Tuesday 30 April 2013

Doctor Who - Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS

Across fifty years of Doctor Who, one of the few constants has been the TARDIS (standing for either “Time And Relative Dimension In Space” or “Time And Relative Dimensions In Space” depending which episode you watch and who you ask). It’s always been there to some degree, usually seen at the beginning and end of a story—a literal vehicle to transport the Doctor and his companions to the story’s location. Like the Doctor, the TARDIS has changed a lot over the years. Even its exterior, stuck in the form of a police box due to a faulty chameleon circuit, has undergone small changes. However, the interior has appeared in numerous different ways. But despite the changes in appearance, the TARDIS has always remained more or less the same.

It’s actually been quite rare for any particular episode or story to focus on the TARDIS to any degree. Despite the constant changing and reinventing of the show as a whole, this is one thing that has remained quite constant—and for good reason, I think. Fans have often clamoured for more stories about the TARDIS, particularly stories set entirely on board the TARDIS. Yet production teams have remained resistant to doing this, adamant that the TARDIS is just a plot device, that literal vehicle I mentioned. The programme rarely showed more than just the console room, and sometimes not even that, instead having the TARDIS appear and the Doctor and companions come out. Indeed, in the early years, despite common fan belief, there was nothing to indicate that the TARDIS interior was the massive size it became in later years. It was bigger on the inside than the outside, yes, but in the early William Hartnell years, only the console room and a couple of adjoining rooms were ever seen, and there was no indication that there was more. Throughout the late sixties and all of the third Doctor’s tenure, we never saw anything beyond the console room at all. It wasn’t until the fourth Doctor story, “The Masque of Mandragora” that the first indication of those endless corridors appeared.

Wednesday 24 April 2013

Doctor Who - Hide

There’s no doubt that we’ve been getting a wide variety of story types in this current run of Doctor Who. This has always been the show’s strength: the ability to do one thing one week, and something completely different the next. This week, the show turns to the classic ghost story, but with a science fiction twist. On the surface, “Hide” is a very different story from author Neil Cross’s previous story, “The Rings of Akhaten” from two weeks ago. Yet it shares a lot of similarities, both in its strengths (inventive ideas, a compelling and detailed setting) and in its weaknesses (loose ends, an unsatisfying ending). It does manage a few things better than “Akhaten”—in particular, there’s more depth to the characters in “Hide”—but overall, it leaves a very similar impression. It’s a story that I really want to like, but which leaves me ultimately disappointed, not quite the “masterpiece that could have been” like “Akhaten”, but still a story that could have been really good, even great, if not for its egregious flaws.


Monday 22 April 2013

Fangwood Keep

The border between Molthune and Nirmathas is a volatile area of Golarion. The two countries have been in a state of hostility, if not all-out war, for a long time, ever since Nirmathas broke off from its parent country, Molthune. It’s an area that is ripe for adventure and the setting of Fangwood Keep by Alex Greenshields. In the adventure, the PCs must retake a border fort (the titular Fangwood Keep) from a rogue Molthuni force that has taken it without orders to do so. It’s a very straight-forward and open-ended adventure. There’s a bit of a mystery to be solved (why did the Molthuni force go rogue and what are they after?), but overall, there’s not a lot of complexity here. However, the adventure’s basic simplicity is ultimately its strength. It sets a scene with fully detailed characters and motivations and then lets the PCs take care of the details. It makes very little in the way of assumptions about the PCs—not even which side they’re working for—allowing the adventure to progress in whatever way it happens to, in the end making for a fun and exciting adventure.


Thursday 18 April 2013

Champions of Purity

Alignment has been a long-standing part of the Dungeons and Dragons game, and now Pathfinder. Different editions have treated it in slightly different ways, but at its core, it’s remained essentially the same (well, 4th Edition D&D altered it quite significantly, but for the purposes of this article, I’m tracing the evolution up through 3rd Edition and into Pathfinder). To be honest, I’ve never been a fan of the alignment system. I feel it’s archaic and the game would be better off without it. However, I do understand why it’s still there. It is, in many ways, an iconic part of the game, something that identifies it and sets it apart from many other roleplaying games.

Alignment certainly does have its uses. Some people may roll their eyes and laugh (and I’ve literally seen that done—after hit points, alignment is usually the first thing detractors of D&D/Pathfinder attack) at the idea that nine designations can cover the entire breadth of possible personalities. Of course alignments can’t do that. But what they can do is provide a starting point to build a personality around. This can be particularly useful for gamemasters, who often need to come up with personalities on the fly. Looking down and seeing “lawful good” printed on the page gives an initial focus to build a personality around. It can’t possibly tell you everything about that character, but it can give you a broad idea.

Alignment can cause a lot of argument, though. Ask ten people their interpretations of an alignment, and you’ll probably get ten different interpretations. The rulebooks of various editions of the game have tried to detail and describe the alignments, some doing it better than others, but disagreement can still abound. It’s not as much of a problem these days, as the game has become less strict about enforcing alignments. Gone are the days of experience point penalties for acting out of alignment—and good riddance to them! Few people are one hundred percent consistent in their actions and those old rules enforced unnatural characters (particularly with those of lawful and/or good alignments, since those alignments were the most rigid).

There have been a few supplements over the years that have added additional material and discussion to the alignment debate/interpretations. The 3rd Edition books, The Book of Vile Darkness and The Book of Exalted Deeds went even further, making alignments (evil in the case of Vile Darkness; good for Exalted Deeds) the focus of the books and adding new character abilities, spells, feats, and game effects tied to alignment. Now Pathfinder enters the fold with Champions of Purity, a book focused on characters of the three good alignments. It offers advice for playing good alignments, along with new feats, traits, spells, etc. for good characters.

Tuesday 16 April 2013

Doctor Who - Cold War

The Ice Warriors have always been one of my favourite Doctor Who monsters. This stems primarily from the third Doctor story, “The Curse of Peladon”, one of my all-time favourites. The first two appearances of the Ice Warriors in the sixties during Patrick Troughton’s time as the Doctor (“The Ice Warriors” and “The Seeds of Death”) were, to be honest, nothing special. Both stories followed the standard second Doctor base-under-siege structure, with the Ice Warriors themselves being just another monster of the week, with little to make them unique or interesting, little to distinguish their characters as any different from the monsters that appeared in most of the other base-under-siege stories. “The Curse of Peladon” changed that. The Ice Warriors became a rare (for the time) example of an alien race in Doctor Who that wasn’t all bad. Suddenly, the Ice Warriors in this story were good guys. They were still the same species of creatures that had appeared in the previous stories, but suddenly, there was a lot more complexity to them, considerably more than appeared in most Doctor Who aliens. When they returned a couple years later in “The Monster of Peladon”, they were once again baddies, but this time specifically called out as a renegade batch. While “Monster” was nowhere near as good as “Curse”, it still developed the Ice Warriors in new ways whilst remaining true to what had come before.

Then the Ice Warriors vanished from the show. There were plans for an Ice Warrior story in the missing season from 1985 (and given the novelization for that story that came out later, it’s for the best it was never made), and the Ice Warriors have been name-dropped a few times (such as in “The Waters of Mars”), but they’ve remained conspicuously absent from the screen (although they have appeared in novels and other spin-off media) until this week’s “Cold War”. I was somewhat worried about their return appearance after so long. Would the modern Ice Warriors be faithful to the originals, or would they be a drastic redesign like the Silurians? Even if they were faithful, would the story be any good?

Given that Mark Gatiss was the writer of the episode, I had further reservations. Gatiss has a long association with Doctor Who. His first televised story was “The Unquiet Dead” in Series One of the revived programme, but even before that, he wrote several novels for the New Adventures series in the 90’s. Although I rather like “The Unquiet Dead” and his early novels, I’ve found his episodes since to be rather middling at best (such as “Night Terrors”) to downright atrocious (“Victory of the Daleks”). But in “Cold War”, Gatiss delivers his best episode since “The Unquiet Dead”, a story that manages to pay homage to the old base-under-siege stories, reintroduce the Ice Warriors in a way that is utterly faithful while simultaneously updating them for modern audiences, and stay suspenseful and exciting throughout. There’s nothing particularly clever or original about this story. When it comes down to it, it’s nothing we haven’t seen before, either in Doctor Who or various other shows and movies it’s lifted its influences from. But “Cold War” manages to be more than the sum of its parts, and ends up a very good Doctor Who episode, one that I enjoyed immensely.


Tuesday 9 April 2013

Doctor Who - The Rings of Akhaten

Doctor Who has always been a show filled with wild and crazy ideas. It’s part of its charm, part of its lure. The sheer breadth of possibilities the show offers and its willingness to completely reinvent itself at times are what have kept it going for so long. It doesn’t always work. Sometimes, wonderfully creative ideas don’t meet their full potential. Sometimes, they turn out to not be so wonderful after all. “The Rings of Akhaten” is one of those times that a wonderful idea just doesn’t reach the heights it might have. Written by Neil Cross (a newcomer to Doctor Who, but well-known for the series, Luther), it is stunningly gorgeous, both visually and in its concepts. Unfortunately, it suffers from a number of problems: an ill-defined threat, a lack of character development for anyone other than the series regulars, and an unsatisfying conclusion. It’s a shame because there is so much good here and on each viewing, I couldn’t help but see the potential for a truly amazing episode. Instead, it ends up in that list of Doctor Who episodes that reached for the stars and missed.


Tuesday 2 April 2013

Doctor Who - The Bells of Saint John

I always hold out high hopes and anticipation for a new series of Doctor Who, and while this week’s return wasn’t strictly the start of a new series (but rather the continuation of Series Seven), it feels like one. A new companion (well, reintroduction of the new companion) and a new look for the Doctor signal a coming change. A new companion is in some ways like a new era for the show, similar to a new Doctor. On top of that, we are in the fiftieth year of Doctor Who and the show is beginning to gear up towards its fiftieth anniversary. It’s natural to anticipate what is to come.

But high hopes come with worries, too. And I certainly haven’t been short on worries considering my overall disappointment with a lot of recent Doctor Who. So I was actually quite pleasantly surprised by “The Bells of Saint John”. It’s fun and entertaining, and quite a bit different in style to what we’ve become used to over the past couple of years. There’s a definite feel of the Russell T Davies years to it. In particular, the episode is very reminiscent of “Partners in Crime”, the opening story of series four, while also lifting quite a few elements from other stories, notably “The Idiot’s Lantern”. But these come across more as homages rather than plagiarism, making for a highly enjoyable episode. Indeed, I’d go so far as to say this is Steven Moffat’s best script since “The Eleventh Hour”, the first story of the eleventh Doctor. It’s certainly not perfect—I have several quibbles here and there—but overall, it’s a good start to a new period of Doctor Who.


Monday 1 April 2013

Reign of Winter - The Shackled Hut

In The Shackled Hut by Jim Groves, the second part of the Reign of Winter adventure path, the PCs set out to find Baba Yaga’s Dancing Hut as the next step in their quest to rescue Baba Yaga herself. Much like The Snows of Summer, the first part of the AP, The Shackled Hut is a very linear adventure, but one that nonetheless feels natural in its progression and thus PCs won’t likely feel overly railroaded by it. The adventure contains a wonderful mix of dark fairytale elements and interesting characters. Although many of those characters are there and gone in only a short amount of time, they all have fully detailed backgrounds and motivations, making them feel a part of a living and exciting world. This is not a perfect adventure (indeed, I have a few issues with its resolution in particular), but it is still a very good adventure and a great continuation of the adventure path.