Doctor Who Project: Castrovalva

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Well, I suppose I’ll get used to it in time.

Post-regeneration stories carry the extra burden of introducing the new Doctor, setting the stage for the adventures to come. But in casting Peter Davison as the Fifth Doctor, Doctor Who did not need to introduce the actor, as Davison was already an established and contemporary television star, with the tantalizing potential of drawing new viewers familiar with his other roles. Some of those parts were still ongoing at the time of his appointment, however, leading to the decision to push the start of Season Nineteen and Davison’s first story, “Castrovalva” (Story Production Code 5Z) out to January, 1982, a full ten months after the end of “Logopolis” (as opposed to the more typical seven to eight month hiatuses). Written by former script editor Christopher H. Bidmead, “Castrovalva” stands as a direct sequel to his “Logopolis” and relies on the audience remembering the details of that story, partly solved by recapping events in a rare pre-credits bumper scene demonstrating Tom Baker’s transformation into Peter Davison.

The Watcher melds with the Doctor

Not reprised, however, is the role of the Master in the Fourth Doctor’s demise, nor the excessive reliance on the “block transfer computations” at the heart of “Logopolis.” Producer John Nathan-Turner, aided here by script editor Eric Saward, doesn’t see that as a problem, though. The Master (Anthony Ainley) is as over-the-top a villain as ever seen in the series, his motivations reduced to rage-fueled vengeance and his bilious speeches capped off with peels of uproarious laughter. Pantomime scoundrels have greater nuance. As for the “block transfer computation” capable of manipulating space and time, and somewhat crucial to the entirety of this story, it’s presented as a given, a set of sums maths wizard Adric (Matthew Waterhouse) can do in his sleep. Nathan-Turner’s approach, one he developed in Season Eighteen with Bidmead, is to elide any concerns about the coherence or consistency of technobabble and other plot contrivances; if it serves the story, it serves its purpose, a refreshing (if not always satisfying) change from the tortured logic occasionally deployed to explain away how reversing the polarity will save the day. Here, it just works, leaving more time for storytelling. Or, in this case, running. Lots and lots of running.

Four to Out of Here

After escaping the guards at the Pharos Project, Tegan (Janet Fielding) and Nyssa (Sarah Sutton) drag the barely conscious Doctor into the TARDIS, but the Master captures Adric in the process. By means of block transfer computation, which is now shorthand for making things appear out of nothing, the Master forces Adric to project an image of himself into the TARDIS to send the Doctor, Tegan, and Nyssa on a one-way trip to the Big Bang. It’s telling that at first, Adric’s stilted manner can be easily written off as him being his default snotty self, such that no one notices him acting strangely.

Unravelling the Fourth Doctor's threads

He’s certainly not the only one who seems a bit off, as the Fifth Doctor’s regeneration does not proceed smoothly. The Master’s presence causes too much complication, preventing the necessary re-connections from taking place in the Doctor’s jumbled mind. Adric finds him literally (and, of course, metaphorically) unravelling the Fourth Doctor’s trademark scarf, which he uses to trace a long and winding course through the depths of the TARDIS; much of the first episode is spent watching people get lost in unmarked TARDIS hallways looking for the Zero Room, an isolation chamber that will calm the Doctor’s brain enough to allow him to finish regenerating.

Adric in the Master's Web

Frequent cutaways to the Master gloating about the Doctor’s impending doom, with Adric trussed up behind a skein of cables shouting his defiance, leave viewers quite certain as to the force causing the TARDIS to hurtle back through time and space, but it’s hard to take any of it seriously. Though Ainley turns in a bravura performance in “Castrovalva”—when he’s not playing the Master, as will be seen—the script does him, and the character, no favors; likewise Waterhouse, whose screeching as Adric diminishes any pathos his predicament might have deserved. Indeed, the story lacks so much tension that a leisurely detour into that now-mandatory regeneration feature, wardrobe selection, feels right at home. The Fifth Doctor, deep in the throes of a regeneration gone wrong, finds his new overcoat already laid out, by someone or something (the TARDIS itself, perhaps?). After some tentative toots on the Second Doctor’s recorder, he picks up a nearby cricket bat and finds it just right. A brief pop into a cricket-themed side room to change and he’s ready for a long innings…
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Doctor Who Project: Tom Baker Retrospective

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In the eyes of the world, Tom Baker is Doctor Who. And also the Doctor, there being a difference between the two, at least most of the time.

That Fourth Doctor smile

Despite Tom Baker’s final story airing over forty years ago, and despite the cultural reach of the new series since 2005, pop culture still references Doctor Who through the lens of the Fourth Doctor: the long, variegated scarf, the floppy hat, the curly hair and broad smile. More than that, though, Tom Baker’s presentation of the Doctor hews closest to the stereotypical understanding of the enigmatic Time Lord. He’s quick with a quip, slow to anger but ready with intensity, all-knowing but a bit fuzzy on the details, indefatigable when confronted with impossible odds, and given to action over excessive reflection. A hero, in other words, not just for our time, but for all time.

Tom Baker as Meglos-Doctor

Doubtless, much of this persistent identification of the Doctor with Tom Baker comes from his incredible tenure as the Fourth Doctor, a run of forty-two stories, spanning 178 episodes, if one includes the un-broadcast “Shada,” as one should. (William Hartnell, the next longest tenured Doctor, featured in 134 episodes as lead actor.) Baker’s tales stretch from December 28, 1974, the opening episode of “Robot” in Season Twelve, through to March 21, 1981, the final episode of “Logopolis” to end Season Eighteen, well over six years in the role.

Tom Baker as the Fourth Doctor in Logopolis

But longevity alone cannot account for just how entirely Tom Baker made the part of the Doctor his own, particularly on the heels of Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor, who was no slouch in terms of personality and strong characterization. Much has been made of the star’s temperamental insistence, towards the end of his time on the series, that the scripts provide more scope for humor, spontaneity, and levity—centered, naturally, around the Doctor—but the entire tone of the Fourth Doctor’s run points in that direction from the very beginning. Producer Barry Letts and script editor Robert Holmes had to know what they had in Tom Baker right away, as evidenced by the sequence in “Robot” where the newly-regenerated Doctor tries on multiple outfits, including a harlequin costume. Shades of things to come…

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Manila Enveloped: Sword and Fire: Manila (MMP) Released

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One of the strengths of the Advanced Squad Leader tactical combat game series, produced by Multi-Man Publishing, is its extensibility. From the near infinite combinations of its geomorphic mapboards to the comprehensive rule system capable of encompassing almost all armed conflict from the 1930s to the 1950s, ASL has, over its nearly forty year lifetime, taken players on a tour of all manner of battlefields, from the Italian invasion of Ethiopia and the Spanish Civil War through to the Korean War. Designers continue to find new corners of history to explore through this game system, building on and extending the range of possible conflict simulations. While often these new battles require little more than special scenario rules to translate the actions into standard ASL format, occasionally a more substantial expansion is required to encompass the magnitude of the conflict portrayed.

MMP’s most recent release, Sword and Fire: Manila, an historical module by designer David Roth covering the battle for Manila in early 1945, is just such a grand production, arriving in a thick box with four countersheets, twenty-five scenarios, five campaign games, copious rules and charts, and a whopping six standard sized maps.

Sword and Fire: Manila by MMP. Component Overview.

The combined map setup size is such that if you have to ask how big it is, you probably don’t have the room for it. (Roughly six feet square, if you must know!) The map covers much of downtown Manila in 1945 in exacting detail, with several rules sections devoted to the peculiarities of this urban environment, including wrought-iron fencing, cattle pens, stone monuments, steel-walled buildings (with a inherent TEM of +5, possibly the highest terrain defense value in the game system), and buildings made of multiple materials on different levels (stone/wood/adobe). The six paper maps themselves come in a glossy finish, the standard for new historical ASL maps since at least Hatten in Flames in 2018, though these seem slightly glossier to me than older maps. A scaled-down overview map of the six maps put together helps give a sense of the scale.

Sword and Fire: Manila by MMP. Map detail.

While one can admire the sheer scope of the full map layout, with art by Tom Repetti, it’s frankly overwhelming in size, at least in terms of ergonomics. A three-foot reach to the center of the map to manipulate a stack of ten counters in close proximity to other such stacks requires steady nerves and eagle eyes, neither attribute being quite rampant in the game’s target demographic. One suspects that the module was tested, as most wargames are, on a computer using VASSAL, and I wager that nearly all playings requiring the full map spread will be completed using VASSAL as well. The creation of games that are unwieldy to engage with physically but easy to manipulate digitally is not confined to ASL, of course, but it’s to MMP’s credit that they have a sensible approach to the virtualization of ASL. As such, the size of the full map spread should not be an impediment to picking up this module.

Sword and Fire: Manila by MMP. Rules detail.

Indeed, the majority of the twenty-five scenarios use a portion of a single mapsheet, and none use more than two maps put together, making for a much more manageable table presence. And these are scenarios that just beg to be played, ranging from rather meaty assaults on fortified locations requiring armored bulldozers to clear and river crossings under fire to tense cat-and-mouse affairs in giant cemeteries and urban block clearings. Both the US Army and the Japanese Army forces come equipped with significant ordnance and armor, the use of which is constrained by the built-up city terrain, creating interesting tactical puzzles for each side. Comparisons to the Battle of Stalingrad are perhaps inevitable, but these scenarios feel somewhat more mobile and fluid, at least at first glance.

Sword and Fire: Manila by MMP. Scenario detail.

As for the five campaign games, only one uses the entire six map setup, one uses parts of four maps, and the remaining three call for portions of two maps each. All the CGs seems to follow the standard ASL campaign game rule structure, and with most coming in at only a handful of campaign dates, they represent a reasonable project for two or more gamers to tackle.

In a relief to those whose counter storage systems are already maxed out, not many new counter types are introduced. Both the Americans and Japanese get a full complement of dedicated elite assault engineer/commando squads and half-squads, and a new terrain type counter in the Bomb Crater is added to the system. The majority of the countersheets just add additional vehicles, squads, half-squads, concealment markers, and the like to supplement those from Yanks! and Rising Sun (or Code of Bushido/Gung Ho!), plus location control markers and plenty of rubble, smoke, and debris counters, giving you a good feel for the kinds of actions to follow. A handful of errata counters for Forgotten War and some variant British vehicle and support weapon counters are also included.

Sword and Fire: Manila by MMP. Countersheet detail.

As ever with Advanced Squad Leader, to play it all you have to own it all, but broadly speaking, only the rules, Beyond Valor, Yanks!, and Rising Sun (or Code of Bushido/Gung Ho!) are probably needed to play the scenarios and campaign games.

MMP has shown a refreshing willingness to produce Advanced Squad Leader modules and scenarios that go beyond the more typical Western or Eastern Front slugfests that sell so well—did anyone ever go broke selling a game on the Bulge? From including rules and counters for the Ethiopians and Eritreans in Hollow Legions (3e), expanding the system to the Korean War in Forgotten War, and tackling a tricky yet fascinating river crossing in the Dinant historical module included with Croix de Guerre (2e), and now exploring, in great detail, a little-known episode of the Pacific war in Sword and Fire: Manila, MMP is consistently putting its faith in gamers to appreciate the breadth and complexity of the conflicts that indelibly stained the twentieth century. Designer David Roth and his team of testers and researchers obviously put years of labor and care into Sword and Fire: Manila, and while it may, at times, feel like too much of a good thing, there’s plenty of play value in the box no matter how big your table, as well as a window into a battle that deserves attention.

(Cover detail artwork pictured above by Keith Rocco.)

Doctor Who Project: Logopolis

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Still, the future lies this way.

Season Eighteen of Doctor Who can be compared to renovating an inhabited house, as producer John Nathan-Turner, aided by script editor Christopher H. Bidmead, measures the windows, selects new carpeting, and pulls out the plumbing while the family already living there tries to get on with daily life. It is, charitably, an uneven season, with constant change from episode to episode, not all of it successful. But for the season finale—and Tom Baker’s final story—Bidmead delivers a striking tale, at once a meditative mood piece and a cracking bit of tense action: “Logopolis” (Story Production Code 5V) delivers on the promise of positive change in the series while providing Baker and the Fourth Doctor with a satisfying conclusion to over six years of adventures through time and space.

Adric (Matthew Waterhouse) and the Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker) in a decaying room deep in the TARDIS

The story starts in quotidian fashion, with the Doctor wanting to finally fix the wonky Chameleon Circuit on the TARDIS, allowing it to change shape into something other than a police box. He calls up the never-before-seen Chameleon Circuit panel, which pops out of the central console, to demonstrate what the TARDIS would look like as a pyramid. There’s a real sense of Bidmead wanting to add to the lore of the TARDIS, particularly with his introduction of the Cloister Bell, a staple plot device in years to come, which sounds its warning peals as the Doctor and Adric are talking in an old part of the ship overgrown with vines.

Janet Fielding as Tegan Jovanka and Dolore Whiteman as Aunt Vanessa

In order to repair the Chameleon Circuit, the Doctor first needs exactingly precise dimensions of the object the TARDIS is stuck externally representing, which necessitates a trip to Earth. Bidmead and director Peter Grimwade, a long-time Doctor Who crew member, go out on location to place a police box (or two) near a motorway leading to “London Airport,” a road along which Australian flight attendant Tegan Jovanka (Janet Fielding) and her Aunt Vanessa (Dolore Whiteman) are driving before a flat tire stops them. It’s no ordinary police box that Tegan enters looking for help, though, as another TARDIS has already materialized around the box that was there.

A Police Box in a Police Box, with Adric on top

Rather than jump right into action and excitement, Bidmead slowly unspools the tension, spending the majority of the first of four episodes ruminating on the nature of the TARDIS, of the complications of dimensionality and recursive loops. When the Doctor’s TARDIS arrives at the very same police box, it lands “around” the other TARDIS, which itself landed around the real police box. After several minutes spent watching the Doctor and Adric measuring the police box and discussing the “block transfer computations” needed to reprogram the Chameleon Circuit—a type of mathematics so advanced it can only be done by the living computers of Logopolis—they venture inside the police box and find another TARDIS with a police box inside it, and on and on, a paradox caused by one TARDIS being inside another. The Doctor fears they are trapped in an infinite regression, but finally they pop out back on the motorway, where three police officers have some questions about an abandoned car with two dolls in the front seat…

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Fourteen Found: Ncuti Gatwa is the Fourteenth Doctor

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Fresh regeneration news today from Gallifrey (and, er, the BBC), with the announcement that Ncuti Gatwa will take on the role of the Fourteenth Doctor.

As is now tradition with new Doctors, I find myself unaware of Gatwa’s prior work, which says more about my media consumption habits than his CV. His background seems to be in comedy, having starred most recently in the Netflix series Sex Education. It strikes me that very few Doctor Who leads have worked mostly on the comedic side prior to assuming the role. The part of the Doctor definitely requires a light, comedic touch at times, particularly with Russell T. Davies taking the series helm once more, so hopefully he’ll have scripts that play to his strengths there while staying true to the Doctor’s inherently serious mien.

Much like Matt Smith, Gatwa looks to be on the young side for the role, but he’s roughly as old as Peter Davison was upon taking the part of the Fifth Doctor, and Davison’s take on the part was anything but callow. If there’s one thing the BBC knows how to do, it’s casting, so I’m confident that Gatwa’s run on Doctor Who will add something new and interesting to the continuing lore of the series.

It must, of course, be noted that Gatwa will be the first person of color to lead the show, which is nearing its sixtieth anniversary. He is not the first person of color to play the Doctor, that title going to Jo Martin’s Fugitive Doctor, who debuted during Jodie Whittaker’s run as a previously unknown regeneration and fits in somewhere around the First Doctor’s timeline (as best anyone can tell). As with Whittaker’s expansion of the role’s possibilities, Gatwa’s appointment gives credence to the core conceit of the series, that the Doctor can be anyone via the magic of regeneration, and I look forward to following the Fourteenth Doctor’s adventures.

Doctor Who Project: The Keeper of Traken

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Don’t listen to me. I never do.

By the time Johnny Byrne’s “The Keeper of Traken” (Story Production Code 5T) airs, recurring antagonists no longer appear on Doctor Who with distressing inevitability, unlike earlier years when the Daleks were penciled in for at least one appearance per season and the Cybermen would fill in as needed. Producers Phillip Hinchcliffe and Graham Williams avoid old home week quite admirably during their tenures from Seasons Thirteen through Seventeen, bringing back only the Sontarans, the Daleks, and the Master from the Doctor’s dusty rogues’ gallery, and then only once each, the better to heighten their impact on the screen. In their stead, the Fourth Doctor faces fresh foes and new challenges aplenty, making Tom Baker’s run one of constant wonder and surprise.

Adric and the Fourth Doctor conversing with the Keeper of Traken

Thus, at the start of the four episode story, as the Doctor and Adric confront the wizened form of the Keeper of Traken (Denis Carey), an amazingly powerful being capable of breaching the TARDIS thanks to the power of the Source, the audience expects another foray into the unknown. With the Keeper harnessing the Source, a quasi-mystical and ill-defined energy (not unlike the equally inexplicable Dodecahedron in “Meglos“), the Traken Union stands as a paragon of peace and tranquility, such that any evil being setting foot there calcifies and turns, slowly, to stone. This fate befalls the Melkur (Geoffrey Beevers), an ominous living statue that the Keeper warns the Doctor about while seeking the Time Lord’s help to prevent the Source from falling into malign hands.

The enigmatic Melkur

Byrne, who cut his writing chops on Space: 1999, slowly and subtly introduces the real force behind the Melkur. In keeping with new producer John Nathan-Turner and new script editor Christopher H. Bidmead’s focus on rewarding long-time viewers, Byrne and director John Black dole out just enough hints in Episodes Two and Three for audience members steeped in series lore to realize that the Melkur is in fact a TARDIS belonging to none other than the Master, well before the renegade Time Lord’s presence explicitly manifests in the last ten minutes of the final episode.

The view from inside the Master's Melkur TARDIS

Sadly, the impact of the Master’s return fizzles out by waiting so long to reveal him. His motivations receive short shrift indeed, boiling down to the Master’s de rigeur desire for conquest, revenge, and another regeneration. Far from matching wits with the Doctor, as in the finest battles between Jon Pertwee and the late Roger Delgado, the Master here simply waits in his moss-covered TARDIS, cackling occasionally and taking action only through others by dominating them mentally, such that the most dangerous figure for much of the story is an officious guard captain with an eye for a bribe…
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