Doctor Who Project: Planet of Fire

Sure isn’t Greek.

Intent on cleaning up all loose narrative strands before Peter Davison’s imminent departure from the title role, producer John Nathan-Turner and script editor Eric Saward bring in veteran Doctor Who hand Peter Grimwade to sweep out the TARDIS cupboards in “Planet of Fire” (Story Production Code 6Q), getting rid of two companions (sort of) and introducing a new one for the forthcoming Sixth Doctor. As the originator of alien teenager Turlough (Mark Strickson), Grimwade takes the opportunity to send the intergalactic scoundrel off in style over the course of the four episode story, finally filling in his oft-teased background and even giving him a first name. Also leaving is the robot everyone forgets, including the crew of the TARDIS: Kamelion.

Kamelion, unsteadily standing

First (and last) appearing in “The King’s Demons” some six stories and nearly a year earlier, the shapeshifting android from the planet Xeriphas never once merits a mention in the interim, even when the blue box blows up in “Frontios,” ostensibly scattering the silver savant into atoms. As though making up for lost time, Kamelion returns to the screen with a literal shout, caterwauling horrendously from its room in the TARDIS while simultaneously taking over the controls, sending our time travelers to contemporary Earth (again), this time the port town of Órzola, in the north of Lanzarote in the Canary Islands, conveniently the destination for Doctor Who‘s now-annual foreign location shoot.

Mark Strickson and Peter Davison as Turlough and the Fifth Doctor, taking a beach break

The brief layover serves two purposes for Grimwade and the production team, bringing on board not just Perpugilliam Brown (Nicola Bryant)—Peri to her friends—but also a convenient stand-in for Kamelion. (The humanoid robot prop, intricate and blinking as it is, suffers from the minor fault of not being able to move and indeed scarcely being able to stand.) Peri, a headstrong American college student in her late teens or early twenties, has accompanied her archeologist step-father, Howard Foster (Dallas Adams), on a diving expedition to ancient wrecks, one such dive unearthing a curious metal cylinder bearing overlapped triangles. The cylinder emits a distress call when brought from the deep, and while Grimwade remains fuzzy on the details, the suggestion is that Kamelion homes in on the signal. On arrival, the Fifth Doctor and Turlough go looking for it, a perfect excuse to take a bit of a beach excursion—one with much nicer weather than the Doctor’s last trip to the seashore.

The Misos Triangle

Before they can triangulate the position of the signal, Peri steals the cylinder from Howard’s boat, where he abandoned her to prevent her from taking an impulsive trip to Morocco with some new English friends. Jumping overboard with the device, hoping to sell it to fund her travels, she tries to swim to shore but misjudges the strength of the current. Turlough swims out to rescue her in a scene that drags on far too long, as though they needed to justify the expense of hiring the boat and putting a camera crew in the water in the first place—though one also suspects an attempt to attract “lads and dads” via Nicola Bryant in a swimsuit. Rather than tend to her on the beach, he takes Peri into the TARDIS to recover. Woozy from her ordeal, Peri lapses into a dreamlike state, thinking of Howard’s poor treatment of her; the strong emotions pass into Kamelion, transforming the android into a replica of the archeologist, one with the ability to walk upright.

Howard Foster (Dallas Adams) and Peri (Nicola Bryant) in the TARDIS

When Turlough finds the cylinder amongst Peri’s belongings, he immediately knows, and fears, what it is: a Trion distress beacon. Grimwade begins to neatly unveil the mystery behind Turlough’s origins here, slowly parting with his secrets. After the Doctor discovers the beacon and plugs it into the TARDIS console, it shorts out; Kamelion takes over once more and sends them all to another unknown destination before popping out of a back room, pretending to be Howard Foster, who “accidentally” wandered into the unlocked police box parked carelessly on an Órzola jetty. The Doctor and Turlough leave “Howard” and Peri behind in the TARDIS to investigate where, and why, they have landed, just in time for the first episode cliffhanger, as Kamelion changes again, from archeologist to antagonist…

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Bowie Bundle: Two New ASL Products from MMP Released

As inevitable as snow in winter (well, most years), January means Winter Offensive, the East Coast’s premier Advanced Squad Leader tournament, held annually by Multi-Man Publishing in bucolic Bowie, Maryland. This year’s tourney saw the release of two new ASL products, the fifteenth edition of the Winter Offensive Bonus Pack and the somewhat uncategorizable Twilight of the Reich. Is it a core module, a sort-of-historical module, an Action Pack gone mad? It’s big, that’s for sure.

Detail of Twilight of the Reich and WO Bonus Pack 15 by MMP

Taking the simpler, but by no means unremarkable, Winter Offensive Bonus Pack #15 first, this scenario-and-map bundle comes, as ever, in a loose cellophane bag with a cover sheet depicting flame-lit street fighting in Stalingrad by Nicolás Eskubi, a tantalizing hint of the actions on offer within. Two of the four scenarios feature rather large engagements set in that ruined city, with each side cramming upwards of thirty squads each onto three deluxe boards. For yes, Bonus Pack #15 follows in the footsteps of Bonus Packs #9 and #13 by including deluxe sized maps, all on the now-standard “Starter Kit” cardstock, likely accounting for much of the $32 retail price. (All of MMP’s proceeds from this, and all the WO Bonus Packs, go to the WWII Foundation, so it’s a reasonable price by any standard.)

Component overview of WO Bonus Pack 15 by MMP

The new scenarios number WO46-WO49, with Pete Shelling supplying two of them (one of the Stalingrad actions and another US vs German tiff set in April ’45 with a trademark Shelling force purchase matrix). Tom Morin contributes the other Stalingrad scenario and Kevin Meyer brings us an action featuring the Canadians in Operation Goodwood. The back of the cover sheet provides a nice overview of the factory rules to accompany the three factory-festooned new maps (Dp/Dq/Dr). Dq and Dr are essentially a matched pair, as they split two giant factories across one of their long sides, making these some of the first “non-geomorphic” Deluxe maps, if not the first, in terms of not matching to other boards along those edges. (No, I’m not digging my Deluxe maps out to check.) It makes for a quite striking factory complex. As the kids today say, you can fit so many squads in these bad boys…

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Doctor Who Project: Resurrection of the Daleks

It seems I must mend my ways.

Given producer John Nathan-Turner’s iconoclastic approach to Doctor Who, the most surprising element of script editor Eric Saward’s “Resurrection of the Daleks” (Story Production Code 6P) is just how long it took the two of them to get around to remaking the most beloved villains in the series’ history. By Season Twenty-One in 1984, fully three and a half seasons have elapsed since Nathan-Turner took over, and in that time he brought back many an old foe, from the Silurians and the Master to Omega and the Cybermen, often giving them a harsher, less subtle, and more menacing aspect. As for the Daleks—in their first full appearance in nearly five years, since 1979’s “Destiny of the Daleks,” not counting their brief cameo in “The Five Doctors,” and the first not written by creator Terry Nation in over twelve years, since Louis Marks’ “The Day of the Daleks” from 1972—the perfidious pepperpots come out of the Nathan-Turner and Saward transmogrifier with a surprising twist: they are defeated.

The Mighty Daleks

Saward’s story draws heavily upon Nation’s “Destiny of the Daleks,” which sees the Fourth Doctor and Romana in the far future outwit, in turn, the Daleks; their new forever enemies, the robotic, disco-bead-wearing Movellans; and Davros, the latter being captured and placed in suspended animation for transport back to Earth. Some ninety years later, the war between the excessively logical rivals has ended. The Movellans introduced a virus that targets Dalek genetics, wiping out most of the mutated Kaleds and scattering the remainder to far-flung corners of the galaxy to escape its effects. Hoping to engineer a cure, the Supreme Dalek, aided by a small core of followers, turns to their creator, Davros, for help once again (as they did in “Destiny of the Daleks,” after having tried to kill him in “Genesis of the Daleks,” if anyone is keeping score).

Terry Molloy as Davros

They can’t do it alone, though, as their power has waned and their ability to think strategically has diminished. They turn instead to a band of brainwashed human duplicates, led by Lytton (Maurice Colbourne), to serve as their shock army, and also, for reasons that Saward never really tries to explain, to guard a cache of Movellan virus canisters in an abandoned London warehouse in 1984, accessed via a “time corridor” created by the Supreme Dalek’s spaceship. It’s this corridor that the TARDIS finds itself trapped in at the end of “Frontios,” and by the time the Fifth Doctor breaks free of it, the temporal-spatial momentum brings the blue box down on the banks of the Thames, right near a street where a group of armed bobbies guns down a band of escaped slaves from the Dalek ship in the story’s opening scenes.

Not quite your average bobbie.

This opening in particular, with its sense of disorientation, juxtaposing the familiar with the unexplained, sets out the stakes for the entire two part story. (To accommodate the Sarajevo Winter Olympics, the four original twenty-five minute episodes of this story were edited into two fifty minute ones, per Howe and Walker, Doctor Who: The Television Companion.) More than anything, the first few minutes call to mind the ruined London of “The Dalek Invasion of Earth,” and the shock when the usually unarmed contemporary police appear and kill in cold blood causes confusion and dismay in equal measure. Saward and Nathan-Turner intend to bring about just what the title suggests, a “resurrection” of the Daleks, returning them to their rightful place as the ominous, frightful, ruthless killers that they are. But then they take a page from the campiest of all Dalek stories, “The Chase,” and have the Doctor bundle a screeching Dalek out a window to its explosive demise…

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Doctor Who Project: Frontios

I think this joke’s gone far enough

The degree to which Doctor Who has changed since Peter Davison took on the title role can best be seen through the lens of Christopher H. Bidmead’s “Frontios” (Story Production Code 6N), given the extent to which this story, by a former series script editor during Tom Baker’s run, feels completely out of sync with the tone and tenor of the Fifth Doctor’s past two seasons. As with Bidmead’s last script, “Castrovalva,” the Fifth Doctor’s inaugural story, “Frontios” is as much about creating a deep and rich world as it is about how the Doctor deals with the narrative dilemmas created by the same. There’s little to no character development across the four episodes on offer here, no room for the Doctor or his companions to reflect or pause; every scene pushes the action forward or establishes the complex setting, filled as it is with multiple speaking guest stars and a veritable mob of extras. And that’s even before Bidmead introduces the pillbug-like Tractators, the most alien-seeming creatures since the Menoptra from “The Web Planet,” strange precisely because of their vague familiarity and slow, dance-like movements (and, like the Menoptra, played by dancers rather than actors).

Two Tractators

Everything about “Frontios” suggests grandeur, with several large, elaborate sets depicting a wrecked colony ship and an extensive tunnel system, all effectively filmed by veteran director Ron Jones to create a palpable sense of size and scope. Even the narrative setup, with the TARDIS triggering a temporal “boundary error” alarm as it enters the Veruna system in the far future, home to the sole surviving human outpost after the Earth is destroyed by its sun, bespeaks a tendency to set the stakes as high as possible. This is, to put it plainly, Fourth Doctor stuff—the last of this, the first of that, the end of the entire human species—for real this time. The Fifth Doctor has certainly confronted major crises, having averted the destruction of Earth in the 21st century just two stories before, but the scale of his confrontations has always leaned towards the intimate, the intricate. Not so “Frontios,” where the Doctor employs his words for deception and humor in a sweeping manner rather than diplomacy and empathy on an individual level.

Peter Gilmore and Jeff Rawle as Brazen and Plantagenet

A powerful gravity beam pulls the TARDIS to the site where, forty years prior, a colony ship from Earth crashed on the planet Frontios in mysterious circumstances. The Doctor wants nothing to do with the situation, emphasizing that the Time Lords forbid him to intervene with such a delicate pivot in time, but seeing people wounded by a meteorite bombardment that coincides with the blue box’s forced landing causes him to stay and help. He, Tegan, and Turlough quickly find themselves accused of helping to perpetuate an invasion of the planet, in league with the unknown force that has been saturating the colony site with space rocks for thirty years. Led by the callow Plantagenet (Jeff Rawle), son of the original expedition leader, Captain Revere, the colony teeters on the brink of extinction, with people mysteriously vanishing; eager to establish his command after the recent death of his father, the youngster prepares to have the Doctor executed, but neither the Time Lord nor the audience really notices. Bidmead, with the approval if not outright urging or instigation of producer John Nathan-Turner, goes where no story has gone before: he destroys the TARDIS…

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Doctor Who Project: The Awakening

It’s a living history.

Of all the many changes producer John Nathan-Turner brought to Doctor Who, the regular appearance of the two-episode story structure stands as one of the most successful. Forced by necessity to strip down the story to its basics, the writers for the two-part tales have consistently turned in taut, if not always coherent, narratives, and Eric Pringle’s “The Awakening” (Story Production Code 6M) stands as no exception. From the very start of the story, with a contemporary figure being menaced by Cavaliers on horseback, Pringle plays with the notions of temporal fluidity that are at the heart of Doctor Who—if the Time Lords can travel through time, so can other beings and forces, a plot device used frequently in the early days of the series but seldom evoked by the time Peter Davison dons the Fifth Doctor’s mantle.

Cavaliers on parade

The local magistrate, Sir George Hutchinson (Denis Lill) explains to the flustered schoolteacher, Jane Hampden (Polly James), that he and his fellows are merely re-enacting the events of the English Civil War, and that it’s all simply a bit of fun that the entire village has decided to participate in, except for her. Once they have simulated the final epic battle fought in village of Little Hodcombe between the Cavaliers and the Roundheads in 1643, all will go back to normal. It’s an interesting twist, as the viewer has been conditioned by the very nature of Doctor Who to accept, and indeed expect, the very real possibility that the figures had somehow appeared in 1984 from out of the past.

Denis Lill as Sir George Hutchinson

By virtue of lovely narrative happenstance, Tegan’s grandfather, the historian Andrew Verney (Frederick Hall), lives in Little Hodcombe, and the Fifth Doctor brings the TARDIS to town for a visit at the very same time as Sir George’s men are rounding up Roundhead stragglers. But instead of materializing normally, an unexpected energy field forces the blue box into the crumbling crypt of the long-abandoned local church. While heading to the village, the Doctor, Tegan, and Turlough find themselves waylaid by the wanna-be Cavaliers, who forcibly escort them to Hutchinson. The magistrate’s demeanor turns from conciliatory to vindictive once Tegan mentions her grandfather, with Sir George ordering them to be held under guard.

Peter Davison, Mark Strickson, and Janet Fielding as the Fifth Doctor, Turlough, and Tegan

Jane Hampden, along with the viewer, realizes not all is quite as it seems; the participants in the wargames, with the exception of Ben Wolsey (Glyn Houston), take proceedings with an earnestness that borders on the maniacal, treating the fighting as real. Once our time travellers inevitably escape, they split up, the better for Tegan and Turlough to get caught before the end of the first episode. The Doctor, having returned to the church, finds himself buffeted by phantom sounds of combat, then sees a roughly-clothed young man tear through a weak brick wall. Named Will Chandler (Keith Jayne), the lad is trying to escape the battle raging outside the church—in 1643. Some further narrow escapes, this time with Jane, now also on the run from Sir George, sees the three confronted, in proper end-of-episode fashion, by the source of all this confusion, the giant face of the Malus…

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Ohiofest: ASL Action Pack #18 (MMP) Released

To most people, Oktoberfest conjures up notions of Bavaria, beer halls, and bratwurst, and all fine contributions to human culture they are. To aficionados of Advanced Squad Leader, however, Oktoberfest means a week-long celebration of wargaming in some nondescript hotel in and around Cleveland, Ohio, the longest running (and arguably finest) ASL tournament going. In celebration of this carnival of camaraderie and competition, Multi-Man Publishing, stewards of ASL, just released their fifth scenario-and-map Action Pack in conjunction with ASL Oktoberfest.

Cover Detail of ASL Action Pack 18 by Multi-Man Publishing

ASL Action Pack #18: Oktoberfest XXXVII features two geomorphic mapboards (91 and 92) in the now-standard “Starter Kit” style of thick cardstock plus fourteen ASL scenarios, AP191-204, all on traditional cardstock, sandwiched between front and end sheets on glossy stock with cover art depicting a Crocodile blazing away by Nicolas Eskubi. In keeping with the general “tournament” nature of this Action Pack, the scenarios tend towards the compact, with only two clocking in at seven or more turns and three at a mere four-and-a-half turns. Unit density likewise reflects an emphasis on the manageable, and all should be playable within a six hour span, assuming reasonably punctual players.

Contents Overview of ASL Action Pack 18 by Multi-Man Publishing

The new maps, 91 and 92, hail from the talented Charlie Kibler. Board 91 is a riot of greens, with woods and brush everywhere and a long Level -1 Valley that runs the length of the map. It’s a striking board, one of the strongest in recent years. Board 92 depicts a more normal crossroads village, though curiously dominated by stone row houses more often seen in purely urban settings. Two roadside hills offer intriguing defensive opportunities.

Map Detail of ASL Action Pack 18 by Multi-Man Publishing

All fourteen scenarios were designed Pete Shelling and the late Bill Sisler, both hailing from the Buckeye State, making this an all-Ohio affair. The Germans appear on quite a few of the cards, against American, Russian, Partisan, and British opposition, with a single scenario set in the Pacific and, pleasingly, four actions taking place during the Korean War with the North Koreans facing American troops from the 1st Cavalry. The latter quartet might be considered a continuation of sorts from Action Pack #17, the entirety of which covered the actions of the First Team in World War II and the Korean War. It’s good to see MMP continuing to support the Korean War module with additional scenarios. That conflict represents the furthest extent the ASL system can really cover, chronologically, being so close to World War II as it was in terms of weapons and tactics. Hopefully more gamers will give those scenarios a try.

List of Contents of ASL Action Pack 18 by Multi-Man Publishing

My personal picks from the scenarios include AP191 East Wind by Bill Sisler, with its rarely seen Extreme Winter conditions making life miserable for Russian and German alike; Pete Shelling’s AP194 Not Fade Away, pitting a German defense on the two new boards against American infantry backed up by some Shermans; and AP204 Southside Seesaw, also by Shelling, with a thin force of North Korean defenders holding against a mass of US 1st Cavalry infantry lugging a recoilless rifle up Alpine Hills on Deluxe maps, not something you see every day. Honorable mention goes to Sisler’s AP197 Killer Cats & Easy Eights, an all-AFV affair in the snow that gives 11th Armored’s CCB a total of sixteen up-gunned Sherman variants against half as many German tanks and tank destroyers.

Scenario Detail from ASL Action Pack 18 by Multi-Man Publishing

As ever, to play it all you need to own it all when it comes to Advanced Squad Leader, and Action Pack #18 proves no exception. For the player with everything, though, or at least close enough thereunto, Action Pack #18 is yet another automatic purchase. The two new maps, particularly 91, give scenario designers even more options, and the scenarios avoid being big, tedious slugfests, the time, space, and force constraints that are inherent to “tournament” scenarios forcing players to use what they have to the best of their abilities, while still having room for a beer and another scenario right afterwards—which, if we’re honest, is the whole point of a tournament anyway…