Saturday, February 22, 2014

Are Doctor Who and New Who the same show?

The only way I contemplate the idea
of an 'old' and 'new' Doctor Who.
It's a valid question, I think. Are they? Ever since Paul McGann's "The Night of the Doctor" I've seen more talk than ever online that this had established the link to bring everything together. The general arguments I seem to see are these: firstly, that yes, Doctor Who is all one big show that ran from 1963 to 1989, briefly resurfaced in 1996 and then restarted again properly in 2005. The other is that, on the contrary, Doctor Who has almost never been the same show, the differences in cast, crew, style and so on all preventing the series from ever having been one continuous production. From a compromise standpoint, I suppose that's fine, if you're happy to compromise.
But bugger that, say I. I want to propose this: Doctor Who and New Who are different shows. You can argue that New Who is a revival or continuation of the original programme if you like, but they're not the same show. Sure, both have the TARDIS - the only thing, arguably, entirely continuous throughout the programme's entire run past and present, but that doesn't mean they're the same. This isn't necessarily what I believe (it is), but I want to see what arguments could be made for proposing how they're different. Let's have a look.

Filming Style
Doctor Who: Filmed mostly on a multi-camera setup at BBC Television Centre in London, England.
New Who: Filmed mostly on a one-camera setup at Roath Lock (previously Upper Boat) in Cardiff, Wales.
Does it matter: Yes, significantly. The camera setup element is a fairly important part, because it is due to the single camera style that New Who has the more "cinematic" feel, which for better or worse is becoming the norm in TV shows. One need look no further than the trivia section on IMDb to see a peculiar bias in the public perception towards the single-camera approach:
One of the main differences in style from the original series, Doctor Who (1963), is that this series is recorded entirely on single camera, whereas studio scenes in the old series were usually recorded on multi-camera. This enables episodes of this series to be edited far better than the old series and allows directors to inject far more energy, pace and action into it.
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0436992/trivia
Trout sees his convention-
attending future.
So that's another thing which the different camera setup contributes to: New Who supposedly has "far more energy, pace and action" than Doctor Who. I find that to be quite the generalisation, personally, and seems to imply that New Who is 'better' by virtue of having "far more energy, pace and action." That's not the issue, however. The fact of the matter is, one of the reasons New Who feels so radically different to Doctor Who is because of the way it is filmed, which makes the mere act of watching any episode of New Who an entirely different experience to watching Doctor Who. One is television, the other closer to being a Hollywood action film. The camera setup also means that watching any era of the original Doctor Who feels more familiar, by which I mean you could watch "An Unearthly Child" and then watch "Survival" and they would feel more similar than watching "Survival" and then watching "Rose" (or even the TV Movie) even though there are actually fewer years between the latter two. What the above IMDb quote also obscures, of course, is that multi-camera filming lends a television programme a more theatrical style evocative of drama on a stage.

"It's fun to stay at the-"
Script Drive
Doctor Who: Primarily plot- and idea-driven.
New Who: Primarily character-driven.
Does it matter: Yes, and this is one of the other major differences. Doctor Who and New Who look different, but they also feel different. Doctor Who is mostly focused on the plot: the characters arrive and the plot occurs. Usually, as became the formula in the late Hartnell era, the Doctor arrives in a place where something is going wrong and he and his companions end up working to solve the problem. A textbook example of this is something like "Terror of the Zygons": the Doctor gets summoned by the Brigadier to help him investigate a mystery, ending up with them having to save Britain (and by extension, the world) from identity-stealing aliens. Another arbitrary example could be something like the much-maligned "Timelash" where the Doctor is accidentally snared by the titular device and ends up helping to defeat a corrupt regime.
"I specifically quit so that I could
immediately start doing Doctor Who tours!"
New Who, by contrast, is far more concerned with the "emotional journey" of the characters. "Father's Day", for example, is not especially worried about time paradoxes. It's much more interested in Rose becoming reconciled to the death of her father. "Amy's Choice" is all about Amy discovering how much Rory means to her. The plots facilitate the character development, not the other way around. Whole story arcs revolve around this, like the Tenth Doctor being forced to let go of his companions or the Eleventh Doctor coming to terms with his own dark past. New Who is a much more "emotional" show than Doctor Who, with characters often spending entire episodes affected by past events. In Doctor Who, by contrast, it's subtle and underplayed. Compare, say, the Tenth Doctor's teary-eyed farewell to Rose on the beach while emotional music plays in the background compared to the Third Doctor's quick, silent departure after Jo gets engaged at the end of "The Green Death." The classic example is the first episode of "Time Flight" immediately after the shocking death of Adric: everyone seems to get over it pretty quickly. Then again, the final moments of "Earthshock" did deal with this in their own striking way. Doctor Who has much more of a "the show must go on" attitude while in New Who we get things like the Tenth Doctor mentioning Rose in many episodes after her departure. New Who is much more sentimental than Doctor Who, and less interested in plot. "The War Games", for instance, is a ten-episode epic featuring the Doctor trying to get to the bottom of an inexplicable historical military mash-up. Consider this in relation to something like Rassilon waving his gauntlet in "The End of Time Part Two" to effortlessly turn humanity back from being duplicates of the Master with no physical consequences, or the Eleventh Doctor defeating his innumerable enemies in "The Time of the Doctor" in a montage sequence which goes into very little detail.
The universe would be much safer for
the Doctor without rubber costumes.
Doctor Who is also much more concerned with science-fiction's traditional purview of exploring the effect of new ideas on society. "Genesis of the Daleks" explores whether genocide can ever be justified. "The Aztecs" reflects on what right we have in modern Western society with the benefit of hindsight to judge the actions of other cultures. "The Curse of Peladon" deals with a number of issues regarding international cooperation and the conflict between knowledge and belief. "Vengeance on Varos" even aims a blow at the perceived hedonism and ignorance of Eighties society. New Who does this much more rarely, with a story like "Human Nature" and "The Family of Blood" containing elements of reflection upon Edwardian values, but primarily being concerned with exploring a drastic change in the Doctor's identity. Doctor Who cares about "How will he do it?" while New Who cares more about "How will the characters feel at the end?" In their best moments either show can manage both, but usually each has its particular priority which receives the most emphasis. My preference obviously is for plot over sentimentality - I resent a text trying excessively to manipulate my emotions - but my point is that this is another major difference which distinguishes the two, yet is consistent in each. Doctor Who is plot-driven, New Who is character-driven: another way in which they are different shows.

Episode Format
Doctor Who: Serialised.
New Who: Individual episodes, sometimes with two or three-parters, as well as Christmas specials.
Don't get between Tom and his refreshment.
Does it matter: Yes, for the reason that it drastically affects the pacing. A Doctor Who serial usually has, on average, somewhere between four and eight episodes to establish itself, set up a main plot and sub plots, introduce a variety of characters and play these scenarios out. Doctor Who is, as a general rule, paced more slowly than New Who. The closest approximation during the show's original run is Colin Baker's first season, composed of serials of two or three forty-five minute parts, but there were no standalone episodes. Apart from "The Rescue," "Mission to the Unknown" and "The Sontaran Experiment", such short instalments were virtually unknown until the Peter Davison era, in which the then-traditional Tom Baker six parter was replaced with an additional four-parter and a two-parter. The point is that Doctor Who serials take their time. Some are paced more successfully than others. "The Keys of Marinus", for example, is a six-part serial which repeatedly changes location due to a general lack of narrative direction. Compare that, however, to something like "Inferno" which uses two parallel locations, Earth in two different universes, to build a more complex plot. To eschew  fan favourites, we might examine something like "Trial of a Time Lord", which was obviously unprecedented beyond something like "The Daleks' Master Plan" but evinces Doctor Who's continued interest in being more, and not less, involved in terms of how its formatting related to its storytelling. Despite, again, hardly being a commonly praised serial, "The Ribos Operation" is another example of how Doctor Who had the capacity over its running time to tell a complex story with multiple plot threads.
"Livers! Bladders! Gonads!"
New Who, on the other hand, sticks largely to stand alone episodes. Most of these are forty-five minutes in length, which as a general rule is still about five minutes shorter than two Doctor Who serial episodes back to back. This means that an episode has less time than half an average serial to set up a plot, develop it and resolve it. Take, for example, something like "The Power of Three", where the conclusion is very brief because the episode's main premise is focusing on a montage of the characters' lives and therefore time is pressed. Doctor Who serials have more room to breathe. Having a more tight focus means that New Who episodes have to focus on character development, big actions, set pieces and emphasised emotions because of a lack of time for plotting. Even in an example of something like the Tennant era's only real three-parter, "Utopia", "The Sound of Drums" and "Last of the Time Lords", each episode is radically different to the previous one. The same is true of some two-parters like "The Impossible Astronaut" and "Day of the Moon". In an episodic format, New Who has to focus on delivering forty-five minutes of intense entertainment with negotiable ties to following episodes. This found its logical extension in Series 7's "blockbuster" experiment. In the same way, two-parters feel more like sequels than long, divided stories. Even at the end of its run, Doctor Who was still doing serialised stories as opposed to the episodic format which has entirely been the purview of the New Series. Regardless of how these are evocative of their respective contexts, and the fact that the serialised format had become very unconventional by the end of Doctor Who's lifespan in the Eighties, this is another way in which the two shows are very different.

Continuity
Doctor Who: Variable.
New Who: Heavy.
I couldn't be bothered finding an
image from the TV Movie.
Does it matter: Yes, in terms of how focused the story is on its own backstory and also in terms of its own sense of interconnectedness. In Doctor Who, despite everything we get overall a strong sense of progression from Doctor to Doctor. The only times we don't see a direct change are when the Second regenerates into the Third and when the Sixth regenerates into the Seventh. In the former case, we see Patrick Troughton disappear at the end of "The War Games" and then at the beginning of "Spearhead from Space" we see Jon Pertwee collapse out of the TARDIS still wearing the Second Doctor's costume, but we never actually see the transformation take place. At the beginning of "Time and the Rani", after Colin Baker's rather justifiable refusal to return to film a regeneration after being scapegoated for the show's issues at the time and fired, Sylvester McCoy was put in his costume and a curly blonde wig and had his face electronically washed out. In the former case, we gain continuity through the presence of the Brigadier, who had previously appeared in Second Doctor serials "The Web of Fear" and "The Invasion". In the latter case we have the ongoing presence of Bonnie Langford's Mel, whether you like her or not (personally I don't have an issue with her) and their efforts to disguise Colin Baker's absence.
A man who could have a big cry for his country.
Compare that with New Who. At the end of the TV Movie Paul McGann, who we've seen Sylvester McCoy regenerate into, jumps into the TARDIS and then in "Rose" Christopher Eccleston shows up. Of course the producers of the New Series didn't want McGann, and he allegedly wouldn't have wanted to come back anyway, but the point is that it's another element which drives a wedge between the two shows. It may not have worked to bring back McGann, either full time or for a regeneration, but that's exactly what separates Doctor Who from its modern replacement. New Who is, and was, engineered to take a "softly softly" approach towards its audience, drawing in new audiences as a fast, romantic mainstream science-fiction programme, with most ties to its source material being for the titillation of fans of the original. Combining a change of lead unexplained in the show's internal narrative with a massive difference in format from original to new creates a large disparity. This was, of course, only resolved in the web episode released which showed Paul McGann's Eighth Doctor regenerating into John Hurt's 'War Doctor', but because of the need to show the War Doctor as originally appearing young we still do not actually see the regeneration. Similarly in the case of the War Doctor's regeneration into the Ninth Doctor, it cuts away due to Christopher Eccleston's absence. The disconnection still exists.
"Next season's gunnae be great!"
This leads to the other issue of continuity when comparing the two shows. New Who is concerned with its own continuity, with a great deal of focus on the events of the past. This includes the "Time War" storyline which was invented to fill the gap between the TV Movie and the New Series, as well as certain episodes. "The End of the World", "New Earth" and "Gridlock" are all related to each other. Most noticeably this occurs in the sixth series of New Who, which is heavily invested in multiple episodes exploring the antagonists called "The Silence" and revealing the origins and life of the character River Song, who was first introduced in David Tennant's last full series. Doctor Who, by contrast, lacks a continuity-heavy approach. References are occasionally made to past companions and a few noteworthy events. These include the Doctor's trial in Episode Ten of "The War Games", which would come to be one of the major continuity touchstones of the original show, his investitures as Lord President of Gallifrey in both "The Invasion of Time" and "The Five Doctors" and, for example, references to Victoria in "Pyramids of Mars" and Romana in "Arc of Infinity." These rarely, if ever, have any bearing on the plot, however. Most episodes featuring the Daleks and the Cybermen, for instance, have little relation to the episodes that came before, being focused more on the story at hand than consistency with prior serials. Besides the somewhat continuity-heavy "Attack of the Cybermen," the one exception might be Season 16, the "Key to Time" Season, or the trilogy of serials following the transition from Tom Baker to Peter Davison and all featuring, also, Anthony Ainley's new portrayal of the Master. Much of Doctor Who was produced before home video was commonplace and therefore it was unlikely that viewers would be watching old, potentially conflicting, serials in any event. As a general rule, Doctor Who is grounded more in its own present and focused on its own story. New Who far more enjoys making nods to its own past, or occasionally Classic elements as has been noticeable in the 50th Anniversary Year, or dropping ominous hints about future episodes to build up drama. It's not one of the greatest sources of difference between the two, but the approach to continuity is another way in which Doctor Who and New Who are not the same show.

Characterisation
Doctor Who: Unconventional.
New Who: Romantic.
The Sixth Doctor was the worst served by
the lack of romance in the Classic Series.
Does it matter: Yes, and as a concluding element this is probably the most noteworthy one. Doctor Who always had an unconventional character dynamic. The Doctor's companions were traditionally stowaways or unwilling participants in his adventures who accidentally got taken away, and by the late Hartnell era the Doctor was some combination of father figure, mentor, best friend, colleague or older brother type. One of his earliest defining traits was that he was a grandfather and that his original travelling companion was his granddaughter, Susan, and he fulfilled a similar role to his companion Vicki. From the time of Steven into Patrick Troughton's era he was a combination of the mentor and best friend type, leaning more heavily towards the latter with Troughton and the former with Jon Pertwee. Tom Baker's Doctor was arguably more like Troughton in this regard with his relationship with Harry and Sarah Jane, a mentor to Leela and a colleague of equal or even inferior scientific competence to Romana, whose second incarnation was probably the only time the Doctor-companion relationship ever bordered on the romantic. Peter Davison's Fifth Doctor was more of a brotherly type, while Colin Baker's irascible Sixth was a sparring partner with a complicated relationship with his primary companion, Peri. Sylvester McCoy with Ace returned to the mentor role, and it wasn't until Doctor Who was made more mainstream in the TV Movie that the Doctor's relationship with his co-protagonist was overtly romantic. Before that the relationship entirely rejected those notions, driven by the much greater focus on plot and the core principle of the show that the Doctor was, despite appearances, non-human and travelling with people who were almost always a very different age, background and species to himself.
"I still have to film more episodes?!?"
In New Who, the Doctor-companion relationship eschews elements of this largely Platonic characterisation for a more conventional romantic approach. The Ninth and Tenth Doctor's relationship with his first companion, Rose, is entirely portrayed as reciprocally romantic, with supporting companions like Mickey and Jack Harkness also being characterised in terms of how they relate to the Doctor-Rose romance. The Tenth Doctor's second full-time companion, Martha, was largely characterised as having an unrequited infatuation with the Doctor, and his third, Donna, was specifically and overtly focused on the notion that their relationship was not romantic, coupled with the ensuing misunderstandings this caused. In the Eleventh Doctor's era his first companion, Amy Pond, was portrayed as having a confused sexual interest in the Doctor which caused difficulty in her relationship with her fiancé and his second full-time companion, Rory, who was himself a jealous character. His third major companion, Clara, is also portrayed as having a borderline romantic affection for the Doctor in episodes like "Hide" and "Nightmare in Silver." The Eleventh Doctor's most recurring non-regular character, River Song, was also ultimately revealed to be, in some fashion, married to the Doctor. Since the TV Movie, the Doctor has kissed almost every one of his female co-stars, and several who were not co-stars, like Madam de Pompadour. The situation is almost a complete reversal of that in the original Doctor Who, in which the relationships between the Doctor and his companions were never overtly romantic. Arguably being more focused on children, Doctor Who has a much greater focus on friendship: the Doctor often describes his companion as his "friend" or "best friend". New Who, on the other hand, is more interested than its source material on pursuing a sci-fi watching young adult and twenty-something demographic, so it plumps for romance. Romance and sexuality in Doctor Who was the business of companions. Frazer Hines portrayed Jamie as being in love with Victoria. Jo left the Third Doctor to get married, as did Leela from the Fourth. Adric was sometimes implied to have an infatuation with Nyssa and poor Peri was lusted over by grotesque villains like Sharaz Jek and the Borad. The Doctor was an alien, his time of having a family and children was in his past, and his relationship with his companions was played in an unironic and sincere way, in contrast to New Who's approach of regularly drawing attention to the connotations of a mysterious man, these days often a relatively young and dashing as well as mysterious man, travelling usually with young women. It's one of the most overt ways in which Doctor Who and New Who are different shows.

Just detected the presence of a minority.
Conclusion
Doctor Who and New Who are of course similar in many ways. They're both a television programme about a time-travelling alien called the Doctor who's a member of a race called the Time Lords of Gallifrey who can regnerate to survive and change his appearance and has adventures in time and space with travelling companions by means of a ship called the TARDIS which is disguised as a London Police Box and is a different dimension on the inside. Both feature the Daleks, arguably the Cybermen, and, I suppose, the Master. The Doctor usually seeks non-violent solutions to his problems. That being said, none of this means that they are the same show. The two are very different in terms of how they are filmed, the focus of their storytelling, their format, their approach to continuity and the characterisation of their protagonists. My point in this post was to offer an alternative to saying "it's all one show" or "it's always a different show" by arguing that the different eras of Doctor Who are more similar to each other, and the two eras thus far of New Who are more similar to each other, than the two different series' are to each other in general. Watching Doctor Who is an entirely different experience to watching New Who no matter what episode you choose. It's different visually, dramatically and artistically. They are both, also, products of their time. Doctor Who lived and died in the twentieth century because that was its time: an era of decolonisation and the rejection of authoritarianism, imperialism and inequality which was killed by age, Thatcher, neoliberalism and Eighties culture. New Who is a different show for a different time, of profitable nostalgia and postmodernism. The shows are separated by time and change more drastic to the two externally than to either internally. Doctor Who and New Who, in my opinion, are not the same show, and by their nature could be nothing else.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Toy Soldiers: An Introduction

Reading The Hobbit for the first time as a child back in 2000 was the first thing that made me interested in toy soldiers. In the late 90s, I'd seen some Warhammer Fantasy introductory material and rule books with their bright, colourful imagery of various imaginary armies. At the time, I was rather nonplussed, finding the Warhammer 40,000 Space Marines, especially their dreadnoughts, to be cooler. When I read The Hobbit and imagined Bilbo's Dwarven companions, however, images returned to my mind of the elaborate artworks and corresponding figurines that went with the Dwarf army in Warhammer Fantasy. These days I don't think of Tolkien's Dwarves that way, of course, but for whatever reason, I realised I wanted some toy soldiers of my own. Much of the limited funds of my teenage years found themselves lining the coffers of Games Workshop in pursuit of that hobby, as I collected many armies, for Fantasy, 40K (as it's known) and the game based on, simultaneously, The Lord of the Rings and its film adaptations. This last one was the most suitable for me, given that reading Tolkien had made me interested in the first place, along with the fact that it was (arguably) the simplest to play and (at the time) the most affordable.
Some call them 'miniatures'. To some it's 'tabletop wargaming'. I've dabbled in both terms in the more defensive days of my youth, but these days both the products themselves and the hobby can be summed up in a single phrase: 'toy soldiers.' Let's not take ourselves too seriously, shall we? At the end of the day, those of us who have this hobby are painting little men and simulating them fighting. They're toy soldiers. You buy them, put them together, paint them, and hopefully have some games with them. Personally my favourite part is the painting. It's just another of the hobbies that makes me a bit old school nerd. I like old genre TV shows, I like old games, I like They Might Be Giants and I like collecting toy soldiers.
What is this impulse which drives some people, myself included, to want to own little plastic and metal representations of people? It's not a masculine thing, because people of both genders do it, although I daresay the majority are male. As may be obvious from some reviews of years gone by, I once went through an action figure collecting phase, so it's not exclusive to toy soldiers really. Some of us just want to own little versions of things that we can fiddle around with. I don't know why. I don't understand people who find watching or participating in competitive sport interesting. I mean I exercise, but that's because it makes sense. I gain no pleasure from physical competition. It's just one of those things. People like different activities. I'd like to get a few more toy soldier related posts happening on my blog, so I thought I'd write this article just as an introduction to my interests and the state of the industry at the moment. Let's start with the big guy.

So you know I'm legit: the old Kurt
Helborg and Burlok Damminson models
I bought as a kid.

Games Workshop
Like, I would suspect, many people, I got my start with Games Workshop's games. Games Workshop is the major player of the industry, and for a long time held a borderline monopoly on the hobby. I don't buy Games Workshop products any more for two reasons. The first is that they're too expensive. The second is that, in this decade, the rise of internet shopping and mail order services has made collecting the alternatives much more viable even if they don't have local stores. One of the things that makes Games Workshop the power in the world of toy soldiers is that they have their own shops around the world where you can go in and buy their stuff, making them the easiest, if not the cheapest, to collect. For a long time this put them ahead of the competition. These days there tend to be more third party local suppliers who sell products from a variety of toy soldier companies, often at a discount, so that's less true. If you don't want Games Workshop, these days it's much easier to buy from their rivals than it used to be, which is what I do.
These guys were
"Daemonhunters" once
and didn't have giant robots.
Let's look at the cost issue. The most common complaint about Games Workshop is how bafflingly expensive it is. Logic would seem to dictate that if you make your products more affordable, more people will buy them, and that in the long run you'll make more money. Of course there could be a number of practical factors that make this infeasible in Games Workshop's case, but the fact is that as I got older and started earning money, and having more to spend, I actually started buying less stuff usually for no more complex reason than the fact that their prices inflated so rapidly. The standard comparison might be a box of Space Marines. When I was a kid you could get ten Space Marines for forty bucks in my local currency. Currently, it's sixty-five for ten. That's only an increase of two bucks fifty per Space Marine, but the difference between forty and sixty-five bucks isn't inconsiderable, which is to say that one of those two figures is the wrong side of fifty. It's arguably worse in Fantasy, where you often need blocks of twenty men, and a paltry ten costs, in some cases, seventy dollars locally.
When there's only one HQ option,
there's only one choice.
Now Games Workshop can charge whatever the hell they want for their products. If you want it and can afford it, good for you. If you can't, tough luck. I'm in the position, however, where I arguably can afford it, but don't consider it good value for money. The straw that broke this camel's back was the prices for the new line based on the film adaptations of The Hobbit. I think this was due to Warner Bros. ripping Games Workshop off in the licensing agreement, but there you go. The problem is this: balancing income and expense it takes too long to collect an army, your friends will never do it so you'll never get to use it anyway, and you just don't get enough product for your investment in comparison to the competition.
Cloak of live bats
vs.
Cthulhu fetishist.
Games Workshop's current tagline is "Games Workshop make the best model soldiers in the world." Well, says you. In my opinion, Games Workshop do not make the best model soldiers in the world. They make some very nice, albeit extremely expensive, toy soldiers for use in their specific games, but that doesn't prove anything. Personally I think some of their recent design choices are rather questionable, and the fact remains that they're hardly an all purpose model soldier manufacturer. I've seen it argued that Games Workshop's rationale at the moment is that they're charging premium prices for a premium product. It kind of makes sense, but I feel like they've more developed a habit of built in redundancy to jack up prices. Say you buy the 2014 Dwarfs Hammerers/Longbeards kit. Levels of detail aside, one of the reasons they can charge seven dollars per guy in the box is that there's enough bits to make each guy a 'Hammerer' or a 'Longbeard'. Say you want to make ten Hammerers. Now you've got loads of junk left over that could only be used to make the basic body into a Longbeard. Because of all that extraneous junk, among other reasons, they can justify charging seventy bucks.
Heroes don't feel right
in lightweight plastic.
For a while down here in the Southern Hemisphere it was possible to order from Europe at about half the price including shipping from various third party sellers, but a few years ago Games Workshop decided to slap an embargo on those sales. The touted reason was some rubbish about protecting the interests of local 'brick and mortar' sellers but it was transparently obvious that their motive was pure greed. I'm no economist but as far as I'm aware there's some dodgy method in which all of Games Workshop's seemingly suicidal financial practices end up lining the pockets of a few fat cats. It's not helped by the fact that it's public these days, and therefore chiefly interested in serving shareholders. That's business, but I think the main criticism is that it's regrettable that a product which had a lot of appealing imagery and interesting ideas is just infeasible for many people these days. If I could get those ten Dwarfs for prices which other companies find reasonable for a comparable product, like twenty bucks, we might still having something going. I could always go to eBay, I suppose, but it'd still be expensive, just less so, and I couldn't be arsed.
Left: an escapee from an Extended Edition.
Right: soon to be replaced by
Billy Connolly on a pig.
The reason I couldn't be arsed is the fact that besides being too expensive the two main games are overcomplicated, boring and easily exploited. I'm completely out of touch with the most recent editions of both Fantasy and 40K but having played a fair bit of the earlier editions I can attest to a lot of wearisome, repetitive experiences. At certain scales and under certain conditions some armies are just more powerful than others and the whole business becomes something that not only takes your cash but offers up little pleasure as a reward. Combine that with how often they're updating the rules and churning out new, super-expensive rulebooks and army books and I found myself giving up. There's also the fact that they make unjustified copyright claims (like the Spots the Space Marine debacle), respond to criticism by throwing their toys out of the pram and disabling social media and forms of interaction with customers, and basically have no communication with their consumers. At the end of the day, Games Workshop make some nicely-detailed fantasy and science fiction toys but their prices are so high that they are extremely difficult to justify. Additionally, these days I'm the only person I know who has the time to collect toy soldiers, so if I want to play games I just buy the armies I want and let a friend (who are willing, mind you) to pick one. With the cost of Games Workshop armies that simply isn't practical. I wonder what the rise of the 3D printer is going to do to Games Workshop. As I say, the internet among other things has given rise to some interesting competitors, so now I'll look at the other companies which have replaced Games Workshop in my affection. Incidentally, I'm not interested in Warmachine or Hordes so Privateer Press isn't one of them.
Kings of War Dwarf Ironclads: hard to beat, hard to rank up.
Mantic Games
I discovered Mantic around the time that I'd more or less given up on toy soldiers. Mantic's original premise, I believe, was the production of models that could be used as an alternative to expensive Games Workshop models, providing a viable source of competition. Their "Kings of War" Fantasy line has all the standard Fantasy archetypes of the kind that could easily be substituted into Games Workshop games: Dwarfs, Elves, Orcs, Goblins and Undead. Over time they've diversified, making some of their own, more unique forces as well. I've never actually used Mantic models as an alternative to Games Workshop, preferring instead Mantic's own Fantasy game, Kings of War. Kings of War is a relatively simple game, relying on players performing entire turns on their own while the other player waits and not having any messy elements like individual model removal, instead using a system of markers to keep track of damage. Movement, shooting (including magic) and melee combat are all as streamlined as possible to make for a well-paced experience. My main criticism of Kings of War is that it's so streamlined that the game can, at times, feel a little bland, and the shooting phase is either incredibly weak or absurdly powerful with no middle ground.
Kings of War Undead Revenants: legs of a skeleton, armour of plastic.
Mantic's science fiction game is "Warpath", but its rules are in early stages and it's a little unforgiving to play. Partially eschewing the philosophy of Kings of War in terms of its choices, it has Space Dwarf and Space Rat Men armies that lack modern Games Workshop equivalents, but at the moment the number of models are slim. The big seller in the Warpath universe is Dreadball, a sports game like Blood Bowl, but it doesn't particularly interest me so I haven't played it. Their new skirmish game, Deadzone, is in the midst of being released as of my writing this, and it does look interesting as an alternative to the standard Warpath rules.
Warpath Enforcers Captain, Forge Father Iron Ancestor
and Forge Father Huscarl Hero: guys who will one day have a use.
When it comes to the actual models themselves, Mantic are almost the exact opposite of Games Workshop. Mantic models are simple and cheap. There is very little redundancy and not as much in the way of customisation, although the same is true of Games Workshop's The Lord of the Rings products. The issue is that Mantic armies run the risk of looking a bit repetitious as the same models tend to recur in various units, and the plastic models sometimes are the same sprue of two bodies over and over. The ranges are still growing as well, so there aren't quite as many options to give all the armies a lot of visual diversity yet. That being said, some of the products, like their Undead figures, are very good indeed. Mantic's zombies in particular are much better than the Games Workshop alternatives. I personally also think their Orcs are quite agreeable. It's just not the same kind of very customisable, arguably over-designed and half-redundant product that more modern Games Workshop releases are becoming. That's the point, however. Mantic's slogans are "Building big armies" and "Affordable Fantasy and sci-fi tabletop wargaming miniatures." It's about waging a war against your toy enemies, not against your bank account. If you want to just get a huge amount of Fantasy soldiers to push around a field at a reasonable price I'd heartily recommend Mantic and Kings of War.

Spartan Games
Prussian Empire Grenadiers
'Cause the 1870s weren't violent enough already.
I only discovered Spartan relatively recently. Their big thing is games on a much larger scale than the kind I've been discussing so far, usually involving huge ships, either in space or on Earth, rather than individual soldiers. Firestorm Armada is a space ship game, evocative if anything of Games Workshop's largely deceased Battlefleet Gothic, Uncharted Seas is a Fantasy naval combat game which makes me think of WarCraft II: Tides of Darkness, and Dystopian Wars is a steampunk alternative history Victorian setting featuring combat on land, sea and air with giant machines. It seems like this last one is the one which has taken off the most, and correlative with that is the game from Spartan that I play, its infantry-scale companion game, Dystopian Legions.
Prussian Empire Teutonic Knights
Anachronism in a can.
As a squad-based game with important shooting and melee components, the closest analogy Dystopian Legions might have in familiar terms is Warhammer 40K, but Dystopian Legions takes arguably one of the periods of history with the most visual flair and jazzes it up into a fast paced, fun and extremely fair tabletop game with a very strong aesthetic. The Steampunk vibe allows them to take all the cool uniforms and gear of nineteenth century armies and give them tanks, lasers, robots and all that kind of stuff. As someone who's often been interested in that historical period it's very appealing. The game uses an "Order of March" system where players alternate between activating each of their units, so you're never out of the action for long, and decks of playable game cards allow you to customise and diversify the actions of your troops. Spartan's dice mechanic relies on scoring different numbers of successes (rolling a 4, 5 or 6) to pass tests, wound enemies and so on, with different coloured dice having greater potential to score more successes, which removes a lot of messy comparison of different stats.
Kingdom of Britannia Line Infantry
Zulu with flamethrowers.
Of the seven major powers of Dystopian Wars, four are currently available for Dystopian Legions: the Kingdom of Britannia, the Prussian Empire, the Federated States of America and the Empire of the Blazing Sun. I have armies of the first two and am starting on the third. Each selects the distinctive individual style of that region from real history, combining late nineteenth century and First World War elements with a healthy dose of steampunk. Britannia opts for a Zulu Wars aesthetic, featuring redcoats in pith helmets backed up by jetpack troops in flying caps and goggles, walking machines and so on. Prussia has the classic imagery of the pickelhaube, their soldiers wearing spiked helmets and piped tunics, with Teutonic Knights in giant armoured suits, conscripts and the like in support. America utilises the distinctive Kepi hat and overcoat look of the civil war infantryman mixed in with lots of stetsons, combined with motorbikes, flying gunslingers and such. As far as I can determine, not owning any of the models, the Japanese Blazing Sun combines the style of the aggressive imperial Japan of the late nineteenth century with the distinctive flair of the samurai. They're very visually appealing models which, to my mind, strike a very good balance between the already unmistakeable grandeur of the time with a number of science fiction enhancements.
Kingdom of Britannia Sky Hussars
All named Clive.
Most Dystopian Legions models are metal, with a few larger components and the vehicles being resin, and I'll admit that they're not especially cheap, but you don't need that many to have a fun game - the starter sets alone provide you with enough for a small encounter - and they are cheaper than Games Workshop, at least locally, despite the fact that the models are all metal and on a larger scale, which means they are also as if not more detailed. The larger scale some people find objectionable because it means they couldn't sub in Dystopian Legions models for, say, their Imperial Guard armies, but frankly I can't imagine how substituting metal Spartan models for the already utterly unaffordable Imperial Guard would work anyway. My local supplier offers a pretty good discount on them, though, which means I can get, in the simplest terms, six metal infantry for twenty-two dollars. That's under four dollars per little man, and for a larger scale, in metal and with a very high level of detail, as well as every model being unique, that's not bad at all. A decent sized Dystopian Legions army might set you back a few hundred bucks, but you'd probably be paying twice that for anywhere near a maxed-out Warhammer 40,000 army at what is considered a playable level, and that's not including dice, rules or army lists. The Dystopian Legions lists and rules are free and the starter sets come with dice, a range measure, counters, cards and a print of the rules, so I would argue that it is better value. I also think the 'enhanced historical' look is more interesting than more guys with huge shoulderpads.

Conclusion
So there we go then! Toy soldiers! What do I recommend? Maybe collect Games Workshop if you're filthy rich, otherwise I say vote with your wallet and go somewhere else. The problem with 'GW' in my opinion is that they're too prohibitively expensive for a potential casual or prospective toy soldier collector, so if you and your chums just want to have a big Fantasy battle go for Mantic. Their Deadzone might be worth a look in too, I may review that if I wind up with a copy. It could give you the sci-fi action you crave. Obviously there are a lot of other toy soldier games, but these are the only ones I've played, so you'll have to do your own research if you want something else. My current favourite is Dystopian Legions, but I like the time period. At some point, hopefully soon, therefore, I'll be doing a few reviews of Dystopian Legions models to better bulk out the discussion of them online. I still don't know what the impulse is to collect toy soldiers, but if you have the desire and the means, it can be pretty rewarding.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

On Zero Punctuation

I met Yahtzee once, at a convention. I live in the same country as him, so it's not too surprising. It was back when he and his much less funny friends were trying to start their own TV show. I was dressed as Ganondorf at the time (and in green makeup) and I've occasionally been worried that I was one of people Yahtzee had in mind when he used to make occasional digs about bothersome costumers. Well, I don't really do the whole convention or costume thing much anymore, but I still follow the works of Yahtzee. My review of his first novel, Mogworld, can be found here. I also have a lot of fondness for his Chzo Mythos adventures games, imperfect as their creator might consider them to be with hindsight, and some of his other old adventure games, like Odysseus Kent and Adventures in the Galaxy of Fantabulous Wonderment are good for a laugh too, the latter also being a fun hybrid of various game genres. I still have a screenshot of when I got the perfect score in Trilby: The Art of Theft. I didn't really get into Poacher but I have enjoyed his more recent gaming foray, The Consuming Shadow. My point is, I would consider myself a reasonably well-versed enthusiast of Yahtzee's work.
But the thing he's best known for these days is his web review series on The Escapist, Zero Punctuation. I watch new episodes when they come out fairly regularly, and every so often when I'm doing something else I'll put old episodes on in the background just for a laugh. I like the background sight gags and the running visual jokes particularly, as well as some of the more elaborate descriptions. I think Zero Punctuation has had its ups and downs, reviews that were better or funnier than others and periods of time over which it seemed like perhaps Yahtzee was too busy or too bored to put as much effort in as he might at other times. That's purely an assertion, however. My point is that as a general rule I like Zero Punctuation.
Now Yahtzee's a big boy and he definitely doesn't need an internet nobody like me to defend him, although someone on Twitter did once ask of this blog "Is this the text version of Zero Punctuation?" which rather tickled my fancy, to be compared to one of the heavy hitters of cussing out the generic, overrated crap churned out by ruthlessly exploitative entertainment corporations and gobbled up by the undiscerning. I just wanted to give my opinion of Yahtzee's review show, because I do see criticism of it from time to time. That's fine, of course. Criticism of anything is good, and as someone who produces freeware Yahtzee has no incentive to not take criticism of any form, which I think is why he's so harsh on his own work from years gone by.
Among a lot of pretty negative reviews of Zero Punctuation on tvtropes.org, these remarks from a more positive review stood out to me:
"Yahtzee does not try to be a conventional reviewer. He talks about games in the same way your mate probably would; in the vaguest possible terms, emphasising the elements that stood out, bitching/praising odd details, and going off on wild tangents. Friends do not regard stuff like a professional critic, but the thing is that when people are buying games, their choices tend to be more influenced by their mate's advice as opposed to the critic's. A lot of it is down to the fact that you know your friends. You know their tastes and prejudices, and that helps a lot when forming a decision. I think Yahtzee does us a favour by being so transparent about his prejudices and preferences. Like my mates, I am able to contrast my own preferences with his refreshingly pithy and informal comments. I often find that more useful then (sic) the words of some faceless IGN reviewer." (http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/review_comments.php?id=1053)
This is not unlike how I see it. The complaints I tend to see about Zero Punctuation are that the reviews are unsystematic and unstructured, that they gloss over details and make mistakes when Yahtzee seemingly couldn't be bothered to try. Putting aside the question of the balance of analysis and humour in the videos, the thing I find the most useful about Yahtzee's reviews are that they voice immediate, practical frustrations and issues, be it with the controls, storyline or what have you. These days for whatever reason I simply don't have the patience for a lot of video games, so I actually find this kind of thing relevant. Similarly, if Yahtzee plays up something for the sake of humour, or makes a mistake or glosses over an area, I don't really care because I feel after watching many episodes that that's the kind of person he is. It really is like asking the opinion of someone you know. They'll give you their impressions, potentially in a humorous way, without necessarily weighing the pros and cons. There are plenty of reviews out there that are super structured and detailed, so what does it matter if these ones have different priorities? I think Zero Punctuation generally succeeds at what it's trying to achieve.
Some viewers (and I apologise for the weasel words but I couldn't be bothered getting any more links for you) tend to object to his mistakes, which is reasonable enough, I suppose, but I figure that if he isn't enjoying a game there's probably more to it than whatever he overlooked or misunderstood. I also don't think his criticisms are driving sales away from games. I would imagine that the big gaming sites that give out numerical scores have a good deal more influence than one person's humorous videos. It'd be like blaming me if New Who got cancelled. Additionally, what does it matter? Do you want the game you like to sell well so that the developer will make more games you like? How do you know you're going to enjoy those hypothetical future games too? Alternatively, do you just want more people to buy it so that more people agree with you on the internet? Of course there's also the notion that certain heavily-marketed, glossy and subsequently popular games are, subconsciously, regarded as objectively good in the community and that disagreement with that is a form of heresy, although I think as a general rule it's a minority that suffer from that delusion. One of the clichés is that Yahtzee bashes Nintendo a lot, but despite accusing them of being uncreative and repetitious he often seems to find things to like about certain Mario and Zelda games, so that's hardly a fact.
Let me put it this way. Imagine there was some game I really liked that Yahtzee gave a really negative review to. Let's use The Last of Us as an example, although saying I "really liked" The Last of Us might be pushing it a bit. I liked it, but might not go so far as to say that I really liked it. It hardly changed my world. Anyway, Yahtzee gave that a pretty negative review, and I think that for whatever reason some of the game's more overt themes just didn't engage him. But you know what? I couldn't give a shit. Back when Super Smash Bros. Brawl came out I really liked it. Yahtzee's review of that was pretty negative too, but I didn't remotely care. Why would I? It's a video game. Similarly, I quite like RTS games. He doesn't, and often pokes fun at RTS gamers as either being amoral bastards who like to send innocent soldiers to their deaths or as boring accountant types. You know, there's work to be done in the RTS world: a game where you're made somehow to feel guilty about the deaths for which you're responsible like a real general. Anyway, I don't care that he dislikes RTS even though I do like them. What does it matter? Maybe I'm thick-skinned from finding myself liking so many unpopular and unfashionable things, and disliking the reverse, but I don't see why it matters. It really comes down to insecurity, and the mind-numbing kind of insecurity to which modern Western society has given rise, where people's interests and hobbies, which is to say the products on which they spend their money, start to infiltrate their personality and sense of self. It's one of the more insidious downsides to a capitalist economy. As a result, people identify too closely with their interests and take it personally when products they like are criticised. It's irrational. You won't die if someone dislikes something you like, you know. Reality doesn't work that way. Introspect and try to perceive subconscious reactions.
This can basically outline the schematic of how I find my experience of Zero Punctuation:

Negative Review
  1. A game I wasn't interested in: "It's funny to see him ripping into this game I either didn't even know about or had no intention of playing. Even though this is his job, I kind of feel sorry for him having to deal with this dross."
  2. A game I was interested in: "Maybe I'll look a bit further into this game and see if I really want it."
  3. A game I already own and didn't like: "It's nice to know other people have had a similar experience."
  4. A game I already own and do like: "Well, that's his opinion, and his criticisms help me evaluate my own thoughts."
Positive Review
  1. A game I wasn't interested in: "Yahtzee actually enjoyed this? Maybe I'll check it out."
  2. A game I was interested in: "Now I feel more justified in my desire to get this game."
  3. A game I already own and didn't like: "That's surprising, but fair enough. Maybe I ought to approach this game again, if I could be bothered."
  4. A game I already own and do like: "That's cool."
So really, what am I losing in this situation? It's due to Zero Punctuation that I've played a number of games I probably wouldn't have bothered with otherwise: Just Cause 2, Saints Row 2, X-Com: Enemy Unknown and Spec Ops: The Line are all examples of these, although I have to admit that I've never finished any of them. As I say, I don't have nearly as much patience for video games as Yahtzee does. Probably the one example of a game I bought due to Yahtzee's recommendation and still didn't enjoy is Bastion, but that's just how it goes, and to be fair that was on an old computer with an overheating problem where it was impossible to be patient with a game because you could only play it for a few minutes before the computer had to have a little rest.
Personally I think Zero Punctuation has its place. It's somewhere that heavily marketed triple-A titles can be lambasted in antithesis to the paid-up '7 out of 10 is bad' state of the mainstream video game journalism industry, it's reasonably funny and it can be revelatory of potentially worthwhile games that might otherwise have been lost behind the big marketers. Having a diversity of opinion is always a good thing when it comes to reviewing products, and personally I think Zero Punctuation helps to balance things out a bit in a culture of hysteria and bandwagons. Basically, reviews are meant to be aids and not instructions. If you're undecided about something, seek a variety of opinions on it. If you want something regardless, it shouldn't matter what other people think. Most importantly, if someone dislikes something you like, or the other way around, don't take it personally. That's life.