31 August 2013

James Bond: The World Is Not Enough

This was the first Bond film I watched in a cinema – in New Jersey in fact on a holiday in 1999 and one that I’ve now seen four times. There is the distinct possibility that familiarity might breed contempt here… it also allowed me to focus on other aspects.


This is a Bond film with a great deal more acting i.e. talky scenes than Tomorrow Never Dies, with M getting a lot of screen time and a major part in a plot partly inspired by Colonel Sun, the Kingsley Amis Bond novel written after Fleming died. Brosnan and Dench excel in all their scenes, with Robbie Coltrane turning in a fine second and last performance as Valentin Zukovsky, while Desmond Llewellyn gets a touching farewell.. The action in this, while not quite as good as the last film, is again great and David Arnold’s score fits it perfectly. The script contains a good deal of humour common with the Brosnan era and there’s an overall good story.


I seem to remember this movie being longer than it was; it feels pretty short in all. For a ‘acting’ based film, you need to have good actors. Denise Richards is rightly criticised here (she gets good lines, but delivers them appallingly), but Sophie Marceau isn’t much better and this isn’t one of Robert Carlyle’s best films either. There are some minor script errors here and there, along with a misunderstanding of what a “meltdown” actually is (hint: it’s not a full nuclear explosion, it’s more like Chernobyl). The less said about John Cleese, the better.




While I have a personal liking for this one, its problems do start to show up on re-watch.



30 August 2013

Syria vote

Sometimes Parliament does something completely unexpected... like reject any military action against Syria.

I would have voted in favour of the government motion, but Parliament is sovereign and tonight has just made a very big argument for its continued relevancy.

I hope that Assad doesn't take this as an excuse to launch another atrocity, although I suspect US action will still follow... if it comes to a UNSC vote, we'll probably abstain.

29 August 2013

Red Hot Cold War Action (Grand Review: 'The Americans', Season 1)


(This article contains spoilers from the get-go; you have been warned, comrades)


-          Comrade Major Stepashin, our sources in Great Britain have discovered that Independent Television are showing an American drama in primetime on a Saturday. Is this not an unusual thing for them?

-          Yes, Comrade General Karlov. I have reason to believe that they have not done this since a work called ‘Pushing Daisies’ in 2007. If you remember, comrade, that imperialist drama involved Anna Friel as a woman coming back from the dead.

-          Is it not a thing of that British capitalist network that they do not show American works in primetime? Do they not have their own bourgeois television industry to protect?

-          That is true, General. I would note however, that they seem to be showing it in a 55-minute slot and largely omitting advertisements for anything that is not their own decadent broadcasting, such as that exploitative ‘X Factor’.

-          A lack of confidence, perhaps, Stepashin?

-          Maybe, Comrade General…


Philip and Elizabeth Morris appear to be a happy family living in Washington DC in 1981. They have two kids, a nice suburban home and their own business, a travel agency. However, things aren’t what they seem… for in reality, they’re Misha and Nadezha, a pair of really deep cover Soviet spies, working for the KGB to obtain information on the “Star Wars” project as the Cold War goes through one of its tensest periods.. While the kids are real, their marriage is fake and as this show goes on, increasingly faker…


As you know [Danger! Cliché alert! – Ed.], I’m a big “fan” of the Cold War and once developed a Cold War set spy sim at AJJE called Covert-81; a plan to do another at Phoenix did not generate sufficient interest to go forward. Thus when this FX series came to the UK, I was all over it like a bad toupee.


I’ll start with Philip – played by Matthew Rhys. Rhys is a British actor playing a Russian playing an American; as the two leads speak English at pretty much all times (they have to), he just has to do an American accent. Fortunately, he has plenty of experience in this; he spent five seasons playing Kevin Walker in Brothers & Sisters for ABC and I didn’t even know he comes from Wales until I read about it.  Definitely the more westernised of the couple, Philip struggles with his liking of the US with his duty to the Motherland and Rhys turns in a very strong performance.


His ‘missus’ Elizabeth, played by Keri Russell (who I initially mistook for Kelli Williams from Lie to Me – Doh!) is definitely the more dedicated to the cause of the red flag with the hammer and sickle on. She’s ruthless and also not one to take any nonsense, especially from their handler “Grannie”. I’m not familiar with Ms Russell from any of her previous works (although according to the autocomplete on Google, somebody really likes her feet), but based on her turn here, I’d probably like them… and that’s not a comment on her raunchier scenes.


They aren’t the only regulars in this piece, the action also follows the FBI counter-espionage unit looking into the activities of ‘Directorate S’, the KGB directorate running all of these ‘illegals’. In particular, the Morris’ next door neighbour, Stan…


Stan is a key part of the whole story; early in the run, he blackmails an officer at the KGB Rezidentura called Nina to spy for the Americans – threatening to shop her for under the table caviar sales. Nina doesn’t get a surname in this run, but there is a good argument for it being Myersovska… because this series demonstrates quite conclusively that if you work for the US government, you should never  trust a woman with a name that ends in –na. Nina (Annet Mahendru, half-Russian and half-Indian) is a saucy little lady, the show’s Comrade Fanservice, although both the leads get a good deal of action in that department. Stan ends up having an affair with her. However, things don’t go entirely to plan…


As mentioned, this takes place in 1981 with the USSR concerned that the Reagan administration is going to attack them and wanting to find out about the Strategic Defense Initiative (aka Star Wars); with Philip and Elizabeth having to engage in a number of intelligence operations to do so – including getting a maid to put a bug in the private office of the US Secretary of Defense, basically by making her son seriously ill and threatening not to cure him if she doesn’t (she complies). These spies are not nice people when it comes to business, that’s for sure – we even get an assassination with poisoned umbrella. In addition, Philip seduces a FBI employee by pretending to be from internal affairs… so he can get her to give information to him.


Things however get a bit more serious when a rogue KGB faction kills a US scientist and three FBI agents… so the two services start with a series of tit-for-tat assassinations. This involves the shooting of Elizabeth and Philip’s KGB mentor and later a KGB officer in DC being killed by Stan after the death of Stan’s partner… a move that makes Nina go triple. Like I said, don’t trust a Nina.


Overall, it’s a thrilling story of twists and turns, but not too fast for comfort… indeed, it can get a bit slow at times. One also has to suspend disbelief over the central premise, as the KGB never actually did anything quite like this (before anyone says Anna Chapman, she never pretended to be a Westerner by birth).


Not being old enough to remember any of the 1980s, I can’t vouch for the accuracy of the on-screen portrayal of it, but it looks convincing, as does the hairstyles. With Sydney Bristow having retired from the business of espionage (ironically, her mother was a deep cover KGB agent), the Morris have acquired her wig collection and we get to see a number of them on their heads, although quite how one stays on Philip’s while he’s making out with Martha is a mystery that even a KGB archivist can’t answer.




-          So Comrade Major, what are your evaluations?

-          ‘The Americans’ is a highly entertaining series, once you “suspend your disbelief” as the imperialists say. It does drag a little in places, much like a Lada.

-          Comrade Major…

-          I would recommend this show, although I am not sure that it will remain on the main Independent Television channel. You see, it got just over a million viewers for its finale; fewer than watched ‘Celebrity Big Brother’… or ‘That Puppet Game Show’.

-          A sad reflection on Western society, comrades. Dismissed.



Four Hundred False Dawns, Part Two ('Doctor Who', 1997-2004)

After the failure of the 1996 television movie, at least in the United States, it seemed unlikely for a time that we would be getting any televised Doctor Who ever again. By 2003, with the Daleks reduced to ‘humorous’ advert appearances and the show only surviving via novels or audio, it was a bleak time to be a fan – indeed, at this point, I’d moved on to 24[1]. In fact, the late 1990s and early 2000s were not a great time for science fiction all-round.


So, let us cover the second part of the hiatus years, where the show took some interesting potential turns and then the biggest news of all dropped…




‘Stargate SG-1’ started its ten year run, first on Showtime and then Sci-Fi[2]. In addition, ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ began its TV run on UPN (now merged with the WB to form the CW); with Joss Whedon’s show being cited as a major influence on ‘Doctor Who’ post-2005 [3]. Channel 5 launched in the UK; the station still imports most of its dramas and has produced nothing of note in the sci-fi field.

This year saw the BBC take a new tack at time travel, combining it with a cop show in the Carnival Films-produced Crime Traveller starring Chloë Annett (best known for her role as the second Kristine Kochanski in Red Dwarf) and Michael French written by crime and espionage writer Anthony Horowitz, well known for a lot more things since then e.g. Alex Rider and Foyle’s War. This only lasted one season – a change of management at BBC Drama meant that the show fell through the gaps and was not renewed.

Default Films approached the BBC with a pitch for a cartoon version of Doctor Who, claiming to have the involvement of Barry Letts – he just says he has been in discussions. They show fifteen slides of development art at a US convention… and that is all we ever hear about the project.




Richard Bacon became the first ‘Blue Peter’ presenter to be fired after being caught by a tabloid newspaper taking cocaine; then BBC children’s head Lorraine Heggessey goes on the show to explain things to the kids. She would have better announcements to make in the future. The Children’s Channel ceases broadcasting after 14 years.


Science-fiction on the BBC this year was again pretty unsuccessful – their co-production of a six-part miniseries with Sci-Fi called Invasion: Earth went by with a dull thud, being pretty much unremembered. In addition, after what was arguably its poorest season, the corporation put sci-fi comedy Red Dwarf into stasis after eight runs on BBC2[4].


Two possible film versions of the show reared their heads at this time. The Cannes Film Festival saw head of BBC Films David Thompson announce the BBC was looking to make a cinematic version of the film, a move dismissed by a BBC Drama spokesman. Meanwhile Chaos Films started to look for a business partner to get the rights to the unmade third Peter Cushing movie (which would have been based on “The Chase” but was canned due to poor receipts for the second film) and approaches Michael Sheard, best known as Mr Bronson from Grange Hill and with six guest appearances on Doctor Who, as a possible Doctor. Nothing comes of it.


Finally, Bob Baker, creator of K9 and now a writer for Aardman Animations (Wallace and Gromit, plus other films in that Claymation medium) starts  trying to develop his K9 series; it would take him over a decade to get it made.




Granada Television produced a six-part post-apocalyptic drama for ITV called ‘The Last Train’; largely forgotten, it has not been released on DVD.


1999 saw the debut of Big Finish’s audio range, featuring the Fifth, Sixth and Seven Doctors. Gary Russell, who would later work on the TV show clearly stresses that they are not going to do a brand new Doctor, just make stuff featuring the old ones. Fourteen years and many audios later, they’re still going strong.


The first rumours of the involvement of Russell T Davies, known to fans as RTD, (whose gay drama Queer as Folk was airing on Channel 4 at this time and had done some good stuff for Granada – definitely a cradle for non-London talent over the years) in a possible TV revival surfaced; however, the BBC decided to focus on a movie version of the show which involved director Paul Anderson, production partner Jeremy Bolt and Artisan, the studio that produced The Blair Witch Project. Bolt said that an international name would need to take the lead role for this. The project stalls over lack of money; with televisual special effects having improved considerably since 1989, the show would need a major BBC investment or foreign production assistance.


We did get some televised stuff on the BBC however. Firstly, there was Doctor Who Night on BBC2; a batch of documentaries, some episodes, the full TV movie, plus three sketches - involving two obsessive fans kidnapping Peter Davison. All three of these featuring Mark Gatiss[5] and David Walliams, the former who would write for the revived show (as well as appear in “The Lazarus Experiment”) and the latter who would appear in “The God Complex”.


Secondly, we had the first new Doctor Who on TV since 1996; but not in the way fans would have hoped…


The Curse of Fatal Death (19 minutes, spoof for Comic Relief)


The history of Doctor Who spoofs/parodies is a long and not always glorious one, ranging all the way from Clive Dunn in a First Doctor costume sending Television Centre into space in December 1963 through to Inspector Spacetime in Community. People like Rod Hull, Lenny Henry and most notably Jon Culshaw have done takes on the Doctor, especially Baker’s one. The skits have gone from the sublime to the ridiculous to the offensive – Spike Milligan’s “Pakistani Dalek” from 1975 takes the prize for that last one. Yes, before you ask, there has been porn.


Anyway, moving to Comic Relief.


Founded in 1985 by Richard Curtis (Blackadder, Four Weddings and a Funeral etc.) and Lenny Henry as a response to the famine in Ethiopia[6], Comic Relief is a campaigning anti-poverty charity that primarily focusses on Red Nose Day, a biannual charity telethon which like Children in Need, is best watched the following morning with major use of the fast forward button. The next one of these will be in 2015; the idea has been copied in other countries. This is accompanied by the usual charity fundraising and selling of comedy red noses.


In 1999, they did their first take on Doctor Who, which saw the Master (played by Jonathan Pryce, perhaps best known as a Bond villain in Tomorrow Never Dies – he even wears the same tunic, brought in from home) planning to exact revenge on the Doctor and companion Emma (played by Julia Sawalha). As for the Doctor, he starts off being played by Rowan Atkinson, then ends up regenerating into Richard E Grant, then Jim Broadbent, then Hugh Grant… then finally Joanna Lumley[7] – the regeneration music from both “Logopolis” and “The Caves of Androzani” turns up in it (those music cues are very well known among fans; in fact, the former turned up in the medley at the 2013 Doctor Who Prom).


I didn’t like this one at the time (perhaps not realising the spoof nature fully) and for this post decided to re-watch it; it is available on VHS, iTunes and YouTube. It’s OK, but drags a bit longer than it should have done. Some of the humour and dialogue foreshadows post-2005 Doctor Who, as it’s arguably best known for its writer, who you’ve almost certainly heard of…


Steven Moffat – The Terror from Scotland


Steven Moffat (1961-present) is the current ‘showrunner’ of Doctor Who, one of its triumvirate of executive producers and its lead writer. He is known for scaring the living daylights out of kids with some of his creations and the multiple Hugos he was won for his scripts.


Born in Paisley (same town as David Tennant), he worked on his student TV station, produced two theatrical productions and was a teacher before his head teacher father pitched a TV series to some producers using his school set around a school newspaper; when asked for a script, Bill agreed if Steven was allowed to write it. Moffat’s script was superb and the result was Press Gang. Central Television produced five seasons of the show from 1989 to 1993 for the CITV block on ITV; the second season won Moffat the first of so far four BAFTAs[8] – it also gave early roles to Dexter Fletcher, Julia Sawalha and of all the people in the world, Gabrielle Anwar (Fiona in Burn Notice) [You really do learn something every dayEd.]. After Press Gang, Joking Apart and his first marriage all ended, he did a sitcom called Chalk (renewed for its second season based on studio audience reactions alone), then came another sitcom for BBC2 called Coupling.


Based on the relationship of Moffat with his second wife Sue Vertue (a television producer) down to the character names (Steve and Sue), Coupling lasted four seasons from 2000 to 2004 and got a US remake for NBC, although that one got cancelled after four episodes.


In 2005, he wrote his first episodes for Doctor Who proper – “The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances”. They were so successful that he was asked back again, and again… then tapped by RTD as his successor as showrunner. Before this he also did a BBC1 miniseries take on a certain novel called  Jekyll (starring James Nesbitt and Gina Bellman, the latter known for her role in Leverage, which would have a lot of Doctor Who references in its five year run) and wrote the script for the first of a Tintin live-action movie series. However, when faced with a choice between Hollywood and Cardiff, the long-time fan answered the call of the blue box.


“The Moff” now helms two big BBC1 shows – Doctor Who and modern day Sherlock Holmes adaptation Sherlock starring Benedict Cumberbatch[9].




‘Big Brother’ launched on Channel Four in the UK, while Judith Keppel became the first person to win the British version of ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire?’ after getting the name of the English King married to Eleanor of Aquitaine correct – there were allegations that the timing of the show was fixed to lure viewers away from the final episode of the popular Richard Wilson comedy ‘One Foot in the Grave’, which saw his character Victor Meldrew killed in a hit-and-run. The ITC ‘don’t belieevveee it’ and clear ITV of any wrongdoing. That channel also brings an end to ‘Inspector Morse’ killing off the detective as per the final Colin Dexter novel – it would then order a sequel ‘Lewis’ featuring his sidekick and later a 1960s set prequel ‘Endeavour’.


Plans for a TV revival took a further back seat when Peter Salmon was moved from his post as Controller of BBC One; his successor Lorraine Heggessey appeared enthusiastic about the show, but frequently commented about “rights issues” – possibly the attempts to make a movie or the TV movie stuff with FOX and Universal – blocking a new TV run.


Radio 4 green lit a pilot script for a radio Doctor Who starring Sylvester McCoy, but there is little more than rumours in the press and on the Internet for the rest of the year, with Stephen Fry, Alan Davies and Tom Selleck linked to the role.




The BBC’s remake of 1960s ITC series ‘Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased)’ about a private detective and his ghost partner, featuring Tom Baker in a minor role, was cancelled after two seasons.


The Daleks appeared in an advert for Kit-Kat where people do things not normally associated with them – in case chanting “Peace and Love” while chasing after people. The ad was pulled after the Nation estate complained about a breach of copyright.


The rumours about a Doctor Who movie got silly (£250m budget, Sean Bean starring). Mark Gatiss, Gareth Roberts and DWM editor Clayton Hickman made their own pitch for a TV series to the BBC, getting nowhere. “Death Comes To Time” as the radio pilot is now known is rejected by BBC4 and eventually released online, where it gets 1.6 million downloads in two days; that’s impressive even in the days of YouTube. The story’s ending kind of precludes it from being made into further Doctor Who, but it does eventually get its non-canon series, The Minister of Chance.




‘Firefly’ came and went on FOX. ITV eliminated all the regional branding from its primary network – it was now simply ITV1 and would remain so until 2013, when it reverted to ITV – the channel also launched ‘I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here!’, which would later have Colin Baker appear on it. John Leslie and Angus Deayton were both sacked (by Granada and the BBC respectively) over allegations of rape and cocaine use respectively; Leslie was cleared of the former but his career has not recovered.


John Nathan-Turner passed away; he would never get to see a show he clearly loved back on television. There were no real developments in the TV or film world this year; things seemed to have gone quiet.




Three people were convicted of cheating to win “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?” by strategic coughing – a cinematic adaption about this written by Russell T Davies was cancelled when he took another job…


There had been no TV Doctor Who for four years (seven not counting spoofs), UK Gold were stopping with their re-runs and as the 40th anniversary approached, it seemed the only thing we would get that wasn’t a book or an audio would be a semi-animated online drama; “Scream of the Shalka” starring Richard E Grant as the Ninth Doctor, Sophie Okendo as companion Alison Cheney, Derek Jacobi as the Master and David Tennant as a caretaker[10], produced by Cosgrove Hall. When this was announced in July, it appeared this would be the official continuation of the show and plans for a sequel were already underway.


However, behind the scenes, better things were afoot. In September 2003, Lorraine Heggessey took a look at the rights situation, concluded there was nothing stopping the BBC from producing a new show if it wanted to and the only obstruction was Worldwide’s film plans. She persuaded them that the movie wasn’t going anywhere and to step aside; she then got Head of Drama Jane Tranter to approach Russell T Davies again.


The Corporation had been trying to get Davies back with them for a while; but he’d made it clear that the only way he was going to them would be to helm a new Doctor Who. That was now a reality and he signed up quickly; although his contract with Red Studios meant he couldn’t start straight away – he also brought his Casanova idea from London Weekend Television. Phil Collinson would be the day-to-day Producer, with Julie Gardner and Mal Young being the other two Executive Producers, although Young left the BBC before transmission. The game was on – and it would be played in Wales, as this would be a BBC Wales production.


The news was first confirmed by the Daily Telegraph and then the other British papers at 00.01am British Summer Time on 26 September, although the head of Outpost Gallifrey, J Shaun Lyon, was privately tipped off a couple of days beforehand by someone only called ‘Stop Press’ and a number of those in the expanded universe world got early notice. As a result, American and Australian fans had been celebrating for hours while the British ones were largely still asleep. There was a strong welcome, albeit cautious in some quarters – some tabloids wondered if the Doctor would be gay.


“Shalka” went out in November; however, plans for anything bar a short story were canned shortly afterwards. Paul Cornell, its writer, did get to do episodes for TV though. RTD stopped the BBC from closing Big Finish’s operations, but made it very clear the new series was off limits to them.




Granada took over Carlton and formed ITV plc; with only STV and UTV still holding out, the unification of Britain’s third TV network is complete. Celebrity dance competition Strictly Come Dancing launched on BBC1 and became a huge hit for the channel; it got sold to over 40 countries, becoming Dancing with the Stars in the US.


As 2004 began, the British press went into speculation overdrive over the show, especially over who would be the new Doctor and his companion. Hugh Grant was approached by RTD but declined to audition; a large number of names were bandied about, mostly from the light entertainment world – it’s a testimony to the show’s success that every name for the Eleventh and Twelfth Doctors was that of a serious drama actor. The Daily Mail made itself look foolish [no change there then – Ed.] by announcing in its 20 March edition that Bill Nighy had got the role… the same day that the BBC confirmed Christopher Eccleston in the part; Panini literally stopped the presses on Doctor Who Magazine to get a small piece in on the announcement. Piper’s announcement as Rose Tyler also got a great deal of tabloid interest.


Certain other things became clearer; this would not be a reboot, the new Doctor would be the Ninth Doctor (making McGann canon and Richard E Grant not[11]) and it would be a Saturday evening drama in the show’s traditional timeslot – with a proper drama budget. The run would be 13x45’; this was designed to boost the show’s overseas sales chances and indeed the show was picked up by the ABC in Australia and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in Canada (the leak of an unfinished version of “Rose” came from a CBC-linked company – the employee responsible was fired), the two networks who had shown it in the past.


However, behind the scenes, some potential issues arose that could have derailed the project; of course it may have not done so considering how far along it had gone and the very public embarrassment that might have followed a cancellation.


The Hutton Inquiry (into Iraq War intelligence, BBC reporting of such and the death of a government WMD expert) cost both the Director General of the BBC and Chairman of the Board of Governors their jobs. The full-time replacements were Mark Thompson and Michael Grade respectively – neither man particularly liked Doctor Who. Indeed, Grade had put the show on hiatus back when he was controller of BBC One and got Colin Baker fired, although he couldn’t do anything in his oversight role. Thompson on the other hand could and actively asked the production team if they could terminate the project. The answer to that was that they could not.


More dangerous was some market research from BBC Worldwide that suggested significant hostility to the show in general (although a revival question was not asked) among the British public; although it did very well in polls on shows that should be brought back. When asked about the research, Tranter lied and said they didn’t have any research. On the subject of market research, that suggested that family TV viewing in general was dead and this show wouldn’t work.


On 18 July 2004, the show began recording its first production block (“Rose” and “The Aliens of London/World War Three”), but the production of “Dalek” was under threat when it was announced two weeks earlier that negotiations with Terry Nation’s estate over using the Daleks had broken down apparently over editorial control issues. RTD offered Rob Shearman an alternative monster (which Davies would in fact reuse as the Toclafane later on, it seems) and an alternative script was but the situation was sorted out in time.

As 2005 began, hints and teasers were coming about the new show – but would it work? With a lot riding on this, Easter Saturday, 26 March 2005, would be another pivotal day in the show’s history…

[1]One of the few multi-season shows that I’ve watched every episode of, it was actually the first universe that I RPed in, admittedly not very well…

[2]Considering what other things Show-your-body-time has aired in recent years, the full-frontal nudity bit in “Children of the Gods” does not come as a surprise, even if this did not carry on from there.

[3]Three Whedonverse stars (Mark Shephard, James Marsters and Anthony Head) have appeared in Whoniverse shows. There is also a decent amount of Firefly/Doctor Who crossover fiction out there on the Internet.

[4]After a failed attempt to make a movie, the show was picked by Dave and given a three-part pilot called Back to Earth, the de facto ninth season. A tenth six-part season followed and an eleventh is all but confirmed – it’s just a case of sorting out the schedules of Craig Charles (who has a regular role in Coronation Street) and Danny John Jules (who appears in the BBC1/France Televisions cop dramedy Death in Paradise, a show that loves the Accusing Room). I plan to do a Cult TV article on Red Dwarf for The Burning Question.

[5]Among his credits is “The Idiot’s Lantern”, which he started writing not knowing who would play the Tenth Doctor. During a rehearsal for a live production of The Quatermass Experiment in 2005 with David Tennant, the latter got the microphones switched off during a break… then told Gatiss that he would be the Doctor, making the writer one of the first to know.

[6]The same one that resulted in Live Aid and “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”

[7]The possibility of a female Doctor has reared its curly head every regeneration since Tom Baker joked about it in 1980; it’s perhaps no surprise that Steven Moffat had Matt Smith say “I’m a girl!” in the final scene (which he wrote) of “The End of Time, Part Two”.

[8]The first episode was repeated on the CITV channel during a special weekend to make 30 years of the brand; I watched this and could see clear Moffat style in there.

[9]When CBS did Elementary, the BBC looked at their legal options and ultimately took no action. Holmes is now effectively a public domain character (since 2000, all of the works are out of copyright in the UK and only a few stories from 1921 onward remain non-public in the US) and the concept of a modern day Sherlock Holmes story isn’t new; indeed, Basil Rathbone fought Nazis etc. in fourteen films from 1939 to 1946 – indeed four of those works did not have their copyright renewed by  Universal in the 1970s, becoming openly available.

[10]As well as Tennant, all three of those got big guest roles in the revival.

[11]A decision taken in the back of a car in LA by the producers; they had merely been referring to Eccleston as “the Doctor” to this point, but decided that the other eight were going to be listed anyway, so they might as well make him number nine… something that Steven Moffat appears to be altering majorly come the 50th anniversary special.

26 August 2013

Let's Play Persian Incursion: Turn 17

Four Israeli F-16s (Image: IDF)


In which things do not go to plan for the Israelis and the Americans as the Iranians get very lucky…


The US Navy now launched a Super Hornet strike to destroy the small Fuel Manufacturing Plant at Isfahan; with only two facilities there to take out, this should have been a relatively easy task for them to do. The Americans took precautions, dedicating two of their Hornets as fighter escorts and tasking four for SAM suppression, along with a Suter attack to degrade the air defences.


However, things started to go a bit wrong at this point. After a F-14 was destroyed at maximum range when it tried to intercept the Rhino force and the F-5s chose not to engage, the Americans discovered the hard way that they’d failed to suppress one of the I-Hawk sites. It fired at one of the strikers and blew it out of the sky, killing its pilot.


I-Hawks have a 60% hit chance against Hornets with a strike load out; indeed they’re the most vulnerable Western aircraft in the game.


The Growlers destroyed one of the SA-22s, but the others present managed to shoot down enough of the bombs so that both buildings were only damaged. The Iranian going away party consisted of four F-7s followed by four F-5s; none of them got to engage but the single Hornet tasked with the first lot had to use a Sidewinder to destroy the final Fishbed after running out of AIM-120s. The result to the Iranians was four destroyed (one KIA) and four damaged. Another group of F-5s chose not to join in with this one-sided battle.


Despite the loss of the F/A-18, the Israeli support for this campaign was further increased.


The Iranian response was a coordinated eight Shahab-3 launch against Israel, of which one managed to get through three layers of defences before the final Patriot PAC-3 one stopped it dead.


Iran used two Military Points to coordinate the attack and ensure the missiles had to be engaged as one group.


Now came the Israeli attack on the Arak reactor; the cyber-attack took down all the local SAM defences, the fighter response was non-existent… then the SAM vehicles remaining after the SEAD F-16s took out two more Pantsyrs managed to stop the Israeli striking from even damaging the two biggest facilities… making the mission a failure.


Things got worse as the two squadrons headed home; two F-5s turned up and were merely blown away at long range, but then, somehow two F-14s got into dogfight range before the escort F-16s could even react. In the ensuing melee, one F-14 went home, one was destroyed… and one F-16 pilot had to eject. The latter landed, found herself swiftly captured by the IRIGC… and was facing the full Tehran hospitality.


I rolled a 99 on the approach roll for the Tomcats, who then fired all their weapons at once and one of them got a hit (on a 5 or less chance!), forcing the Netz pilot to eject.


Further diplomatic moves, including in the UN by Israel had no effect. As night fell, Iran felt more confident it might ride this one out…


Intervention in Syria

It now seems that the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime against civilians is highly probable and the next few days may well see a decision by the West to intervene in the country, even without UN agreement (nor should they ask permission of Assad's armourers, the Russian Federation, for this).

My comments in June remain valid in my opinion. 

I am increasingly inclined towards some form of military intervention, although I am not "gung ho" about it (nor should anyone be); there is a possibility that getting involved could make a conflict even worse and there is no guarantee that it will work. I'm an internationalist at heart; I cannot see my country just stand there and ignore this outrage against humanity.

But we have to do it right.

25 August 2013

James Bond: Tomorrow Never Dies

Eric Serra’s score was one of the worst things of GoldenEye; David Arnold’s is one of the best of Tomorrow Never Dies.


Brosnan’s second film suffered from major production problems; a change of release date that forced a complete plot rewrite and a script that wasn’t finished when production began. As such, this is a very action oriented piece that comes in at under 2 hours. However, 007 certainly knows how to do action and this film doesn’t disappoint; the scenes are done with verve and wit, indeed, I was chuckling at many of the one-liners (the car park scene with the car is great and made better by the in-car computer). Michelle Yeoh (a veteran Hong Kong action star before and after this) does a great job and there is some clear chemistry with Brosnan in this work – I can see why a spinoff would have been considered. The solitary scene we get with Q is great; the problem with many Bond films is that we never get enough time with him.


Where this movie falls down is in the non-action scenes; there’s a couple of big plot holes, contrivances and general weakness of dialogue there. Jonathan Pryce is pretty poor in the villain role (of the four Brosnan villains, he’s had the least successful post-Bond career) and watching “The Curse of Fatal Death” as research for my Doctor Who series diminishes his threat. Teri Hatcher is poorly written, Stamper is rubbish and Carver’s goons are so poor at their job, he calls them on it.


Mind you, I wasn’t expecting to have Julian Fellowes turn up – Hugh Bonneville also gets a small speaking part.




Not as bad as its reputation, but some poor casting choices mean I can only give this a maximum of:



17 August 2013

Let's Play Persian Incursion: Turn 16

Two F-22 Raptors


I discovered the official Errata between turns here and decided to implement it more or less fully; while this does result in some slight inconsistencies, it’s my game and I can do that if I want to. As a result, I will be able to launch more air strikes, Anyway, in this turn, we discover there ain’t no party like a stealth party, because a stealth party is invisible to radar…


The Israelis managed to get all of their fleet back up to operational status, ready for further attacks on Iran, with both the north and south routes open to them. Iran generated 53 fighters and engaged in some redeployment to cover the southern approach; however it would have done nothing either way to stop the strike coming in now…


The errata and the rules point out that Iran cannot repair fighters on Alert or Patrol status, as well as that tankers don’t go through the fuel mission cycle. So I have eight ready for use.


Twelve F-22 Raptors, launching from their base in Qatar, made their way through the defences of Iran completely undetected until they reached their target – the highly damaged Zirconium Plant at Isfahan. The Tor-M1 and Pantsyr units saw something coming and then had to deal with a shower of Small Diameter from the Raptors… which they knocked many down, but not enough to save the planet from becoming smoking ruins more appropriate for filming an episode of Falling Skies. The Americans got out without any bother, the Iranians having been caught completely defenceless.


B-2s are only available on night turns (they’re painted black), but the F-22 is available if the US is an Israeli ally. It ignores all the SAM nodes and can only be intercepted by two aircraft if the Iran player gets a natural 12 on 2d6. Falling Skies actually features an episode where the 2nd Mass has to destroy a nuclear reactor powering alien operations.


This boost for Israel and blow for Iran was further compounded when a rocket attack by Hezbollah failed utterly; although not to the point of further Iranian embarrassment. That came when Israel revealed a bunch of clerics engaging in action more appropriate to the Borgias… and when Iran claimed the prostitutes were Israeli, the public reaction was that the clerics were still from the Islamic Republic…


Iran attempted to counter the Israeli use of Incriminating Photographs by Press Leak, but Israel cancelled it out totally with Quick Spin Control.


Further strikes were ordered for later that day – Iran would make another ballistic missile attack, although it would be unlikely to succeed, while Israel ordered a two-squadron attack on the Arak Heavy Water Reactor and a special forces attacks on the Isfahan Fuel Manufacturing plant for the following night.


A slight narrative change; two of these attacks were ordered earlier in the turns.


17 Iranian planes broke down; there were no planes available in Sector II, but still plenty available in the other two sectors as 48 F-16s prepared for a journey to Arak and a F/A-18 pilot prepared for what would be his final ever flight...

11 August 2013

Let's Play Persian Incursion: Turn 15

The political situation as of the end of Turn 15


The game is now heading towards its conclusion – as things go from bad to worse for Iran.


The situation for the Islamic Republic of Iran was distinctly not good. Only 22 aircraft were available for operations and in the southern sector where any US attacks would be coming from, there was one solitary MiG-29 ready to deal with anything.


As a result, when a squadron of F/A-18s combined with two Growlers packing SEAD loads were launched against the Zirconium Plant at Isfahan, the Fulcrum pilot decided that he was not going to risk the inevitable destruction of his airframe by attacking the raid.


Four F-7Ms, however, were more into valour than discretion and decided to engage, three  being blown away at range by AIM-120Ds.


Most of the available Iranian jets can’t engage at anything further than dogfight range; the best stuff they have on their own is the F-14 (designed for bombers), the MiG-29 and the F-4 in that order of relative quality; the first has major maintenance issues.


There was however a glitch waiting for the Americans; while they had launched a Suter attack on the Iranian air defence network, they had only been able to suppress one of the two local I-Hawk sites. This now fired and damaged a Super Hornet, forcing it to make an emergency landing in Saudi Arabia. Even worse than that, it was the sole aircraft aiming at foundry B3.


The strikers reached their target and the Growlers fired their HARM missiles at two the Pantsyr launch vehicles, destroying one of them, but the other managed to avoid destruction by shooting down the missiles itself. There were still 24 SAMs available and these managed to stop the destruction of one of the primary targets, resulting in a mission failure for the US.


The Hornets headed out and with only six aircraft available in Sector 2, none with BVR missiles, the Iranians chose not to engage. The MiG-29 in Sector 3 did chose to fire and unable to get into firing range to Growler jamming was sent home with a damaged tail between its legs.


With Iran’s political good will somewhat limited at the moment, there was nothing it could to stop the strike now heading its way through Turkey.


Iran was done to only one Political Point at this time; with none of its cards only needing that. It really needed to move Turkey’s opinion track to +4 or lower to prevent the two squadron Israeli strike on Arak… it was now powerless to stop the rest of the Israeli actions this turn.


The 47-plane attack bound for the Heavy Water Plant at Arak crossed the Turkish border, avoiding the S-200 site guarding the plant entirely and with some of the F-15s managing to suppress both I-Hawk sites in the area. The Iranian response was four F-5Es… who took one look at the size of the raid, which included F-16s in a dedicated escort role, and decided not to even bother.


The dedication of some of the F-16s to the mobile short-range SAMs resulted in two of them being blown away and the rest of them entirely distracted by swatting STAR-1s. The F-15s came in with their bomb loads of Small Diameter Bombs and tore the Heavy Water Plant to shreds… not a single building was left standing.


The aircraft left and ran into three groups of interceptors, two Tiger II pairs and a pair of MiGs. With their escort load out of six AIM-120s, it only took one Falcon to deal with each of the former and two to deal with the latter – in each case, one pilot ejected and the other had to fly a damaged plane home.


The Israeli jets can pretty much self-escort at any rate, but if you dedicate a plane to that role, then it will be a really powerful air-to-air machine.


While there was no political boost for Israel domestically, they were able to secure a firm agreement from the US to see this operation through, whatever it took. With Iran’s aircraft breaking down again, it was now going to be facing two days of US air attack…


Firm Commitment, which locks an allied opinion track for up to nine turns (eight in this case) actually turned up in the Israeli hand previously, but it was neither possible or desirable for Israel to play it at this point. The two squadrons here will be unavailable for further strikes until Turn 19, but there will be a few US strikes and two F-16 squadrons are currently available for operations (a look at the Errata states that tankers don’t go through the availability cycle in the same way due to their shorter flight times).


Israel gained four political points from its strike. It is now increasingly likely that Israel will, if it can destroy other Iranian sites, win the game.




10 August 2013

Rendering the vortex ('Doctor Who': the games)

Your own portable time machine (image: Stuart Brady, retouched by him)


The licence fee that is charged for every household in Britain that has a television that receives live television (currently £145.50 and frozen at that level to 2016) does not cover all the BBC’s expenses[1]. As a result, “Auntie” is also reliant on money coming in from its international channels, overseas sales of its programmes and merchandising.


Thus it is not surprising that Doctor Who has been one of the corporation’s biggest cash cows, although it can’t claim to pay for itself like Top Gear. Over the years, the BBC has sold the rights to make board games, card games and other sorts of games.


In this final look at the expanded universe, we will be looking at two of the areas of greatest interest to Phoenixians – namely tabletop-roleplaying and video games.


There have been three officially approved RPG systems, or ports of systems, set in the Doctor Who multiverse. The dates given are of initial release to the last supplement being produced.


The Doctor Who Role-Playing Game (FASA[2], 1985-7)


Produced while the classic show was still on and PBS stations were still running it a lot (especially Tom Baker stories, hence Four and Leela being on the cover as opposed to the incumbent Sixth Doctor), this game set, aimed at the US market, used similar rules to FASA’s Star Trek product[3] – including a d100 based system i.e. roll two ten-sided dice, one for the 10s and one for the second digit. The main box set (with two different versions) featured a player’s guide, a GM’s guide and a universe guide – with three sourcebooks and seven published adventures following. this In addition, two single-player ‘gamebooks’ were published with the mechanics. Further works were planned when the series was cancelled due to falling sales – the show was past its first peak in both in the US and UK.


The background material, which allowed you to play as the Doctor and his companions, or another Time Lord, took some interesting takes on the canon in an attempt at internal consistency – most notably suggesting that the Monk (from the 1st Doctor’s era) was another incarnation of the Master and that Adric got rescued by another Time Lord instead of dying.


Citadel Miniatures, perhaps best known for their Games Workshop products (they’re a subsidiary of it) also released a batch of 25mm miniatures to be used in connection with the game.


Time Lord (Virgin Publishing, 1991)


An unsuccessful attempt at a new system, this spawned one 287-page paperback only, now freeware.


Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space (Cubicle Seven, 2009-present)


The current RP system for the show, this one aimed at young audience is currently in its second edition (the first has Tennant, the second Smith) and has a number of supplements, including a planned set for all the Doctors scheduled for later this year.


The system discourages violence – those wishing to take fighting actions come last in the initiative system, combat is pretty deadly and you can’t scratch a Dalek with any game weapon.

More prolific have been video games; we will only be covering cartridge/CD-esque games here instead of integrated devices a la Nintendo’s Game and Watch series – we will also skip the Flash games featured on the official website, unofficial titles (some definitely violating copyright, some non-commercial and others getting away with it via being clear spoofs e.g. Doctor Goo and the Samaroons), mods for other games and “program yourself” games from early computer magazines. As most of these have the words Doctor Who or Doctor Who and in their title, that will be omitted to avoid me repeating myself excessively.


It’s possible fair to say that there is a potential classic game that could be made with the licence; it just hasn’t been made yet.


The First Adventure (1983, BBC Micro)


The first official release (Doctor Who Adventure, an unlicensed and technically illegal game, beat it to the market), this game featuring the Fifth Doctor was basically four levels that were variations of popular games at that point – such as Frogger i.e. cross moat, avoiding getting hit by whatever.


The Warlord (1985, BBC Micro – Spectrum version cancelled)


A text adventure featuring the player as a companion to an unspecified Doctor (presumably Colin Baker’s), this is split into two parts, each with 250 locations.  The first takes place in the distant future, the second around the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. I somehow doubt it’s as hard as the text game for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy[4].


The Mines of Terror (1986, BBC Micro and Commodore 64)


A 2D platformer, this featured the Sixth Doctor and a robot cat called Splinx. While not loved by fans, it did get pretty good reviews at the time.


Dalek Attack (1992, PC, Spectrum ZX, Commodore 64, Amiga, Atari ST)


A platform “shooter” (you had a sonic screwdriver) where the player could play either the Second, Fourth or Seventh Doctors teaming up with a second player as the Brigadier or Ace to deal with a Dalek invasion of Earth, travelling to various global locations. Interestingly, it features the diamond logo on its title screen.


Destiny of the Doctors (1997, PC)


One of the two I’ve played, the first 3D game on this list, this BBC Multimedia tale saw the Master (played by Anthony Ainley in his final appearance as him before he died) abducting the first seven Doctors[6] and you playing an amorphous creature created by them called the Graak, who most go through a series of challenges set by the Master to rescue them, while avoiding various monsters from the show. Notable for the large amount of info on the show available in the in-game archives (including clips from episodes then not available on video), it is however pretty poor, with no clear instructions, a hero you feel nothing for and generally bad graphics even for 1997… it’s not liked by fans and the best thing in it is probably Ainley being hammy.


Good luck trying to get it working on a post Windows 95 system.


Top Trumps: Doctor Who (2008, PlayStation 2 and Nintendo DS)


In essence, nothing more than a video game version of the card game in which you have to pick a category for your card and hope it’s not lower than the one in your opponent’s hand. A cash-in, basically.


Evacuation: Earth (2010, Nintendo DS)


A “point and click” game with puzzles etc. voiced by Matt Smith and Karen Gillan in their roles as the Eleventh Doctor and Amy Pond, produced by Asylum Entertainment; it didn’t get very good reviews, even if it was the first proper videogame for the show since 1997.


Return to Earth (2010, Nintendo Wii)


The companion to Evacuation: Earth, this 3D adventure puzzle game, which supported a sonic screwdriver version of the Wii remote. It got panned by critics (getting 19% from Official Nintendo Magazine[7]) for poor gameplay and a bad story; it still sold pretty well… demonstrating that you can sell nearly anything with a Doctor Who logo.


The Mazes of Time (2010, Apple App store for various i-thingies)


A tablet and smartphone game, this again featured the incumbents of the TARDIS, travelling through seven locations solving puzzles, avoiding monsters etc. to save a family attacked by a rogue Dalek and scattered across space-time. Two updates were released with extra content including the Autons and the Weeping Angels respectively.


The Adventure Games (2010-2011, PC and Mac)


A series of games downloadable for free from the BBC website if you are British and purchasable for a small fee otherwise (to do with the licence fee), these episodic games saw the Eleventh Doctor and Amy in fully 3D adventures where you had to sneak past Daleks, collect items and so on in an interactive adventure, also voiced by the stars of the TV show, including Nicholas Briggs. The three regulars had their motions captured using rotoscope to make their movements in game more realistic. Other voices appeared, including Emilia Fox.


The first season consists of:

·         City of the Daleks

·         Blood of the Cybermen

·         TARDIS

·         Shadows of the Vashta Nerada


I’m currently working my work through these… albeit very slowly. It’s a bit difficult to control at times and the puzzles are a bit frustrating when the controls don’t respond properly. This said, the series (advertised on TV) was very popular and got a lot of downloads.


A planned second run opened with The Gunpowder Plot (and added Rory, now a full companion, to the game)  but the series was then shelved to focus on other things.


Worlds in Time (2012 , online MMORPG)


The first massively multiplayer game, this cartoon-style online work is a freemium game i.e. free-to-play but with purchasable extras i.e. clothing, equipment and so on. Other clothing etc. can be acquired by playing the game and includes items from throughout the run… your character can wear Zoe’s sparkly top or Benton’s Beret, among many other things – some pretty obscure.


The Eternity Clock (2012, PSN, PS Vita and PC)


A platform/puzzler featuring Matt Smith’s Doctor and River Song (both voiced by their actor) dealing with rogue time corridors, this was delayed by three months but it appears that time was not used for polishing… reviews were mediocre to poor, with the game being attacked for a large number of bugs. It’s basically 2 and a half D – 3D graphics with 2D action. Two planned sequels have been postponed for the moment.


No further games are known to be in development at the moment.

Thus we come to the conclusion of our look at the expanded universe, which can only be a partial look – it’s simply vast and the products available with show connections range from the sublime to the ridiculous to the blatant cash-in (ice cube moulds from Lakeland).


We now return to the show proper, looking at the period from 1997 to 2004, where there was more than one false dawn and a sunrise that could have stopped…

[1]£49 for the very few that still have a black and white set, this fee can cause considerable political controversy, especially from the tabloid press every time the BBC is perceived to be wasting money i.e. on salaries for its stars, although it could be argued that is the price of stopping them hopping over to the other channels. About the only network that gets anything like as much scrutiny is Channel 4, whose minority representation remit and desire to get headlines results in shows like Big Fat Gypsy Weddings or My Ten Stone Testicles.

[2]Originally standing for Freedonian Aeronautics and Space Administration (a reference to Duck Soup, a classic Marx Brothers film), this company published Shadowrun and MechWarrior among others; while ceasing active operations in 2001, they still own the licences and lease them out to other publishers.

[3]Running from 1982 until Paramount suddenly revoked their licence in 1989, apparently due to the success of TNG and concerns over violence.

[4]Whether you try the original here or  the 20th anniversary updated version available here, this game is known for being fiendishly hard – it is entirely possible and indeed common to die in the first scene (hint: take the white analgesic tablet).

[5]Many of the videos featuring him are available on the “Survival” DVD.

[6]The four alive at that time contributing original voiceovers to the game, along with Nicholas Courtney.

[7]Their summary: “Clearly made by people who hate games, sci-fi, and everything decent about humanity.”

04 August 2013

Waiting for Peter... the new Doctor

So, the 12th Doctor will be Peter Capaldi, a well-known British actor who has appeared in a lot of things, most notably The Thick of It and will soon play Cardinal Richelieu in the BBC adaptation of The Three Musketeers.


A different choice – he’s almost as old as Hartnell was when he took the role – but a good one nonetheless. I wish him every success.

James Bond: GoldenEye

So we come to GoldenEye, the very first Bond film I ever watched back in 1999 – and on this re-watch, I can see why I became a fan.


After six years away, the first outing for Pierce Brosnan’s Bond had to knock it out of the park and this film certainly does that. Pierce is assured and confident in a role he had already been picked for once – I’m of the opinion that the eight year wait to take it on results in an improved 007. The action is brilliant throughout, the story excellently constructed (and the issue of the timeline actually has a decent explanation here) and I like the set design too.


When it comes to the other cast, I’m struck at how young everybody looks in this. Many of the big players I know from other things I watch or have watched; although I didn’t watch any of them because of them, I’ve been impressed whenever they’ve turned up. Sean Bean is near the start of his career of dying gruesomely (although one of his best roles involves him playing a drag queen), Alan Cumming is superbly sleazy and Judi Dench’s relatively limited screen time is excellent. Izabella Scorupco turns in a feisty performance as Natalia, who proves to be a very useful little computer hacker and not the annoyance known from the video games.


This is not a perfect film; Eric Serra’s score is pretty poor and the “no, that just keeps you alone” scene jars badly with the rest of the film. It also looks very 1990s; it’s less timeless than some of the other films in the franchise.




Minor issues of music aside, this is a strong candidate for best Bond of the lot.