Three years ago (or so) I ran a Star Trek RPG. I was feeling the Star Trek itch after seeing The Wrath of Khan again, and decided it would make a fun game. Boy howdy was I right.
The idea, you see, was to actually simulate our own television series. We had theme music. All players cast their characters. We covered every Star Trek episode trope I could think of. We had cliffhangers, two-parters, a pilot and a season finale. It was phenomenal, but not because of me, really. My players–typically stellar role-players, by the by–outdid themselves.
The theme of the series was a crew of Starfleet outcasts, has-beens, and misfits dispatched to run border patrol in a remote sector of the galaxy after the Dominion War. Their ship was a clunker pulled out of mothballs with a lot of technical glitches and a lot of character. They reported to an Admiral (played by a friend of mine who moved to LA and wanted to be involved, so he called in on speaker to send communiques from Starfleet or to confer over issues requiring higher approval). I envisioned this series as a kind of frontier western–the captain of the USS Lionheart was the only sheriff in a rowdy town, the admiral was the hangin’ judge, and the crew were the captain’s loyal deputies, trying to bring justice and order to a place that didn’t want it. Into that theme, my players inserted these characters:
Played by my friend, Chistine, Athelai was a Betazoid who had earned the Christopher Pike Medal of Honor during the Dominion War in an action that killed almost her entire crew but saved Earth from Breen attack. She also was captured by the Gem Hadar and used her telepathy to defeat the guards and stage one of the only prison breaks in the war. It also got her labelled a war criminal by her own people.
Dixie was tough, no-nonsense, tactically minded, and (ironically) really bad when considering other people’s emotions. She got put on the Lionheart because Starfleet couldn’t find anywhere else for her that wouldn’t piss somebody off. Her life was barren, empty, friendless…but it was eventually filled by her crew and her hard-nose exterior started to melt to show the emotionally traumatized woman within.
Altman, the first officer, played by my friend DJ, was a guy who had always played it safe and done the right thing. He spent his career pushing a desk in the logistical division, organizing supplies for the war effort. When the Dominion War broke out, he had the opportunity for a command post, but turned it down because his wife couldn’t take the stress. Years later, now divorced, Altman threw caution to the wind for the first time in his life and signed up for a risky assignment on the frontiers of the Federation. An old friend of the admiral, he had connections in starfleet that helped the crew on many occasions. Even still, he had trouble letting go of his cautious side.
He also sang opera.
Nolan is an inadvertent time-traveller. He was a contemporary of the Original Series who, due to a transporter accident, wound up decades into the future. He still serves in starfleet, but is a bit odd. In essence, this is the first time we’ve had a ‘geek’ on the starfleet crew. He was obsessed with pop culture, wore clever pins on his uniform (in violation of protocol–he was always getting in trouble) and make constant non-sequitur references to contemporary television and movies (which no one understood). He was played perfectly by my friend, Fisher, and was great comic relief in addition to serving as an excellent ops officer.
What to say about our ship’s doctor? Sloane, played by Meghan, was a half-Orion, half-human with a shady past and organized crime connections who, somehow, managed to make it through Starfleet Academy. She was cool, tough, smart, and played merry hell with fellow crewmembers hearts (notably John Dashell and Fanz Danter–two young men bucking for promotion played by Serpico and RJ). She was also dangerous and not shy about getting in a fight. This was made even more awesome by her Klingon nurse, Tu’kal, who was in a perpetual war against the greatest foe–Death itself. I really can’t explain how much fun Sloane was–her and Athelai really made the show…errr…game. We started plumbing her dark past and connections to the Orion Syndicate in the final few episodes, setting ourselves up for a second season that, sadly, never was to happen.
There was also Kuval, the brain-damaged Vulkan with mood swings, Rixx, the Andorian operations officer who treated everyone like her children, and so on and so forth. It was simply fantastic, and never has a game been more ‘cinematic’ for me. If they’d let me, I’d write this into an actual show any day of the week, and it would be awesome. I still think back on this game regularly, particularly as I look at what the franchise has become, and think “yeah, Star Trek: Lionheart would be every bit as a good a show as this stuff!”
Ah, well. Maybe someday we’ll get in that second season…
As has been happening this week, conversations on Facebook have been firing up my desire to write blogposts. In this instance, it was the comment from a friend of mine that she had just finished Doctor Who, Season 2. The consensus from a lot of the comments were that it was an episode they enjoyed. Before I start tearing into it, I’d like to make it clear that I don’t begrudge people their enjoyment of Dr. Who and, if you liked the finale, good for you and I hope you enjoy the rest of the series. I, however, finished saw the Season 2 finale myself a few weeks back and it basically confirmed my general difficulties with the show and has seriously dissuaded me from watching any further episodes.
Allow me to elaborate (spoilers below):
The two part finale begins with Rose and the Doctor arriving back in London to, presumably, visit Jackie. They discover that the world has become infested with some kind of ghosts, who show up and walk around and people are generally excited to see. Jackie insists that the ghost that shows up in her house is that of her dead father or grandfather or something. Since this show rarely deals with phenomena that aren’t interested in mass genocide of some kind, I am skeptical Jackie is correct, but whatever.
The Doctor is also skeptical, so he breaks out a bunch of his stuff from the TARDIS to perform an experiment involving 3D glasses. I wonder what the deal is with the glasses, of course, but the other people on the show stick to their general lack of curiosity about the things the Doctor does and nobody asks. I’m still with the episode at this point, so I don’t make a big deal out of it.
Oh! I forgot to mention that this episode was preceded by a maudlin speech by Rose Tyler indicating that what follows is the story of how she dies. I’m pretty excited by this, since I can’t stand Rose Tyler and I think her being killed off is an excellent idea. I digress, however…
The story begins to take a turn for the absurd when we find out that Torchwood is actually running these experiments with some kind of interdimensional hole that produces a lot of power and, as a side effect, seems to admit these ghosts to the world. The first thing (of many) that is pretty stupid about this is that they have the levers that control the weird portal and the work stations for the scientists monitoring it in the same room as the phenomenon. What kind of idiots are running this place? Who finds themselves an interdimensional hole and then puts all their workers right in front of the damned thing without so much as a pane of security glass between them and who-knows-what? If I were working on that project, I’d be asking questions like ‘might long term exposure to whatever is coming out of this hole be bad for us or mess with the computers?’ or ‘wouldn’t it be a good idea to keep this hole behind thick doors in case it, you know, explodes or something?’ This, however, is the world of Dr Who, and the Idiot Ball is hugged with all the affection and tenacity of a little girl hugging her teddy on the way to school.
The next stupid thing that happens is that two of the Torchwood personnel go off to fool around in some abandoned part of the building. It just so happens that cybermen are hiding in there and they start lobotomizing the Torchwood people, one by one. Okay, reality check: (1) it makes sense that, given how fast they were building this skyscraper to reach the magic hole, that there would be unfinished and unfilled parts in the building; (2) it makes no sense whatsoever that these unoccupied parts of the building wouldn’t be surveiled by security on a regular basis; (3) it makes no sense at all that the people who work at the ultra-secret high-security defense organization wouldn’t be made aware of what was going on in the abandoned parts of their office suite; (4) even if they weren’t, it doesn’t make any damn sense why a cyberman would hang out there, apparently indefinitely, and hope against hope with all his little heart that the *exact* people he needs to control would just happen to wander in and they would just happen to be alone and he would just happen to be able to come upon them unawares and that they would just happen to have their screams unheard. What happens if a painter wanders in one day? Does the Cyberman kill him? Isn’t he reported missing? Don’t they smell the body? Really, really stupid plan, Cyberman. Idiotic.
Okay, so the Doctor and Rose trace the location of where the ghosts are coming from (who, it should be noted, aren’t just in England but are covering the entire globe–important for later) and zap over there in the TARDIS. Jackie happens to be on board (because we needed a way to keep her in the episode, I guess, which is just as well because I like her). Torchwood is waiting for them and are very excited to meet the Doctor. The director takes him around, shows him the stuff, tells him he’s a prisoner, and so on. He tells them Jackie is Rose and leaves Rose in the TARDIS. This is among my favorite parts of the episode, because I like the Doctor and Jackie, and Rose isn’t there to foul things up. The Doctor convinces them that opening and closing an interdimensional portal just to see what happens is a bad idea (which they should have known anyway). The director agrees (oh, yeah, her *office* is one thin pane of glass away from the evil portal–STUPID DESIGN) and orders it stopped. Of course, the cyber zombie people the hidden cyberman has been creating over the course of the past few hours open the thing all the way, which causes tons of trouble.
Turns out all those ‘ghosts’ were really cybermen. They’re from that other dimension, where we ditched the other good character in the show, Ricky, because he made things actively interesting between the characters and we can’t have that in Dr Who, now can we? Anyway, the cybermen now appear all over the Earth at once and start making demands. This leads me to ask the following question: Why did they bother with the whole ghost nonsense in the first place? If all they had to do was turn the dials to 11 and let them all through, why didn’t the lone cyberman they could get through (and how did they do that, exactly? Well, nevermind…) just waltz into the control room, electrocute anybody who got in the way, and open the damned portal himself or hold someone hostage until they did it for him? WTF, cybermen?
The people of Earth proceed to be spectacularly incapable of fighting slow moving armored people, despite some guy somewhere realizing the rocket launchers work just fine at killing them. No lights go on in any heads, nobody starts any kind of guerilla campaign, nobody figures out that they can just run faster than them or hide or whatever. Airpower is never deployed, tanks never hit the streets, the whole Earth just rolls over. Fine, I’m willing to give it to them. Let me ask a larger question though:
What the hell are the cybermen doing here in the first place? If they had umpteen billions of cybermen (the number you’d need to lock down the whole world), why not just conquer the world they were on? If they couldn’t win against the forces of righteousness on the alternate Earth, why hadn’t the alternate Earth people already wiped them out? When we finally get an answer to this question (when the good guys port in from their own dimension and start kicking ass), it’s ‘they’d barricaded themselves in their factories!’ Well Jeez, I guess they got you there. The human race sure hasn’t figured out how to blow up factories. That’s never happened–we’ve never pulled it off. Factories are just too damned tough to blow up, I guess. What’s that? Oh, it seems like Torchwood has passed the Idiot Ball! I beaut of a throw, snatched from the air by the nimble metal fingers of the cybermen.
Hold on, though, we aren’t done with the eye-rolling, yet. You see, the way the cybermen got here was by hitching a ride on a voidship, which travels through the emptiness between dimensions (well…you know what, nevermind–let’s not get into the inherent paradox of movement or existence in a non-place defined by its lack of space or existence. The show has the good sense of having this baffle the Doctor, so we can take it. To be honest, I thought the concept was pretty cool). Of course, the voidship contains Daleks. True to Dalek form, rather than killing everyone in the room immediately (which would make sense), they decide instead to chat. Rose (who got there by pointless misadventure), Ricky (who got there for a good reason) and the scientist guy (who should have called security as soon as he found Rose, but I guess they were busy being idiots somewhere else) are now having conversations with Daleks for a while. Everytime this happens, it drives me absolutely bonkers. WHY THE FUCK DO DALEKS PARLEY? Once, just once, I’d like them to show up and shoot everybody as soon as they walk in. No conversation, no exposition, no nothing–just killing. It’s what they’re supposed to do! Of course, they are the Grand Masters of Idiot Ball Conveyance, so they don’t.
Eventually we get some fun with Daleks and Cybermen yelling at each other. Of course, the Daleks should just start shooting (because what do they care what the cybermen are doing? They aren’t Daleks, therefore they ought to be destroyed. Where is the nuance in that philosophy? Why do they have conversations with other people at all? Why do they even bother yelling EXTERMINATE when actually what they should yell is DELIBERATE!), but they Daleks don’t shoot and the ensuing conversation just goes to show everybody just how idiotic the behavior of the villains in this episode really is.
Anyway, the Daleks have their hands on a Time Lord artifact that is a prison full of Daleks, which the Daleks open and release millions of Daleks into the world (you know, for a species that is supposedly ‘wiped out’, there sure are a buttload of them still out there). They proceed to have a little cybermen/dalek/human war across the world, where they fly around and shoot things occasionally and everybody runs around in the street like an idiot (dude, go inside!).
Our heroes, meanwhile, run around and avoid cybermen in the Torchwood building; this mostly involves running up and down stairs. For reasons completely in violation of the cybermen rules, the Director of Torchwood, now a cyberman, somehow resists her assimilation and starts killing cybermen. Way to break the rules for no reason, Dr. Who. Jackie and alternate-world husband have a touching reunion. I like this part.
Of course, by now we’re all waiting around for the Doctor to pull the solution out of his ass, just like always. He does so, by saying that he can reverse the portal and all the people from other dimensions will get sucked in. That’s what the 3d glasses are for, I guess–seeing who’s from another dimension. Anyway, because the portal is in the same room as the levers that open and close it, it’s dangerous for Rose and the Doctor, since they have visited the other dimension and come back at some point in the episode. The others go over to the other dimension where they’ll be safe, but Rose won’t go. Fine, whatever.
They pull the levers, the vacuum turns on. In violation of all physics, even theoretical or imaginary physics, all the cybermen and Daleks all over the world get sucked through the portal in, like, two or three minutes. I don’t need to do the math to point out just how ridiculous this is. What about the cybermen in India (who we were shown)? Did they go through the planet or were they dragged along its surface at a billion miles an hour? How much stuff did they destroy along the way? How many people were killed? Why wasn’t the building built around the portal ripped apart? How were the Doctor and Rose not ripped off the levers either by the force of ‘suction’ (since it obviously had to be incredible) or by getting banged into by passing cybermen/Daleks. Why aren’t the Daleks still shooting people on the way (sorry, side point)?
Inevitably, we know that Rose gets sucked off. Somehow, by a sheer chance that strains the imagination to accept, her non-father appears and grabs her out of danger at the last second. How the hell does he do that? How does he know where she is? How does he know the right timing? How does he have time to grab her and hit the button before getting sucked in? Does he have some kind of interdimensional periscope? Who the fuck knows. The show isn’t interested in making sense, and it can’t hear me over the sound of how cool it thinks it is, so fuck it.
That leaves us with the touching final scene, involving the Doctor somehow contacting Rose and drawing her to a beach (why? Why can’t he appear to her somewhere else? Ah, whatever…) where they say their goodbyes. The Doctor tells her
she’s officially ‘dead’ in the other world. My wife boos and hisses at this; I nod in agreement. We wanted Real Death, dammit. They kill everybody else in the damn show, why not Rose? Anyway, the episode ends. I imagine I’m supposed to feel bad, but I don’t. Rose is lame and I’m glad she’s gone.
There you have it. Those two episodes aggressively refused to have anyone act in an intelligent manner besides the Doctor and strained my suspension of disbelief well beyond the breaking point. It was, in a word, ridiculous.
I have a feeling this post is going to be unpopular, but here it goes: Dr. Who is an unimpressive television program. I have tried–I’ve really tried–to like the show, but I just can’t stop rolling my eyes most of the time. At this point I’ve slogged my way through about two seasons–the Chris Eccleston season and the majority of the first David Tennant season–and I can’t quite see what it is that has all you Whovians hooked. It took me a little while to formulate exactly what it was that I disliked about the show, and I think I have it narrowed down. What follows is my critique, for your perusal and (possibly) ridicule, though I can’t for the life of me figure out what has so many folks obsessed.
What I Like
Since I like to keep myself fair and even-keeled when it comes to ripping up popular scifi/fantasy properties, let’s start with what I like about Dr. Who. In the first place, I should point out that I really wanted to like Dr. Who, and so these various facts were the things I kept bringing up early in the first season to defend the show against my wife, who thinks it is overall pretty stupid-though-tolerable television.
In the first place, I like the overall concept well enough–the idea of an ancient alien who travels space/time alone and helps people along the way isn’t a bad one. I never thought it was particularly amazing or innovative, per se (I mean, isn’t that the structure of about 75% of the adventure television programs ever made, just this time across space and time instead of some other more earthly setting? I mean, from The A-Team to Kung Fu to Paladin to, hell, even to The Shadow, that’s basically how they all work). It took me a while to work up the interest to watch the show, mostly because catching up with a television show is a lot of work and the concept wasn’t really calling out to me.
Then, when speaking with a friend of mine who (I presume) enjoys the show, he pointed out the thing that I did (and do) like quite a bit: the tone and the main character. I love how positive the Doctor is–so much sci-fi is all doom and gloom and it gets oppressive and miserable sometimes. I love that the Doctor actually enjoys travelling around and that, despite all the evil he’s seen, he hasn’t gotten jaded and miserable. Lonely perhaps, but not miserable. That was fun, watching the Doctor grin and laugh and joke his way through horror and mayhem. The sense of humor sprinkled across the episodes and the Doctor’s banter in general is quite good and amusing, and if I ever watch any more of the series, that constitutes the sole reason.
So, okay, enough with the positives.
What I Don’t Like
There is a good bit more about Doctor Who that I find anywhere from annoying to lazy to unpallatable, and this might take a little while. Settle in.
Charge #1: Poor Supporting Cast
Rose Tyler is a very boring character. I gather that she vanishes or dies at the end of this season (I’m not quite there yet), but whatever–she bores the hell out of me. I mean, seriously, what’s her deal? If you’re struggling for an answer there, it’s because she HAS NO DEAL. She’s a prop, as like as not. She has no desires (that I can detect), no obvious fears or baggage (well, her dad, I guess, but that’s pretty standard ‘girl with father issues’ crap and not very interesting), no compelling relationship with anyone besides her mother (who’s a much better charater, by the way, and I would have preferred to see the Doctor and Ginny galivanting across the universe in a heartbeat), no set of interesting skills or hobbies, and just about nothing else I can figure that would make her an interesting character in any way shape or form. This is only made even more frustrating by the fact that the Doctor is so damned enamoured with her. “I trust Rose Tyler” and “She’s stronger than you think” and “I believe in her” and all that crap. Why? She’s a damned blank slate, man. It’s like saying you believe in the wisdom contained in a sheet of blank paper.
In addition to this, of course, is the fact that just about every other character is a one-shot person whose actual characteristics are either glossed over or unimportant. There are exceptions, of course, in individual episodes (like that guy who founded the Doctor fan club only to get all his buddies absorbed by the ridiculous fat alien–very good character, that guy. Too bad the end of the episode made the whole thing absurd as opposed to touching), but generally the whole group is a wash. For my money, besides the Doctor, the only good characters have been Mickey and Ginny, and the show keeps shoving them aside instead of using them in interesting ways.
Charge #2: Frequent and Irresponsible Use of the Idiot Ball
First off, I appreciate very much that the Doctor isn’t walking around with an arsenal in his pocket and doesn’t go out of his way to pick fights or blow things up or kill things–true to character and a refreshing change from most TV sci-fi fare. The thing is, though, the show keeps the Doctor alive not because the Doctor is all that clever (he isn’t), but because the enemies are usually overly stupid or slow-witted or otherwise inept. If you don’t know what I mean by the ‘idiot ball’, go here–this show uses it ALL THE DAMNED TIME. Like, in just over half the episodes at least, probably more. If the Doctor is being chased, the enemy moves at a walk. If the Doctor is being threatened, their weapons don’t work or they miss or something. If the Doctor is captured, there is usually a fairly convenient method of escape that presents itself that a reasonably intelligent adversary would never have allowed. It’s RIDICULOUS.
Point in case–remember the first David Tennant episode? The one where the giant spaceship of nasty aliens shows up and gets a whole third or quarter of the Earth’s population under its control and has them held hostage? Well, generally I liked this episode (it was one of the good ones), but there were a number of things that I found ridiculous and pertaining to the idiot ball. First off, the TARDIS shows up aboard their ship and the Doctor strides out (after being revived by tea, of all things–more on that later, though) and starts talking. So, a few questions: (1) why don’t the aliens capture and incarcerate the unidentified alien who isn’t part of the diplomatic party? (2) why are all the people aboard the vessel and surrounded by hostile aliens still alive in the first place? (3) Once the Doctor calls their bluff on the Blood Control thing, why don’t they just kill him right then with their rayguns rather than have a duel? (4) Why did the aliens let the Doctor look at the Blood Control thingy in the first place, since they knew they were bluffing and wouldn’t want him to figure it out?
I mean, in all reasonable situations, the Doctor would be captured, pinned, killed, or otherwise neutralized as soon as he shows up. Don’t even get me started on the Daleks, who, for such an advanced race of killing machines, have probably the least efficient method of going about killing people ever. What is the rate of fire on those stupid death rays, anyway? Muskets fire more often, for crying out loud.
Then, of course, the Idiot Ball is fielded almost as often by the supporting cast as it is by the villains. So, I just watched that episode where the kid can draw people and then suck them into the drawings. If your kid could do that, and you knew your kid could do that, and the Doctor told you your kid could do that, and you were told not to let your kid do that, would you leave your kid alone? Even for a second? Then, even supposing you did make the mistake of leaving her alone once, would you do it a second time? What the hell, lady? It would have been one thing if that kid’s mother was meant to be portrayed as negligent, but she wasn’t, so far as I could tell. She was just spontaneously stupid becuase the idiot ball had lodged itself behind her left ear and wasn’t letting go.
Charge #3: The Doctor Isn’t Very Clever
Look, he isn’t. He’s just not all that smart. If he were, he wouldn’t need the idiot ball to hit the field quite as often as it does. For most of the episodes I’ve seen, the Doctor wins on a technicality. He doesn’t outsmart the opposition, he doesn’t overpower them, he doesn’t outmaneuver them, he just remembers something he learned once about X and then applies it and viola! “Oh, right, Blood Control doesn’t work like that!” or “He just needs a hug from his mom” or “obviously the telescope kills werewolves!” It’s ridiculous. I find myself throwing my hands up in the air more often than not and rolling my eyes.
There have been other shows that have done this, of course–Star Trek: The Next Generation is chief among them. What made TNG a better show, though (and it is a better show) is that, while the A plot designed to solve the ridiculous alien cloud or whatever was invariably solved by Data shooting some kind of subatomic particle at it and everything working itself out, the underlying character arcs at play in the B plot were actually compelling and interesting. This was done by having good characters that we liked, as opposed to the Doctor and Rose doing nothing for no reason all the time and, therefore, giving us nothing much to fall back on. We just sit there and watch, inevitably, as the Doctor whips out his sonic screwdriver and solves the problem by use of pseudo-science and xeno-archaeology. We have to accept his solution, of course, since we have no prior knowledge of what’s going on, anyway, and his explanation is as good as any, but it’s still fairly lame. The Doctor’s no genius, he’s just read more books than us. I’m unimpressed.
Charge #4: The Show Buys into the Doctor’s Mystique
I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a show that just assumed the audience’s belief in the coolness of the main character more than Doctor Who. Let me think for a second….hmmmm…well, maybe Knight Rider or the A-Team, but since they had characters that actively earned their cool more often, I’m not certain. In any event, the show just assumes that everybody watching thinks the Doctor is the coolest thing since James Bond, and it goes out of its way to prove it. They play up his history at just about every opportunity, play eerie music when outsiders are thinking about him, and all that would be fine if they didn’t insist on having him perform ridiculous stunts like recover the Olympic Torch. Jesus–it didn’t even make sense that he would be there, let alone picking it up and running with it.
At times the show does this well, but much of the time I find myself rolling my eyes and saying ‘whatever, man–you’re just a dude who bums around the universe with a blonde sidekick, you aren’t Nelson Mandella.’ Now that I’ve said that, of course, there’s probably an episode where the Doctor teaches Nelson Mandela how to read and write or some just paternalistic garbage. Anyway, moving on to my final point:
Charge #5: It Just isnt’ that Scary
Doctor Who doesn’t scare me. Maybe I’m jaded or heartless or something, but I just haven’t found any of the episodes to be really all that creepy. That one in WW2 with the gasmask kid asking for his mummy? Eh. How scary can a slow moving child really be, anyway? That, of course, really comes down to the heart of it: why should I be scared of creatures that aren’t even all that dangerous to a dude who flies around the universe with a screwdriver and a trenchcoat? I got a trenchcoat, I got a screwdriver, and I’m every bit as smart as that guy in his magic phone booth (yes, ‘police box’, I know–I’m trying to goad you), so why am I scared again?
Well, to make a long story short (too late), I’ve found Doctor Who to be underwhelming at best and downright stupid at worst. There have been perhaps 4 episodes I’d call ‘good’ so far, and none I’d call ‘great’. The closest they came was the first Tennant episode, where the Doctor actually did something clever (“Don’t you think she looks tired?”), and past that…eh. I could take it or leave it. If Doctor Who were on television at the same time as Star Trek Voyager, it would be a coin flip, I kid you not.