Saturday, December 28, 2013

Ian Levine's Shada: A Review

Shada is for many the holy grail of Doctor Who stories, the one unfinished Tom Baker story from the Douglas Adams golden era (an era that Stephen Moffat dryly states began and ended with all-time classic City of Death). It was unfinished due to industrial action in 1977 preventing the completion of its studio-time. A fair chunk of the studio work had been completed, and all of the location work shot in Cambridge had been finished so it has stuck in a lot of fan's craw that production was never remounted. Shada saw outgoing producer Graham Williams and outgoing script-editor/writer Douglas Adams replaced by well-known producer JNT (who would hold the job until the 90s) and Christopher H. Bidmead who both wanted to take the show in a different, less joky direction and thus a remount did not happen.

Shada currently exists in three legitimate forms - the DVD/VHS release with Tom Baker sorta out of character providing narration explaining the missing scenes, the Paul McGann/Big Finish audio/webcast version available here with the 8th Doctor filling in for the 4th Doctor in an audio adaption of the original script (with extra scenes to explain the 8th Doctor's presence) and most recently a novelisation by Gareth Roberts almost ghost-writing as Douglas Adams with a substantial RTD-era influence.

However a fourth unofficial version has been made - utilising the existing live-action footage and new  animated sequences to cover the unshot parts with as many of the original cast returning to voice their characters. The fan animators were contacted by Ian Levine, a controversial 'super-fan'/record producer with deeps pockets who is responsible for the return of a number of missing classic Doctor Who episodes and served as an unofficial fan consultant in the 80s.  (I'm also obliged to say he played a part in the making of the record Doctor in Distress and claims he was denied credit for the writing of Attack of the Cybermen).

Levine wanted his animation to appear on the recent Shada DVD but due to politics and perhaps the irregular way he went about this production it was not. Whether that was the case is debatable and the kind of discussion to get you banned off Gallifrey Base or shouted at on Twitter. There's also some unpleasantness between him and some of the animators that he took public on Twitter - so suffice it to say this is a controversial bootleg version! Let's move on to actually reviewing the product...
I watched this with my girlfriend who is a big Douglas Adams fan but a stranger to classic Doctor Who. She often finds classic Doctor Who hit-or-miss. Meanwhile  I am a big fan of Douglas's Doctor Who I've never actually read any of his books. I have watched the original Shada VHS, the Big Finish audio is one of the first and best audios I've heard, and I've even listened to the audiobook of Gareth Robert's novel, read by actress Lalla Ward. So I like to think I knows me Shada.
The episode we watched was on a Raspberry Pi running RASPBMC (basically we watched it on a small HD-ready TV). There's a DVD version out there, but as my lousy cheap DVD/TV combo no longer plays DVDs we didn't watch that version.

Sadly the first piece of animation we see in
this special edition is a great view of the phone
as Chris Parsons twitches and glides
across the room.
The bulk of episode one was previously filmed live-action material, with it being primarily the conclusion of this episode aboard Skagra's ship that is animated. However our first piece of animation concerns Chris Parsons in his lab. This animation is less than stellar here as you can see - and you can play a drinking game with how often the Ancient and Worshipful Law of Gallifrey changes size in the different animations.

As one proceeds further into Shada more and more of the episodes consists of newly animated material. By and large the artwork ranges from okay to beautiful, with excellent likenesses. It is clear several artists worked
The book size changes throughout the
animated segments and appears to be
in a different time-stream from the humans.
on this however, and some are better than others. The animation is perfectly serviceable - a lot of classic Who was static scenes with a lot of dialogue. However the animation tends to be poorest whenever there is any real action - for example
Ian Levine Presents: Doctor Who on ice!
this gif of Romana and Skagra struggling in a corridor of his ship. Movements range from fluid to "Doctor Who on Ice", like this clip of Romana walking across a room. It seems like the animation is typically a rough 10-15 FPS, akin to some of the jerky animations one gets on the reconstructed episode DVDs. Often the characters seem stiff, twitchy and move in a very un-lifelike manner.

Action scenes are not the
animators forte I'm afraid.
Episode 2 sees the introduction of Paul Jones as Tom Baker as the Doctor. While Levine was able to reunite most of the cast to record their dialogue for the animation Tom Baker's fee to record the remaining dialogue for this story was way out of the project's budget, and instead Paul Jones was brought on board. He does a reasonable Tom Baker impression, but it is clearly an impression and lacks the cadence and subtleties of the real man. However his delivery of the final lines of the story sound like he is reading from the script, while the real Tom Baker would have delivered it as the boggle-eyed loon we all love him for.

Judge Mr. Jones's impersonation for yourself... here's the first animated Tom Baker appearance:-

Lalla Ward can't help but sound slightly older than in the live-action sections but overall the quality of the cast is good. Sadly the worst offender in the cast is the person who does the voice of Professor Chronotis in Episode 5, replacing poor Denis Carey who passed away in the interregnum. However if you can look past these things it's a pretty solid reproduction.

Overall this is an impressive fan project, albeit one whose legalities are highly debatable. The animation ranges from superlative (some of the initial scenes in Shada are of comparable quality to the Invasion animation) to comparable to fan animations on youtube. It is probably not ready to be released on DVD but with some retouching of some of the poorer animations, and getting a certain Mr. Baker to replace Mr. Jones's impersonation this could be a real treat. The jump from animation to live-action was not as jarring as I'd thought, though I'd prefer it if it was either all animated or all-live action.

However for me, the Big Finish version is my favourite as it is a rebooted production with an all new cast. Kevin Fox is a wonderful Chronotis, Suzanna Harker is wonderful as Claire, Andrew Sachs is a better Skagra to Christopher Neeme (though Neeme makes an excellent Sith Lord)...

Monday, December 16, 2013

Dr Stu on the Doctor Who 50th Anniversary

Here it is - my reflections on Doctor Who's 50th Anniversary... Beware, spoilers, controversial opinions and Baker-bashing abound.

Yeah, those 5 heads belong on those 5 bodies guys.
(At least they didn't break out McGann's Dark Eyes outfit).
The Light at the End: Let's start with Big Finish's This is a pretty good audio teamup with Doctors 4-8 taking on the Beevers 4th Doctor era Master. I think the reviews I've read are correct, it's a fun romp but it is nothing special in terms of storyline. It's written by Nick Briggs who takes a lot of flack as he is the Dennis Waterman of Big Finish (produces, directs, stars at the Daleks, makes the theme tune). He has written a few truly excellent stories in his time, and he has written a lot of ho-hum Dalek run-arounds on audio to keep himself in the acting booth.

All 8 classic incarnations of the Doctor are represented, the dead ones by sound-distorted impersonators. It's a lot darker than the show with *gasp* a child being murdered by the Master's miniaturization gun at one point.

Highlights are Tom Baker  taking part in a multi-doctor story as the 4th Doctor, and of course my two favourite Doctors, 4 and 8, teaming up to solve the plot initially. Sixie gets to look all smug and superior over all the other Doctors, part of something I call the "Sixie-Sucked-On-TV-So-We-Must-Make-Him-Look-Good-Next-To-The-Other-Doctors Big Finish Compensation Factor".

Lastly - the CGI on my limited edition cover is terrible! 7/10

An Adventure in Space and Time: This was a great docudrama but it really seemed to have two threads to it. One thread was the story of struggling actor Bill Hartnell and his story as he gets to grip with playing the Doctor and falls in love with the show, only to tragically be forced out by ill-health and infirmity. It's a tragic and poignant tale that is beautifully underplayed.

Single female lawyer TV producer, struggling to survive in a
man's world... Zzzzzzzzz... seen it!
The second thread by contrast has the subtlety of a sledge hammer and is one that I think tickled the politically correct cuddly-lefties at the BBC. The heartwarming tale of a female producer (Verity Lambert - first woman producer at the BBC) and her Asian director (Waris Hussain - marvel as he can't get served in the BBC bar for his colour) fighting to survive in the smoke and alcohol sozzled male dominated BBC boys-only-club. We get to see all the snubs, , but in many ways the narrow focus on these two seems to reflect poorly on the fact the show was largely created by committee, rather than the work of these two. Especially since they both end up leaving Doctor Who and the narrative half-to-two-thirds of the way through the show.

I'm no expert on the backstory of Doctor Who but I knew for a fact Mr. Hussain directed a chunk of the first season's episodes (including the amazing first episode) but the show makes it look like he pretty much single handedly directed the entire first run of Hartnell's doctor and his leaving to do Passage to India left them all bereft. I guess poor Daleks director Christopher Barry and later-director John Gorrie were not politically expedient enough to warrant a mention. Perhaps that's splitting hairs, but it is a bit of a shame to be left out for not being a minority.

The performances are great however, even if the focus of the story is spotty at times. Bradley nails it as Hartnell while at the other extreme a lot of the extras playing his (unspeaking) later companions and associates look nothing like their counterparts. Shearsmith makes a passable Troughton (who would be a nightmare to find a real look-a-like actor to play the role) though thankfully we were spared Gatiss as John Pertwee in an unfilmed account of Hartnell's time on the Three Doctors that might have served as an epilogue. Matt Smith even shows up, which is nice (even if it'll be an obselete cameo in 1 month, *sniff* *sniff*).  8/10

Night of the Doctor: see my previous blog post. This was awesome. 10/10

The Last Day: Aside from the iTunes carfuffle this was more typical of what a Doctor Who minisode has been to date. A cheap looking puff piece that does not particularly add much to the story. There are Two Timelords with strong London accents, a smattering of Robocop and a genuinely frightening premonition jump-scare. 4/10

Day of the Doctor - This special reminded me of the End of Time, except done a lot better. My main complaint about this special is the length, 75 minutes is too short when the piece of turd that was End of Time is over 2 hours!!

Especially when they had the gall to release something that short in cinemas. I was tempted to go see this in the cinema but since the last time we went to the cinema when it wasn't Orange Wednesday it cost us £40 for tickets and refreshments I couldn't really justify paying that much cash to see something that was free on TV.

The story is a bit silly to begin with. There's a lot of daftness/kewl factorness just to show off the 3D effects, notably Clara driving her motorbike full pelt towards an initially closed TARDIS entrance and UNIT's aerial surveillance failing to notice her do this and minutes later picking up the TARDIS with a crane to take it to London with both the Doctor and Clara in it and unwilling to use any of the TARDIS mechanisms that could easily free it.

The special has two main arcs - the resolution of the Time War arc from 2005, and some Zygon shennagians in London, Earth, center of the Doctor Who universe. The zygon stuff was great - though I expect we shall see zygons again in Cappaldi's reign to justify the expense of the excellent costume. It does kind of fizzle out at the end of the episode.

The Time War is shown again, as is Gallifrey, though the events of End of Time, which seemed to show nearly every Timelord as being thoroughly evil enough to countenance the destruction of all reality to save their skins, is conveniently sidelined. Instead of Dalton's High Council we see the War Council of Gallifrey (presumably in Arcadia). They don't exactly seem fluffy-bunny types but oddly the whole "Timelords are as bad as Daleks" thru-line from the Night of the Doctor is not really picked up on in this episode, which felt a little odd. Again this reminds me of how Doctor 10's megalomaniacal episode in Waters of Mars was never really addressed in End of Time or in any of 11's subsequent episodes even though it felt like it was setting up some kind of future payoff.

I did like how unlike in End of Time not every Timelord/Gallifreyan is shown to be a combatant. Though once they showed there were kids on Gallifrey for me it removed all tension that the Hurt-Doctor was going to push the button and destroy Gallifrey. In Nu Doctor Who kids are always the expression of innocence, purity, nobility and wisdom. Nothing bad can ever happen to them when the Doctor is around, especially not pre-watershed. In real life they are a more diverse bunch.

A lot of people wish the McGann doctor had appeared in this episode and he could have worked
to be honest. Given they'd shot Night of the Doctor I was expecting some sort of cameo from him and from Peter Davison, who I thought is pretty much Doctor Who royalty, Moffat's favourite doctor and has already surprised. I was a bit surprised we largely just got the 2 NuWho Doctors and Hurt.

That said they needed the Hurt Doctor as sadly there is not that much contrast between Doctors 10 & 11. Both are youngish, suit-wearing, fun-loving, not-too-serious, catchphrase spouting, sonic wielding men. Sure there's some differences, Tennant's doctor is a smooth Johnny-Cool figure while Smith's doctor tries to be cool but is in fact awkward and nerdish, but compared to say Pertwee's played straight Doctor 3 and Baker's Doctor 4 the difference seems almost insignificant. In fact I've bemoaned that there is not enough difference between 9, 10 and 11. NuWho Doctors are all relatively young, pop-culture quoting, slightly clownish characters.

"Doctor no more."
Even the title credits aren't buying it John.
Hurt was definitely more of a classic Pertwee/Hartnell type doctor, providing seniority and poking fun at the silliness of modern Doctors.

There had been all this speculation that Hurt's 9th Doctor had done something so terrible that he could no longer lay claim to the title of Doctor during that incarnation, and that in Night of the Doctor he was some sort of Warrior-Doctor. I'd imagined his younger self as being some sort of Khan figure from Star Trek: Into Darkness wielding a badass gun, taking no prisoners and generally being somewhat undoctorish as he rained a 12-pack of extra caffeinated woopass on the Daleks. However as soon as the character was revealed in Day of the Doctor I saw he was playing the Doctor with the same level of moral fiber we are used to. So we probably could have gotten away with McGann minus the crankiness. I'm pretty certain McGann's doctor would know what a cuppa-soup was, so why not Hurt's?

I loved Hurt's portrayal by the way - but I'm saddened we now have a 2nd Mayfly doctor, and one who probably isn't in a hurry to return to the series. Hurt's getting on in his years and it is unlikely he is going to want to revisit the series. There's also little of an era to the Hurt Doctor as he seems to exist solely for the duration of the Time War, something that I suspect does not lend itself to solid TV or even audio narrative.

Conspicuous by his absence is Christopher Eccleston. I suspect in an earlier draft or synopsis of the story it was Eccleston's newly regenerated doctor who was about to blow up Gallifrey and would have filled the Hurt Doctor's part (albeit with the problem again that his Doctor is somewhat similar to 10 and 11). Even worse is the fact we see poor Hurt regenerate into Eccleston's promotional image, though hearing his first words of, "I survived and Gallifrey is gone. S**t!" probably wouldn't have been in keeping with the upbeat ending they were going for in this show.

Whether it was timing, Chris's policy never to go back or that the producers of the 2005 show burned some really massive bridges with Chris (who by all accounts wasn't happy with the working environment of the show for the crew) man! Even poor Moffat has made some vague comments about how he'd really hoped to bring Eccleston on board.

Eccleston's refusal is all the more frustrating as it was pretty clear to me that Davison, McCoy, McGann and Colin "I was better on audio" Baker would have given their right arms to be in this special. So we had the ironic situation where the 1 Doctor the producers seem to have wanted flat out refused it, while a handful of the classic doctors were really keen to be in it. I imagine Baker's fee could have saved him from appearing in Big Brother XXV wearing his clown costume and reminding folk he was in Doctor Who once.

Still all 13 doctors show up in the end, mostly in recycled footage and some CGI that is better than the Light at the End box but still has a way to go. There's a Capaldi blink-or-you'll miss it shot of his eyes and more interestingly a Tom Baker cameo as (possibly) a future incarnation of the Doctor. However as a homage to the past there's little nods to the 1st Doctor's era in Coal Hill school and Totter's Yard and one of the characters wears a 4th Doctor scarf. There's not really a lot of homage to all 50 years. Certainly the 80s, 90s and bulk of the 70s felt a little overlooked while this really does feel like a NuWho celebration since the Time War is a 2005-thing, mixed in with a few old references. I'd have liked to have seen Ian Chesterton cameo, and possibly we could see what became of Susan or Romana (possibly something ghastly in the Time War).

Overall a solid episode. I guess as the 50th episode it was never going to reach my lofty expectations and I suspect the BBC did not give it the budget and scheduling it really deserved. I mean 75 minutes guys, really?! 7/10

The Fiveish Doctors: This is comedy gold, though only if you watch Doctor Who and know a little bit about the fandom. A rather deranged Peter Davison teams up with a brilliant Sylvester "Did I mention I'm awesome in the Hobbit in the last 5 seconds?" McCoy and of course Colin "No Career Besides Big Finish and Reality TV" Baker try to get into the 50th anniversary special with cameos from McGann (who Colin Baker seems envious about the fact he is still able to get work), Moff, Peter Jackson, Sir Ian McKellen and perhaps John Barrowman's greatest appearance in a Doctor Who story. One that made me have to pause the iPlayer and walk out the room laughing hysterically.

Somehow McCoy has convinced me he is charmingly drunk and asleep but
Baker just doesn't look convincingly asleep even in this shot.
(Also next trip to the Doctor Who Experience I plan to pay in Barrowman CDs from Grouchos in Dundee).

Arguably this and Night of the Doctor are the best parts of the show. I don't know why but I found Colin Baker just a bit annoying in all this silliness. His girth means he dominates a lot of the shots and I suspect it's a little too close to home for the 13th best Doctor of all time (Peter Davison once said if his acting career ever fizzles he won't have to worry for money after all Colin Baker survives well enough on convention appearances). 10/10

Moffat realises that
1Direction + Doctor Who
were the obvious crossover!
The Afterparty: Disaster.

Bring all the Doctor Who companions of old and get some twit and Zoe Ball to completely capitalize on them being there. Get the Moff, Matt Smith, Jenna Coleman and frigging John Hurt on stage for 1Direction - a Simon Cowell manufactured boy band running a competing livestream event - to interview them whilst having them contradict Zoe Ball's assertion they'd been watching it live in LA and basically ask "Was it any good?" Interview friggin' Adric randomly of all the companions (apparently he's still available for acting work, someone ring Uwe Boll!) and watch in awe as Zoe and her chucklehead chowder brained sidekick fail to remember any of the old actor's names and refer to them by their character's names.

On the other hand Matt Smith accidentally appeared to gave 1D the bird and the internet got to see Moffat give a double facepalm. Also Tom Baker got to run roughshod over Chucklehead during an interview and it was nice for him to mention he is still the Doctor in Big Finish and the BBC Audios. Bizarrely the Doctors and Nick Briggs never seem to mention BF enough in any retrospective interview on shows like Doctor Who Confidential style interviews - I assume they regularly have to cut round any such mentions because of the BBC's policies.

I can honestly imagine the commissioning meeting for this went along the lines of,"That Next Doctor Live event was brilliant. It got loads of ratings. Someone call Zoe Ball and get her to do another one. Never mind that the 25 minutes before we announced Capaldi was utter guff people tolerated while they were waiting for the announcement."

Monkeys and toasters again. 3/10

Summary: Given that there really was only 2 episodes of Doctor Who made this year (again a crying shame, I'd have loved a Children of Earth mini-series style release or even an animated 3D cartoon featuring the older Doctors) I am amazed Moffat kept his word of taking over TV. However it seems he had to do a lot of creative accountancy and a lot of the good stuff wound up on the BBC red button service and relatively cheaper looking webisodes. The highlight of the anniversary for me was both Night of the Doctor and the Fiveish Doctors. Roll on Time of the Doctor and the Capaldi era.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Lamentations on a Forgotten Heroquest

So, there was a kickstarter for Heroquest 25th Anniversary Edition by by a company called Gamezone.

Was being the operative word.

Then after it was shutdown over IP violation it reappeared on a Spanish crowdfunding site... for 4 hours.

My first thought on seeing the site way back before the kickstarter launched was it looked a little dodgy. Nice graphics, but the site as in Spanish, not English, (which is odd as Heroquest in my mind is a British game) I got a vague sense this was not a legit organisation.

Later English additions to the site did little to dissuade my feeling of dread, especially the logo "Everything you will ever wait is here". When you spend your life reading emails and reports written in pigeon-English, you dread seeing it on an actual product. I was only vaguely tempted to pledge to the campaign - the proposed miniatures looked great, but the lack of proper English really put me off. I was also therefore dreading any tinkering with the game - especially since they were proposing to add 15 new heroes. I just doubted their ability to not affect the game balance.

Lastly there were going to be no fimirs.

Sadly this was a render of the final product, rather than an
actual prototype. One of the main critiques of the KS was the
lack of any real groundwork prior to launch.
Odds were the kickstarter was going to be shutdown, most likely by Games Workshop who in lieu of making games these days litigate at the first hint of encroachment on their property. As they made the minis this seemed inevitable.

However the Kickstarter was shutdown at the request of smaller company Moon Design, a company that owns the Heroquest trademark in America as part of the Glorantha RPG range. They had been approached by GameZone and had asked to see a letter from MB Games allowing GameZone to remake Heroquest. GameZone would not produce one and it came to light they own the Heroquest trademark applied to toys in Spain but do not actually have any rights to the game itself.

To be honest I'd almost overlook the IP violation as it is pretty clear as far as Games Workshop and MB are concerned this game is dead in the water. However GZ seems to a bit of a fly-by-night outfit. It is a real shame HQ died out the way it did.

Now excuse me while I kickstart Advanced Heroquest in Kazakhstan.