Odds are good in Doctor Who that the robot did it. And if the robot is a butler, as in Chris Boucher’s “The Robots of Death” (Story Production Code 4R), then there’s no question who the murderer will be. Though the title sort of gives it away, too.
Boucher’s second story, following “The Face of Evil” just prior, even manages the neat trick of keeping the real villain hidden until the third of four episodes, sadly with the unfortunate side effect that the events of the first three segments serve mostly as action-flavored filler.
After the Doctor gives Leela an impromptu lesson on trans-dimensional engineering, the TARDIS materializes inside an enormous ground vehicle, a sand miner crawling across a forbidding desert landscape in search of zelanite, a rare and valuable mineral. Staffed predominantly by robots, with a small, coddled human crew to oversee them, the miner has been trawling these wastes for eight mostly uneventful months, but the moment the TARDIS arrives, one of the human crew is murdered.
There’s no mystery in it—veteran director Michael Briant films the attack from the robot’s blurry point of view. Given the establishing scenes of the crew discussing how utterly impossible it would be for a robot to harm a human, cribbing from Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, the story’s primary question becomes how the robot was able to kill one of the human crew. The violation of this prime directive would mean the end of their civilization, dependent as it is on robot labor for most of its functioning.
Boucher and the production team go to great lengths to sketch out a decadent human culture primarily concerned with the acquisition of wealth and prestige. Surrounded by opulence and art, the crew dons unwieldy headgear when performing their assigned tasks on this two year expedition, the symbols of their individual status and position never far from hand—or head. Even when alerted to a murder, the commander of the miner, Ulanov (Russell Hunter), insists that they continue pursuing a rich zelanite deposit before focusing on the fact that someone in their isolated environment has evil intent. He’d sooner return to base with full ore tanks than a full crew, and he almost gets his wish…
Forty years on, it’s easy to forget that the Cold War trended hot in China in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The beginning of 1979 saw the Sino-Vietnamese War, a Chinese invasion of Vietnam ostensibly in response to the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia. Though relatively brief in terms of actual fighting, the political ramifications of the conflict lasted for years and raised the specter of a clash between the Soviet Union—Vietnam’s erstwhile benefactor—and China.
Having already published one game on a potential Sino-Soviet conflict in 1974’s The East is Red, the fervid design and development team at SPI revisited the concept in 1979 in light of contemporary developments, coming out with The China War. Far more than a remake of the earlier game, The China War attempts to model the state of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) after the end of the Cultural Revolution and with regard to its performance in the Sino-Vietnamese War, with the aim of envisioning what a war between the Soviet Union and China might look like. The resulting game is not quite subtle, but then neither would the conflict have been.
The China War: Sino-Soviet Conflict in the 1980s
Simulations Publications Inc. (SPI), 1979 Strategy & Tactics 76
Designed by Brad Hessel
The China War saw publication in two forms, as an issue game in Strategy & Tactics 76 (September/October 1979) and in a boxed format, a not-unusual publication approach for SPI’s magazine games at the time. The game comes with a single die-cut countersheet of 200 back printed half-inch counters with a matte finish and a single matte map that, in the magazine version at least, comes in slightly smaller than standard at 21.75 by 32.5 inches. The boxed version includes the rules and accompanying magazine article from S&T as separately staple-bound booklets.
Units are either Armies or Divisions, with the Chinese Armies equal in size to Corps in Western military parlance. The counters display particular unit types using standard NATO symbology. Surprisingly, none of the units have any formation designations; perhaps sufficient order of battle information was not available, as the earlier game The East is Red also lacks specific unit designations.
The counters themselves keep to the standard, pleasingly yeoman-like Simonsen-era SPI style, though the presence of cadre notations on the left side of the Soviet and Chinese counters results in an off-centered presentation for the unit symbol and combat factors, making those counters all seem slightly askew, with a fair bit of wasted space in the middle. The typical SPI counter color bleed on the countersheet at color transitions remains in effect here, as does the occasional counter that is a bit more or less than half an inch wide due to some wobble in the likely overworked cutting die.
Of note, the rules actually specify that these “variances” are acceptable and to be expected, such that “SPI cannot replace counters displaying these minor manufacturing innacuracies.” If it’s in the rules, I suppose one can’t complain… Continue reading
While many stories feature the Doctor visiting a planet or people he has prior, off-screen knowledge of, far rarer are stories focusing on the Doctor returning to witness the aftermath of his interventions. The First Doctor story “The Ark” shows the direct cause-and-effect of his presence by taking the Doctor into the future of a setting he has just visited (and disrupted); while the Third Doctor visits Peladon over the course of two disconnected stories, the latter relying heavily for its plot twist on the events of the former. But Chris Boucher’s debut script, “The Face of Evil” (Story Production Code 4Q), posits an entire adventure for the Fourth Doctor that viewers have not seen, the outcome of which drives the events of the story on offer.
The strength of “The Face of Evil”—and indeed, it is the strongest story of Tom Baker’s reign to date—comes from the careful parcelling out of this “hidden” story about the mistake the Doctor made at some point in the past, a catastrophic error that resulted in generations of strife between the Tribe of Tesh and the Tribe of the Sevateem on this nameless planet. More interestingly, the Doctor himself doesn’t realize his past role in the proceedings until partway through the story, such that the sudden appearance of his face carved into a cliffside comes as a shock to him as well as to the viewer. This cliffhanger, shrouded as it is in genuine mystery, creates more tension than any end-of-episode monster revelation ever could.
Though Boucher slowly unveils the Doctor’s past mistake while simultaneously establishing two different factions in the Tesh and the Sevateem, he and director Pennant Roberts keep the story, rife as it is with exposition, moving quickly, a task aided by Louise Jameson’s introduction as Leela, the new companion. The first non-contemporary companion since Jamie and Zoe were returned to their worlds at the end of “The War Games,” Leela brings a much-needed spark to the series, representing as she does a different moral and ethical system. Very little conceptual daylight exists between the Third and Fourth Doctors and Liz, Jo, and Sarah Jane; they, and the audience, broadly see the world the same way as the Doctor(s), and any arguments between them hinge on philosophical nuances. By contrast, the Doctor here has to warn Leela to stop killing people as a matter of course.
As with the Second Doctor and Jamie, Leela’s non-technical background as a member of a hunter/gatherer tribe allows for more seamless exposition, giving the Doctor (and writers) a reason to avoid too much technobabble. But where Jamie at times seemed bored with the futuristically fantastical and eager to get on with the action, Leela comes across as curious, open-minded, and fearless; the story opens with her rejecting the orthodoxy of the Tribe of the Sevateem, denying the divinity of Xoanon and being banished as a result. Given the sartorial choices of the shaman who speaks for Xoanon, though, it’s not hard to understand her doubts…
From their first mention in “The War Games,” the Time Lords represent a vague, ominous, near-omniscient force in Doctor Who, operating behind the scenes, pulling cosmic strings while feigning a non-interventionist approach to time and space. Writer and script editor Robert Holmes burnishes away that infallible patina with his definitive Time Lord story, “The Deadly Assassin” (Story Production Code 4P), making wholesale changes to our understanding of these powerful beings—and, for better and for worse, to the future of the series as a whole.
When Patrick Troughton’s Second Doctor encounters the Time Lords, they sit in judgement of him for his interference in the affairs of the universe; solemnly robed, they effect a sombre, passive demeanor, one the Second Doctor rails against. They seem timeless, devoid as they are of ornamentation or emotion. Jon Pertwee’s involvement with the Time Lords takes on a more whimsical tone, with a nattily dressed member of the Tribunal that exiled him appearing out of nowhere with warnings of the Master in “Terror of the Autons.” By the time the two of them, plus William Hartnell’s First Doctor, meet the Time Lords again in “The Three Doctors,” cracks begin to show in the Gallifreyan facade, with the terrible secret of Omega’s eternal banishment revealed.
Robert Holmes effectively reboots the Time Lords in “The Deadly Assassin,” keeping but the barest outlines of established Time Lord history. The ornate trappings of the Time Lords start here, with chapters such as the Prydonians and Arcalians gaining their colors and high collared robes. Too, Holmes posits the Time Lords as an elite ruling class on Gallifrey, above ordinary citizens who, presumably, lack regenerative powers, given the number of Gallifreyans who wind up quite dead in this story. Far from standing as exemplars of rectitude, the Time Lord hierarchy engages in petty political power plays, concerned more with appearance than substance, to the extent that they have forgotten the truth of their own origins.
The plot of “The Deadly Assassin” centers around a significant change Holmes wreaks, that of a limit on regenerations: twelve. The Master (played in decomposed form by Peter Pratt) has reached his limit and is slowly dying in his final regeneration. Only the Sash of Rassilon and the Great Key, traditional trappings of the Time Lord Presidency, hold the solution to gaining additional regenerations, leading to the Master’s convoluted plan to obtain these items. As a plot contrivance, it’s a fine MacGuffin, conceptual in nature and neatly playing off of the series’ most unique conceit, that of regeneration. And in providing a means to escape the otherwise hard limit of regenerations, by allowing the Master to gain another one (or dozen?) at the end, Holmes and producer Philip Hinchcliffe seek to have their narrative cake whilst eating it. That cake, alas, could have used a bit more time in the plot oven… Continue reading
The essence of Winter Offensive, the premier Advanced Squad Leader tournament on the East Coast, resides in the well-worn flip chart at the entrance to the convention rooms. A similar giant pad of paper has welcomed attendees for as long as I can remember. The sign is both casual and matter of fact, just like the tourney itself. There’s no pretension on display at this annual assemblage of wargamers in Bowie, Maryland; if you show up, you’re welcome, part of the gang, a member of the club. Fancy printed banners and elaborate registration procedures have no place here. There’s not an attendance lanyard or wrist band in sight, unlike just about every other gaming convention around these days. You’re on your honor to pay the registration fee, as hosts Multi-Man Publishing would rather be gaming themselves than babysitting would-be scofflaws.
Attendance came in at 214, a record number by far, though the room didn’t seem quite so crowded on Saturday this year as last year, when table space was at an all-time premium. The threat of inclement weather on Saturday might have driven away some of those who attended on Thursday and Friday. Having all four sections of the big convention hall open from the get-go helped greatly in spreading people out, leaving the atmosphere cozy but not cramped.
Two ASL products made their debuts this year, the Deluxe ASL Module and the new edition of Croix de Guerre, the French extension to the game system that now includes dedicated counters for Vichy and Free French troops and Dan Dolan’s long-awaited Dinant Campaign Game. The large-format Deluxe ASL maps were much in evidence this weekend, as the new module reprints all existing DASL maps in the “new” thin-format style and includes revised editions of practically every official DASL scenario ever published.
Croix de Guerre, by contrast, didn’t seem to garner much table space, at least on my peregrinations through the room, though they were flying past the cash register. Perhaps this can be chalked up to the fact that CdG comes with eleven countersheets, all needing to be punched, corner-rounded (for those with discriminating tastes), and integrated into existing counter storage systems. It’s a monumental task, one that I, personally, decided would be better tackled at a later date. The package looks superb, with a bevy of updated scenarios, a crisp look for the French, and a meaty campaign game in the large box. There’s lot of play in that box.
Staring the festivities, I squared off against one of my oldest gaming buddies (in terms of years known, though none of us are getting any younger!), John Slotwinski. Continuing our Korean War theme from the last WO, we trotted out 210 This Is Where We Stand from Forgotten War, pitting forty-five (seriously) Chinese squads against a mere sixteen USMC squads, at night, in extreme winter, with steep hills. My troops needed to completely clear the hills of John’s Marines, and while I pushed him back a bit, he and his copious firepower outlasted my onslaught for the win. The rules overhead involved ranks as perhaps my most daunting Advanced Squad Leader experience in at least a decade, with ordinary actions, like simply schlepping from one hex to another, taking on new dimensions because of the weather, the darkness, and the special traits for Chinese infantry movement. An exhausting, but thoroughly enjoyable, scenario against a one-time Winter Offensive winner.
Long time gaming buddy Doug Bush and I then tried out a scenario from Bounding Fire’s Blood and Jungle pack, BFP 35 Mai Phu, set in Tonkin in 1940, with Japanese troops supported by six tanks assaulting the French forces holding a garrison in French Indochina. Though not a huge scenario, we spent some time with this one, as many tactical puzzles presented themselves. Doug’s IJA troops ground steadily forward, attempting to take buildings, and one banzai assault in particular resulted in a massive counter stack, topped, as though by a cherry, with a large residual counter that almost never leaves the Plano.
This scenario came down to the final die rolls, with Doug needing to win four Hand-to-Hand Close Combats to secure the victory. I managed to hold two of them for a very narrow escape. Of eleven total vehicles in the game, only one was still standing at the end, pretty much par for the course in our playings. Lots of interesting moments in this one; games against Doug are never dull! Continue reading
The Doctor has certainly been wrong before, but seldom does a story actively use the Doctor’s curiosity and comity against him—and against the audience—like Bob Baker and Dave Martin’s “The Hand of Fear” (Story Production Code 4N). Right from the start, the viewer sees Eldrad, owner of the eponymous appendage, sentenced to obliteration by a people desperate to see him gone, but subsequent events in the story go to great lengths to convince the Doctor, and us, that Eldrad just might be misunderstood.
That it doesn’t quite work that way, at least for the viewer, has much to do with the general tenor of the Fourth Doctor’s stories to date; only once, in “Planet of Evil,” has the trope of “humans are the real monsters” been tried with Tom Baker at the helm, and there the nominal monster was a force of nature rather than an individual. Here, Eldrad’s ability to control the minds of humans who interact with his ring signals to the viewer that he is an evil force, responsible for two deaths by the story’s halfway point. One could see the Third Doctor being moved by Eldrad’s later protestations that he was overthrown and betrayed, but for the action-prone Fourth Doctor to so readily accept this possibility comes across oddly, a discordance that feels more plot driven than organic to the story. The viewer often knows more than the Doctor on Doctor Who, but rarely does the viewer know better.
The story itself spends an inordinate amount of time in the first of four episodes setting the stage, with the Doctor and Sarah Jane inadvertently arriving in a British quarry—which is finally just a quarry—right as a huge explosion takes place, burying Sarah Jane and unearthing a disembodied stone hand in the process. The Doctor and another scientist, Carter (Rex Robinson), discover the hand to be based on a silicon life-form matrix that regenerates in the presence of radiation. Meanwhile, Sarah Jane wakes up in hospital with a ring clutched in her hand that causes her to think, over and over, “Eldrad must live.” A few quick blue blasts from the ring later, Sarah Jane has knocked out Carter, stolen the hand, and overpowered the woeful security at a top secret nuclear research facility located conveniently nearby.
Once she has broken in, Sarah Jane takes the plastic container with the hand to the nuclear power core, locks herself in, and then waits in her red-and-white striped overalls for something to happen. She’s not the only one waiting; in place of the traditional monster revelation at the end of the first episode, we have part of a monster instead, as the hand (of fear!) comes to life—in Tupperware… Continue reading