Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Big Things Come in Small Blue Boxes: The Waters of Mars

I’ve just finished “The Complete Specials” in my morning elliptical machine viewing of the Doctor Who DVDs. These are the last David Tennant episodes before Matt Smith takes over in the title role. The doctor is traveling alone, so guilt-stricken after what happened to Donna Noble in “Journey’s End” that he even turns down a chance to take on Lady Christina de Souza played by Michelle Ryan as a companion at the end of “Planet of the Dead.”
She would have been a great companion.
(On a side note, I feel like the Bionic Woman reboot Ryan starred in never got a fair shake thanks to the writers’ strike that year. The show really could have found its feet if it only had a few more episodes.)
(On another side note, I like to imagine that somewhere deep inside Donna Noble’s subconscious, Doctor-Donna is working on the problem of restoring her memories without causing her brain to burst into flames. When she succeeds, she gets the Doctor to go with her to find 1960s companions Jamie and Zoe and restore their memories as well. It’s a cool idea, but as I’ve already noted, there ain’t no money in fanfic.)
(On one further side note, I’ve completely lost my place.)
Right. “The Waters of Mars.” It’s Doctor No. 10’s penultimate adventure, and it’s a dark one. The Doctor arrives on Mars at what turns out to be the first colony on Mars. It also turns out that the first colony on Mars is doomed and the Doctor can’t do anything to prevent the colony’s destruction without unraveling thousands of years of future history. Specifically, colony commander Captain Adelaide Brooke’s granddaughter will be the captain of humanity’s first interstellar mission to the stars, taking the inspiration from her grandmother and following her into space. As shown in a flashback, even a Dalek knows better than to screw with that level of future history and turns away from an opportunity to kill Brooke as a young girl.
So when the colonists start getting homicidally infected by something in their drinking water, the Doctor knows there is nothing he can do to save any of them. They will all die and the colony will self-destruct to prevent spread of the contagion. Their sacrifice saves the future.

Except, the Doctor has a change of hearts at the last minute. He’s already lost Donna and, damn it, he’s going to save the rest of these people. Why should Time Lord law apply to him when he’s the last Time Lord? He declares himself the Lord of Time and transports the last three survivors, including the commander, safely to Earth.
Brooke realizes the gravity of what the Doctor has done and what he’s becoming and, instead of thanking him, goes home and shoots herself. The other two survivors are left to tell the story of her heroism and, somehow, the future is preserved. Meanwhile, the Doctor realizes that he’s gone too far and even his time is running out. He climbs into the TARDIS and heads off to face the music in “The End of Time.” 
Her death is a fixed point in history. As they used to say at the Academy, "If it's fixed, don't break it."
I have some problems with this episode despite any number of outstanding dramatic performances by the entire cast. I can accept that the first colony on Mars is British because Doctor Who. I can accept the colonists packing guns instead of, say, bicycles. I can even accept building the entire colony on top of a nuclear warhead, just in case. (I figure the latter two recommendations came from some classified UNIT or Torchwood document that essentially said, “Hey, there may be Ice Warriors or Sutekh, so take some guns and bombs. They never actually help, but at least it won’t look like we weren’t paying attention.”)
This is one of those episodes that could have been solved by piling everyone into the TARDIS and getting out of there. Of course, that’s what he wound up doing; but why take them to Earth? Where history’s concerned, “presumed dead” is as good as “dead.” Especially when the supposed cause of death is a nuclear explosion on another planet. He could have taken them anywhere. He could have taken Captain Brooke to Proxima Centauri to meet her granddaughter. By that point, history’s already happened, so no harm, no foul.

C'mon, they named the ship Titanic. I have zero sympathy.
I get where the episode was going thematically. It goes all the way back to the first episode of the season, “Voyage of the Damned,” wherein the Doctor finds himself a passenger on a sabotaged luxury space liner. The adventure goes particularly badly for a Doctor Who episode and a lot of sympathetic characters die before it’s all over, including would-be companion Astrid Peth, played by singer Kylie Minogue. One of the survivors turns out to be a greedy self-centered businessman who not only lives but gets even richer because he’d just sold his shares in the doomed luxury liner’s company. Someone comments to the Doctor at the end that he was probably not the person that the Doctor (or the viewers) would have chosen to survive. But then again, the same observer adds after thinking for a moment, if you got to choose who lives and who dies that might make you sort of a monster. That’s what’s at the core of the Doctor’s epiphany at the end of “The Waters of Mars” when he says that he’s gone too far. I would have rather had a callback to that realization instead of Captain Brooke’s pointless suicide.
So, instead of following her grandmother into space, she follows her to a self-inflicted laser shot in a London flat? Dunno how they dodged that bullet, but then again, if there's one thing science fiction television teaches us, it's that lasers are much easier to dodge than bullets.

Friday, January 10, 2014

There Ain’t No Money in Fanfic: Ghost Master

I brought Ghost Master with me on my vacation. It’s a 2003 computer game from Empire Interactive, but it’s one of those games that’s fun to come back to every once and again. In the game, you are the Ghost Master, and it’s your job to deploy various ghosts, imps, spirits, and elementals to haunt locales throughout the town of Gravenville, usually with the objective of sending all the humans on site screaming from the scene. The game looks a bit like the Sims, except you get to dump spiders on the people (if you’ve deployed Clatterclaws, a ghostly spider the size of a kitchen table).

You’re assigned some ghosts and in each haunting mission you have an opportunity to recruit two or three more spirits to your roster. These latter ghosts will introduce themselves to you and tell you what you need to do to free them up to your service. Sometimes it’s simple like getting a mortal to flush the toilet to free the trapped water elemental, other times it’s more complicated. Anyway, the ghosts each have different personalities and there’s some nice bits of voice acting.

"Please flush and remember to wash your hands afterwards."
The game ends on a bit of a cliffhanger, as if there was a sequel planned that never came to pass. Even an expansion pack with a handful of new ghosts and a couple of new locations would have been more than welcome, if for no other reason than the fact that you hardly get to use the ghosts you recruit in the later missions. (A bonus level was released that provided some closure, but it was only compatible with the British release of the game. According to Wikipedia, the bonus level is included in the downloads available from Steam and Good Old Games.)
As far as game play as the Ghost Master goes, sometimes your actions in Gravenville might be considered “good,” such as helping a little boy find his stuffed bunny or exposing a crooked cop to avenge an officer slain in the line of duty. Other times, such as setting your ghosts to rampage through a hospital, not so much. Basically, the supernatural world has its own agenda, and one aspect of that agenda throughout the game is to recruit a powerful supernatural creature known as the Darkling.
Since this is a fanfic post and since there is no hint that an official sequel is ever going to happen, here’s what I have in mind for Ghost Master 2: The Darkling Invasion.
The Plot: In the original Ghost Master, one of your goals is to free the Darkling. Since it happens in tha last scenario, you don’t really get to do much with it. But there’s another problem with the Darkling: it’s not one of ours. Look at it. It doesn’t look like any of the other haunters in the roster, not even Ghastly, who looks like he’s moonlighting from the first couple Hellraiser movies (the good ones). The Darkling is gigantic and looks like a full-fledged demon. That’s probably because it is. It eats souls for crying out loud. While your haunters may have set the odd mortal on fire for laughs,* they never actually ate anyone.
* Don’t worry, kids; it’s ectoplasmic flame. No (physical) scarring.

"Boo! I'm a ghost! Boo!"
Clive Barker: Call your agent.
Recruiting the Darkling was a mistake. Now it and all its demonic darkling friends are trying to take over Gravenville.
A lot of the missions will involve scaring humans out of a locale before the darklings get to them and otherwise prevent the Darkling from liberating more of its malevolent kin. (In this pitch, I’ll be referring to the Darkling from the original Ghost Master as “the Darkling.” The aforementioned “malevolent kin” will be referred to as “darklings.” They are all big and demonic-looking with their own power sets.)
Changes in Game Play: In Ghost Master, mortals have three attributes that the haunters can affect: Fear shown as a red bar, Sanity shown as a yellow bar, and Belief in the Supernatural shown as a blue bar. When the red bar is full, the mortal in question flees the scene. For example, appearing in front of a mortal and pulling your face off adds a lot to the red bar. When the yellow bar is full, the mortal goes insane and begin to run around randomly; they are immune to further scaring but for all intents and purposes are considered to have fled the scene as well. Having a bucket of spiders dumped on you adds fear and insanity, but running into your doppelganger who then pulls his face off is the Crazy Train Express. In most but not all instances, the blue bar is not much of a factor with regard to play; however, it may indicate how susceptible the mortal is to your supernatural shenanigans.
If a darkling gets a hold of a mortal, all three bars go gray, the darkling gets more plasm to fuel its unearthly powers, and that mortal is under the darkling’s control. Darklings will generally use their mortal slaves to bring more mortals to their master. More importantly, these mortals don’t scare, which means they don’t generate any plasm for your haunters. The more humans the darklings convert, the weaker you and your ghosts become.
One of the limitations in dealing with the Darkling and its kin is that haunters and darklings cannot affect each other directly. While you can set humans on fire for laughs and scares, you can’t do the same to the darklings. However, you can affect the environment. Use your various ghostly powers to move debris and/or fire to keep humans away from the darklings.
"Really, I'm just a ghost and am not involved in any kind of demonic invasion. Honest."
New Locales and Characters: With a new game, there should be new locales. Let’s have a high school, a spooky amusement park, some warehouses down by the docks, a modern office building with a secret high-tech R&D center, a nice country club, and a sketchy neighborhood complete with dive bars and dark alleys. A visit to the Darkling’s home dimension would make for an especially challenging finale.
More ghosts, of course. I want a scary clown, maybe some kind of howling beast-man, and a mad scientist ghost. Also, a demonic biker who shall not be referred to as “Ghost Rider.” Also, an undead creature called “Sparkles the Vampyre.”
The original Ghost Master game had a few wild cards among the mortal would-be victims: a medium, a priest, some amateur witches, and a trio of “ghost breakers” complete with proton packs. These guys had the power to detect and banish your ghosts if you weren’t careful. Here are some new wild cards:
·        John Heckburner is a paranormal investigator who hangs out in a bar in the sketchy part of town. He can banish ghosts and darklings and doesn’t scare easily, though he can be misled or distracted. He also drinks a bit too much.
·        Bunny the Slayer is a student at the high school. She will physically attack ghosts and darklings until they’re banished. She doesn’t scare easily either, but can be driven off with overwhelming force.
·        Billy Phantasm got caught in a mishap at the high-tech R&D center and can now change from an ordinary mortal to a hero with ghost powers. In his ghostly form, he is immune to attacks by haunters and darklings and is able to banish both with impunity. Luckily, he can only stay in this form for limited periods of time. The rest of the time, he’s vulnerable.
·        There are these four meddling teenagers and their dog—Frankie, Dana, Thelma, Shabby, and Scoopy Doo—who hang out at the amusement park. While they scare just as easily as other mortals (if not more easily), for some reason, the act as a natural ectoplasmic sink. Higher level ghost and darkling powers simply can’t be used while they’re on site. Even more frustratingly, although they can be separated, they can’t be driven away until the whole team is scared enough to leave. They seem to have some sort of history with one of the ghosts from the original game, Old Man Carter.
·        Finally, there’s Professor Weird, Master of Magic Powers. He tends to show up when a lot of magic is being used at a site. He’s immune to darkling and ghost powers and will banish anyone he sets his sights on. The best strategy is to turn your powers down and lay low until he goes away, though if you’re clever and careful, you can sic him on the darklings.
Finally, one important change to the original game: There was a poltergeist who was the combined spirits of all the chickens that had died in a poultry processing plant. Its name was Hard Boiled, but it should have been called Fluster Cluck. That is all.
"It's a chicken! A giant chicken!"

Follow-up: I just downloaded a version of Ghost Master from GOG.com, which includes the game's spooky soundtrack by Paul Weir. It's great. Also, Ghost Master co-creator Chris Bateman has a blog that discusses Ghost Master's failures and successes and the unlikelihood of a sequel. It's interesting reading.