Doctor Who Project: Planet of Evil

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It’s fifteen degrees to night.

It’s for the best that Doctor Who story titles aren’t subject to truth-in-advertising laws, because Louis Marks’ “Planet of Evil” (Story Production Code 4H) would otherwise find itself hauled before the magistrate. The planet in question, Zeta Minor, “the last planet of the known universe,” does house a portal to an anti-matter dimension, whence an energy creature that kills a good score of humans over the course of four episodes originates, but there’s no actual malice or ill-intent involved. If anything, the anti-matter monster fights for good, or at least for survival, because removing any anti-matter from Zeta Minor will result in a cataclysmic explosion, destroying the universe. Like, the whole thing.

Please drop all anti-matter you might be carrying.

“Planet of Moral Utilitarianism” doesn’t make for a very pithy title, however, so “Planet of Evil” will have to suffice. The set dressing and direction do go to great lengths to create a moody, dark, and claustrophobic environment on the planet, helping to foster a sense of tension and horror reminiscent of the battlefield scenes in “Genesis of the Daleks” and the mine scenes in “The Green Death.” In order to keep the monster hidden until the obligatory revelation at the end of the first episode, though, the hapless human miners and guards killed by the creature must fall to the ground wrestling with an invisible foe; the inevitable campy gurning somewhat undercuts the desired effect of terror and malevolence.

Stop hitting yourself!

Once revealed, the anti-matter creature’s design proves to be both effective and well-conceived, the glowing red lines matting brilliantly against both the humid jungle and the later beige-and-white interior scenes. It’s hard to imagine that this is the same show that gave us the woeful animatronic Loch Ness Monster just one story prior.

The humans, from the planet Morestra, seek to harness the power of anti-matter crystals found on the planet to provide their civilization with limitless energy to replace that of their dying star. Apparently, by the year 37,166 (as dated by one of the plentiful gravestones scattered in the encampment), humanity still hasn’t figured out its energy problems; even the spaceship sent to rescue the mineralogical survey team headed by Professor Sorensen (Frederick Jaeger) has just enough fuel to reach the far-flung planet and return, leaving little in reserve should, say, an anti-matter creature decide to prevent the ship from taking off again.

Attempting to escape Zeta Minor

The Doctor and Sarah, somewhat off-course on their intended short hop from the Scottish Highlands to London, arrive in the temporal-spatial vicinity of a distress call sent by one of the miners. The TARDIS homes in on the signal, and the Doctor feels compelled to investigate, with the result that he and Sarah are poking at a desiccated body when the Morestran space patrol shows up. As is typical, they are blamed for the multitude of deaths, and over the course of the first three episodes, every time they escape from the Morestrans, they stumble upon another victim of the energy creature and are blamed for that death, too.

Our time travellers find themselves subject to much ill-treatment in this one, including one nearly-successful attempt at summary execution by being tossed into space, so much so that Sarah asks, “Do you ever get tired of being pushed around?” The Doctor has reached his limit, it seems, responding, “Frequently,” and not much later, he punches someone out.

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Doctor Who Project: Terror of the Zygons

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That, Doctor, is a kilt.

If ever a story could explain the demise of Doctor Who‘s UNIT era, Robert Banks Stewart’s “Terror of the Zygons” (Story Production Code 4F) fits the bill. This, the penultimate UNIT story, shows just how out of sync the militarism and regimentation of the Brigadier’s bunch has fallen from the frenetic energy and mordant sarcasm of the Fourth Doctor. Where UNIT’s deployment of mortars and bazookas and lots of lads shooting rifles not quite straight added to the visual excitement of the Second and Third Doctor’s adventures, here they just get in the way of the Fourth Doctor’s investigation of the Loch Ness Monster.

Benton's back

Indeed, it’s odd that most Third Doctor UNIT stories did not suffer greatly from the presence of Lethbridge-Stewart, Benton, and Yates, given that regeneration’s incredible disdain for military solutions; the Fourth Doctor, by contrast, shows no great compunction about blowing the beasties up and would seem a better fit in theory. The friction comes much more from stylistic approaches, as well as a tendency towards four episode stories in Tom Baker’s era. In “Terror of the Zygons,” Stewart’s plot spends scant enough time on the shapeshifting Zygons who have hidden in Loch Ness for hundreds of years; the inevitable padding that comes with the Brig telling Benton to call someone on the radio which then fades to location shots of UNIT troops milling about a forest just eats up valuable screen time. One can almost hear the audience groaning for the action to shift back to the Doctor. And, of course, nothing UNIT does actually changes the direction of the plot in the least.

Right from the start, the Doctor shows his irascibility at the Brigadier for summoning him back to Earth for so trifling a matter as the destruction of a few oil platforms off the Scottish coast. Only the siren song of a mystery can get this Doctor interested, and finding tooth prints of an enormous beast in the rig wreckage does the trick. Stewart does a nice job of not mentioning Loch Ness until deep into the second episode, allowing viewers to piece together the appearance of a long-necked prehistoric creature with the Scottish moorland setting before finally springing the connection.

Scarf swap

Doctor Who is often associated with this trick of using an unexplained real-world phenomenon as a plot device, elucidating the incident in the course of advancing the narrative—aliens are almost always responsible—but in truth, this technique dropped off after the first few seasons, the last instance coming in Season Five’s “The Abominable Snowmen.” In this case, the mystery might have been better left unexplained, for the Zygons use the Loch Ness monster as…a milk cow.
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Doctor Who Project: Revenge of the Cybermen

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Well, we can’t just sit here glittering, can we?

They brought the Cybermen back for this? After lying fallow for almost seven years, the silver streaks return with a thud in Gerry Davis’ “Revenge of the Cybermen” (Story Production Code 4D). Gone is the sense of unstoppable menace from their last appearance, in Season Six’s “The Invasion,” much less the existential body horror of the original Cybermen that Davis helped Kit Pedler develop back in “The Tenth Planet.” The story on offer here suffers from the same diffused focus as Davis’ last story, the visually impressive yet narratively cluttered “The Tomb of the Cybermen,” which introduced his seminal contribution to Cyberman lore, the Cybermat. A key component of this story, it is cute, cuddly, and oh so carnivorous.

Beware of the Cybermat

Following directly on from “Genesis of the Daleks,” this story sees the Doctor, Sarah, and Harry appear back on Space Station Nerva, the Season Twelve leitmotif. Only the current version of Nerva contains quite a few more dead bodies than the one they left way back at the end of “The Ark in Space.” The Doctor surmises from the technology on display that they have arrived thousands of years before their last visit, when the station was used as a cryogenic ark to safeguard humanity against solar flares. They await the arrival of the TARDIS, which is travelling through time (yet remaining static in space) to meet up with them after their Time Lord-imposed sojourn on Skaro. In the interim, they explore the now-familiar hallways, discovering that there are only three humans left from whatever fate befell the space station.

No running down this hallway.

In short order, the viewer learns that one of the survivors, Keller, has orchestrated the deaths as part of an overly-elaborate plan to lure the Cybermen to Nerva Beacon, built to warn passing spacecraft about the presence of Voga, a rogue planetoid captured by Jupiter’s gravity fifty years prior. The bait for the Cybermen turns out to be Voga itself, a planet whose copious gold reserves turned the tide of the Cyberwars some generations in the past. As the Doctor helpfully points out, the non-corrodible metal coats the breathing apparatus of Cybermen, suffocating them, and the combined forces of humanity and the Vogans used “glitter guns” to end the conflict. In the long years since, the Vogans have hidden deep within their wandering planet, in fear of the remnants of the Cyber Fleet.

One faction of Vogans, encountered by Keller during his exploration of the planet, wants to end that threat, so in exchange for gold (of course), Keller somehow contacts the ages-lost Cybermen offering the location of their arch nemesis. The Cybermen (again, somehow) send him a Cybermat with instructions to kill all but four people on the beacon. Meanwhile, the Vogan faction builds a rocket that they will use to destroy Nerva once the last remaining Cybermen are on board. And why do the Cybermen want four humans left alive? Because Cybermen don’t do manual labor, apparently—they want the humans to carry the Cyberbombs (yes, really), complete with trapped explosive harnesses, to the heart of Voga to blow it up.

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Mind the (Fulda) Gap: Less Than 60 Miles (Thin Red Line Games)

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I was minding my own business, as one does, when I saw mention of a new operational-level wargame on the Fulda Gap, one of the pivotal postulated battles of a thankfully-hypothetical World War III: Less Than 60 Miles by Italy’s Thin Red Line Games. Having a definite predilection towards operational and strategic-level WWIII games, I hesitated for all of fifteen minutes before placing an order, despite not knowing much about the game.

Thanks to the magic of globalized supply chains, less than six days later I had a copy of Less Than 60 Miles in my hands.

Less Than 60 Miles by Thin Red Line Games

The game makes a rather striking initial impression, with a single map (98×55 cm) and six full sheets of 5/8″ counters, plus charts, event cards, dice, and two booklets. The counters have a satin finish to them, what Thin Red Line calls a “plasticized” finish. It’s not unpleasant, and I imagine it will help protect the counters from the ravages of wear. The sheets show good die cut registration, but the layout puts a fair bit of text on the info counters quite near the cuts. After trimming and rounding, the counters should still have all their information, but it looks to be a close run thing.

As for the map, I’m initially uncertain. It looks like Germany from above, no question, but with the riot of terrain types within each hex, my inner UX-critic cringes. The game comes with rules indicating which terrain is to be used in each instance—a unit’s movement mode determines whether it pays the higher or lower cost of terrain in a hex—but in an operational game, that much granularity in a five kilometer wide hex feels excessive.

Less Than 60 Miles by Thin Red Line Games

Though there are a ton of counters, only one and a half sheets are units; the rest of the counters support the game’s order and unit status system. One of the designers, Fabrizio Vianello, noted SPI’s Central Front series (a favorite of mine) and NATO Division Commander as inspirations, and the pedigree of the former shines through clearly in the ability to conduct combat as part of movement and in the attrition/friction system that depicts the gradual degradation of unit capabilities. Attrition markers, as well as move mode and order status counters go under the units, so at least you don’t have to remember which unit is under that welter of status markers.

Just at first glance, it all feels a bit unwieldy. I admire the attempt to track unit status in such depth, and the commitment to an order system, requiring time for order implementation and dissemination, deserves praise. It’s not an easy concept to model, and many games hand-wave command control. Even games that pride themselves on an “order system” like MMP’s Grand Tactical System and its close sibling, Compass Games’ Company Scale System, really just use a combination of a pool of order points and a command radius within which orders can be thrown. Whether manipulating all these counters works ergonomically on the table (as opposed to digitally via VASSAL) remains to be seen.

With its focus on command, Less Than 60 Miles relegates some other wargame mechanisms into the background. Supply is a simple trace used for attrition removal only; no combat supply, ammo, and fuel tracked here. Air power likewise lacks any discrete units, being relegated to points, but it use is tied into the order system, requiring planning to use rather than the point-and-bomb system of many games, even those with individual air unit counters.

On the surface, there’s a lot to like in Less Than 60 Miles. Designers Fabrizio Vianello and Marco Cimmino have a particular focus—the order/feedback loop of modern combat—and they’ve spared little effort in distilling their vision into game form. My ergonomic quibbles aside, there’s much to appreciate in this offering, and I look forward to trying it out.

Doctor Who Project: Genesis of the Daleks

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You are mistaken. It is a Mark III Travel Machine.

After starring in nine stories over eleven seasons, the Daleks had worn their narrative carpet a little threadbare. It’s hard keep your reputation as the supreme intergalactic conquerers when you’re invariably defeated time and again by a do-gooder with a blue box and a pocket full of trinkets; and harder still to remain interesting when your vocabulary doesn’t stretch much beyond “exterminate” and its various cognates. Efforts were made in the Pertwee era to imbue the Daleks with some degree of nuance and personality, giving them a thin range of emotions stretching from pride through to fear, but in the end, they remained much as the First Doctor found them in 1963.

Dalek on the prowl

To polish up the pepperpots for a new generation, Terry Nation’s “Genesis of the Daleks” (Story Production Code 4E) sends the Fourth Doctor, Sarah, and Harry back in time, before the events of “The Daleks,” to the moment of the Daleks’ creation. While the show has revisited plots and villains before, this story marks the first instance of Doctor Who really mining its own history as the basis for a story, as well as representing one of the show’s few actual uses of the time travel conceit as something other than an easy means of changing the stage setting. Does one dare change the future by altering the past?

The latest in Time Lord fashion

The Time Lords snatch our beleaguered time travellers straight out of the transmat beam to Space Station Nerva, not even giving them a chance to change clothes after the last story before sending them back in time to Skaro, sans TARDIS. The Doctor’s mission, should he choose to accept it, is nothing less than the prevention of the Dalek threat before it has a chance to develop. Though they leave the means up to the Doctor, the Time Lords make clear that they will countenance any actions he might take in pursuit of this end. A far cry, indeed, from the Time Lords who banished the Second Doctor for his continued interference in the affairs of the universe, though charitably one can assume that his excoriation of their indifference to evil helped soften their resolve.

The Doctor sees wisdom in the idea of intervening in the Daleks’ creation, possibly by nudging their development towards less aggressive tendencies or by learning some weakness in their essential nature that will allow future generations to defeat them. And yet, in the end, the more intricate and less violent options fall by the wayside, leaving the Doctor with the simple choice: touch two wires together to blow up a nursery of tiny Daleks or allow them to take over the galaxy…

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Doctor Who Project: The Sontaran Experiment

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According to my data, you should not exist.

The pug-headed Sontarans aren’t the only ones tinkering in Bob Baker and Dave Martin’s “The Sontaran Experiment” (Story Production Code 4B). This brisk story marks the first time since the sophomore season that Doctor Who has aired a two-episode tale, and surprisingly, the abbreviated format works to some effect. It’s also the very first story to be shot entirely on location, with no studio scenes of any sort. And, alas, it’s the fifty-second story (give or take) to relegate the female companion to being captured and/or screaming a lot. The more things change…

The Sontaran's Experiments!

Baker and Martin skip over quite a bit of exposition, getting our time travellers directly into the action. No sooner have they arrived on a theoretically abandoned Earth, via transmat from Space Station Nerva—continuing where “The Ark in Space” left off—than they all split up. The Doctor sends Sarah and Harry away to let him concentrate on fixing the transmat beacons for Nerva, then Harry falls into a pit, then Sarah tries to find the Doctor for help, but he has been captured, then Harry finds a way out of the pit, then Sarah is herself captured at the pit trying to rescue Harry on her own. (Whew.) And that’s just the first twenty-five minutes. In the Troughton era, that would have taken three episodes.

Granted, there’s not much story on offer. As is tradition, “The Sontaran Experiment” still keeps the titular menace off-screen until the very end of the first episode, and the total elapsed time between the real menace of the Sontaran threat being revealed and the Doctor foiling it measures no more than seven minutes. Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor works well within these narrative constraints. His manic mien matches the madcap pace, and as a result, his incessant japes in the face of danger and his emotional non-sequiturs feel more natural, at least to the extent that is possible. As opposed to Tom Baker’s first two stories, where everyone and everything around him seemed to be moving in slow motion, here the entire mise en scène works in concert with his frenetic strengths.

Don't mind me down here!

Along the way, we learn that the far-flung human colonies mentioned in the prior story have survived, and indeed thrived, in the centuries since solar flares devastated Earth, spreading out to create an empire. That empire faces invasion from the Sontaran Empire, who, to the Doctor’s estimation, deem human space as a strategic resource in their eternal war against the Rutan. Baker and Martin’s create the illusion of depth with a subtly sketched skien of details, many of which rely on explicit knowledge of the prior story. Indeed, even the revelation of the Sontaran, Field Major Styre, at the end of the first episode hinges, for its emotional impact, on knowledge of the initial Sontaran story, “The Time Warrior,” as Sarah utters the name of the Sontaran she and Jon Pertwee’s Doctor encountered, Linx.
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