“Far Beyond the Stars” yet so close

'Far_Beyond_the_Stars'_sketchLast night we watched the classic Star Trek: Deep Space 9 episode “Far Beyond the Stars” (Season 6, Episode 13, originally aired February 11, 1998.) I had never seen it before; I had entirely missed the last two seasons of DS9 and was spotty on seasons 2-5 until our current re-watch.

The episode has aged very well; nearly two decades later, it is very, very current. The premise (not a spoiler) is that Captain Benjamin Sisko has a full sensory vision of himself as an under-appreciated science fiction magazine writer in 1950s America. The cast regulars play alternate characters in this vision, all without alien prosthetic make-up.

The episode is a success that can be appreciated on multiple levels: the illustration of hope and despair, of prejudice overt and insidious, of how far we’ve come and how much further we have to go; the geeky enjoyment of the portrayals of characters based on real science fiction writers; the actors playing alternate parts with interesting symbolism in harmony or contrast with their regular parts; the musings about the relationship between ideas and change.

The story ties in painfully well with such current topics as the need to even state that Black Lives Matter, and various Sad/Rabid Puppies droppings. For my money, actor Avery Brooks, who also directs the episode, chewed the scenery too much in the climax scene; however, it remains a very strong piece.

You don’t need to be familiar with the metaplot of the show to appreciate this episode on its own; see it on Hulu, Netflix, or Amazon. Read more about the episode here and here (spoiler alert.)

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Dark Matter: RPG?

Dark_Matter_IntertitleThanks to the magic of the Fire TV Stick we recently bought, Edmund and I are half-way through watching the first season of the Space channel series Dark Matter (no spoilers on episodes 7 through 13, please!)  We’ve been viewing this very much as someone’s role-playing campaign, with classic players: the Fast-Talker (1), the GM’s Spouse, a.k.a. the only one that is sensible enough to be trusted as party leader (2), the Gun Bunny (3), the Ninja (4), the Weirdo (5), the Real Role-Player (6), and the GMPC (Android).

END OF EPISODE 6:

GM: OK, we’ve been playing this for a while so we’ve reached a milestone.  You guys can change one of your aspects now.  Think about taking something that will anchor your character in the story, build connections among you.

4: I change my Trouble from “Wanted for Murdering my Father” to “I Will Avenge my Father’s Death.”

GM: Uh, OK… you realize you guys are the hunted crew of a damaged ship, earning a hardscrabble existence on the edge of known space, and you won’t interact much with your family, right?

4: That’s what my character would do.

GM: (Sigh) OK.  What about you guys?

6: I took “I Must Bring the General to Justice.”

GM, weakly: OK… you realize you guys are the hunted crew of a damaged ship, earning a hardscrabble existence on the edge of…

6: Yeah. But that’s what my character would do.

GM: (Sigh) OK.  What about you, 3?  You’ve had some time to become familiar with the premise, you saw the background plots everybody else is taking. What about your own mysterious past?  You could take something to add a little depth to your character?

3: Nope.  I’m fine.

GM, looks at character sheet: Your aspects are Big Gun, Other Big Gun, and Even Bigger Gun, your High Concept is Gun Expert, and your Trouble is Trigger-Happy!

3, proudly: And I have the stunt “Two-Handed Shooting”!

GM: I fucking hate you all.

[Edited to add:]

EPISODE 7:

GM: Hey guys, 3’s player can’t make it this week but my friend Chris is in town and will play 3.  I hope no one minds?


Dark Matter Intertitle” by Source (WP:NFCC#4). Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia.

RPG a Day: As seen on…

1024px-The_X-Files_title_logo8. Favourite appearance of RPGs in media

There have been many entertaining references in the media over the years, but my favourite remains the X Files episode “José Chung’s ‘From Outer Space’.”

Well, hey, I didn’t spend all those years playing Dungeons and Dragons and not learn a little something about courage.
— Blaine Faulkner

#RPGaDay2015

Titansgrave: Yes!

titansgrave-logo-croppedAs a card-carrying (not really) gamer geek, I just had to watch Wil Wheaton’s Web series Titansgrave: The Ashes of Valkana, part of the Geek and Sundry programming.

This is a ten-episode series in which we follow game-master Wil Wheaton and his four players through a short role-playing campaign based on an original science fantasy setting and using Green Ronin Publishing’s Adventure Game Engine (AGE) system, which also powers their licensed Dragon Age RPG and the upcoming second edition of Blue RoseTitansgrave will soon be released as an adventure and setting sourcebook for AGE.  This professional show offers the high production values missing in amateur recordings of role-playing sessions and is meant to address geeks who are not already role-players.

I’ve posted a review of Dragon Age RPG a few years ago on RPG.net. In short, AGE is a pretty traditional system but a pleasantly streamlined and consistent one. Some of the suggestions for changes which I had at the time are addressed by this most recent version of the system, such as expansion of the use of stunts. But intrinsically, it’s not a hippie game and it should not feel disconcerting for most gamers.

Therefore, it makes a perfect example of how easy it can be to “say yes” as the GM even without fancy system features to support it. I really appreciate that Wil Wheaton has been giving great examples of this throughout the show so far. For example, when a player says she wants to do something fancy and cool, Wil doesn’t say “No, you have to wait until you know whether you have stunt points for this.” Instead he says “OK, and if you have stunts points, [insert cool effect here] may happen.”  I have yet to see him just saying “No” to a player’s idea.

He also wants the characters to have exciting adventures, not just walk along dotted lines through the scenario. When the rolls are failures, he describes the results, or encourages the players to describe them, in terms of bad luck or the opposition countering, not in terms of player characters’ ineffectiveness. Something happens and throws a new twist or danger. And Wil asks his players to create details, to name characters, and so forth, and uses these details to shape the story. Sure, he could fill in all those little details himself, but this is more fun and gets the players more involved, more invested.

I sure hope GMs are watching this!

Spoiler-Filled Review and Musings: True Detective

I repeat: lots of SPOILERS here but I’ll place them after the cut.

"Time Is A Flat Circle," illustration by Ibrahim Moustapha, 2014Edmund and I just finished the first season of Cary Joji Fukunaga and Nic Pizzolatto’s True Detective; we’d saved it all because we had been told by friends that it was very good but the pace was slow. Since I end up having a hard time remembering who was what and what went on when this sort of show is stretched over many weeks, I wanted to watch it all over the course of a few nights.

I liked the visuals, the non-linear story-telling, the foreshadowing, the casting, the soundtrack, the editing, and the attention to detail. I always have a measure of trouble understanding some of the dialogue when thick Southern accents and mumbling are involved, but it wasn’t too bad.

I appreciated the references and influences in both the writing and the cinematography. I found it interesting that the show has sparked a good number of high-quality fan art homages, from classic illustration to tongue-in-cheek mash-ups.

On the down side, as with most shows of this type and especially on HBO, it fails to do more than squeak a pass on the Bechdel test when two little girls chatter to one another in one episode. There are relatively few female characters (except as dead bodies), and they are not all that important to the plot; they are there to cast light on the two male protagonists’ mindsets. And being an HBO series, there is plenty of gratuitous female nudity and sex workers.

That’s it for the non-spoiler section. Continue reading “Spoiler-Filled Review and Musings: True Detective”

First Look: The Musketeers

The Musketeers (BBC series)
So, mini-review for the new BBC series “The Musketeers,” one episode in.

I liked the cinematography, the costumes, the editing, the direction, and most of the casting except for d’Artagnan and Athos (good actors, but not the right ones for the characters.) I sort of liked the music, meaning I liked the composition, arrangements, and execution well enough but I didn’t really like the way it was used; however, that’s a minor point.

But I didn’t like the writing.

I don’t mean the fact that it doesn’t follow Alexandre Dumas’s book; I’m not a stickler, and I greatly enjoy some bold adaptations and re-imaginings of old favourites like Sherlock, Elementary, Much Ado About Nothing, etc. I don’t even mind the historical inaccuracies like the accuracy and readiness of firearms or Milady sporting an off-the-shoulder dress; Dumas himself played fast and loose with historical accuracy.

But I just could not understand why one would change the story so much if it wasn’t to bring something that would work better, not worse, on screen. The story lacked the zest of the original book in the places that captured my heart long ago: d’Artagnan’s quips and wit, Athos’ allure and mystery, Aramis’ unflappable roguishness. (Porthos was done right, I’ll grant that.) The characters did not intrigue me and of all the reasons I will watch the second episode, all are in spite of the writing.

Edit: I thought the casting of Howard Charles as Porthos was the most brilliant thing in the entire show. Not only was he genuinely great, capturing the character, but as a mixed-race man he stands in for Alexandre Dumas himself, and that’s wonderful.

Doctor Who Mini-Reviews: Summary

tardis_wallpaper___dw_by_vampiric_time_lord-d5luyi7

Edmund and I have been re-watching the Doctor Who reboot from the beginning, and I wrote mini-reviews; having just finished the series, this is a little summary and analysis.

The scores I used go thus:

  1. This is embarrassing.  Go away.
  2. Weak.  I’m not going to try convincing my friends to watch the show based on this.
  3. Average for a Doctor Who episode.
  4. That was a good one!
  5. One of the best ever.

I assigned the scores as I watched on a completely subjective basis; at no point until tonight did I check my math to look for trends. But now it’s time; did some seasons rank much better than others for me? I recall Series 1, 3, and 6 most fondly. Did the scores reflect this? And when I assigned my scores, did I indeed grade on the normal curve, or did I bias high or low? Let’s find out.

First, some simple statistics:

Mean 3.15
Median 3
Minimum 1
Maximum 5
Std. Dev. 0.80

This is not too bad; it means I assigned a mean score of 3.15 ± 0.80, pretty close to the target average of 3. Yay me. In fact, it means that I slightly over-scored, but not too wildly.

Putting it on a chart, it looks like my favourite eras were the year of the Ninth Doctor (Christopher Eccleston), the second half of the Tenth Doctor’s career (David Tennant), and the first half of the Eleventh Doctor’s tenure (Matt Smith.)

DoctorWhoRatings

TARDIS Wallpaper DW by Vampiric Time Lord (Tylynn Kira A.)  The weird graph is mine, obviously.

Doctor Who Mini-Reviews: Series 7.5 (2013)

exploding_tardis

Edmund and I have been re-watching the Doctor Who reboot from the beginning, and I’m writing mini-reviews; I post them one season at a time. The info is cribbed from Wikipedia, and I added my scores and comments.

The scores go thus:

  1. This is embarrassing.  Go away.
  2. Weak.  I’m not going to try convincing my friends to watch the show based on this.
  3. Average for a Doctor Who episode.
  4. That was a good one!
  5. One of the best ever.

This one is for Part 2 of “Series 7″ of the recent collection, released in 2013 and starring Matt Smith as the Eleventh Doctor and Jenna-Louise Coleman as Clara “Oswin” Oswald under the direction of Steven Moffat, and it completes the re-watch marathon. I have to hope and pray that Stephen Moffat, clearly exhausted by his long tenure (or brain-drained by some alien worm, whatever) will now step away and let someone else try to salvage the series.

No Title Score Comments Code Episodes Writer Director Original airdate
232 The Bells of Saint John 2 Phooey, we lost Sir Ian as the voice of the Great Intelligence. In addition, what a missed opportunity to give agency to a Companion! Clara could very well have been gifted with computers on her own, which would have been the most logical reason for The Stack to want her – as was even mentioned in the episode. But no, she was clueless until partial upload left her with magically 1337 skilz.   1 episode Steven Moffat Colm McCarthy 30 March 2013
233 The Rings of Akhaten 2 Nice setting, but longish episode with insufficient plot and weak, interminable monologuing. Also, I want to see fewer creepy interactions between the Doctor and little girls. And less flirting.   1 episode Neil Cross Farren Blackburn 6 April 2013
234 Cold War 3 Underuse of the guest cast, tedious super-warrior/Cold War plot, complete non-surprise dénouement.   1 episode Mark Gatiss Douglas Mackinnon 13 April 2013
235 Hide 3 Ghost+time traveler+manticore monsters in love — Is somebody now writing these episodes by throwing three of four GURPS sourcebooks together?   1 episode Neil Cross Jamie Payne 20 April 2013
236 Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS 3 I’d be happy to see POC characters—if that didn’t mean that garbage collectors are all black men, which seems insulting.   1 episode Stephen Thompson Mat King 27 April 2013
237 The Crimson Horror 3 The plot is nonsense but at least it has the lovely trio of Madame Vastra, Jenny Flint, and Strax.   1 episode Mark Gatiss Saul Metzstein 4 May 2013
238 Nightmare in Silver 3 I liked Porridge, and I think Warwick Davis has a lovely voice. I sort of liked the punishment unit and the many nods to WH40K. Other than that, a fairly stupid plot that contradicts the canon.   1 episode Neil Gaiman Stephen Woolfenden 11 May 2013
239 The Name of the Doctor 3 Eh, a mess of a plot to get us to the big jump, but it had Vastra, Jenny, Strax, and River Song. The latter seriously needs to learn to say “Fuck off, you selfish dickhead husband,” though. Also, it didn’t look in previous episodes like Clara’s been saving the Doctor all the time.   1 episode Steven Moffat Saul Metzstein 18 May 2013
240   4 It was nice to see a number of characters (and actors) appears, and the rhythm was fairly brisk. I always enjoy non-linear story-telling, although this was still cautious. Mostly, I regret that the plot revolved around the last few years of Doctor Who, less than a decade in the five spanned. Also, the previous Companions are ignored except, to an extent, Rose Tyler.   50th anniversary special
(75 mi)
Steven Moffat Nick Hur 23 November 2013
241 The Time of the Doctor 2.5 Good Lord, I thought this episode would never end. I really can’t stand hearing any more innuendo about the Doctor’s romantic life. And a 300-year war siege by the Daleks? Really? No one figured out how to break the stalemate?   Christmas special (60 mins) Steven Moffat Jamie Payne 25 December 2013
  The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot 5 Adorable, and everything the official special wasn’t in terms of homage to the actual series rather than the last few seasons.   50th anniversary spoof
(30 mins)
Peter Davison Peter Davison 23 November 2013

Doctor Who Mini-Reviews: Series 7 (2012)

Doctor Who - Series 7Edmund and I have been re-watching the Doctor Who reboot from the beginning, and I’m writing mini-reviews; I post them one season at a time. The info is cribbed from Wikipedia, and I added my scores and comments.

The scores go thus:

  1. This is embarrassing.  Go away.
  2. Weak.  I’m not going to try convincing my friends to watch the show based on this.
  3. Average for a Doctor Who episode.
  4. That was a good one!
  5. One of the best ever.

This one is for Part 1 of “Series 7″ of the recent collection, released in 2012 and starring Matt Smith as the Eleventh Doctor, Karen Gillan as Amy Pond, and Arthur Darvill as Rory Williams under the direction of Steven Moffat. I’ll review the second half of the series, released in 2013, as a separate post because it figures a different cast and metaplot anyway.

This is the season that achieves something I thought mathematically impossible: all of it is below average. But at least it gave me the chance to discover what, in fact, the power of 3 is: it’s the score they couldn’t reach with this writing and directing team.

No Title Score Comments Code Episodes Writer Director Original airdate
226 Asylum of the Daleks 1 Ugh. The only virtue of this episode was… No wait, it merely sucked. Even Jenna Coleman couldn’t help it. And the only reason Oswyn’s status may be a big reveal to the viewer is if that viewer has been distracted for the last 45 minutes, yelling: “But that’s not how the Daleks work!”   1 episode (50 mins) Steven Moffat Nick Hurran 1 September 2012
227 Dinosaurs on a Spaceship 2 The only reasons this rises to a 2 is (A) sterling, if completely underused, guest cast, and (B) the dinosaurs did look nice. How could such a cast produce such a bland episode? Oh, I see: Chris Chibnall wrote it.   1 episode Chris Chibnall Saul Metzstein 8 September 2012
228 A Town Called Mercy 2 Ooooh, a Western. What a treat. The character of Kahler-Jex was mildly interesting.   1 episode Toby Whithouse Saul Metzstein 15 September 2012
229 The Power of Three 2 Another lacklustre episode despite the presence of Jemma Redgrave and Mark Williams.   1 episode Chris Chibnall Douglas Mackinnon 22 September 2012
230 The Angels Take Manhattan 2 In this episode, the Weeping Angels have officially changed from scary to petulant, the Doctor is written as a self-centred adolescent who doesn’t deserve any of his friends, and River needs to get some self-esteem back rather than put up with this shit.   1 episode Steven Moffat Nick Hurran 29 September 2012
231 The Snowmen 1.5 Was this written by asking 30 undergrads to write two minutes each? While the mystery of Clara Oswin Oswald mildly intrigues me and I was happy to see Madame Vastra, Jenny Flint, and Strax (and hear Ian McKellen), this contained some of the worst dialogue I’d heard on Doctor Who. The Doctor, in particular, gets awful, awful lines and poor Matt Smith seems at a loss for what to do with them.   Christmas special (60 mins) Steven Moffat Saul Metzstein 25 December 2012

Doctor Who Mini-Reviews: Series 6

Trust Me, I'm the DoctorEdmund and I have been re-watching the Doctor Who reboot from the beginning, and I’m writing mini-reviews; I post them one season at a time. The info is cribbed from Wikipedia, and I added my scores and comments.

The scores go thus:

  1. This is embarrassing.  Go away.
  2. Weak.  I’m not going to try convincing my friends to watch the show based on this.
  3. Average for a Doctor Who episode.
  4. That was a good one!
  5. One of the best ever.

This one is for “Series 6″ of the recent collection, released in 2011 and starring Matt Smith as the Eleventh Doctor, Karen Gillan as Amy Pond, and Arthur Darvill as Rory Williams under the direction of Steven Moffat. The distinguishing feature of the series is the use on long, inter-connected story arcs rather than simple episodic format. Even the more standalone episodes contained foreshadowing or cross-references to longer plots.

No Title Score Comments Code Episodes Writer Director Original airdate
214 The Impossible Astronaut
Day of the Moon
4/4 Intriguing premise, suspense, surprises, good camera work and rhythm, creative storytelling. Alas, the musical theme is now unbearably pompous. 2.1
2.2
2 episodes Steven Moffat Toby Haynes 23 April 2011
30 April 2011
215 The Curse of the Black Spot 2.5 Eh. An ordinary episode with a somewhat lacklustre plot, but we get to see Hugh “Lord Grantham” Bonneville as a pirate. 2.9 1 episode Stephen Thompson Jeremy Webb 7 May 2011
216 The Doctor’s Wife 2.5 Some emotional moments with good acting, but overall a fairly cockamamie and gratuitous plot. The writing didn’t impress me, Gaiman or not. 2.3 1 episode Neil Gaiman Richard Clark 14 May 2011
217 The Rebel Flesh
The Almost People
4/3.5 Good idea with nice twist that was enough to let me gloss over the “mining for acid in a medieval monastery in the North Sea” concept to go along and think about disposable replicants. But lost serious points in the last few minutes of the second part when, after all the speeches, the Amy replicant is just summarily destroyed. Nice going, Doc. 2.5
2.6
2 episodes Matthew Graham Julian Simpson 21 May 2011
28 May 2011
218 A Good Man Goes to War 3.5 First half or two-thirds earn a 4 or 4.5 for the brisk rhythm, dialogue, and plot twists as well as the gratuitous but entertaining cameos. The last part is a weak 3 for excessive predictability and characters being stupid in order to obey the plot. 2.7 1 episode (50 mins) Steven Moffat Peter Hoar 4 June 2011
219 Let’s Kill Hitler 1 Oh dear god, that is so awful. It feels like it was given to Nigel the intern to write, six months after the rest of the season, to tie up loose ends. I loved River Song until then, but I profoundly hated the character in this episode – not for being a psychopath but for being—So—Fucking-Annoying. Also, death speech of the week, blah, blah, blah. With a title like that, it’s like you announced “Chasing the White Rabbit” but played “We Built This City on Rock’n’Roll.” 2.8 1 episode (50 mins) Steven Moffat Richard Senior 27 August 2011
220 Night Terrors 3 It had its moments, but dragged a little too much, not enough material to supply much in the way of plot twists. Good atmosphere, though. 2.4 1 episode Mark Gatiss Richard Clark 3 September 2011
221 The Girl Who Waited 4 I probably liked this episode more than it deserved—because the focus was on Amy and Rory. I liked the acting and the quandary. The setting had a nice creepiness to it too. 2.10 1 episode Tom MacRae Nick Hurran 10 September 2011
222 The God Complex 3 It could have been an excellent episode but somehow never quite came together, probably because the fear-fate-Minotaur connection never made sense. The Monster in the Maze idea was married at shotgun point to the idea of losing faith in the Doctor. 2.11 1 episode (50 mins) Toby Whithouse Nick Hurran 17 September 2011
223 Closing Time 3 An other episode that should have been better. Having Craig and Stormageddon—er, Alfred have adventures with the Doctor was a great idea, but the Cybermen was not. The Cybermen defeated by love was… just a bad idea. Really? These other people didn’t have families? 2.12 1 episode Gareth Roberts Steve Hughes 24 September 2011
224 The Wedding of River Song 3.5 Nice alternate timeline/timecrash ideas, and as usual I like reconnecting with old friends. A little too tidy, but I did like seeing some plots revived. 2.13 1 episode Steven Moffat Jeremy Webb 1 October 2011
225 The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe 3 Probably too sweet and charming, but I enjoyed it—especially the three miners Droxil, Ven-Garr, and Billis. The Arwell family was also pretty well cast and acted. It was odd that the trees were so expendable, though. Christmas special (60 mins) Steven Moffat Farren Blackburn 25 December 2011