Monday, 4 May 2015

DWAITAS: 9th Doctor Sourcebook

And, then, in 2005, the series came back.

But it had, of course, regenerated into a form notably changed from its former self. This was "Nu Who", and, fandom being what it is, there are still some who haven't got over that fact. Nonetheless, we are now in an era of the show more familiar to younger viewers, and, indeed, to many Americans. Having said which, while the series was an instant hit in the UK, it was another season or so before it really took off in the US, which means that the Ninth Doctor Sourcebook could well be less popular than the two volumes that will follow it.

Popularity aside, this book does have a couple of more immediate problems to cope with. The first, which has already been faced by volumes Six and Seven, is the small number of stories there are in this era. Indeed, there are only ten, less than that of any previous incarnation save the Eighth, and most of them are only about half the length of what had been the standard for much of the classic show. The second problem is the relatively tight story arc of the season, at least in terms of character development (rather than the superficially more obvious Bad Wolf thing). This makes it somewhat difficult to fit new stories into the era without it feeling more of a squeeze, something reflected in the content of this book.

But what do we have? Well, we start, as always, with an examination of the Doctor and his companions. Rose, and arguably Captain Jack, are the only real companions here, of course, and the book acknowledges that. However, Jackie and Mickey are included as important supporting characters, and there's a discussion later on in the book (in the Aliens of London entry) on how these sorts of characters can be used in campaigns - something that hadn't really been seen at all in the classic show, even during the UNIT era. Adam also gets a write-up, with the obvious caveat that he's exactly the sort of character you shouldn't be playing, just as his function in the series is to be the "failed companion" that helps to highlight the significance of the real ones.

An ongoing sourcebook problem does rear its head again in the stats, though, with the characters being obviously overpowered. While one can't blame the author of this volume directly, since he's just repeating the figures given in the core rulebook, one can't help but notice that Rose, for example, has the stats of an Experienced character, while still having the Inexperienced character trait. And it's apparently impossible to describe Jackie, of all people, without giving her two levels of Experienced (and then pretending you haven't when it comes to calculating her Story Points). This indicates a serious mismatch between the TV series and the ability of the game system to emulate it properly, and one that does not appear to have ever been addressed by the publishers.

Anyway, the second chapter discusses the themes of Nu Who's first season, such as the aftermath of the Time War and the focus on stories set on, or immediately adjacent to, the Earth. Much of this is discussed in the parallel gaming context of starting a new campaign, or re-starting one after a lengthy break. In particular, there's a section about using the structure of the Eccleston season as a template for a campaign, turning the tightness of the plot arc into a gaming advantage - at least, if you're not actually using the 9th Doctor. Indeed, in place of the "adventure suggestions" seen in some other volumes, we have instead three suggestions for campaigns that can follow the same themes without redoing the individual stories, and that would use original PCs.

This lengthy, but helpful, section is followed by the discussions of the broadcast episodes themselves. Here, having dispensed quite successfully with the second problem I mentioned above, we run headlong into the first. There's not really a lot that can be done about this, and it inevitably results in some some overlong descriptions of the plot, here bulked up with long lists of continuity points, most of which add nothing to a game.

Fortunately, though, it doesn't really matter. As happened with volume Six, the fact that there are only ten stories to describe like this means that there's plenty of room left over for the stuff that does matter in game, and the book doesn't sacrifice that in the interests of plot fetishism, as happened in volume Five. In addition to advice on how to run the story 'as is', there is now a separate section on running a story that merely uses its themes and tropes, or that provides alternative plans for the villains and so on. This isn't really anything new, since we've had it in some form or another since volume One, but this time it's separated out, perhaps because of the higher probability that players will have seen the story in question.

All the key NPCs for each story are, as usual, given full stats. Unlike earlier sourcebooks, many of the aliens and monsters appearing here are already in the core rulebooks, so there is some, largely unavoidable, duplication of previously published material. Some of the text feels a bit more like padding, however. For example, there is a very lengthy description of what Daleks are, and where they came from, in the section on the story Dalek, despite the fact that this not only re-iterates earlier volumes, but has nothing meaningful to do with the story as broadcast. Clearly, somebody was desperate to bump their page count up!

Having said that, though, there's at least nothing missing. The focus on themes, rather than details (at least, once one gets past the continuity cruft) is a sensible one in a book dedicated to gaming, and it does provide a useful resource for games other than those directly set in the 9th Doctor's era. The flaws that do exist are largely down to padding, which was always going to be an issue in this particular volume.

The book does give you what you need to run adventures in the 9th Doctor's style even, or perhaps especially, if you aren't going to use him as a character. It shows a good grasp of the era, and, while it may not be the best book in the series so far, it's by no means the worst, either.

Monday, 2 March 2015

The Companions That Sort Of Were

Sam Jones
After the dismal failure of the 1996 TV movie (decent audience figures, but pretty much everyone hated it), Doctor Who returned to existing solely in the spin-off media. If a true "Eighth Doctor era" exists at all, which one can certainly debate, then the vast bulk of it surely exists outside of TV. And it's there we have to look for his companions, whether they be those canonically named in The Night of the Doctor, or those of more doubtful status vis a vis the new series.

The rule I am going to adopt in listing them here is similar to that I've used for the individual posts on actual companions. In order to count, they have to be contemporary with the series at the time, rather than being added in new stories featuring old Doctors after the fact. In this case, since we're considering companions of the 8th Doctor, that means that they have to have appeared between 1996, when the TV movie aired, and 2005, when the new series did. It's arbitrary, but I have to draw the line somewhere, and that's where I've drawn it so far, so let's keep it that way.

Leaving the comics to one side for the moment, the novels re-launched in 1997, now under the auspices of BBC Worldwide. Unable to use Grace Holloway for legal reasons, they had to invent a new companion. Apparently deciding that since the people who watched Doctor Who in the '70s and '80s had largely been teenagers, and they surely weren't likely to have aged since (right?), they settled on Generic Teenage Girl as their model for the companion. So, first appearing in the universally derided 1997 novel The Eight Doctors, we have Samantha Jones, better known as "Sam".

Monday, 23 February 2015

DWAITAS: 8th Doctor Sourcebook

The Eighth Doctor Sourcebook was always going to be the hardest of the series to write, and the one that was going to be least like all the others. The problem is obvious: at the time it was commissioned, the 8th Doctor only had one televised story, namely the 1996 TV movie. Since then, we have also had the seven minute webcast The Night of the Doctor, but that leaves a grand total of one-and-a-half stories to cover, neither of which give us much to extrapolate from.

One of the first things you note about the sourcebook is that the cover image, and most of the larger stills inside, come from The Night of the Doctor, not from the much longer TV movie. This is, it has to be said, reflected in a lot of the content, too, where the author shows far more interest in those seven minutes than in anything that happened in the other 85. He may not be alone among fans in that respect, mind you, and  it's not as if the TV movie fits terribly well into the overall picture of Doctor Who...

In fact, the book spends just 30 pages on the the actual subject of the 8th Doctor and his adventures. And, frankly, it needs a bit of padding to get that far. The book opens with a chapter on the Doctor and his companions, and here we see the first problem that the authors had to contend with: the 8th Doctor doesn't really have any televised companions. True, Grace fills that role in the TV movie, but she doesn't travel with him at the end of it, so she's really no more a companion than Ray in Delta and the Bannermen or Christina de Souza in Planet of the Dead. Still, for lack of anybody else, the book treats her as if she is a companion, and throws in Chang Lee and Cass (from The Night of the Doctor) for good measure. It makes an effort to explain how the latter could become a companion in an alternate timeline (for legal reasons, it can't do the same for Grace), but in the end, it has to concede that none of them really count.

Monday, 16 February 2015

DW Companions as PCs: Bernice Summerfield

The series is cancelled at the end of the twenty sixth season. Some time after, a new player joins the group. Deciding that everyone is getting a bit too old to still be playing teenage girls, she decides...

Sorry, what? You were expecting Grace Holloway, or Rose, or somebody? You're wondering who the heck I'm on about? Ah, right. Well, in that case, I suppose I'd better explain. (And if you weren't wondering anything of the sort - and many of you probably weren't - you can skip the next four paragraphs).

The classic series of Doctor Who was cancelled in December, 1989. For the first time in over a quarter of a century, there were no new DW stories coming out, and no prospect of any more soon, if ever. On television, at least. Because, of course, this left the door open to what I've been referring to in these posts as the "spin-off media", as the only venue for new material. Well, there's Dimensions in Time, too, if you're not trying to block that from your memory, but why wouldn't you?

Monday, 9 February 2015

The Companions That Weren't: the '80s

The year 1980 saw a major change in the production of Doctor Who, as John Nathan-Turner took over as producer. Although this was the top job on the show, it's probably fair to say that the actual nature of the stories was more affected by his script editors than by he himself - the modern "showrunner" job description being shared between the two roles in those days. Nonetheless, 1980 was a break-point in the show's history that was more than simply a change in decade, and since the next truly major change came in December 1989, with the cancellation, "'80s Doctor Who" is very clearly a distinct thing.

So, having reached the last companion of the classic era, now it's time to look back over that decade, as I did with the '60s and '70s, and look at some characters from the show that weren't companions, but could be in our own RPGs. One of the rules I'm using here is that the character in question should have survived whatever story they appeared in, so that it's possible for some PC group to turn up and collect them afterwards. This, unfortunately, rules out the only decent candidate I could find from the Sixth Doctor's era, namely Orcini from Revelation of the Daleks. Indeed, three of my four main examples are going to turn out to be from the Seventh Doctor's run. (Which, probably not coincidentally, lines up nicely with Andrew Cartmel's run as script editor, rather than Eric Saward's).

Monday, 2 February 2015

DW Companions as PCs: Ace

Mel leaves at the end of the twenty-fourth season. (Yes: twenty-fourth... suck on that, Supernatural). It didn't take long for the player to tire of her prissy and irritating former character, and she has already decided that her next one will be a teenager, yet one quite different from those in the early days of the game. This one will be aggressive and tough, injecting a bit of life into a campaign that's getting a bit long in the tooth.

After vacillating between two characters that broadly fit this concept, she settles on Dorothy McShane, almost universally known by her nickname of 'Ace'.

Ace is an immediate change from her predecessors, and is, along with Leela, one of only two female Action Hero companions. (Well, okay, one of three, if you count Sara Kingdom). On the character sheet, this is reflected with some decent skills in brawling and the use of simple hand weapons. Ace is clearly physically fit, and probably reasonably strong with it, if likely not in quite the same league as Leela. Most memorably, of course, she demonstrates this by attacking a dalek with a super-charged baseball bat, but there are a number of other scenes in which she comes off best in a fight. Her athletic ability also extends to swimming, as we see in Battlefield.

Monday, 19 January 2015

DW Companions as PCs: Melanie Bush

Peri leaves part way through the twenty-third season. Her player is getting a bit tired of the GM having NPCs drool over her character, and decides to create a new PC that does just as much screaming, but doesn't have the Attractive advantage.

After a rather weird dream in which she turns up to the next game session only for the GM to hand her a character sheet with a talking penguin on it, she instead creates uptight scream queen Melanie Bush, better known simply as 'Mel'. The character's surname is, incidentally, never mentioned on screen, but it's been confirmed pretty conclusively by her real-world creator, so, as with Polly in the '60s, I'll stick with it.

Along with Adric, Mel is, unfortunately, one of the two prime contenders for "least popular companion ever." Not everyone agrees, of course, and even less agree as to which one should actually come bottom, but that's the broad fan consensus. As with Adric, though, her character sheet isn't actually all that bad. In her case, however, we do have to rather work at it for that to be the case. The problem being that, like Peri before her, Mel's only real function on screen is to scream at the monsters and get into trouble.