movie. I didn't read Doctor Who Magazine then so I missed all the hype and only heard about it when the trailers started a few weeks before it aired. I watched it, taking in every second because my favourite thing in the world was back on TV where it belonged and I'm not ashamed to admit I loved it then. The excitement of it drew me in and it wasn't until later that I started picking holes in it. With adult eyes I can see why it didn't go to series, which is to say the script was terrible and it did an amazingly poor job of introducing the series' core concepts to new and casual viewers.

Then, just to add insult to injury the BBC used it as pretext to snatch the novel license away from Virgin.

It wasn't the last false dawn, either. There was a rumoured cartoon series a few years later that came to nothing, the Death Comes To Time webcast with its baffling desire to be Star Wars which was followed by Scream Of The Shalka which even gave us a “Ninth Doctor” in Richard E. Grant. None of them were very good, none of them came to anything. The BBC novels dribbled on and Big Finish was producing original audio dramas so it seemed Doctor Who had found its retirement home.

Then 2005 happened and it was really, genuinely back.

I watched Rose almost grudgingly, I must admit. I was at university by then and whilst the mockery of my love for this old, creaky dinosaur of a TV show had moved from malicious schoolyard stuff to the fond ribbing of fellow geeks I knew if this was bad I was going to hear all about it in the bar on Sunday.

So imagine my surprise when it wasn't bad. In fact, it was good. Suddenly, all the false dawns had gained a purpose other than wasting my time because Russell T. Davies had obviously watched them himself and noted down all their mistakes. In Rose, time and money weren't wasted on a fan pleasing regeneration, instead the issue was dealt with in a throwaway line; there was no attempt to radically retool the concept of the Doctor to modern tastes other than dumping the ostentatious Edwardian clothing for actual clothes; the new Doctor had a solid personality from the start instead of just writing a generic Doctor and hoping for the best; and the companion...

I'm not going to mince words, Billie Piper was great. I admit she was the one part of the experiment I worried about, mainly because I was at that age when you really start regretting the musical choices of your adolescence, but she blew it out of the park in that episode and most of the others she was in. If nothing else, I can say she absolutely earned being the only returning companion in the 50th anniversary special.

Yes, the plot of the episode itself is thin, the anti-plastic an absolute cop-out MacGuffin but that was never the point of the exercise. The point was to have a light adventure plot for Ecclestone and Piper to have chemistry against. The whole episode is designed to give its two leads big moments, both together and separately, that people will remember and want to see more of. Using the Autons (already veteran villains of Doctor Who relaunches past) was a stroke of genius: silent, faceless and not liable to get in the way of the heroes getting over with the audience.

I'm not an unabashed Davies fanboy (or an unabashed Moffatt fanboy either, for that matter) but having watched, read and listened to so many awful to mediocre attempts to resurrect the series I was so grateful to see lessons had been learned. Yes, like the TV Movie I was picking holes in it by the next morning but it turned out that light plots were a hallmark of Davies' approach to opening a season, getting people's attention with the Doctor and companion's chemistry rather than flashy plot.

And, you know what? As odd as it was at the time I do wish the DVD had an audio option to insert Graham Norton's unscheduled guest appearance, I feel that was an part integral of the experience. 

Friday 27 March 2015

Anime: the old subs or dubs debate

It came up the other day that on the rare occasions I watch anime I tend to watch the Japanese dub with subtitles. Some people I didn't know thought this was pretentious on my part. There were a lot of people there and the conversation moved on so I'm just going to put my defence here and be done with it.

You see, it really isn't just me being pretentious. What it is, is me finding the Godawful, am-dram wannabes most US channels employ to record dubs painful to listen to. Over... oh, it must be nearly as decade of on-off dipping into various anime I can name offhand four series with good English dubs.

(Soul Eater, Cowboy Bebop, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex and Full Metal Alchemist, in case you were wondering.)

I understand why dubs tend to be bad: imported TV is cheap TV that exists so the broadcaster doesn't have to spend too much making it so you're unlikely to get the sort of voice-acting that graces the likes of Korra or Archer. That's perfectly understandable but it doesn't make it any more pleasant to listen to. Especially if the character is a blonde woman because for some reason blondeness is too often represented by these voice actors by raising the voice several octaves higher than any living human woman actually speaks.

But, seriously though, the US voice cast for Soul Eater is spectacular. 

Wednesday 25 March 2015

I don't usually comment on GW leaks, but...

the fact the Skitarii Vanguard seem to be wearing Sabbat helms feels like salt in the wound. I mean, we're getting Skitarii, we're getting a unified Khorne Codex, we've already had Eldar Harlequins and Knight-class Titans (and I will call them “Knight-class Titans” until the day I die, damn it!) so the continued absence of Sisters of Battle really rankles.

Sisters. They're a cool idea. Nuns with guns. All I'm sayin'.

Still, I am very, very interested to see what GW does with Mechanicus as a faction in their own right. I don't for a second believe the Codex will include Forge World units. True, the odd Forge World Imperial Guard tank has made it in but I don't buy into them doing something as extensive as slotting the whole “Mechanicum” range into a new Codex. Could be wrong but I don't think Forge World's production and distribution are up to the task.

We'll see. 

Sunday 22 March 2015

Female Imperial Guard test mini (grey)

(Crappy photos are crappy, I know, but this is just the build and hopefully you get enough of an idea of how it looks. Must get me one of these magical daylight bulbs people talk about because, good grief, do I not get good light in this place during any time of day I'm actually around.)
So the Heroic Scale Female Heads from Statuesque Miniatures turned up a couple of days ago and I quickly cobbled together a test mini using some spare Cadian parts.
The good: the head is very much in scale and the legs don't seem out of proportion as I feared because the big pockets on the side account for a measure of the bulk. I might have to rethink the Victoria Lamb order I was going to make for kilted legs if basic Cadian parts work this well.
The bad: the connector at the base of the neck is flat. The ironsighting pose you see here is because that's the only way the head attaches to the torso. I'm going to need to buy some modelling putty and build up the necks of the models to make pretty much any other pose. Not a huge problem but annoyingly time-consuming. I looked at the conversions I'd seen on line and, yes, green stuff necks.

Ah, well.

Still, the overall effect works and even my incredibly messy putty sculpting should be up to making necks (or at least not be to

o noticeable at a distance).

Saturday 21 March 2015

Khorne Daemonkin pre-order thoughts

Looking back on it I have a mixture of fond nostalgia and head-scratching frustration for the old “3.5” version of Codex: Chaos Space Marines. I loved how that book worked even if how it worked was ridiculously twisted at times (seriously, some of the rules were hidden in the fiction sections). I loved how you got all sorts of perks for having an army exclusively dedicated to one Chaos God or wholly representing a single Legion. I loved that there were whole pages of god-specific wargear and vehicle upgrades.

So you can imagine that I'm reeeeeealy looking forward to Codex: Khorne Daemonkin because this is how I see Chaos armies: not as Chaos armies but as Khorne armies or Tzeentch armies and so on. I know I'm not alone among my generation of hobbyists that I could never get used to the “pantheonic” approach GW piloted with the first Chaos Daemon/Daemons Of Chaos release.

I've never really got used to how Daemon armies work. What I want is an army dedicated to a single god but the army is built to work best with the pantheonic approach. Plus, there just aren't enough units for a single god to stop me getting bored.

All this said it isn't the Khorne Daemonkin that I'm excited about. I'm hoping there are others in the works, specifically for Nurgle and Tzeentch Daemonkin warbands. I love the Death Guard and Thousand Sons background and models (I have a bunch of Forge World Death Guard in a draw ever ready for deployment) and I'd love to do warbands with those themes.

Plus, Renegades & Heretics should be Battle Brothers with the Daemonkin so there's even more variety and potential for fun conversions. 

Friday 20 March 2015

Renegades & Heretics part 2: other HQ options

A quick note about Renegade Command Squads
Something I didn't mention about this unit in the Warlord post, because I'm an idiot who misses obvious things, is that unlike the Imperial Guard version you can add extra men to the Renegade Command Squad. The basic cost covers your Arch-Demagogue and four Disciples but you can add up to ten more Disciples. Renegades & Heretics are usually a bit more of horde than Guard so having a few extra meatshields around your Warlord is probably a good thing.

The Renegade Command Squad is the only actual unit in the HQ slots, the other options being individuals you buy in groups and split across the army.

Rogue Psyker Coven
One of the big problems I have with this list is that the basic psykers don't have access to Daemonology. In fact, they don't have access to Disciplines at all and instead generate a power from a D3 chart included in the army list. The powers aren't bad: there's a Strength 7 Blast, a Malediction and a Blessing but I really think a Chaos army should be able to have Daemonology without having to burn the Warlord on it.

On the other hand, they have two wounds and a natty little rule called The Daemon Unbound. The way this rule works is that when the Rogue Psyker takes a wound from Perils Of The Warp they become Possessed, gaining Weapon Skill and Strength 5, Rending and Feel No Pain (4+). Also on the plus side they're one of the few units in the army with stable Leadership: 8 for Psykers, 10 for Possessed.

They're by no means a bad choice and its fun to see them explode into monsters when something goes wrong but I would really, really have liked more ways to get Daemonology into the army.

Renegade Enforcers Cadre
Chaos Commissars, basically. Like the Psykers you buy them as a group but deploy them separately. Unlike the Psykers they can't be deployed independently (which would, admittedly, be pointless) and have to be assigned to a unit. They can only be assigned to Renegade Infantry Squads, Renegade Mutant Rabbles or Renegade Veterans, which is an oddly restrictive list.

Anyway, once attached they give the unit +1 Leadership (to the usual maximum of 10) once their Uncertain Worth has been determined. You also get a re-roll on failed Leadership tests after they pop a model of your choice from the unit. They can't be the Warlord but we've already established there's sod all point in having anyone other than the Arch-Demagogue be the Warlord.

Psykers or Enforcers?
Unlike their Guard equivalents both Psyker Covens and Enforcer Cadres do count as HQ choices on the Force Organisation Chart so you have to choose between them to remain Battle Forged (the Command Squad being compulsory).

I'm not quite sold on either as a superior choice but I think there are enough ways to compensate for Uncertain Worth that Psykers might be a better pick than Enforcers in most cases. I might not like how restricted their powers are but the D3 chart isn't terrible. 

Thursday 19 March 2015

A personal, subjective view on the Batgirl Joker variant

The title of this post is meant to convey that this is what I feel about the whole business of DC soliciting and then pulling the Batgirl Joker variant cover. I'm not trying to make a definitive statement here, least of all because the artist, Rafael Albuquerque, wrote an open letter on the subject which I think deserves pre-eminence. Its a bit of non-apology but it does seem to represent genuine contrition, which is good because DC's own statement pretty much throws Albuquerque under a bus in lieu of admitting any fault on their part.

(That said, I can't say whether the theme of the piece was Albuquerque's or DC editorial's idea. After all, you say “Batgirl Joker variant” and the natural pitch is “Killing Joke tribute”, so who knows whose idea it was).
As to the cover itself? I think its a really good piece of art if divorced from context. Hell, even given its context I think its well-drawn. Its technically proficient and genuinely disturbing. I'm a strong believer that art is meant to provoke an emotional reaction and that reaction doesn't need to be positive to have worth. The problem, and I feel there really is a problem, comes from the context this image would have been published in.

As the cover to a horror comic or even to Gail Simone's run on Batgirl it might even have worked. Simone's Batgirl dwelt a lot on the trauma Barbara suffered as a result of The Killing Joke. Put this cover on one of the early Death Of The Family tie-in issues and it would work perfectly, an expression of Barbara's lingering unresolved issues, especially given the presence of the gun (one of Simone's earliest issues has Barbara freeze when a gun is pointed at her).

The actual context of this piece, however, would have been an issue of the Stewart/Fletcher run which DC has heavily marketed to the female young adult audience. Its pretty much the prototype for the way DC intends to diversify its content and audience coming out of Convergence. This is the comic DC is pushing to young women to show them they have a place within the audience and not just with the traditional trick of having a female creator on it, which is pretty much how they marketed Simone's Batgirl and Birds Of Prey before it. Babs Tarr's art is a big part of this: more akin to Lumberjanes or Girls With Slingshots than the traditional superhero house styles, swapping out the style that has historically alienated women for the styles of comics that have been more welcoming to them.

A comic's cover is not art alone, it is also a piece of advertising and good advertising is meant to send out a coherent, unified message. The purpose of this series from the writing to the art to most every other piece of marketing has been to foster a sense of Batgirl as embodying the traditional superhero power fantasy for young women divorced from many of the usual problems that plague female superheroes in that regard. To then pair this with a prominent image of Batgirl restrained and visibly terrified is a massively dissonant note that contradicts the central message of the series.

The cover image is disturbing in a way that does not suit the series it would have been used in and this, more than anything, is why I think it was a good decision for DC to pull the cover. Hell, of all series for this to happen to its strangely fitting for it to happen with the Cameron/Fletcher Batgirl, whose creators were previously criticised for the use of transphobic tropes in one issue. Their response, in an open letter, was to look at their work and apologise for the feelings it evoked, for not properly considering the issues when they wrote and drew those scenes and to thank their audience for provoking the discussion and expressing hope that they and others would be able to create better stories as a result of those discussions.

Especially given DC's own sidestepping of all responsibility in their corporate response to this issue, its nice to see that the DC title designed to appeal to women is also the comic whose contributors own their actions. 

Wednesday 18 March 2015

Na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na Bat Power Armour

I think the thing I like the most about this image (apart from the return of the Morrison-era proto-Superman costume) is Clark's expression. “No... seriously, what the new costume like?” he seems to be asking, convinced Bruce has just spent a ton of cash on an elaborate wind-up and he ain't impressed. “Lois was coming over tonight and you said this was important!”

But, look... rocket launcher.”

Don't call me for a while, Bruce.”

On pure aesthetics... I don't know. I assume Bruce (or whoever) is all scrunched up in the main torso as no way would human shoulders stretch wide enough to fit the arms. The bunny ears are no more ridiculous than the traditional costume's bunny ears have been at times. Be interesting to see this new Batman inspecting crime scenes, not because I expect the suit to have a huge suite of CSI tech but just to see how he'll fit in the room.

Eh, we'll see how this works out for the inevitable year and a bit before the “proper” Batman is restored and if nothing else the post-Convergence solicits for Detective Comics promise me Renee Montoya so that'll soften the blow. 

Tuesday 17 March 2015

Renegades & Heretics pt.1: special rules and the Warlord

I may have mentioned before my absolute infatuation with Forge World's Renegades & Heretics army list from Imperial Armour 13: War Machines Of The Lost And The Damned. I'm greatly enjoying my Orks even though I'm 0 for 2 so far and I anticipate a third defeat against Dave's Tau Empire in my first campaign game this weekend. Still, the Lost and the Damned are my signature army and IA13 cost me a pretty penny so its time to sort out what I want to do with this thing.

I was going to do a post for each slot (one for HQ, one for Elites, and so on) but the list is so aggressively complicated that the Warlord choice needs a post all to itself. There's a strange nostalgia here for the beloved Codex: Chaos Space Marines 3.5 edition, though there's nothing so obtuse here as hiding parts of actual rules in fiction box-outs.

Plus there are a few army special rules we should cover first:

Uncertain Worth (and how to game it)

Uncertain Worth (previously the Renegades rule) is one of my favourite mechanics ever. Most of the Renegades & Heretics units don't have a Leadership value. Instead, the first time you have to take a Leadership test you roll a D6 and add 4 for a result between 5 and 10 and that's the unit's Leadership for the rest of the game. I don't mind a little randomness in my game mechanics so I love it but I can certainly see why others might hate it with a fiery passion.

The rolled value can be altered, though, and that softens the blow. If you give the unit a vox-caster the result can be re-rolled (though I wouldn't do it for anything other than a roll of 1 or 2); you can give the unit a Chaos Sigil which allows them to ignore the first failed Morale Check or Pinning Test in each game turn; units with the Fanatic special rule roll 2D6 for Uncertain Worth and pick the highest; or you can add an Enforcer (a sort of Chaos Commissar) to the unit for +1 Leadership.

And so we move on to the knotty problem of determining who is going to lead this tide of heresy to glory...

Chaos Covenants

Mortals are too lowly to benefit from the actual Marks Of Chaos lbut they have their own version: Chaos Covenants. A lot of unit champions can be upgraded to have a Covenant and the effects carry over to their unit: Khornates get re-rolls to Wound in the first round of close combat; Nurglesques get Feel No Pain (6+); Slaaneshis get Fleet; and Tzeentchians take their Snap Shots at BS 2 (no, you can't give that to Heavy Weapons Squads, sorry).

The Arch-Demagogue and Renegade Command Squad

This is basically an Imperial Guard Company Command Squad with variable Leadership: instead of a Company Commander you have the Arch-Demagogue and instead of Veterans you have Disciples, the stats are the same. The unit has Fanatic and the capacity for a vox so, spectacular bad luck notwithstanding, you should get at least decent Leadership. The unit can be tooled up in all the usual ways: specials and heavy weapons, banners (one gives +1 combat resolution, another allows units within 12” to roll 3D6 for Morale and Pinning); carapace armour while the Demagogue has a choice of the usual special weapons and an invulnerable save upgrade.

That's all pretty standard issue kit but what makes it fun (and complicated, but mostly fun) are the many directions you can customise the Arch-Demagogue (who, I must admit, doesn't have to be your Warlord but if he isn't he can't benefit from anything that follows).

Chaos Covenants redux: Master of Renegades
The Demagogue can benefit from a Chaos Covenant but his opens up additional units (of course, you could go Unbound and take whatever you want but this way you stay Battle Forged).

A Covenant of Khorne gets you a unit of Blood Slaughterer walkers as Elites; a Covenant of Nurgle opens up Blight Drones (Elites) and Plague Zombies (Troops); Covenant of Slaanesh gives you Noise Marines and Sonic Dreadnoughts (both Elites and, frankly, a bit too transhuman for my tastes); Covenant of Tzeentch gets you Chaos Spawn (Elites); and taking no Covenant to represent the old Mark of Chaos Undivided unlocks Renegade Marauders, which in 40k are space pirates and mercenaries.

We'll get to Marauders in another post but between them and the fact I pine for the days when Chaos Undivided was a thing I'm definitely going with that option.

Demagogue Devotions

Customising opportunity number two is the Devotions system, in which you choose what sort of heretic your Arch-Demagogue is. You can only put a devotion on a single Demagogue and he must be your Warlord, which is a pity because there are a lot of great options here.

Primaris-Rogue Witch is the psyker option and the only way to get Malefic Daemonology into the army (yes, there is a psyker unit. No, they can't take Disciplines) as well as Biomancy, Pyromancy and Telekinesis. He can be Mastery Level 1 or 2, is Fearless and unlocks Rogue Psyker Covens as Elites as well as HQ.

Mutant Overlord is pretty self-explanatory concept-wise. He gets three rolls on a table that adjusts his stats, some up, some down and he might become Bulky and Slow And Purposeful. His Disciples get Curse Of Mutation which is another table to decide what their mutation is giving them Fear, Acute Senses or Hammer Of Wrath, each with its own disadvantages thrown in that make me question the worth of it all.

You also have to have two Mutant Rabbles as compulsory choices though you do get the choice of having a Chaos Spawn unit as a Troops choice without having to take a Tzeentchian Covenant, plus you Ogryns can upgrade to have Curse Of Mutation. All nice but too many drawbacks and things you have to have for my liking.

Heretek Magus is all about toughening up your army. The Magus himself has a 3+ armour save, +1 Toughness and Feel No Pain (6+). You can also upgrade a whole bunch of units, pretty much anything man-sized, to have Feel No Pain. Evene better you can have Defilers! Also Decimators but that's not such a big deal to me because I love Defilers!

Master Of The Horde gets a bunch of free troops... maybe. Every time a Renegade Infantry Squad that started off with 15 or more models flees off the board or is destroyed you roll a dice and on 5+ and reappears with all upgrades (not transports) intact. In exchange you have to have a minimum of two Renegade Infantry Platoons but the maximum unit size on Infantry Squads is raised to 30.

Bit chancey, really and though I'm a big believer in basic troops that's a lot of the same model to paint.

Arch-Heretic Revolutionary gets Zealot (pass all Leadership-based tests and re-rolls To Hit in the first round of combat) and gets his Chaos Covenant for free; you can give Renegade Infantry units Fanatic; and you can have 10 Enforcers to a choice instead of 5. Its a nice theme and probably one I'd be taking if not for...

Bloody-Handed Reaver, which is the Traitor General concession. My Lost And The Damned have always been a straight-up Guard army that happens to be from a Chaos culture (they are not traitors, I am quite insistent on this!) and here;s the perfect choice for me.

The Reaver himself gets krak grenades and a refractor field for free and he can upgrade to a hot-shot lasgun or laspistol. Better yet your Renegade Infantry Veteran Squads can upgrade hot-shot weapons (including volley guns) and BS4 to create Traitor Tempestus Scions (or Storm Troopers in the old money) which suits me down to the ground as I have some old characters that would be perfect for.

This Devotion also has a magnificent false drawback in that any unit that can take Militia Training (an upgrade that makes them as good as Guardsmen at shooting and fighting) must do so, and can also have flak armour. Again, suits me fine. 

Monday 16 March 2015

Belly laughs courtesy text messaging and tumblr

I wanted to write something more substantial for Monday, in particular essay on the Missing Adventures novel The Sorcerer's Apprentice, but I'm too angry about The End Times: Archaon to write anything coherent.

So instead I just want to plug some tumblrs that have been giving me enormous amusement the past couple of weeks. It takes a lot to make me laugh out loud when I'm alone but at times these things had me in tears. Each one takes quotes from the website Texts From Last Night and puts them on screencaps from some of my favourite series.

There's Texts From The Old TARDIS (Classic Doctor Who); Texts From TheSatellite Of Love (Mystery Science Theatre 3000); Texts From BakerStreet (Sherlock); and let's throw in Fuck Yeah Doctor Who Macros for good measure.

Seriously, these texts are hilarious on their own and even funnier if you imagine these familiar characters saying them. 

Sunday 15 March 2015

The heads are in the mail (not a mafia thing)

Statuesque Miniatures have finally restocked their Heroic Scale Female Heads conversion kits. Not only that but they've also got a second set of female heads out with berets. Since I anticipate they'll sell out again quite quickly I ordered four sets (one with berets, three without). That's forty heads, that's as many as forty cakes...
and that's awesome. Now I just have to figure out what to with them.

Mainly I want to use them for Guard: bare heads for troopers and berets for officers, command sections and storm troopers, I think. Still debating whether to do a mixed gender regiment (in which case I will need to find a lot of bare male heads) or an all-female regiment since these conversion sets are dirt cheap (£4.75 for ten heads and a small discount for purchasing multiple sets).

I might make some female Battle Wizards and certainly the Inquisitorial Warband could use some ladies on hand: fallen Inquisitor Gemini Rooper; Adepta Biologis Jessika Tremayne, Tank Commander/getaway driver Captain Koleen-Callum and Storm Trooper Sergeant Juliana Kelt being long-standing members in my background who have never made it to the table.

I am very much looking forward to these things turning up. 

Saturday 14 March 2015

Saturday Teatime #4: Marco Polo

Before we launch into this there are a few issues I'd like to address separately so they don't overshadow the story itself. The first is this story's status as the first missing story. Short version: in the Seventies the BBC dumped a lot of their film archive, literally incinerated it, to make space. There were logical reasons at the time: the BBC was moving to full colour broadcasting and anticipated no market for their black and white material in the future, there being no hint of home video at the time. There were also problems with the actor's union Equity, who lobbied to limit the number of repeats to keep their members in work, which as a hoary old socialist I can't really complain about.

So they dumped almost everything: Doctor Who episodes, historic Top Of The Pops performances, early episodes of Dad's Army and The Avengers, even their news reports of the moon landing ended up in the incinerator. This continued well into the era of colour and we'll be seeing how this affects Doctor Who right up to Season Eleven. Many of the destroyed episodes were later returned to the BBC by overseas TV stations who had failed to destroy their copies but there are still over ninety episodes missing, probably never to be seen again.

By sheer luck and the dedication of early fans every missing episode's soundtrack exists as off-air recordings. There are also “telesnaps”, which was a service provided by a man called John Cura who was retained by certain producers and directors to photograph their programs on transmission at a rate of a picture every few seconds.

Which brings us around to how I'm “watching” this story. A group of fans working under the collective name of Loose Cannon have produced a complete set of reconstructions using the soundtracks, telesnaps, surviving clips and even specially filmed inserts. These are as close to the original as we're ever likely to get in most cases so I'll be using them to experience the missing episodes, including the ones the BBC have animated. I heartily recommend them to anyone who wants the most authentic experience of the missing episodes currently (and likely ever) available.

There's also a colour version of Marco Polo, which I'm not using here for authenticity reasons, but that is absolutely amazing, this is such a beautiful story.

The other issue to address is race in this story, which is set in China and contains all of one Asian actor: Zienia Merton, who is Burmese on her mother's side. So, basically, there's one actor from the right continent and every other Chinese character is played in yellowface. I'm not addressing this separately to ignore the issue but there's a lot to say about this story and better, more complete stories where I can talk about race in the classic series. For the moment its something to note but I want to give it a proper essay down the line or at least wait for a more complete story featuring these issues so I have as much evidence to base my opinion on as possible (probably The Crusade) All that dealt with, let's actually talk about this story:
7 episodes
written by John Lucarotti
original broadcast 22nd February to 4 April 1964

This is a long story. I don't think there's any way I'll get through this project without complaining about long stories a few times so I was pleasantly surprised by how little padding this one had. By the time we get to the Pertwee era, if not Season Five, I strongly suspect both you and I will be tired of me complaining about episodes that are just running in place and not advancing the plot. Here, though, the long runtime actually serves to give the story room to breathe. There's a whole section of an episode given over to Ping-Cho regaling the TARDIS crew with a Chinese folk tale. Its an interesting scene because aside from a little moment where Ian explains the etymology of the word assassin its entirely about Ping-Cho, the TARDIS crew are passive observers.

We should probably talk about Ping-Cho and her relationship with Susan. Ping-Cho is a teenage girl travelling to Kublai Khan's court as part of Marco caravan, headed for an arranged marriage with a very old court official. Its an interesting angle even if Lucarotti fails to stick the landing on it. More important, though, is Ping-Cho's relationship with Susan.

For one thing the relationship is so eminently slashable. Part of this is because of the limited evidence: almost every surviving image of the two young women involves them leaning close to one another, hugging or lounging in bed together in their tent (no, honestly). On a more serious note this is actually the only time that Susan is shown to have an extended relationship with someone her own age. I've talked before about how Susan's character gets kind of screwed over by having the three other main characters all be responsible for her so giving her a friend her own age is exactly what the character needs.

I genuinely think this is the best use of Susan so far, perhaps the best use of her in her entire run. The series at this stage still has a problem with writing the young: when Susan and Ping-Cho raise their suspicions about Tegana they are ignored and Ping-Cho is robbed of a resolution to her plot when it turns out her intended husband has died, saving her from a marriage she no longer wants by chance instead of her own actions. Also, as I say, in her ten story run this is the one and only time Susan has someone her own age to talk to, we didn't even see her interact with the other kids at Coal Hill School.

The guest cast as a whole is more important to this story than any other story so far, perhaps more than any other story in Season One and we're clearly meant to invest in them and even take their side at times. Mark Eden as Marco Polo is used as a narrator via the device of writing in his journal; we're obviously meant to side with him when Ian betrays his trust; and the climax of the serial is a big sword fight (brutally ill-served by the static telesnaps) between the Warlord Tegana and Marco Polo. The big confrontation isn't Ian's or the Doctor's but Marco's. In fact, the road to that final confrontation is paved largely by confrontations between Marco and Tegana. From the modern perspective where the Doctor is our clear-cut hero figure and absolutely the centre of the narrative (for better or worse) this comes off a little oddly.

Except, of course, running at seven episodes Marco, Ping-Cho and Tegana might as well be regulars. The series had only run thirteen episodes before their introduction and on original broadcast the audience would have seen these characters every week for nearly two months. True, regular viewers would know the actual series regulars better but seven weeks is a long time to watch a single cast of characters. These days that could be the length of an entire series, especially of a historical where budgets tend to favour shorter runs.

Of course, saying that we should probably address this story's “historical” credentials. This is Doctor Who's first brush with proper history as it features an actual historical figure instead of generic cavemen. This is where it gets tricky and I have to clear away some due diligence. Every Doctor Who story has a spotter's guide version that every fan knows after a while and for Marco Polo it is this: the geography of this story is terrible and the history is worse. Lawrence Miles and Tat Wood's About Time series actually spends time debating whether Mark Eden's character is even really meant to be Marco Polo, the representation of him is that far from reality, and the BBC soundtrack CD contained a map of the journey taken in the story with a note basically saying “Yes, we know Cathay wasn't actually this shape but the map had to follow the story not actual geography”. So, we have a historical figure who's nothing like he should be travelling through a representation of Cathay that doesn't even have the landmarks of the Silk Road in the right order.

Let me be clear, as far as I'm concerned this doesn't matter.

I am a huge fan of HBO's The Tudors, a series that picked up something of a reputation in the press for historical inaccuracy. Some of it was just the press being ignorant (they complained about Henry VIII being fit and handsome even though he didn't look like the Holbine painting until much later in life) but there were genuine alterations to history in that series. For instance, in the series Henry has one sister, Margaret, whilst in reality he had two, Margaret and Mary. However, neither did all that much that was useful to the plot so events from both their lives were conflated into the Margaret character. It made a better story and the producers were very up front about it. They also said that they hoped by creating an engaging story they could interest people in going out and reading about the history for themselves and I honestly believe this is the approach being taken by Lambert, Whitaker and Lucarotti here.

Yes, this is educational television but at the primary and secondary level, which is where this is pitching, details tend to be left out. Okay, a lot of details are being left out here but it isn't as if anyone was ever going to go back and fact check it. I mean, they have, but no one making the thing could have known they would. The best case scenario is that a child watches this, becomes interested and maybe remembers it vaguely enough that if and when the subject comes up at school they'll remember the broad sweep of things: that Marco Polo was a Venetian trader, that his family was a power in Kublai Khan's court, that the Silk Road crossed the Gobi Desert and so on. This wasn't meant to be used as a primary text and it certainly wasn't ever meant to be revisited.

And if we're going to talk about how useful accuracy is to a story let's consider this story's token science lesson where Ian and the Doctor explain condensation to a bewilderingly incredulous Marco. Its dull. Its very dull. Its not quite as bad as the stuck switch explanation that ended the last story but its getting there.

This moment does, however, represent something important and interesting. Before this exceptionally boring science lesson the Doctor has been unconscious for an episode in the TARDIS, affected by the same dehydration that is threatening to kill Marco's entire caravan. When he emerges bearing the condensed water that has been collecting on the TARDIS walls he's a very different man from the one Susan carried inside. As we noted back with the changes between the pilot and broadcast versions of An Unearthly Child, the production team did seem to have reservations from day one about the Doctor's initial hostile personality. After he emerges from his nap he's far less snappish and far more whimsical. It isn't a complete rewrite of the character but he is certainly more fun after this, a fact brought home when he repeatedly beats Kublai Khan at backgammon and is asked to list what the Khan owes:

Thirty-five elephants with ceremonial bridles, trappings, brocades and pavilions; four thousand white stallions and twenty-five tigers […] and the sacred tooth of Buddha which Polo brought home from India […] I'm... I'm very much afraid all the commerce from Burma for one year, sire.”

This is the immediate legacy of Marco Polo: another step towards the Doctor becoming the hero of the series by becoming sympathetic instead of the aloof and dangerous alien we met in An Unearthly Child. There is one other legacy, though it is less immediate, indeed it won't bear fruit until the Nineties.

You see, The ending of this story deserves special mention because this is the first time something very important happens. Marco and Kublai Khan watch the TARDIS dematerialise and instead of switching to the Ship's interior for a quick cliffhanger to lead us into the next story we stay with Marco who delivers a charming little voiceover in which he wonders where his friends will end up next, the past or the future? Its the first time the narrative really leaves the TARDIS crew and creates the first continuity gap in the series, albeit one that could only be exploited if Ian fails to change his shirt for a while. Aside from the stories set before An Unearthly Child this is the first place Missing Adventures can be slotted in, which is going to be very important in about thirty years.

NEXT EPISODE: The Keys of Marinus... or is it?

Friday 13 March 2015

Random yet brief Frobisher appreciation post

One of the reasons I love comics is because any insane, whacked out idea goes. Take this character, for instance:
This is Frobisher. He is a shapeshifting alien private detective who (and this is the best bit) just feels most comfortable in the shape of a penguin. Even better, he isn't even the big idea of the comic he's in, he was a companion in the Doctor Who Magazine comic strip. 

I bloody love comics. 

Thursday 12 March 2015

The old pound coin and epoxy trick

I was having a very bad day yesterday: my laptop destroyed itself in a way that almost prevented me recovering my files; my kitchen cabinets are absolutely infested with black mold; and people keep trying to spoiler the end of The End Times: Archaon for me for some reason.

Then as I walked to the pub to meet a friend I noticed someone had played the old pound coin and epoxy trick.

If you've never heard of it the trick works like this: you take a pound coin and some epoxy resin (or any other extra strength adhesive) into the street at a quiet time of day. You glue the coin to the ground and by the time the epoxy sets its pretty much impossible to remove without heavy duty solvents.

Then you just leave it, maybe you watch or maybe you just leave and let nature take its course.

I saw some right pathetic displays as people tried to kick, pick and stamp the coin off the pavement. I poked it with my foot once and realised what was going on, look around slyly for a camera and moved on but one guy was there ten minutes trying to kick the thing into submission. He was even swearing at it. It was hilarious.

I know its cruel but it cheered me up enormously. 

Wednesday 11 March 2015

The Ghostbusters Cinematic Universe... oh dear

So it turns out that in addition to the female-led Ghostbusters reboot Sony Pictures have greenlit a male-led Ghostbusters film as well as starting a new production company called Ghostcorps to oversee future film, TV and merchandising projects for the franchise. Sony wants to make a shared universe out of this idea because shared universes are the big thing now Marvel-Disney have proved it can makes stacks of cash through mutual marketing and consolidating audiences.

It could work, I'm perfectly open to the idea of this working but I'm dubious. It isn't the Sony thing. Sure, they failed to make the shared universe thing work with The Amazing Spider-Man but those weren't films they wanted to make. They actually seem interested in Ghostbusters so I have somewhat higher hopes.

Rather its that nothing in Ghostbusters screams “shared universe” to me. I'm interested to see how the old “four funny dudes start a business, hilarity ensues plus ghosts” formula works with modern comediennes and I can't deny a straight-up reboot would interest me too but what else is there?

That the shared universe thing works for comicbook movies is obvious, its been part of their native format for over seventy years. The only barrier to doing it in film was getting all the rights under one roof, which only makes it stranger Marvel got there first but that's a rant for another day. Marvel and DC have pre-existing shared universes and literally thousands of discrete intellectual properties under their direct ownership. Even Fox and Sony's third party agreements aren't hurting for spin-off material.

There are certainly properties outside comics that would lend themselves to this approach. Universal tried to revive their old monster movie franchise as a shared universe a few years back. The Expendables movies are really just applying the same logic to the whole 80s action movie genre after the fact instead of building the thing from the ground up. Star Trek could probably afford to diversify a bit more given how much source material there is to work from and Star Wars actually will have stand-alone movies between “proper” Episodes for similar reasons.

Ghostbusters, though? Perhaps appropriately there ain't much meat on them bones. The source material as it stands is made of two movies, a couple of cartoons and various scattered pieces of other media. Each version extends from exactly the same premise with a more or less consistent cast of characters (I'm reasonably sure every version features Egon and Janine).

Of course, new characters are being created for this franchise. If nothing else I imagine feminising the name Egon would be a challenge. The lack of natural alternative angles is more of a problem: the franchise has always taken place in a quasi-realistic world where the only divergence from the viewers' reality is the presence of ghosts and they're not even common enough that people stop being sceptical about their existence. That's the whole point of the original movies: it works exactly like any other comedy about starting a small neighbourhood business except that the business they're starting is the weirdest one imaginable.

I want to be giving the benefit of the doubt here but the state of original thought in big budget movies right now is... not ideal. This is absolutely part of the pattern these days of studios grabbing any famous brand that isn't nailed down. They can't really be blamed for this, its what pays their bills right now and they've lost good money betting on people watching quality original movies, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World being the unjustifiable flop that most immediately springs to mind.

So, yes, a film that is a genuine pop culture icon gets the reboot and the instant thought now is “franchise” whether or not the source material really supports it. It may do, as I say, I have no insight into this but it seems a very long shot to go shared universe when normally you'd expect them to just announce a trilogy pending box office numbers. On that subject, it might not even happen, the first film is still months away from shooting.

If nothing else this offers and interesting limit case scenario for the whole shared universe concept. 

Tuesday 10 March 2015

The filler masterclass courtesy BBC DVD

The following was posted up by Hannah J. Rothman (author of Twitter Who) on her Tumblr, they are screencaps of absolutely genuine infotext production notes from the Doctor Who: Terminus DVD. I checked just in case and they are there, kindly providing fans with the entertainment so lacking in the actual story:

Yes, indeed, let's not. Seriously, though, Doctor Who DVDs are full of this stuff when there's nothing worth commenting on happening on screen. They're a comedy goldmine just waiting for tumblr to happen. 

Though I imagine many, many fan fiction authors have done so. 

Monday 9 March 2015

Hawkeye, hearing loss and handwaves

(I apologise in advance if I make any mistakes in the language relating to deafness and hearing loss in this post. I do my best to use the most appropriate language as I understand it to work, if that understanding is imperfect please comment and I will edit the post accordingly. Thank you.)
I want to be clear before we begin: this is me giving Jeff Lemire the benefit of the doubt. I am not pre-emptively calling the guy out on something he hasn't done yet and for all I know may not even be planning on doing.

I just read All-New Hawkeye #1, which was a pretty good comic all told even if Jeff Lemire is going more for a more arc-based, trade-friendly structure than the single issue focus I so liked with Fraction. There was one moment, though, which was either a good sign of things to come or a disappointing handwave and only time will tell.

Short version: towards the end of the (still not concluded) previous run of Hawkeye, Clint was deafened. Clint has actually been deaf before and we got a couple of flashbacks about how he dealt with it as a child and how his brother Barney helped him cope. There's actually a similar flashback in this issue where kiddie Clint mishears Barney and Barney has to repeat himself, neatly mirrored in the present day section by the same thing happening between Clint and Kate.

Then the worrying thing happens: Clint drops a little exposition about his new Stark Tech hearing aids. This is not necessarily inconsistent with Fraction, who wrote Clint's returned hearing loss as total but potentially temporary, but it would seem to mean one of two things.

Potential meaning the first: Lemire intends to continue exploring Clint's hearing loss and how he deals with it, though in a different context to Fraction. Evidence for this is the fact Lemire brings attention to it not just with the mention of the hearing aids but by having a flashback that mirrors that very scene. He's stressing, as Fraction did, that this is a continuing issue for Clint and he has strategies for dealing with it. So why alter Clint's level of hearing loss in this way?

It could be a case of Lemire wanting to convey a differing deaf experience to the one Fraction focusses on. Fraction's two issues so far focussing on a deaf Clint have dealt to various degrees with sign language, lip reading, interpretation and emotional coping mechanisms, especially family support. Perhaps Lemire intends to focus on the interaction between person and technology? The fact he portrays the technology as imperfect would seem to point towards this, Hawkeye has not magically regained perfect hearing through the application of science-fiction tech (which anything with the Stark brand pretty much is by default).

Yes, it would be better if these two distinct deaf plotlines could be dealt with using separate characters but having both stories out there, if done well, could be positive enough to excuse the inconsistency. That's the sort of decision best left up to the individual reader.

Then there's the other possibility...

Potential meaning the second: the Stark Tech hearing aids are a handwave, the flashback pays lip service to the previous creative team and little or nothing will be heard of Clint's hearing loss again. Having some hearing return to Clint, enough to make hearing aids effective, could simply be a reaction to Marvel's past history with the profoundly deaf Echo which spawned no end of (entirely justifiable) controversy. Echo's level of speech comprehension was almost constantly shifting, sometimes specifically focused on and sometimes forgotten to the point that she somehow understood Spider-Man talking to her through a full-face mask. Some of this was shoddy writing (as with the Spider-Man example) though at times it was simply a matter of poor positioning of the character in a panel. Sad to relate, the resulting poor reception might have led some writers to be gun shy on the issue.

I want to stress that I hope, and express confidence, in the idea that Lemire is going with Option One and we will continue to see a real engagement with Clint's deafness in the new series. Even if it has a different form from Fraction's engagement with the same issue and even if it is of a lesser presence in the narrative I think much that's positive can come from this angle.

It is tempting to sign off on a jocular note about how “He can't possibly do worse with this than Bendis did with Echo” but, if comics have taught me one thing, its that there's ALWAYS a worse way to handle an issue. 

Sunday 8 March 2015

Learning to Liv again (DARK EYES 4 SPOILERS)

No, seriously, I know the CDs have only just gone out but I just finished the mp3 version and I wanted to get one thought out while its fresh (SPOILERS AFTER THE PICTURE):

I was afraid that Dark Eyes 4 would end with the death or departure of Nicola Walker as Liv Chenka. Big Finish have already announced there will be a new companion for the Eighth Doctor in Doom Coalition come November and I worried they'd want to make the Dark Eyes era as self-contained as possible.

If they had done that (which they have not) I feel that Liv Chenka would have ranked as one of the great missed opportunities of Doctor Who companions. I feel Nicola Walker could be playing one of the great companions but circumstances have conspired so that she isn't doing it yet. Dark Eyes by its nature was Molly O'Sullivan's story, even in the stories in which she didn't appear. The series was literally named after her and the last three box sets have really just been paying off the consequences of her introduction. Its been one hell of a ride but it gave Liv very few chances to shine.

In Dark Eyes 2 Liv was a traumatised survivor of a Dalek occupation and the third series was far too hectic to get many decent character moments in for her. The first two discs of Dark Eyes 4, though, gave Liv a chance to loosen up and act like a person for really the first time since she joined the Doctor. It seems clear that she and the Doctor have been on a few trips together since the last series ended and they're more comfortable with each other.

There's a real likeness to the characters of the Eighth Doctor and Liv that has been paying off in Dark Eyes 4: they're both survivors of Dalek atrocities learning to live their lives again. Dark Eyes started with the Doctor quite literally trying to kill himself by forcing the TARDIS to take him to the end of time, a scene of such despair and violence that it has really dark implications given how the TARDIS tends to be viewed as the Doctor's life partner. At the end of the series he's talking to Liv about hope being other people.

Liv, on the other hand, isn't quite there yet. She talks about sticking around as long as the Doctor needs her and at various points in the box set it seems clear she's still uncomfortable in normal social situations. Walker herself, in the behind the scenes interviews, says she doesn't think Liv could have handled her situation in the first disc if she'd known she was on a date. Not in any overly traumatic way, you understand, just that she wouldn't know how to handle herself in that situation.

Dark Eyes has had a lot of themes: its been about how Molly O'Sullivan's existence threatened the universe; about the Doctor recovering from his bereavements at the end of To The Death; and it has been the story of Liv Chenka beginning to find herself again and put her traumas behind her and only in that last one does the series really fail to pay off.

Honestly, I think Liv's traumatic backstory is going to define a lot of the character going forward, which is only natural. I'm looking forward to seeing it explored in more detail, to be honest. Like I say, I think Liv could be one of the greats now that the character has more room to breathe. 

Saturday 7 March 2015

Hopes and fear for The End Times: Archaon

Last night I pre-ordered The End Times: Archaon from my local GW, standing in line with the same crew that turns out for every End Times book. I'm going to miss that bunch. I'll see them, of course, but there's a certain camaraderie to the queuing experience when you're a nerd among nerds in a dedicated nerd space.

I say this on the assumption this is the last End Times book, which has all but been announced but I could be reading my tea leaves wrong. I do hope its the end because I want to know how this ends so I can get back to telling my stories for my armies in the brave new world that results.

And I do hope its a brave new world full of hope in which the coming darkness has been vanquished because that's how the story is supposed to end, especially as The End Times is as blatant a narrative collapse story as has ever been written.

Restoration of order! Heroic victory! Hope!

NOT a bleak nihilistic ending in which Chaos wins. I really, really don't want that and I am a player who absolutely loves Chaos. I've had Warriors Of Chaos, Chaos Space Marine and Lost And The Damned armies, I love the concept BUT, just to be clear, I don't want them to win on the macro scale because that would end the story.

Then again it isn't like GW doesn't like its nihilism. I just hope they realise that that's what 40k is for: the bleak, nihilistic universe in which progress is impossible whereas Warhammer Fantasy has always been essentially hopeful.

On the smaller scale I really, really want Archaon to die. I feel he's served his purpose and should get a proper death to cap off the story, the sort of closure he didn't receive in the Mark I version of this story back in Storm Of Chaos. 

Friday 6 March 2015

Could Big Finish move entirely to box sets?

This is a thing that has been bouncing around fan circles on the internet, apparently starting off from comments made at Big Finish Day 6 about how BFP might be cutting the monthly Doctor Who Main Range and replacing it with box sets.

To be honest, I can't say I'd mind and here's why:

Over the last few years Big Finish have steadily moved away from the sort of storytelling a monthly schedule serves. When they dumped the anthology format for trilogies it was a move towards marketing the high concept of a group of stories over the individual stories themselves. They've been steadily cutting down on trilogies that are just reuniting a cast and putting them in random adventures without an overarching theme, unless a cast member is enough of a draw on their own (like Bonnie Langford's upcoming trilogy with Sylvester McCoy, which is the first time the pair have appeared together since 2006). The only Main Range stories that still really work like that are the Fifth Doctor / Nyssa / Tegan / Turlough stories and even they went high concept this year with a Return To E-Space trilogy. The trilogy is the marketable unit rather the three stories that form it.

Given that its annoying how that pesky annual anthology release means a six- or twelve-month subscription almost never matches up with where the trilogies begin or end. I'll always get one complete trilogy in a six-month subscription but bits of two others at either end of it. Box sets eliminate that problem.

They also eliminate one other very obvious problem: the monthly schedule itself. Any regular schedule breeds filler eventually and Big Finish are by no means the worst offenders but it has happened. I've often wondered whether comicbooks would be better if they went of hiatus between storylines to give the creative teams additional lead time.

There's also the fact its easier to get people excited about a new thing than a continuing thing. As atomic units even box sets in a series (the Dark Eyes boxes, for instance) are easier to drive hype for than the hundred and ninetieth instalment in a monthly series. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, as well, and I anticipate a new Dark Eyes box set or the recent Fifth Doctor Box Set more than their regular Main Range equivalent.

They could also use box sets to pilot new talent. The writing pool for Big Finish stories has shrunk in recent years with an inordinate number of Matt Fitton and John Dorney scripts (not that I mind either's work but they do write a lot of stories for just two people). If they can sell a box set with four stories in it, using one disc to trial a new writer isn't too much of a sacrifice if the other four disc are from reliable old hands.