Doctor Who Project: State of Decay

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Well, I’ve never been a great one for swarming.

For all the monsters and notionally scary moments and themes in Doctor Who, the series seldom veers into out-and-out horror. When it does, however, former script editor Terrance Dicks is usually the writer. His “State of Decay” (Series Production Code 5P) draws heavily on the trappings of Hammer horror to present a tale of ancient space vampires, visually evoking Christopher Lee’s turns as Dracula, but the resulting story winds up casting the bloodsuckers as toothless caricatures instead of fang-some foes, about as frightening as the glowing green goopy Rutan in Dicks’ last offering, “Horror of Fang Rock.”

King Zargo (William Lindsay) and Queen Camilla (Rachel Davies) Resting

The four episode story begins with much promise, even if it does retread ground from “Full Circle” in presenting a society that devolved from a crashed spaceship generations earlier. Trying to find a way out of E-Space, that sparsely populated alternate universe the TARDIS accidentally entered in the prior story, our Time Lords (plus stowaway) land on an unnamed planet with evidence of both high technology and minimal energy output, all focused around a tower and a village. The rulers of the planet, King Zargo (William Lindsay) and Queen Camilla (Rachel Davies), exert complete control over the small rural populace, aided by their councillor, Aukon (Emrys James). Festooned with elaborate facial makeup, the three Lords exert a strange power over their people. Throw in a prohibition on any form of knowledge amongst the peasantry that is quickly subverted when one villager surreptitiously pulls out a radio communicator, and a real sense of mystery begins to unfold.

The Fourth Doctor explains how to use a computer

Horror, after all, relies on a slow drip of fear and uncertainty, and Doctor Who‘s tendency to gradually unveil the monster or threat fits that model nicely, but the first two episodes give themselves over to broad exposition instead, diluting any tension the setting has developed. Dicks takes pains to establish the social structure, with peasants being selected regularly to go to the Tower, where the lucky become guards—and the unlucky are never seen again. In due course, the Fourth Doctor and Romana are captured by rebels who have discovered some technology, leading the Doctor to unpack the origins of the civilization on an ancient computer monitor: an exploratory spaceship from 1990s Earth that was pulled into E-Space over a thousand years prior.

Crew Roster of the Hydrax

The leaders of that spaceship—Captain Sharkey, Navigator MacMillan, and Science Officer O’Connor—look remarkably like Zargo, Camilla, and Aukon, and rather than some grand revelation that they are one and the same, alive for a thousand years as the living dead, the Doctor and Romana instead take a few minutes to discuss folklorist Jacob Grimm’s theory of consonantal shift and theorize that the name MacMillan softened over time to become Camilla and so on. Sociolinguistics, in a vampire story. Though fascinating in a real sense, it’s only marginally less exciting than the Adric trying, and failing, to steal food again…
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Deluxe Delivery: Winter Offensive 2022 Bonus Pack #13 (MMP) Released

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Though Winter Offensive, the East Coast’s premier Advanced Squad Leader tournament, was cancelled for the second year running, that didn’t stop hosts Multi-Man Publishing from releasing Winter Offensive Bonus Pack #13, the latest installment in their annual small bagged scenario-and-map series issued in conjunction with the tournament. As with the tournament proper the last several years, proceeds from the Bonus Pack go towards the WWII Foundation, a charitable organization dear to MMP, one which produces films and educational resources supporting their mission of keeping the history and lessons of World War II alive for a new generation.

Closeup of Winter Offensive Bonus Pack #13 Cover Sheet with art by Nicolás Eskubi

The Bonus Pack this year retails at US$28 and contains a cover sheet with art by Nicolás Eskubi; three Deluxe maps in the now-standard “Starter Kit” thickness, maps m, n, and o, designed by Don Petros and Tom Repetti, with art by the inestimable Charlie Kibler; and four scenarios on cardstock by Pete Shelling.

Map m provides an unpaved road running through an extensive orchard and alongside grain fields, while maps n and o abut to form a large hill mass with crags and a multi-level stream. The latter maps call to mind those in Action Pack #17, which likewise form a substantial, craggy hill when placed together lengthwise.

Contents of Winter Offensive Bonus Pack #13 by Multi-Man Publishing

Massive hill structures such as those are a hallmark of Korean War scenarios, and designer Pete Shelling brings us two scenarios set in Korea in Bonus Pack #13. WO41 7-10 Split pits North and South Korean forces against each other, using the map n and o hills to form a valley, with another map between them; and WO42 Spartan Style sees Greek UN forces defending the combined hill mass against nearly thirty Communist Chinese squads.

Detail of WO42 Spartan Style scenario card

The other two scenarios in the pack feature US Marines and Japanese forces slugging it out on Saipan (WO39 Shotgun Shuffle) and Iwo Jima (WO40 One Smart Bastard). Notably, both scenarios are full of squads in a very small space, as most of the best Deluxe scenarios tend to feature. WO40 in particular stuffs twenty Marine and fifteen Japanese squads, plus tanks and caves and guns, into fewer hexes than a single standard map.

Detail of WO40 One Smart Bastard scenario card

Subtle, these scenarios are not, but that’s not to say they are big and dumb; working with such densely packed forces adds a new dimension to Advanced Squad Leader, and I can see one or two of the scenarios here cutting in line in my play queue in the near future.

Other than Forgotten War, Rising Sun (or Call of Bushido/Gung Ho), Yanks, and Beyond Valor, Deluxe maps h, k, and l, plus Deluxe overlays dx6, dx7, and dx9 are required to play all four scenarios.

Some players may be turned off by the Deluxe maps, which never quite seem to be very popular, and the inclusion of two Korean War scenarios likewise feels a bit daring on MMP’s part, but all four actions depicted in the scenarios are fresh and fascinating. There are plenty of scenarios out there set in Europe with familiar foes on standard maps, many of which do little to distinguish themselves from each other; you’d be hard pressed to forget assaulting a cave complex on a Deluxe map with a flamethrower tank…

Doctor Who Project: Full Circle

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I think I pulled the wrong lever.

By the time “Full Circle” (Story Production Code 5R) first aired in late 1980, Doctor Who had been on the air for nearly seventeen years, enough time for a generation that grew up with the show to start participating in its creation. First time writer Andrew Smith (scarcely 18 at the time) and Matthew Waterhouse (nearly 19), as new companion Adric, both fit into this category, bringing an infusion of youthful, fannish vigor that dovetails with producer John Nathan Turner’s frenetic new vision for the series. The resulting four episode tale, however, with its copious technobabble, extended scenes in a laboratory, establishment of a multi-story plot line, and overall lack of an “actual” villain, feels more like an early Third Doctor tale than a late Fourth Doctor tale—and that’s not a bad thing.

The Fourth Doctor and Romana on Alzarius

The Doctor has always been a scientist at heart; for all the complaints about the Sonic Screwdriver and K-9 serving as easy plot devices to get our heroes out of any quandary, his inexhaustible store of technical and scientific knowledge saves the day far more often than the random contents of his pockets. Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor leans into this aspect of the Doctor more than any other, so to have Tom Baker’s action-focused Fourth Doctor resolve a story’s basic conundrum by peering into a microscope rather than reversing a generator’s polarity or tricking a callow warlord into blowing up his own base provides a very refreshing callback, reflective, possibly, of Andrew Smith’s own experience of the Third Doctor’s exploits. At the very least, it’s reasonable to assume that he had seen far more Doctor Who than almost any other writer for the series.

The Fourth Doctor doing the science

“Full Circle” fits firmly that sub-genre of Doctor Who stories where the “monster” is just misunderstood, where blind obedience to an unthinking system serves as the real foe, and, crucially, where the resolution of the problem on offer is to realize it’s not actually a problem to be solved at all. Such stories require a deft hand at world-building and a nuanced approach to the various factions working at cross purposes, traits not often associated with John Nathan-Turner era stories, and the final product features far more running around corridors and incessant action sequences of stunt-men in latex suits flailing away with sticks than, say, “Doctor Who and the Silurians,” “The Ark,” or “The Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Eve,” all of which inform “Full Circle,” even if at something of a remove. The core concept is there, though, of the Doctor seeing through surface level appearances, coming to understand the multi-generational cycle at work, and realizing the possible extents of co-existence; the best, and sometimes only, solution is to leave well enough alone, or failing that, to just leave.

The TARDIS passing through the charged vacuum emboitement

The Doctor and Romana are themselves stuck, unable to leave E-Space, a problem that will persist for several stories running and form a loose through-line. The TARDIS arrives, confusingly, on the planet Alzarius instead of Gallifrey after encountering some space-time turbulence. The coordinates are correct for the Time Lords’ home planet—10-0-11-0-0 by 0-2—but they are negative coordinates instead of positive coordinates, an impossibility that can only be explained by the TARDIS having passed through a “charged vacuum emboitement” that pushed it into an Exo Space-Time Continuum. So instead of returning Romana to Gallifrey, whence she was summoned at the end of “Meglos,” they find themselves in a completely different universe, right at the pivotal point where a precocious maths student is about to purloin precious river fruit…

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From Rome to Russia: Hollow Legions Second Edition (MMP) Released

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Ever since Multi-Man Publishing took over from Avalon Hill as caretakers and publishers of Advanced Squad Leader, they have been steadily updating and reprinting the core modules that form the heart of the World War II tactical wargame system, polishing the scenarios and counter art to more contemporary standards. Finally, the last of the original modules has been refreshed with the recent release of Hollow Legions (Second Edition), returning the Italians to print after their initial appearance some thirty years prior. In fairness to MMP, it’s not like the original printing sold out all that quickly, but it’s good to have these dark grey combatants back in the fold all the same.

Hollow Legions Second Edition (MMP) Overview

Where the original Hollow Legions came as a simple, thin slipcase box with two geomorphic desert mapboards (30 and 31), eight Italian-themed scenarios, and the Italian order of battle on three countersheets, the revised Hollow Legions comes in a massive box, in line with the other recent core module releases. Inside the box, one finds the entire array of desert maps, in the “new” thin mapboard style (25-31, plus 25e), a whopping fifty-three scenarios on cardstock, five countersheets, all the desert map overlays, an updated Chapter F containing the desert rules for ASL, the Italian Chapter H vehicle/ordnance notes, and new Chapter A rulebook pages to account for the official addition of the Ethiopians and Eritreans to the system. It is a handsome and heavy addition to the shelf.

Vehicle Dust Counters from Hollow Legions Second Edition (MMP)

Previously, the desert rules and overlays, and the majority of the desert maps, came in West of Alamein, the British/Commonwealth module, but they were stripped out of For King and Country, the revised version of WoA. But while the new Hollow Legions certainly has a strong desert focus, most of the scenarios feature more standard actions. Following recent practice, MMP has gathered together the majority of official scenarios involving the Italians into this module, drawing from out-of-print sources. The scenarios show the breadth of Italian involvement in World War II from Rome to Russia and, thanks to the inclusion of the scenarios and counters from Soldiers of the Negus, the Italian invasion and conquest of Ethiopia in the mid-1930s.

Rulebook detail from Hollow Legions Second Edition (MMP)

It’s the official version of Soldiers of the Negus, originally a third-party expansion from 1994 featuring the Ethiopians variously in combat with the Eritreans and the Italians, that really stands out in this new edition of Hollow Legions. Just a few special rules give the Ethiopians a very different feel in play from other nationalities, and the scenarios provide a real sense of the desperate fighting as the Italians overran their empire. The Ethiopians and Eritreans both get counters for their orders of battle, the Ethiopians in Allied Minor green and the Eritreans in Italian grey to facilitate use with the corresponding concealment counters.

Eritrean and Ethiopian Counters from Hollow Legions Second Edition (MMP)

The other standout addition to the new Hollow Legions is the additional version of Board 25 with the board-length escarpment overlay already printed on it, designated Board 25e. Though not many scenarios actually bring the massive escarpment, with its confusing welter of cliffs and gullies and crags, into play, it’s a welcome addition all the same.

While the module’s title plays off of sadly widespread beliefs about the efficacy of Italian troops in World War II, the module’s contents demonstrate that while they may have poorly led and equipped, they were no less capable of bravery and honorable feats of arms than soldiers of any other nationality. The scenarios in Hollow Legions (Second Edition) cover the experience of the Italian Army from their vicious conquest of Ethiopia, the wide-open fighting in North Africa, the horrendous sacrifices on the East Front, the steady retreat up the Italian peninsula, and the eventual resistance to German occupation near the war’s end. Ownership of, essentially, every other Advanced Squad Leader module is required for full use of the new Hollow Legions, but there’s enough in the box to recommend it to anyone who plays.

Doctor Who Project: Meglos

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That could have been me.

If “The Leisure Hive” signals new producer John Nathan-Turner’s intention to change Doctor Who into a snappier and more modern show, “Meglos” (Series Production Code 5Q), by series newcomers John Flanagan and Andrew McCulloch, takes the transformation to its logical extreme, nearly writing the Doctor out of his own series. By the time filming commenced on “Meglos,” out of broadcast order mid-way through the Season Eighteen production block, Tom Baker’s departure was all but confirmed, and though the shocking lack of focus on the Doctor in the story was likely coincidental, given the neophytes behind the script, it demonstrates Nathan-Turner comfortability sweeping away as much of his predecessors’ legacy as possible, star included.

Which is not to say that “Meglos” lacks focus on Tom Baker, who gets to play both the Fourth Doctor and a cactus.

My name is Meglos!

Indeed, it is Baker’s double billing as the Doctor and as the title character, Meglos, the last survivor of the desert planet Zolfa-Thura (and, yes, a cactus), that enables him to claim as much of the screen as he does against a wide range of guest stars who hold court in their own right, most notably Jacqueline Hill, returning to Doctor Who some fifteen years after last appearance as Barbara in “The Chase.” She features as Lexa, high priestess of Ti, who oversees the Dodecahedron, a mysterious twelve-sided stone worshipped by the Tigellans living beneath the surface of their planet, located in the same solar system as Zolfa-Thura.

Jacqueline Hill as Lexa

The Dodecahedron serves as the MacGuffin in the story, a boulder-sized polyhedron of unknown provenance providing all the energy needed to maintain the underground city. The Tigellan Savants harness its power but are not allowed to examine it, as the servants of Ti believe it to be a gift from their god. Its energy output has been fluctuating, though, so Zastor (Edward Underdown), the nominal leader of Tigella, invites the Doctor—conveniently an old friend who just happens to be in the right spatial and temporal neighborhood—to help solve the problem.

Meglos-Doctor and the Dodecahedron

Simultaneously, Meglos has summoned a band of interstellar freebooters led by General Grugger (Bill Fraser) and Lieutenant Brotadac (Frederick Treves) to his lair beneath the Screens of Zolfa-Thura, a set of pentagonal metal barriers that are the sole surviving structures on the long-abandoned planet. They have been tasked with providing an “earthling” (Christopher Owen) for the cactus to transfer his essence into, legs apparently providing more mobility than a planter. Armed with appendages, Meglos sets about with his real goal of purloining the Dodecahedron, which turns out to be a power source created on Zolfa-Thura some ten thousand years prior and capable of producing enough energy to vaporize planets when properly harnessed. And to gain access to the Tigellan city, all Meglos needs to do is get the real Doctor out of the way and impersonate him, assuming no one notices the spines…
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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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