Monday, September 8, 2014

Battling the Robots of Sherwood

Before writing this review I caught a couple of others and have to begin by recalling Clara's book of things to do/see. She has longed for adventure and to see things and which of us who harbors such desires doesn't also have a few historical places we'd really like to see.

The Doctor asks Clara where she'd like to go. She warns him it's silly and then says she wants to visit Robin Hood. The Doctor writes him off as a legend but sets the coordinates anyway to prove himself right. That they land in the right place and Robin Hood is real, much less that he sticks and arrow in the Tardis (with a neat effect of the Tardis healing itself when the Doctor pulls the arrow out), comes as a complete shock to the Doctor.

Clara is reveling in the history while the Doctor is trying to find out how this was faked. The classic trap of an archery contest draws Robin Hood, with the Doctor and Clara tagging along, to deliberately spring the trap. It probably would have gone down like the classic story, except the Doctor had to get involved and try his hand at shooting. A couple of trick shots and he seems to be the victor, but no matter, the Sheriff has other plans and his robot soldiers move in.

From there proceeded the normal mayhem that surrounds the doctor along with some very interesting character moments. On the surface this is a silly story about Robin Hood and robots. But it goes deeper. Again, like all the episodes so far this season, there is a deeper level to the stories. Here the Doctor is compared and contrasted with that most English of legends, Robin Hood. This episode very clearly states that the 13th century had Robin Hood and the 21st century has The Doctor. Very appropriate from the writer whose previous Doctor Who related project was An Adventure in Space and Time.

This Doctor is still settling in, but the whole process is fun to watch. And he is obsessed with writing equations in chalk. What he is writing I haven't been able to piece together, but I would be it is important.

And it was a nice touch to see him wear a different shirt. If Pertwee inspires his wardrobe, we can expect more variations in costume like that.

The one thing I really felt in this episode is that Capaldi is most certainly the Doctor. He has fully inhabited the role and while he is making it his own, the character comes across as familiar, just hard to place. As someone who viewed each of the first Doctors during their tenure, I feel the ghosts of Hartnell, Troughton, and Pertwee coming out in every episode.

The Troughton Years - An Overview

As part of my efforts to get better acquainted with some of the older Doctors I missed pieces of, I started with Hartnell and have moved on to Patrick Troughton. Oh, I've seen all the extant episodes of both the first two Doctors many times, but this is only the second time I have gone through every episode - including the missing ones. Fortunately all the audio survives thanks fan made recordings and most episodes have stills that allow for slide show type reconstructions. A fan group, Loose Canon, have gone the extra mile and gone beyond static slides and added motion and really made many of these episodes come alive. They also put a lot of work into creating something for the episodes that lacked much of any visual reference. Photoshop is a wonderful thing.

Yesterday I finished War Games, concluding my second viewing of Troughton's episodes. In general I have to say that while I find his Doctor fascinating, I am not quite enthralled by the stories. They are good solid stories, but the tendency to default to much longer episodes tends to give them a slower pace. There are some damn good cliffhangers so there is plenty of excitement, but they don't quite get to the point very fast. Oddly, Troughton's longest (and last) story, The War Games, is one of his best.

I should point out that initially, Troughton's series were hardest hit by missing episodes, but various recoveries have given us much more that we had the first time I watched these stories back in the early 90's.

The Power of the Daleks - Replacing the main actor was a bold choice. How they did it was genius. This story starts of with some interesting scenes of the Doctor examining his new face and his two companions wondering what has happened. Troughton eases into the role, by being very understated before he gradually reveals his slightly more comic take on the character. The way the Daleks were handled was masterful and the story really makes you wonder if they could have changed, but only for a moment as they reveal what was probably their most cunning and subtle plan to date.

The Highlanders - A stirring historical drama with a good share of mystery and deception. It is most notable for introducing Jamie McCrimmon who joined the Tardis crew at the end and stayed on for the rest of Troughton's tenure, becoming the longest serving companion (by number of episodes - Sarah Jane Smith served as companion for more seasons (just over 3) but fewer episodes).

The Underwater Menace - Sometimes it is hard to see past the effects to the story itself. This is one of those times. There might be a good story here, but it doesn't seem executed very well. But as usual, the cast did a magnificent job.

The Moonbase - The Cybermen return. A much better story than their first outing in The Tenth Planet earlier in the season. Better costumes as well.

The Macra Terror - Something is lurking in the dark but no one knows what it is. This was a well done episode, one I would love to see, but even in reconstruction, the story comes off nicely.

The Faceless Ones - A well written, complicated, alien invasion story with some interesting twists. By this point Troughton has a good stride and his performance seems effortless. It is a good story to see Ben and Polly go because it puts them back in their own time. They see the story through to the end before they decide to leave. A nice touch considering the last departure (Dodo) was so abrupt.

The Evil of the Daleks - Daleks again, this time they are playing with time travel again. Definitely a high point to end the season on. Daleks, misguided allies, and a hostage to hold someone else in line mark just some of their evil workings. The Doctor does his best, but can't save Dr. Waterfield. His daughter, one freed, would rather travel with the Doctor than remain alone.

The Tomb of the Cybermen - The Cybermen are back, a third time in less than a year. This time it starts as the innocuous exploration of a Cybermen tomb. The Doctor can sense the danger and he turns out to be more right than he really likes. Once again deluded humans wreck havoc and lead to all the challenges in the story. The Doctor, Jamie, and Victoria each show their strengths in bringing the story to a close.

The Abominable Snowmen - The first of Troughton's well known adversaries. The Yeti are robots controlled by a disembodied intelligence. The remoteness of the location does not east the danger and the Doctor and his companions pull out all the stops.

The Ice Warriors - The second of Troughton's well known adversaries. Set in the future, this story is probably one of Troughton's best. The ice bound Ice Warriors are few in number but pose a real threat to a world teetering on the bring of climate disaster.

The Enemy of the World - Newly recovered, this story is amazing. Not quite as good as the preceding story, and probably one that would be better if it was shorter, but still outstanding.

The Web of Fear - This newly recovered nearly complete story is a worthy sequel to the Abominable Snowmen. Set some 40 years later, Dr. Travers is now the unwitting vehicle of the return of the Great Intelligence. This story sees the first appearance of the longest running companion/guest character, Allister Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart, starting out as a mere colonel.

Fury From the Deep - Deadly foam, intelligent seaweed, and possessed worker make up the bulk of this story. Some wonderful moments with the Tardis crew and an emotional departure for Victoria

The Wheel in Space - The Doctor and Jamie land on a drone space ship after a fluid link in the Tardis releases mercury vapors. The ship turns out to be part of a Cybermen plot. The Doctor and Jamie meet Zoe, a young technician and genius. She helps them out and leaves with them when the Cybermen are defeated.

The Dominators - The Dominators themselves are annoyingly arrogant characters and their Quark robots are a bit silly. The rest of the characters are well done and the concept is interesting.

The Mind Robber - This fun story features the only episode where Jamie is not played by Frazier Hines and they worked it into the story quite well. This is a very well done story.

The Invasion - Very similar to The War Machines, but with Cybermen and the Doctor meeting people he knows. This is the first Unit story and was done to test the concept for the next season. It comes off well and is probably the best of Troughton's Cybermen stories.

The Krotons - A mysterious space ship and the robots within have enslaved the natives of a planet. The Doctor and his companions arrive and disrupt the long parasitic relationship and free the natives. Not the best story, but the Doctor and his companions carry the day.

The Seeds of Death - The Ice Warriors return and try to destroy life on Earth with strange pods. Earth has put all its transportation energy into T-Mat and abandoned rockets. This nearly proves their downfall. The Doctor is there to save the day. I rather enjoyed this story.

The Space Pirates - The last story with missing episodes. It is quite interesting and the character of Milo Clancy is quite memorable. The level of double crossing and secrets that are revealed it quite fun to see unfold. Definitely high on my wish list.

The War Games - Here we meet the second member of the Doctor's people (well, fourth if you count the Doctor and Susan). The War Chief has given Tardis technology to an alien race who are using it to steal soldiers from Earth and make them think they ares still fighting the same war in order to build a formidable army. The slow reveal from the initial WWI battlefield to the full scale of the operation is well executed. The Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe each have their own adventures before the Doctor is forced to call in his people, the Timelords. This is probably the longest single cohesive story in Doctor Who history and it is incredibly well done and a fitting exit for Troughton's Doctor and his companions.

What we get with the Second Doctor are the majority of things that have remained throughout the rest of the series. The series departs from the historical dramas (sad because those are some of the best written stories) and focus's primarily on science fiction stories. That's not to say that the Doctor doesn't go into the past, he does quite frequently, but there is always some alien invasion or the like to deal with. Only in the Fifth Doctor story, Black Orchid, do we again (and apparently for the last time) have a purely historical story with no science fiction content.

So really the pattern of the stories is now set, but the last piece of what has become quintessential Doctor Who won't appear until Pertwee takes over. Jamie was the last male companion of any significance for quite some time. Most of the time post The War Games it has been the Doctor with a female companion.

The Second Doctor poses a lot of continuity problems. He starts out at around 450 years old, according to what he tell his companions. Then he has continuous human companions for his entire tenure and the third Doctor is 700. Troughton has the record for the most returns to the main series at three. He came back for The Three Doctors, The Five Doctors, and The Two Doctors. Yet the return of he and the First Doctor in those stories brings up interesting issues. In particular, the opening of The Two Doctors breaks continuity with the series as the Second Doctor cannot maneuver the Tardis so would not have left Victoria and he did not tell Jamie about the Timelords until The War Games. Still, it was great to see him back those three times.

Next up are the 5th and 6th Doctors and maybe the 7th. I've seen Peter Davison's first seasons very often, but not his last season or the following season with Colin Baker. I missed recording them from PBS so I had all of the 3rd, 4th, and 7th Doctors, but not the 5th and 6th.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Welcome to Laniakea

Cosmology is one of my favorite subjects. It is also a subject that isn't often in the new, or subject to bloggable topics. Today, however, news has broken that a cosmology mapping project and reached an amazing discovery. They have used several measurements to determine that the Milky Way, our local group, and the Virgo Cluster, are all part of a much larger structure they have named the Laniakea supercluster. Our galaxy is located on a dense spur that sticks out to one side.

Previously it was hard to tell where one group ended an another began leaving cosmologist to stick to the obvious clusters and groups, but with this, it is now possible to definitively assign each galaxy to a supercluster and actually see the structures and how they relate.

It is also interesting to see that we are located in a very dense region. The neighboring Perseus-Pisces supercluster appears to have some influence and may be the cause for the increased density.

Much of this is academic and does not appear to be of much use, but it furthers our understanding of the structure of the universe and through that, our understanding of the Big Bang. So while this might seem like something on such a scale that it is pointless, it could impact the theories of science that the next generation will build upon. So it is very exciting on several levels.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Han Solo Adventures and the Birth of the Expanded Universe

To finish up my summer reading, I returned to some classic stories that I enjoy every time I pick them up - Brian Daley's three Han Solo novels from 1979.

So, what existed when these were written? Well, it was the first movie (then just titled Star Wars), the novelization of the first movie (ghostwritten by Alan Dean Foster), and Splinter of the Mind's Eye (by Alan Dean Foster). So it was a pretty small universe that Daley expended on with these three novels.

Han Solo At Star's End
This episode finds Han and Chewy in need of repairs for the Falcon, several years before Star Wars. In the process they get dragged into a conspiracy of disappearing people. Han doesn't want to get involved until Chewy is captured. The climax involved a power system overload that sends an super-reinforced tower into a suborbital trajectory. Daley did a fantastic job of making it seem plausible, but something about the scenario just seems cheesy. Still it is a fun romp with Solo and the wookie.

Han Solo's Revenge
This episode has Han and Chewy take a job out of desperation that turns out to be a slaver ring. That goes against their ethics so the slavers are soon dead and the slaves freed, but Han and Chewy are out the payment and set out to rectify that. The slaver ring turns out to be part of a large ring of corruption and no one they encounter is quite who they seem to be. This one may be the best of the three and feels like the Han Solo we know from the films.

Han Solo and the Lost Legacy
In this Episode, they run into an old friend who has a mission for them - a long lost treasure. The trail leads to a backwater world where they are ambushed. They all escape, but the Falcon is taken (literally picked up and hauled away by a loadlifter). Han sets out to get his ship back. In the process, they stumble on a community of pre-republic castaways who turn out to have ties to the treasure, but they barely escape with their lives. They manage to get the Falcon back and find the treasure, only to discover that it is largely worthless minerals that once had value before technology make them obsolete. It ends with talk of Jabba the Hutt and a Kessel Run.

Each story is about sixty thousand words and is fast paced. Very suitable for a child of nine to pick up and devour and also for a quick read for any adult. This is the Han Solo who shot poor Greedo. He is hard, callous, but underneath he cares. He has been wounded too often to let himself show it. Daley's characterization is spot on and the additional characters and technology he crafted have become part of the staple that was included in the original role playing game and the other expanded universe books. While Alan Dean Foster was the first writer to visit the Star Wars Universe, Brian Daley was the first to explore it.

The best part of these stories is that I enjoyed them as much as a seasoned writer of 44 as I did at 9.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Journey Into the Dalek

The second episode of Series 8 takes us someplace new. The Doctor and his traveling companions have been shrunk before (Let's Kill Hitler), but this time it is to journey into a Dalek to find out why it has turned good in order to do the same thing to other Daleks.

The episode pays homage to Fantastic Journey, with the Doctor even saying it would be a great idea for a movie, while at the same time being quite different and thought provoking.

We get to learn much more than ever before about how a Dalek works. We also get a nice comment from the Doctor (which applies to the character and the series) that it was his visit to Skaro that changed him.

The episodes also gives us some nice moments with Clara, both in her own life and in her travels with the Doctor. We also get an introduction to a fellow Coal Hill School teacher, Danny Pink.

Without giving too many more spoilers, I'll just say that this was a dark episode. The end was not what I expected, but when it came, it was exactly right. A wonderful episode that was over all too soon.

Friday, August 29, 2014

The Third Star Wars Trilogy

fan concept poster

George Lucas had grand plans when he set out to make Star Wars. He omitted the episode number on the first film, probably because no one could have predicted its success. But in the original plan, there were 3 trilogies and 3 other films to expand on it (1, 5, and 12). The first film would have been Episode VI. In the scaled back plan from when Empire was in production and Lucas had hopes of making all of them, he settled on the familiar 9 (3 trilogies) and labeled Empire Episode V and relabeled Star Wars as A New Hope Episode IV. (Much of this comes from the following link)

What is clear from the information that has been made available, through interviews with Lucas and those he has shared some of these things with, is that the basic story of the Prequels was set pretty early, most probably during the production of Empire and more during the production of Jedi. But it is also obvious that Lucas was always mindful of the immediate story he was telling over the overall story of the saga. Errors have crept in that it are hard to account for. Still, it is an amazing work.

Now we have Disney in possession of the property (a scary thought to some) and they have greenlit Episodes VII, VIII, and IX. And not for some nebulous future, Episode VII is in production now and scheduled for release in December 2015. We know who is back (the main principle cast, composer, and screenwriter) from Episode VI and who some of the new people are. But we have no clue as to the story.

When the prequel trilogy was announced, we knew a lot about who would be in it (characterwise). We knew it would be the story of Obi-wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker and include the Clone Wars, but the specifics were always hazy. I have always suspected that much of the bad feeling toward the Prequel Trilogy has been because it failed to tell the story many were expecting. I appreciate them myself, probably because I can see what he did in writing, casting, and directing, that make the films very stylized to tell the story of a different age.

But what of the Sequel Trilogy? What is the story. Much of the post Jedi story has been explored by writers in the novels of the Expanded Universe. How that fits with the ideas that Lucas penned many years ago has always been uncertain. And it might remain uncertain depending on how the next film does. Depending on the story, it could rewrite all that. I think Lucas gave the writers enough information so that they were at least close to what he had in mind for Episodes VII, VIII, and IX, but he hadn't penned the story. Lawrence Kasdan is penning the story, hopefully from Lucas's notes. Who knows what we will get.

But what can we expect? The Prequels have set a high bar for some aspects. Jedi combat reached a high level and fans will expect to see that same level, perhaps with new moves to add excitement. We will be getting to see old familiar faces and ships. Whether they play a cameo role or a more serious role remains to be seen. But we will have Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Han Solo, Chewbacca, R2-D2, C-3PO, and the Millenium Falcon. If things proceed (and there are hints it has) as the books did, will we find that Han and Leia are married and have had children, who are now old enough to take the lead roles. But the story itself is a mystery.

Kevin Smith visited the set, giving us a clue as to part of the production. They nailed the Millenium Falcon set. Smith said that and the other sets felt like Star Wars (I believe he meant the Original Trilogy specifically). While the sets really have no relation to the story, it does show that they are putting a lot of effort into it. And the pen rests with the man who penned the screenplay for Empire and Jedi. The director, J.J. Abrams, is an avowed Star Wars fan. Still, the question of the story remains unanswered. To meet the bar set by the previous 6 movies, it will have to have space battles, strong character arcs, shootouts, danger, excitement, and lightsaber duels with a 3 movies story arc to bind them together.

A lot rests on new hands with this one. It is reassuring to know that legions of fans have devoured the Expanded Universe novels with their many story arcs. If the new production team have come up with (or been given by Lucas through his notes) an equally good story, we are in for an amazing movie in 15 months.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Behind The Scenes

As happens from time to time, I have been interviewed by a blogger. You can find the full thing over at Author's Interviews. It is fun answering questions. No two have been quite the same.

If you care to root around in past posts, I have linked to some previous interviews.