Wednesday, January 22, 2014

A Little Bit of Self-Promotion

The Lovecraft E-Zine is branching out into print publishing, which makes me really happy, because, while I like my tablet and all, I really just love good old fashioned paper magazines.

According to their site, they'll eventually make paper editions of all past issues. Issue 27 is the only issue available, but that's okay, because it's the Second Annual Night in the Lonesome October tribute issue, which includes my story, Mother of Monsters.

To order the print issue, click here.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Roger Zelazny Book Review: But Not the Herald

It's been a while since I've written a proper Zelazny review.

And it seems like all of my latest Zelazny reviews open with a variation on that sentiment. Heh.

I had to check to see if had already written this one. This story always fails to make an impression on me. Reading it is like talking to the Nameless God in Neil Gaiman's American Gods. I can read it and then be unable to tell you the first thing about it, five minutes later.

(Amusingly, I googled the title while doing some research and came across someone's comment on the Facebook wall of their local newspaper, complaining that coupons had been left out of the paper: that story still doesn't explain why all the other newspapers got the coupons on sunday but not the herald.)

I don't think I would have written this review at all, save for the fact that it was written on Zelazny's blackest night, along with two of his most passionate and moving reflections on grief and loss, Divine Madness, and Comes Now the Power.

But Not the Herald is the Teddy Roosevelt on Mount Rushmore, admirable and respectable, but lacking the legendary status of its peers.

Now, I like the story. I don't want to make it seem as if I don't. Consider the opening.

As the old man came down from the mountain, carrying the box, walking along the trail that led to the sea, he stopped, to lean upon his staff, to watch the group of men who were busy burning their neighbor's home. 
"Tell me, man," he asked one of them, "why do you burn your neighbor's home, which, I now note from the barking and the screaming, still contains your neighbor, as well as his dog, wife, and children?" 
"Why should we not burn it?" asked the man. "He is a foreigner from across the desert, and he looks different from the rest of us. This also applies to his dog, who looks different from our dogs and barks with a foreign accent, and his wife, who is prettier than our wives and speaks with a foreign accent, and his children, who are cleverer than ours, and speak like their parents." 
"I see," said the old man, and he continued on his way.

I like that bit about the dog. This story reminds me a bit of Youth Eternal, which I first read in Threshold, the first of NEFSA's Collected Stories. (I'd like to review that one, but I can't figure how to cover a two page story that's almost entirely dependent on its twist.)

Our old man continues, sees people being jerks to each other and it accosted by muggers as he comes upon them burying the body of their victim.

The old man continued on his way to the sea, coming after a time upon two men who were digging a grave for a third who lay dead. 
"It is a holy office to bury the dead," he remarked. 
"Aye," said one of the men, "especially if you have slain him yourself and are hiding the evidence." 
"You have slain that man? Whatever for?" 
"Next to nothing, curse the luck!"

I like the story, with its cheerfully immoral parade of criminals. Disappointed with their earlier haul, these muggers take the box the old man carries, but he cautions them not to open it.

I am a Pantera's box you do not want to open.

They do anyway, and Hope, a winged creature with an infinitely delicate and pathetic voice, flies to the dark corners of the Earth.

When the two murderers turned again to the old man, he was changed: For now his beard was gone, and he stood before them a powerful youth. Two serpents were coiled about his staff. 
"Even the gods could not prevent it," he said. "You have brought this ill upon yourselves, by your own doing. Remember that, when bright Hope turns to dust in your hands." 
"Nay," said they, "for another traveler approaches now, and he wears a mighty purse upon him. We shall retire on this day's takings." 
"Fools!" said the youth, and he turned on winged heels and vanished up the path, greeting Hercules as he passed him by.
I think its biggest weakness is that, like Youth Eternal, it's too reliant on the twist for its impact. Nevertheless, it's a fine story, and it has the sly humor and mythological references one expects from Zelazny's work.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Awake, Arise, or be Forever Fallen: Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch

This review will have spoilers! Big ones!

It ties into Monday's post about Lunar & Lunar: Eternal Blue, being another video RPG that I really enjoyed.

I wasn't sure about Ni No Kuni when I first read about it. On one hand, I was like "Hey, JRPG with designs and animation by Studio Ghibli!" and on the other hand, I was like "Oh, dead mom. Awkward."

And this isn't a mom who has been dead for a long time, the pain of whose loss has subsided to a dull ache. This is a mom who is alive and loving in the beginning of the game, and who dies saving her son, right there on screen.

Those were some itsy-bitsy spoilers. The next one is going to be really big.

Oliver's tears bring his doll to life. The doll was Drippy, Lord High Lord of the Fairies, who was trapped in this shape when he went up against the big bad, Shadar.

Shadar steals pieces of his victim's hearts, robbing them of courage, love, enthusiasm and other positive traits. In a broad sense, it seems like a childish threat that wouldn't be out of place in Care Bears, but it's handled in such a way that the little details about how the victims act when broken-hearted really lend it a kind of verisimilitude. We see how their pain hurts them, and the people who love them.

It's right up there Hyperbole and a half for a wrenching picture of depression.

Drippy explains that he comes from the counterpart to our world, where everyone has a soul mate. (I think this is one of the few instances where the localization was less than excellent, as soulmate already has a specific meaning in English.) The soul mate is their twin on the other world, and what happens to one, influences the other. Oliver thinks that saving his mother's soul mate will bring her back to life.

We see several cinematic cut scenes with the titular White Witch talking to her council and ordering Shadar around. We learn early on that the Great Sage Alicia, soul mate to Oliver's mom, went up against Shadar and was defeated. I thought the plot twist was going to be that Shadar had seized her heart and she had become the White Witch.

However, what happened was that Alicia fled to our world, an act that meant that she had no soul mate. Alicia wasn't the soul mate to Oliver's mom; she was actually his mother for real. Oliver's mom is really dead, for real, and she's not coming back. And, by the way, Shadar also mentions that he's Oliver's soul mate, and if Oliver manages to kill him, Oliver will die too.

And this little boy, when he should be bereft of all hope, steps up and vanquishes him anyway.

Oliver vanishes and we see Shadar drifting in the void. In his youth had been a soldier who was punished for protecting a little girl in the midst of a massacre. Reprisals were made against his family, and he believed that the girl died in spite of all he had done. He felt like nothing he did mattered and that a world in which this kind of thing could happen didn't deserve to go on. The White Witch heard his despair, and granted him the power to end the world. 

However, the little girl did survive, and she grew up to become Alicia. As Shadar was dying, she was there to comfort him. Shadar's final action was to release Oliver from his doom. It was really very moving, and it ties in with the theme of the whole game, that people make bad choices when they feel frightened and weak and alone.

It's a story about overcoming grief. We love people, and they die, and we have to learn how to go on living without them. There is a temptation to retreat from the world or lash out when we suffer a loss, but the peace of those paths is a lie.

The story and the presentation are top notch, the kind of brilliance we've come to expect from Ghibli. How's the gameplay? Pretty good. It starts out really generic, with a fight/cast/item/flee menu. But then, gradually, options are introduced over the course of the game, with alchemy and hundreds of little creatures to capture. The Wizard's Companion has a fantastic wealth of information about the world. I think the best stories always hint at more than they state outright, and that's certainly true with Ni No Kuni.

It's a great game, full of optimism and adventure and hope and friendship and good deeds. I talked about how games loom large in our childhood memories, until nostalgia distorts them beyond all recognition. Ni No Kuni is in good in truth as those childhood games are in my memory. It's very possible the best video RPG I've ever played.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Lunar: The Silver Star and Lunar 2: Eternal Blue

This was going to be the preamble to my post about how much I loved Ni No Kuni, but it got so big that I decided to spin it off into its own post.

I've been spending an awful lot of time complaining about things I don't like, so here's a post about something I loved.

For those of you who weren't around back in the early 80's, Dungeons & Dragons was once pretty mainstream. There was a confluence of circumstances which will never be repeated that made it so, but it really was part of mainstream culture once upon a time.

If I'm not mistaken, the first time I flipped through a D&D book was in a local craft store called Washington One-Stop. I started playing the game around 1984 or so, and I've been a tabletop gamer on and off ever since.

I've been playing video RPGs nearly as long. The only reason I didn't start sooner is that the technology was not yet in place. (And the fact that it does exist is one of the big reasons that tabletop RPGs aren't coming back.) I think my first computer RPG was the Eternal Dagger, and my first console RPG was probably Dragon Warrior. I played Final Fantasy I, II, and III, Phantasy Star I, II, III (ugh) and IV. Looking back, I think the thing that surprised me most is how many times I replayed so many of those games. I was a sucker for the melodrama. I rented a lot of games from the local video stores, back when that was a thing, and I would zero in on anything with RPG elements.

I've played a lot of them. Like anything, some of them were great, some of them were awful and some I remembered being great but were awful when I returned to them as an adult. I loved Phantasy Star II as a kid, but man, is it a slog to play through it again. (I still love the music and the story, though.)

I always enjoyed Working Designs' games. They provided quirky localizations of Japanese RPG, and they produced the bulk of their work for the Sega CD. (I still own a Sega CD, but I have no idea if it still works)

I'm going to plagiarize a ton of stuff one of my earlier posts that nobody read from 2010. This time I'll include pictures, though.


Lunar was awesome. I played it when I was working nights and before I met Jen, which was just a strange time in my life. I'm much happier now than I was then, but part of me misses being able to spend fifteen hours a day working through a video game. I remember renting Final Fantasy II for the SNES. Tim said "That needs at least 36 hours of play time and the rental only lasts for two days. You're never going to finish it in one try" and I said "That sounds like a challenge!" Lunar used actual speech in the cut scenes and I had the volume turned low because I was playing at 3 AM on my day off and then a cut scene begins and Ghaleon starts mumbling, "My apprentice Nash speaks well of you" and I had to run to the TV to hear what he was saying. Speak up, dude! You're the Premier of the Magic Academy! Do you mumble like that during graduations?!

I was looking through old posts to see if I had mentioned Lunar before, and I had forgotten this, and when she was really little, Lily was sitting in her little pink chair and I was singing to her. I was taking Fur Elise, the first movement of Beethoven's Fifth, and Ode to Joy, and singing "La" for each of the notes. She was smiling broadly at each of these, but what really made her laugh was when I "sang" her the song from an old video game. I think Tim is the only one who'll know the song I'm talking about, but it's the La La La song from Lunar: The Silver Star, which really does have "La" in the place of the notes. It's a catchy little tune and she laughed out loud at this. That was her first laugh.

I figured out two of the big revelations in Lunar pretty. I had just finished up another game called Lufia and the Fortress of Doom and it had the same plot twist, which is an element of Asian folklore that goes back to the Princess and the Cowherd, that of a goddess falling in love with a human and choosing to live out a mortal life with him. In each Lunar and Lufia, the amnesiac blue-haired girl is a fallen goddess who falls in love with the main character, recovers her memory but renounces her divinity to be with him.

The other plot twist in Lunar that Ghaleon, the Premier of the magic academy was a bad guy. If you watch the opening cinema, he's practically twirling his mustache and that gave it away.

"Damn, I'm evil. Also, my hand is gigantic."
 I'm not sure if knowing that diminished my enjoyment or not. It certainly provided a different experience than I would have had otherwise. It's a great game. The gist is that the world is in trouble, you have to save it, blah-blah, crying cakes, and that the people who saved the world the last time are the parents or the mentors to this generation.

Ghaleon is the one who drives the plot. He's probably my favorite video game villain of all time. He saved the world, but then ten years after that, he and his best friend had to save it again. He hates the goddess that empowered his friend for turning away from him. He hates himself for being unable to save the world.

This animation seemed a lot more impressive twenty years ago.

As part of his plan, he feebleminds one of the former heroes, turns another to stone, butchers the dragons he was sworn to defend, enslaves a goddess and uses her power to blast a floating continent from the sky. And yet, there's this bit at the end... As you're fighting your way through the final levels of his fortress, where the most powerful monsters in the game are hurling themselves against you, there is this level where peaceful music plays and gentle pixies flit around in an idyllic garden. The faeries will talk to you and it's clear they have no idea of the things Ghaleon has done. It's like he's trying to convince himself that he's not a monster. They believe him a kind, gentle man. And he was, once upon a time. One of the characters remembers how he used to take here on long walks when she was a little girl and wonders what must have broken inside him to make the monster he has become.


As good as Lunar:TSS was, the sequel was even more incredible. It was the last game I did without easy access to a walkthrough and Jen bought it for my birthday when we were first dating, so it's special in that way too. It's set a thousand years later and the broad outline of the plot is pretty similar at first. You rescue a mysterious girl named Lucia, and run all over the place, assembling a ragtag band and eluding the White Knight Leo, who pursues you like Javert across the country. While fleeing him, your team arrives at an ancient temple where a recording shows you the events of the last game. As it's showing the defeat of Ghaleon it's suddenly interrupted by Ghaleon himself, somehow back from the dead.

It's worth noting that I was thinking it was great game and the only thing that could possibly make it better would be an appearance by Ghaleon.

Part of the game is to become the heroes out of legend, the Dragonmaster, the White Knight, etc, only to discover that...those roles are already filled. And Ghaleon, the traitor from the first game is their leader.

The game had so many scenes that I loved. You know how in these kind of games, you're always running against a clock before the the villain takes over/destroys the world, but nobody on the team has any problem stopping to get a kitten out of a tree. When you get to one village, Lucia, who was raised away from humans, says "Fuck this noise," and quits the party when you delay the main quest for yet another humanitarian mission.

When traveling through a Sherwood Forest type area, "We're close to Taben's Peak, everyone. Keep your eyes peeled and your hands on your valuables. Ronfar! Get your hands out of your pants!"

Lunar:EB has a lot of the tropes of that era of game, and one of them is that the main character has stats that are significantly better than those of the secondary characters. Leo is a special exception, as he has stats that match the main character's precisely. There's a bit where you've just finished a punishing boss battle and Leo catches up to you. One of the cultists shrugs and activates the runes that summon the boss again, and Leo and Hiro team up to smack it down.

Leo was pursuing you because he believed that Lucia was really the Destroyer, but he was starting to have doubts. When he asks you if you really think that Lucia is the destroyer, you have the option of answering "Only once a month". Heh.

The characters are awesome. I mentioned Ronfar, the lovable rogue who had been a priest, but who fell into despair and all manner of vices because he was unable to save Mauri, his beloved and Leo's sister.

There's Jean, who was raised as an assassin, but who found peace as a dancer, who is fleeing from her former mentor, Master Lunn. He is one of the four false heroes, and she has to defeat him in single combat. Everything about the game feels epic.

Leo was another great character. There's a scene where he realizes that he's been played and that he's been serving a false goddess all this time, and he faces up to the consequences.

It has the best scene ever in a video game. Zophar, the dark god that had been impersonating the goddess Althena, Lucia, the mysterious blue-haired girl whom you had rescued absorbs Althena's power into herself to destroy Zophar, thereby eliminating all magic in the world. Zophar then reveals that such power would destroy the world of Lunar as well. She hesitates, beat...beat...beat...each accompanied by a party member's face, and then she does it, "Althena's light shine forth!" unleashing the forces that will destroy a world.

She hesitated too long to actually do, and Zophar siphons her power, but she still has enough to teleport our heroes to safety. Cut to a town where Hiro is absolutely crushed by despair. Ghaleon shows up and threatens to kill everyone in the town unless you can stop him.

When you do, he reveals to Hiro that he allowed Zophar to revive him so that he could atone for his actions in the first game, but because Zophar could withdraw his power at any time, he could never overtly aid the heroes. And now that he has betrayed his master openly in order to rekindle Hiro's spirit, he will return to the grave once more.

At the very end, Lucia returns to her duties in a spire on the moon and the heroes go back to their lives. There's an ending song and a montage showing the fates of the main characters, and then it goes back to the title screen, where you have the option for a fully playable epilogue! It's not just a tacked on thing, but a full scale trek as Hiro gets the band back together and you get to see the outcome of all the good you've done as you search for a way to be with your beloved. At the end of it, you find Lucia, and the game ends while together they watch the Earth arm in arm.

I'm still going to write that Ni No Kuni post, so keep your eyes out for that. 

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Zombie Ben Franklin

Apparently that's a thing.

Hey, I get to employ my little-used "zombies" tag for this post!

I took the online test for Jeopardy last night. I think I did okay. I was home with Lily and she alternated between trying to help and informing me that she was bored, and I'm not sure which was more distracting.  This test was pass/fail and I'll only know if I passed if I happen to be lucky enough to be called to the next round of auditions. Because of the number of people who apply, not everyone who passes the test will be asked to auditions. So, if I get an email inviting me, I'll go, and if not, I'll take the test again next time it's offered.

Anyway, my major concern is that I'll get there and I won't have any anecdotes to relate after the first commercial break. I'm boring.  "Yes, Alex, I blog about the works of an author nobody has ever heard of. Sometimes I watch cartoons with my daughter."

So I put out a call on Facebook to come up with stories I could tell on Jeopardy. A friend suggested the following.

"I will never forget the time that while discussing whether the use of Shikigami in modern society as a form of revenge had reached the same annoying level as Facebook flaming that you had to channel the spirit of Edgar Allen Poe to defeat and reseal the lich of Ben Franklin. That was a heck of a night."

I replied:  Ben Franklin!! Son of a lich! I thought his phylactery was that giant bell, so I cracked it, but apparently he keeps it in that accursed Institute of his!

Now I want to play that game, though! (Also, it would have been funnier if I'd claimed his phylactery was the Franklin Institute's walk-through heart. l'esprit d'escalier , I suppose.)

Maybe some Color out of Space entered into Franklin during his famous experiment. Or he prolonged his life with Masonic Rituals and Unholy Experiments with alchemy and electrical fluid. Or some Unknown Armies weirdness hinging on the Franklin era disagreements over the ideal shape of a lightning rod, as I really like Benny's pitch for the lightning rod!

"upright Rods of Iron, made sharp as a Needle and gilt to prevent Rusting, and from the Foot of those Rods a Wire down the outside of the Building into the Ground;...Would not these pointed Rods probably draw the Electrical Fire silently out of a Cloud before it came nigh enough to strike, and thereby secure us from that most sudden and terrible Mischief!"

If anyone has any good ideas about the lich of Ben Franklin, I'd love to hear them!

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Review: Green Arrow The Longbow Hunters

I didn't think I'd be too interested in the TV show "Arrow". I mean it was on the CW, television network of the blandly beautiful, and I didn't think anyone out of high school watched those shows.

That was a big strike against it right there, even more so than the fact that Green Arrow is a poor man's Batman, for those uncomfortable with the whiff of pedophilia associated with Batman's penchant for adopting cherry-cheeked orphans and dressing them up in fish scale short shorts and elf shoes. However, I had been flipping through the TV listings a couple weeks ago when I saw that the description for that week's episode of Arrow involved someone named Cyrus Gold.

I'd heard previously that it reimagined the comics characters into more realistic versions. Cyrus Gold is the never used real name of Solomon Grundy, a character most people would only know from the nursery rhyme and/or that shitty Crash Test Dummies song. But that really is what convinced me to give the show a chance. . I'm a sucker for a good C-lister.

Holy Shit, there was nothing I didn't love about the pilot! The dialogue, the plotting, the choreography, they were all incredible, but the thing I think I liked the most was probably the reference to a guy named "Grell", which has to be an homage to Mike Grell, author and artist of The Longbow Hunters, which I consider the best Green Arrow story ever written. We've seen the second one now, and now that I've had time to reflect on the pilot, I can't help but think that it's a great example of a pilot. It introduces the characters, the premise and the conflict, tells a self-contained story, but alludes to a larger world. I like this show a lot.

I'm not what you'd call a Green Arrow fan. I'm not even sure they exist. I liken them to something like the Period 8 elements on the Periodic Table, something which has been hypothesized, but never had its existence proven.

Green Arrow is kind of silly when you get down to it.

Despite that, I dearly love the Longbow Hunters. I knew I was going to like the show when one of the characters mentions DA Grell. I had to rewind the scene and put the captions on to make sure. Mike Grell wrote the Longbow Hunters, and the Green Arrow series that followed.

I first read it when I was working in a comic book store. (That's right, nerds! I read your comics!) It was this oversized book on a rack we had just to display those odd sized books. I can't remember why I read it. Probably because I had already read through all the books that interested me already.

I don't know what was going on in the 80s that lead to so many incredibly good comics. The Longbow Hunters is a great comics and it's unquestionably an 80s comic. My friend Tim says the model of Lamborghini pictured in the comic is a distinctly 80s car, but I'm like those people who can't recognize faces when it comes to cars. But there is the Japanese theme running throughout the story, the peril of crack, and I think at one point, Black Canary wears leg warmers.

Grell is one of those prodigious talents, a writer and an artist, and brilliant at both.

I'm sorry. Was I saying something? I got distracted there for a moment.
Green Arrow moves to Seattle on the eve of his 40th birthday, and there are some drug dealers, another archer, a serial killer. The plot itself, save for perhaps the midlife crisis element, is nothing special, though it's not something that was tackled particularly often in comic books. It was a very engaging account of a pretty straightforward story, something that could have easily been an 80s movie.

 This is from Green Arrow's entry on Wikipedia: Oliver Queen is perhaps the finest archer ever known. He claims to be able to shoot 29 arrows per minute (he stated this himself, in the Sound of Violence story arc, when he corrected Black Canary for saying 26)... Green Arrow has shown the ability to shoot an arrow down the barrel of a gun, pierce a drop of water as it leaves a tap, and shoot almost any part of the human body; although he aims only to wound and not kill when he shoots. He once shot two arrows down two different gun barrels while upside down, in mid-flip while somersaulting off a building.

Ugh. I hate that kind of bullshit. Just call it a super-power and be done with it.

Here's the thing that makes me like it. In the Longbow Hunters, Green Arrow is not the best archer in the story. (He might not even be second-best, because Howard Hill gets a cameo).  At one point, he says to himself while looking at a shot made by the archer he is pursuing: "Face it old-timer, you couldn't have made that shot."

That archer is Shado. Not thrilled with the 80s ninja name (it strikes me as what you name your rogue in an MMORPG when Shadow, Shadoe, Shaddow and xXShadowXx are all taken), but it's not enough to break the series. This composition is one of my all time favorites.

The book is great and it lead to Green Arrow's first ongoing series. You can find it cheap at Amazon or elsewhere, and it's certainly worth picking up if you're a fan of street level heroes.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Moffat in the Time of the Doctor: In Love with the Epic

Okay, one more thing on how awful the Time of the Doctor was and then I'll shut up about it.

I mistakenly thought this passage from Hemingway was from his speech when he accepted the Nobel, which is why I couldn't track it down in time for publication of the original post.

This too to remember. If a man writes clearly enough any one can see if he fakes. If he mystifies to avoid a straight statement, which is very different from breaking so-called rules of syntax or grammar to make an effect which can be obtained in no other way, the writer takes a longer time to be known as a fake and other writers who are afflicted by the same necessity will praise him in their own defense. True mysticism should not be confused with incompetence in writing which seeks to mystify where there is no mystery but is really only the necessity to fake to cover lack of knowledge or the inability to state clearly. Mysticism implies a mystery and there are many mysteries; but incompetence is not one of them; nor is overwritten journalism made literature by the injection of a false epic quality. Remember this too: all bad writers are in love with the epic.

I think this really nails it. He teased the viewing audience for three seasons with these epic concepts, and when the time came to explain them, he resorted to the most banal and literal explanations imaginable.

"Milhouse. You were supposed to be the night watchman."

"I was watching. I saw the whole thing. First it started falling over, then it fell over."

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Time of the Doctor: I'm glad I watched it on January first, so I can spend all of 2014 hating it

I'm going to open with some stuff that's tangential to Time of the Doctor, but that's okay, because, as it doesn't have anything to do with Time of the Doctor, it, at least has the potential to be interesting.

Yeah, it's going to be one of those reviews.

There is large consensus that the titular Aliens from the series with Sigourney Weaver have a pretty great design, and I happen to agree with that. I've listened to a lot of James Cameron's commentary, and I remember something that he said, that the human eye can recognize the movements of another human being with remarkably few clues, so he took pains to ensure that the operators of the Aliens never made them move like human beings.

Giger Aliens are frightening on a number of levels. They're stronger than a human being, and they could kill you in a straight fight, but they're not going to do that. They're going to steal you away like a witch in a fairy tale and use you as an incubator to make more of their kind. They're intelligent, but they don't look like or think like a human being. They are the ultimate "Other".

The very first thing I ever read on the Internet, many years ago, was William Gibson's Alien 3 treatment. (Paul McGann (the 8th Doctor) was in the version of Alien 3 that finally got made, but that's just a meaningless coincidence.)

Here's a link to it:

Alien 3 is not particularly well regarded. I don't think it's as terrible a movie as some of its detractors claim, and I think it could have actually worked as a sequel to Alien. The problem is that it has fuck all to do with Aliens, the movie that immediately preceded it, and it spends a couple minutes essentially undoing everything that happened in Aliens in order it can tell the story that it wants to tell.

Aliens also worked to expand the scope of the Alien threat, and it's hard to go back to the more intimate danger of the earlier installment once you've upped the stakes like that. (Since I feel one of the problems of Doctor Who is that ever-escalating scope of the threats encountered in the season finale, maybe this isn't as orthogonal to my larger point as I had initially thought.)

Gibson's treatment looked incredible. It took everything I liked about Aliens (Bishops, Hicks, lots and lots of aliens) and ramped it up to eleven. And a good script is only one component to a good movie, but I liked it a lot. It didn't diminish the sci-fi action elements, but it also continued and expanded on the body horror present in the original.One of the concepts I really liked was, that due to experimentation by the Company's bioweapon division, the aliens can also reproduce through spores.  I think it was pretty neat.Anyone exposed to them eventually undergoes a rapid transformation into an alien and, with the limited resources available to the protagonists, it's impossible to determine who has been infected.

And to return to Doctor Who...I guess the Daleks do this too now. Except instead of transforming into a Lovecraftian nightmare monster...a Dalek penis pops out of your forehead.

Pictured: Dickhead
This Dalek puppet thing is something that had been previously established earlier in Matt Smith's run, but I had stopped watching the show regularly by then, because I assumed it contained too many moronic concepts, like, well, this.

And I'm all for making making the Daleks a legitimate threat. They lose all the time and you can be assured that any encounter that opens with a Dalek will conclude with a Dalek rolling away with its whisk and its plunger between its bumps 45 minutes later.

I think that they can, and should augmented until we're capable of taking them seriously. However, that augmentation should take place within the context of elements already present. I've seen the arguments that Who writers in general and Terry Nation in particularly grew up in the WWII era and this influenced elements of the Daleks' design. I think that any improvement has to take place within this framework. A Ghost Dalek, for instance, would be potent, but it wouldn’t make any sense.

The problem is that Steven Moffat is still running the show, and he tends to think his own ideas very clever and to shit all over the idea of maintaining any kind of continuity.

It’s only a staffing difficulty, that’s all it is. It’s a clever way to solve a staffing problem. It’s not real. We just make this nonsense up, you know.

So Dalek spores that turn you into a penis-head Roboman are a (theoretical) good idea in a vacuum, they fail because they don't mesh with existing Dalek technology, which still requires line of sight with their death rays. Perhaps they should have raided some of the World War 2 tech when they were off serving tea to Winston Churchill, because humans had already been using indirect fire for a good quarter of a century by that point.

All right, enough about the penis people.(God, this post is going to really skew my blog's search results.)

The story opens with every alien in the universe orbiting around a planet that's broadcasting a super-mysterious message. The Doctor pokes around briefly before showing up Clara's family's Christmas party.
I wish I were kidding, but even Clara's gradmum wants to shag the Doctor.

I watched the episode while some friends were visiting from out of town. While they were here, we watched a bunch of junk on Netflix, including some episodes of the G.I. Joe cartoon from the 80s. The show was terrible and it had a large number of problems, but it also crammed a tremendous amount of story into every 22 minutes. I found myself thinking back to that, because this episode had an appalling amount of padding. It ranged from the boring (Clara's family) to the truly offensive (Ho ho, you think you're wearing clothes, but you're not!)

I've said it before that Moffat is a talented writer, but what he thinks Doctor Who should be is so different from what I think Doctor Who should be that there is no way to reconcile our views.

I'm of the opinion that science fiction is at its most interesting when it posits something new to an environment and then looks at what the ramifications of that new element might be.

Moffat is of the opinion that that science fiction is at its most interesting when it posits something new to an environment and then gets a couple dick jokes out of it before forgetting about it and moving on to the next new element.

(Of course, Doctor Who was never science fiction as much as it was fantasy wrapped up in sci-fi trappings, but let's not muddy the water at this late date)

With this review, I've kind of been lurching from griping about one thing I hated about the special to another, with no rhyme or reason. I was going to tighten it up and see if I could unify all my points under a single theme, but you know what? I think this word salad of nerd rage is as good a metaphor as anything for the problems with this special and Moffat's writing in general.

I wouldn't call the story incomprehensible, because it's pretty easy to understand what's happening on screen at any given moment. The word that really springs to mind is "pointless". It's easy to understand "what" is happening, but the story never asks "why". Things happen, but never as a consequence of anything that has happened before. B might follow A chronologically, but A never leads to B. Events happen because they would be (theoretically) interesting, or they would further the plot.

For example, the Doctor and Clara beam down to a town inhabited entirely by white people in Victorian era garb, like some kind of Dickensian J. Crew ad. The town is covered by a Truth Field, where speakers are compelled not simply to answer honestly, but to blurt out truths.

The big question about this place from our heroes? Why the town is named Christmas?

Really? REALLY?

We have towns with stranger names in Amish country.


It's a moronic question and an idiotic line and it only serves to set up the Doctor's glib comeback about an island called Easter.

(I might have forgiven it if he ran around Christmastown asking "What's this? What's this?" but it was not to be.)

What's this? What's this? It's a shitload of white people, that's what.

Anyways, our town called (White) Christmas houses a weak point between universes into which Gallifrey was shunted by the War Doctor in the last big event. The voice of the Time Lords is whispering through the cracks, calling "Doctor Who, Doctor Who", in a bit of meta-textual reference that's too twee by half. I imagine somebody has already sampled this for use in a remixed Doctor who title theme, unless they were too embarrassed to be associated with this production.

If the Doctor says says olly olly oxen free, his name, the Time Lords will know that it's safe to come out and will return.

This leads directly into the other hugely problematic part of the episode.

Tasha Yar Tasha Lem is another woman directly out of Moffat central casting. She's a powerful woman (ruler of the naked space church, or whatever it's called) but powerless to resist the siren song of the Doctor's rubbery faced sexual allure. Ugh. Stop me if you've heard this before.

There is a stalemate. The Doctor can't release the Time Lords or else the Time War will start again. If he tries to leave, the assembled Rainbow Coalition of Space Monsters will kill him. And it's not made absolutely explicit, but Tasha Lem enforces a blockade to prevent the standoff from escalating.

The thing is, I'm not sure why A.) Tasha Lem's giant head
Please, Time Baby! Have mercy!
would assume that the Doctor would want to release the Time Lords, who have been increasingly been a bunch of jerks for whom he has no love, and B.) this turns out to be the correct assumption.

However, the players do as the plot demands. Fortunately, nobody had anything to do for the next couple centuries

Space Secretary! Clear my meetings for the next 300 years!
So, the Doctor lives in the magical village of Christmas, whose principle import seems to be unconvincing old man makeup.

Sorry, Matt. We used up our fx budget on that wooden Cyberman. Rub this Elmer's glue on your face instead.

And we're subjected to an excruciating montage of the Doctor's time in the village. (Ordinarily, I would complain that this episode tells us instead of showing us far too often, but the last thing I wanted was MORE of it, so I will refrain) It seems that the best plan he could come up with was just to hang out there until things got better.

Also, it seems Moffat's Doctor is the only one capable of saving the universe, and seeing as he was in the same place for three hundred years, the logical assumption is that no threats arose during this time, that it was simply an unprecedented period of universal harmony? (The Doylist interpretation, which is doubtless the correct one is that Moffat failed to consider the ramifications of what he had proposed)

The Doctor gets older. Clara suffers through dinner with her family. (The Doctor sent her home) The Doctor gets older. Clara returns. Pulse pounding.

They're summoned to Tasha's Papal Mainframe, but it's a trap.


I've already had my rant about how stupid the whole shape of a gun on her forehead thing is, so I shan't repeat it here.

The Doctor forces himself upon Tasha and sticks his tongue down her throat, a trope that Moffat seems to like, since he uses it all the time, and apparently has no idea how disturbing it is.

This breaks the Dalek control and she remembers her place. Clara is sent away again, but Tasha Lem returns her to the Doctor's side. Some people have interpreted her line" Flying the TARDIS was always easy, it's flying the Doctor that I've never quite mastered" to mean that she's somehow related to River Song after she was uploaded into the computer in her first outing. I don't think that's the case. I think Moffat just writes all of his women the same.

Aliens attack with infantry tactics lifted directly from the Crimean war! But the Doctor fights back! But he's losing! Oh, noes!

I was talking with my friend Jen, who had seen this episode when it initially aired on Christmas. We both thought that the whole issue of this being the last regeneration was a bit of artificial tension, seeing as there were canonical workarounds, and it was part of the Master's plan to steal himself more regenerations ever since the concept of a twelve regeneration soft cap was introduced in the Deadly Assassin. (Also, the Master says in the Sound of Drums, that the Time Lords gave him a new cycle of regenerations.) I asked her how the question of how the Doctor gets new regenerations is addressed, and she said, and I quote, "The Time Lords say, 'Here! Have some more regenerations!"

I assumed that she was kidding. Oh, naïve Josh!

Clara whispers to the crack in the wall that the Doctor is here, which is what gets the Time Lords moving. It also kind of highlights one of the problems with the episode, what with the Doctor living for a couple hundred years on planet while under the influence of a "Truth Field" that compels everyone to blurt out answers to questions put to them, while the constant techno drumbeat of "Doctor Who?" droned on in the background. I thought the Truth Field would be used for something other than a one-off joke, but I see I overestimated Moffat again.

Anyway, the Time Lords poke through their Firefly Opening Credits screen saver

As if I needed more reasons to hate this special
and say "Here! Have some more regenerations!"

And then death rays start shooting out of every orifice
I'm so loud and incoherent, Boy this oughta bug your parents!

For contrast, here's William Hartnell regenerating. 

Back in my day, we could regenerate without exploding all over the place.

The Doctor blows up the Dalek mothership that's hovering about twenty feet overhead, an act that one would think would kill the Doctor all over again, but it doesn't, because this is a Steven Moffat production and effect became entirely uncoupled from cause ages ago.

The Doctor is regenerating in the TARDIS, and he imagines Amy Pond. Karen Gillan reprised the role, and I understand that, because she had shaved her head for Guardians of the Galaxy, she was wearing a wig made from her own hair. That "Look-at-me-aren't-I-clever?!", needlessly complicated solution that ads nothing to the experience is the perfect metaphor for Moffat's tenure.

Then he's like, Hey, Presto! I'm Capaldi!

I'm trying to think of something good about this episode and I'm failing. I've slowly come to the conclusion that it's not Matt Smith I dislike as much as it is Moffat. The Doctor has a steady power creep over the new series, and that's not terrible, in itself. Powerful characters are fine, but the nature of the narrative has to change beyond a simple ramping up of the power level of their adversaries. I've written about Superman elsewhere, and the question for more powerful characters becomes increasingly "Should he do this?" rather than "Can he do this?"

The Doctor's power creep was accompanied by a kind of swagger. And this kind of hectoring arrogance, coupled with the knowledge that he's always going to win, sometimes makes him look like a bully. The fact that he forces a kiss on a number of women, including at one point, a lesbian does nothing to dispel this notion. The Doctor takes what he wants.

I'm hoping that Capaldi reverses this trend. I had written earlier in this post about the difficulties with putting the high stakes genie back in the bottle. Once you've saved the universe, the galaxy is small potatoes. (Well, you never know. In Classic Who, the tended to use galaxy and universe interchangeably and that always drove me nuts, even at twelve years old.)

Capaldi asked Clara if she knew how to pilot the TARDIS, which hints at the possibility that he might have some of his tedious omniscience stripped away. I've read the explanation that Time Lords are so different in demeanor from their immediate prepossessor because they are subconsciously trying to avoid the behavior that got them killed. That's a Watsonian answer to a Doylist question, however. The real reason is that no one in the viewing audience wants to see Jon Pertwee pretending to be Patrick Troughton. (Heck, most of the audience barely tolerated Patrick Troughton being Patrick Troughton.)

(Hi, Jen! Were you still reading?!)

So, even though Moffat is still in charge, I have some small hope that we'll see some improvement, because a Moffat-written Matt Smith was such a perfect collection of things I hated that any change will be for the better.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

New Year's Rockin' Eve

I attended what was, perhaps, the most hardcore of all New Year's Eve parties. Here's proof.

Gangster! (See that bottle? That's Aquafina, bitches!)

Shit just got real.