Doctor Who Project: The Green Death

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In a funny way, he reminds me of a sort of younger you.

Sometimes in Doctor Who, the monsters and their villanous plans represent the main event, no matter how assiduously the actors pursue their craft. In Robert Sloman’s “The Green Death” (Story Production Code TTT), the malevolent miscreants (giant maggots and a crazed computer, in this case) and their associated hijinks are very much put to shame by the power of the actual story, that of the Doctor realizing he is losing a companion, and the strength with which Jon Pertwee and Katy Manning carry off the six episode farewell.

In happier times

And it’s just as well the Doctor’s impending heartbreak sustains “The Green Death,” since the ostensible story itself makes no sense at all. In quick summation: a corporation secretly run by a megalomaniacal, self-aware computer has discovered a process to extract more gasoline from petroleum, but the byproduct, which is being pumped into an abandoned Welsh coal mine, causes ordinary maggots to turn into giant versions whose bite causes all human cells to decay (and turn a bioluminescent green), to say nothing of the giant flying creatures into which they eventually metamorphose.

Maggots of the giant variety

Yet the maggots, it turns out, have absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the computer’s plan; they’re simply an unforeseen side-effect of a refining process so powerful (and profitable) that the U.K. Prime Minister orders UNIT to help the corporation, Global Chemicals, hide evidence of the creepy-crawlies by destroying the mine entrances. Perhaps years of Yeti and other invasions have made giant insect infestations sufficiently run-of-the-mill that no one notices or much cares anymore.

Time for Top of the Pops?

The crazed computer’s real goal is to turn all humans on the planet into efficient robotized creatures using a form of mind control inflicted via souped-up stereo headphones, a revelation that comes pretty much out of nowhere after several episodes being devoted almost entirely to the mine and its unwelcome inhabitants. It’s another story altogether shoehorned into what could have been a strong, tightly-focused commentary on the lengths humanity is willing to go for cheap, abundant energy—throw another gallon in the tank, and never mind the maggots.

Luckily, we get to see Jo fall in love over several episodes, and in truth, that makes all the parlous plotting and half-baked stories worthwhile.

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Doctor Who Project: Planet of the Daleks

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We can never leave here. Never! Never!

Perhaps nothing sums up Terry Nation’s return to Doctor Who in “Planet of the Daleks” (Story Production Code SSS) better than the fact that said planet has a core of, um, molten ice, a geological anomaly that inevitably plays a prominent role in the story’s outcome. It’s a typically outrĂ© Nation conceit. Presumably this odd planetary structure would make hollowing the core out simpler than if it were molten lava, but unlike that plan of the Daleks, this one involves learning the secret of invisibility from the inhabitants of the planet, Spiridon, a jungle world whose savage lifeforms presumably drove the natives to evolve this ability as a protective measure. They also wear purple fur coats when it gets cold, slightly defeating the invisibility adaptation.

Purple is all the rage this season on Spiridon.

But rather than simply establishing a small research outpost to exploit the Spiridonian’s prestidigitous power, the Daleks also store tens of thousands of their brethren in suspended animation there—effectively, their entire military force—in order to retrofit them with the invisibility power for the forthcoming “invasion of all the solar planets” alluded to in the prior story, “Frontier in Space.” A fortuitous single point of potential failure, then, and one which a band of brave Thals (q.v. “The Daleks“) discover and trigger to thwart their eternal enemies.

The power of molten ice!

Though the Dalek War took place generations earlier, the Thals sent a mission from Skaro to hunt down the Daleks. Their two primitive spacecraft crash-land on Spiridon, killing several Thals instantly, but after much derring-do and many scenes of self-sacrifice, the dwindling band of tow-headed non-mutants manage to crack open the walls of the vast Dalek hibernation chamber, letting in torrents of molten, er, ice, freezing the regiments of pepperpots in place for centuries.

Oh, right, and the Doctor and Jo show up, but probably only because Terry Nation’s contract required him to write the Time Lord into the story.
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Doctor Who Project: Frontier in Space

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Only you could manage to have a traffic accident in space.

Just when you think it’s safe to go back into the water, Roger Delgado returns, the Master’s smile as cutting as a dorsal fin ripping through waves. Series regular Malcolm Hulke’s “Frontier in Space” (Story Production Code QQQ) starts out with verve and pace, dropping the Doctor and Jo immediately into a tangled web of interstellar intrigue. Two great empires of the 26th Century, that of Earth and that of Draconia, find themselves unwittingly lured into war by a mysterious third party employing highly advanced ultrasonic technology that disguises their mercenary Ogrons as the other side. Months of raids by the incognito Ogrons on Earth and Draconian shipping has left tensions between the two powers strained to the breaking point.

Friend or Foe?

By the middle of the third of six episodes, the viewer has been lulled into suspecting one of the characters already introduced—perhaps the warlike Earth General Williams or the honor-bound Draconian Prince—of organizing this subterfuge in order to further some hidden agenda. Two and a half episodes seems like just enough time to wrap up a political potboiler. But then, pretending to be the representative from an outlying Earth colony, swoops in the Master, and the entire story turns on a dime.

Behold, the Master

The strategy of withholding Delgado from the story for so long works brilliantly here, and one is forced to look back at hints the Doctor dropped about the fear-based disguise technology being far too advanced for the Ogrons, essentially just brute muscle, to have developed themselves. One even, perhaps, briefly moots the possibility of the Daleks being in play because of the Ogrons’ prior association with them (in “Day of the Daleks.”) And then, behold, the Master appears, putting rest to all those suppositions. It’s an electrifying moment, a real triumph of pacing and patience and plotting.

And yet, there’s immediately a sense of trepidation. For as pleasant as Roger Delgado’s appearances are, the Master’s plans don’t tend to result in gripping psychological or political drama, nor do they frankly ever make much sense. He’s more often than not a delightfully screen-stealing blowhard who falls prey to his own skulduggery. Will that be the case here?

Well, yes. But only until the real villains show up…
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As the Worm Turns: Dune (Avalon Hill)

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Bene Gesserit troops by the score charged into Sietch Tabr, representing the entire military might of this coven of hypnotic witches, all to evict the Fremen holed up there, in hopes that the sisterhood’s allies in the Atredies might be able to take advantage of the suicidal raid. Using their weirding ways, they commanded the Fremen to drop their guard, while prescient Paul Atredies peeked into the future of the combat. Success, but at a devastating cost to the victors, who were wiped out as well!

Beware the Bene Gesserit!

And that was just one player’s turn in Dune, Avalon Hill’s revolutionary 1979 proto-Euro game based on the Frank Herbert novel. I had wanted to play this game for ages, and my good gaming buddies Doug Bush, Mike Vogt, Joe Jackson, and Neil and Dan Stanhagen happily agreed to my request. It’s a strange and simple game, with the potential to last from thirty minutes to seven hours, depending on how the cards and combats play out. Luck plays almost no role beyond the variability introduced by card draws; no dice, and the incredibly bloody combat system often leaves the victor as depleted as the vanquished.

Players take the roles of the six main factions vying for the hypnogogic Spice that comes only from this desert planet: the spacing Guild, which uses Spice to fold space and travel between the stars; the Emperor, who rules all and controls the economy of the galaxy; the cunning Harkonnen, who excel at treacherous actions; the witchy Bene Gesserit, who can bend lesser minds to their will; the native Fremen, keepers of the planet and riders of the giant Worms that prowl the sands; and the Atredies, who claim the planet and have in their clan one who can see into the future. Each, of course, has game breaking powers, with the asymmetry between the factions driving play.

Arrakis, near the end.

A standard victory comes from occupying a number of strongholds based on the number of people in an alliance (if any), with several stalemate/end game victories possible as well if the conquest condition does not occur. The Bene Gesserit have an additional path to victory: should they predict, before the game starts, the turn on which a specific faction claims a non-end game victory, they win, and not the faction that triggered the victory. Beware the help of the witches, even if they are in your alliance!

Indeed, all the factions prove to be unstable allies, and the prospect of a solo victory, attained with the erstwhile help of once-allies, can often prove too tempting. Like any good Euro, there are wheels within wheels of decisions, and that’s not even counting the Combat Wheels that are used to secretly dial up committed strength for military enagements.

Fans of the novel and its associated world building will find the book’s background nicely integrated into the game’s play, with traitorous leaders (often in the employ of the Harkonnen), ghola tanks for reviving dead troops, and the dreaded Worm surfacing on Spice blows to consume all the forces gathered to harvest the rare commodity. While the essential game play could be (and has been) transferred to a different theme, the team at Eon (contracted by AH to produce the game) melded theme and mechanic beautifully here.

Dune proves hard to come by on the secondary market, and a flourishing cottage industry of DIY/print-and-play kits (of dubious copyright propriety) exists in the game’s considerable fandom. I can understand the urge to own a copy of this game. With the right group (and the guys who played with me certainly fit that), the mix of treachery, alliance, combat, and cunning proves to be quite compelling. It’s a worthy addition to any collection.

After the wasteful Bene Gesserit raid (and, full disclosure, that was me), the Fremen/Guild alliance (the Stanhagens) managed to fend off further assaults on their territory, using the Guild’s ability to preempt other players’ movement and the generous Fremen movement allowances to decisive effect. They took enough of the Strongholds to claim the desert planet. And, alas, I didn’t predict it…

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.