News bulletin. Angelo Felix named his game Shanna after his daughter. No wonder the game is so adorable.
Browsing through my reviews, any hardcore Who fan would likely assume I’m playing the contrarian. X story is popular, so it must be rubbish. Y story is unpopular, so clearly it’s an hidden gem. No, that’s just my taste at work. I notice that fans of anything tend to be concerned with consistency. They became fans because of a static list of features; whatever fails to meet enough of those features is garbage, and whatever meets them all is perfect. There may be a small gray area in the middle. Usually not.
Me, I’m more interested in what could be than in what is. By nature the most interesting ideas tend to veer far from, or otherwise ignore, the status quo, so they’re rarely popular. By nature the closer you hew to the status quo, the more tedious you get as there’s nothing new to learn. On this basis I think I agree with the consensus about Underworld, but for the opposite of the usual reasons.
Underworld is a plodding mid-era Tom Baker four-parter by the writing team who dreamed up the Doctor’s robotic dog K-9, Bob Baker and Dave Martin. The common line is that the story fails because the special effects look awful, the sets look cheap, and a disturbing amount of humor has begun to creep into the show. If there’s a redeeming feature, it’s that the story is drowning in references to classical mythology and therefore can pretend to be educated.
Indeed the story is a bit of a failure, but I’d say that largely rests in Baker and Martin’s decision to truss up the myth of Jason and the Argonauts with some sci-fi trappings instead of taking a simple idea — such as the regeneration pods that have kept the crew alive for 100,000 years — and extrapolating it. For a small crew that has lived longer than most human civilizations, they all seem oddly… normal. We’re introduced to plot devices like a ray that makes people docile, and then the story never explains or explores them — what part they play in life, what their ramifications or consequences might be. Instead, we have an ancient plot to churn through and familiar symbols to quote so that the educated yet unimaginative can feel they got their license fee’s worth. Every time the story checks another box, I feel my eyes roll back into my head. Oh, look! The golden fleece! Sort of!
The serial has its points of interest, though — most notably those unconvincing special effects. By the time the story went into production, the ferocious continual inflation of the pound meant the budget was devalued and they no longer had money for sets. Cue ingenuity; for one of the first times ever, the story was substantially shot against bluescreen, with the actors layered on top of scale models.
The effect rarely fools the eye, but so what. This is ingenious stuff, here. Decades before George Lucas shot his Star Wars prequels almost entirely against blue curtains, we get a prototype of the same idea — and done reasonably well, under the circumstances. We do have depth, and layers. Actors walk out from behind matted bits of the scenery, and then around to the front again. Someone meticulously planned their walk paths, and lined up real surfaces whenever the actors needed to touch something. The effect is a bit like those sections in Final Fantasy VII where you’ve got polygonal characters running around on top of a bitmapped picture. You know the elements don’t fit, but it works well enough to get the message across.
So that’s kind of neat. The modelwork and much of the acting is rather nice as well, at least considering what they were given. Tom Baker straddles the line between reading the lines as written and doing his own personal comedy routine, as he would later devolve into. You can tell he’s bored, but I think he has every right to be. His small larks do inject a bit of life into the dust, helping to carry the attention through.
Underworld is probably amongst the least necessary Who serials ever, but it’s no no means horrible. Tedious in some respects; technically interesting in some others. It’s just so very nothing. I always forget which story this is, and almost immediately after watching it I forget again.
In retrospect people describe season 20 of Doctor Who as a huge flashback. They make pains to point out how every story features a returning character from the show’s history. In reality I only think two or three reappearances are worth noting. You’ve got the Black Guardian back for a three-serial arc, for the first time in four years. That counts as one, so far as I’m concerned. Then you’ve got Omega back from the 10th anniversary special, to lead off the season. That one’s pretty overt. And finally the season ends with The Five Doctors, which is sort of a menagerie of all the show’s history.
Other serials are a little more dubious. In one story we have the long-awaited return of a villain introduced just the previous season. And then we have The King’s Demons. Considering that the Master has been a semi-regular feature of the show since his reintroduction in season 18, and will continue to appear about once a season throughout the 1980s, I don’t see how he alone counts as a blast from the past. It’s more like business as usual, really.
I think I’m prevaricating to avoid the actual topic of this review. It’s not that there’s anything specially wrong with The King’s Demons. It’s more that there’s very little of note about it. It’s a short, two-episode pseudo-historical that seems to drag on for twice its length. The TARDIS crew touches down in medieval England, for no particular reason. They exit the ship into the middle of a jousting match, overseen by the figure of King John himself, on his way to sign the Magna Carta.
If this were a David Whitaker script, maybe we’d be onto something — a sensitive exploration of a cultural context that we tend to blur into stereotype. Indeed some of the disc’s special features adequately explain the situation that birthed the Magna Carta, and dwell on the daily lives of the various factions involved in the treaty. This is good stuff, and might well have been the focus of the story.
Instead, as in Terence Dudley’s earlier Black Orchid, the characters mostly stand, occasionally skulk, around and avoid talking about anything in particular, expressing any opinions or perspectives, or accomplishing much of anything. If you like, here’s the full story: our heroes get alternately accused and praised for various things not of their doing, and then one of the characters is revealed as the Master. The Master accuses our heroes of various things not of their doing, and then another of the characters is revealed as a shape-shifting android. Our heroes lock the Master in his TARDIS (I think) and then leave, the android in tow. The end.
This android is of course Kamelion, an ineffectual prop that the writers promptly forget about until they choose to kill him off about a season later, in Planet of Fire. The only comment I can offer is that their eventual solution to the Kamelion problem — substituting a man with silver face paint for the original prop — was actually rather elegant, and that if they had hit on that idea earlier they could easily have used Kamelion as a regular character. In that sense he was perhaps a bold missed opportunity. Given his actual on-screen use, however, the widespread tendency, amongst those even aware of the character, is to consciously forget that Kamelion even existed.
Given that the Kamelion’s introduction is perhaps the only memorable detail of The King’s Demons, you can see my hesitancy to get to the point. I guess the point is simple enough, though. You’re safe in skipping this one.
The DVD is fairly solid, though. As I said, the special features add wealth to a dreary production. The commentary, led by Peter Davison, is jovial as ever. The actual serial is also beautifully restored. I’m used to this serial looking like blurry, over-exposed mud. As tedious as it may be, at least now there’s plenty of production detail to distract the eye.
Run for Your Life is a documentary of two halves, one more interesting and less developed than the other. It begins as a story of the New York City Marathon — how it came about, how its growth affected the city and paralleled other social movements of the early 1970s, and how it grew into the cultural monolith that we know today. Then somewhere around the half-hour mark, the film meanders into the personal life of marathon founder Fred Lebow.
Lewbow is a fascinating guy in his own right; he never knew how to have a personal life, and so he just kept running — both metaphorically and literally. There was always something new, somewhere new, someone new to chase after. The only thing that he never ran from was an idea. He was a brilliant guy, able to see to the center of complex problems and successfully argue for a solution before the problems were even on the radar of most people. More than brilliant, he was faithful to his ideas and principles to an extent that few people are. He came off as crazy, arrogant, and then visionary.
So his story is interesting, and rather inspirational, just on the basis of his personality. Yet that story fairly well consumes the latter two-thirds of the movie, leaving several intriguing questions about the marathon itself to dangle in the wind. The film toys with the social effects of the marathon on the city, both in terms of its general reputation and in the practical effects on specific neighborhoods. Were the effects permanent? How did the residents of those neighborhoods feel? Are there any statistics on crime and demographics, or any representative anecdotes about the change in tone?
How did the route evolve over time? Why has it stayed the same basic shape since the start? Has it come into any criticism? If the marathon grew out of a Bronx running club, why is the route based mostly in Brooklyn, with only a few minutes each in the Bronx, Staten Island, and Queens?
How has the public perception of running changed? The documentary states that back in the early ’70s no one thought of running as a serious sport. Let’s have some more details about the changes — some milestone moments that mark its cultural evolution. It also says that back then, running was all about going fast. So how has the science changed, and how has the marathon tied into that? Back then, some experts advised that women should never run more than a mile. Explain that, and explain some of the adversity that women had to face before the cultural and scientific mainstream accepted them as athletes. Lebow is supposed to have been a major catalyst in addressing all of this, so great. Address it.
The editing is dynamic and clear, which helps to power through exciting sequences like the history that makes up the first half-hour. When the film slows down to dwell on Lebow’s life, the constant cutting and animation begins to feel overly busy and distracting, making the slow portions feel all the slower.
The film gives a fair glimpse at a remarkable mind that thrived off of and in turn enriched a remarkable cultural context. For my money I want a little more of that context in the mix.
Well. I can see why Netflix recommended this on the basis of Better Off Ted. I’m still not sure what to make of it, so let’s see what materializes as I type.
Psych is written, shot, and performed with a smug, self-consciously clever tone. Characters quip, smirk, make ironic observations about the nature of their current situation. They’re all conscious of the fictional conceits that they embody, and they carry out those conceits with a wink. “We know that you know what we’re supposed to say and do in a situation like this, in a show like this. And okay, we’ll play along. But we’ll be very wry about it, because maybe we’ve got something special up our sleeves to surprise you. Or maybe we don’t! You never know!”
Joss Whedon can get away with that, sometimes. In small doses. A show like Arrested Development is written brilliantly enough to transcend self-consciousness. Yet this is ground that a show has to tread with a caution that kind of negates the gonzo spirit of such a tone.
I guess… Think of it this way. There are actors who are naturally eccentric. They’re fascinating or hilarious precisely because they don’t know how odd or awkward they are. Then there are people who make a show of behaving eccentrically. They soon become tiresome, because you can feel the effort and after a while the effort feels like desperation.
Based on the pilot, em>Psych doesn’t exactly feel desperate. More… unctuous, perhaps. I can feel it trying to endear itself to me, like a con man. Maybe the desperation comes out later, when its first few passes miss the mark.
It is shot well, though, and some of the actors are very well-cast. The premise — a guy with eidetic memory poses as a psychic in order to solve crimes — is derivative but serviceable. At least at the beginning the show does a decent job of selling his gift, both empirically and logistically, without over-explaining it.
There’s all the potential for this show to settle into itself and become more than a tangle of autocongratulation and technical polish. It’s not particularly cynical. It’s smart enough. I just kept waiting for it to stop flirting and get on with whatever it really has to say. It didn’t within the first hour, and that’s the end of my patience. At least for the moment.
You may have noticed a large number of articles over the past few months devoted to Recreational Software Designs’ Game-Maker. I’m not sure why, after all this time, I hit on the topic, but with this one-track mind of mine it’s a thread I’m compelled to follow as far as it will go. First we’ve got the individual articles on DIYGamer, which tend to take a few games or a sub-topic and spin a message out of them. Then, for the sake of organization, I crack apart the articles and distribute the elements around my wiki (usually rewritten a bit). The wiki began as a way for me to keep track of what I’ve written about what, and has begun to develop some substance of its own.
As part of the process, I’ve also begun a bit of detective work. I have tracked down and contacted about half of the Game-Maker users that I’m aware of, and have leads on a few more. Sometimes the trail has led me to previews of new Wii games; sometimes to complex worlds of fiction. Mostly, it has led me to a wall of bewilderment. And the odd new game to add to the list.
Although I’ve still a bunch of authors to find, I think my shortlist consists of The Descent author David Barras, Shanna author Angelo Felix, Paper Airplane author Matt Bell (with whom I did exchange some letters in the mid-1990s), Firefall author Firefall Softwarez (whoever that may be), Woman Warrior author Sheldon Chase, and Flying Guts author Marty Valenti. I don’t know how wide or deep these posts go, but if anyone knows how to get in touch with one or more of these people, drop me a line.
Likewise, if anyone has, or knows where to find, a copy of any of these games, I’m sure that their authors would be as appreciative as I.
And hey, maybe future generations will appreciate the conservation. Or maybe not. Darned kids.
Following our interview with Orb author Joshua Turcotte, we turn our information thresher to another isolated game, the closest that Game-Maker ever got to a respectable scrolling shooter, Hurdles. The game is short on presentation and deep in ingenuity; it does what it sets out to, and then moves on. To contrast with that focus, its author Roland Ludlam is something of a polymath: hacker, musician, illustrator, photographer, poet.
Most recently, Ludlam has co-founded a small game design company, Studio Walljump, with the aim of producing a new puzzle-music game for WiiWare. We caught him with a dual-edged interview; come for the moldy game, and get a preview for the bargain.