Saturday 29 December 2012

Doctor Who - The Snowmen

It’s become a staple now. Every 25th of December, Doctor Who returns to television screens for a between-series—or, in this case, since the series is split over the fall and spring, a mid-series—special, all of them ostensibly a Christmas special, although some with more obvious Christmas trappings than others. As the Christmas specials need to appeal to a wider audience base than the standard series episodes, they tend to be fairly disconnected (no arc plots, for example) and more light-hearted. They tend to aim more for pure fun than for thinking. There have been a few exceptions, of course, that are more connected to the main series and more significant. “The Christmas Invasion” had to introduce a new Doctor, for example, and four years later, “The End of Time” had to write that Doctor out. This year’s special, “The Snowmen” by Steven Moffat, is another one of these significant specials, having to appeal to its wider audience, introduce a new companion, and fit in with the continuity of the series it comes in the middle of. Given my general disappointment with many recent episodes, I went into this special with a certain amount of trepidation, but also a great deal of hope. This was an opportunity for great changes, but also an opportunity for things to go dreadfully wrong. At the very least, however, I was confident that it could not possibly be any worse than last year’s “The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe”.

And thank goodness I was right about that. It’s considerably better than last year’s special (although my wife feels that it’s even worse, so go figure). That’s not to say that it’s a perfect episode. Indeed, it’s quite far from that. There are a number of problem areas from two-dimensional characters to a groan-worthy resolution. However, it is possible to watch the episode and feel entertained, laugh a few times, and even experience a moment or two of tense excitement. I would still consider it amongst the weakest Christmas specials, but it’s not all bad.


Sunday 23 December 2012

Blood of the Night

Vampires have always been a popular part of fantasy and gothic horror. Recent years have certainly seen a surge in vampire-based fiction, from True Blood (based on The Southern Vampire Mysteries book series) to—shudder—the Twilight series. Roleplaying games have also not been bereft of vampiric undead. Vampires have shown up as everything from generic monsters to the centrepiece for entire games and/or campaigns, such as the Dungeons and Dragons Ravenloft campaign setting, which was based on an adventure of the same name.

As Pathfinder is an evolution of the Dungeons and Dragons game, naturally there are vampires in the game. The Golarion campaign setting even has an entire country, Ustalav, which is centred around gothic horror elements like vampires. There are also numerous other areas of the world in which an encounter with a vampire is not an unlikely thing. However, while there has been quite a bit of information about some of these areas (such as Ustalav in Rule of Fear), there has not been much on vampires themselves (even Undead Revisited does not have a section on vampires). Pathfinder Player Companion: Blood of the Night is the first product to focus specifically on the vampires (and vampire descendants) of Golarion.

Friday 21 December 2012

It's the End of the World as We Know It...

Apocalypses are funny things. Every time we get past one, there’s always another one just around the corner. They happen for all sorts of different reasons, from asteroid impacts to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions to the arrival of the Anti-Christ. There was even the Prophet Hen of Leeds in 1806, who laid eggs with the phrase, “Christ is coming,” on each of them (it was later found to be a hoax).

And as every apocalypse passes and every new one around the corner is announced, there are always throngs of people ready and waiting to believe. Personally, I’ve never really understood how each doomsday prediction manages to gather the followers that it does, but I’ve learnt to accept it. I content myself with the fact that, while many may believe, far, far more people don’t believe. With that, I can relax in the knowledge that humanity as a whole really isn’t that gullible.

But there’s something a little different about this “Mayan Apocalypse” that’s supposed to happen sometime today (I’ve seen no sign of it yet, but there are still many hours in the day left, not to mention other time zones that are behind my own). It’s not that this one is any more likely than any of the others. It’s not. Nor is it that there are more people who believe it. While I don’t have access to accurate statistics, I suspect the number of believers this time is comparable to the number of believers of other well-known apocalypse predictions. No, it’s the fact that people believe there was ever a prediction in the first place.

Wednesday 19 December 2012

Sexism in Steven Moffat's Doctor Who?

Doctor Who has been a part of my life for just about as long as I can remember. Even before I started watching it regularly, it had imprinted itself on me. I was terrified of it, of course, at first, but even then, something drew me to it and fascinated me about it. At age 10, I fell in love with Doctor Who and never missed an episode again. Eventually, I even gained the opportunity to go back and watch all the earlier ones I’d missed (or, at the very least, listen to them in the case of missing 60’s episodes).

What exactly drew, and still draws, me to the show is hard to narrow down. Tom Baker’s mesmerizing presence certainly played a role, but he wasn’t actually the first Doctor I ever saw—Jon Pertwee was—even if there was a period when I didn’t realize Jon Pertwee had ever been there and Tom Baker had superimposed himself on my memories of the third Doctor. Until Tom Baker took over, there was still something drawing me to it. I’ve always had a proclivity towards science fiction and fantasy, so that’s undoubtedly a very major part. Around the same time I was falling in love with Doctor Who, I also discovered Star Wars and fell in love with that, too. The action and adventure definitely kept me coming back. Yet I’ve fallen out of love with Star Wars in recent years (and I’m not referring to any opinion on the quality of the prequels—I’m referring to the original, non-special-edition trilogy), but the same hasn’t happened with Doctor Who. I have also watched many other science fiction programmes and movies over the years (many of which I consider myself a fan of), but none have ever held the same place as Doctor Who. Something sets Doctor Who apart from all the others. To be honest, I’m not sure I can accurately say exactly what it is that draws me to the show, be it the sheer breadth of possibility the show covers, the writing, the acting, the concepts, the action, or the characters. The show has changed so much over the years, yet still it draws me in.

Of course, just because one loves something doesn’t necessarily mean one finds it perfect, and Doctor Who is no different. To criticize something does not necessarily indicate dislike. And fans tend to criticize. Personally, I don’t just criticize things I’m a fan of. I watch and read everything with a critical eye. Some people might say I go over the top, but I actually believe it to be very important. Something can be good and still have flaws, and I think it’s important to acknowledge those flaws. Similarly, I believe there is a difference between the two spectrums of like/dislike and good/bad. We can, and often do, like things that we know are bad (often called “guilty pleasures”). Likewise, we can dislike things that are good (although in these cases, we often go out of our way to try to prove that the things in question are actually bad in order to justify our dislike rather than just admit it’s a matter of personal taste).

Doctor Who has had its ups and downs. It’s usually good, but sometimes bad. A lot of the time that it’s bad, I still like it, but every now and then, it does an episode that I just plain don’t like. Throughout it all, I’ve always still loved the show as a whole. People who have read my reviews of recent episodes will know that I have not felt the last couple of years have been Doctor Who at its best. I have taken issues with a number of things, particularly poor character development. However, there is one issue that has been lying heavily on me for some time, one that has become a hotbed of argument amongst fandom: the presentation of women since Steven Moffat took over as showrunner.

Monday 17 December 2012

Doctor Who - Vastra Investigates

A new prequel for the forthcoming Doctor Who Christmas special is now on-line. "Vastra Investigates" doesn't actually involve any investigating on Vastra's part. The entire scene is set after the investigation is over, making the title a little odd, but oh well.  It's cute. That's really about all I can say about it. It's cute. But it's not meant to be anything more than that, so that's fine. Here it is:


Friday 14 December 2012

Shattered Star - Beyond the Doomsday Door

I’ve stated before that I can be rather critical of dungeon-based adventures. It can be very easy for such adventures to become sluggish, too drawn out, and ultimately just a succession of monster-killing that lacks dynamics or purpose. As such, I haven’t been overly praising of Shattered Star, which is an adventure path centred around dungeon crawling. Not only that, it’s one with only a fairly loose tie joining each adventure together, making it feel less like an adventure path than a succession of stand-alone adventures. The first adventure is competent, but uninspiring. Curse of the Lady’s Light (the second instalment) is an excellent adventure in its own right, but one that I think I’d rather just run by itself without the rather loose connections to the rest of the AP. And I found The Asylum Stone quite disappointing. Fortunately, the fourth instalment, Beyond the Doomsday Door by Tito Leati, delivers another excellent adventure. It’s not perfect—there are some confusing inconsistencies in its setting’s history, for example, and it does start to feel a little drawn out by the end—but it contains a fascinating, dynamic setting, and a truly unique villain. It’s a dungeon crawl where you might not want to kill everything you meet along the way, and that’s the kind of thing I love.


Thursday 13 December 2012

Science is Fake

It isn't really. But for some strange reason, a lot of people seem to think it is, or that significant amounts of science are fake. I often wonder where these people think their cell phones and computers come from. Or their television sets and cars. The Guardian has a great article lambasting people who believe in scientific conspiracy theories (such as believing that the moon landings were faked). It's quite funny and well worth reading.

When I was young, I was often ridiculed by friends and family for being too "closed-minded". From their perspective, I too rigidly stuck to science and wasn't willing to open my mind to other possibilities (like that the Egyptian pyramids were built by aliens or my brother's brief obsession with pyramid power). From my own perspective, I simply couldn't understand their perspective. As far as I was concerned, I was quite open-minded. And I still believe that. The thing is, to truly be open-minded, you have to be critical of what you see, hear, and read. This doesn't mean dismissing everything without a second thought. It means determining whether there is reasonable evidence to support it. That includes being critical of legitimate science as well. Any scientist will readily admit that. After all, it's what science is all about. Scientists don't just sit around and make stuff up. It has to be checked and re-checked, and duplicated under controlled conditions. If it survives peer review, then it starts to get accepted, no matter how bizarre and unbelievable it might have seemed at first. Just look at quantum physics for a glimpse at how truly strange and utterly non-intuitive the universe is. It is not something easy to accept.

Monday 10 December 2012

Wizards Vs Aliens - The Last Day

The first series of Wizards Vs Aliens has had its ups and downs, but on the whole, has trended more towards the ups. In the final two episodes, “The Last Day” by Phil Ford, it reaches a new height by providing the most emotional story yet and resolving a couple of mysteries that have carried through the whole series so far. The story manages to combine a little bit of spookiness, great atmosphere, action, excitement, and good character development all into one compelling tale. Yes, it does overdo it at times with the sentimentality, but not egregiously so, and as that sentimentality does play into the triumphant and uplifting ending, I’m willing to forgive it for going just a little over the top. Overall, it’s a delightful and fitting finale for the first series and paves the way for the second series to come.


Wednesday 5 December 2012

Shattered Star - The Asylum Stone

One of my all-time favourite parts of Golarion is the city of Kaer Maga, also known as the City of Strangers. It’s a wonderful mix of some of the most bizarre and creative ideas I’ve ever seen in a fantasy setting. I’ve seen some people liken it to Mos Eisley from Star Wars due to the sheer mix of creatures that reside there. Naturally, this sort of place isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I adore it. I have devoured the contents of the book, City of Strangers, multiple times and I always find something new and interesting to spark the imagination. A couple of published adventures have been set there (including the excellent Godsmouth Heresy), and one of my most fondly remembered campaigns was set there too (alas, it ended all too soon with a tpk). So I was naturally looking forward to The Asylum Stone, the third part of Shattered Star. Not only was it set in Kaer Maga, but it was written by James L. Sutter, the creator of Kaer Maga and author of City of Strangers (as well as the author of the absolutely brilliant Distant Worlds). What could possibly go wrong?

Quite a bit, it seems. Unfortunately, The Asylum Stone just doesn’t live up to the possibilities, primarily because it tries to present too many possibilities all in one go. Just as Kaer Maga itself is a hodgepodge of numerous races and organizations, the adventure is like a hodgepodge of disconnected set-pieces with only the thinnest thread linking them together. But while the city of Kaer Maga brilliantly ties all its disparate parts together into one working whole, The Asylum Stone unfortunately doesn’t. There’s simply too much in Kaer Maga to include in one adventure, especially one where the PCs are just passing through. What would work much better is to focus on one aspect of Kaer Maga (much like The Godsmouth Heresy does) with only hints of the rest. What we get instead is an adventure which takes the PCs from one Kaer Magan “gang” to the next with little to no opportunity to interact with each one, only to throw the PCs up against one of the setting’s major villains at the end without ever developing the threat of that villain or its impact on the setting. The adventure ends up feeling like a succession of random encounters and completely loses the magic of Kaer Maga.


Tuesday 4 December 2012

Wizards Vs Aliens - Fall of the Nekross

The two episodes of “Fall of the Nekross” by Gareth Roberts, are perhaps the two most event-packed episodes of Wizards Vs Aliens so far. A lot happens in these two episodes, and they move along at quite a break-neck pace right from the opening moments of Part One. Overall, they form an excellent story: exciting with good character moments, a few revelations, and some seriously dark moments. Unfortunately, “Fall of the Nekross” does have some significant flaws to it, but despite these flaws, it manages to remain highly entertaining, and that, in the end, is the most important thing.