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A Town Called Mercy

It’s been a few years, and I imagine that this episode has rightly faded from memory for most people — and yet its writer, Toby Whithouse, is still regularly held in a mystifying high regard by Doctor Who fans, to the extent that many were disappointed he wasn’t picked for the new showrunner over Chris Chibnall.

To the best I can figure, this acclaim is based on two crutches: that he happened to write the episode that reintroduced Sarah Jane Smith to the show (along with K-9), and that since then he hasn’t done anything to dramatically upset the ship. At least, not until his series 10 episode, which I suppose stands most clearly in contrast with the two identical yet decreasingly interesting episodes that preceded it.

It’s in this light that I think back to “A Town Called Mercy,” one of my votes for worst-ever New Who episodes, yes. Only a couple of other clear contenders for the prize, and none has gone as far to disrupt my faith in the show and its creative rudder.

To quote another commentator, homunculette:

It’s like Toby Whithouse decided to write a Western without attempting to do any research into what Westerns are like or any historical research into the time period and instead just wrote it from his memories of seeing like one Clint Eastwood movie as a kid. It’s mind-numbingly boring, morally trite, and tosses off a casually transphobic joke for no reason.

This honestly describes so many scripts of the era (e.g., “Curse of the Black Spot”). But “Mercy” is just particularly vacuous, even for Whithouse and even for seasons 6-7. It doesn’t even begin to make an argument for its existence, beyond showing off a different location. One of the fun things about a tired form is that it’s ripe for deconstruction, or salvaging. Sergio Leone did this to astounding success, and there’s no reason a show like Doctor Who couldn’t find something to interrogate about the Wild West.

It’s done it before, of course. However one may feel about The Gunfighters, it’s a genuinely funny and unapologetically weird comedy that makes a point of playing off and against genre tropes, as with the Doctor getting increasingly exasperated that people keep putting guns in his hand. Even if the finished serial is an acquired taste (one I have acquired), it’s written with wit and observation, neither of which is in evidence with Whithouse’s work.

That lack of wit or observation — and lack of concern about that lack, which might spur curiosity and research — is to me one of Whithouse’s defining qualities. He very much reads to me as the kind of guy who takes a course in a subject, successfully follows a practice blueprint that was laid out for him, and decides he’s now got it down to a science. Every script of his, it’s like he’s playing Mad Libs with an entry level screenwriting textbook; just lifting stock conflicts and conversations and scenarios whole-cloth, and rearranging them according to the instructions. It’s the definition of mediocrity. And fandom being what it is, of course, for that he gets credit. Good job, Toby. You didn’t color outside of the lines. Solid work. What more could we reasonably ask?

Compared to some of the other modern-era mediocrity, which tends to exist in balance with some extenuating virtue, I find Whithouse’s total white-bread adequacy pernicious in regard to its stifling, blunting factor on the series. I nearly gave up on the fucking show, a show I’d obsessed over since 1999, after his cowboy episode. My wife did give up on it halfway through his series 9 two-parter, and nothing can draw her back again.

Matthew Graham is a prime counter example. Everyone hates his first episode, and you’ll find few vocal defenders of his later two-parter. People will wonder why his Who work was so bad, compared to Life on Mars. But, seriously, take a look at how he writes. All his writing follows the same patterns, as does all of Whithouse’s, and your answers to his successes and failures are right there. Graham is also a deeply mediocre writer, who like Whithouse got lucky with a breakout genre mash-up sci-fi show. But Life on Mars is different from Being Human, and more substantial for its problems, in the same way his Doctor Who material is.

Graham is superb at coming up with pitches: visionary concepts, that he’ll flesh out with well-drawn characters, sparkling dialogue, and some astute thoughts about how and why they do what they do. This comes through in the main draw to Life on Mars — the scenario, the people who inhabit it, and how they interact — and in Rose and the Doctor’s dialogue in “Fear Her,” and all of the psychology of the Flesh duplicates. But then, once he’s sketched that basic picture, Graham has no fucking clue what to do next; where to go from there. So Life on Mars just ambles on, following no clear plan, reiterating its premise a couple times an episode for two years, until in a panic, when Simm’s had enough, Graham just picks one explanation and calls it done. Similarly, Rose and the Doctor arrive to investigate, then just mill around a suburb for 20 minutes, facing scribble monsters and other directionless first-draft material, and squandering what good will their best characterization all season may otherwise have earned.

Peter Harness is superb with coloring outside Whithouse’s carefully manicured lines, with bold, confident strokes that trace new and inspiring forms to expand the imagination and the boundaries of what the show can and should be… and then squanders much of that with a stultifying ignorance about the topics he so loves to explore. It’s exciting to see the show tackle the issues that he bring up, and then frustrating to see such a dangerously uninformed take on such prickly topics, be they science, politics, ethics. Less confidence and more research, even a modicum of research, would do Harness a wonder.

The thing about each of these cases is that the mediocrity is an end sum; a result of a real strength that benefits the show and an undisciplined tedium that nearly pulls it back to zero. In the process, though, there is dynamism. They do things with the show, that help to redefine it and internally that help to justify the effort even it it does level out in the end. Any next script might be the one where they learn to mop up their fog and their strong points will shine out clearly.

By contrast, Whithouse studiously avoids shining, in favor of an even, calculated mediocrity from start to end. This is true of his own show (compare “what if modern-day UK cop landed in corrupt 1970s department?” to “What if three monsters fashionable in other pop culture at the moment lived in apartment together?” in terms of the thought and thematic potential involved), and it’s true of his tediously recycled Lego kit Who scripts. The best you can reasonably say of the guy is that he effectively maintains the status quo and avoids making waves. And to my mind that’s also one of the most damning, and an imminent threat to a show as dynamic and reliant on vibrant change as Doctor Who.

“A Town Called Mercy” is the barest and most damning example of what he doesn’t have to say as a writer. Its only grace I can see is a ready case study for how to kill the show, or avoid doing so, to assign to future writers.

The casual transphobia is just the perfect garnish to its existential blight on the show at one of its more creatively vulnerable moments.

(On the topics of pernicious mediocrity, dangerous ignorance, and casual bigotry, I also have things to saw about Mark Gatiss and Gareth Roberts. But, not here; not now.)


On a Web forum that I will not mention, a viewer on a voyage through Classic Who asked a question, before he set forth through season 18. He understood that JNT was a topic of some controversy, and wanted to know what he was in for over the next nine seasons. Is it that everyone hates JNT? What’s the deal with this era, exactly? My response:

It’s a tricky and complicated question, and to answer it we need to be careful about what exactly we’re talking about. Are we criticizing JNT as a person? Are we talking about his creative judgment? Are we talking about his approach to being a producer? Are we using JNT as metonymy for the show itself under his watch? All of these are different questions, each with a complicated and inconclusive answer.

The easiest and least troublesome topic is the show that he presided over. To that end, obviously everyone has their own view but these days you’ll see a fair consensus that JNT’s Doctor Who both began and ended well; it’s the stuff in the middle that’s up for debate.

Others have said the same here, and to my view it’s true; broadly speaking, seasons 18 and 25-26 are amongst the best Doctor Who that’s hit the TV. They’re the most consistently authored portions of the classic series, with strong views about how to use the show as a platform to communicate ideas. You get that in bits and pieces elsewhere, particularly with writers like Malcolm Hulke, but it’s rarely this focused before Davies comes around.

Part of the reason for this is, as Homunculette says, JNT’s approach to his job. And here we’re starting to get a little dicier, in that we’re starting to approach JNT as a person. But we’ll come to that slowly.

More than any other producer on the show, JNT kept rigidly to the letter of his role. He was not a creative person, by any stretch of the imagination, and his only input to the show’s content tended to be superficial: how things looked, how they were presented, what kinds of gimmicks might get people talking and increase viewership. JNT came up through the system, as a floor assistant, floor manager, and so on. When he took over the show, it was because he had put the work in and it was his time — not because he had a creative vision. The BBC was concerned about giving him the job, so for his first season they set up Barry Letts to oversee. From season 19 on, though, JNT was on his own.

With JNT’s focus almost exclusively on the practical nuts-and-bolts of balancing the budgets, networking, and getting the show made, with a growing side shift of promotion, that left the burden of the show’s “content” almost exclusively with the show’s script editor. So from a creative standpoint, under JNT the script editor basically is what we would now call a showrunner, except with little tangible executive power. They were solely responsible for the show’s creative vision.

Ergo, under JNT the show is only ever as good as the script editor. Beyond just the high-level vision and practical talents, the script editor’s relationship with JNT, and their ability to cope with the logistical demands of the job, tended to determine the show’s ultimate quality. Bidmead had a strong idea for what to do with the show, and was able to both cope with and incorporate JNT’s odd executive decisions and to push back when JNT’s decisions weren’t going to work in the show’s best interest. Cartmel had one of the most intense visions of anyone who has had creative control over the show, had a very strong knack for finding and nurturing talent, and had the fortune of landing his job in an era where JNT had pretty much checked out, allowing Cartmel to proceed without the degree of weird micromanagement that Bidmead and Saward faced.

Eric Saward is… a very polite man, and a reflective one. He’s also a perpetual victim. You listen to him long enough, and somehow through all his self-effacing eloquence he has an explanation for how everything is someone else’s fault. This negativity and lack of ownership comes through in his work; where Bidmead or Cartmel would find a way to work with and incorporate JNT’s dictums, Saward would just push back, say, “Oh, that’s awful,” and then fold and stand away, with the attitude of “Okay, you brought this on yourself.”

You do this enough, on enough levels of production, and it’s going to affect what ends up on-screen. And boy howdy, does it. Increasingly, as Saward’s resentment grows over the years. This is not to say that Saward is without talent or virtue, and that nothing good ended up resolving under his tenure, but for whatever reason there’s a lack of creative guidance here. Whatever coherent voice comes through tends to do so accidentally, and it’s not very pleasant.

Which brings us to JNT as a person. Accounts here vary widely depending on who’s speaking, but it’s fair to say that JNT was a strong personality. He had his views and his notions, always presented as a strong, definitive objective yet often based on a whim or whoever talked to him last. (E.g., he cast Colin Baker as the Doctor after enjoying his company at a wedding reception.) Again he had no understanding of the creative process, which could make him paranoid about what writers and artists were “up to.” He was terrified of someone trying to sneak a message into the program that he didn’t understand, that might make for a PR disaster.

JNT’s judgment tended to reflect what made for an easy production and clean books, and not having to deal with tempermental artists and things that were beyond his understanding. So, for example, regarding the end of season 21, he considered Caves of Androzani something of a disaster because of Graeme Harper’s unconvential behavior, Saward’s commissioning of an established writer who had more political pull than JNT, and generally a sense that the whole production was out of control. Meanwhile, he thought that The Twin Dilemma was the best thing he’d ever overseen, because it was produced with no fuss, it came in under budget and to technical standard, and it reflected well on him with upper management.

So, he was a tempermental person of questionable judgment and fitness for his job. He was loud and assertive, and due to his own prioririties often focused on the least helpful of all possible topics. Like when he demanded that Colin Baker, Nicola Bryant, and everyone stop wasting time researsing for the show because he wanted to do a highly public Christmas panto. Promotion always trumped production, and production always trumped creativity.

He became obsessed with the growing fan community, and started to weigh decisions based on how they would go over with the convention crowds, the fanzine editors, the letter writers, and particularly the alpha fan hangers-on; the people who would regularly come by and hang out in the viewing gallery at Television Centre to schmooze with cast and crew and watch the show being filmed. The Ian Levines and company.

Which brings us to Marson’s book. JNT was of course openly gay at a time when this was still socially, even legally, dicey, and so understandably he indulged in the gay community that surrounded the show at the time. Which is neither here nor there, except that when you’re in a position of power and you use that position as a tool to exert that power over those who are vulnerable… it creates a problem.

It’s unclear that JNT was ever explicitly predatory, though he certainly enjoyed the fruits that his position brought him. However with his partner, Gary Downie, there is no mistake. He was a sexual predator, who used his position on the show to actively, aggressively pursue underage boys. Richard Marson includes in his book an anecdote from his youth where he personally had to run into an empty room and hide under a table to escape from Downie. Marson plays off his own experience for the surreality of the moment, but throughout the book he makes a damning case against Downie, all the time sketching JNT as an elusive, all but unknowable figure behind all that bluster.

So, the JNT era of Doctor Who is… controversial. As is the man who oversaw that era. My suggestion is to keep JNT in mind as a background notion, but in viewing those last nine years of the show to focus more intently on the script editor. The show’s whole creative model shifted over that period, and you can’t look at it in the way you’d look at any other period of the show, or draw conclusions the exact same way. More so than any other period of the show, before you make up your mind about what you’re seeing, there’s a tangle of asterisks to consider. Why are you seeing what you’re seeing? Why was it made the way that it was? Well, let me tell you a story…


Bad-ass title sequence aside, the Hinchcliffe/Holmes era is the period that nearly broke Doctor Who. Same as the Lennie Briscoe era of Law & Order. It’s where the show found its successful formula, settled in, and learned to coast. This is Doctor Who at its most dangerously comfortable. (Note how many people perceive this era as “correct” Doctor Who, and extrapolate or compare its tendencies to the show as a whole.) It’s not until circa 1987 that the show started to get systemically weird again, in a way that let the show continue to grow and breathe and live (Much like seasons 18-20 of Law & Order!), and led into its modern-day incarnation. (Unlike Law & Order!)

It’s not that the era is awful; it doesn’t do much for me, but there are some nice parts (Deadly Assassin, say). If I’m hard on it, it’s less about the era in itself than about the negative influence it had on the show going forward. Like, if after Hinchcliffe and Holmes left, the show had gone in a wildly different direction again, then fine. Things change; they move on. We try things, then we try something else.

But this is where the show achieved a sort of stasis, both in terms of its future creative momentum and its public perception. It’s not even the most interesting stasis they could have picked for the show. Yes, let’s rip off a popular horror movie and put the TARDIS in the middle. Inspiration incarnate. What galls me is how quickly this became What Doctor Who Is, and anything that varied from the formula was wrong. It’s so daft that even the serials within the Hinch/Holmes era that don’t match the template (e.g., Android Invasion) are considered awful, no matter what neat ideas they may bring to the table. They’re different, so they’re wrong.

Which, for a show like Doctor Who, which more than any TV program I can think of, embodies and glorifies change, is very nearly a profane mode of thought.

Again, it’s not like the Hinch/Holmes vision is invalid. It’s as worth exploring as anything, and resulted in a few epiphanies (Deadly Assassin, again). But then it had to keep moving, and it didn’t. It started into a downward spiral of trying to maintain or replicate or work against these few months of production. All of Doctor Who became a precursor to or an attempt to return to this supposed glory period, when the show had become so very small and isolated. It nearly destroyed everything.

There are other weird things that crystallized here as The Way Things Are Meant To Be, even though they never really were before. Like, the way old-school fans today muse and scoff about the notion of story arcs and long-form storytelling. Doctor Who stories are all supposed to be self-contained! That way you can watch them in any order and nothing matters! But… until season 13, that was never the case. In the 1960s, serials all ran into each other; characters often harked back to events from weeks earlier, even if it was a different story entirely. The Hartnell era is full of rather complex character development. The Pertwee era makes far less sense out-of-sequence, as stories are constantly referring to what happened before, and B-plots develop over the course of multiple seasons. (See the Mike Yates thread in the last couple of seasons.) The Doctor’s situation, and its relation to the Master’s situation, are in a state of continual development. It’s all vibrant, alive. Then after Barry Letts moved on from his supervisory role in season 12, the show just became a movie-of-the-week thing, with little to no context. And, Bidmead and Cartmel aside, this largely became the status quo for the remainder of the original run.

Then there’s the cast makeup. Pertwee had changed the dynamic by turning the Doctor into an individual action hero — the star of the show, rather than the anchor of an ensemble cast — but he still was surrounded by an expanded regular or semi-regular cast, to flesh out storytelling as needed. This is I think an element that allowed the Pertwee era to be so much more sophisticated, on a narrative level, than what had come before: it had more roles to employ, in a greater number of capacities — and you didn’t necessarily have to use them all, every week. It’s even more of an ensemble than it was before. Hinchcliffe and Holmes strip that right away, especially after the Letts legacy of season 12, and again basically boil the show down to the bare necessities and divorce it of any greater context or narrative potential or significance. One Doctor, who now is very clearly the show’s hero rather than a catalyst for the main character(s), and one lady who’s largely there to make the Doctor look smart and give him someone to talk to.

To my view, this is just as damaging a systemic collapse as the absolution of continuity. We’re going down a path to an unsupportable level of stasis, which will lead to the exact kind of irrelevance that plagued the show throughout the 1980s. Granted, someone of greater creative talent could still elevate the show, as happened in seasons 18 and 24-26, then again from 2005. But if you will, the entropy had now set in. Everything else would be a struggle, and the show’s end was ordained. What had to happen in 2005, for the show to work again, was to strip away most of the damage done during seasons 13-14, and return it to a model more closely aligned to the last time the show worked under its own steam — namely the Pertwee era. Which Davies has made a point of declaring, over and over, what he was doing. Making a new Pertwee era. Ergo his quoting the start of Spearhead at the start of each new series.

The Pertwee era was, more often than not, about something larger than itself. It used Doctor Who as a platform for social, political commentary. Explorations of colonialism, capitalism, indigenous rights, apartheid, consumerism, the military industrial complex, environmentalism, early feminism, isolationism. Dicks and Letts go on the record that they felt there was no point in telling a story unless it was about something. And then there’s the Malcolm Hulke influence.

By comparison, the Hinch/Holmes goal was to “scare the little fuckers,” as phrased on one of the DVD extras. And it largely approached this narrow goal through borrowed glory, hollowing out existing horror stories and putting the TARDIS in the resulting cavity.

This is not as sustainable a mission. It’s a smaller view. It’s an easier view. It’s a safe template because it means you can just plug things in without having to worry about any greater significance.

This is the era when Doctor Who began its descent into irrelevance because of its conscious self-isolation from structural and thematic elements that would allow it to meaningfully grow or adapt.

This is where the cult of No Meaning finds its roots.

No continuity in MY Doctor Who!

No character development in Doctor Who.

No cultural commentary.

No political commentary.

The Doctor must be the sole hero.

The sole assistant must keep to her place.

The show must not challenge my preconceptions or make me think about anything other than plot.

Doxtor Who is entertainment only. It must not try to engage me in a discussion. It must hew to my specific desire.

This is poisonous.

From here, development becomes a simple question of how “light” or “dark” the show can afford to be, which leads to decisions like putting Eric Saward in control for half the 1980s.

Though you lose a few nice trinkets here and there (The Deadly Assassin, season 18, Douglas Adams), the show would be so much better off to just regenerate Pertwee into McCoy. I honestly don’t think you lose much, and you retain the momentum built up through the first 11 years, that the following 12 so thoroughly squandered.

The Cosmology of Doctor Who

So we know that Doctor Who’s cosmology is different from ours. There, the Moon was (according to 1970s theory) an adopted planetoid… which was, in fact, an egg.

Bizarre thing is, Kill the Moon actually fits classic Who’s jump-the-gun science, that Chibnall said “duh” and perpetuated 40 years later. More than fits it; it makes sense of it.

In the Who timeline, where I guess Earth formed around a (coincidentally egg-laden) Racnoss ship, Gaia (early pre-Earth) must never have collided with Theia (another rocky planet in our orbit, that shattered on collision), as seems to have happened in our world.

What this seems to imply, then, is that in the Who timeline Theia must have remained in Gaia’s solar orbit, somewhere far enough back that the two never collided.

Why didn’t they collide? Possibly that Racnoss ship; it may have altered the early accretion of proto-planetary debris just enough to butterfly (er, spider?) effect away a different spacing and possibly greater mass for the two proto-planets.

Which is to say, the fuckery in Kill the Moon just happens to be consistent with the Silurian recounting of events (as RTD’s weird whimsy), which in turn makes Mondas plausible.

Thanks to Peter Harness, somehow a mountain of awful and/or outdated science balances out to plausible consistency.

All praise the Egg.

SR388: A Spelunker’s Nightmare

[ The following post is assembled from fragments of discussion from July 2014, October 2014, July 2016, and August 2017. ]

Long before that AM2R thing, which is exactly what a cynical observer would predict from a fan remake, I’ve often rambled about ways to do a sensitive update of Metroid II, that (unlike AM2R) honors the original game’s tone and thematic material and develops it even further, makes the game even more awkward and upsetting to play:

I still think the best way to tackle a remake is to consider the affect of the original, and try to recreate it. The original is claustrophobic, in part due to feeling lost — sameness, lack of a map — in part to the screen.

So, make light a scarce quantity. The world would be desaturated and have a big focus on environmental light sources — lava, certain bioluminescent plants or animals, Chozo technology. At times it’s hard to see anything. Sort of a Silent Hill aspect.

Samus’s suit may project a slight glow around her, reflecting on things. Generally the glow would extend about as far as the boundaries of the GB screen. Occasionally more or less. The glow from Samus’ suit would give things a sort of monotone hue. Maybe greenish, from her visor.

If you wanted to expand on the game, you could give her various kinds of light beam. Or make her suit glitch out. Maybe special heat and X-ray visors would be needed to navigate certain areas. Glitchily. It would be all grainy and prone to error. Make it go totally dark, for a scripted segment here or there, in the spirit of those segments where you have to blindly fumble around in ball form. Maybe you have to navigate by noise and touch. Maybe a sort of a sonar, so you can hear when the Metroids are getting close.

There might be an attempt at a map, but it doesn’t work right. Glitchy. Staticky. Suggests non-Euclidean space. Some key parts of the interior may not make any sort of euclidean geometric sense. They kind of don’t, already.

This would also play up some of the Zelda-style risk-and-reward progress limitation. You CAN go down there, but… should you?

Also see: Dragon Warrior, Phantasy Star II, Lost in Blue.

But, that’s if I were pressed to reinterpret the game. Insofar as its native form on the Game Boy, Metroid II is basically perfect. The worst I can say is that the control can get a little mushy at times. Speed up Samus’ movement by 125%, maybe tighten collision and response time. Little stuff like that.

Something I really dig about Metroid II is that as designed, it wouldn’t really make as much sense on another console. If you play through as an adult, with a modicum of design literacy in hand, it soon becomes clear to what extent the game actively uses its technical and conceptual limitations to say its own thing.

Unlike Super Metroid the world that it draws doesn’t feel like a playground set up for your benefit. It’s just there. If it’s confusing, then it would be, wouldn’t it. You’re invading this space that was never meant for a thing like you.

The game’s affect is just so subjective.The way the Spider Ball is used nails down how unfriendly the space is. This is a space where we really shouldn’t be, and it’s just by the skin of this overpowered miraculous thing that it works.

When you get to the cramped corridor forcing you to draw a visual parallel between Samus in ball form and the unhatched Metroid egg, there’s not a lot of space left (as it were) to question how expressive the design is meant to be.

It’s supposed to be claustrophobic. It’s meant to be disorienting and upsetting. You’re supposed to lose your way and freak out, the way you probably would in reality if you were dropped into an unmapped hole in the ground on an alien world. Or even ours. Even if mapped. It’s meant to be distressing, in no small part because you shouldn’t be there. The mission is wrong. You are playing the bad guy.

That’s not reading into it. In its closing moments the game tells you how you messed up, and Fusion‘s plot is based on this revelation. (Another irritating thing about Super Metroid is how it not only glosses over this failing; it compounds it. But Fusion gets the story back.) Fusion also gets the claustrophobia and tension back, in a shifted form, where Super throws them out in favor of Whee Shiny Perfect Action.

As far as how Metroid II uses the resources it has, the only thing I would treat differently is the lava. To quote one of many earlier discussions on the topic,

That goddamned lava. What is that? Of all the ways to limit progress. I mean… I can make up some silly theories that kind of work. But how arbitrary is that? At least it’s an apparent phenomenon of the gameworld, even if it’s triggered by discrete player-dependent flags.

Instead of progress clearly resulting from the player’s action it’s just, “What the hell was that rumble? Oh… there’s… a route here. Was it here before? I don’t think so.” Granted, it doesn’t affect me when I’m playing. It’s just in retrospect that it’s so incredibly clumsy and weird.

Of course the game is pretty linear, and it can’t let you miss a Metroid. If there were some narrative rationalization, maybe that would be enough. But then you’re in danger of needless exposition.

On reflection, I would add a horrible piercing screech after the extermination of each set of Metroids and before the earthquake and lava drain. Each time, as Samus strayed deeper into the caverns, the screech would get louder and longer, while the screen would shake with ramping violence. Toward the end, it basically would peak all of the sound output and leave the game a nauseating shaky-cam mess for minutes at a time.

This would serve many purposes.

  • It would make the game more disorienting and upsetting to play.
  • It would introduce the Queen early as Samus’s opponent.
  • It would establish the Queen’s growing pain and anger.
  • It would help to underline that maybe Samus isn’t quite doing the right thing here.
  • And it would resolve the structural weirdness around the lava, which as it stands is a VERY CONVENIENT and unexplained progress limiter.

All of this would be totally doable on the Game Boy. Pretty easy, even, in this engine. Everything’s already set up, pretty much. Just add a screech that gets louder and longer each time, and make the screen rumble longer and more violent each time. That’s all! But, it would make such a big difference to the game’s narrative flow, logical consistency, and thematic unity.

Would this change be on-the-nose, in terms of the game’s themes? Maybe. But done well, it wouldn’t be clear what was happening at first. It’d just add a layer of “huh?”, growing to “oh hell.”

Right now there’s little feedback to completing each wave, and the mild rumble has little impact, the lava drain nothing like an explanation. This would add at least a sense of intentionality to the design, which as designed leaves room for interpretation, yes, but also feels sloppy.

Significantly, all of the scream’s and the rumble’ thematic resonance becomes clear only in retrospect. You get ramping uncomfortable chaos as you burrow in, but aside from feeling increasingly intimidated, it’s only clear what’s happening when you finally meet the Queen, which snaps it all into focus.

Currently there is no clear moment of epiphany, and the Queen’s role consists of sitting there, unseen, until you burst in and kill her. The epiphany comes with the egg, which is great. Really great, actually. But its significance would be enhanced, coming out of the catharsis of that encounter with the thing that had been expressing pain the whole time. “Oh hell,” you’d think, “so that’s what has been happening all along. What… does all of this mean? What have I done?” And then, a baby Metroid imprints on you.

You’re still free to interpret however you like, but this gives a touch of emotional feedback and clarity to undermine any sense of bravado. And all it is is a screech and a more violent screen shake. That’s all it takes to snap it all into focus.