REVIEWS: Doctor Who: Classic Doctors, New Monsters Volume 1 (Big Finish)

avatar-jackarnalBig Finish Productions, home of the licensed DOCTOR WHO full-cast audio dramas since 1999, recently released a new box set pairing four incarnations of the Doctor from the classic era of the show with monsters predominantly associated with the new post-2005 series. Overall, this collection of stories is enjoyable, serving as an excellent entry in the Big Finish DOCTOR WHO canon.

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1.1 FALLEN ANGELS by Phil Mulryne

fallen-angelsThe first story in this collection features the Fifth incarnation of the Doctor (Peter Davison) in conflict with a trio of Weeping Angels. This story serves as a prequel to the TV episode “Blink,” both in terms of the plot and the way time is manipulated in the story; there are even a few lines of dialogue meant to remind the listener of that first appearance by the Angels.

In a box set with “Doctors” and “Monsters” in the title, we should expect a large focus on both; here, the Doctor obviously plays a large role, and so do the Weeping Angels. Considering the Angels are heavily reliant on the visual medium of TV – they become ‘quantum-locked’ when a character looks at them – I was concerned by how they would come across in audio. Fortunately, the sound cues and dialogue are effective in portraying the Angels.

The Doctor and his companions Gabby (Diane Morgan) and Joel (Sacha Dhawan) meet out of order, creating an interesting dynamic in terms of who has more information. The Doctor does remain in charge throughout, and although there are a few points in the story in which Gabby and Joel seem to be better informed than the Doctor, they aren’t in that position as often as I would have liked. Both are academics – Gabby is a physicist and Joel is a historian – in a gender-swapped nod to Ian and Barbara, two of the Doctor’s original companions in 1963. I enjoyed that reference, and I also appreciated the specificity of physics. Given the elements of time travel inherent in the story, I was excited to hear what was in store for a physicist interacting with the Doctor. Unfortunately, Gabby was shut down by the Doctor almost immediately when he told her that most of what she knows about physics is incorrect; I think an opportunity was missed for strong interplay between a physicist and the Doctor.

There was also some wonky psychology presented in the story. As a cognitive psychologist, I can be a little sensitive to issues of mispresented memory science, but here the information presented is suspect at best. It wasn’t as bad as the issue in the next story, but it left me shaking my head. There is a way to make memory loss and recovery work, but the reliance on folk science hinders the story. The ability to suspend disbelief is necessary in any DOCTOR WHO story – and truthfully in much of science fiction – but this pushed me past my threshold.

Minor quibbles aside, the story is excellent, and I look forward to more Big Finish stories featuring the Weeping Angels.

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1.2 JUDOON IN CHAINS by Simon Barnard and Paul Morris

judoon-in-chains-2The second story features the sixth incarnation of the Doctor (Colin Baker) in a familiar setting – a courtroom. This time the Doctor is defending Captain Kybo (Nicholas Briggs), a member of the Judoon race. Similar to THE TRIAL OF A TIME LORD season, we have a story that starts in the courtroom and then flashes back to previous events.

The mix of courtroom drama, sci-fi outer space, and Victorian-era circus is an interesting mix, but I’m not sure it worked all the time. There’s a lot going on here, with elements of other stories like AVATAR as well as real-life events like the case of Edward Snowden (or, more generally, whistleblowing). For the most part, the story combines these elements well, but there are a few minor issues. The story might have been well served with a few extra minutes of expansion.

As with “Fallen Angels,” there is an issue with some basic pseudoscience. In one scene, the Doctor refers to activating the right hemisphere of the brain of a character, allowing that person to be creative. That combines two unfortunate neuro-myths: that we only use some small percentage of our brains, and that people can be right-brained or left-brained. This flaw does not ruin the story, but it is enough to take me out of it temporarily.

However, this story is worth your time, especially due to Colin Baker. The Big Finish audio stories have served Colin’s Doctor well in the past, and this story certainly allows for another excellent performance.

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1.3 HARVEST OF THE SYCORAX by James Goss

harvest-of-the-sycoraxThe third story in this box set features the seventh iteration of the Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) and examines a future in which the physiology of humans is constantly monitored by personal digital devices. Essentially, humans carry iPads with a constantly running WebMD app that gives them advice on which medications to take. This set up creates an interesting connection to the Sycorax, who manipulate humans via blood control. The Sycorax seek the data collected by the devices, allowing the story to examine Big Data and Big Pharma in a not-so-subtle allegory. Because of the story’s humorous approach, that aspect of the story works; at no point does it come across as overly preachy or critical.

Writer James Goss also does an excellent job of making this feel like a Seventh Doctor story. It features a strong female protagonist named Zanzibar Hashtag (Nisha Nayar) and a deceptive Doctor who manipulates the situation both to bring out the best in Zanzibar and to deceive the Sycorax. The story feels like it was written specifically for this Doctor, not for any other.

Unfortunately, the Sycorax are the weak link in the story. Similar to their characterization in their first TV outing, “The Christmas Invasion,” the Sycorax come across as unintelligent and, ultimately, unthreatening; they’re a little too “dude-bro-y” for me. I would have appreciated an expansion of the characterization of the Sycorax. It is especially glaring when heard alongside two stories (JUDOON IN CHAINS and THE SONTARAN ORDEAL) that flesh out two similarly two-dimensional monsters.

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1.4 THE SONTARAN ORDEAL by Andrew Smith

the-sontaran-ordealThe fourth story in this set begins when a part of the Time War between the Time Lords and Daleks leaks out of the barriers containing it, with severe consequences for the planet Drakkis. Perhaps not surprisingly, this brings the Doctor (in his eighth incarnation as played by Paul McGann) and the Sontarans to the scene.

This story does an excellent job of re-establishing the Sontarans as a race. They are warriors, but science and politics still play a major role in their society. Some past DOCTOR WHO stories have trended away from showing the Sontarans as much of anything other than warriors, but this story shows them as a more three-dimensional race. Familiar voice actors who have previously portrayed Sontarans on TV are employed here, which gives them both an old and new feel; it also reinforces the differences between clone batches. The Sontarans are made more complex, with a great deal of autonomy demonstrated by the main Sontaran, Jask (Dan Starkey), and a fair amount of crossing and double-crossing between other Sontaran characters.

About twenty minutes into the story, there is an excellent interaction between Commander Jask and Sarana Teel that explains how the Time War has affected Drakkis. The scripting and acting during this sequence is fantastic, creating and clarifying the motivation for multiple characters. It also likely serves as an enticing preview for what we can expect from the upcoming Big Finish stories that will be set during the Time War.

One minor quibble with the story rests on an old trope, drowning in quicksand. The Doctor has to rescue Sarana from quicksand and mentions that thrashing around will only make her sink faster. Like the neuro-myths in earlier stories, I would like to see this trope disappear. With that said, this was the best of the four stories in this box set, and probably the best Sontaran story I have seen/heard.

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In addition to the four stories detailed above, the box set includes an extended audio documentary with interviews and production information. Many of the larger releases from Big Finish include these extras, and they are consistently well produced. This one is no exception, so if you’re interested in this type of value-added material, you’ll be very satisfied with this one.

HELP US BY ORDERING THE BOX SET VIA THIS LINK!

KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS: OF SAMURAIS AND SKELETONS

avatar-scottwoodardKUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS is a sweeping, cinematic adventure that skillfully blends a few bits of biographical inspiration from creator Shannon Tindle (FOSTER’S HOME FOR IMAGINARY FRIENDS, THE CROODS) with a few lesser-known tales from Japanese mythology, gifting it to audiences through the almost mystical art of stop-motion animation.

An absolute feast for the eyes, KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS presents us with sweeping colorful vistas, beautifully designed characters, and one of the largest, if not the largest, stop-motion animated creatures ever devised – a colossal and truly terrifying 16-foot tall skeleton! It also clearly and unapologetically draws upon the work of legendary animator and director Ray Harryhausen. For those unaware, Harryhausen was the artist who populated such films as THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD, JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS, and CLASH OF THE TITANS with a variety of fantastic beasts never before seen on the silver screen…and never better-presented since, at least in this author’s opinion.

Not only does KUBO lovingly and respectfully present us with homages to that late animator’s work, it also draws inspiration from the structure of some of those classic sword-and-sorcery adventures, framing a series of high-energy set pieces with a lofty quest that also finds plenty of time to remind us that behind the sword fights, the eerie opponents, and the rising threat, it is the bond between our leads that keeps us going and desperately hoping for a triumphant conclusion. As others have already pointed out elsewhere, KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS also tugs at the heart strings, so prepare to shed a tear or two during the course of the film.

Returning to the film’s admirable structure, like those classic fantasy films of old, KUBO takes its time with character development, giving us enough back-story to understand motivations yet deliberately leaving a few gaps here and there that we know from the outset will be filled in as the story goes on. Before Kubo even sets off on his quest, the movie pauses to inform us that this is no normal, one-eyed kid. Kubo is a traditional bard in the DUNGEONS & DRAGONS mold, manipulating reality through a combination of tale-telling and music. He is also not just another whiny, cookie-cutter, entitled kid seen in so many other contemporary films. Kubo is brave, bright, and compassionate – three truly admirable traits for a hero.

Once the journey begins, the Harryhausen influence rears its head as the quest takes us from one encounter to another. Kubo and his anthropomorphic allies – a well-meaning samurai bug (Matthew McConaughey) and a wise, but stubborn monkey (Charlize Theron) – face sorcerous sisters, sea monsters, ghosts, and the aforementioned skeletal guardian. Each set piece is exquisitely presented and edge-of-your-seat exciting in much the same way as the battle with the giant Talos on the Isle of Bronze or the skeletal hordes spawned from Hydra’s teeth, both from JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS.

Kubo-and-the-Two-Strings-New-Poster-movie-2016-1While I will stop short of offering an over-all review of the film due to the fact that my wife, TaMara Carlson-Woodard, was on the puppet fabrication crew for two years (mainly on the crew responsible for Monkey), I will say that despite my personal connection to the movie – which provided me with the chance to enjoy a crew screening a few weeks ago – I was blown away by the spectacle of KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS, and I hope that you will be as well!

KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS is now playing in theaters. To learn more about the fantastic films of Ray Harryhausen, check out CINEMA AND SORCERY: THE COMPREHENSIVE GUIDE TO FANTASY FILM written by Arnold T. Blumberg and yours truly! Also check out the movie’s companion volume below:

GAMING: CINEMA AND SORCERY at GenCon 2016

avatar-scottwoodardmeavatarjessOne last look back at the greatness that was GenCon 2016! Over the course of the weekend, a number of folks tweeted themselves perusing copies of Scott and Arnold’s new book, CINEMA AND SORCERY: THE COMPREHENSIVE GUIDE TO FANTASY FILM, and herewith we present a montage of all those stalwart adventurers as they pored over the pages of this one-of-a-kind tome! Following that – if ye be brave enough – are all the original tweets embedded below!

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GAMING: G2V at GenCon 2016 – Post-Convention Round-Up [TONS OF PHOTOS]

avatar-scottwoodardmeavatarjessWell, GenCon 2016 is in the history books and the G2V Guys are both home in their respective cities on opposite sides of the country, but we’re bringing you this last special audio round-up of their final day at the show as well as their thoughts on the convention as a whole. Below you’ll also find some last looks at the many things they saw on the convention floor and some pics from their final CINEMA AND SORCERY: THE COMPREHENSIVE GUIDE TO FANTASY FILM book signing at the Green Ronin booth! And stay tuned, because posting soon will be the Doctor of the Dead’s travelogue to Evans City Cemetery and the Living Dead Museum!

This guy was greeting visitors outside the hall. Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
This guy was greeting visitors outside the hall.
Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
This Sentinel looks so tired. Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
This Sentinel looks so tired.
Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
Found him! Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
Found him!
Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
This is a game we can't refuse! Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
This is a game we can’t refuse!
Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
The Survive the Horde table display. Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
The Survive the Horde table display.
Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
It did seem a bit harder to find many zombie and apocalypse-themed games this year, but they were there if you looked hard enough. Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
It did seem a bit harder to find many zombie and apocalypse-themed games this year, but they were there if you looked hard enough.
Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
Another zombie card game, sitting alongside a game that looks equally intriguing. Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
Another zombie card game, sitting alongside a game that looks equally intriguing.
Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
A look at the huge Twilight Creations ZOMBIES!!! game case full o' fun!  Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
A look at the huge Twilight Creations ZOMBIES!!! game case full o’ fun!
Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
Mmm, bite-sized brains (seriously though, don't eat those). Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
Mmm, bite-sized brains (seriously though, don’t eat those).
Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
The zombie superhero RPG, with writing by friend of the G2V Guys, Tony Kenealy! Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
The zombie superhero RPG, with writing by friend of the G2V Guys, Tony Kenealy!
Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
Everything is awesome!  Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
Everything is awesome!
Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
The picture really doesn't do this stunning ocean-like display table justice. Amazing stuff. Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
The picture really doesn’t do this stunning ocean-like display table justice. Amazing stuff.
Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
There were so many 50th anniversary STAR TREK games, here's just a glimpse of one of them! Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
There were so many 50th anniversary STAR TREK games, here’s just a glimpse of one of them!
Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
Look at all those TNG-era D'deridex class Romulan warbirds! Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
Look at all those TNG-era D’deridex class Romulan warbirds!
Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
Long-time G2V and DOCTOR OF THE DEAD supporter Bryan Spellman showed up to get a signed CINEMA AND SORCERY! Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
Long-time G2V and DOCTOR OF THE DEAD supporter Bryan Spellman showed up to get a signed CINEMA AND SORCERY!
Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
Nick Seidler of the RED WHITE AND WHO team joins the guys! Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
Nick Seidler of the RED WHITE AND WHO team joins the guys!
Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
Green Ronin's Donna Prior came over for a quick pic with the guys! Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
Green Ronin’s Donna Prior came over for a quick pic with the guys!
Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
The scavenger hunt flyer from Hyper RPG that featured CINEMA AND SORCERY! Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
The scavenger hunt flyer from Hyper RPG that featured CINEMA AND SORCERY!
Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
A close-up of that flyer. A bear??? Sounds dangerous! Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
A close-up of that flyer. A bear??? Sounds dangerous!
Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
Eric and Brandon of Geekline415 stopped by to pick up some books!  Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
Eric and Brandon of Geekline415 stopped by to pick up some books!
Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
We have a winner! Angela picked up the sword ice pops in our signing giveaway.  Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky
We have a winner! Angela picked up the sword ice pops in our signing giveaway.
Photo by Natalie B. Litofsky

GAMING: A Look “INSIDE”

avatar-brandonReleased back in 2010, LIMBO – the first title from Playdead, a tiny Danish game company made up of eight extremely talented developers) – was an enormous success! However, LIMBO was not just a big deal for Playdead; it was also hugely important for indie games in general, as it helped usher in a flood of independent game development.

Yet even with the pressures of LIMBO‘s success, Playdead remained mostly silent, focusing their energy internally on a follow-up that would soon show that LIMBO was no fluke. The recent critical success of INSIDE has shown that Playdead is one of the most capable independent developers in the industry.

INSIDE is a natural evolution of both the aesthetics and game mechanics originally introduced in LIMBO. The macabre environments and systems carry over from the previous title, but with INSIDE, everything speaks with intent and realized vision. Each pixel is perfectly placed, helping to cohesively present a world filled with striking amounts of context.

This context is delivered wordlessly as you progress through the mysteries of this grim world. Once again, the game sees you controlling a meek child as he traverses a garish landscape, but the presentation of this control far surpasses that of Playdead’s previous title. The child is so well animated that every motion has weight; this grabs you and pulls you into the environment in a way that LIMBO was simply unable to do. The world here feels very real and lived in, and every moment supports this feeling of handcrafted perfection just as every scene reinforces the game’s overall themes.

INSIDE also improves upon LIMBO‘s mechanics by almost entirely removing the precursor’s “trial-and-error” style of gameplay. No longer will you be forced to die repeatedly as you gradually learn how to progress through the obstacle course of dangers that await you, although those dangers remain ever-present. That mechanic is replaced with a far more interesting design choice; interaction with objects in the environment is entirely seamless. You may well walk right past items of importance, assuming they cannot be manipulated, simply because no game has ever implemented puzzles using this method before. The execution of these seamless puzzles should be lauded, and will undoubtedly be aped by many future games.

INSIDE‘s storyline is just as impressive as LIMBO‘s, and equally sparse. You are given little in the way of information and much needs to be inferred. If this form of storytelling is not up your alley, INSIDE may not be for you. For others, there is real meat to these storied bones once you dig in. Prepare to be presented with some deep existential themes which may leave you thinking well beyond the end credits.

While INSIDE may not be for everyone, the game is a perfectly-crafted experience. It is clear why this brief two- to three-hour experience took Playdead a full six years to design. INSIDE should not be missed.

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INSIDE is available now on Windows 7/8/10 and Xbox One.