Sunday, April 19, 2015

A Tale of Two Farm Simulators: "Harvest Moon: the Lost Valley" and "Story of Seasons"

Before I say anything else: if you like farm simulators and have a 3DS, both "Harvest Moon: the Lost Valley" and "Story of Seasons" are good games and worth trying out. They each have strengths and weaknesses but are overall fun and interesting each in their own way.

I'm here to review them both briefly, but also rant a bit about how gamer fanwank ruins everything.

There are a lot of farm simulators, but one ruled above them all, at least if Nintendo was your platform of choice: Bokujou Monogatari, produced by Marvelous Games in Japan. Waaaay back when this series started and the first Bokujou Monogatari was produced I believe for the original GameBoy, the relatively new and small Marvelous hired another game company to do localization and distribution in the United States: Natsume. Natsume chose to title the US-English version of the series "Harvest Moon" and obtained and owned the trademark to this name as well as some other related titles and phrases.

Over the decades, Marvelous grew. They hired a different company, XSeed, to localize Bokujou Monogatari's sister series Rune Factory. Eventually they were able to purchase XSeed to make it an in-house subsidiary. Marvelous made a pretty standard video game company decision: it would be cheaper and more efficient for them to use their now in-house subsidiary to do all of their localization work. So Marvelous decided they would no longer hire Natsume, still successful and independent in its own right, to localize Bokujou Monogatari. Marvelous did not offer to buy the Harvest Moon trademark, and instead opted to distribute future English versions of their game under a new trademarked name: Story of Seasons.

This left Natsume with the trademark but no game. They are a game company just like Marvelous, and just like Marvelous, need to make business decisions based on issues of efficiency and profitability. To recover from their loss of work from Marvelous, and because they already owned the trademark to Harvest Moon, they would make their own Harvest Moon game.

People who are reasonable, sensible, mature, and generally happy people decided to take this as fabulous news, because it meant they would get two farm simulation games for their Nintendo devices rather than one.

People who spend most of their time being grumpy and miserable on the Internet in between occasionally actually playing games have decided this is the worst thing that has ever happened in the entire universe, that the world might as well just END, and that most of all, even though this was all sparked by a business decision made by Marvelous, the whole situation is for some entirely incomprehensible reason, Natsume's fault. I recognize these people are irrational, insane, and inconsolable and nothing I say will convince them to change their minds on this. I'm not trying to change anyone's mind. I'm just taking note of how STUPID this is, and how unncessarily DAMAGING this is to the franchises.

My biggest gripe about the ensuing gamer fanwank is that many, if not most, online fan reviews of both Harvest Moon: the Lost Valley and Story of Seasons are entirely unreliable and unhelpful. Many of them were written before the games were even released, and the details (or lack thereof) in such reviews reflect that even many post-release reviews are written by people who haven't played the game at all or, if they did, only played for about an hour or so (and experienced simulation gamers know it takes several hours to get a feel for how such a game will work, especially since the first hour is usually tutorial). Many Lost Valley reviews contain general hyperbolic "This is not the real Harvest Moon!!!" ranting without useful or accurate information, and many also feature misinformation if not outright lies about what the game contains (my favorite example is one where the review claims that you cannot care for any animals in The Lost Valley right next to an obviously stolen screenshot from the game featuring the main character tending to his livestock that are, clearly, obviously available in the game. Likewise Story of Seasons gets mostly positive reviews simply because it is Marvelous's game and not because of outlining any particularly good, useful, details of what the game does and does not accomplish. This means new players and old ones alike can't get a good sense of what the games are really like--even a positive review can do harm if it is inaccurate, because if a buyer purchases it based on false expectations, he or she can only then be let down.

Somewhere in this nonsense I think is a matter that some longtime Bokujou Monogatari fans didn't like some of Natsume's localization work, but none of this has to do with the work EITHER company is doing now. Further, most of the biggest localization issues are from games 10, 20 years ago--the most recent games Natsume were just fine. The whole situation seems to be largely fueled by ancient, pointless, grudgewank that is entirely irrelevant to the current situation. Yes, it's annoying Cute had censored content. It was also a really long time ago.

If anyone happens to find this page in the vast sea of junk on the Internet: I own both games. I've played Lost Valley's plot to completion but am still unlocking/experimenting/making things; I've played Story of Seasons for not as long but still through a few seasons to get a good sense of the gameplay. I have no especial loyalty to either Marvelous or Natsume. For whatever it's worth, this is what I think of both games:

In short, Story of Seasons is better for story and characters. Harvest Moon: the Lost Valley is the better farm simulation. The former is better for playing with economics; the latter is better for experimenting with crafting and planting methods. If you want to play a cool story with a large cast of characters and a town that is pieced together with some farming simulation and time management game play, play Story of Seasons. If you want to play a game with a heavy central focus on your farm and land management and want to get into more robust planting mechanics and crafting, then play Harvest Moon: the Lost Valley. If both sound up your alley for different reasons, play both. And indeed, the more good farming sims and the like purchased, the more we'll see more of such things for the Nintendo 3DS and other platforms.

In detail:
Story of Seasons takes place in a town which is trying to boost its agrarian economy and you have been hired to help. As with other previous games by the developer, farming isn't just about farming's sake, but also about helping a nearby town boom and assisting its residents. As you are successful, they also become more successful. As in prior games in the older franchise, each character is very deeply well developed and there are lots of bachelors and bachelorettes to romance, with some complex dialogue options. Town life is its own part of gameplay connected to but different from life on your farm. Even the farming becomes social, because in this particular game you have to compete with other farmers for additional land to cultivate, and this competition also is geared toward not helping your farm's success but also helping you develop deeper relationships with your friendly rivals. The farming simulation aspect is as good as it always was but--at least as of this writing--there's nothing new they haven't done before, and it's pretty simplistic. Crops only grow during their season, animals have a set personality and while their products improve as they grow to like you they otherwise don't change, unlocks are based largely on sales and the passage of time, and pretty much as long as you water your plants there's not much you can do to change things or mess things up. There's, as you get later into the game, crafting of products. There's honey making. There's bug collecting for when you want something else to do, and fishing and the all new mechanic of swimming, which is basically fishing where your character gets wetter. It takes a very long time to unlock other animals besides cows, although horses come pretty quick, although if you're good at milking the system (*cough*) you can get there faster. The game uses Harvest Moon: A New Beginning's crafting and building system for your farm (maybe you can edit the town later but I'm not sure). There is good character customization, and as with A New Beginning clothing and hair unlocks for all genders. There's a new trade system that on one hand makes buying and selling most interesting, but on the other hand, ordinary shipping is taken away so you can't make money every single day until perhaps late in the game when more traders arive. What makes it most fun, for me is the town and story and how everything connects together. Absolutely the farming aspects are fun and it is good gameplay, but it is not where I find the most interesting challenges and intrigues.

I like: Some of the trade system, the character and stories, the town, the romance system, the variety of activities, and full customizability of your main character.
I dislike: The hugeness of the world--there's a lot of schlepping even with the horse, little change/challenge/variety in the simulation aspects, how long it takes to unlock or access certain things, there is very little resource mining.
I am "meh" about: "Conquests" i.e., fighting over public land with your farmer rivals.

Harvest Moon: The Lost Valley is heavily focused on a young farmer and the land he acquires in the Lost Valley, pretty much by passing out on it and being handed the "deed" to it by a Harvest Sprite. The farmer must grow a variety of plants and raise a variety of animals to energize the land and find a way to break it from a curse of eternal winter. The "town" of this game is offscreen; rather, residents come to the Lost Valley to trade and interact with the farmer and explore the Lost Valley as the farmer brings it back to life. The premise of the plot--the land is cursed to be eternally winter and the farmer must gather artifacts to bring back the seasons--is intriguing if fairly standard for a harvest-based fairy tale, and brings an interesting time management challenge to the world, but it is frankly, a bit shallow. It usually takes the first in-game year to fully complete, which isn't that long; the final challenge to "beat" the plot is annoying as it requires the random appearance of certain items however, which is annoying. There are fewer characters and while they have some cute personalities, they are not as well developed as in the Bokujou Monogatari games, and there are far fewer marriageable candidates. Some characters do get some interesting backstories but it takes a very long time to get through them. Rather, the focus is on the farm itself and what you do, with the townsfolk largely being to some extent, entertaining window dressing. The farming simulation aspects are where the game shines. You are able to edit terrain--people compare it to Minecraft although that's more for the blocky appearance of the terrain, but the point is less random building and more altering the terrain to both access places like mines as well as, moreover, to affect how your farm flourishes. This game really pays attention to important things in farming: land altitude, irrigation, time of year, fertilization types, and soil drainage. Your plants not only thrive in different seasons, but also in different soil/irrigation types and land elevation. Moreover, beyond helping plants thrive in this way, you can also cause your plants to mutate! Ergo, unlocking seeds is not simply a matter of sales or a certain amount of time passing, but your own ability to experiment and work within the system to get new plants. Planting spinach in watery terrain yields savoy spinach; planting strawberries in winter gets white berries, chili peppers transform into jalapenos when in ideal heat and well drained but not dry soil. While plants will still die at the end of a season, you can actually plant all plants every season, and doing so also affects mutation results. You create not just fertilizer but different kinds of fertilizer and these things too can affect growth in different way; fertilizing something with just manure ("compost" in the game--but it's awesome that your livestock raising also helps you raise your plants better) is different from mixing compost with berries, or fish, or what-have-you--which adds interesting incitement to experiment and try all kinds of things. Raising livestock is also a little more complex in a good way, in that you can craft custom feed for your animals, and the different kinds of feed affect both the quality of your products as well as the personality traits of your animals--you of course still have to be good to them too, but the feed and training adds a new aspect to the game that is welcome. There are fewer animal types in the game but you "unlock" them fairly easily and quickly which allows you to get to product and food production faster, which I like a LOT. You also chop, mine, and fish, and ALL activities you do feed into one another nicely (you can turn fish and compost into fertilizer, you can use crops to make special animal feed, and of course eventually all things can be cooked into useful dishes). Mined materials and all farm products are also used to build and craft as usual, and you can edit your property extensively beyond the terraforming function. You could play the game for a very long time just getting your farm the way you like it and unlocking as many seeds and products as possible.

I like: The increased challenge/complexity of the farming system and that you can do more with your animals; the customizable terrain (and that that also has an effect on your farm), that you don't have to waste time on artificial pacing crap like upgrading your tools, that you spend your time on your farm and don't have to schlep all over the place to do things (the land you work on is pretty big on its own)
I dislike: The shallow plot, the 3D movement making some of the context sensitive menus work wonkily, less customizable MC.
I am "meh" about: Hiring harvest sprites to help you farm, getting requests for hard-to-mutate items at the wrong time of year, etc.

What both games have in common: festivals, fishing, gardening, livestock, making products from your livestock's items, crafting, building relationships, a slow start, and a cruel random number generator (all of which are typical for these types of games).

If one sounds more appealing to you, cool--just get that one. They are both good games, IMO. I think there's great room in the world for both of them so those with different preferences each have a game they might like and/or can play both for different reasons. I just hope future games from BOTH developers are both collectively approached with open minds and reasonable expectations.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Game Miniature Hobby Tips: Where to Find Affordable Basing and Terrain Materials

If you've gotten into miniatures for roleplaying games or wargames, you have hopefully realized part of what makes the difference between a good and great mini is a nicely composed base. A miniature's base is to a mini as a frame is to a painting: not strictly necessary, but the right one compliments and makes your paint work shine brighter than it can on its own, while the wrong one or a poor one can ruin the composition. Bases are especially important for wargames minis, as unified looking bases helps even a diverse army look like a cohesive unit; this concept can also be applied to RPGs--different bases (even just painting the rim a different color) can help you discern between baddies, friendly NPCs, and PCs.

Fortunately, basing itself is pretty easy: glue on a little sand or grit, paint it a nice complimentary neutral tone, and glue on a little turf or static grass, and you've got a good, simple base that sets off your mini nicely. Getting those or similar materials can be a challenge, though, especially if you're on a budget.

The "problem" is, of, course is a gamer's first instinct is to check gaming sites and stores for supplies. Sure, these sites have them--Citadel, Gale Force 9, and Army Painter all have solid, respectable lines--but they're a little pricey. A tiny tub of static grass or sand may retail for $5. No, that's not terrible, but how much is sand really worth to you? It also adds up very quickly if you want a wide variety of materials or are doing a huge terrain project.

As hard as it is, move away from the game stores (you will still support them by buying your minis and games). Time to venture into a broader world: craft stores and, of course, the outside (yes, that strange place you've heard of with the fresh air and stuff).

Craft stores, such as Michael's, A.C. Moore, and Joann Fabrics are your friend. You can scour the whole place for ideas and supplies, but here is where you especially want to look:

Floral display supplies: Yes, you heard that right. This is the BEST place to go. This section of the store includes supplies for what they call "filler"--stuff they can put into pots and vases to make their potted plants and fake flowers look prettier (for exactly the same reason we base our minis). Much of this "filler" includes things like sand, pebbles, lichen, and moss--stuff that is phenomenal for terrain and bases. Compare:

Michael's Ashland Coarse Decorative Sand: MSRP $2.99 for 1/75 lbs.

GaleForce9's Grit: MSRP $5.00 for a small container.

GF9 does not post the volume or weight of their materials, but I would say roughly you're getting roughly twice to three times as much sand from Michael's for $2 less.

Now, I should pause to note before I tempt argument: GF9's grit is not actually sand--it's a somewhat porous substance. They claim it is better for not flaking off than sand. This is sort of true: if you glue sand onto a base with standard PVA glue (such as Elmer's White Glue), sometimes not all of it will stick--UNTIL you paint on top of it. When you paint over sand, sometimes it might stick to your brush and get into your paint or primer, and then sand gets stuck to other bits of your model. The easy solution is either to use spray primer (which is enough to seal in the sand), or if using brush primer, don't glue sand to your model until after you've painted the figurine. Then paint over it using a crappy brush to prime and base coat it. Some loose sand may get into your crappy brush--and that's why you use a crappy brush--but once the paint dries, it seals and holds down the sand and none of the rest flakes off. I have dozens of 10+ year old sand-based models that have never lost basing material once painted. Plus I prefer the sand precisely because it's NOT porous--it won't soak up glue or paint. That means it looks nicer unpainted (in which case I just seal it with extra glue or brush on sealer) and takes on color without soaking it up. It is less uniform in size, which also helps make the base look more natural and interesting.

But if you really want "grit" -- get it from the train section of your craft store or hobby website instead, where it's called gravel or ballast. There, you still get more for cheaper (if not as cheap as sand). Example:

Scenescapes Gravel for $3.45 at Micromark

You might get sand for bulk even cheaper at construction/home improvement stores if you have a place to put it, and accept that it's probably not as clean as the craft stuff.

Sand's just an example. Floral sections in craft stores also have huge bags of lichen, pebbles, and other useful terrain stuff that is much cheaper for quantity than what GF9 or Citadel will sell you for exactly the same stuff. They also have glass beads and other neat things which you might find a use for if not for bases and terrain, then for tokens (although the glass beads and fake gems may be perfect to fill out your alien landscape). Most of the fake flowers, vines, and grains are too big for miniature products, but depending on your project, you may find other stuff useful in that category as well. I even saw at A.C. Moore the other day big sheets of what I would call "terrain paper": basically, thick backed paper covered in turf or static grass or other "terrainy" patterns. I presume they use these to decorate the bottoms of certain kinds of fake flower displays. For miniature hobbyists, I imagine you could use them as a quick and dirty start for adding terrain to your table or cut them out to glue to bases. Finally, this section carries foam in interesting shapes for cheap that may be useful for larger terrain projects.

But don't quite see what you need here? Then move on to the...

Diorama Section: More and more craft stores dedicate at least one aisle for diorama creation, usually intended for kids to make school projects. However, you know what wargame terrain is? Basically a diorama (or a start of one, at least). All the stuff you use to make dioramas is exactly the same stuff you use to base minis or make terrain. There's usually lots of good basing material here, including turf, flock, static grass, etc. as well as things like polymers to make water effects, and sculpting materials to help build up scenes. I bought a tube of "realistic water" for a project for $8, whereas at a nearby game store I would have been charged $15, and it was exactly the same stuff. What's nice of course is the actual diorama kits as well if you don't already have a lot of basing supplies--for $12 you can often get grit, flock, and other useful materials that is enough for several minis (compare to the $18 terrain kits at GF9). The how-tos that come with the kits may also be helpful if you're trying your hand at terrain design.

Now, you do need to check your prices here. There's a reason I sent you to the floral section first--often, you can find lichen, sand, etc. in the diorama section too--but it's more expensive. Yes, even in the same store. If you find an item that might have a multi-craft purpose, such items may exist in different places throughout the store at different qualities and prices, so take time to look around.

There's also often some neat "toys" in this section as well: miniature people, buildings, etc. They are almost never the right scale for gaming (most wargames and RPGs use 25mm or 15mm scale, whereas most everything else in the hobby world uses popular, entirely different, train scales like N or HO). Still, it's worth plumbing for useful terrain extras (crates, barrels, boxes) as well as monsters (the "wrong scale" toy spider may be a perfect giant spider for an RPG). Oh, and there's usually loads and loads of miniature trees--very handy!

And on that note, need more unusual stuff for bases or decoration? Or some tools, maybe? Next place to go:

Jewelry-Making Aisle: Lots of crafters are increasingly getting into beading and jewelry making, and these store sections are full of stuff useful to miniature hobbyists, especially if you have a more unusual project. Many shells and beads might be useful for an alien or unusual landscape. The steampunk craze has hit jewelry makers hard and you may also find cool useful terrain accents like miniature gears, clock parts, etc. (great especially for a WarMachine project). Chains and wire in many gauges of course also abound--and again are much cheaper than the wire a miniature supply retailer is going to sell you.

You can also find useful hobby tools here: jewelers use the same wire cutters and needlenose pliers we often use for our projects, for much the same reason: they manipulate and cut soft metal. Likewise, here you may also find stuff like table magnifiers and such. Sometimes the prices you can get for these tools are much better, although if you're a stickler for quality you may want to do some brand comparisons. 

If you still haven't found what you're looking for due to a specialty project or what-have-you, don't be afraid to look around the rest of the store. The woodcarving section can be really helpful, for example, selling other bits and pieces good for terrain building (especially if you want to make buildings as part of your terrain) as well as wooden tiles that may serve as a large base. I've had trouble finding stuff in exactly inch-scales for D&D scale minis, but sometimes you can find wooden tiles, both square and round, that are the right size for RPG miniatures and, depending, they may be cheaper than an official base of the right size.

The mosaic and sand art section may be useful for more sand, as well if you want to have "tiled" bases or something similar.

Most of this stuff you can buy online, but I suggest hitting a brick and mortar store if you can; not just to support brick and mortar stores, but also to look at what you're getting and making sure it's what you want. Once you get a sense of what you want you can order online and find the price that's the best deal.

If your budget can't even accommodate craft stores or bulk bargains, however, there's always plan B: found items from around the house and outdoors. 

This section comes with a BIG caveat, however: if you're working with anything that is either degradable or ANYTHING outside, you need to make sure it is as CLEAN and DRY as possible.

For example, I've heard of miniature hobbyists using used tea or coffee grounds for terrain materials--great idea! But if that stuff is at all moist, you can end up with a moldy miniature. Yuck. Stuff like that should be baked in the oven at a low temperature until it is very, very, very dry. Check on it so it doesn't burn.

Going outside you can of course find dirt, sand, sticks, and so on. Stick to what is the least rottable--it may be tempting to use real moss, but that invites ick. If you want to use sand like sand from a beach or playground, you need to sift it and make absolutely sure it is free of bugs and trash (don't glue broken glass to your mini unless you really really mean to). I would avoid dirt if at all possible, and if you really want to use it, I'd use potting soil or something else you can feel pretty sure is sterile.

Sticks can be useful for terrain, especially for larger miniatures or other projects--for example, I have a dragon sitting on top of a "log" (a big stick I found) for one of my miniatures, to help show off its features. When I found the sticks I wanted, I chose very dry wood and made sure to rub off any flaking or rotten wood, carving off anything questionable with a knife if needed. I then actually soaked the sticks in water mixed with a little bleach--this was to be sure any little bugs or microrganisms chewing on the wood were gone--and let them dry in full sun (to drive away lingering molds and fungi). Then of course makings sure they were completely dry, I added them to the terrain, and also fully painted and sealed them for good measure (I wouldn't use bare untreated wood--I'd always paint or seal it, for the very same reason we paint and seal most wooden items).

You can get creative here too, of course: if you like to go beach combing, you could of course bring home driftwood, interesting stones, and shells to add to your minis. You could take a dancing girl figurine and put her in a real scallop shell and behold! Miniature Aphrodite! Just as always make sure to clean and dry them thoroughly. I highly recommend the bleach treatment here--there's all kinds of stuff that lives in the sea, and it should not become part of your space marine army.

If you take this route to find terrain items, always be careful, and do not loot materials from other people's property--yes, even if it's junk. Be aware of any toxins or other unpleasant stuff -- is that pile of sand a dog's favorite pissing spot? Wash your own hands and all the stuff you get when you get home thoroughly.

Now get out there and get to basing your miniatures properly! It's cheap to get the supplies for it and it makes a world of difference in helping your miniatures look as amazing as possible.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

An Arrow/Black Canary/Laurel rant

I am hoping at some point to do a rewatch of the first two Arrow seasons and write something resembling thoughtful analysis on them, but I keep making the mistake of reading fandom forums and seeing people say stuff that I let get to me, even though I know it's the Internet, where everyone else is always wrong, and I should just leave the wrongness be. ;) I also really want to react less to fandom anyway, but well, good luck with that, me. Because here I am going to have a rant, that is based on what I see as stupid shit being said by the Arrow fandom, on stuff revolving around Laurel Lance and the comics character Black Canary.

So: Laurel Lance is a contentious character. She's contentious because she is a very different, alternate universe take on Dinah Laurel Lance, who is the crimefighting Black Canary II from Earth 2 and Earth 0* in the DC Multiverse (if I've even got that right). (Also the DCAU, I think.) She's also contentious because she's been inconsistently written, as the writers can't figure out if she's a 1) love interest, 2) a damsel in distress, 3) a smart associate who aids the hero with her areas of expertise, or 4) just kind of the series broken bird/woobie. (HINT TO THE WRITERS: IT SHOULD BE #3.)

(And yes, some people just don't like the actress, but for the purposes of this essay, that is neither here nor there.)

Clarifying note: for the purposes of this rant, when I say "Laurel" I mean Dinah Laurel Lance from Arrow, and when I say "DLL" I mean Dinah Laurel Lance from the Earth 0 DCU Comic Books.

A lot of the fighting over Laurel and who she should be or what she should do is based on arguments over what they THINK DLL is about.

First of all, given Arrow very firmly twists EVERY comic book reference it uses on its head, assuming Laurel should be any one thing "because comics" is ridiculous.** If you're not furious that Merlyn's first name is Malcolm instead of Arthur, if you're not furious that we have Thea Dearden Queen instead of Mia Dearden (and who background wise, by which I mean rich brat, is actually more a sneakily worked in Kate Bishop), if you're not furious that Moira Queen is actually a character who just didn't start the story as a dead background note (but instead died later), then you don't get to be furious about how Laurel is different from DLL.

But even that, there's a lot of false or at least heavily distorted assumptions about who DLL is and why Laurel should or shouldn't be that way. These are the ones that bug me the most:

1. "DLL is the ONLY Black Canary and ONLY DLL can be the Black Canary!"
Many superhero titles are passed around to other generations and successors, and Black Canary is one of them. The Black Canary title started with Dinah Drake, later Dinah Drake Lance. DLL is her daughter, who took on her mother's mantle.

There are also other "Canaries" in the comics continuity: White Canary, a member of the Leage of Assassins, and Jade Canary, a handle Lady Shiva took on when swapping places with DLL during a Birds of Prey storyline. Both of these women are incredibly, capably trained assassins (DLL, while a very capable fighter, is not an assassin). Just something to think about if you're worrying about where a certain Arrow character who is called the Canary (with no color attached) might actually fit in in terms of comic references.

DLL has also sometimes been identified by other names; in the alternate future storyline "Kingdom Come" she wears all white and uses a bow and arrow like Ollie and is unofficially referred to as White Arrow (she is only called by her real name in the comic). Lady Shiva calls DLL Paper Monkey (Lady Shiva's a little weird).

If you look at other continuities, we've got the Birds of Prey TV show, where the Black Canary was a woman named Carol Lance (her daughter, Dinah Redmond, was a lead character on the show, but had an entirely different, Jean Grey-like skillset).

So, DLL is not the only Black Canary, and a woman named Dinah Laurel Lance is not "destined" to become Black Canary just because of her name, and could have other names. That's a word out to both people who insist Laurel MUST become Black Canary (no she doesn't), and to the pearl-clutching haters who fear the very world will crumble to pieces if she does become Black Canary--because she doesn't have to be the only kickbutt girl with a Canary-related title. Black Canary is not Highlander. There does not have to be only one. 

2. "But Black Canary is DESTINED to be Oliver Queen's ONE TRUE LOVE!!! She was DESIGNED to be his LOVE INTEREST!!!!"

Black Canary and Green Arrow existed in the comics as separate, independent entities for a long time before they became romantic interests. Black Canary was NOT "designed for" Green Arrow, nor anyone else. Especially as the original Black Canary from 1947 was Dinah Drake, whose love interest was Larry Lance (the conceptual forbear of Quentin Larry Lance on Arrow). It's also worth noting that in the current New 52 Continuity, DLL doesn't exist, and Black Canary Dinah Drake Lance who is married (? I can't keep track) to Kurt Lance, and she barely knows Oliver Queen. And in the New52, since Dinah Drake Lance and Oliver Queen are contemporaries, if she and Kurt ever have a child Dinah Laurel, she will be much too young for Oliver. Like, seriously, ew. 

DLL and Comics Ollie's on-and-off again romance began when they both joined the Justice League. They fought for a long time before they dated. They went through several periods of being together and apart; Ollie cheated on her and broke her heart several times. They did, eventually, get married for awhile. Oliver died temporarily, as one does for awhile, and when he returned, he revealed he had murdered a villain and wanted to be left alone. Dinah separates from Ollie and returns to single life. The Earth Zero/Post Crisis Universe's story ends with DLL and Oliver Queen being broken up. 

Let me repeat that:  The Earth Zero/Post Crisis Universe's story ends with DLL and Oliver Queen being broken up. 

 So if you want insist that what is true in the comics MUST be true on Arrow, then Ollie and Laurel's destiny is to ultimately remain apart.

Someone once argued to me the "destiny" comes from the Kingdom Come universe, an Elseworlds/possible future of Earth Zero--but note in Kingdom Come, where Oliver and DLL are married, they get brutally killed together. So I'd really rather not count on that as being "destiny."

I also want to emphasize that DLL is really her own character. She does not "belong" to Oliver or the Arrow family per se. She HAS often been involved with the Arrow family--and has also been very close to Mia, Roy Harper, and Connor Hawke, being a stand-in mother/big sister to all of them. She has often worked as a partner to Ollie. But she began her life as a solo heroine and then member of the Justice League (which in some variants on continuity, she helped found). And she was a longtime member of the Birds of Prey--whose monthly and title ran for years and years longer than, say, Green Arrow/Black Canary, and in which members of the Arrow family rarely appeared only as guest stars. Arrow didn't have to necessarily include Laurel, and if you did a show called "Black Canary," the creators shouldn't have to feel beholden to including Oliver Queen. They are two very complete characters on their own, who also happen to share large chunks of history together.

Personally, I think the less the Arrow writers focus on a romance between Ollie and Laurel and the more they just build her as a friend and associate, the better the writing for the show in general and the character in particular should be. Ollie needs to hang up the chick habit, go celibate for awhile, then find someone after he gets over some of his other trauma (he uses sex like Laurel uses prescription painkillers to escape--and it would be cool if she pointed that out to him). Maybe McKenna Hall can show up with a bionic leg. She was a nice girl and didn't put up with his shit.

3) "Laurel is NOTHING like DLL!"

When people say this, they mean Laurel isn't very good at martial arts. Because apparently "knows martial arts" is a personality trait and should be the key defining feature of a human being. It is true, Laurel isn't very good at martial arts. The writers even screwed her over by making her reasonably competent at self defense in early episodes, based on her dad teaching her, but then the sexist asshole writers took most of that proficiency away from because they decided she was more narratively useful if she was helpless all the time. And yes, that is annoying.

Sadly, sadly, oh so sadly, making Dinah Laurel Lance helpless so Ollie can save her is not an Arrow specific thing. One of the worst things about DLL becoming Ollie's love interest was that she was frequently made a damsel in distress for Ollie, and it was indeed all the more nonsensical because of how capable a fighter she was supposed to be. One big example was the Longbow Hunters, where she gets captured and brutally tortured (such that she loses her Canary Cry for awhile), and Ollie has to save her. But that's only really the most memorable example. So, sadly, Laurel being a damsel in distress for Ollie is really not all that different from DLL after all. But of course that's not a personality trait either.

Who is DLL personality wise? This is my sense of her, from having read every issue of Birds of Prey volume 1 (plus the preceding miniseries): DLL is a passionate, moral woman with a strong sense of justice. She values family deeply, and is very protective of her family members, tries to honor her mother and father in her work, and her protectiveness extends to close friends whom she thinks of as family. She loves spicy food, loves takeout, and can't cook. She loves and protects kids. She has awful taste in men, and is drawn to bad boys (she dated Ra's al Ghul once, both of them not recognizing the other at the time). She is doggedly persistent, and will often throw herself into incredibly dangerous situations that she may not be able to handle alone just because she is insistent on getting the job done. While she can do what it takes the to get the job done, she favors ideals over pragmatism (once, Oracle asked her to get these files Oracle was going to use in a somewhat dirty way to stop some bad guys; DLL destroyed them and told Oracle they were lost because she didn't like the methods Oracle wanted to use, even though the methods would have been effective, just a bit corrupt). On the rare occasion she does start to feel hopeless, she can however fall into a self-pitying rut and be sloppy and self-destructive (this is the state she was in when the Birds of Prey first formed, where she was still reeling from the events of the Longbow Hunters amongst other things; one of the reasons Oracle specifically hired her was to help DLL get her confidence back). She is more able to work herself out of self-destructive tendencies by being shaken out of isolation and working with close friends.

I really would describe Laurel Lance exactly the same way.

Personality wise, I think they have an incredible amount in common. 

What different is the background. DLL was raised by a superhero, her mother, and was influenced by her mother's superhero friends from the Justice Society, who also trained her to fight (Ted Grant, Barry Allen, etc.). The life she built for herself was to take after her mother. IIRC, Larry Lance died before Dinah Drake did (both of DLL's parents are dead), and thus DLL was much closer to her mother than her father.

Laurel's mother is an academic, not a superhero, and Laurel was not raised by any superhero friends. She did spend more time with her cop father, and was taught some things by him. Laurel's mother left, and Laurel grew much closer to her father than she was to her mother. Laurel was inspired by her father's dedication to the law, and pursued a career in law. Laurel in short is an Elseworlds DLL where DLL took after dad instead of mom.

But personality-wise, they are very much the same person.

Compare: Sara Lance, for what is worth, personality wise is very little like DLL. Sara is a more reckless and ruthless. She has a party girl background. She is pragmatic--very willing to just take the kill shot on the bad guy than find the best moral solution. Actually, her personality is a lot like the comic book version of Helena Bertinelli, minus the sorority girl stuff--which would explain how she and her sister can butt heads but still care for each other (DLL and Comics-Helena are good friends). Sara and DLL have little in common, background or personality wise, save for her protective streak and a weakness for Ollie. Note this does NOT mean Sara shouldn't be the Canary character that she is (she can and should be, IMO). It just means that Sara Lance is NOT a proxy/expy for DLL.

While I don't like how inconsistent the writers (and editors, for a lot of Laurel's good scenes end up on the Deleted scenes of the DVDs) treat Laurel, I'm cool with where she is on the show. She does not have to be exactly like DLL in terms of background or destiny. (I think DLL would think it's amazing there's a version of her somewhere that graduated law school.) I think it's better the less she is pushed as a love interest for Ollie (the writers may disagree, sadly), because it means she is more likely used as a character, not as a plot device.***

I think she can and may become a crimefighter, but it's not going to be in the same way DLL did--it CAN'T be. There's no Justice Society to train her. Her mom apparently doesn't know jack about fighting (sadly). She'll find her own path. Ollie may train her. Her dad's police friends may train her. Maybe Sara will return and train her. Or she'll find a new mentor (which could be a cool storyline). With her law background, she may be more like Manhunter (Kate Spencer, whose Arrow counterpart just died), and that's cool. Elseworlds where Dinah Laurel Lance becomes Manhunter. I'd read that comic book. She may well become Black Canary, but it's very clear the show is taking its own slow path toward that route, and I'm not going to waste energy worrying about how it's not like a series of comics that, in fact, are outdated and no longer part of current DCU comics continuity anyway.

I also don't think Laurel's existence or journey to becoming whatever she becomes precludes or overtakes the existence of her sister Sara. Sara Lance is a great character with a great story, and they actually serve each other well by existing alongside one another and acting as foils to one another. Seeing Sara live to see another day at the end of Season 2 gives me hope interesting stuff is in store for both characters. The two should not be pitted against each other, nor should Laurel be pitted against her comics counterpart who has decades more history and an entirely different background. It's only fair as with all characters to first and foremost see her in the medium she is in alone, and trace her evolution from there, without letting alternate continuities muddle up character interpretation.

* Post Crisis on Infinite Earths, Pre-Flashpoint, AKA the comics between roughly 1987 and 2010, AKA the "Iron Age." I believe we're in the "Silly Putty Age" now.

** Hell, the only character I am frustrated with because she isn't more like the comic book version is Helena, because the HERO who is in the comics is one of my favorite HEROES in the DCU, and I hate that they made her a two-dimensional psychopathic villain because of some stupid fiance death, rather than the woman who lost her entire family and swore to shut down all organized crime because of not only what she went through, but because of the evils her family represented. And that's just because the comics Huntress is a much cooler character than the lameass vengeance junkie on the TV show. But I digress.

*** I think that's actually why so many people "ship" Felicity Smoak with Oliver. Because Felicity is a real-feeling human-like entity, with her own personality, and she is consistently written as such, and not as a plot device. Laurel they can't seem to reconcile her personality/back story and with the love interest idea and then she just gets turned into some doll they need to have thrown around to give Oliver something to react to. Everytime Laurel becomes love interest, she loses all uniqueness and self-agency. I'm not an "Olicity" fan but I dig why people prefer that relationship. They want to see a relationship between two people, not one person and a human-shaped object.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

A message to my teenage self in the 1990s about comic books

Dear My Teenage Self,

Thanks to not only a childhood of picking up comics whenever you could despite living in the middle of nowhere, but also to Lynda Carter, the Superfriends, and the Burton Batman films, you recently have decided to become a comic book junkie. You have decided to read JLA and Wonder Woman. You have decided to collect everything with Helena Bertinelli in it, because, after a letter DC wrote TO YOU in the lettercol of an issue of Detective Comics explaining the difference between Helena Bertinelli and Helena Wayne, you decided that, despite Helena Wayne being an icon of your childhood, Helena Bertinelli was waaay cooler. You have everything with Catwoman in it, and will for a long time. You have decided, even though you loved Spider-Man (and his Amazing Friends) as a kid, and read all of your family friend Eric's Fantastic Four issues he would allow you to get your hands on, you really are a DC girl. You believe you will be a DC girl forever. Though articulating why is difficult, there is something that pops out to you on the page in DC's books that doesn't in Marvel's. To you, DC's darker and grittier books are more relatable and compelling, and their paragon supers are just more your role model types, especially always and forever Wonder Woman. And that for whatever reason, you just have trouble penetrating and understanding what the hell is going on in many Marvel books (and frankly, I am sorry to say, that is still true at least for the X-Men comics, no matter how cool the idea of the X-Men is). Part of the big reason why you're not all that into Marvel, as that you have trouble finding female characters, rolemodels, heroines, that you desire to look up to. You kind of like Rogue, but again, the X-Men titles are impenetrable, and you liked She-Hulk as a kid when she took the Thing's place in F4, but you're not sure what she's up to now. While Marvel has other superheroines, no one else for whatever reason stands out for you. You can't find your personal equivalent for Wonder Woman or Huntress or Oracle (enjoy her while she lasts) there, for example.  

I know you are going to be mad at me, because as of May, I will not be buying any DC Comics. My DC collection has slowly dwindled for a long time. I won't say "never buying them any more," because I've learned not to say things like that. Just "not right now, and probably for a long time."

You may even be shocked to hear that I consider many of our childhood heroes, the ones that made you utterly declare yourself a DC-head forever and always, effectively dead. Some of them are not technically dead (no one ever technically dies in comics, as you are quickly learning, and don't worry, Superman and Wonder Woman will be out of those stupid costumes soon). Other DC heroes won't stay dead that you probably couldn't give a crap about (I think you and I agree there is no point whatsoever to Hal Jordan). But our heroes are dead in spirit.

See, a couple years ago DC did a reboot beyond reboots of all reboots (we did accept the Crisis on Infinite Earths as a probably necessary thing, but also foolishly thought something like that would seldom happen again). And this reboot just makes my once familiar fictional friends and heroes feel cold and distant to me. Other heroes, like our beloved Ms. Bertinelli, and other heroes you have yet to meet, are now nonexistent. (A consolation: Helena B IS on TV on a show about Green Arrow, which sounds cooler than you think.) This reboot is really confusing, too, where some old continuity is real but other parts of it aren't, and IT has become the impenetrable thing I suddenly don't understand. I have tried to keep an eye on it, I have tried to flip through on occasion to see what's new or changed. But there's just frankly few people in that universe anymore I can find it in me to give a damn about. And all of those role-model-heroines... gone or changed, in a way that I cannot see in them what I related to or loved anymore.

The last title I am reading from DC was in fact all new heroes: the heroes of The Movement. You'd love it, it was all about young superheroes fighting deeply corrupt system in a decaying city (much like the city I live in, frankly; yes I live in a city, you'll have to forgive me on that too, country girl). The Movement is by a writer you haven't heard of yet but once you do, you will never put her--yes, her!--work down (she also writes Helena Bertinelli amazingly, look forward to that when the time comes). The Movement is being cancelled after a year because it wasn't selling enough. In my opinion, it wasn't marketed enough. It's new characters. It needs time for people to have heard of it and to latch on to the new people--you can't make a new Justice League or Team Bat overnight. But I can understand--they need to make money, they can't spend money on something that doesn't put them back into the black. Maybe it wasn't the right format for it, or the right time. But The Movement was the last chance for me to have current heroes in the DCU I loved for now. So I'm leaving it.

And here's the worst part: please try to hold down the sense of betrayal you may feel. But... I am increasingly buying a large number of Marvel titles. Future Foundation is done now, but it was AWESOME, and it was a lot of what you liked about Fantastic Four but better, because it didn't have Reed Richards in it. AND now that it's done, She-Hulk who was in it has her own monthly again! And it is so far, utterly phenomenal. She is as fun as you remember her, and better--smart, funny, strong. Carol Danvers has her own book too... I know you only know her as "that chick Rogue stole her powers from and is in a coma," but she's amazing, and she's called Captain Marvel now. Now yes, I think that name is stupid too because when you hear the words "Captain Marvel," you, too, hear your dad shouting that name in childlike glee in reference to his childhood hero Billy Batson from DC Comics, but she's--I call her Captain Carol--a great character. Her backstory is very interesting, and she is warm, and nice, and kick ass, which is all the things you want in a heroine. There's a new Ms. Marvel too who is amazing--can you believe, a young Muslim superheroine? Hawkeye who you never heard of at the time is also a great title, really right down your alley in terms of a lot of slice of life as well as some grey-area superheroing, and has a guy and a girl archer in it whom you would both love. So many great female superheroines (at the age of 37, I still plan to grow up to be them some day), and so many great heroes in general regardless of gender. A lot of these are having easy to access entry points--the new #1s I care less about per se than just being able to jump on and know what's happening (DC's new #1s some how had the opposite effect on me). Somehow, without really trying, I have began to make mine Marvel. I'm not seeking their books out, really; the books on the shelf are just calling to me and they are being amazing.

And, well, there're indie books doing that too. You're going to be reading some great pulp fantasy and other fun stuff. Image is a good publisher now that they've stopped trying too hard to be edgy. There's other good publishers too. You'll have a lot to choose from.

And I want to be oh-so-very clear: there doesn't have to be a binary. I know you've been raised on Pepsi vs Coke taste test commercials and think you have to have product loyalty to one and not the other. That's really not how it works. In fact, oh honey, oh how I wish I could help you understand in many deeper things than comics, that it really is okay and normal to love both. But you'll get there.

Anyway, this ISN'T about having to love ONLY DC or ONLY Marvel or ONLY any one thing and eschewing all others. This is not Highlander, there does not have to be only one. It's just that... I have left DC because it is no longer a home for those I consider my heroes.  In Marvel (and Boom! and Dynamite): that's where my heroes are now, and I hope you will accept that and forgive me.

Do not fear, however: we will always, always, always love Wonder Woman. We may not see the Wonder Woman we recognize in the comics at the moment, but she will be there, smiling down from the awesome action figure collection I have now (oh, yes, you are jealous) and the posters and the back issues and the video recordings of the 1970s show. And her kindness and warmth and courage and integrity and the way she just exemplifies showing us we can be whatever our potential can carry us to--the things we both know are what make her Wonder Woman and still make her our ultimate hero--are things we will always carry in our hearts to try to live up to in our own nerdy, frumpy ways.

And that's the real thing I wish for you to understand: our heroes are ultimately in our hearts. In the comics and other media we seek out, we do that only to remind us what we hold hold most dear in the depth of ourselves. Well, And so we have an excuse to buy awesome action figures. We can do these things anywhere we need to go, and we do not have to stay where we are no longer fed. At this point, the journey is simply marvelous.

Love (and really, honey, love), You, in about twenty years

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Multi-device Woes for a Would-Be Game Designer

Note to self: when transferring different versions of same files from separate devices to one main file, make doubly sure the version you keep is the newest.

One of my pet projects is a revamp of d20 Modern. The main purpose of this project is masochism. The secondary purpose is to have a revised, Pathfinderized, playable d20 based game for cinematic contemporary, sci-fi, and urban fantasy games.

I have been writing up a new "psychic" class and vastly revising the spell list. I've realized the only version I have now is an old one, with several new revisions lost--and some of which are forgotten.

My interest in attempting game design is relatively recent. Oddly, if this were a story I were writing, I feel like I wouldn't make this mistake. But then, I tend to only write stories on one computer. There is a lesson in here somewhere. Anyway, live and learn. Here's hoping the new, new psychic is better than the old new one.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Doctor Who Retrospective: The Doctor Who Cookbook

Allons-y! Into the world of cooking with Doctor Who. That's right, cooking.

When I graduated from high school in the early 90s, I asked for one thing as my graduation present: plane tickets to Great Britain. That summer I toured much of England, including a day trip to the Longleat Estate, which at the time housed a well-loved Doctor Who exhibit. After passing through the rooms of models, costumes, and monsters, we arrived at a modest gift shop window, and I considered what to add to my collection that would not break the bank, and asked the matronly shop clerk for advice. "Well, it may seem a bit unusual, but this is really my favorite," she said, holding up a paperback featuring a Cyber-maitre d', Dalek waiter, and Yeti chef on the cover. Its title? The Doctor Who Cookbook. Sold. As both a longtime Whovian and collector of recipes, to date it is one of my favorite possessions, let alone Doctor Who collectibles

I know, after promising a look over Classic and New Who in its evolution talking about a cookbook seems strange. But given my erratic and distant updates, let's have some fun. (I had another update discussing the evolution of the Cybermen, but that seems to have been lost in Cyberspace. You and your retrospectives belong to us. They shall be deleted. I blame Mercury retrograde.) To the meat of the matter:

The Doctor Who Cookbook was published in 1985 by Gary Downie, at the time the production manager for the show. He apparently wrote to every person that he knew somehow was connected to Doctor Who since the beginning and asked them for recipes. What resulted was a phenomenal collection of recipes submitted by actors, producers, directors, and crew members who all at some point in the last 22 years had worked on Doctor Who. Every contributor has their own bio, making it valuable to any Whovian, even a non-foodie, for the nice blurbs on the lives of those connected to the show, and nearly every page is adorned with glorious hand-drawn cartoons by a woman named Gail Bennett of the Doctor, his companions, and his foes. Marvel at Leela swinging down on a vine to throw some veggies into the stew simmering below, Lexa serving Meglos's head on a platter, or Tegan seething at Adric for eating all of the tasty hors d'oeuvres she'd just made. They really are very charming. There's an insert of full color photos of the some of the current cast of Doctor Who testing recipes. By "current" I mean of course "current" in 1985: Colin Baker, Nicola Bryant, and special guest Fraser Hines, who had reprised his role of Jamie in "The Two Doctors" serial that had aired relatively recently. Director Fiona Cumming oversaw taste-testing of cake.

A lot of the recipes were granted some Whovian flare where possible. Many recipes were named punnishly, incorporating in character and creature names, such as Maureen O'Brien's "Vickissoise," Nerys Hughes "Todd in the Hole," and Patrick Troughton's "Vegetable Soup with Dalek Krotons." (The latter might be a bit obscure to suss out: garlic croutons.) Others played on titles in other ways--the first Romana submitted "Time Lady Tzatziki" and the second "Extra-Terrestrial Terrine." Some played no games--Janet Fielding wanted full personal credit for "Fielding's Favorite Souffle" (but I have to wonder how Oswald's compares?). Others went full tilt, suggesting alien ingredients, like longtime Doctor Who writer Terrance Dicks informing the reader to only substitute in prime rib of beef if a proper Gallifreyan banjixx cannot be procured and butchered. The best recipe of course is producer Barry Letts' recipe, titled only "?"

I hope the Downie estate will forgive me if I reproduce part of ? here. This recipe follows a description from Barry Letts, who claims to have learned the recipe from an obliging Venusian caterer (adding that sulphuric acid rain was terrible on the location crew's equipment):


from Barry Letts, published in the Doctor Who Cookbook, copyright 1985 Gary Downie

3 oz/85 g per head of blim tree worms
4 oz/113 g per head of runcle grease
1 oz/28 g per head of nossy bulbs
Grated snadge, to taste.

Boil the worms al dente (15-20 minutes). Crush the nossy bulbs and fry lightly in the melted runcle grease. Stir in the worms, season to taste, and serve with a sprinkling of grated snadge.

The book suggests substitution with more easily available terran ingredients but I'll let you figure out for yourself what they might be. I will note however that at least when I have boiled blim tree worms or their equivalent, they seldom take as long as 15-20 minutes to get to the point of being al dente. I would follow the instructions on the packaging. The cookbook also contains a recipe called Mena's Tachyonic Sauce which would be excellent with this fine example of Venusian cuisine.

As a fan of all food everywhere, I just love the cookbook for its variety. While it contains fairly simple recipes like ? and what is apparently an "exotic" American specialty, corned beef hash, there are also some fairly elaborate or exotic dishes, like the above mentioned E.T. Terrine and Fielding's Ocker Balls, which involve pastry and a filling involving oysters, roe, and other rich things. It's also nice as a British cookbook, as while we sometimes like to make fun of British food, it includes useful, easy versions of British dishes that really are quite tasty and worth trying, like Toad in the Hole (well, Todd) and Sticky Toffee Pudding. Of course there's also Russian, Polish, Greek and other largely European cuisines, a few Indian-inspired dishes as well, and some homebrewed concoctions. One of my favorites is Louise Jameson's "Leela's Savage Savoury," which is sauteed red cabbage, zucchini, and bell peppers, seasoned with ginger and chili, and doused with cream--yum.

So why discuss this, beyond sharing with you the contents of a likely very hard to find Doctor Who collectible? Besides the fact that my second favorite topic of discussion is food.

First, this book came out at an interesting time in Doctor Who's history. I don't think Downie knew it when he first solicited recipes, but it ended up getting published around the time the show went on its first hiatus. I have no idea how well it sold, but its publication and presence showed that people were interested in Doctor Who at a time when the BBC was seriously considering letting it go (this first hiatus ended, fortunately, not too long after. The second in 1989, however, kept the show off the air for 16 years). It is as I say a treasure trove of many of the personalities who contributed to the show over the years, and in its own unique way helped celebrate the show's history at a time when some very much undervalued it.

Secondly, recipes are often rather personal, even if they do not reveal what is necessarily private (and thank goodness!). Recipes frequently come with stories attached (some of which are included in the book), and the recipe a person chooses to submit helps reflect their personality, their lives. The food we love is often attached to memories of family and friends. And not only does the book feature a vast array of Doctor Who cast and crew, it features submissions from many people who now have passed away. (Sadly, Richard Hurndall, who played One in "The Five Doctors" died only four days after he had sent his recipe to Gary Downie.) How lovely to have a record of what is a little piece of them, even if it's just a nice dessert recipe someone served to their kids on Saturday nights.Or at least amusing to learn things like the apparent fact that Mark Strickson at that point in his life needed recipes gentle enough to prepare when hung over.

Finally, it is the utter bizarreness of this book--a cookbook--that is what makes it awesome as a collectible. We can have buckets of action figures and series encyclopedias, but this really is something a bit different.

I admit, my friends, there is a part of me that unfortunately has a bit of a old-fogey-meets-hipster attitude about Doctor Who fandom. I liked Doctor Who before it was cool, and you young nuWhovians can get off my lawn. I walked into Barnes and Noble yesterday and front and center there was a great big Doctor Who display, featuring encyclopedias, novels, DVDs, plushies, toy sonic screwdrivers, and so on. Truly, part of me was excited--how cool to see something I loved be displayed front and center! But another part of me felt disappointed. It largely looked like a pile of cookie cutter merchandise, identical except in branding to the Twilight or Marvel's Avengers or Harry Potter stuff before. When I was a young Whovian in the 80s and 90s, I would scour store shelves for anything Doctor Who I could find. It really took a lot of looking and work, but finding this Peter Haining retrospective or that Target novel felt really special because of how much time it took. There was enough of a Doctor Who fandom in my area, thanks to my local PBS station at the time, that you could find stuff, but it did take some dedication and whatever you found really felt like a treasure. To have it in mass abundance is at one hand, a well-deserved acknowledgement of just how great this show is, how long it has lasted. But it also kind of means that's been massively commercialized, and there's not a lot of room for individuality, for the really weird niche doodads like the Doctor Who Cookbook.

Or... maybe I'm wrong. Honestly, I think an idea like this is long overdue for revisitation. How does Oswald's souffle compare to Fielding's? Is it high time we got an official recipe for fish fingers and custard in print? Anyway, folks, let's get creative.

And if you want some fun recipe ideas for a 50th Anniversary Party.... drop me a line.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Doctor Who Retrospective: The First Doctor, Fear, and the Nature of the Companion

“Fear makes companions of us all, Miss Wright.” — the First Doctor, “100,000 B.C.”

The new (2005­–present) series emphasizes the Doctor’s choice to travel with companions because he enjoys seeing the universe through his companions’ eyes. The Doctor takes great glee in showing them how beautiful and diverse the cosmos is, and we may mistake the Doctor's search for a sense of wonder as his only motivation. We forget that the Doctor’s journey began in fear—fear of going home, fear of never going home, fear of being discovered by the wrong people, fear of the endless dangers of traveling through time and space. Even so, this fear led him to taking on companions, and benefiting from companionship. And indeed, to this day, his companions often reflect some aspect or another of the original TARDIS crew, their presence as much a security blanket as it is a source of joy.

The Doctor and his granddaughter Susan ran away from Gallifrey. The exact reasons why are still amongst the core mysteries of Doctor Who; we know that they refer to themselves as “exiles.” We learn much later that the Doctor not only stole his TARDIS in their flight from Gallifrey but also an astral engineering device known as the Hand of Omega. The Doctor possibly objected to something the Time Lords were going to do--or perhaps to their refusal to do something. Whatever the reason, the Doctor and Susan cannot go home; they are afraid of going home. The Doctor is also afraid of being discovered—revealing Time Lord technology to less advanced societies could expose people to things they are not ready for, and could expose him to the people he and Susan are running away from. The Doctor is afraid of harm coming to Susan, likely the only living family he has (the Second Doctor in “Tomb of the Cybermen” suggests his family is “sleeping in his mind”—in other words, they exist only in memories he dares call on only occasionally). And thus, the Doctor is in fact afraid of Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright when they turn up looking for Susan in the Totter’s Lane junkyard.

Some fans, especially newer fans, are critical of how nasty the Doctor is to Ian and Barbara in Doctor Who’s first story, “An Unearthly Child.” Used to an outwardly friendly Doctor who loves humanity, these fans are perplexed by a Doctor who does not trust and is even verbally abusive to human beings. One must absolutely bear in mind two things: first, the Doctor you see in later stories had to get that way somehow; the beginning of the story shows the start of that process, and trust is not only usually earned, but also learned. Second, the story clearly sets up Ian and Barbara as the heroes—after the pan shot of the junkyard to establish its mystery, Ian and Barbara are introduced, and their personalities, interests, and concern for Susan are what drives them and the story; it is their quest to help Susan that is the plot. The Doctor is not the protagonist; he is in fact, technically, the show’s first antagonist, because he is the obstacle Ian and Barbara must overcome. Ian and Barbara's eventual triumph is that he joins the protagonists’ side. The show is called “Doctor Who” because it is the mystery of this “Doctor” which causes the heroes Ian and Barbara to get into the adventures they get; he is a driving force, a focus. Not till later does the Doctor also become the primary hero (in my opinion, however, that the best Doctor Who stories are those where TARDIS team, as an ensemble, are the protagonists, not where the Doctor alone is set up as the sole hero and the companions are the plot devices).

Most importantly, though, you have to accept and realize that the reason the Doctor is being a jerk is because he’s scared out of his mind. Look at it from his point of view: two adults have followed his teen granddaughter home. This alone is a little creepy, and he does not truly know why they have followed Susan (he does not know they are her teachers until later in the scene). He is trying to keep them from entering his ship, the knowledge of which he is afraid will cause them to contact Earth's authorities. For all he knows, they may be scientists or government officials tracking down his device (such as the proto-UNIT-like organization seen in “Remembrance of the Daleks,” which takes place in Earth chronology a few days after “An Unearthly Child”). He doesn’t know Earth or humanity very well yet. Susan is still the new girl in school; she has been at best there a few weeks, maybe months, and she has done most of the interacting with other human beings. Not to mentions, we humans have often proven to ourselves, let alone the universe, that we have a very ugly dark side. His goal isn’t to be mean to Ian and Barbara for no reason; his goal is to protect Susan and the TARDIS and from those who would fail to understand them and might hurt them or misuse knowledge of the TARDIS’s existence for their own gain. He takes off so Ian and Barbara won’t tell anyone about him, Susan, or the TARDIS. He is too frightened to take the chance that they would just leave it alone.

Soon enough they find themselves 100,000 years or so in the past, and at the mercies of the tribe of Gum. He realizes that first, Ian and Barbara are capable, and second, that Ian and Barbara have a vested interest in keeping each other and Susan safe. They are not selfish, and they are allied with his family. He comes to the right conclusion: he needs to stop bickering with them, and start using his incredible knowledge to help them. Barbara questions him—he had been irritatingly irascible until then, and he explains his helpful actions honestly with the quote above. He will work with them, because he is afraid not to. Fondness, respect come later, but soon. His fear forces him to work with them—and then he sees what they can do. Earlier he fights with Ian about who is “leader” of their group; later, the Doctor elects Ian to the position—and while the Doctor probably sees himself as head of their team in truth, he realizes Ian better serves as their spokesperson under the circumstances.

The Doctor turns to Ian and Barbara as allies because they help protect him. They do things he cannot—he may be brilliant, but he does not have Ian and Barbara’s empathy or at least their willingness to rely upon it as a benefit rather than a curse. In their third adventure, “Edge of Destruction,” Barbara accuses him of lacking both gratitude and common sense. The tirade takes him aback—he only then realizes how much they have contributed to their survival over the course of their adventures. Barbara is the one who shows him the TARDIS’s telepathic capabilities—he wasn’t aware of their extent until she deciphers the “message” the TARDIS was trying to tell them. So learning to see things through others’ eyes is a good thing, yes—suddenly, a dormant sympathy awakens in him.

BARBARA: "What do you care what I think or feel?"
DOCTOR: "As we learn about each other, so we learn about ourselves."

The Doctor apologizes for his behavior. From “An Unearthly Child” through “Edge of Destruction,” we actually see one of the best emotional journeys the Doctor ever goes on, in any of his adventures—one where he learns to stop being afraid of companionship. The Doctor’s journey to trust is one that is relatively slow, but is appropriate, and all the more valuable for its subtle but profound effect on the stories that follow.

At the same time, the journey had to begin with fear. He never would have opened up to them were it not his own fear of them—leading to their capture—and fear of being without them—fear of death at the hands of mutual enemies. And he realizes, traveling with the people who become his friends makes thoughts of exile less cold and dark and frightening. His brief encounter with the “Meddling Monk” notwithstanding, the Doctor learns to forget about Gallifrey for a very long time, not until they capture him much later in the final Second Doctor story, “The War Games.” By then, he is less afraid and more outraged of "home" asserting its existence—the only fear there ultimately, is of Zoe and Jamie forgetting him.

The Doctor is still afraid. Now in a later part of his journey, he is afraid of losing people as much as he is afraid of facing the universe without them. Such is the "curse" of learning to benefit from friendship. The Eleventh Doctor’s dance between traveling with Amy and Rory but trying to leave them home between adventures reflects this strange attempt at balancing this fear. But he travels with people not just because he enjoys their company, or even because he enjoys seeing their adventures through his friends’ eyes, but also because they protect him. Their insights and bravery have saved him as often as his amazing abilities allows him to protect and rescue them when they need it. And he does so, because he knows a universe without companions scarcely bears considering. 

Unsurprisingly, nearly all the companions have traits originally found in Ian, Barbara, or Susan (many of the individual traits listed cross over between each other).

Ian: Bravery, strength, willingness to fight, rationality, scientific curiosity.

Barbara: Emotional bravery, emotional/social curiosity, kindness, and willingness to speak up against wrongs—especially when the Doctor is wrong.

Susan: Brilliance coupled with innocence, youthful stubbornness, an openness to learning about new people (the Doctor learned this from his own granddaughter before it became his own trait), has a youthfulness or vulnerability that sparks a protective instinct in the Doctor.

The Doctor needs all of these traits in his companions in some combination to balance out his own brilliance, arrogance, curiosity, and powerful sense of justice. So he has someone to bounce ideas off of, someone to teach, someone to protect, and someone to, in the words of one of Barbara’s successors, “stop him.”

But most of all, he needs them so he doesn’t have to be afraid.