Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Storytelling Engines: Eclipso

(or "Eclipsed By The Need For An Ending")

The story of Eclipso begins, as do so many Silver Age stories, with a degree of necessity becoming the mother of invention. In the wake of the purge of the horror and crime comics, and the establishment of the Comics Code, storytelling in the industry was as much about what couldn't be said in comic books as anything else. With overt horror out, creators had to get...well, creative in finding ways to give kids their fix of creepy stuff.

So with werewolves outlawed by the Comics Code, writer Bob Haney had to turn to science fiction alternatives. Instead of a scratch from a cursed beast, Bruce Gordon accidentally cut himself on a mysterious black diamond. Instead of moonlight, a solar eclipse generated his transformation into a sinister villain. (And instead of cribbing from "The Wolf Man", Haney borrowed a page from "Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde", but that's neither here nor there.) The central concept and storytelling engine of a werewolf story remained the same, but it got the trappings of science fiction to avoid censorship.

But unfortunately, it retained all the problems of an ongoing werewolf story. Namely, that old bugaboo of all too many storytelling engines, the false status quo. Bruce Gordon had to find a cure for Eclipso, but the moment he did, the story would end. The series did manage to pull one unique trick that probably extended its life by a few years (and extended its significance in the memories of fans for much longer): After his first few appearances, Eclipso stopped being a transformed Gordon, and gained his own separate body when an eclipse occurred. This meant that Gordon stopped being a passive spectator in his own book, and became a true protagonist.

Even so, he could never really win his fight with Eclipso, only thwart his darker self's scheme of the month. And it probably didn't help too much that as a Silver Age character, the schemes Eclipso came up with (and the abilities he gained and lost with a bizarre lack of consistency over the course of the series' run) were a little zany, to say the least. Still, that probably wasn't responsible for his departure from newsstands, not when all of DC's books did the same thing.

No, it really came down to the same thing that scuttled Eclipso's 90s incarnation (in which he was revealed to be a sort of Elder God who only pretended to be Bruce Gordon's evil side for a while, as part of a greater scheme.) A struggle between two people isn't a storytelling engine, it's a story. People expect it to end, one way or another, and when neither side can ever gain an advantage, eventually audiences tune out. Eclipso might work as a villain, but he can't be the only villain.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Games Past: Robo-Rally

Ah, sweet, sweet Robo-Rally. If there is a Valhalla for board games, truly, you hold a place of honor within its halls. This was a board game designed by Richard Garfield, of "Magic: The Gathering" fame, and is justly remembered by board game fans all over the world as a brilliant piece of game design, a tremendously fun game to play among friends, and a challenging game with simple rules. That's pretty much the trifecta of great games, right there.

In the game, you play a computer who is controlling a robot remotely, sending it through a factory floor that has been converted into an improvised race-course (while not shutting off the conveyor belts, crushers, welding lasers, and other sundry obstacles. After all, it's a factory that builds robots. Plenty more where that came from.) You send commands to your robot by playing cards, which it interprets as instructions to move forward, back up, turn left, turn right, and so on. Pretty simple, right?

Yeah. Except for three things. One, the aforementioned obstacles. By the time all the expansions were released for the game, these included flamethrowers, toxic waste, oil slicks, bottomless pits, teleporters, and flooding. Everything did something to your robot, and pretty much none of it was good. (Well, the teleporters could be good. And if your robot fell into the toxic waste, it could spontaneously develop super-powers...)

Two, everyone took their turns at once. You lay down five face-down cards, representing your "program" for that turn, and everyone flipped theirs over at the same time. Another robot gives you a hearty shove, moving you three squares to the right of where you thought you were? Your robot just kept right on executing the program you told it to, even if that sent it into a bottomless pit. Made a mistake laying down your cards? Hope you survive to correct it next turn. The gleeful chaos of one turn of Robo-Rally put some entire games to shame.

And three, your robot wasn't just limited to two states, "fine" or "dead". Lasers, flamethrowers, and the like could damage your robot, reducing the size of your hand of cards and giving you fewer options in programming your robot. With a small enough hand size, you would actually have to leave your cards from last turn in play as your robot's antenna broke and it kept repeating the same actions over and over again.

All this made the game brutally fun. (It worked even better with an "unlimited lives" house rule, which allowed you to be a bit more cavalier about the many many times robots went boom.) The game won four Origins awards, released four expansions, and was re-released in 2005, but is sadly now out of print. (There is an online version at GameTableOnline.com, which includes a board editor and is hence automatically the Coolest Thing In the Whole Wide World Ever, but I've never been able to get the damned thing to work on any computer I've ever tried it on.)

So if you can track down a copy (try eBay, or a gaming store that stocks used games), this is a once-in-a-lifetime good game. Get seven friends together, pick out your 'bots, and go nuts. You won't regret it.

Monday, January 18, 2010

It Must Be Said

The official Leverage convention has the best name of any convention ever.

It's ConCon.

I'm not going, because I don't have the time or the money, but I like to just bask in the sheer, unmitigated joy of that name from time to time.

(Really, the Transformers people dropped the ball. Come on, "BotCon"? How do you do an official Transformers convention and not call it "DeceptiCon"? Oh, the lost opportunities.)

Thursday, January 14, 2010

"Zombie Attack? I'm On My Break."

It would be totally awesome to work as a janitor for the Umbrella Corporation. Like, in one of their top secret Hive facilities hidden deep below ground outside Raccoon City. That has to be a sweet gig.

Seriously, think about it. They probably pay their janitors something like ten times the normal wages, because why else would a janitor take a job that required him to live in a top-secret facility deep underground for years at a time? The scientists all do it because it gives them a chance to do that crazy mad-science shit that they're not allowed to do at other, saner companies, but it's not like the janitors get to do mad-sanitation. No, the only way you attract someone for a job like that is with big dough.

And once you do get the job, you know you can totally slack off as much as you want. Because it's hard enough to fire someone at a normal big corporation, when all you have to do is go through the process of documenting every single thing they did wrong, getting the bosses to sign off on it, documenting the ways that the person didn't correct their behavior, giving them several chances to prove that you're not biased against them somehow so that they can't sue you after they get fired, and finally making sure they leave the building without stealing stuff. Can you even imagine how much extra paperwork it takes to assign a black-ops surveillance team to them afterwards to make sure they don't spill their guts to the media, and then a black-ops kill team to them if they try? (The black-ops kill team alone is probably something like fifty pages of forms to fill out.) Nobody's going to bother with all that just because you took a week to change a light bulb.

And even if they don't mind doing all the firing paperwork, you know that they're not going to want to jump through all the hoops to hire someone new. It's got to be something like seventeen layers of background checks, twenty-three non-disclosure forms, relocation expenses (to the top-secret facility hidden underground, which is probably a pain in the ass all by itself) and then you wind up with a new guy who'll be just as bad as you are, probably. Nah, they'll just let the little stuff slide, and you can sit around all day surfing the Web and drinking homemade booze. And they'll be all, "Hey, man, there was a T-Virus outbreak on Level Three that resulted in a bloody gunfight with hideous zombies, can you clean that up?" And you'll be like, "Sure, man, when I get to it."

And you know some scientist will clean it up before you get down there, because they won't be able to stand working right next to the rotting corpse. Yeah, that's a sweet job.

Until everyone dies in the zombie apocalypse, of course.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

More Lesser-Known Movie Adaptations

What, you thought I was done with these? You should have known better when I gave it its own tag. Yes, back by unpopular demand, more failed film adaptations of great science-fiction/fantasy novels! The Hollywood hacks made our classics almost unrecognizable until I unearthed the connections with the originals...so be grateful, dangit!

Childhood's Endless Love: As we all know, creepy kids are box-office gold. So are doomed romances. So it shouldn't be any real surprise that Hollywood producers diminished the scope of Arthur C. Clarke's epic novel until it was about a pair of teenagers, Jade and David, whose parents aren't ready to let them merge with the Overmind together. When Jade is forbidden to see David, he burns down the Earth as a form of rebellion.

The King and I, Robot: Yul Brynner always felt like he'd been typecast after appearing in this historical drama about a young human woman who goes to become a nanny to the robot children of the robot King of Siam, and must learn to live in a kingdom where there is only one ruler, King Mongkut, and only three laws, "Robots cannot harm a human by action or inaction," "Robots must obey human commands except where this conflicts with the first law," and "Robots must act to preserve their existences except where this conflicts with laws one and two." In spite of (or perhaps because of) playing his part brilliantly, Brynner had difficulty getting non-robot parts after this film (although he was excellent in "Westworld".)

Enter the Dragonriders of Pern: This is probably most famous as Bruce Lee's last film, in which he is asked to infiltrate a martial arts tournament run on a mysterious island, using nothing but his wits, his fighting skills, and a telepathic dragon. Well worth watching for the fight sequences.

The Fall of the Animal House of Usher: This film defied all critical expectations and became an enduring cult classic, as audiences loved the idea of a mysterious, unnamed narrator pledging Roderick Usher's fraternity despite its being under a "double secret curse". Belushi's role as lecherous party animal Roderick Usher is considered to be one of his stand-out performances.

Children of a Lesser Corn: Stephen King fans in the 1980s were used to bad film adaptations of his works, so nobody was really too surprised when they saw the changes Hollywood had made to this film. That didn't stop King fans from becoming upset at the inconsistencies in the plot. Why would William Hurt even be hired to teach in the small town of Gatlin? Why wouldn't Marlee Matlin's character just kill him as a sacrifice to He Who Walks Behind the Rows? And who the hell wrote the line, "Outlander, we have your woman!" and thought it would be good? Unfortunately, seven sequels haven't managed to answer any of these questions.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

The Master Plan

First off, let's just clear out everyone who hasn't seen "The End of Time", the two-part final adventure of the Tenth Doctor. Please exit the post in an orderly fashion to your left. (It is important that you turn left when leaving the post. Turning right will lead to the eventual victory of the Daleks and the destruction of the universe itself.) (Oh, and um, if you also need spoiler warnings for the Season Four episode, "Turn Left", please ignore the previous parenthetical comment.)

So right, wittering on for a moment to clear out the spoiler space nicely. I do think that Doctor Who fans are the luckiest sci-fi fans in the universe. Other science-fiction fans have to grit their teeth as their favorite show enters a long, slow decline, with the people both in front of and behind the camera gradually running out of ideas and losing their passion for the show. All these Trek, Buffy, and BSG fans can hope for is that their show will die a merciful death before it embarrasses itself, and that some ten years down the line it will be rebooted by a new creator who gets it right again.

But with Doctor Who, the regeneration is built right into the series. Change is an essential element of the show. It changes actors, characters, writers, directors, producers, genres...Doctor Who, above all other shows, is constantly reinventing itself. It's always fresh. Roll on Steven Moffat and Matt Smith, I say. And they, too, shall pass someday. It's part of the glory of Doctor Who.

So that's philosophy out of the way...now, let's get on to my fanwanky theories about "The End of Time"!

Any fan who followed the Doctor during that long, strange, wonderful period when he was off the TV airwaves and ran as a series of novels (The New Adventures, published by Virgin, and the Eighth Doctor Adventures, published by the BBC) cringed when they saw the flashbacks to the Master as a little boy, staring into the Untempered Schism. This is because it's been very definitively established by the books that the Time Lords were incapable of having children; instead, they "bred" through devices known as Looms. These machines stored the entire Gallifreyan genome, and "wove" it into genetic patterns that then created Time Lords cell by cell, before pushing them out as fully grown adults. (In a charming bit of worldbuilding, Time Lord nurseries have oversized furniture to give the young Time Lords a feeling of being small.) So a ten-year old Master should be impossible.

But, I say, there is a loophole. The actions of the Doctor in "Lungbarrow" (well, technically the actions of Leela sometime before "Lungbarrow", and the actions of the Doctor in bringing Leela to Gallifrey in "The Invasion of Time") restored the Time Lords' ability to breed naturally. Meaning that if the Master was born after "Lungbarrow", he could be a child.

"But wait," you say. "Surely the Master and the Doctor grew up together?"

They did...the first time. Remember, at the end of the TV movie, the Master is reduced to an ectoplasmic body-hopping entity that's then sucked into a black hole. Not a whole lot for the Time Lords to work with when they "recreated" him as a weapon in the Time Wars. So my theory is that the Time Lords, unable to restore his old body, decanted his essence into an infant (donated by some extremely patriotic Time Lord family, one presumes.) That infant possessed...or more accurately, was possessed by...all the memories and knowledge of the original Master.

And then, at age ten, he looked into the Untempered Schism. And heard the sound of drums. Which drove him even madder than he was before (and that's hard to do) and forced him to flee to the very end of the universe itself and erase his own memories to escape it.

It explains a lot. It explains why the Master could be a Time Lord child, when there aren't any according to the books. (Those of you who insist that the books aren't canon can happily turn right.) It explains why the classic series' Master never once mention the drumbeat, but the new series' Master can't freaking shut up about it. (Sorry, editorializing there.) And it provides a stronger reason for the Master up and running from the Time War, beyond just, "Ooh, it's a bit scary."

Whaddya think, sirs?

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

No. Just No.

Dear Everyone Who Feels the Need To Remind People That the Decade Doesn't Really Start Until 2011:

Please stop. Not only are you being an intellectual snob, you are being an inaccurate intellectual snob. Yes, you are correct, there was no year "Zero". However, you are proceeding from a false assumption, namely that the celebration of a new millennium, century, decade, et cetera, celebrates the anniversary of the first year of the Common Era (or Anno Domini, if you prefer it.) In fact, the decision to mark the decade is a purely arbitrary one, which could be marked from any point (one might as well mark it from 1582, the year the Gregorian calendar was adopted,or 1752, the year it was adopted in Britain, just for example.) None of these milestones are actually important in anything other than human opinion. And since consensus opinion holds that we mark as important the years that are divisible by ten, we celebrate at those times.

Of course, since the division is purely arbitrary and unimportant, you may continue to celebrate the arrival of the new decade in 2011. Heck, you can celebrate the arrival of the new decade every year if you want to; it's always been ten years since ten years ago. But please, stop pretending that you're "more right" than everyone else when you do so. It's 2010 because the calendar's odometer rolled over to show a zero at the end. There doesn't need to be a better reason.