Doctor Who Project: The Leisure Hive

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Well, I can’t get everything right.

For a series built around the conceit of change, by Season Eighteen Doctor Who hadn’t changed much in a very long time. Tom Baker took on the Doctor’s scarf—er, mantle—in Season Twelve, some five and a half years prior, and while the stories and direction undoubtedly bent towards the star’s predilections for humor and action, a shared thread of narrative and visual style linked the Fourth Doctor’s stories with those of his predecessors. John Nathan-Turner, taking over as producer from Graham Williams, a veteran of three seasons himself, turns David Fisher’s “The Leisure Hive” (Story Production Code 5N) into his declaration of intent to bring about as much change in the series as any regeneration of title character ever could.

K-9 Explodes

From the very beginning, nothing about “The Leisure Hive” feels familiar, with a new title sequence and a new title theme causing immediate dissonance: bright, twangy electronic music accompanying the Doctor’s face forming from a field of stars in a bold declaration of newness. Director Lovett Bickford, in his only work for the series, opens with a long tracking shot of a deserted Brighton beach, an ominous gust whipping empty beach chairs and threatening to blow over canvas cabanas. It’s moody and eerie, leading to a bit of a shock when the TARDIS appears amidst the abandoned beach accessories. And then K-9 explodes because Romana gets huffy with him. Nope, this is not Season Seventeen, nor indeed Doctor Who as it has been presented before.

A fanciful dissolve

From that windswept beach, the setting changes—by means of an elaborate dissolve intended to be appreciated on its own rather than as a transitional technique in the background—to the planet Argolis, wracked by radiation after a war that lasted twenty minutes. The remaining few Argolins, rendered sterile by the cataclysm, have set up the Leisure Hive, a recreational resort dedicated not just to entertainment but to fostering an understanding between peoples, so that conflicts can be avoided in the future. The chief draw of the site comes from their burgeoning work with tachyonics, used here as shorthand for the manipulation and reduplication of physical objects from tachyon particles. It’s still technobabble, but with at least a patina of scientific backing.

The Fourth Doctor and Romana seem unsure about this lecture on tachyonics.

The Doctor and Romana arrive on Argolis in search of some leisure time themselves, the Doctor deciding to forego use of the Randomizer circuit installed at the end of Season Sixteen to prevent the Black Guardian from tracking them. While the Randomizer does play a further role in the story, it’s a good example of how Nathan-Turner intends to make frequent use of the series’ back history; now it’s not just fans who remember what happened in episode 4G, it’s the producer, too, and if there’s an oblique reference to be made, or a canonical conflict to be explained away, he’ll do it, rather than letting it slide as past producers might. The story’s action is likewise very specifically dated, to 2290, a start at ironing out, or at least restarting, a wildly conflicting timeline once and for all.

Zero Gravity Squash

It’s not too much of a stretch to suggest that good portions of the story’s action are inspired by the new technology available to the BBC effects department, in particular video editing tools that enable flashy dissolves like that seen at the start as well as more seamless color separation overlay scenes and the ability to separate parts of a moving image on screen. Indeed, without this ability, the concept of tachyonic object manipulation would have required extensive, and likely unsuccessful, model work. Here, in addition to demonstrating zero-gravity squash, it’s used for a particularly frightful cliffhanger, with the Doctor torn, limb from limb as he screams in agony…
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Doctor Who Project: Shada

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Excuse the muddle. Creative disarray, you know.

Modern viewers of Doctor Who breathe a sigh of relief when they reach the Jon Pertwee era, if only because the Third Doctor’s run marks the end of the “missing episodes” that plagued Hartnell and Troughton’s time as the Doctor. It’s all there on film, every moment of the Third through the Eighth Doctor’s exploits. Except, that is, for Douglas Adams’ “Shada” (Story Production Code 5M), the six-part finale for Season Seventeen that was partially filmed but never completed or broadcast due to industrial action at the BBC.

All the story’s location shooting in and around Cambridge had taken place and the first of three studio sessions was in the proverbial can when a strike stopped all filming. The knock-on effects of multiple shows scrambling for studio space and technical crews once work resumed clearly revealed Doctor Who‘s place in the BBC hierarchy at the time: dead last. Other shows received preference for scarce resources, and the decision was ultimately made to cancel the production entirely rather than spend money storing props and sets and keeping options on actors with other jobs to get on with.

Punting the Cam

As the swan song for both producer Graham Williams and writer and script editor Douglas Adams, “Shada” would have been quite an achievement on the strength of the extant footage alone: between an inventive (if slightly incomprehensible) story and a superlative guest cast, this tale about a secret Time Lord prison and a megalomaniacal scheme to absorb every mind in the universe into one giant consciousness hints at being as good as anything in Season Seventeen, and potentially one of the best stories in the series to date. To that end, several efforts were made to complete “Shada,” including a version in 1992 with linking narration by Tom Baker between existing footage, an audio play in 2003 (with Paul McGann’s Eight Doctor subbing in for Baker’s Fourth Doctor), and a full animated reconstruction of the unfilmed scenes in 2017 featuring the original cast, which forms the fullest version of the story.

An animated K-9!

“Shada” sets up in Cambridge, where the Doctor’s old friend and fellow Time Lord, Professor Chronotis (Denis Carey), keeps quarters at (fictional) St. Cedd’s College. Despite having a name even Terry Nation might have blanched at, Chronotis possesses a warmth in his bumbling absent-mindedness, suggesting both age and wisdom in equal measure and played brilliantly by Carey, who gamely takes on all of Adams’ dialogue. He invites a junior teacher, Chris Parsons (Daniel Hill), to borrow several books, one of which just happens to be radioactive, capable of reversing time, and allows access to the long-forgotten prison of the Time Lords—Shada. Worse still, the book is being sought by the evil mastermind Skagra (Christopher Neame), who strides out of his invisible spaceship in his disco best, with a carpet bag full of voices. (Yes, this was made in 1979, in case there were any doubt…)
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First Team in Action: ASL Action Pack #17 (MMP) Released

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ASL Oktoberfest, or ASLOK, is the centerpiece of the Advanced Squad Leader convention calendar, despite taking place in Cleveland. It’s the Masters Tournament of ASL, if you will, and while I’ll always prefer the more casual confines of Winter Offensive, in bucolic Bowie, Maryland, the cachet of ASLOK cannot be denied. It’s just pure ASL, morning to night.

Every few years, Multi-Man Publishing, caretakers and publishers of the venerable ASL tactical wargame system, release an Action Pack in conjunction with ASLOK, and they have just unveiled ASL Action Pack #17: Oktoberfest XXXV to go along with this year’s edition of the tournament. This new expansion for ASL contains two new geomorphic maps (87 and 88) and sixteen scenarios (AP175-AP190) by Kevin Meyer and Pete Shelling centering on the US 1st Cavalry Division, known as The First Team.

ASL Action Pack #17 Overview

The actions depicted take place in the Pacific theater during World War II, with three scenarios against the Japanese in 1944, and then in the Korean War, host to a whopping thirteen scenarios pitting the 1st Cavalry against North Korean and Communist Chinese forces in 1950 and 1951. Despite the singular focus on a particular division, the scenarios manage to cover a varied set of actions, from assault boat landings in a reservoir against Chinese forces hunkered in bunkers (AP189 Bona Fide Effort) and a joint American/Greek assault on a minefield complex (AP190 We Are Sparta) through to an armor slugfest against North Korean T-34s (AP183 Patton’s Ghost) and a river crossing under fire (AP181 No Dunkirk).

The situations tend towards the fulsome, with none that, at first glance, fall into the quick-playing tournament scenario mold; these cards are, broadly, six to eight turns with a dozen or more squads per side, plus interesting special rules and counters that don’t often get fished out of the Plano.

Crags Everywhere

As for the two new maps, designed by Tom Repetti and Don Petros, with art by the inestimable Charlie Kibler, they both feature a multi-level hill running along one long map edge, which, if set together, form one large hill mass. Board 87 hosts a small village abutting the hill, while board 88 has gullies leading down off the hill into a valley, with more crags than you’ve probably ever seen on an ASL map.

Ford Counters

Because most of the scenarios are set in the Korean War, which for some reason has not been overly popular in ASL circles since the release of the Forgotten War Korean War ASL module some years back, this Action Pack might not get as much interest as usual for an official ASL product. That would be a shame, as the pack as a whole stretches the ASL rulebook—how often do you use river Ford counters?—and features interesting actions by some of the best scenario designers working today. These might not be scenarios to knock out in a quick sitting at a club meeting on a Saturday, but they’ll reward extended play.

Doctor Who Project: The Horns of Nimon

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Oh, well, people often don’t know what you’re talking about.

Anthony Read began his tenure on Doctor Who as script editor for “Underworld,” a dismal retelling of the myth of Jason and the Argonauts and possibly the worst story of the Fourth Doctor’s entire run. Fitting, then, that he would make his last contribution to the series by writing another mythological story, “The Horns of Nimon” (Story Production Code 5L), that shows just how well legendary fables can be repurposed into futuristic tales. The trick, it turns out, is to be blatantly obvious about the borrowing, letting the audience in on the secret from the beginning.

Beware the Nimon!

Read signposts his recounting of Theseus and the Minotaur by simply scrambling letters in proper names, opening proceedings in this four episode story on a decrepit spaceship bound for Skonnos (cf. Knossos, primary city of the ancient Minoan culture on Crete), bearing human sacrifices from the defeated planet Aneth (cf. Athens). The tributes are to be handed over to the Nimon, who, yes, just happens to be a horned creature, half-bull and half-human, better known as the Minotaur. To be fair, Read builds the layers up slowly, so that the audience feels clever at recognizing the allusions and noticing the parallels before they become so explicit as to be painfully obvious.

Jury-rigging the TARDIS

The Doctor, meanwhile, has disassembled the TARDIS control console, preventing the blue box from dematerializing or putting up defense shields, helping set up a chance collision with the Skonnon spaceship. Both craft are caught in the pull of a nascent black hole, and they come close enough that the Doctor is able to create a passage between them. There they discover the tributes from Aneth, seven young people in golden yellow jump suits, one auspiciously named Seth (Simon Gipps-Kent). (In the original telling, Athens regularly provided Minos with seven boys and seven girls to be sacrificed to the Minotaur, and the hero Theseus—Seth—took the place of one of the youths in order to defeat the monster. Having fourteen tributes here might have taxed the guest cast budget.)

Seth (Simon Gipps-Kent) and Romana (Lalla Ward)

Doctor Who seldom deviates from the pattern where the Doctor prevails at the end; one needs to go back as far as the Third Doctor’s inaugural season, with “Doctor Who and the Silurians,” for an example of the Doctor unequivocally failing, though “Horror of Fang Rock” comes close. The journey, the telling, then, becomes more important than the outcome, so the fact that we know Seth will “slay” the Nimon in keeping with the underlying myth adds to, rather than detracts from, the narrative experience. It’s not a spoiler if you already know it’s supposed to happen.

The mythology provides coloring for the characters here, unlike in “Underworld” where the Jason and the Argonauts story yields narrative structure but not any detail or nuance. Still, one could be forgiven for having trouble recognizing that Soldeed (Graham Crowden), the sole scientist on Skonnos, is an analogue for Daedalus, if only because the generally accepted concept of that old artificer does not include manic laughter and overacting sufficient to make even Tom Baker blush…
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Inor Out: The Green Hell of Inor (Le Franc Tireur) Released

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Fresh from the fervid Francophones at Le Franc Tireur comes The Green Hell of Inor, an unofficial expansion for Multi-Man Publishing’s Advanced Squad Leader (ASL) that adds new counters, sixteen scenarios, a large map, and three campaign games to the venerable tactical wargame system. Focusing on the early war battles between the French and Germans in 1940 around Inor, a town situated on a canal off the Meuse, the module’s thesis, as laid out in the handsome seventy-page historical booklet, suggests that even a nondescript French second line division such as the 3eme DINA (Third North African Division) showed a determination to fight that was at odds with the lack of preparation and will exhibited by higher French military and political authorities during 1940, holding up a German advance for three weeks under increasingly untenable conditions.

Overview of The Green Hell of Inor

At their best, wargames, and conflict simulations more generally, make assertions about history and provide gamers with the ability to test them, driving a heightened understanding through the process of play. The designers of The Green Hell of Inor—Lionel Colin and Xavier Vitry, assisted by a number of scenario designers—seek to provide an opportunity to examine French conduct under fire, in situations approximate to those actually faced, not at a higher operational level but at the squad level that ASL depicts, where fighting spirit, training, and tenacity matter more than grand strategic concerns.

Map detail from The Green Hell of Inor

Perhaps ASL is not the best device for a serious study of war; it has been described, fairly, as an exceedingly accurate simulation of war movies rather than the chaos and uncertainty of any real battlefield. But various tweaks, as the designers have provided using different French squad types, all represented on the two die-cut countersheets, change the basic experience of playing “the French” enough that long-time ASL players feel the difference in deploying these mostly colonial soldiers, hailing from Algeria, as opposed to the usual French soldiers seen in the game. The actions represented in the sixteen scenarios are not broad armored thrusts with impregnable tanks or dire city fights between grizzled veterans; they represent meeting engagements, surprise encounters, haphazard offensives, nighttime escapes, and foolhardy charges in tanks that move scarcely faster than men. The scenarios attempt to depict the slog of every-day fighting by unblooded soldiers learning their trade the hard way, rather than set piece battles whose names live on in history.

The production itself meets LFT’s usual high standards; they and Bounding Fire Productions consistently produce the finest in third-party ASL content. The scenarios come on double-sided, glossy but thin stock A4-size pages, and the rules and historical background books are saddle-stapled with glossy pages and a thick stock cover. The two countersheets, with color figures and vehicle depictions, show sharp registration and clean die cuts, and add new French squad types as well as additional counters for the scenarios and campaign games. The two map sheets, on thick stock paper—together roughly 33″ x 47″, or A0—are printed well, depicting the hilly, wooded area around Inor, including a canal with river barges (and, of course, rules for them). Three campaign games, with accompanying charts on the same paper as the scenarios, round out the impressive package. I might have preferred a thicker, matte stock for the scenarios, but there’s no denying that the colors pop on the pages as provided.

River Barges!

Ownership of tons of other ASL product is expected for full use of this module, which should come as no surprise to anyone who contemplates a purchase.

On the whole, this pricey but pretty presentation is worthy of study—and acquisition—by any ASL player with even a passing interest in the early war period, and frankly that should be all of them. It may be that the story of the 3eme DINA is not well known, even inside of France, but that’s not due to their efforts in The Green Hell of Inor.

Doctor Who Project: Nightmare of Eden

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Always do what you’re best at.

Nothing says Doctor Who quite like monsters running rampant on a spaceship, and Bob Baker’s “Nightmare of Eden” (Story Production Code 5K) delivers a passable, if somewhat overwrought, story where alien beasts drive the narrative forward as the main source of danger in the story while also being victims of the real villains of the piece: drug smugglers. The true nightmare from the planet Eden comes in the form of Vraxoin, a drug so addictive and lethargy-inducing that the only planet known to supply it was incinerated.

Economy Class to Azure

Baker, writing his first solo effort without his usual partner Dave Martin, revels in creating elaborate settings for his stories by means of a few choice details, and when he succeeds, as in “The Armageddon Factor” and “The Sontaran Experiment,” the world feels real without needing to be completely sketched out. Starting proceedings on the interstellar cruise liner Empress, with shots of passengers packed into economy-class seating and wearing protective garb, helps establish the story’s setting; the package tours and entitled tourists of the year 2116 could as easily have been on a chartered 747 to the Canary Islands as on a warp-drive flight to the planet Azure. A collision between the Empress and a small survey craft in the wrong orbit around Azure results in the two ships being dimensionally stuck, with the smaller craft engulfed by the larger when the liner came out of warp.

Smushed Spaceships

The Doctor and Romana arrive on the scene with no explanation and dive straight into attempting to separate the two craft, pretending initially to be agents of Galactic Salvage & Insurance. They soon meet a scientist, Tryst (Lewis Fiander), whose over-the-top German accent and square-framed glasses immediately cast him as suspect. Tryst has been collecting samples of all the flora and fauna in the galaxy using a Continuous Event Transmuter (CET), which dematerializes whole areas of planets and transfers them to laser crystals for storage, an undertaking the Doctor finds both fascinating and horrifying—mostly the latter. The primitive (to the Doctor) technology interacts poorly with the dimensional instability caused by the collision of the two ships, allowing passage into—and out of—the captured milieux.

Gateway to Eden

Between the need to free the ships from their trans-dimensional embrace, the revelation of Vraxoin being present on the Empress, and an unknown assailant who knocks out the Doctor, Baker and director Alan Bromley deliver one of the finest monster reveals in years, even better than Scarlioni’s unveiling in “City of Death,” because it comes as an actual surprise. Though signposted by a crewman who dies with claw marks on his face and neck, the sudden appearance of a large, scaly, green-eyed alien from a hole in the wall cut by K-9 nevertheless delivers as much shock as Doctor Who has provided in ages.
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