Tuesday, April 30, 2013

A Potpourri and an Apology

Mostly, this is one of those obnoxious "sorry there aren't more posts" posts--as I mentioned in my last post, there are new hires, which is significant in that it implies that there aren't enough people working here right now to handle the demand. So until the new hires are fully trained and able to help out, work is exhausting and not leaving me in much mood to blog at the end of the day. (Paradoxically, the new hires are making things worse, as we now have to dedicate people to train them, and if we had those people to spare, we wouldn't be doing hiring. Right now, we've got ten people doing the work of eighteen.)

But a quick potpourri of things I've been thinking/doing when I'm not utterly wiped--I'm enjoying the back half of Season Seven well enough, I guess, but I have to say that Moffat's non-Moffat episodes are worse than Davies' non-Davies episodes (of course, Davies had Moffat writing for him, and Moffat doesn't have Davies writing for him.) 'Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS' was a low point for me, though. It felt a bit like "What if the kid from 'Axe Cop' wrote a Doctor Who episode?" only without the charm of knowing that a five-year old did it all by himself.

I finished 'Into the Fire' in my B5 rewatch, and I'm amazed at how little energy I have to keep going now; some of that is that I have very little energy in general at the moment, see above, but given that I had very little enthusiasm for the bits of 'Return of the King' after Frodo destroyed the One Ring, I'm wondering if I'm not going to feel like the extended super-epilogue is a bit much here, too. On the other hand, the aftermath sub-plots were actually set up and foreshadowed (the Minbari, the humans, the Centauri, the Narn, and Psi-Corps all have so much stuff going on that I can see taking a season to wrap all that up), whereas the scouring of the Shire really felt like it came out of left-field.

Good on Jason Collins, although the Sports Illustrated blurb of "The Gay Athlete" made him sound like The Elephant Man. Maybe "A Gay Athlete", or even better yet "Jason Collins' Life As A Gay Athlete"? Oh, and the ESPN analyst who said he thought that it was sinful because "any sex outside of marriage is sinful"...first, better get cracking on those gay marriage laws, buddy! Second...um...how the heck do you have any friends in basketball? Or pro sports? Or broadcasting? Maybe he only hangs out with octegenarian broadcasters.

Hopefully, after this week, things will calm down a bit and I'll be able to resume a slightly less laggy blogging schedule. If not, I'll at least try to make the next post a little less Larry King-ish.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Why I Love My Job

I was asked to write the following quiz up by my boss, to distribute to the new hires. Let me repeat that: I was asked to write this by my boss, to distribute to the new hires.

in1. My ideal spaceship is:
a) the size of a small city, and capable of traveling at Warp 9
b) able to make the Kessel Run in less than two parsecs
c) blue, rectangular, and bigger on the inside
d) like a leaf on the wind; watch how it soars
e) don't know/no opinion

2. Who would win in a fight between these characters?
a) Kirk
b) Luke Skywalker
c) River Song
d) Buffy
e) Um...you know these are all fictional characters, right?

3. Which is cooler?
a) a phaser
b) a lightsaber
c) a bow tie
d) a wooden stake
e) an electric guitar

4. Vampires are:
a) aliens that draw the salt out of human bodies
b) dark Jedi that feed on the Force
c) fish people with perception filters
d) soulless monsters that drink human blood (with two notable exceptions)
e) sparkly and popular with teenagers right now

5. The handiest tool in the universe is:
a) a tricorder
b) an astromech droid
c) a sonic screwdriver
d) another wooden stake
e) a Swiss army knife

6. Telepathy is possible...
a) sure! Lwaxana Troi has it!
b) With the Force, young Padawan, all things are possible.
c) Yes, but don't make a habit of it.
d) Yes, but it drives you insane. (Unless you live on a spaceship.)
e) No. Don't be silly.

7. The scariest thing in the universe is:
a) the Borg.
b) the Death Star.
c) a Dalek.
d) a giant snake that used to be the town's Mayor.
e) a king cobra.

8. When someone dies...
a) You have to return their body to their home planet.
b) They get a blue ghost body.
c) They regenerate.
d) Joss Whedon marks another notch on his writing desk.
e) Let's not discuss that at work, shall we? It's a very serious topic.

9. A good length for a series is:
a) Seven years.
b) Three movies. That's where they should have stopped.
c) Fifty years and counting.
d) Seven years. You hear that, FOX? Not one, not two. SEVEN.
e) I don't know, it depends on the series. Which one were you talking about?

10. The best movie ever made is:
a) Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
b) The Empire Strikes Back.
c) Doctor Who and the Daleks.
d) Either Serenity, Cabin in the Woods or Avengers. Don't make me choose!
e) Citizen Kane.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Reviews: 'Plague of the Cybermen', 'The Dalek Generation', 'Shroud of Sorrow'

One of the nice things about the return of Doctor Who to our screens is the way that it also gives a shot in the arm to the nigh-dormant book line. As someone who really spent most of his formative fan period during the Wilderness Years, I'm thrilled to see any new book. Was I thrilled after reading them? Well...

Plague of the Cybermen: This one was not so much "thrilling" as "standard". Everything about this was absolutely straightforward and done according to the tropes of Doctor Who, with just the minimal amount of energy to keep you from falling asleep while reading. The Doctor arrives in a vaguely European, vaguely pre-industrial village so generic that I literally expected the big twist to be that it wasn't Earth, and begins to track down the source of mysterious deaths and disappearances. (Hint: The novel is called 'Plague of the Cybermen'. There are a limited number of ways to surprise the audience with the cause of the disappearances.)

The actual plague is dealt with in about the first thirty pages, and proves to be more or less irrelevant to the plot; it's there mostly because "...stuff, I guess of the Cybermen" wouldn't have been a great title. The Doctor finds a villager who's sufficiently spunky-yet-vulnerable to be his pseudo-companion, and they investigate anachronistic technology, a castle with hidden passageways, grave robbings, and mysterious disappearances until Justin Richards has filled out enough of the page count. Then the Cybermen come out in force and rampage a bit, until the Doctor does something clever and vaguely inspiring and they all die. (I'd say "spoilers", but really, you can pretty much see this one coming from about page one.) I's not bad, I'll stress. Justin Richards is incapable of turning in a truly bad novel; he's just too competent on a fundamental level to make mistakes in plot, character or tone. But at the same time, he's not really trying to turn in a great one, either. Just "good enough". It feels weird to say that the two weakest books of the last few years have both been his, but that's as much a tribute to his work as an editor as it is an indictment of him as an author. Even so, I wish he'd done more of that great editorial work and commissioned someone else for this slot.

The Dalek Generation: Technically speaking, this is the work of a first-time author, but Nicholas Briggs has written a lot of Doctor Who. Just not for the novels. He's a veteran of the Big Finish range (where he wrote excellent stories like 'Creatures of Beauty' and...um, less than excellent ones like 'The Sirens of Time') and he's probably best known to the average passerby as the voice of the Daleks and Cybermen on the new series. So all in all, it's about time that he wrote a novel. How was it?

Well, the concept is glorious. It's set in a distant galaxy where the Daleks are the benevolent creators of an interplanetary utopia known as the Sunlight Worlds, and an entire generation of humans knows them as nothing other than benefactors. When the Doctor shows up and tries to denounce them as evil, he's prosecuted for incitement to hate crimes. Every part of this is nothing short of brilliant. Having seen the Daleks as often as we have, it's easy to understand (as the Doctor does) that this has to be part of some sinister scheme. But it's rare to see the Daleks portrayed as such utterly Machiavellian schemers; Briggs shows them as clever, patient, and manipulative, which is something that's more often told than shown. And Briggs revels in showing the whole thing from just enough of an outside perspective that we can see how the Doctor is reduced to utter impotence in the face of this gambit; he can't rally a population to fight the Daleks when they don't have anything they want to fight against, and seeing him reduced to a ranting nutter in the street is genuinely unsettling in a way that the series rarely is.

Next to that, the actual plot (Spoilers: The Daleks aren't really good guys after all!) is kind of boring, but it does provide a reasonable explanation as to why the Daleks are doing everything. My only real complaint is that it seems like they're heading towards an ending that makes the Doctor's hiding in misery in Victorian London make sense, but they pull back. The ending should be very bleak, and it's sort of "whew, that was too close! Better stop traveling and righting wrongs, then."

Shroud of Sorrow: Another new writer for the novels, and unlike Nick Briggs, Tommy Donbavand doesn't have a ton of Who credits in another medium. He's a genuinely new voice for the range (and as an aside, Justin Richards has been doing an admirable job of this lately. Oli Smith, Una McCormack, James Goss, Paul Finch, George Mann, Naomi Alderman...that's a lot of new authors getting their shot, and there've been a lot of successes in that batch. Yay Justin!) How did he do? Well, the concept is strong, and thematically linked to the 50th anniversary; the Shroud feed on grief, and the death of Kennedy (which, of course, took place the same weekend as the debut of a certain television series) has provided them with a feast to end all feasts. It's a strong idea, and for the first three-fourths of the book, it's quite well executed. Donbavand has a good ear for dialogue, and evokes the slightly fairy-tale feel of Matt Smith's character quite well. The plot also jumps straight into gear; there are no slow, creeping menaces here. The Shroud rapidly spreads over a whole city, and the Doctor's got maybe eleven hours before Earth is irretrievably parasitized. (Although I'm not crazy about the idea that if your grief gets "eaten", another emotion gets stronger to fill the breach. As menacing fates for the human race go, it's been topped.)

The book goes off the rails a tiny bit towards the end, when the Doctor goes to a planet previously victimized by the Shroud and finds...um, clown therapists. Who travel to Earth in a dimensionally transcendental clown car to battle the Shroud with laughter. I think this is one of those concepts that will either work for you or it won't. For me, it didn't. And after that, we get several more strategies deployed to battle the Shroud at the rate of about one every other page, which is a bit too fast paced even for me. On the other hand, this section does contain one of the finest sequences in the book, where the Doctor lures the Shroud to him with memories of the Brigadier's funeral. It's a wonderful tribute to one of the show's touchstones. On the strength of that, and some of the other vivid and clever sequences, I'd like to see another book from Tommy Donbavand, even if this one contains a few first-time writer flaws.

Friday, April 12, 2013

"Who Are You, Doctor?"

The Doctor attempted to rub his head, but was distracted by the strangely familiar tugging sensation on his other wrist when he reached up. He spent a moment or two moving each hand in turn, noticing the way that the other was forced to follow. As his vision cleared, he was finally able to place it--of course. His hands were cuffed together. That would explain it. And likewise, the pain in his head and foggy vision would imply being knocked unconscious. He smiled. For the first time since he'd come to Babylon 5, the Doctor felt like he was finally on familiar ground.

"You didn't answer the question," the voice rang out in strident, arrogant tones. "Who are you?"

The Doctor rolled onto his back and looked up at the man in Victorian dress. "I'm the Doctor. And you are...?"

"Unacceptable!" the man shouted. He cracked his cane against the ground and pain flared up through the cuffs, into the Doctor's arms, and across his entire body.

"Ah," the Doctor said mournfully, half to himself. "It's one of those sorts of conversations, then. Yes, you look the sort. Always a bit too excited about the wrong answers, always a bit too eager to crack the whip. No, don't bother responding, I've heard it all before. You couldn't have 'sadist' written all over you more obviously if you were at a BDSM convention full of graffiti artists." With a bit of effort, he sat up. "Now I'm sorry, you had a question for me?"

"Yes, Doctor," the man said, making a visible effort to control his petulant fury. "My masters wish to know more about you. If lives are to be entrusted into your care, if the future is to depend on you, then they must be sure that you are doing the right things for the right reasons. And so I will ask, as many times as I have to until they are satisfied or you are dead. Who are you?"

"I'm sorry," the Doctor said, slowly and delicately rising to his feet. "Is it a curriculum vitae that they're looking for? My monster-fighting résumé? Let me see, I'm a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey--actually, I'm the last Time Lord from the former planet Gallifrey, it's rather a long story and you don't strike me as the patient sort. I've fought the Daleks, the Cybermen, the Sontarans, the Slitheen, the Adipose, well I say I fought them but they were actually babies, so it was really more sort of giving their governess a stern talking to, I've died ten times, well, call it nine and a half, and I travel through time and space in a box that's bigger on the inside than the outside. And if you believe even half of that, you're far more open-minded than I'm giving you credit for, so why don't we just skip to the bit where you say..." The Doctor smiled grimly, gesturing in expectation.

"Unacceptable!" The cane cracked against the floor again. The Doctor staggered but did not fall. "Listen to yourself, Doctor! That's not who you are, merely what you've done! Where you're from! You're so filled with blinkered, arrogant pride over your history that you haven't even thought about the question! How can you come here, set yourself up as savior, ask people to follow you into death--"

The Doctor raised himself up to his full height. "I have never asked them to follow me!" he roared. His eyes were filled with ageless sorrow. For the first time in three centuries, the inquisitor flinched. "I have  traveled this universe for eleven hundred years, and I have seen agony beyond your capacity to understand. And where I go, I try to help. Because, well..." he shrugged. "What else am I supposed to do? Cluck my tongue and step back into the TARDIS? I've seen where that path leads, I have seen what happens to people who decide that not everyone is worth helping, and I cannot follow it. I would die first. I have died first.

"And so where I travel, when I see pain...I help. A little. Have I succeeded? I like to think so. I know there are a few worlds...well, a few galaxies...well, a few universes, no false modesty here...that wouldn't be around if not for me. But I have never...I have NEVER...told anyone that I am their savior. I've never been anything other than what I am. I'm just a traveler who's sometimes in the right place at the right time to do something good. I'm just a clever old Doctor who tries to fix things when they're broken. I might save people, but I'm no savior. I'm a madman with a box. No more, no less."

He reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a slim wand. He touched a button, and with a high-pitched whirr, the cuffs sprang free. He caught them before they reached the floor and handed them to the inquisitor. "And if that answer doesn't satisfy your masters, then I suggest they come and ask me themselves. Because unlike them, I'm not hiding from anything."

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

My Tiny Contribution to the 'Under the Dome' TV Series

I don't know about anyone else, but I'm really looking forward to the 'Under the Dome' series. I thought it was a great book, and my one complaint about it was that clearly at some point Stephen King thought to himself, "I could literally be stuck writing this book for the rest of my life if I don't find some way to wrap everything up," and so he takes out all the plotlines in one big boom. Which is a good way of doing it, if you have to end your story, but I think it could go for a long time on television just watching everything unfold. The talent behind it sounds good, the cast so far looks good...there's just one thing they need. A theme song.


BARBIE: Julia, listen to me. The outside world, it's a mess. Life under the dome is better than anything they got up there!

The meth labs are always greener
With someone to buy that crank
You dream about going out there
But that is a big mistake
Just look at the world around you
Right here stuck inside this dome
Such wonderful things surround you
This place is your only home!

Under the dome
Under the dome
All the pollution
Needs no solution
Why would you roam?
Out in the world they tried and tried
But they can't find a way inside
Our hope is wanin'
Hoardin' propanin'
Under the dome

In here all the gals are happy
Except Big Jim's son's girlfriends
Those gals, they ain't quite so happy
They met some unpleasant ends
But Junior still loves to see them
At night when it's gettin' late
And after eleven P.M.
The corpses will be his date

Under the dome
Under the dome
Nobody save us
Big Jim enslave us
Just watch, you'll see
He and his cronies run this town
Under the dome we stick around
We got no choice now
We got no voice now
Under the dome
Under the dome
Since we can't leave here
We got to be here
Even the kiddies know the score
Prophetic dreams will tell them more
Aliens did it
Leaving? Forget it!
Under the dome

The cop's for the chop
The plane's split in twain
The air's barely there
We're goin' insane
There's dread in our head
The priest was a beast
But Jim's at the brim of Hell
The stiffs die in shifts
Till death's out of breath
The gas took a pass
To make crystal meth
Sanders and the chef
The only ones lef'
While Barbie's in his cell

Under the dome
Under the dome
Trapped like sardines
Send in the marines
This crisis hits home!
All of those soldiers right outside
Will we get help from them? DENIED!
Soldiers get framed here
Barbie gets blamed here
Under the dome
We gonna croak here
Choke on the smoke here
Under the dome
Dreams all forebode here
Meth labs explode here
It's getting hotter
There's no fresh water
We gonna die here
Kiss butts g'bye here
Under the dome

Sunday, April 07, 2013

Looking for a Good Game Review Site

I've been kind of glancing over a few games lately. In no particular order, Legendary, King of Tokyo, the Star Wars LCG, Miskatonic School for Girls, DC Comics Deck-Building Game, Red November, and Zombie Dice are all drawing my eye as I wander through games stores. (To say nothing of Zombicide, which is no doubt going to be my first purchase after I win the lottery.)

That said, the cheapest of those is about twenty bucks, and in the current economy, it's not easy to just drop $40 on a game without being sure that it's something I'm actually going to enjoy playing. What's needed is a games review site. The problem is, there's not really something that works as an actual games review site--all my google searches redirect me to BoardGameGeek, which is an interesting Metafilter-esque site, but which has the huge problem that unlike the actual Metafilter, it's not aggregating professional reviews; it's aggregating individual reviews. And unlike RottenTomatoes, which does that for movies quite well, games are very much a niche market with very different tastes, and all the games seem to be rated in the 6-7 range because the people who like it love it, and the people who hate it absolutely loathe it.

So I'm looking for a few individual reviewers who I can use to gauge individual games prior to their purchase. First, are there any game review blogs/websites out there that you'd recommend? (I'd also be looking for ones worth reading for their own sakes, as well as ones I'd use to help make decisions. Funny games blogs are funny.) And second, as previously noted, gamers have very different tastes. I'd be generally looking for multiplayer games (5-6 players, although games robust enough to handle 8-10 players are awesome!), generally with short playtimes (30-45 minutes a round), and I prefer humor (of all types) to serious games. And I'd be looking for a reviewer whose tastes reflected mine. (So, for example, if someone gave 'Diplomacy' and 'Axis and Allies' great reviews, but disdained 'Grave Robbers From Outer Space', they're probably not going to recommend games I like, even if they understand very well what makes a good game.)

With all that in mind, any recommendations? Or do I need to start a site like this myself? (If I do, feel free to send me reviewers' copies, game designers!)

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Crazy Cat-Man Update!

At this point, I must announce that we have added an additional two cats to the household. Here is Cat #1: 

His name is Moon, he has a brother named Star, and together they probably weigh about 32-35 pounds. To put this in perspective, my daughter weighed about 40 pounds when she was four. They are going on a program of diet and exercise to get them down to a leaner body shape (although they'll still probably weigh about 24 pounds combined.) I, meanwhile, am maintaining that you do not become a crazy cat person until the number of cats in the household is larger than the number of people. We still just barely qualify.