Tuesday, 31 December 2013

My favourites and least favourites of 2013

Shamelessly “inspired” by my friend Lucas Costi’s post on a similar topic, here’s a list of some of the stuff I liked most and least this year. I quite specifically make no representation about the quality or otherwise of any of these things: their inclusion here signifies nothing other than how much or how little I personally enjoyed them.


Per Goodreads, here’s a list of what I read in 2013. I only got through 32 out of the 50 books that I told myself I’d read this year, but there were some wonderful things in there. It’s not a new publication, but the book I enjoyed most was Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex: intelligent, lyrical, and surprising. My review is on Goodreads.

The book I enjoyed least was Intrusion by Ken MacLeod. I felt it was a senseless squandering of some genuinely interesting ideas, that only got worse the longer it went on. My review is here. It narrowly beats out Christopher Gerrib’s The Pirates of Mars, because at least that book stuck to what it set out to do and didn’t change horses in mid-stream.


I only went to one dance performance this year: Project Rameau by the Sydney Dance Company. I was amazed by how much I enjoyed the juxtaposition of modern dance with the stately elegance of Rameau’s music. “Favourite” is meaningless in a field of one, but I loved this.

Live music

I think the only live music performance I went to this year was the Badinerie Players’ Concert of French- and Italian-Style Baroque Music at the ABC studios. I really love this ensemble, and am very disappointed that while researching the above link I found that they performed twice in November and I never knew about it! I would totally have gone to that!


Another single-entry category. My one excursion to the theatre this year was to Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which I enjoyed as much as I usually enjoy this company’s work—which is to say, very much indeed!


I didn’t watch many movies this year. Of that small bunch, Gravity is the one I liked most; my review is on IMDb. In short, I found it incredibly beautiful and moving.

By a long margin, the movie I liked least in 2013 (and one of the films I enjoyed least out of everything I’ve ever sat through including a low-fi, low budget feature film of some Korean teenager SMSing his friends) is J.J.’s Space Adventure II, aka Star Trek Into Darkness. My review is elsewhere here on my blog, but in short, I found it a mediocre (at best) action film, poor science fiction, and practically unrecognisable as Star Trek. Fail.


2013 saw me continue my survey mission to seek out shows I might enjoy out of what has been broadcast in the 20 or so years since Star Trek: The Next Generation ended. The results have been very hit-and-miss, but I was blown away by the one episode of Rome that I trialled. I am just itching to return and watch this series through!

For sheer oh-my-God-stop-this-now hatred, I immediately point to Louie. Not only did I find this horribly unfunny (pretty much a deal-breaker for a comedy for me...)  but the smugness of its central character actually made me angry. Every minute of watching this was unpleasant for me.

Board games

I just realised with horror that I played a grand total of only two new board games this year: Red November and A Game of Thrones. That’s too few to rank a most or least favourite, but I found both games quite fun.

Computer games

I also tried only two computer games in 2013, and really enjoyed both, even if, again, this doesn’t make for a meaningful “most favourite” and “least favourite”. One was XCOM: Enemy Unknown, for which I wrote a long review here on my blog. The other is a relatively recent discovery: Fsim Space Shuttle, which I’m still struggling with, but it feels like a worthy challenge! I’m sure I’ll review it in due course :)

So there it is. Clearly, I need to make more effort to get out more in 2014! Although, that said, I don’t feel like I missed out on anything this year that I knew was on but didn’t get to.

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Doctor Who: the latest missing episode recovery rumour

TL;DR version: the Mirror is reporting a rumour that the 1st season Doctor Who story “Marco Polo”, currently missing from the archives, has been recovered. I think there are good grounds to believe the rumour and speculate that the episode has come back from Africa with a locally-produced dubbed soundtrack in a language other than English. Detailed analysis follows:

Today, the Mirror is running the story that the seven episodes missing from the first-season Doctor Who story “Marco Polo” (that is, the entire story) have been recovered and will be announced by the BBC as part of the show’s 50th anniversary celebrations.

Rumours of the return of missing Doctor Who episodes are practically unending in fandom, fuelled by a demonstrably inexhaustible supply of wishful thinking. For anyone who’s been paying attention to these for more than a few years, the reaction is usually “I’ll believe it when I see it”. Maybe I’m feeling especially credulous right now because the Mirror was the first mainstream news source to tip the return of nine 5th season episodes about a week before the BBC made an official announcement last month, but there’s something about this story that has the ring of truth about it for me.

The Mirror’s version of events this time around is that the source of “Marco Polo” is:
“a fan who enthusiastically recorded the episodes ... directly from the television onto a 16mm film camera.... The recording - which is a silent film - came out really clearly so it will be easy to watch.... There are already audio recordings of the episodes so the Beeb have had to match everything up. There are some gaps in the audio so it has been a painstaking process.”
There are significant problems with this version of events:
  1. Domestic home-movie cameras were certainly available in 1964, but their film magazines lasted only a few minutes: a typical 100-foot roll would be finished in a little under 3 minutes of shooting. 
  2. Short clips from early Doctor Who stories have indeed been recovered from a fan who shot these snippets on an 8mm camera. These snippets show heavy distortion and flickering. This is to be expected from the technical limitations of this approach, which include the distortion inherent in early television picture tubes, and a mismatch between the frame rate of the TV signal (50 frames-per-second) and the movie camera (24 frames-per-second). Even if somebody had a home-recording of Marco Polo on the technically superior 16mm format, it would still suffer from the same limitations as the 8mm material previously recovered and be in no way “really clear” and “easy to watch”.
 Against that, it also includes elements of truth:

    1. The BBC does hold audio copies of all seven episodes of “Marco Polo”. At least two fans, David Holman and James Russell, had independently made off-air audio recordings of these episodes. 
    2. Of the two sets of recordings, Holman’s are far higher-quality, but, like the Mirror report states, do contain some gaps. Holman edited out the opening and closing titles of the episodes, and the brief reprises of the action that took place at the start of each episode to recap the action of the previous week’s episode. Additionally, Holman’s recording of episode 7 (“Assassin at Peking”) is missing around ten seconds.
    3. Restoring these vintage, amateur audio recordings is challenging because of technical limitations of the original equipment. For example, the speed at which the tape ran through the recorder might not have been exactly to standard, meaning that the recording was slightly faster or slower than real-time. The speed could also vary within a particular tape, due to the changing tension in a reel of tape when it was empty compared to when it was full, as well as the stretchiness of individual tapes. When remastering these episodes for CD release, the Doctor Who Restoration Team has had to make best guesses about the the tape speed, and the results can be approximations only. Attempting to “match everything up” between this audio with a film print would indeed be challenging and “painstaking”.
    4. 16mm recordings of early Doctor Who were indeed made—not by fans, but by the BBC itself for foreign TV stations. The show was originally produced on 2” videotape, but that equipment wasn’t widely available in the BBC’s export markets, so the episodes were transferred to 16mm instead. It is these film recordings on which all 1960s Doctor Who survives—every single one of the videotape masters was erased (and re-used) a long time ago.
    One missing piece of the puzzle: if we assume that 16mm recordings of “Marco Polo” have been recovered, why would they need to be re-synched to  amateur-made audio recordings?  The BBC telerecordings were all sound film, with the audio tracks present right there optically on the film print itself. One obvious possibility is that the the recovered prints are not of the English originals, but are dubs into another language. Past recovery efforts have yielded prints in at least Arabic and Spanish, but in every one of these previous cases, English-language prints were already known to exist. Admittedly, though, no known dubs were made of Marco Polo, and indeed, the special “sound effects and music only” prints on which foreign TV stations relied to dub programs into a local language were never produced for “Marco Polo”. [Afterthought: actually, on further reflection, it seems to me more likely that the need to re-synch the soundtracks is simply a red herring: a case of confusion of the recovered material with the fan-made off-air audio recordings.]

    Complete prints of “Marco Polo” were sent to no fewer than 23 countries at one time or another, but not every country got a fresh print. It was normal practice for the BBC to send out prints to one country after another country had already screened the material and returned it. Matching up the known movements of these prints suggests that probably 10 sets existed for “Marco Polo”: The Destruction of Time website has a great summary.The last known prints in existence were in Ethiopia, where the story was transmitted in 1971. Each of these 23 countries broadcast the story in English.

    Recent Doctor Who recovery efforts have centred on Africa, and the Mirror specifically (but impossibly) named Ethiopia as the source of the Trougton material recovered last month.

    Putting it all together:


    • “Marco Polo” has indeed been recovered.  
    • It exists as a professionally made, 16mm telerecording. 
    • The print is a second-generation print made with a locally produced soundtrack in a language other than English. 
      • Revised opinion: the print is in English and (apart from maybe the need to patch up a damaged audio track here-or-there, there's no need to re-sync the print with the existing off-air audio recordings.
    • The print comes from Ethiopia, and the dub is in Amharic.

    As always, time will tell!

    Thursday, 10 October 2013

    Early Doctor Who: What's Missing?

    Just how much early Doctor Who is missing? A lot!
    I'm very much looking forward to this infographic being out of date tomorrow!
    And here it is!
    As I predicted earlier in the week, the find was a batch of season 5 episodes discovered in Nigeria.

    Monday, 7 October 2013

    What are the newly-recovered Doctor Who episodes?

    Updated 8 Oct

    For a few months now, persistent rumours have been circulating among Doctor Who fandom of the return of a huge cache of episodes that are presently not held in the BBC archives (the so-called ‘missing episodes’ or ‘lost episodes’) from somewhere in Africa. How huge? Rumours varied from around a dozen or so up to 90 of the 106 episodes. The rumours reached their peak in June, fuelled by customs evidence of 3 tonnes of archival material being imported into the UK from Nigeria by a noted film and TV archivist, and then diminished again when the archivist released a public statement that the material had no Doctor Who among it.

    Still, the rumours never completely went away, and denials by the BBC and people connected with it tended be to very coy and carefully worded—of the “There are always rumours and speculation about Doctor Who missing episodes being discovered, however we cannot confirm any new finds” variety.

    “There are always rumours and speculation about Doctor Who missing episodes being discovered, however we cannot confirm any new finds,”
    Read more at http://www.thedrum.com/news/2013/06/20/bbc-cannot-confirm-recovery-lost-dr-who-archive#LfHMLVx7K5jjtJTW.99
    “There are always rumours and speculation about Doctor Who missing episodes being discovered, however we cannot confirm any new finds,”
    Read more at http://www.thedrum.com/news/2013/06/20/bbc-cannot-confirm-recovery-lost-dr-who-archive#LfHMLVx7K5jjtJTW.99
    Then, yesterday, The Mirror newspaper ran a story claiming that all 106 episodes had been recovered from Ethiopia, and this morning, the Radio Times reports that the BBC will make two newly-recovered stories available for sale on Wednesday. The Radio Times went on to say that these stories are “believed to be from the Patrick Troughton era” (second Doctor, seasons 4–6) and that “It is understood that other episodes have also been found”.

    Subsequently, The Mirror reports that the announcement of the missing material has been postponed to the end of the week.

    So what might have come back?

    I've put together a spreadsheet to show the countries to which each of the stories that contain one or more missing episodes were sold, based on the amazingly detailed research shared on the BroaDWcast website. I’ve also included a few annotations:
    • cells with grey dates indicate that the print used for that broadcast is recorded as having left the country afterwards (although in at least one case, a print turned up in Australia even after being recorded as returned to the UK).
    • cells with dates struck out indicate that the print used for that broadcast is recorded as specifically having been destroyed. In reality, it’s likely that most of the prints sent to New Zealand were actually destroyed there, even if specific records have not been found for this.
    • cells with dates in square brackets indicate that the story was viewed by TV executives or government censors in that country, but it was not actually broadcast. 
    • cells with dates in bold indicate the last known transmission of that story.
    • columns in green indicate countries in Africa, the continent to which recent rumours consistently point.
    • story titles in blue are those which I feel there is some reasonable possibility that they could be among a hypothetical trove of episodes retrieved from Africa.

    Assessing the rumours

    For a start, it’s simply not credible that all 106 missing episodes have been found anywhere in Africa. In the 1960s, Doctor Who was produced on 2-inch videotape; an expensive resource that had the virtue of being reusable when its contents were no longer needed. The fact that any Doctor Who from the 1960s and early 1970s has survived at all is due to the BBC’s sales of the show to overseas broadcasters. The BBC was one of the world’s early adopters of videotape, a technology that very few of its foreign customers had in the mid 1960s. Therefore, to sell the show abroad, its sales division, BBC Enterprises, had to transfer the videotape masters to film (usually 16mm, but occasionally 35mm) with a process called telecine: a film camera was pointed at a special, flattened television screen, and filmed whatever was played from videotape. At the other end, the foreign TV station would reverse the process: projecting the 16mm film print onto a screen and pointing a television camera at it for live broadcast! Usually, multiple sets of film prints would be made from the one set of negatives so that BBC Enterprises could send prints to multiple customers simultaneously (although some customers would sometimes have to wait until another customer was finished with their set and could send them on).

    Of the 106 episodes not publicly known to be present in the BBC archives today, one episode (“The Feast of Steven”, episode 7 of the serial The Daleks’ Masterplan) was a Christmas novelty episode and was never transferred to film because its foreign sales prospects were deemed non-existent. Therefore, when its master videotape was wiped (as they all were by 1974), we can say that it was gone for good. We’re now down to 105 episodes that could conceivably come back from somewhere in Africa.

    Beyond that, prints of the remaining 11 episodes of The Daleks’ Masterplan plus its “teaser” episode Mission to the Unknown, were only made for one country (Australia). It’s therefore very unlikely that the 9 mising from these 12 would be among any stories recovered from Africa if that’s indeed where any recent finds came from. (Down to 96)

    Similarly, only three foreign countries showed William Hartnell’s last story (The Tenth Planet) and Patrick Troughton’s debut (The Power of the Daleks): Australia (which records returning its prints of these stories to the BBC in 1975), New Zealand (which forwarded its prints to Singapore in 1972), and Singapore. So it’s pretty certain the 7 episodes missing from these 10 can’t be among any hypothetical African treasure trove. (Down to 89)

    The number of prints of The Evil of the Daleks is a little less certain. Four countries showed it. One print went to Australia in early 1969 and is recorded returned to the UK in 1975; this seems to be a separate print from the one that aired in other countries. The story  also aired in Hong Kong and Singapore later in 1969 and in New Zealand in 1970. The New Zealand print is recorded as destroyed in 1974. So there was at least one, probably two, and maybe even three more prints made of this story (Singapore and New Zealand sometimes exchanged prints, as we’ve already seen), but none went anywhere near Africa. (Down to 83).

    By the early 1970s, only two African countries were left buying Doctor Who in black-and-white: Nigeria and Zambia. By that time, Nigeria seems to have been getting its prints from New Zealand: film prints recovered from Nigeria bear cuts made by the New Zealand censorship board, and when New Zealand did not buy and show a particular story, Nigeria did not either. New Zealand did not buy Fury from the Deep (perhaps because its theme of monsters attacking oil rigs was not helpful to a government trying to close a major offshore natural gas deal at the time) and in fact, stopped buying the show after this season (season 5), meaning that the penultimate story of season 5, The Wheel in Space was the last that Nigeria got of the black-and-white years. The circulation of prints into Zambia is less certain, but whatever their source, BBC records indicate that the final batch of Patrick Troughton episodes screened in the country was the first half of season 5 and the second half of season 6. Therefore, Fury from the Deep didn’t screen in Zambia either, and neither did The Invasion, which, coming in season 6 was after New Zealand and Nigeria had stopped buying the show. Therefore, the 8 episodes missing from these 2 stories are unlikely to turn up in Africa, I think. (Down to 75).

    Speculation on what exactly might have been retrieved depends on which individual chunk of the rumour you privilege:

    Episodes found somewhere in Africa

    This part of the rumour is common to all its incarnations, I’m basing all speculation on this part being true. If we remove the Africa constraint, then all kinds of other possibilies open up, but such speculation is completely baseless: “90 missing episodes found in basement of eccentric billionaire film collector in Sussex!” Sure, but there’s really no way to guess what that might include.


    Some huge number of episodes found: most of what's currently missing

    If there really is a huge hoard of these episodes, Zambia is the only realistic source: in fact, of the 75 episodes that could conceivably be found in Africa, prints of all 75 were certainly in that country at some time, and there doesn't seem to be solid records of them having been sent on to other countries, sent back to the UK, or of being destroyed. In fact, it’s the one country in the world in which such a stash might have survived.

    However, Zambia isn’t mentioned in any version of the rumour.

    Episodes found in Nigeria

    Nigerian archives had already been searched for missing episodes in the 1980s. That aside, if a stash of episodes turned up there, they are likely to be the ones missing from Hartnell’s first two seasons, or from season 5 in Patrick Troughton’s time. It seems that Nigeria is the last place on earth to have transmitted the season 5 stories. Furthermore, although the search in the 80s was prompted by a viewer’s remark that Nigerian TV was so far behind the times that it was still showing Patrick Troughton, the only stories recovered then were Hartnell stories.

    Episodes are Troughton stories

    If the stories to be released this week are indeed from Troughton’s time as the Doctor, as the Radio Times suggests, Nigeria and Zambia are both possible sources. The Troughton stories most likely to emerge from Africa are, in their original screening order:
    • The Abominable Snowmen
    • The Ice Warriors
    • The Enemy of the World
    • The Web of Fear
    • The Wheel in Space
    • The Space Pirates
    I can’t see any reason to think that any of these are any more or less likely to emerge from Africa than any of the others. They were all broadcast in Nigeria or Zambia in the early-mid 1970s, and one of those countries was the final known location of each of those episodes.

    Episodes found in Ethiopia

    I think this element of the rumour is so inconsistent with any of the other claims that I’m simply inclined to dismiss it. However, if this piece is true, it implies that: the haul of episodes is relatively small (11 missing episodes) and that the episodes come from the Hartnell era, not Troughton.

    Another possibility, though: the entire first two seasons of the show (81 episodes) have been recovered in Ethiopia, of which the BBC archives already holds copies of 70. Ethopia is the final known location for many of these episodes, and in particular, of all the episodes missing from seasons 1 and 2.

    Episodes found in Sierra Leone

    In The Mirror’s update of the story, Sierra Leone gets a mention. Like Ethiopia, this is inconsistent with Troughton material being recovered, but Sierra Leone would be a good source for Hartnell’s decimated season 3; the country was the last in Africa to broadcast these stories and it’s possible that the prints never left. On the other hand, Sierra Leone’s film and sound archives were destroyed in civil unrest in January 1999.


    Of course, I’m just guessing, but I think that starting on Wednesday and over the weeks leading up to the show’s 50th anniversary extravaganza,  we will learn that a substantial chunk of season 5 has been recovered from Nigeria, probably a mix of episodes that the BBC already has, plus many that it doesn’t.

    I’d like to hope its the “Zambia 75” instead though!

    Sunday, 25 August 2013

    I liked another computer game!

    Screenshots in this article are copyright © 2012 Take-Two Interactive Software Inc. and are used here for the purpose of review.

    For the last month or so my reading and blogging activities have fallen way behind schedule. Why? Because I've been addicted to a computer game! This is only the second time this has happened since 1995. The last time was Red Wasp Studio's Call of Chulhu: The Wasted Land in 2012 [my review]. This time, it was XCOM: Enemy Unknown from Firaxis Games: a game so addictive it consumed almost my every free moment until I finished it.

    Dealing with the alien threat to Brisbane!

    Both Call of Chulhu: The Wasted Land and XCOM: Enemy Unknown are specimens of the turn-based strategy genre, one of my favourite types of computer game and one that has been sadly out of fashion for many years now. Moreover, while I thought that Call of Chulhu: The Wasted Land was based heavily on the 1994 turn-based-strategy classic UFO: Enemy Unknown, XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a straight reboot of that game. Therefore, I'll share a few thoughts on the game itself and also on how I feel it stacks up to its progenitor (and no spoilers until the very end—I'll warn you beforehand anyway.)

    The premise of the game is that you command XCOM—a multi-national effort to rid Earth of hostile aliens that are dropping in. You play it on two levels: strategic and tactical. 

    At the strategic level, you are responsible for directing XCOM's research efforts, purchasing or manufacturing equipment to arm the organisation's aircraft and ground troops, and deciding which missions XCOM should take. This is largely a resource-management game, as you slowly build out XCOM's base and expand the organisation's ability to counter ever-more hostile aliens.

    The 'antfarm' view of the XCOM base,
    showing the various menus

    At the tactical level, you regularly lead small squads of soldiers (initially, four) on missions to kill aliens infiltrating Earth's cities or lurking around UFOs that have ended up on the ground in some remote place—either because the aliens landed there or because your interceptors have shot them down. Successful missions get you alien technology and alien beings (dead or alive) to bring back for research.

    An XCOM soldier in the midst of
    a close encounter. Should be fine.

    If you haven't played turn-based strategy before, it would be easy to mistake the screenshot above for a real-time strategy game where your soldier and the alien are fighting it out as you watch. However, in this kind of game, you cycle through your soldiers one at a time, moving them and firing their weapons. Then, the aliens get their turn to move and fight. Think of it like chess. Basically, in the course of a turn, each of your soldiers can:
    • move (dash) the full range of their allowed distance on the battlefield
    • move half their allowed distance, and perform an action (typically, defer shooting until the aliens' turn)
    • fire a weapon
    Certain weapons and certain skills available to your soldiers vary this a little, but that's the starting point.
      You can only see a limited amount of the battlefield at a time. As your soldiers move, more and more is revealed, including wherever it is that the aliens are hiding out. The battlefield is also provided with all kinds of obstacles that serve as cover of varying degrees behind which your soldiers and their opponents can shelter.

      Moving slowly and cautiously is essential. Soldiers left standing around out in the open at the end of your turn are just asking to get shot: and one or two shots is usually all it takes to get killed at most stages of the game (yes, you have the opportunity to research better armour for your troops, but as the game progresses, the aliens you encounter tend to be more powerful and better armed).

      As your soldiers gain experience, they specialise into assault troops, heavy troops, support troops, or snipers; each with access to a different set of skills and equipment.

      Successful completion of certain missions along the way advances a storyline that culminates in a final showdown with the aliens and ends the game.

      I love the slow, thoughtful pace of this game. I love that success relies on smart strategy and sound tactics rather than how fast and how accurately you can click a mouse or mash buttons on a controller. Finally, I love the setting and feel of this game: very well realised (although I'd probably fall in love with any turn-based strategy game of this level of quality, regardless of setting!)

      If you've never tried turn-based strategy before, I highly recommend this game as a starting point. No, it's not cheap, but wow, does it deliver bang-for-buck! Really, when a game is the best in its class, you don't mind paying more for it, right?

      For anyone who remembers (or is curious about) how the game stacks up to its forebear, read on.

      How does it compare to the original? Well, obviously, the graphics are better, as you would expect for two games with nearly 20 years between them:

      19942012 (like this comparison
      even needed captions...)

      The gameplay itself is... different. This is by no means a straight remake of the older game. I can probably summarise the entire set of differences by saying that XCOM: Enemy Unknown plays like a slightly more abstracted UFO: Enemy Unknown. By that, I mean that the most obvious differences to me are the way that many, many pieces of micromanagement are absent from the new game:
      • Your squad size starts at four and eventually grows to six, compared to the original's fourteen growing to twenty-six. Turns are therefore much shorter and you don't have to keep the whereabouts of nearly so many soldiers in mind.
      • While in both games, soldiers need to stop and reload most weapons from time-to-time, soldiers in the new game carry an unlimited number of clips for almost all weapons. You don't need to fret about how much ammunition to bring.
      • Soldiers' carrying capacity is far more limited: you only get two weapon slots, an armour slot, and an item slot to play with. In the classic game, soldiers had a variety of differently-shaped spaces in their belts and backpacks to carry a larger number of more varied things. 
        • Moreover, because it was easy to exchange items between soldiers, you could have one soldier carry ammunition for another's exotic weapon. Soldiers cannot exchange equipment in the new game.
      • You only build one base. You don't need to keep track of which soldiers and which equipment is located where. Also, storage space is unlimited and barracks space practically so. It also seems that the aliens never try to invade your base, so layout is mostly irrelevant (although some facilities get bonuses from co-location with similar facilities).
      • The classic game had a few weapons that could fire a variety of ammunition for a variety of effects. This is all but gone in the new game (the rocket launcher can eventually fire a new type of missile as a specific upgrade).
      • Having to complete a mission at night used to be significantly more difficult than during the day. You would therefore try to time your troops' arrival at the site for daylight hours if at all possible, and to see any distance required your troops to carry and throw out flares. While the new game can depict a battlefield at day, night, or dawn/dusk, that depiction seems to have no relationship to local time when you land, or actually have anything but a cosmetic effect: it doesn't affect visibility to any degree.
      • The economics are very different. While various nations might occasionally want to buy some artefact from you, setting up and managing production lines of profitable items is no longer a strategy.
      • The classes of soldiers seem to make a game mechanic out of what many players seemed to do as a micromanagement task in the old game anyway. In UFO: Enemy Unknown, you soon learned who were your best shots, and used them as snipers; you learned who were the strongest and gave them heavy weapons. The game now manages this for you. 
        • Soldiers also differed markedly in their stamina and strength, and pushing them too hard affected them. This subtlety is missing in XCOM: Enemy Unknown.
      • Most aliens don't actually spawn until one of your soldiers crosses a line on the map somewhere and catches sight of them. In almost every case, this assures that you will have at least part of a round of free shots at the alien before it can react. Or you can send soldiers to probe ahead, trigger aliens to spawn, then retreat to safety until the whole squad can open fire next round. You still need to move carefully in  XCOM: Enemy Unknown, but not quite as carefully as when every step could be your soldier's last at the hands of an alien hiding unseen somewhere (or ambushing you as soon as you stepped off the Skyranger's ramp!)
        • For that matter, missions now start with your troops already deployed and with good vision of the battlefield. No more shenanigans of an alien grenade or Chrysalid loose on a still-packed transport!
      • Aiming is much more automated. Friendly fire from aimed weapons seems to never happen (and area-of-effect weapons show you precisely what area they will affect and warn you if there are friendlies inside the zone).  This also means you can't use aimed weapons to deliberately shoot out bits of cover. Now it's just click a weapon, click an icon for any of the aliens in your soldier's line of fire, then click fire...
        • Maybe the single most different-feeling feature is the mechanic of moving your soldiers. In the old game, each soldier had a certain number of time units available per turn, and you could spend them on whatever actions you wanted in whatever order you wanted. And everything cost time units, including changing weapons or getting out an item to ready it for use. The new game's more limited choices of action abstract this considerably.
        That's quite a list! But it would be a mistake to think of this abstraction as just a "dumbing down". Yes, there is far less micromanagement, and you probably won't be keeping sheaves of handwritten notes about which soldier is which on which base, and which base needs to transfer which items to which other until the new storeroom is complete, or which date to expand the laser-cannon production line. Nor will you have the fun surprise of the soldier with low stats who you kept around for opening doors with a live grenade in their hand to see if any aliens were inside the building unexpectedly getting really good by surviving so long through dumb luck. (It's been nearly 20 years, but I still remember my brother's soldier Leon who started his career as a suicide bomber but eventually went all the way to Mars!) However, the game balance is still exquisite, it still rewards brains over reflexes on the part of the player, and it's still creepy yet addictive to play.

        I therefore happily recommend it as a worthy successor to the original game. I'll be honest and say that if the choice was simply between this game and a reimplementation of the old game with new graphics and controls, I would probably still prefer the old game. However, it's not a huge margin, and even having just completed the game, there is definitely a faint nagging at the back of my mind wanting to play it through again straight away!

        I want to make a couple of final observations about the game that contain spoilers, so if you're looking to avoid them, go away for now and come back when you've beaten the game at least once.

        The storyline is quite different from the original game, and contains some interesting notions. That said, there are no real surprises here, and the plot is just as linear as the old game's was.

        One feature that is common to both games is the massively anticlimactic ending! In both, you fought hard to discover the nature of the final mission that you had to undertake, then fight your way through a long and difficult level to confront the 'big bad'... which you would they dispatch with a single volley!

        By this stage of either game, it's probably safe to presume that any troops who make it through to the final showdown will be highly skilled and toting some pretty serious firepower. Just as a single volley of plasma fire from these dudes would kill the alien brain on Cydonia, a single volley of plasma fire dispenses with the Uber Ethereal on the Temple Ship:

        Australian sniper Sarah "Longbow"
        Walker drops the alien leader from
        all the way across the room...

        Frankly, this was a little disappointing, and the fact that it was as lame an ending as the original game was cold comfort.

        Still, that really is a very minor point in a game whose addictive qualities lie more in how tactical missions are executed than in its story as such. I still heartily recommend it!

        Thursday, 6 June 2013

        Simulating disappointment

        Here’s an exercise:
        1. Pick somebody whose writing or speaking you find personally insightful or inspirational.
        2. Imagine that this person's latest book or TED talk contains nothing of what you originally found inspirational about this person, but does have a lot of fart jokes.
        Now, fart jokes might be fun and all, but they're perhaps not the reason why you originally looked up to this person.[1] You might have one of these reactions:
        • You might find that you can like and respect them for whatever the original thing was and for their fart jokes.
        • You might be disappointed. Perhaps this is because you don’t like fart jokes in general. Or perhaps because you can get fart jokes of that calibre in a whole bunch of other places and might not have so many other places to get what you originally looked up to this person for.
        • You might like their fart jokes better than their original material. 
        In any case, if the new fart jokes prove popular, chances are you’re going to run into a whole bunch of people raving about what a great fart-joke teller this person is. If you were already disappointed that somebody whom you found insightful and inspirational before is now mostly famous for telling fart jokes, you might feel even more disappointed now.

        This exercise is intended to model how I feel about J.J. Abrams’ two Star Trek films. If you don’t get why some folks (like me) are really disappointed and annoyed by them, I hope it provides insight.

        [1] Of course, it could be that you admired the original writer or speaker because of their fart jokes in the first place. In this case, choose a different writer or speaker—whom you admire for a different reason—and try the exercise again.

        Tuesday, 4 June 2013

        Liking books, TV shows and movies: Affect

        This is the sixth and final part of a series in which I examine elements of the appeal of a book, movie, or TV show. I disclose and discuss my own personal preferences here, but I believe that the approach is more generally applicable: just substitute your own preferences for mine.

        In previous installments, I covered character, setting, plot, craft, and idea. As the final aspect, I consider affect. The schema I describe in these articles is a development and extension of a schema proposed by librarian Nancy Pearl.[1] Affect is the second completely new characteristic which I add to hers, and considers how a book, film, or TV show makes me feel.

        Generally, I value a story that can make me feel intensely. In some cases, the feelings that a story brings out in me might be my main reason for liking it. One example that springs immediately to mind is Nanni Moretti’s film La stanza del figlio (‘The Son’s Room’). This is an intimate observation of the grief of a family as they cope with the death of a teenager. The characters are unremarkable people, there is little actual story to speak of, and while competently filmed, nothing about its production stands out for me. But I found watching it a devastating, wrenching experience. This is a film which, for me, the main appeal is entirely in its affect. As another example, while I certainly enjoyed the clever and quirky ideas in The Time Traveler’s Wife, it’s the way that the book made me feel that has made it one of my all-time favourites.

        I can think of one case, however, where my intense feelings about a book worked against its appeal: American Psycho, which I found gratuitously cruel (yes, I understand that was the whole point). The revulsion I felt at the text meant that I abandoned the book before I got very far with it. This is an exception though.

        The appeal of comedy lies almost entirely within the realm of affect. If I don’t find a comedy funny, then it doesn’t really matter to me how well put-together it is, or how otherwise appealing I might have found its setting or characters. Given my strong preferences for science fiction and fantasy, I really expected to like Red Dwarf and the Discworld novels. However, as examples of comedies that I didn’t find funny, any appeal for me in them remains unrealised and theoretical.

        ‘They’ve jammed the radar!’
        Spaceballs, copyright MGM
        Conversely, funny is all I really need from a comedy. Sure, great use of language or well-observed characters might certainly add to the appeal, but the sight of goons dragging a giant comb through the desert as they are combing it for fugitives (get it?) is all the reason I need to like Spaceballs.

        I like feeling frightened by a well-told horror story, I like feeling romantic from being told a love story, I like the sense of awe and wonder (admiratio) that epic science-fiction or fantasy can instil in me.

        As I’ve been outlining appeal characteristics in these articles, I've been looking for interesting things that various commentators have said about each characteristic. I’ve been surprised by how little authors and critics have had to say about the importance of affect. I had assumed that the ability to make a reader or viewer feel something deeply would be a central and prized characteristic of storytelling, but apparently not.

        And of all the characteristics I’ve described, affect is certainly the most subjective and the most difficult for which to create a litmus test. The test is the emotion itself. Did I laugh? I probably found it funny. Did I cry? I probably found it sad or tragic. Did I feel on edge and jumpy afterwards? I probably found it scary.

        That, then, is the system I currently use to think about why I liked or failed to like a book, TV show, or movie. Did it hold any appeal for me via any of:
        • its characters
        • its setting
        • its plot
        • the craft (writing or production) with which it was made
        • the idea it presented
        • how it made me feel
        Synthesised, these characteristics might work together something like:
        If you’re going to tell me a story about mundane people in some dull place doing unimportant stuff, you’d better have a helluva idea to get across, or your writing had better be effing spectacular, or you better know just how to pull my heartstrings just the right way.
        I can’t emphasise enough that all I’m doing here is trying to characterise why I liked or failed to like something. I make no pretence about my personal preferences correlating with anybody else’s, nor with whether a particular book or TV show or film is any good or not in any kind of objective sense.

        I’ll write something on the difference between claiming ‘it was good’ and reporting ‘I liked it’ some other time [update: here it is]. I’d also like to present a few practical examples of how this schema might apply to some actual things I’ve read or watched.

        Thanks to anyone who has stayed with me this long! :)

        Monday, 27 May 2013

        Liking books, TV shows and movies: Idea

        This is the fifth part of a series in which I examine elements of the appeal of a book, movie, or TV show. I disclose and discuss my own personal preferences here, but I believe that the approach is more generally applicable: just substitute your own preferences for mine.

        In previous installments, I covered character, setting, and plot—based on librarian Nancy Pearl’s description of appeal characteristics—and craft, an expansion of the characteristic she calls language.[1] This week, I cover the first of two extra characteristics I use to understand the appeal of a book, movie, or TV show: Idea.

        Pearl identified her four characteristics for mainstream literary fiction. However, the appeal of some narratives lies outside these, when the main enjoyment to be found in the work is the presentation of some interesting idea or concept. Neal Stephenson put it like this in an interview when asked to define science fiction:
        ‘Fiction that’s not considered good unless it has interesting ideas in it. You can write a minimalist short story that’s set in a trailer park or a Connecticut suburb that might be considered a literary masterpiece or well-regarded by literary types, but science fiction people wouldn’t find it very interesting unless it had somewhere in it a cool idea that would make them say, “That’s interesting. I never thought of that before.”’ [2]
        Science fiction, and, more broadly other speculative fiction, often asks ‘what if...’ when establishing a setting outside of our real-world experiences. And often, the answer is what readers or viewers find compelling. For example, the seminal dystopias of 1984 and Brave New World are not renowned for their memorable, three-dimensional characters or intricate and clever plots. Their settings are developed only to the point where they allow Orwell and Huxley to present their ideas, and it is for these ideas that these novels are famous.

        When I started thinking about idea as an appeal characteristic of fiction, I had thought exclusively in terms of speculative genres. However, a friend (thanks B!) pointed out to me that the appeal of particular narratives in all kinds of genres might also lie at least partially in its presentation and exploration of ideas. For example:
        • A romance might revolve around an extremely unlikely couple. 
          • The idea explored might be ‘how can true love blossom between two such different people?’ 
        • Historical fiction set in the Wild West or in the Age of Chivalry might present an honourable character with conflicting loyalties. 
          • The idea explored might be ‘how is it be possible to satisfy both?’
        • A contemporary literary novel or art film might follow the ripple effect of a dispute through a community.
          • The idea explored might be ‘how could such a small thing end up dividing so many people so completely?’
        In each of these cases, the reader’s reaction of ‘that’s interesting. I never thought of that before’ identifies an idea-driven story every bit as much as in a science-fiction story driven by ideas. However, removed from the necessity of fitting into the real world as we know it, speculative genres do allow authors to ask more abstract, hypothetical questions, like:
        • What if wars were fought entirely by computer and casualties of simulated attacks just stepped into disintegration chambers when ordered? What would that be like?
        To generalise: the more far-fetched and hypothetical the idea, the more interested I’ll probably be. Also, everything else being equal, I’m probably also more interested in questions with bigger repercussions than smaller ones: issues that affect a whole society or civilization instead of just a town or even only a few individuals. For example:
        • What if people suddenly stopped dying?
        is prima facie more interesting to me than:
        • How might the death of one person affect a whole town?
        • How could we talk to aliens who only communicate by tasting subtle but rapid chemical changes in each other’s skin?
        interests me more than:
        • How could an avowed pacifist and an officer in the military overcome their differences and find true love?
         And I’m much more likely to read or watch a narrative that asks:
        • What criteria will we use to judge whether we have created computers with consciousness?
        than one that asks:
        • Should it matter whether the prize-winning cake at the town fair was created from raw ingredients or from a packet? (although the depiction of the fallout from this dispute might be perversely entertaining)
        I highly value idea-driven narratives. Interesting ideas are the fuel for my life-long devotion to Star Trek, for example. I like to think that idea is what matters to me most of all; that provided with a suitably interesting idea, I don’t require much in the way of believable characters, well-realised setting, compelling plot, or even good writing or production. However, recent encounters with a couple of science-fiction novels that failed to deliver me anything but a few interesting questions reminded me that sometimes a cool idea might not be really enough to sustain my interest in a narrative!

        Next week, I’ll conclude this series by considering affect as an appeal characteristic.

        Star Trek Into Darkness — a response

        Spoiler alert: if you haven’t seen this film and want to preserve its secrets, come back later.

        TL;DR version: mediocre as an action film, no discernable science-fiction elements beyond its dress, and only barely, vaguely recognisable as part of the Star Trek franchise. I give it 1/5 stars.

        So on Friday night, I bit the bullet and watched Star Trek Into Darkness. I even tweeted about it as I did so. I had really hated J.J. Abrams’ 2009 film, and honestly I wasn’t expecting to like this much more. However, I was encouraged by a couple of reviews that suggested that this time Abrams had used the film to provide some social commentary on terrorism and drone strikes.

        I think it makes sense to evaluate the Star Trek films on at least three levels (an idea on which I’ll expand in another post one day):
        • as action/adventure films
        • as science-fiction films
        • as Star Trek films
        I found Star Trek Into Darkness unsatisfying on all three counts. I enjoyed it less than just about any film that I’ve ever watched all the way through. Had I not been wanting to review and critique it from as informed a position as possible, there's just no way that I would have sat it out to the end. My interest had all but evaporated after the first 30 minutes, and was gone completely after the first 50.

        As an action/adventure film

        Historically, the Star Trek films skew very strongly towards the ‘adventure’ end of the action spectrum. Action sequences in the first ten films tended to be relatively sparse, separated by long stretches of investigation and analysis. Two of the ten[1] featured practically no violence at all, and three others[2] had violent confrontations at their climaxes, but very little action at any other point in the films.

        For the 2009 film, Abrams chose to make something much more like standard action-movie fare: a series of violent setpieces culminating in a final hand-to-hand clash between protagonist and antagonist.

        To me, Into Darkness seems to occupy an uncomfortable place between the two. When violence is depicted, it is frenzied and on a huge scale. But the violence never really builds to a crescendo as it did in the 2009 film.  Setpieces are separated by long sequences of no action at all, much like the earlier films. However, where those films used the time for narrative or thematic purposes, Into Darkness uses them mostly for some truly heavy-handed attempts at character building—Star Trek: Grey’s Anatomy. Three egregious examples stand out in my memory: Uhura and Kirk’s turbolift scene, Uhura, Kirk, and Spock’s scene in the shuttlecraft, and—worst of all—Kirk’s death scene. The latter is such a shameless rip-off of Spock’s death in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan that it actually lifts lines verbatim. However, while Spock’s death takes place after the climax of the film, safely out of the way of any action sequences, Kirk’s death in Into Darkness is the event that triggers the climactic showdown between Spock and Khan, necessarily therefore before the climax. And. it. stops. the. film. dead.


        Another thing that struck me as odd about the action in Into Darkness is that the largest and showiest setpiece is not at the film’s climax, but a little under halfway through, in the fight with the Klingons. This is a long and sprawling sequence. It starts with an aerial chase through a derelict industrial landscape that borrows heavily from the flying sequences of the classic Star Wars trilogy, in particular, the Millennium Falcon’s race through the Death Star infrastructure in Return of the Jedi. This segues into ground combat that is as gleeful as it is chaotic. I found it difficult to follow what was going on or what the specific goals of various participants were; the fight really seemed like a free-for-all on a huge scale. Nonsensical as it seemed, lots of stuff was always happening on the screen and it went on for a long time. To me, this made the end of the film seem very anticlimactic when it had nothing even remotely comparable to offer.

        I confess that I’m not a fan of the action-film genre, so my assessment of this particular aspect of Into Darkness might not be well-informed. However, the few, widely spaced, and strangely ordered sequences make me think that Into Darkness is a mediocre action movie at best: I’ll say 3/5 stars. However, this is still the most that the movie has going for it.

        As a science fiction movie

        I believe that it takes more than a futuristic or space setting for the label ‘science fiction’ to mean anything useful. For example, does this movie question something about society’s relationship with science and technology? Is the central crisis of the film created (or solved) by the application of scientific knowledge or principles? Stripped of its futurist dress and placed in the present day is all that’s left a thriller?

        As with its 2009 predecessor, I didn’t detect anything particularly science fictional about Into Darkness. There is only one piece of technology essential to the plot that would prevent its easy transposition to the present day: Khan’s regenerative blood. However, even this is nothing more than a magic substance, the nature of which is never explored, questioned, or evaluated.

        The central crisis of the film is: a military contractor feels that he has been stiffed on a contract with the Pentagon. The crisis is resolved by a naval officer (single-handedly) chasing said contractor on foot through the streets of San Francisco and engaging in fisticuffs with him on the back of a moving truck until another naval officer tasers the disgruntled contractor and knocks him out for capture. The regenerative blood is only a MacGuffin to force Spock to capture Khan alive—a MacGuffin that shouldn’t even be required, given Spock’s dedication to bringing Khan to justice, expressed much earlier in the film. 1/5 stars for being science-fiction only skin-deep.

        As a Star Trek movie

        The question here is does the movie concern itself with any of Star Trek’s recurring and characteristic themes? Does it ask about what it means to be human? Does it explore and challenge some social issue of the day? Does it posit a brighter future for humanity, as post-scarcity peaceful explorers of deep space? Is there a promise of transcendence in humanity’s future? More simply, stripped of its specifically Star Trek names, costumes, designs, and references, would this film be recognisably Star Trek?

        Well, for a start, there would be an awful lot to strip. The references and name-drops are laid on very thick indeed. One of the most frustrating things for me about the film was that this was all so un-necessary for anything outside of brand recognition.

        There is absolutely nothing about Khan’s character or motivations that links him to the character from ‘Space Seed’ and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. He really could have stayed John Harrison with absolutely zero impact on the plot whatsoever. Ditto for the Klingons. The Star Trek TV series and films of the 1980s and 90s invested heavily in fleshing out Klingon culture into something quite rich. There’s absolutely nothing linking the generic goons of Into Darkness to that culture however. So when branding is the only conceivable reason to bother doing this, it all seems so very cynical and contrived.

        With all this peeled away, however, I think there’s maybe only one thing that would leave Into Darkness recognisable as Star Trek: Spock’s conversation with Kirk in the shuttle about the illegality of the ‘drone strike’ mission on which Marcus is sending them. I find it hard to imagine too many other fictional worlds in which that conversation and the subsequent change in Kirk’s convictions would take place. However, in the end, nothing more is made of this decision, and it’s not as if the film is driven by weighing its costs and benefits. It truly is a throwaway moment. Arguably, Kirk’s decision not to carry out the mission as planned cost the lives of everybody on the U.S.S. Vengeance, as well as all the people killed when the starship ploughed into San Francisco. But nothing is made of this.

        If Into Darkness is recognisably Star Trek, it’s pretty light-on. Even woeful entries from the original run of films such as Star Trek V: The Final Frontier and Star Trek: Nemesis were more essentially Star Trek than this. Anyway, 2/5 stars for at least trying, which is more than Abrams did in 2009.


        There is an interesting and timely story to tell about extra-judicial, long-range killings, and it could be told in a film where superior technical and scientific ability is what allows the protagonist to succeed. It could probably even be told with enough action setpieces to keep casual cinemagoers happy. That would be a Star Trek film to get excited about. Into Darkness is not that film.

        [1] Star Trek: The Motion Picture and The Voyage Home: Star Trek IV

        [2] Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, Star Trek: Generations, Star Trek: Insurrection

        Sunday, 26 May 2013

        Star Trek Into Darkness — live tweets

        On the evening of Friday 24 May, I live tweeted from my viewing of Star Trek Into Darkness. I expected this movie to be pretty bad, and it delivered. Here were my impressions as I watched it; more coherent thoughts coming soon.

        All images are property of Paramount Pictures. I assert use of these images here is fair use for the purpose of review and criticism.

        Woo! LIVE TWEET of Star Trek Into Darkness starting soon! Watch the #idlive hashtag

        seconds in and we've just shot something! Yay! #idlive

        "As you know... the Prime Directive..." #idlive

        So, why is the Enterprise underwater? #idlive

        Lolz, Scotty got frightened by a fish! #idlive

        Meanwhile... at bad art project... #idlive

        #idlive pic.twitter.com/P3p2n0eel4

        Is this more Gattaca or more Starship Troopers or more Hugo Boss Nazi? #idlive

        Cold fusion... I do not think it means what you think it means #idlive

        Meanwhile, in Bladerunner #idlive

        Injecting children with the blood of strangers; seems legit #idlive

        Didn't they do this same bar scene last time? #idlive

        This is pretty slow for an action film... #idlive

        And now it's Dr Strangelove! :D #idlive

        We're going to run this bastard down! Really? Star Trek? #idlive

        So you can beam straight to Qonos now... #idlive
        So why have starships? #idlive

        I did like the little model spaceships #idlive

        I despise the look of the new Enterprise #idlive

        The scene with Kirk and Spock in the shuttle was actually good though #idlive

        I don't really understand the torpedo thing #idlive

        Also, this is slow for an action movie. #idlive

        And now this is Star Trek: Greys Anatomy :(( #idlive

        Enterprise leaves spacedock without a single shred of the majesty that this scene used to have :( #idlive

        Let's get this son of a bitch :( #idlive

        Why did something just blow up? #idlive

        Kronos? Really? #idlive

        And we're back in Grey's Anatomy territory again #idlive

        Do you think the makers of this film ever saw Return of the Jedi? #idlive

        Also Uhura is so disappointingly wet :( I'll have to look up that line later :( #idlive

        [I looked it up later. The line was: ‘They’re going to torture us, question us, and they’re going to kill us. Which I think worked better in Firefly as: ‘They’ll rape us to death, eat our flesh, and sew our skins into their clothing. And, if we're very, very lucky, they’ll do it in that order.’]

        The Klingon's head looks like smoked salmon now. :( #idlive

        Klingons are now just generic goons :( #idlive

        Nothing in that fight made sense #idlive

        Artichoke man is the Jar Jar of this franchise #idlive

        Really? Gratuitous underwear shot? what is that even? #idlive

        Bones is made out of torpedos? #idlive

        Khan is a lot whiter now. #idlive

        and he is eeenunseeaaating veery cair ful leeeee #idlive

        WTF???? Stuffing your people inside weapons doesn't seem like genius :( #idlive

        punch it? They *have* seen Return of the Jedi*!!! #idlive

        The women in this are so awful :(( #idlive

        Khan sits like a meerkat #idlive

        [No, I’m reliably informed he resembles an otter]

        "The tribble's dead" is maybe memeworthy #idlive

        This is very slow for an action movie #idlive

        Tron helmets #idlive

        He's turned off his targeting computer #idlive

        That ship is under some serious air pressure! #idlive

        Old Spock says: I won't tell you anything. Except what I'm about to tell you. #idlive

        Enterprise bridge = Apple Store; Dreadnaught bridge = Death Star control room #idlive

        The aft nacelle? Where is that? #idlive

        Now we see why that pointless atrium was there - for people to fall into! Checkov's gun I guess #idlive

        It's like that barrel of monkeys game #idlive

        Reactor repair 101 -- kick it a lot #idlive

        Seriously? They're lifting lines word-for-word in this? #idlive

        This is very slow for an action movie #idlive

        Khaaaan.... FFS #idlive

        Star Trek is all about foot chases. #idlive

        That tribble looks a lot like a potato. #idlive

        Why has nobody called Starfleet? Or even the police? #idlive

        They could beam Uhura down, why couldn't they beam Khan up again??? #idlive

        Why not use Khan's blood to bring everyone else back too? #idlive

        Well, that's strangely suddenly over... #idlive

        Well, that's about what I expected. Fucking awful. #idlive

        Thanks for playing everybody! I'll sum all this up in a blog entry later! :D #idlive

        If you enjoyed this post, you might enjoy this response to the 2009 film.