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Saturday, 13 September 2014

Doctor Who - Robot of Sherwood


Doctor Who is a show capable of various different styles, from light and campy to dramatic to dark and foreboding. Yet even at its darkest, it always has a sense of humour. It might be the Doctor cracking macabre jokes in last week's “Into the Dalek” (“Top layer, if you want to say a few words”), or the zany antics of this week's “Robot of Sherwood”. It's somewhat fitting that, after a couple of rather dark episodes, the series should turn now to a light-hearted romp with Robin Hood and his Merry Men. It helps to show that, while Peter Capaldi's Doctor may be a darker, more serious Doctor, this is still Doctor Who and it can still do anything it wants.

Alas, even Doctor Who can take it too far sometimes, and “Robot of Sherwood” is an example. I would never want Doctor Who to lose its humour and it absolutely is possible to have a silly, fun, and ludicrous story that works. Doctor Who has certainly done it many times. “Robot of Sherwood”, however, tries too hard to be funny, and it does so at the expense of character. There are some genuinely funny moments in the episode, and Peter Capaldi and Tom Riley (who plays Robin Hood) have some brilliant moments together. Their rivalry is very entertaining to watch. Yet the episode frequently devolves into slapstick and nonsense, resulting in a story that, while entertaining, is ultimately unsatisfying. It's not a terrible episode and it has its moments, but it could have—and should have—been so much more.

SPOILERS FOLLOW

Monday, 1 September 2014

August Round-Up: Doctor Who Returns Along With Doctor Who Extra!


I got behind on a bunch of projects in August (several of them for this blog), but it was still a pretty good month. A new school year is beginning now, and I'm actually back in classes myself this year, so it's going to be hectic and busy, but I'm at my best when it's hectic and busy. I'm quite looking forward to it!

Of course, August was all about the return of Doctor Who, with Peter Capaldi making his first outing as the Doctor! There was a new trailer early in the month, and we also learned that the new title sequence would be based on a fan-made sequence posted to YouTube last year. But August 23rd was the main event, as the first episode of the new season aired, and the second has aired now as well. I was quite impressed by “Deep Breath” and I was absolutely ecstatic about “Into the Dalek”. I'm always excited about new Doctor Who, but I'm feeling a much bigger thrill this year. Peter Capaldi is amazing in the role.

Also premièring in August along with Doctor Who was Doctor Who Extra. This behind-the-scenes programme is similar to Doctor Who Confidential, a programme that ran for several years from 2005 until the end of Series 6 in 2011, when it was cancelled. Doctor Who Extra, however, is much shorter than Confidential, which had 30-minute episodes in its early seasons and 45-minute episodes later on. Extra runs about 10 minutes per episode. The first episode of Extra has not been made available for viewing outside the United Kingdom, so I haven't seen it. I'm not sure why it isn't available as the second episode is, and all further episodes will also be available as they are released each week. You can watch the second episode in the player below:


To be honest, I was never much of a fan of Confidential, especially towards the end when they were clearly running out of ideas to fill up their full running time. Coming up with 45 minutes of extra material for every single episode of Doctor Who was really overreaching. Extra's shorter running time will likely be to its advantage in this respect. The “Into the Dalek” episode is entertaining and reveals some interesting behind-the-scenes information. Alas, even though it airs after Doctor Who, each episode of Extra is still essentially an advertisement for its associated Doctor Who episode, meaning that Extra is likely to suffer from a need to praise uncritically. I much prefer behind-the-scenes documentaries made well after their subject programmes, like the documentaries on classic Doctor Who DVDs and the DVDs of other older shows. Although memories may not be as fresh, the people involved are generally able to be more honest and reflective in recounting the making of the programme. They can say if they don't like a particular episode as much as other episodes. Likewise, when they declare a particular episode as their favourite, you can be confident it really is. With documentaries made at the same time as their subject programmes, those programmes always have to be portrayed as the greatest thing ever. At any rate, I'm curious to see how Doctor Who Extra turns out as the season progresses.

Moving on from Doctor Who, I didn't get round to a lot of Pathfinder things this month, but I did get in reviews of the final two parts of the Mummy's Mask Adventure Path: The Slave Trenches of Hakotep and Pyramid of the Sky Pharaoh. There are several more reviews pending, including the Mummy's Mask Player's Guide, People of the Stars, and the Advanced Class Guide. Expect those in the next couple of weeks.

Have a great September, everyone!

Sunday, 31 August 2014

Doctor Who - Into the Dalek


After fifty years of stories, it's difficult to do something new with the Daleks. They don't get reinvented the way the Doctor himself does, meaning they can start to seem stale and old. “Into the Dalek”, Peter Capaldi's second story as the Doctor, is a clear attempt to do something new with them. Intriguingly, its concept is really not all that new. It borrows heavily from other sources, including previous Doctor Who (Christopher Eccleston's “Dalek”, Tom Baker's “The Invisible Enemy”, Patrick Troughton's “The Evil of the Daleks” and so on) and completely different programmes like Fantastic Voyage and the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “I, Borg”. But originality of concept is not really the important thing. In truth, there's no such thing as an original concept any more. What does matter, though, is what one does with the concepts, and “Into the Dalek” manages to take its various sources and swirl them together into a compelling and exciting episode of television that feels new. It takes the tired old concept of the Daleks and successfully makes them terrifying once more, while simultaneously examining the very question of what makes a person or Dalek good or evil. It doesn't offer easy answers either.

SPOILERS FOLLOW

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Doctor Who - Deep Breath


The début of a new Doctor is always a momentous occasion. It's one of the key things that makes Doctor Who Doctor Who. But more than just being a defining aspect of the show as a whole, it is also an aspect which defines a new direction for the programme—a new era within the larger whole. The lead character has undergone a major change, but more than that, the show itself generally undergoes a significant change as well—in style and tone.

Expectations are often high at these times, but these expectations also bring with them some uncertainty, worry, and maybe even a bit of dread that it could all go terribly wrong. After all, just because it has an important task doesn't mean that the show always gets it right. Some Doctors' débuts have been brilliant, others middling, and one or two just downright bad. Peter Capaldi's début story, “Deep Breath”, is one that will likely stand the test of time. While the story itself falls more in the middling range as Doctor Who stories go, there is so much about it that reaches for—and even achieves—the brilliant end of the spectrum. Capaldi himself is amazing to behold, taking hold of the part like he was born for it. Indeed, performances all round are of stellar quality here, Jenna Coleman being a standout in particular. Alas, there are more than a few things that fall rather flat, too, but overall, I think the good edges out the bad, leaving this a story that will be well-remembered in time to come.

SPOILERS FOLLOW

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Mummy's Mask - Pyramid of the Sky Pharaoh


Every adventure path has a theme linking its individual parts. This theme helps set the feel for the adventure path, influences its overall goal, and plays a role in the kinds of encounters the player characters have along the way. In Wrath of the Righteous, the theme is fighting demons and closing the Worldwound. Shattered Star's theme involves dungeon crawling in order to find the pieces of an important artifact, and Jade Regent's involves travelling across the world. Mummy's Mask's theme is that of Ancient Egypt (Osirian), tombs, and undead. Yet despite the common theme linking an adventure path, there is always a certain amount of variety. The adventures of Mummy's Mask have involved exploring ancient tombs and buildings, protecting a city from an undead incursion, researching in ancient libraries, and mingling with nobility. While an adventure path's theme provides unity, the variety of adventures keeps things fresh and avoids player boredom from doing the same thing over and over again. It is for this reason that I'm rather surprised to see two such similar adventures show up back-to-back as the final two instalments of Mummy's Mask.

In many ways, Pyramid of the Sky Pharaoh by Mike Shel feels like the same adventure as The Slave Trenches of Hakotep. Sure, the location is changed and the specific monsters and villains to fight are different, but the overall approaches to both adventures are identical. Both involve dungeon crawls with PCs overcoming difficult traps and dangerous monsters in order to solve a specific puzzle and reach their goal. To make matters worse, Pyramid doesn't really handle itself any better than Slave Trenches, and anyone who has read my review of that adventure (linked above) knows that I was not very impressed by it. This makes the two concluding adventures of the adventure path into one extended slog through encounter after encounter with monsters and villains that serve no other purpose than to sit in one spot until the PCs arrive to kill them—adventures in which the villains take no active roles at all other than to wait for their demise. On the plus side, I absolutely love one of the support articles, and the fiction that has been running through the entire adventure path (reviewed at the end of this review) is the best I've read in Pathfinder Adventure Path so far.

SPOILERS FOLLOW

Thursday, 14 August 2014

New Doctor Who Title Sequence is Fan-Made

If you search around on YouTube, you can find tons of fan-made Doctor Who title sequences, some good, some not-so-good. A few stand out. One in particular, made by Billy Hanshaw and posted to YouTube last year, caught the eye of Steven Moffat. According to Space.ca, Moffat described the sequence as "absolutely stunning". Moffat proceeded to get in touch with Hanshaw and arranged for the sequence to be used in the actual series. The version that will air starting on August 23 is not identical to the YouTube version, but is apparently mostly the same.

It's actually a really good title sequence. Very original, and definitely far better than the title sequence from the second half of Series 7. Have a look!

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

New Doctor Who Trailer

This trailer actually showed up online yesterday with virtually no fanfare. There still hasn't been much, which is kind of weird and surprising. Are people just getting bored of trailers? Afraid of spoilers, perhaps? Oh well, here it is:

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Mummy's Mask - The Slave Trenches of Hakotep


I opened my review of the fourth segment of Mummy's Mask, Secrets of the Sphinx with a comment about how I'm not a big fan of dungeon crawls. I did that in order to set up a contrast with the fact that I actually really like Secrets of the Sphinx—enough to declare it a “dungeon crawl done well.” Conversely, I'm opening this review with a reminder of it because the next segment, The Slave Trenches of Hakotep by Michael Kortes, is a pretty good example of why I'm not a fan of dungeon crawls.

While there are aspects of the adventure that I like (including one great NPC), overall The Slave Trenches of Hakotep is a long slog through a succession of dungeons, each filled with traps and monsters, and many of them forming pieces in an overall puzzle for the PCs to put together. Apart from that one NPC, there's very little opportunity for roleplaying interactions, and very little to keep the adventure spiced up and moving along. It will take many sessions to play through, and most of those session will start to feel like the same thing over and over again—and that's not good.

SPOILERS FOLLOW

July Round-Up, Mummy's Mask Poster Map Folio, and Doctor Who Teaser


Sometimes time goes by way too quickly. At one moment, it's July, and the next, it's suddenly August and you wonder where all the time went and why you haven't completed everything you planned to complete. But at least August means we're edging ever closer to the première of the new season of Doctor Who! Peter Capaldi gets his first outing as the Doctor and I can't wait! I've been critical of the scripts in recent years, but even if they don't improve, I'm confident Capaldi will be a great Doctor.

Of course, as we get closer to August 23rd (the première date), the danger of spoilers becomes more and more a reality. The Doctor Who World Tour starts in just a couple of days and will bring with it special advance screenings of the first episode in various locations around the world. This will mean lots of people will have seen the episode before the 23rd—but then again, some people have seen it already, what with the episodes leaking and all. I talked a bit about this and spoilers just last week. In other Doctor Who news, a new teaser trailer that I haven't mentioned yet came out last week. You can watch it in the player below. There was also a cut-down version of the full-length trailer, but really, if you've seen the full-length one, you don't need to see the cut-down.


In the world of roleplaying games, the big thing in July was the release of the new edition of Dungeons and Dragons. I took a look at the Basic Rules here. I also took a look at a few of the latest Pathfinder products: Numeria, Land of Fallen Stars, Risen from the Sands, Secrets of the Sphinx, and People of the River. To round up July (and actually catch up with August), here's a quick mini-review.

Mummy's Mask Poster Map Folio

The Mummy's Mask Poster Map Folio comes with three full-colour poster maps suitable for use with the Mummy's Mask Adventure Path. However, like other adventure path map folios from the past few years, all the maps are easily usable in any campaign set in Osirion. There are maps of the cities of Wati and Tephu, and one of the country of Osirion. The map of Osirion is designed as a player map in the style of something characters might actually acquire in the game world. However, the two city maps are also safe as player maps as well.

All three maps are beautiful, but accolades really must go to the map of Osirion. I really love these player-oriented, in-world maps. They truly are wonderful to behold, and this one is no different. However, there is a difference with this one and some of the others that have appeared before: This one has no labels, not even of cities. The odd part is, this is exactly the same map from the centre of People of the Sands, except larger and that map had not only the names of cities, but also rivers and mountains, as well as roads and common travel routes complete with the distances from one location to the other. This map completely lacks all labels, except for the name “Osirion” in the top right corner. This severely limits its usefulness during game play. While cities are marked (and are wonderfully illustrated to look like the actual cities rather than just having one common symbol for every city), players will still have to go to other sources to find out which city is which. This is rather surprising, considering that similar maps in other map folios (such as the maps of Varisia in the Shattered Star Poster Map Folio or Irrisen in the Reign of Winter Poster Map Folio) have had labels on them. I'm not sure what the motivation for removing the labels on this map might have been (or indeed if this is due to an error or oversight), but it does mar what is otherwise a gorgeous product. I hope the lack of labels will not be a trend in future map folios.

Thursday, 31 July 2014

People of the River


The Sellen River cuts across eastern Avistan, all the way from the Lake of Mists and Vales in the north to Star Bay in the Inner Sea 1200 miles to the south. It passes through (or forms the borders of) numerous lands along its way. Amongst them are Numeria and the River Kingdoms, which are the main topic of People of the River, the latest release in the Pathfinder Player Companion line. It provides new options for players making characters from these lands, and also provides some rules and information regarding rivers in general.

The River Kingdoms are actually a grouping of numerous small kingdoms. Combined with Numeria, they make for a large amount of material for this one small book to cover. Not surprisingly, it can't cover them all and there are several River Kingdoms that get no more than a sentence or two of mention. As a Player Companion book, it also devotes a large amount of space to game options, like new traits and archetypes, further limiting just how much it can cover about these locations. In my review of the recent Numeria, Land of Fallen Stars, I stated that that book does a great job at describing what it is like to adventure in Numeria, but gives little information about what it's like to live there. Somewhat unfortunately, this book doesn't really fill in that gap. Players without much pre-existing knowledge of the lands covered in People of the River will come away from the book with only a smattering more knowledge than they started with. However, they will come away with several new options to consider for their characters, and for many players, that may well be more than enough.