Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Diamond Pillar: A Fable

Once upon a time, a group of very wise men built a city underground. They excavated a vast cavern where before, there was nothing but stone, and said, "In this place shall we build Paradise." And they knew that because the city was so deep underground, that at any moment, the pressure of the earth overhead could cause the roof of the city to collapse in and bury its inhabitants, so they reinforced the roof with an enormous diamond pillar, right in the very center of the town square. (They were very clever men who knew how to balance it properly so that it wouldn't crack or shatter under the weight. Don't quibble about details, here.)

And so many came to the city over the years, and the decades, and the centuries, and though some people fought and bickered and grew angry (because they were people, after all) they all lived securely and safely under the earth, with the diamond pillar holding everything upright and stable. Children became parents, parents became grand-parents, the founders of the city passed into history and then into legend, and still the pillar supported their creation.

Until one day, some of the inhabitants of the city said to themselves, "That pillar is made out of pure diamond; surely, nobody will miss it if I chip out a little piece for myself. Even the tiniest little piece of that pillar will make me wealthy beyond my wildest dreams, after all, and I don't see what damage a little chip will do." Because even in a city that was Paradise, some people always wanted more than they had.

And so those people went to others, and said, "Why is it that the greatest part of our wealth should be wasted simply sitting there in the center of town? Surely there are better things it could be used for, aren't there?"

And some people said, "It is not wasted! It holds up the roof over our heads, and keeps the city safe and intact by its very presence! Surely you would not wish for the rock to collapse upon us?"

And they responded, "This city has stood for time immemorial, and it shall always stand, because we are just and great and the people believe in us. I simply cannot imagine that taking away some of that pillar will make that great of a difference." For these were people who had lived all their lives and all their father's fathers' lives in a city where the roof did not collapse, and they could not believe that roofs just fell down all of a sudden. (And they also did not believe in using contractions.)

And some people said, "We think you must be very greedy people, to covet the wealth of this town so."

And they said, "Not at all! We do not simply covet this wealth for ourselves!" (Although they did.) "We simply wish to make sure that everyone gets a share of the value they put into making this city the great place that it is! By taking the diamonds out of the pillar and putting them in your hands, we will give you the freedom to spend that wealth the way you think wisest!" (While all the while, they were dreaming dreams and scheming schemes to cheat and connive the diamonds out of the hands of others, so that they might have them all.)

And the debate went on for a long while, but these men were single-minded in their greed, while others had other concerns. And so every day, they talked and talked and talked about chipping away at the pillar, while every day a few of the others who opposed them gave up or were distracted or were swayed by their agreements or simply grew old and died (for these greedy men were so single-minded that they passed on their greed to their children.) Until eventually, they managed to convince lots of people that yes, their greed was not a vice, but the virtue of "self-interest", and their carelessness was not folly, but "liberty". And so, with some trepidation, they chipped away a bit at the pillar and collected the fragments of diamond.

And nothing happened.

As is not surprising; it was a very, very big pillar, and a very, very small chip. But when nothing happened, people eased their opposition further. After all, one chip meant nothing next to such a big pillar. The roof did not fall. Things seemed to go on as normal, except that the people who got the pieces of diamond became very, very rich. (But somehow, never quite rich enough.)

And so they chipped away again. And again, and again, each time gleeful at the seemingly limitless wealth that the pillar provided and the seeming lack of consequences to their acts. Fewer and fewer people worried about the roof now, and those who did were derided as foolish and "out of touch". Town criers talked about the "new wisdom" of the diamond-cutters, and how they had discovered a "new paradigm" of "leaner, more efficient pillars."

And then one day, one of the greedy men was chipping out another piece of the pillar...and a rock the size of a football cracked loose from the ceiling and crushed his skull like a grape. Suddenly, the whole town was filled with panic. More stones came loose, and soon every townsperson was looking up at the ceiling anxiously every day. In great haste, they called for an architect.

With one look, the architect surmised the problem. "The pillar is no longer strong and stable," he said. "We must return the diamonds we took out, or we will all surely perish." (He was a really good architect who knew how to glue diamonds together really well. Don't quibble about details, here.)

But the remaining greedy men were very, very greedy, and no wiser now than they'd ever been. "This is simply a natural correction in the weight distribution of the roof! It is in no way the result of our diamond mining! These sorts of things have probably happened before, and the roof has survived. We are surely in no danger."

"No," said the architect simply. "We must replace the diamonds, or we will all die." (He stopped using 'perish', because it was too important to mince words now.) Even as he spoke, more chunks fell out of the ceiling, injuring some, killing others.

And the greedy men found an architect of their own, and told him what words to say. He said that he had an alternate plan, one which involved taking more diamonds out of the pillar in a very clever way that would make it sturdier. He said this new plan would make them safer and richer. But some townspeople noticed that the greedy men were slipping a few chips of diamond into his pocket every time he spoke.

They said, "We are tired of being endangered! We see now that you simply wanted diamonds, that you cared nothing for our safety! Even now, you care more about your diamonds than about our lives!"

And the greedy men said, "No! Not at all! This is not about the diamonds!" (Although it was.) "This is not about us!" (Although it was.) "This is about you! Think about it! If he wishes to take diamonds from us, what might he take from you? We must stand together, here, against his unwarranted taxation, or surely he will render us all poor!"

And some agreed with the greedy men...while some wondered what kind of men would rank "poor" as below "dead" in a list of ills...and still others decided it was none of their concern, just another argument in a long line of many. The roof would no doubt stand, because it had always stood. The architect must be wrong, because the consequences of his being right would be unthinkable. The city could not fall. It was Paradise, was it not?

Nobody knows what happened to the city. Some say it fell, its people crushed as the pillar finally collapsed. Others say the pillar was restored, and it lives still, deep below ground. Still others say that the greedy men were right, and the city survived without the diamond pillar...but there are always those who wish for free diamonds, and who will believe that the roof cannot collapse.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Storytelling Engines: Warlord

(or "The Kitchen Sink Must Show Up In Issue #29")

At first, when reading Mike Grell's classic series, "Warlord"...oh, let's all be honest. At first, when reading Mike Grell's classic series, "Warlord", we all ooh and ahh at the spectacular art. Arguably, the black-and-white reprints are even better than the original color issues of the series; color is almost a distraction from Grell's crisp, clean, gorgeous lines. But once we start actually paying attention to the story, it seems a little...well, cliched. It's got a hero who winds up finding a hidden "hollow world" at the center of the Earth, with living dinosaurs and barbarian tribes, and sorcerers, and secret Atlantean technologies, and time moves differently in different parts of the world (allowing for him to be gone a few months inside Skartaris, but years and years outside) and, and...

And then you start to notice that what seems to be a lack of originality at first is, in fact, a calculated effect. Grell isn't just being lazy, he's deliberately trying to evoke the tropes and themes of an entire genre of adventure stories. He includes elements of "John Carter, Warlord of Mars", bits and pieces of "Tarzan", chunks of "Buck Rogers" and "Flash Gordon"...the series actually tries to create a sense of familiarity, like a painter deliberately aging one of his works to make it look like one of the Old Masters. The intent isn't forgery, but an attempt to create a novel work that fits, stylistically, with a different era.

And because Grell is trying to evoke as much of the atmosphere of those old adventure stories as possible, he has a huge advantage in setting up his storytelling engine; anything that doesn't directly contradict a previous storytelling element is fair game for inclusion. So when he's stuck for a plot, he can have Travis Morgan relive his previous incarnations (a la Alan Quatermass) or bring in creatures of dark magic from pre-human Earth (a la Conan.) He's got a veritable cornucopia of ideas to draw on, and the more he piles on the old pulp tropes, the more authentically "pulpy" it seems. After all, those guys weren't averse to sharing ideas back and forth themselves. Perhaps if Lovecraft, Howard, or Burroughs were alive today, you might see a few references to Skartaris in their stories.

How well did this genre pastiche work? Well, it ran 133 issues; pretty good work, for a series that steadfastly refused to tie in with DC continuity for much of its run. Even now, it's fondly remembered; while a Bruce Jones reboot fared poorly, Mike Grell himself is returning to the series he created and seems to be getting positive press for it. And with decades of pulp (and pulp-inspired) stories out there, it's doubtful he'll run out of inspiration anytime soon.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Games Past: Battletech TCG

Something that doesn't really get a lot of play on this blog is my deep and abiding affection for games. Card games, board games...sure, I've mentioned RPGs and "City of Heroes", but I don't think I've talked much about my love of "Grave Robbers From Outer Space" (a game that almost got us kicked out of a hotel room, once.) Some of this has to do with the aforementioned "City of Heroes", which has been the addiction of choice of our gaming group for quite some time now, but I'm hoping to rectify that a bit over the next year...and I think it starts in my attitude. So I think I'm going to add a new, intermittent feature where I discuss games--good games, bad games, games no longer being published and games I just haven't played in a while. Games Past.

Today, I'm going to talk about Battletech. Not the miniatures game, although I've taken a few spins around the hexfield...no, this was the trading card game by Wizards of the Coast that they launched in 1996. This was Richard Garfield's third game, after he'd struck gold with Magic and struck out with NetRunner (which was a good game, but got, um, lost in the shuffle as competitors to Magic flooded the market.) It had a great property as its inspiration, one of the classics, and a strong fanbase. How did it do?

Very good, at first. The mechanic of the game felt different to Magic, but not so different that you couldn't relate to it. Instead of an abstract "life meter" that you attacked, your mechs romped around the playing field attacking actual targets--other mechs, Command cards (like assembly lines that put out mechs, or important characters from the Battletech universe) or your opponent's deck, where every point of damage dealt was a card chucked into the Scrapheap. (No, literally, that was what they called the discard pile.) Defeat came when you had to draw a card and couldn't--which would happen in 27 turns, if you took no damage, or two, if your opponent got out a few Masakaris or Mad Cats and started going to town on you.

Game balance was solid--the different factions all got plenty of useful, playable cards, with the Clans getting big, nasty, stompy Mechs but the Inner Sphere getting cheaper, durable Mechs and some seasoned pilots. The mechanics of combat were understandable, but provided depth, and let's face it, giant robots have a lot of appeal. (It also had plenty of dice-rolling, a big draw for just about any game. You could have a whole lot of fun creating a "missile Mech deck" and rolling big handfuls of six-siders for damage.) It was hours of fun for myself and my friends (I still have my cards, up in the Big Closet of Games), and we really looked forward to each expansion.

But the expansions were the big problem. Because if you're a fan of the minis game, and a fan of trading card games in general, you're probably anticipating the tough part. Every expansion to the card game needed to feature a lot of new Mechs. Mechs were the bread and butter to the game, the all-purpose attacker and defender. Unlike Magic, where you had instants and sorceries to destroy permanents in play, Battletech was all about taking your Mechs over and stomping whatever you didn't like into a greasy spot on the ground. Mechs were the lifeblood of the game, and an expansion without lots of new Mechs would wreck the game balance and design. The miniatures game was the same way, of course. FASA needed to sell new figurines just as much as WotC needed to sell new cards. But the schedule for miniatures releases was maybe three or four a month. The schedule for new expansions was a full new set every three months, with perhaps 40-50 Mechs in it. Clearly, something had to give.

And that something was "Arsenal", the set that destroyed the Battletech TCG. It introduced "Vehicles", which were a fairly sizeable part of the minis game (Mechs were still kings of the battlefield, of course, but mixed-forces groups could be devastatingly effective) but which had not featured significantly into the TCG until then. Arsenal changed all that, introducing loads of new vehicles that fought like Mechs, but were significantly cheaper to build and came with a built-in downside. Whenever they took damage, there was a one-in-six chance they'd go kaboom.

The problems with this were twofold. One, they were all significantly undercosted. That "one-in-six chance" turned out to be a much smaller downside in actual play than in playtesting. Which was a problem, but it wasn't The Problem. The Problem was that they'd just introduced a whole new card type, four expansions into the game. So a card like "Temporary Cease-Fire", which "removed all Mechs from combat", now had a glaring weakness when someone with an all-vehicle deck used it against someone with a mixed-forces or Mech-heavy deck. In fact, vehicles turned out to have lots of rules loopholes, since they could attack like Mechs or block like Mechs but weren't Mechs.

No problem, WotC says. We'll issue a new ruling: All cards that say "Mechs" actually mean, "Mechs and Vehicles".

People then pointed out the logical inconsistencies of this, like hovertanks now being able to have their Hips Shattered, or jeeps being able to lash out with a Vicious Kick.

No problem, WotC says. We'll issue comprehensive errata for every card in print, so that all you'll have to do to figure out whether a card refers to "Mechs", "Vehicles" or "units" (Mechs and Vehicles) is to look it up on your handy print-out of changes to every single card in the game up until now, all five hundred or so! Or you can just buy the new edition of the game, coming out soon!

It's surprising how fast that can kill the enthusiasm of a fanbase.

The game limped along for another expansion or two, but eventually it had to be put to bed. You can probably still find a few packs floating around out there in online card stores, or perhaps by digging around in discount bins (or, of course, there's always eBay.) It's actually well worth doing, particularly if you abandon WotC's "official rulings" and just play the game as it was intended, with Mechs, missiles, and friends.

Of course, friends make every game better.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Storytelling Engines: Dollhouse

(or "So Why Is It About To Be Canceled, Anyway?")

So a while back, I made a post about how Fox had badly mishandled the publicity campaign for "Dollhouse", creating audience expectations that weren't fulfilled when the series went to air. This proved to be #2 on the list of Most Controversial Things I've Ever Said, ranking well behind "Marvel should go back to writing comics for kids because there's not a big enough market for comics for adults to sustain a major publisher" but significantly ahead of "Gee, '300' really sucked." There are some people who just do not like "Dollhouse" on the face of it, and can't imagine why anyone would like it. And apparently, judging from the ratings, there are enough of those people out there that it's hard to believe the series will get a third season. (Fox has, at least, pledged to show all of Season Two.) Why doesn't "Dollhouse" work for these people? Well, some of that is inherent in the set-up of the series.

Which...man, love it or hate it, you have to admit, it's ballsy. Really ballsy. The idea of a sinister, clandestine organization that kidnaps people and wipes their memories and identities is a pretty well-worn fictional trope, which is part of what the show has counted on. At every turn, as Eliza Dushku begins to remember the woman she once was, our collective familiarity with the tropes of science-fiction and action-adventure practically leaps out of our hindbrain and demands that she go on the run from faceless, sinister agents of the Conspiracy while trying to find the proof that will bring down the evil (yet suave and debonair) woman in charge. It's an idea so well-worn it's practically carved a groove in our skulls.

But that's not what "Dollhouse" does. "Dollhouse" doesn't treat the evil conspiracy as "faceless" or "sinister". (Well, maybe "sinister".) It's a show that asks the question, "What sort of actual human being could or would do that sort of thing to someone?" It's following the conspiracy as much as it's following Echo, taking the characters who would normally be two-dimensional bad guys and trying to make them into the main characters. This is a very risky choice. As I've commented in the past, in a long-running series, you don't have to make the protagonists "good", but you do have to make them "sympathetic", and this show has a lot of spiky, damaged people running the show. From Mr. Dominic, who's angry, humorless, and violent; to Topher, who's glib and callous about his treatment of human beings as lab rats; to Adelle, who is simultaneously worldly-wise, shockingly naive, idealistic and ruthless...these are a collection of messed-up people. Which they'd have to be, to do the sorts of things they do, but it's hard for an audience to sympathize with them. Even the three audience-identification characters (Echo, Boyd, and FBI agent Paul Ballard) each have their own tremendous flaws that led them to the Dollhouse in the first place. It's a show that constantly flirts with making you hate its characters.

That's unbelievably dangerous for a TV series. When the series' plots fail (and while "Dollhouse" has a great "go anywhere, do anything" premise in its concept of people who can become anyone for a few days at a time, every series is going to have dud plots now and again) you can always fall back on your characters, the good will they've built up and the chemistry between them to get people to continue to watch. Think of a show like "House", which is basically the same plot every week--it thrives because Hugh Laurie is electric, and the character he's playing is mesmerizing. You don't go back to see how he'll solve this week's case, you go back to see what he'll say and do while he solves it. "Dollhouse" almost dares you to care about its characters, and that's a tough sell.

And then Joss Whedon, as he sometimes does, pulled a game-changer out at the end of Season One. Not "Omega", for those of you who don't generally buy TV shows on DVD--there's an additional episode to the first season that never aired. This show, "Epitaph One", completely changes the focus of the show--instead of, "What sort of person would design a machine that can rewrite a person's mind?", it becomes "What are the consequences of the existence of a machine that can rewrite a person's mind?" It takes the show from the realm of a character study into that of speculative fiction, and does so with gripping intensity. In fact, it's arguable that this is going to make it even harder for Season Two to get a foothold, ratings-wise, because even the fans of "Dollhouse" are now split. While some want to keep watching the edgy, twitchy staff try to sort out their moralities, others would just like to skip ahead ten years and find out what happens to everyone. Can the show handle this balancing act successfully?

Probably not, judging by the ratings. But love it or hate it, you have to admit, this show is going to be memorable.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Review: The Crazies

So I was looking through trailers today on "Rotten Tomatoes" (I love trailers. Absolutely adore them. There's just something so magnificent about a really good trailer, the way it distills down the essence of a movie into these sharp, smart, two-minute micro-movies. Seriously, I could watch a full hour of trailers, and in fact have.) And they had a trailer for a remake of "The Crazies". Which reminded me, naturally, of the original Romero film...and that reminded me that Halloween is coming up, and people might be looking for some horror films to watch that they haven't already seen. Little cult gems, that sort of thing. And "The Crazies" fits that bill perfectly. So let's talk about "The Crazies".

The premise is brilliantly simple. A contagious virus gets into the drinking water of a small town. The only symptom of the virus? Murderous insanity. As various townspeople go nuts and start killing people, the government arrives to try to control the situation. But (surprise, surprise) they're also the ones who developed the virus to begin with, so while they're trying to find a cure and quarantine the infected, they're also covering up a secret and trying to hide the evidence. The net result is a military occupation of the town, one which turns brutal with shocking speed.

What you quickly wind up with is four factions. Insane townspeople, townspeople who have a justifiable fear of the soldiers occupying their town and using lethal force indiscriminately, soldiers who aren't sure who's insane and who's just shooting at them, and soldiers who are succumbing to the virus due to inadequate bio-hazard precautions. And the brilliant thing is that there's no way of knowing which is which, and Romero rarely signposts it for you. (This looks to be a mistake on the remake's part--they're turning the victims of the virus into stereotypical zombies, hunting in packs and looking all "infected".)

So as the pressure ratchets up, you find yourself uncertain as to whether any given character's actions at any given moment are the result of the virus...or just the kind of very human response to a tense, angry situation we see all the time. When the town priest sets himself on fire, is he crazy? Or is he protesting the military's actions (a la the Buddhist monks in Vietnam)? Or is it crazy to protest like that? (And, of course, the unspoken question...aren't the people who created the virus the craziest ones of all?)

It's not a particularly cheerful movie; this is Romero at his most nihilistic, during the Vietnam era, suggesting that maybe insanity is endemic to the human condition and if we really were being driven mad, we might not notice the difference. But it's also clever, tense, and filled with some haunting and evocative imagery, and it has some good acting from the principals. I recommend it.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Storytelling Engines: Leverage

(or "Churn 'n Burn")

First, an apology for the day's delay--here I skip blogging last Monday to set up a Monday Storytelling Engines entry, then I don't post it until Tuesday! What can I say, long weekends always screw me up.

Now, on to a discussion of "Leverage". For those of you unfamiliar with the series, it uses the basic structure of the "caper" movie (a team of experts in various fields of criminal activity assembles for a crime that would normally be impossible, and then pulls it off due to their brilliance and gets away with the goods.) But "Leverage" has a twist--the crooks are all wealthy beyond their wildest dreams, and pull off their scams and capers against corporate crooks who use their power and money to ignore, flout, or occasionally change the law. The kind of people who should be in jail, but never will be.

This brilliantly taps into the zeitgeist of the post-Bush era, where it has become increasingly clear that Bush and his cronies used patriotism as a cover for some of the most egregious graft and corruption in the history of this country (and that's saying something.) Some episodes are even direct parallels; Castleman Security, the villains of "The Homecoming Job", are obviously meant to be Blackwater USA (parallels that became all the stronger after real-life Blackwater CEO Erik Prince became entangled in murder charges a few months after the episode aired.) There's a lot of general anger towards rich guys, big corporations, and the seemingly different code of justice for the wealthy and privileged in America, and that makes it all the more satisfying to root for the honest crooks.

So it's a strong concept for a series, especially now. But it does take a risk--apart from the five protagonists, they rarely use recurring characters at all. Likewise, there are very few ongoing sub-plots from episode to episode; each hour-long show tends to be one self-contained caper from beginning to end. They set up an entirely new crime with every episode, and pull it off by the end. This means they're churning through an enormous amount of storytelling material with each episode, with very few safety nets when they get stuck for an idea. This is, to say the least, a daunting prospect for a series that has to come up with a new plot every week (and one that hopes to have at least a 100-episode run, presumably. TV shows need a stronger storytelling engine than just about any other medium, simply due to the way that the profits come in on a series. If you last at least five seasons, you're going to be raking in dough. If not, you better hope for a strong DVD audience.)

So is "Leverage" doomed to run out of ideas by Season Three? Probably not, because while they take a big risk, they also have a strong advantage. They use real cons, heists, scams and capers as their inspiration (something showrunner John Rogers talks about from time to time on his excellent blog, Kung Fu Monkey.) And if there's anything you can count on in this world, it's that the human race never ceases trying to find new and inventive ways of cheating money out of one another. It's doubtful that "Leverage" will ever find a shortage of corrupt, greedy bastards to pastiche as their bad guys, and it's even more doubtful that they'll run out of clever, sneaky cons for the heroes to run on those bad guys. In short, they're relying on human nature to provide their stories for them, and as long as there are humans, they'll always have a ready supply of ideas.

But if the human race ever dies out, they'll probably be in trouble.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Head To Head Cage Match Review!

In one corner, we have "Book of the Dead: The Complete History of Zombie Cinema", by Jamie Russell! Weighing in at 352 pages, this covers the entire history of the zombie film from its origins in Haitian folkore all the way up to 2005! And in the other corner, we have "Zombie Movies: The Ultimate Guide", by Glenn Kay! Also weighing in at 352 pages, this book reviews virtually every zombie movie made from "White Zombie" all the way up to 2008! But let's face it, fight fans--only one of these guides has what it takes to sit on your bookshelf! Let's look at the tape.

Kay's "ultimate guide" does, in fact, have some ultimate-ness going for it. He covers loads of obscure zombie movies from all over the world, including Hong Kong and Japanese zombie cinema, Italian and French zombie movies, and even some TV shows with zombie episodes (albeit some more thoroughly than others.) But unfortunately, he doesn't seem to like any of them. His introduction says that unlike certain other pretentious guides (a not-too-veiled attack on Russell's book, which came out first), he's not afraid to have a few laughs at the cheesier of the films. But the "laughs" mostly take the form of pointing to low-budget film after low-budget film and saying, "Hey, doesn't this one suck too?" He gives Romero a free pass (citing film after film for "cheesy zombie makeup", but ignoring the slapped-on gray paint in "Dawn of the Dead"), but anything else that isn't a major release (or something he watched as a kid--certain 80s films get far more love than they probably deserve) is something to look down one's nose at. I'm not saying that a film like "Hell of the Living Dead" is an instant classic, but if you can't find joy in quirky, low-budget films, you probably shouldn't be writing a zombie movie guide.

Plus, he's oddly slapdash about his criteria for a zombie movie. The "Evil Dead" trilogy is put in the back of the book, because they're not "real" zombies, just victims of demonic possession (I got news for ya, Glenn. Henrietta was buried in a cellar for two weeks before the start of "Evil Dead II". If she wasn't a zombie at first, she sure as heck is one now.) But "28 Days Later", with its decidedly not dead undead, is put in the main guide. Similar inconsistencies plague the whole book. (Plus, he gives "Slither" a bad review. This is not only a sign of his lack of taste in zombie movies, but also a sign that he secretly hates babies and kittens.)

On the other side, Russell's "Book of the Dead" suffers just a tiny bit from being dated--it ends right around the point of "Shaun of the Dead", which was really when the recent wave of zombie horror kicked off, and so there are a lot of fun recent movies it omits (like "Quarantine", "Slither", "Diary of the Dead", et cetera.) But it more than makes up for this by being just as comprehensive about the period it does cover as Kay's guide, if not more so, and by covering the entire history of the zombie in cinema instead of simply covering each of its movies piecemeal. The shot-on-video trend in zombie cinema is covered in depth, along with the way that different landmark zombie movies (such as "Night of the Living Dead", "Return of the Living Dead", "The Evil Dead") transformed the genre. Yes, he does get into the symbolism of the zombie, an act which some might see as "pretentious". Others of us like to think of it as "intelligent". Best of all, he has passion for the zombie film--silly low-budget movies like "City of the Living Dead", "The House By the Cemetary", or "Zombi 2" are held up and examined for their good bits as well as their bad. He's not indiscriminate, but he's no snob, either.

Ultimately, I think if you can only afford one, go with Russell's "Book of the Dead". If you can afford both...then buy Russell's book, and save your money to go buy some of the DVDs he recommends. You won't really be missing anything if you skip Kay's book. It may be "ultimate", but it's not actually much fun.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Heist, Part Sixteen

The grand finale! Sorry for the delay, I'm trying to resynchronize posting for another round of Storytelling Engines.

Corvus, Winter explains, was in her employ all along. She hadn’t imagined that the Doctor would have chosen him for this little enterprise, but since he had, it meant that she knew everything he was doing even as he did it. She didn’t have the criminal resources to steal the Key, but the Doctor did…and now that he’s brought it to her, she will use the Doomforge Fleet to make herself Empress of the Galaxy. The Doctor tries to convince her to stop, using every weapon in his arsenal of rhetoric to try to sway her from inserting the Key, but it’s of no use. In fact, one of his casual mentions gives her an idea on how to dispose of them creatively—she bundles Ace, the Doctor, and Amanda into an escape pod, now that they’re no longer of use to her. Although the fleet won’t shoot at its own escape pods while on stand-by mode, they can rest assured that her first test of the destructive capabilities of the Doomforge Fleet will be to order the flagship to reduce the pod to atoms. She launches the pod and proceeds to the deck to bring her goals to fruition.

Inside the pod, with only minimal engine power and no weapons, Ace angrily wonders why the Doctor could possibly have brought Corvus in on this to begin with. What help could he possibly have given them that they couldn’t have gotten from someone who wasn’t an utter slimebag? The Doctor sighs, in an ‘Isn’t it obvious?’ sort of way. “He was devious, treacherous, and certain to sell us out to Baroness Winter at the first opportunity. That’s exactly what I needed for this particular enterprise.” He rummages through his pockets and pulls out a cricket ball, smashing it against the hull of the escape pod to reveal the Key inside it.

At that moment, the Baroness places her Key into the control socket. The Key, which the Doctor created and switched with the one Amanda stole, transmits a self-destruct code to the entire Doomforge Fleet. From their escape pod, the Doctor, Ace, and Amanda watch as the entire fleet annihilates itself…and, not incidentally, the unfortunate Corvus and the Baroness.

The Doctor goes on to explain that he knew that the Baroness had uncovered the truth about the Key. He knew that unless he forced her hand, she’d be able to steal it herself in less than a year, and that with it in her possession, she would be an unstoppable force for chaos and destruction. By stealing it himself, and switching out the Key with a duplicate he’d made that ordered the fleet to self-destruct, he’d eliminated the threat of the Doomforge Fleet forever.

Amanda is almost awe-struck. “You mean you arranged all that—you knew how Corvus would react—you knew how the Baroness would think, you tricked her into putting us into the escape pod…all this was your plan?” The Doctor nods. “You’d have made an amazing criminal,” she says, half in admiration and half in disgust. “I think I already have,” the Doctor says, watching the last echoes of the destruction of the intelligent ships, and the deaths of the people he’d tricked into ending their own lives.

Ace, unaffected by it all, points out that they’re stuck in a small escape pod with very little chance of reaching civilization—not less the point that the civilization they’d reach has warrants out for their collective arrest. The Doctor smiles and pulls out a pocket watch; and right on time, Eileen O’Donnell, the only pilot in the galaxy capable of outmaneuvering the Doomforge drones, spots the pod and arrives to pick them up. This time, it seems, the Doctor really has thought of everything.