Doctor Who Project: The Mutants

Doctor Who Project: The Mutants
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I’m not sure I like being described as a malfunction.

Though Doctor Who has always been a product of its times, seldom do contemporary events drive the story quite like in Bob Baker and Dave Martin’s “The Mutants” (Story Production Code NNN). Here, the United Kingdom’s colonial enterprise (or, more accurately, said enterprise’s haphazard and messy unravelling) serves as the plot foundation for this tale of human meddling in cultures and ecosystems they do not understand, mirroring the UK’s real-life disengagement with colonies throughout Africa, Asia and the Pacific. But, as with Baker and Martin’s prior effort, “The Claws of Axos,” a broad commentary on the energy crisis, there’s still quite a bit of room for derring-do beyond the central parable of segregation, colonialism, and the drive for independence.

Two sets of entrances

Once more, the Time Lords send the Doctor on an errand, whisking him and Jo via remote-controlled TARDIS to Skybase, a space station in orbit around the planet Solos operated by the Earth Empire of the 30th century. He is to deliver a biometrically sealed container to someone on the station; awkwardly, it doesn’t come with an address label, leading the Doctor to try to hand it off to various people until it unlocks. With typically impeccable timing, the container whirrs open when presented to Ky, a native of Solos who has been agitating for independence from Earth—and who is running from guards, having just been implicated in the assassination of the Earth Administrator about to grant his wish.

You see, the Marshal, head of security on Skybase, is an old colonial hand facing the loss of his job. “We can’t afford an empire any more,” proclaims the Administrator shortly before his death. After centuries of expansion, the Earth Empire has begun its decline, explicitly linked by the Doctor to the fall of the Roman Empire. Unwilling to give up the only life he knows—and, to a great extent, unquestioningly believing in the superiority of Earth over its colonial subjects—the Marshal orchestrates the Administrator’s murder as a pretext to declare martial law, which will allow him to complete the transformation of Solos’ atmosphere into an Earth-normal state, a process coincidentally fatal to the native humanoid Solonians, who have toiled for five hundred years in the planet’s thesium mines.

The titular mutant

But if that weren’t enough, the Solonians have been turning into “mutts,” the titular mutants. Their skin begins to coarsen into a thick green carapace, and they eventually turn into bipedal insects. The Marshal hunts them down with glee to prevent their “sickness” from spreading, despite the fact that no Earthers are ever affected by whatever is causing the mutations and that the mutants all gather in a single cave on the planet, waiting for something. He sees their otherness as evil, to be destroyed.

Humans are the monsters again in this story; as with many stories in the Third Doctor’s era, the monsters serve as victims, misunderstood at best and exterminated at worst. In “The Mutants,” colonialism and its attendant prejudices drive the oppression against the Solonians in both their humanoid forms and their insectoid forms. It’s up to the Doctor to realize that there’s a third form…

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WashingCon 2017 After Action Report

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The third time, as they often say, is the charm. WashingCon, Washington, DC’s premier gaming convention, has come and gone again, an agreeable and essential ritual on the local gaming calendar. The convention, started in 2015, no longer takes place in a small church hall playing host to a hundred or so people. And yet, even as it has reached its third year, with nearly a thousand attendees and the space to hold them all comfortably, it retains that personal touch, thanks in no small part to the organizers and volunteers, including the owner and staff of the District’s finest local game store, Labyrinth Games. It is, bar none, the friendliest and most welcoming game convention I’ve ever had the pleasure of attending.

For this, my third WashingCon, I attended with good gaming buddies Doug Bush and Joe Jackson, as well as Joe’s son. We started with a pair of matches of Quartermaster General 1914, a light Euro/wargame mash-up on World War One in Europe from PSC Games. It’s mostly a card management game with a well-integrated theme, using an ever-dwindling supply of cards to both drive the action and as a resource to pay for those actions.

Quartermaster General 1914 at WashingCon 2017

As an engine for understanding history, the game doesn’t quite deliver—one match wound up with an Austro-Hungarian fantasy outcome, the other with the Ottomans rampant across much of the Mediterranean—but accurate historical simulation isn’t promised on the tin. As a quick playing game that came down to the wire in both of our matches, Quartermaster General 1914 provides an agreeable experience that’s easy to learn and with more nuance than the iffy plastic bits portend.

Next up, Doug unveiled one of the prides of his game collection, the third edition of High Frontier, Phil Eklund’s (in)famous game of space exploration. Lavishly produced, this edition stopped many passers-by in their tracks. Those who knew the game tended towards amazement at actually seeing it get played; those unfamiliar with its Hohmann Pivots, Lagrange Points, and solar winds tended towards amazement that anyone could decipher the board.

High Frontier Third Edition at WashingCon 2017

And, in truth, it takes a lot of staring before one can really begin to read the map’s secrets. Though there’s definitely a game here, I tend to see High Frontier as closer to an experience, since just figuring out how to get a rocket off of Earth, let alone giving it enough fuel to traverse the gravity wells of other planets, becomes a triumph in and of itself, regardless of what everyone else at the table is doing. I managed to colonize Mercury and set up a factory on the Moon by the end, but I think Joe’s son took to it the most. By the end of the session, he was flinging a well-constructed space probe around Saturn’s rings and moons with rather some skill. And thanks to WashingCon’s absurdly generous game giveaway this weekend, he even took home a copy for himself.

The evening rounded out in a very odd playthrough of Battlestar Galactica with two of Doug’s acquaintances in attendance. The Cylon raiders left the humans alone for several jumps, leading to the inevitable in-fighting amongst the humans (and non-revealed Cylons). By the time all three Cylons were revealed (thanks to the sympathizer rules for six player games), the humans began to lose hope, but they (we, I should say, since I was no toaster!) came within one jump of winning. I find Battlestar Galactica to be a game that I really enjoy playing, but only every so often. Once or twice a year, with the right group, feels just about sufficient, and this group was great, with precisely the right level of recrimination at the end.

Day two of WashingCon was a short one for us, but Doug and I revisited World War One with the recently released Illusions of Glory from GMT Games. As the name suggests, Illusions of Glory is a card-driven, point-to-point treatment in the vein of the venerable Paths of Glory. This game covers the fighting in the East, with the Russians, Serbs, and Montenegrins fighting the Austro-Hungarians, Germans, and Ottomans.

Illusions of Glory at WashingCon 2017

It’s pretty standard card-driven gaming fare, but that doesn’t make it any less interesting, and there are nice rules wrinkles to add a bit of piquancy. We only played about five turns of the full campaign (so into Spring of 1915), but it was enough for the Germans to take Warsaw, and my plucky Montenegrins held out in their redoubt at Cetinje. This one will definitely hit the table again for the entire campaign game.

My thanks to Doug, Joe, and his son for a really solid weekend of gaming. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t extend my appreciation to the entire staff of WashingCon for their efforts. This fine city of ours had long needed a gaming convention, and when WashingCon came on the scene, they provided more than a place for us to play games for a day or two. They created a community.

Now if only they could open the main gaming room earlier in the day on Sunday for those of us who overnight at the convention site, it would be perfect…

Doctor Who Project: The Sea Devils

Doctor Who Project: The Sea Devils
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Ships vanishing. Makes you think, doesn’t it?

As nice as it is to see Roger Delgado return as the Master, this renegade Time Lord’s appearance in Malcolm Hulke’s “The Sea Devils” (Story Production Code LLL) adds about as much to the story as the Daleks did for “Day of the Daleks” earlier this season—which is to say, narrative padding at best. But where the Daleks were shoehorned into an otherwise tight four episode story, here the Master occupies prime plot real estate for much of six episodes, leaving the titular aquatic Silurians with little room to hiss their sibilant demands.

The Master and Friends

Hulke’s original foray with his Silurians, in the somewhat unoriginally titled “Doctor Who and the Silurians,” provided ample dimension to the prehistoric rulers of Earth, with clearly defined personalities (and conflicts) within their ranks that drove much of the story. Here, their waterborne cousins have no names and even less nuance, seeming dimwitted and easily manipulated by the Master, as well as in need of a tailor to spruce up those blue net coveralls.

Perhaps it’s better, then, to see this as a Master story that draws upon an established series creature, like “Terror of the Autons,” rather than a story about the Sea Devils, awakened from their eons-long slumber by Royal Navy sonar tests. The incessant need to pair the Master with another monster/alien/villain, though, points out that this rightly beloved character lacks any actual depth beyond a desire to further his pet project, namely the destruction of the Doctor’s favorite planet, Earth. Only once, in “The Mind of Evil,” has the Master actually tried to carry out a plot of world domination and/or destruction without piggybacking on another attempt at the same, and even then he used an alien mental parasite to conduct most of his dirty work. The Master needs monsters like the Doctor needs companions.

Behold the Sea Devil in the Surf

What’s more disappointing, though, is that the initial Silurian story helped define the Third Doctor’s fundamental character arc: the Brigadier’s destruction of the Silurian cave complex devastated the Doctor more than any other event we had, to that point, see him live through, a trauma made all the more compelling by the development of the Silurians as a multifaceted culture. The Third Doctor trusts humans only warily as a result, seeing them as well-armed children, casting him as more alien than the prior two Doctors.

The Silurians/Sea Devils represent an important civilization in the world of Doctor Who. Coming on the heels of Brian Hayles’ volte-face with the Ice Warriors as diplomats in “The Curse of Peladon,” the Sea Devils’ downgrade to one-dimensional bit players becomes even harder to take. But, on the plus side, we do learn that Jo knows how to pilot a hovercraft…

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Sino-Vietnamese Showdown: The Battle of South Caobang and Red Dragon Storm (Kuro Neko Design Workshop)

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My wargaming tastes have always tended towards the esoteric and the obscure. The world doesn’t need another game on D-Day or Waterloo. I’m far more interested in conflicts that have seldom been simulated via wargames, to enable me to learn something new and because such games tend to introduce fresh and intriguing approaches to conflict simulation itself, in order to more accurately model the novel situation at hand.

So I was quite pleased when I learned of not one but two recent games on a decidedly overlooked conflict (in the West, at least): the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War, also called the Third Indochina War and, by the Chinese, the Self-Defense Counterattack. These two games, The Battle of South Caobang and Red Dragon Storm, both come from Shanghai-based publisher Kuro Neko Design Workshop (Chinese online forum here; no English website).

Red Dragon Storm and The Battle of South Caobang

After some e-mail back-and-forth with the publisher, I received both games about ten days later, from Shanghai to Washington, DC, with a stop at a transhipper near New York City. They both come with die cut mounted counters, glossy thick stock paper maps, and (perhaps most importantly for me) English rulebooks and charts, produced to the same quality as the Chinese rulebooks. The translations are perhaps a bit rough in places, but wargaming tends towards a universal language, so the intent is almost always clear—and I certainly appreciate the effort, for my Shanghainese is, shall we say, rusty.

The presentation for both games sits on par with that of contemporary American conflict simulation publishers. I would prefer slightly thicker counter stock, but it’s better than that found in most magazine games, and the die cutting itself is razor accurate, which I can’t always say about the major domestic publishers here.

Red Dragon Storm comes in a ziplock bag and seems a fairly straightforward, two countersheet, area movement game covering the entire war for either two or three players, divided between the defending Vietnamese player and two Chinese Military Regions. If playing with two, both players control one of the Chinese forces and half the Vietnamese forces, which feels like a rather elegant system. Thick stock cards (with provided English translations) help drive some of the play, and it seems designed to be completed in one sitting.

The Battle of South Caobang

The real prize is The Battle of South Caobang, the first of five planned grand tactical/operational games on the war, with two glossy hex maps, five countersheets, player aids, a book of pictures from the conflict, English and Chinese rules, and even a rubber-banded pack of ziplock baggies for the counters and two different colored d10s, à la GMT Games.

It’s a handsome boxed package, and the game system itself looks intriguing, taking into account the almost asymmetrical nature of the conflict, with detailed supply rules for the Chinese (who were logistically stretched to the limit from the start of the war) and the Vietnamese ability to create militia units anywhere on the map to block supply lines, representing the difficulty the Chinese had in pinning down Vietnamese units. Ten scenarios are included, one of which supports solitaire play. The English rules have been posted on Boardgamegeek for those interested in taking a look.

Though I haven’t had a chance to get either on the table yet, I’m more than pleased with these two games on a fascinating subject, and they’re staking a claim to the top of the “to play” pile. Red Dragon Storm and The Battle of South Caobang make a welcome addition to my library and serve as a stunning debut from Kuro Neko Design Workshop.

Thirteenth Doctor Announced: Jodie Whittaker Takes the TARDIS Key

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The BBC announced the identity of the Thirteenth Doctor today, unveiling English actor Jodie Whittaker as the latest regeneration of our favorite time traveller.

Jodie Whittaker is the Thirteenth Doctor; screencap via http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p058vj2q

As the first woman to inhabit the title role in Doctor Who, Whittaker will undoubtedly come in for much scrutiny, but such retrograde hemming and hawing is par for the well-travelled course. Every change of actor has come with doomsayers, and yet these changes are at the heart(s) of the show.

The Doctor’s only real constant should be an old soul; all else remains quite mutable. Sometimes lost in discourses about the Doctor’s identity is the simple fact of his/her alienness. The Doctor is not human, not familiar, not normal, and every change of actor in the role should cause a bit of discomfort when compared to the prior actors. Certainly moving from an irascible male Scottish actor with significant eyebrows to a female English actor with blond hair provides that vital hint of dissonance that makes the show work.

I’m looking forward to seeing how Whittaker performs in the role, and I hope that the scripts for the forthcoming season treat the transformation with wit and verve and use the enormity of the change to drive the series forward.

(Image via BBC.)

Doctor Who Project: The Curse of Peladon

Doctor Who Project: The Curse of Peladon
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Your legend seems violent and unpleasant, and rather too convenient.

The originators of Doctor Who‘s most iconic foes tend to be a bit protective of them (see: Nation, Terry, et al.), making Brian Hayles’ use of his Ice Warriors in “The Curse of Peladon” (Story Production Code MMM) quite refreshing. The Martian militarists’ prior two appearances (“The Ice Warriors” and “The Seeds of Death“) established them as honor-bound but utterly ruthless in their warlike tendencies. Here, in a story set in some vaguely defined far-future where Earth is part of a Galactic Federation, they retain their honorable mores but have committed themselves to…peace?

The Ice Warrior delegation to Peladon

Just so, and the tension between the audience’s expectations that the Ice Warriors will turn out to be the villains in this piece about court intrigues on a primitive planet and their actual motives drives much of the story’s interest. The Doctor himself sustains this uncertainty, darkly warning Jo that he’s dealt with them before, and he flatly accuses Delegate Izlyr of sabotaging the Federation’s efforts at bringing the planet Peladon into the alliance. It’s unlike the Doctor to be wrong like this, and to his credit Hayles never quite allows the Ice Warriors to escape beyond suspicion even after the real foes have been revealed, keeping this four episode story flowing.

Taming the Aggedor

And yet even at the end, the Doctor is never called to task for having mistrusted the Ice Warriors. It’s particularly interesting that the Doctor cannot see past his own admittedly well-earned prejudices where the Martians are concerned in the same story where he seeks to hypnotize and tame a giant beast that has haunted this planet for generations, one that slips out of his control and kills the High Priest of Peladon.

He has more faith in the inherent innocence of this vicious beast than in the possibility that the Ice Warriors could have changed over hundreds (or thousands) of years. Ever since the end of “The War Games,” the Doctor’s attitude towards his traditional foes has been stuck in a rut, where there’s no room for analysis or question; they’re just evil, an evil that must be removed from the universe. Slightly awkward, then, that here the Ice Warriors save the Doctor from disintegration at the hands (er, liquid-filled servo-arms) of a Dalek wannabe.

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Doctor Who Project: Day of the Daleks

Doctor Who Project: Day of the Daleks
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Changing history is a very fanatical idea, you know.

For a show ostensibly about time travel, Doctor Who features very few stories actually about time travel. Louis Marks’ Season Nine opener, “Day of the Daleks” (Series Production Code KKK), tries to explore the paradoxical intricacies of altering history but, oddly, is kept from doing so by the lead villains, who make a rather flat return after nearly five years’ absence from the screen. For this story, about a ragtag band of guerrilla fighters in 22nd Century Earth travelling back in time to stop World War III from breaking out in the 20th Century, would have worked better without the Daleks at all.

Behold the gold Dalek

UNIT summons the Doctor and Jo to investigate the strange appearance (and disappearance) of an armed intruder in the home of Sir Reginald Styles, a British diplomat attempting to broker a peace between China, the UK, and the rest of a world on the brink of all-out war. When the would-be assassin is later found injured in a nearby tunnel, the Doctor surmises that he’s from Earth’s future, armed as he is with a disintegrator gun, made with Welsh-mined metals, and a crude form of time machine. This conjecture is confirmed when the assailant’s accomplices show up and capture the Doctor and Jo, who have lain in wait for them in Style’s study (after helping themselves to the diplomat’s well-stocked larder and wine cellar).

Be very afraid. We're from the future!

Through a series of misadventures—and Jo’s on-again, off-again skill with “escapology”—both the Doctor and Jo separately wind up in the 22nd Century, Jo in the custody of the Dalek-led human government and the Doctor with the guerrillas who are, it turns out, fighting against the Dalek regime. And what horrible fate awaits Jo at the hands of her captors? She’s offered grapes and wine and the promise of a feast. The Daleks have really lost their touch…

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