Doctor Who Project: Carnival of Monsters

Doctor Who Project: Carnival of Monsters
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One alien hardly constitutes an emergency.

It wouldn’t be a Robert Holmes Doctor Who story without a colorful central character given to fanciful dress and mannerisms, and we’re even not talking about the Doctor. From Milo Clancey in “The Space Pirates” through to the debut of the Master in “Terror of the Autons,” Holmes’ protagonists often vie for center stage, and in his “Carnival of Monsters” (Story Production Code PPP), the travelling carnies Vorg and Shirna sustain the rather thin framing story that surrounds this otherwise rote tale of miniaturization and monsters.

Intergalactic carnies.

Holmes juxtaposes two story threads to begin: the Doctor and Jo disembarking from the TARDIS in the hold of a ship on the Indian Ocean in the 1920s; and Vorg and Shirna arriving on the xenophobic planet Inter Minor with their entertainment device, a Miniscope, as part of the planetary president’s attempt to open the world to outside influences. The two stories link together at the end of the first episode, where the Doctor and Jo realize that they are trapped inside the Miniscope, like sentient goldfish in a bowl, capped off by a non-manicured Vorg reaching into the scope to remove a “fault” in the circuit, namely the TARDIS.

Bye, blue box!

The creatures trapped in the titular carnival of monsters are both miniaturized (to fit inside the small machine) and stuck in a time loop surrounding an interesting occurrence (the better to amuse viewers), harkening back to two earlier stories: “Planet of Giants,” where the TARDIS crew finds itself shrunk down in a mad scientist’s laboratory, and “The Space Museum,” a tale of time tracks gone awry. But where those two stories attempted to use both miniaturization and temporal anomalies as the crux of the tale, Holmes deploys them as set dressing here, to less than successful effect.

The first episode focuses mainly on the Doctor and Jo encountering the passengers and crew of the S.S. Bernice, a ship thought lost at sea in 1926, as they relive the same brief moment over and over. That moment happens to involve an aquatic dinosaur bursting from the ocean, placed there by the Miniscope curator to create an exciting tableau. The care spent on the humans trapped in the loop, with one of them almost realizing she has lived this moment over a near-infinite number of times, suggests that they will form a major part of the story, leading to the prospect of watching the stowaway Doctor and Jo unravel the mystery of the time loop, escaping their shipboard pursuers, ruminating on the nature of time, and working out ways to use the loop to their advantage.

Alas, it doesn’t happen, but we do get to see future companion Ian Marter throw dynamite at a beastie in an enclosed space. (Given this stunning tactical nous, it should come as no surprise that his future role, as Harry Sullivan, is as a former UNIT soldier…)

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Winter Offensive 2018 After Action Report

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After a fortnight of arctic cold along the entire Eastern seaboard of the United States, the sun made a stunning, if temporary, return, punching temperatures up to the sixty degree mark in the middle of January. And what did I, and 149 other dedicated board wargamers do? We huddled inside a large conference room at the Comfort Inn in Bowie, Maryland, for the 2018 edition of Winter Offensive, sheltered away from the brief spell of warmth. Rain and snow and sunny skies will come and go, but a chance to game with friends new and old? That’s worth spurning the sun for a few days.

Winter Offensive 2018

Hosts Multi-Man Publishing put on another well-run show, with their venerable Advanced Squad Leader tournament seeing games of all stripes being played. Attendance of 150 was near the all-time high of 165, spurred no doubt by the release of the long-awaited Korean War module for ASL. The new module adds counters and rules for the North and South Korean armies as well as United Nations and Communist Chinese forces, and copies were flying off the sales table as quickly as, well, as a several pound box could fly.

My first game of the weekend came against Doug Bush, great gaming buddy and designer of Next War: India-Pakistan and the forthcoming Red Storm, both from GMT Games. We sampled a scenario from the recently released Saipan: The Bloody Rock, the first entry in Compass Games’ Company Scale System. This game sits between the tactical and operational (and, indeed, has rules roots from the Grand Tactical Series put out by MMP as well as the earlier Panzer Command), with random chit draws determining which formations are able to act. The key to the game is doing what you can with the chits you get, because they seldom come out of the draw cup in the most efficient order, and you’re not guaranteed to be able to receive every formation’s chit every turn.

Saipan: The Bloody Rock at Winter Offensive 2018

The scenario we played covered the initial US Marine landings on Saipan; Doug had the leathernecks and I took the Japanese forces tasked with keeping the Americans confined to the beaches. The system, through the chit draw mechanic, really tries to simulate the command and control confusion inherent in any military operation. The problem of the omniscient player sitting above the map with perfect knowledge can sometimes be offset by stripping the player of omnipotence, and this game does a nice job of frustrating any plans that the player may have—and that’s before your opponent has a chance to have his or her say.

In the end, my forces were able to inflict sufficient casualties on Doug’s to eke out a very narrow win. Had the Marine landings not been pushed into a confined area due to surf drifts, I think they would have been able to break out of the beachhead much sooner to secure a solid victory. A good match in a very promising system with one of my favorite opponents.

On Saturday, I cracked open the Korean War module for my traditional ASL match against another of my good gaming buddies, Mike Vogt. Always on the lookout for interesting situations with funky, seldom used game pieces, we picked a scenario (215 “Red Devils”) featuring a US Army artillery park, with six self-propelled artillery pieces, being overrun by a swarm of Communist Chinese squads.

215 Red Devils at Winter Offensive 2018

My American Redlegs had only a few squads with which to defend the valuable guns, but they were amply supplied with firepower, and Mike’s Chinese had a lot of open ground to cover. He did his best to balance the scenario’s time limit with the need to keep enough squads in good order to destroy the guns, but between my frighteningly hot dice rolling and all the weapons at my disposal, including a blast from one of the monster guns, he fell just short. Once the Chinese got in close, they couldn’t be stopped, but the getting-there was the problem.

The scenario didn’t offer many interesting tactical puzzles for either of us—I pretty much just fired my weapons and he pretty much just moved to try to cover the space. I think we both would have preferred a more nuanced scenario, with each side having to move and shoot and outthink the other. A fascinating action, and a cool premise, but it didn’t check all the boxes we would have liked. Regardless, I had a blast playing with Mike, as always, and I do appreciate his forbearance over my extra-lucky dice rolling. We’ve got a standing date for another scenario on Saturday next year.

Keen eyes will have noticed that the Communist Chinese (two-tone brown) in the picture have already been counter-corner-rounded. Yes, I did indeed bring an X-Acto knife, self-healing cutting board, and, of course, a handy dandy counter corner rounder with me to Winter Offensive, and I actually wasn’t alone. I probably saw ten of these miracle instruments on tables throughout the course of the weekend. Playing with un-rounded counters strikes me as simply uncivilized…

What the inevitable side gaming lacked in quantity this year, it made up for in quality (not to mention duration). On Friday night, Mike, Doug, long-time buddy John Slotwinski, and I took to the heavens once again in High Frontier, by Sierra Madre Games. Every time this behemoth of a game hits the table (with, yes, a thud), it takes at least an hour of play to get our heads around the rules required to put a functioning spacecraft into orbit around various bodies in the solar system, to say nothing of the requirements to put one on another planet (and possibly even bring it back to Earth). But once it’s all clicking, the satisfaction in actually putting that solar-sail powered exploration probe into Mercury’s magnetosphere (on purpose, that is!) can barely be beat.

Virgin Queen at Winter Offensive 2018

Where, usually, Saturday night features a raucous game of Battlestar Galactica, replete with all the backstabbing and treachery that a group of determined friends can muster, we opted instead for a no-less treacherous game on the politics of the age of religious transformation, Virgin Queen from GMT.

The Final Tally at Winter Offensive 2018A card-driven point-to-point game in the long tradition of We the People, Virgin Queen simulates the struggles surrounding the spread of Protestantism in the era of the game’s titular ruler, Elizabeth I. Joined by Doug’s friend Will, we fought through several years of intrigue that culminated in Spain being at war with the nascent Netherlands, France, and the Ottoman Empire—and doing well at it, too! Mike’s England took advantage of the turmoil and garnered enough points via less militaristic means to take a win when we called the game. It took us a good six hours to get through three turns (with breaks for pizza and such), but given growing familiarity with the rules, we started moving along much more quickly towards the end.

So, though the sun may have shone brightly (and then just as promptly disappeared), I consider myself to have had the better experience indoors over the duration of Winter Offensive 2018. My thanks, as always, to Perry Cocke, Brian Youse, and the rest of the crew at Multi-Man Publishing for yet another wonderful long weekend of gaming, and of course to my good gaming buddies, who, with only the slightest of grumbles, put up with my dice and derring-do every year.

Doctor Who Project: The Three Doctors

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Ah, so you’re my replacements. A dandy and a clown.

Certain Doctor Who stories stand out in the series because of their plots, others for their villains or their effects, for good or for ill. Season Ten opener “The Three Doctors” (Story Production Code RRR), by regulars Bob Baker and Dave Martin, remains remarkable due to the casting: all three Doctors to date, in the same place (mostly) at the same time. Beyond the surface conceit, however, “The Three Doctors” also occupies a special place in the series because Baker and Martin deepen the backstory of the Time Lords, giving viewers the clearest insight yet into this heretofore mysterious race of regenerating time travellers. Too, they inadvertently point out that the series requires a single strong lead figure, with companions relegated to an assistant role—too many Doctors spoil the soup.

Attack of the Blob Things

Earth is once more in danger due to the Doctor’s presence on the planet, this time from exceedingly strong cosmic ray bolts that serve as a conduit from a gigantic black hole, depositing bulbous, shambling creatures with a predilection towards explosions, all of which are programmed to seek out the Doctor. The bolts work both ways, and before long several people (not to mention laboratory equipment and, eventually, a chalet) are scooped up and sent into whatever awaits in the middle of the black hole. OK, it’s a quarry at the other end, but it’s an anti-matter quarry sustained by the will of Omega, a revered hero of the Time Lords.

Once the Time Lords uncovered the secret of time travel, they still needed an energy source to power their actual travel through time. Omega, the foremost solar engineer amongst the ancient Time Lords, provided such power but was thought lost in the resulting supernova. Unbeknownst to the Time Lords, however, Omega instead remained trapped beyond the event horizon of a black hole, and through the sheer force of his will, he harnesses the power of the singularity at the heart of the black hole to create a pocket of matter in a sea of anti-matter. And there he has waited, for countless thousands of years, alone, the desire for revenge growing constantly.

Omega, Solar Engineer Extraordinaire

To take his vengeance, Omega begins to drain the power from the Time Lords’ energy source, using the threat of their annihilation (and, coincidentally, that of the universe) as leverage to force the Doctor to take his place. Omega cannot escape unless a sufficiently powerful will remains behind to sustain the conduit. But because the Time Lords, in their desperation, violate the First Law of Time™ and cross the Doctor’s time stream not once, but twice. Omega has three Doctors with whom to contend—as does the Brigadier, who frankly thinks one is enough…

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Treacherous Shoals: South China Sea (Compass Games)

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They had me when I saw the counter for the Malaysian frogmen. Add in littoral Chinese combat vessels and Vietnamese Kilo subs and, well, I knew that South China Sea (Compass Games, 2017; designed by John Gorkowski) was a wargame I needed to play.

South China Sea by Compass Games: Mayalsian frogmen

My good gaming buddy Doug Bush acquired a copy, and we recently set it up and took it for a spin. The game posits a near-future conflict focusing on territorial ambitions in the South China Sea, particularly the Spratly Islands, both natural and artificial. China, Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines all have claims there and have forces in the game, with the United States also making its presence felt in several of the game’s six scenarios.

Visually, the team at Compass worked wonders with South China Sea. The large counters shine both aesthetically and functionally, with a wealth of information nicely presented. The map equals the counters in attractiveness, but could stand a bit of differentiation between the rusty red and dull brown hexsides used to denote the disputed islet claims. For a primarily naval game, there’s an awful lot of space devoted to land masses as well, but given that it’s a single map game (well, two partial maps that more-or-less equal a standard wargame map) with large hexes and counters, the space can’t really be seen as wasted.

(As an aside, the counters in the pictures here have been corner-rounded after being punched, as all wargame counters should be; they come square.)

The game supports up to five players, matching the nations with claims and interests in the region; rules exist to play with fewer, and as is typical with wargames, two players will likely be the norm. In practice, though, the smaller nations don’t get to do much when the U.S. and China are both involved, and in our playing, the regional powers found their forces quickly overwhelmed.

A political sub-game starts events, allowing for all factions to get advantages before the shooting starts; indeed, it’s possible for the game to end prior to any military conflict, which is a nice touch for a game that seeks to model the entirety of the military/diplomatic decision space in this volatile region. We didn’t get to do much with this card-driven sub-game, though, as only a single round of political play occurred before a die roll triggered conflict.

In our playing, we found that the underlying military combat sequence worked quite well, forcing difficult decisions on players. Combat is sequential, with each player in turn making one strike. Do you launch that alpha strike against a nearby carrier task force, or do you deal with the submarine that has managed to sneak into your midst? You can’t do both before your opponent gets to act, and careful planning can force him/her to deal with an immediate threat that will, in turn, allow you to launch a strike that might have otherwise been blunted.

South China Sea by Compass Games: Kilo surprise

Too, the game makes clear the relative lethality of modern combat and the need to keep a deterrent in hand. The first player to lose parity in air superiority will likely lose the game, making the commitment of these fragile yet powerful assets fraught with danger, as, indeed, it would be in real life. Stripped of air cover, even the most formidable task force becomes a set of targets — still with teeth, certainly, but vulnerable and expensive in both lives and cost.

Though gifted with a solid and quite serviceable rules chassis, South China Sea lacks a scenario structure to really make it shine. The standard scenario victory point schedules don’t serve bring the sides into conflict. In the scenario we played, once the United States scored a few points through an initial cruise missile salvo at the beginning of the very first turn, they had no reason to actually enter the South China Sea and attempt to evict the Chinese from the disputed islets. Being more concerned with style than victory, we certainly played on and forced the issue, but the game itself doesn’t seem to require it.

South China Sea by Compass Games: The disputed islets

Add in the lack of any penalty for the United States or China preemptively attacking Vietnam, Malaysia, or the Philippines, and the game suggests to players that the best (or at least most efficient) option is to simply knock these smaller countries out of the war, an act that would have massive ramifications in real life. There’s an odd dissonance at work, particularly when overflights of neutral countries are prohibited — an strange scruple in a game with such looseness of engagement rules.

Too, there are tons of counters in the game that are never used. I admire the “future proofing” here, but why have a Malaysian submarine counter in the game if not one scenario uses it? Land occupation of Vietnamese ports and airfields by the Chinese also seems far too simple (and without consequence or benefit), given that the scenarios don’t provide for any border forces (but, again, there are counters that could support such).

It’s far easier to tweak and house rule victory points and scenarios, though, than to fix the underlying game system, and that remains rock solid. The game plays smoothly and the combat system is a model of design elegance. I’m pleased to have had the opportunity to play South China Sea—it provided both an engaging gaming experience and a nice window into the dangers of any military engagement in the area. Here’s to hoping the diplomats don’t roll as poorly on their political phase roll as I did.

Found in the TARDIS Closets: Thirteenth Doctor’s Costume Unveiled

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Fresh on the heels of the cast reveal for the Thirteenth Doctor’s inaugural season, the BBC has unveiled her wardrobe as well.

The bright colors and whimsical touches (socks peeking from boots, suspenders, rainbow stripe) signal a pleasant departure from some of the more somber sartorial choices that the new Doctor Who series has delivered. Fezzes might have been cool, but the new look calls to mind for me nothing more than the playfulness seen in the Third through Sixth Doctors’ ensembles: puffy cravats and velour smoking jackets, wild scarves and hats, cricket-wear (with celery!), and whatever it was that Colin Baker wore.

It’s a new look for a new era, and I’m more than pleased that the show runners are embracing change—by going back to the show’s roots. For the first time in years, I’m excited about the series to come.

A Surfeit of Companions? New Doctor Who Cast Announced

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It’s practically a parlor game amongst fans of Doctor Who: what constitutes a companion? By and large, companions are understood to travel extensively with the Doctor. In the “classic” days, the only real argument concerned Sara Kingdom and Katarina, whose single journeys on the TARDIS made them eligible (in some misguided minds) for that elevated status.

The UNIT era introduced the notion of a standing cast of characters who were demonstrably not companions, if only because the Doctor never invited the Brig and Friends into the blue box, and after that, the Doctor’s adventures tended to the stand-alone, with no fixed location to which he frequently returned and thus no real room for a recurring cast outside the companion(s) du jour.

When the series came back in 2005, however, story arcs and recurring characters became the norm; the Ninth Doctor gained not just Rose Tyler but her extended family and friends. Though I’m hesitant to call Mickey a companion— in the classic sense of a person effectively chosen by the Doctor—and even less so Jackie, the new series has stretched the definition of companion such that they probably should be considered as such.

So the BBC’s announcement of the recurring cast for the Thirteenth Doctor’s inaugural season has me wondering: does the Doctor now have three actual “classic” companions, for the first time since the Fifth Doctor, or are we looking at another friends-and-family plan of people who are in the Doctor’s orbit and enter and leave as the needs of the inevitable story arc demand?

Image via BBC America at http://www.bbcamerica.com/anglophenia/2017/10/meet-the-cast-of-the-all-new-doctor-who-series-coming-to-bbc-america-fall-2018

From left to right: Mandip Gill, Bradley Walsh, Jodie Whittaker, Tosin Cole. Image via BBC America.

Details on the roles that Mandip Gill, Bradley Walsh, and Tosin Cole will play are, understandably, under wraps, with the series not resuming until next Fall and much still to be decided on the direction of the storyline. Count me in favor of returning to the old style of companions, though, of people who basically live on the TARDIS full time and come along on the Doctor’s journeys by default rather than being whisked away from their normal lives and returned, after a month of derring-do, a second after they left.

Consider me, indeed, old school in preferring the Stevens and Vickies and Leelas who have nowhere else to go after the Doctor turns their worlds upside down. The contemporary effort of tying the Doctor so tightly to Earth (modern Britain, more precisely), much like the Third Doctor’s exile, certainly makes for more relatable characters and settings. Cybermen and Daleks on the high street are always a bit startling. But it’s past time for the Doctor to get out there again, freed from terra firma, without having to worry about getting a companion home before the kettle boils over.

(Image via BBC America.)

Doctor Who Project: The Time Monster

Doctor Who Project: The Time Monster
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And against what, precisely, am I supposed to be warning the world?

One does not begrudge an artist returning to a favored, familiar theme. So the fact that Robert Sloman’s Season Nine finale, “The Time Monster” (Story Production Code OOO) reads almost identically to his (with Barry Letts) Season Eight finale, “The Daemons,” can be forgiven, if only because of the depth of world-building that occurs in this six part story. We learn much about the Doctor, the TARDIS, and the Doctor’s relationship with the Master, enough so that we can (mostly) overlook our realization that we’ve already seen this story play out.

Come, Chronos, Come!

Where, in “The Daemons,” the Master disguised himself as a vicar in order to use the occult altar beneath the vicarage to summon the Daemon Azal, here he puts on a professor’s tweeds and uses government grants to build a time manipulation device capable of summoning an extra-dimensional being of immense power: Chronos, the Chronovore, a time-eater that lives in the interstices between moments. Instead of Morris dancers and brainwashed villagers, his allies now include a graduate student, a doctoral candidate, and an Atlantean high priest accidentally brought forward almost four thousand years from the past. A step up, all things considered.

Am I getting credits for this?

The story takes a while to get moving. Two episodes are devoted to establishing the Master’s device, the TOMTIT (Transmission of Matter through Interstitial Time), and bringing UNIT, which is inadvertently funding the Master’s research, onto the scene. Many loving close-ups of a teleporting tea saucer fill the opening scenes. Several bureaucrats are given a narrative build-up, only to be dismissed by the Brigadier with no further involvement in the story, and a window washer who looks in on the teleportation events falls from his ladder in shock, his near-death state essentially ignored.

“The Time Monster” shows all the hallmarks of a story stretched from four to six episodes to fill the schedule, and yet the slowness of pacing gets turned on its head in the final two episodes, such that when the Master’s erstwhile (and innocent) assistants try to free the Brigadier and a UNIT platoon from a time bubble and accidentally turn Sergeant Benton into a baby at the end of the fourth episode, this dramatic retrogression isn’t even brought back up until the very end of the last episode. Because the Doctor, Jo, and the Master have a date in Atlantis…

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