Sunday, 23 April 2017

Doctor Who Series 10 First Impressions: Episode 2 (Smile)

(Hello hello! As always, this is an overview of a Doctor Who episode that just aired as of writing and there are spoilers for it in here! Go watch it first and then read it! These are customary spoiler warnings! On with it.)

The above face is not my Siskel/Ebert style ranking
of the episode.
In the end, it feels like I'm going in circles with this show. This is by no means a bad thing, as one of Doctor Who's strengths is building off of itself to tell a new and interesting story. Here we do basically just that. I spent time with my "5 Worst Doctor Who Stories That I Really Like" article rewatching and defending The Rings Of Akhaten, which is the last time we got the "new companion's first TARDIS trip to the amazing, strange, and wonderful world of the future!" plot. That's rattling in my head as I think back on Smile, as are the multiple little thematic homages and similarities to other Doctor Who stories that I caught. Then there's the fact that this comes from Frank Cotrell-Boyce, writer of Series 8's In The Forest Of The Night, an episode which (unless some really dire shit happens in the next 10 weeks) will almost certainly be in the top three of fandom's worst Capaldi episodes. He manages to make an episode that is not the worst ever this time, and I mostly enjoyed it. Unfortunately the point at which I stopped enjoying it is about the 3/4ths mark, but we will get to the good shit that led up to that.

Right out of the gate, this episode is Doctor Who stew. The monsters of the week are robots who convey themselves via emojis in a world where people convey their emotions through emojis. For whatever reason, things go wrong in this world and any negative emotion is met with a cloud of nanomachines that strip a person's flesh from their bodies in an instant and kill them. The people here on this world are also colonists fleeing an evacuated Earth, so the killer emoji robot thing is a real problem for the survival of humanity. At this point, I know what I'm about. I'm a big Doctor Who nerd and I recognize all the parallels to past stories here. People fleeing an evacuated Earth evokes stories like The Ark In Space (or for an example made within the last 10 years, The Beast Below). A world where you have to be hap-hap-happy all the time or be killed evokes the 7th Doctor story, The Happiness Patrol (also instead of emoji robots that was Not-Mrs. Thatcher and Not-Bertie Basset killing the unhappy). The nanomachines stripping you down to bones is just the Vashta Nerada from the Library two-parter in the David Tennant years. Hell, the emoji robots and the Vardi nanomachines even work on the same "rules concerning involuntary human functions" concept that the Moffat era keeps using. This time it's "UH OH BETTER NOT FEEL SAD ABOUT EVERYONE YOU KNOW BEING DEAD OR THE ROBOTS WILL GET YOU" when grief and sadness are a natural human emotion we can't help but feel upon hearing bad things. What's more interesting is the structure of the episode itself. Discounting Nardole and the flashback of every sad person on the colony world getting killed, the Doctor and Bill are the only human players in the episode until 29 and a half minutes in. The first half of the episode is devoted to the Doctor and his new companion exploring an alien world, discovering new things while they both ponder and inquire about the nature of this planet and where all the people went. In other words, the rules of the story. What this does is make the story feel like a retro throwback to the William Hartnell era; a slow and deliberate buildup in which exploring becomes the main focus. It's wild, and it isn't even the only Hartnell-era throwback in this episode! We'll get to that, but on to our main players.

Bill's sci-fi savviness doesn't come up too much in this one, barring her not recognizing the Vardi as robots because of them being nanomachines and then identifiying the more traditional-looking emoji robots as robots. It feels like her main role in this one is "the new companion who asks questions we've never heard before". They did this a little bit with Clara, but Bill works well at doing it also. Questions like "why are the seats in the TARDIS so far away from the console?" or "if you have two hearts do you have really high blood pressure?". Her biggest standout is the continued wondering as to why the TARDIS is a police box, and her eventual conclusion that the "advice and assistance" wording on its front door is the Doctor to a T. It's nice and I like it. The Doctor himself works well also, and for me personally there's an interesting parallel. In my second-ever Capaldi era writeup on Into The Dalek, I hit upon the notion of Clara as not just a teacher to a Coal Hill class but to the Doctor as well. That take eventually evolved into Clara as a dark mirror of the Doctor in trying to emulate him, but resurfaced in Heaven Sent as the Doctor's internalization of Clara after her death. The Pilot has him taking on that role in Clara's absence and he's become a college professor and tutor to Bill. This is what their dynamic feels like in the outset of early 12/Bill adventures; a tutor and his student. We invoked The Happiness Patrol earlier, and note that 7th Doctor companion Ace used to call the Doctor "Professor". Hmm. The Doctor, in this one, is clever but gets it slightly wrong. He tries to blow everything up, as some of his past personas would delight in doing (looking at you, 2 and 7) but mucks it up in not realizing that he's in the colony ship and not just an advanced scout. He does eventually figure out why the Vardi killed everyone and how to fix it, but... we'll get to that.

Hey, as a quick aside before we get to the ending... it's that time again! Mirror imagery! There's a shot of the Doctor and Bill running from the Vardi where they're reflected in glass, and later in the engine room the Doctor sees an emoji bot's reflection in a gauge and that clues him in on the robot coming at him. Hooray for this gimmick continuing on forever! Okay, that resolution. It's not the greatest and a little head-scratching. So, the Vardi have become self-aware but also aren't self-aware enough to know that negative emotions are a usual human thing. That meant when a colonist died and people were sad, they cleared up the aberrations by removing those humans... and more humans were sad at those deaths and it all snowballed out into total extermination. Grief Syndrome made manifest. The Doctor's solution to this as the remaining colonists have guns out and are shooting emoji bots and Vardi alike is to, quote "kick over the chess board". That's very Doctorish and what I usually love about this show, but his solution is... mindwiping the robots so they don't remember anything. Then he introduces the humans as wanting to share space with their world... and just peaces out. It's just a strange note to go out on. Did he fix their capacity to understand that negative emotions are normal? Will humanity be able to coexist with the robots who killed half their family and friends? We don't know. I guess I should be happy for the ambiguity, but I'm mixed. It makes it feel like the Doctor simultaneously does and doesn't give a shit about saving these people, and it's weird. I do like the invocation of the Magic Haddock story (which I guess is a British version of the Monkey's Paw) but... I don't know. What is neat is the ending. We basically go directly into our next adventure in the past, and it's a cold winter in old London and the river Thames is frozen over and there's an elephant for some reason! This is the other major Hartnell invocation; the episodes tying together as a continuous string of adventures. Past... god, 1970 or so, Doctor Who never really did this aside from two-parters or big story arcs. Bringing it back is a surprise, but a welcome one. That's Smile. I don't think it will be remembered as a classic, but it will be remembered better than In The Forest Of The Night. I liked it fine on both watches, but I just wish the ending held up to better scrutiny myself. Oh well.

Next time: It's not 1990 and there probably aren't Ice Warriors.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

The Disney Afternoon Collection: A Review

Nostalgia, nostalgia, nostalgia. Wistfulness for the entertainment of one's youth is a major driving factor in a lot of computer games, and it's been presented in a variety of different ways. You can make something that deliberately echoes a particular aesthetic or genre from the older days of games easily, be it done in pixel art or any other particular style. From there, you can go further and lovingly improve upon the good parts of history with more modern mechanics and design decisions, or poke fun at the percieved parts of those golden days that didn't really work. No matter what one does with their nostalgic remakes or reimaginings and whatnot, the originals are still out there with all the power they once held. We can still revisit them and let their merits and flaws stand as they were. 2015's Mega Man Legacy Collection, from Capcom and Digital Eclipse, offered this museum curation approach by putting six classic action-platformers into one bundle for a bargain price, adding a bunch of extra bells and whistles. This, then, is the spiritual successor. In the early 1990s Capcom partnered with Disney to make games based on the animated series which appeared on Disney's "Disney Afternoon" block of programming, and many of them are regarded as all-time classics which still inspire great nostalgia in people today. Now, the museum curation approach is applied to a group of those games. This is The Disney Afternoon Collection. Currently on display, the childhood memories of an entire generation.

Monday, 17 April 2017

Trapped In A Maze Of Relationships (Persona 4 Golden)

(Hi again! I played this game called Persona 4 Golden and it's available on the PS Vita if you have one of those! You can also get the original version of it on the Playstation 2, probably for cheap by now. I'm going to talk about everything this game does now so this is your spoiler warning, but in short it's very good and worth "10/10" on a review score scale and you should absolutely get at it if it sounds like your kind of jam. Okay, now for 6000 words of bullshit on how it made me cry.)

There are, in the weird and wide stream of sentience that is my headspace, the seeds for an article about "review culture" and the nature of video game review scores. This is not that article, but I do want to touch briefly on the notion of a "10/10" game. Obviously this will vary for many and, as you might see if that article ever goes live, I don't give a hot goddamn about ranking video games with a number. I let the words I craft speak for how the game affected me. What I am about to write and you are about to read is the longest "10/10" screed ever. For me personally, a "10/10" is a game that is not just extremely satisfying and enjoyable to play. It is an entertainment experience that creates gravity of its own inside my headspace. We are talking about games that stay with me for years after the fact, and fundamentally change who I am as a human being. The last piece of entertainment to well and truly do that to me was in the summer of 2015, when I watched the entirety of Dirty Pair on a whim. If you know me, you know I won't ever shut up about Dirty Pair since. Right here and now, in April 2017, we have the next thing to do that. Last Friday, I finished Persona 4 Golden on the PS Vita. It will almost certainly be the best game I played this year, and I would love to be proven wrong on this because it would mean I have even more affirming and life-changing journeys in store for me. I didn't analyze Dirty Pair, not really, because it was just good clean fun (and also because Josh Marsfelder did an infinitely better job of it than I). This, however, is my stomping ground. If nothing else, I can write about video games and feelings well. Right here and now, in April 2017, is the regenerative burst of positive energy that this game filled me with given wordform. This is Persona 4 Golden, and it changed me for the better.

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Doctor Who Series 10 First Impressions: Episode 1 (The Pilot)

(It's that time again! Doctor Who is back on television, weekly this time for the next few months like it used to be in the Long Ago times! I am going to write up First Impressions post for every episode, usually the day after they air but anything could happen. Aiming for Sundays, though. This is The Pilot and it's the first episode and we're going to talk about it and there are spoilers so... go watch it first please.)

Reach out and touch me.
Oh, thank God. We're back. After Hell Bent and the departure of Clara Oswald, Knight of Mirrors And Competence, we had a long journey through the dark. An island of fun during the cold Christmas celebration with the last River Song adventure, and then nothing for an awful awful year. A hero tried to save us a year later, but after so long the program felt like a Ghost. Now we start the song again. There's a new girl ready to be wowed by the prospect of travelling through spacetime, but our title is dubious as best. This is not a Pilot for a new series. This is a series that, as is, is on its final legs. Peter Capaldi is on his way out, and 2017 will be his swan song. Still, it is a song worth singing with a new addition to the chorus. Let's cut all the musical metaphors and dive into the puddle that incites new adventures.

This is The Pilot, and I really loved it.

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

I wrote about a bunch of Power Rangers Movie games from 1995.

Hi, kids! This is very brief as it's basically a plug for more of my words hosted on someone else's websphere. If you look down and to the right, at my little webring of cool sites you should click, you'll see one called Ranger Retrospective. This is a blog run by my Internet pal Samurai Karasu and it's dedicated to looking over every episode of the original Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. You know, that show that got a big movie a while ago and had literally every episode streamed on Twitch in a marathon. Anyway, I pitched him an idea for a guest post and he gave me the thumbs up and I started to write it!

Two months ago. I admit I pulled a Douglas Adams and let the deadlines pile up while I poked and prodded at other pressing matters and articles. That's all in the past now, and the article's done and it's live! You can find it right here.

Considering Doctor Who writing is just around the corner again, this might be the last video game content you get in a while... unless I can find something really interesting to say about the game I've been playing and loving at present. Or if I form coherent thoughts out of recent opinions I've had. We'll see. Anyway, enjoy that writeup and go binge through that Power Rangers blog because Samurai Karasu is honestly funnier than me and he deserves it.

Monday, 10 April 2017

The Five Worst Doctor Who Stories EVER (That I Actually Really Love)

Oh boy! More Doctor Who bullshit! Sorry, but this will be the beginning of a bit of a blitz on the blog. Series 10 is going to be back in less than a month and that means I'll be bringing back the First Impressions series to blab about all of the new episodes and what they do right or wrong or whatever. The point is, I'm an opinionated asshole with a blog, and it's time to shove some of those opinions out there. Namely by offering alternative hot takes to the established opinions of Doctor Who fans. Wow! Nobody's ever done that shit before! Anyway, in 2014 while we were all waiting for Peter Capaldi to do something other than talk about his kidneys, Doctor Who Magazine published the results of its 50th Anniversary poll in which every televised Doctor Who story up to that point was ranked in a big gigantic list. All 241 of them. I take umbrage with some of these rankings, and we're going to focus on the ones that the poll called the worst of the worst. I went with the bottom 30 because that's low enough to be implied as dreadful while also having enough of these stories that I can actually defend. Not all of these are unjustly in the bottom of the barrel, and I have no empassioned defense for every single story here. Still, I've managed to pick five that I think get a bad rap. They might not always be undeserved bad raps, but I can redemptively read all five of the stories I'm about to put on the list. First, though, I need to rewatch them so I can actually make sure that I'm not full of shit. I'm writing this bit first and then I'll go watch some of them, just to give you a peek behind the curtain. So for you it's a nice quick scan down the page, but for me it's 100 minutes of watching the shit and re-reading critical analysis of it to see why it might be disliked. It's like fuckin' time travel, yes? Do note that since this is a 50th anniversary poll, no Capaldi-era stories were ranked on the list. If you want passionate defense of Peter Capaldi era stories, though, I wrote about all of them on this blog. Check out the First Impressions series. I was nice to at least two episodes that an updated version of this list would no doubt vote into the oblivion pool we're wading in now. Let's get on with it.

[Here is where you can imagine the famous TARDIS "VWOOORP... VWOOORP" sound effect as we go travel through time and space.]

Monday, 27 February 2017

Dark Souls 2: A Trip Report/Boss Fight Critique (Part 2)

(Hey, all! This is part 2 of a Dark Souls 2 boss writeup post. If you missed part 1, pop on over here and read some good words on the first half of bosses I faced in this game. With your spoiler warning of there being spoilers for the rest of the bosses in this game, let's get this shit done.)

Almost 50 hours. Good god, I haven't taken that long to beat something in ages.
Previously on Dark Souls 2: A whole bunch of spooky bosses of varying qualities threatened my heroic lady knight, Ishara. As she worked her way through the hordes and I worked my way through the game, the "feel" of Dark Souls 2 started to become apparent. I mentioned it snarkily in the caption to the last post's image, but one of the opening cutscenes literally does begin by having an old crone in red robes outright state that you're going to lose all of your souls, over and over again. Then she and her other old crones actually start laughing. That's really blatant and signposted and I'm not fond of it. Sure, Dark Souls was hard, but it was only the marketing which played up the THIS GAME'S ULTRA HARD angle with the whole "Prepare To Die" tagline. The game itself was above it... but, as has become clear, this was made by a whole new team with the design philosophy of "let's make it hard". We've seen that one of their go-to ways of making shit hard is outnumbering you, be it with the normal enemies or by adding mooks in the boss fights to overwhelm you. This will be the post in which I yell about their other big blatant "let's make it hard" go-to, but that's still a couple of boss fights away. Last time we covered roughly half of the fights I completed, so let's finish up the rest of the game with the other half.