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Final Fantasy Retrospective Part 5: Mystic Quest

Wasn’t the ad campaign for this game a horrible lie, even by the standards of ad campaigns?

Okay, okay, I’m going to come out and admit that it’s not fair to call Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest a bad game, not in a strict sense anyway.  It set out to provide a basic, watered-down introduction to console RPGs and, honestly, it achieved that goal quite well.  But at the same time it represented what was probably the most condescending message a company ever made to its own fanbase.  Square was basically proclaiming to Americans, you all can’t handle our real product (which in this case would be Final Fantasy V) so we’re going to give you a version that’s more up to your speed – and that speed would be somewhere along the lines of a golf cart with a defective engine.  Hell, when they released the game in Japan they even titled it Final Fantasy USA.  Square might as well have subtitled it “This is what Americans think a RPG should be!  Ha ha!  They embarrass us by buying our games!”

Now I’m sure there were other elements to Square’s decision.  Like the ad emphasizes, Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest was also cheaper, selling for $40 at a time when most RPGs for the Super Nintendo ran in the $50 – $60 range.  But, trust me, you could see where you saved that money.  The game didn’t even have its own graphical signature;  most of the graphics were souped-up and colorized from Final Fantasy Legend III.  You could also pretty much beat the entire game in a day or two of even casual playing, which was great if – like me – you made a habit out of renting video games and even RPGs for the weekend (P.S. I still curse the assholes who always erased my saved games when they rented the games before I could!), but not so good if you bought it expecting something like the 40 hour minimum players could expect to put into Final Fantasy IV.

Now I did say that technically it wasn’t a bad game.  The plot was really simple – in some ways it was a rehash of the original Final Fantasy, including a premise about the world slowly dying because someone is messing around with the Four Crystals of the Elements, but without the time travel elements coming out of left field and with a villain seriously called the “Dark King” – but the designers did try to have a range of characters, even though you never have more than two people in your “party.”  Also there’s actually a clever twist near the end where your hero finds out his status as the prerequisite “legendary chosen one” was based on a lie spread by the Dark King himself.  Nothing really comes of it, but still it was an unexpected way to play with one of fantasy fiction’s oldest cliches.  The gameplay was fun for what it was, and in a weird way, by having enemies visible on the screen rather than random encounters and having certain obstacles in dungeons that required the player to interact with the environment, Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest actually predicted certain features that are common in RPGs today, including Final Fantasy XIII.

For all that, though, I’m not exaggerating when I say that the way the game is structured is downright insulting.  You’re not even trusted to explore the world map on your own.  Instead the game essentially guides you to place to place.  Also instead of seeing your Health Points in number form, in battle they show up as big bars, as if the mere act of understanding numbers is too much of a burden on the player.  And remember how I mentioned that the game replaces random encounters with monsters that show up on the field?  Well, those monsters are completely stationary.  Sure, once in a while they block where you need to go, but making the enemies as non-threatening as possible makes about as much sense as the Easytype version of Final Fantasy IV removing certain character abilities.  The game doesn’t even trust you to manage your own weapons and armor;  it does all that for you.  Playing the game is like talking with Frank Miller’s Batman.  It’s to the point that it actually does interfere with your enjoyment of the game.  And remember this was in the Before Time, before even our homes were flooded by free American OnLine discs.  You had to get your info from magazines, and even then you couldn’t trust everything you read in them;  not even GamePro, and sure as hell not Nintendo Power.  We thought we might be getting a true follow-up to the greatest RPG we ever played, not that RPG’s five-year old cousin!

Now of course there’s nothing wrong with trying to come up with something that gives a potential audience a painless introduction to a genre.  It makes great business sense and it doesn’t automatically mean quality has to be sacrificed.  Like this game, Lufia & The Fortress of Doom was designed to be a pretty elementary, no-thrills RPG for less experienced players, but unlike Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest that game still has something of a following and is actually sometimes remembered as one of the better if also one of the more obscure RPGs on the Super Nintendo.  You can’t even really call Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest a black sheep of the franchise, since that implies that the game was memorable in any way.  Why is Lufia remembered but not Mystic Quest?  It’s not just a matter of gameplay or insulting players’ intelligence by not even letting them figure out which weapons are better;  Mystic Quest just has no real identity of its own.  What identity it has comes handed down from the main series, to the point that the game is basically a lobotomized clone.  It might be easier than the games in the main series, but there’s really no point in playing it when you’re just getting half the experience that made the main series famous in the first place.

So, bottom line…Square really should have just given us Final Fantasy V.  

 

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Spiritual Warfare, Video Games

Spiritual Warfare Part 2: Sin City

If there’s one thing I’ve gotten out of this game, it’s a heartfelt appreciation for what reviewers of bad video games go through.  With a bad book or movie at least you have a general idea of when it will be over (with exceptions like Tree of Life, which can miraculously turn ten minutes into a century), but a bad video game has no visible end on the horizon.  Also, while a great movie or novel can be in their own ways just as immersing as a great game, bad video games draw you into their own twisted, depraved universes in a way uniquely their own.  Yes, sitting through Halloween 4 : Return of Michael Myers can be painful, but at least you don’t have to play through a tedious mini-game where you have to form the lynch mob that tries to chase down Michael Myers.

Sadly, by now I am genuinely curious how Spiritual Warfare ends.  Plus…I can’t let it win.

Anyway,  in the last episode we saw NotLink get a belt that gave him superstrength and allowed him to push aside the boulders inexplicably blocking the only path from the park into the city, which is also infested with murderous atheists.  As soon as you go downtown you run the risk of getting trampled on by businessmen stomping back and forth.  Also trying to kill you are…construction workers.   Some of them are badass enough to leave behind dynamite, which at one point caught one of the businessmen in the blast, causing him to convert.  That’s a great message for a Christian video game:  converting to Christianity is equivalent to being blasted into a pile of guts on the ground.  But then there are the ones who instead of leaving behind dynamite they erect barriers in the path to the next screen.  They don’t really accomplish anything except delay your progress for a minute or two while you have to leave and re-enter the screen to make the barriers disappear – and of course generally adding to the game’s anti-fun/pro-suckage factor.

There are a few things I forgot to mention last time, too.  One is that something else they forgot to steal from Legend of Zelda is the map function.  Now the map from Legend of Zelda is pretty crude, but it still tells you where you are in the overworld and helps give you some idea where you’ve already been.   Here you got nothing, and it’s made worse by the fact that the game never gives you a clear overall objective.  Sure, once in a while you run across a kid with dead, soulless eyes who tells you that you have to pick up “x” item to get to “y” area and every now and then there’s a boss fight (but nothing that can be called a “dungeon”), but while The Legend of Zelda told players to look for the eight labyrinths for the pieces of the Triforce, as far as I know in Spiritual Warfare the storyline is just some kid who is going around killing as many people as possible but is hallucinating that he is saving their souls.  The ways of the Lord may be  mysterious, but the ways of Spiritual Warfare doubly so.    The music only makes figuring all this out even worse.  Like any crappy video game from the 8-bit era, it’s just one terrible, ear-shredding song, and it never stops, no matter where you are or no matter if you’re just in the overworld or fighting a boss.  At least it gave me an excuse to switch in some music that better complimented the game experience.

Finally, there’s the fact that you get Bible quizzes. Instead of fairies you occasionally run into an angel, and sometimes there’s dozens of them flying around and sometimes they never show up at all, another sign of a well-programmed game.  Anyway, when you touch one, you go right to this screen where a creepy pedophile with a bowtie asks you questions about the Bible.   Because it’s not enough for fundamentalist parents that their knock-off game shoves its religious themes down not just your throat but every orifice, no, the game also has to try to capture all the excitement of a Sunday school lesson.   Now even with my failed religious education I could answer about 90 percent of the questions;  if you knew that “sin” and “salvation” had something to do with why Jesus getting crucified was a good thing and about the whole “son of God” thing you already got half the questions covered.  Still, once in a while you’ll get a question like “Was the person the sorcerer Elymas tried to corrupt a proconsul or a tetrarch?” and that’s when you ironically take the Lord’s name in vain when the pedophile frowns at you like a smug, self-righteous ass.  See, doing well on the quizzes actually kind of matters, because answering all the questions right in one go restores your health and since the game is usually stingy with the health power-ups dropped by enemies, more often than not you need to get a perfect score if you just give half a damn about whether or not your character dies.

(Gee, maybe the answer is Satan!  This game certainly feels like it’s the Word of Satan, at least.)

I had a lot of this in my mind as I had to run across the whole downtown area – construction workers blocking my way and all – because I went to a locked room first and the key was way on the other side of the downtown map.   I was hoping that I finally came across a dungeon;  instead it was more side-scrolling rooms with easily killed enemies and then, suddenly, one of the most frustrating boss fights I had in my entire experience as a gamer.  It starts out as another side-scrolling room with ladders, but there are these blocks that obstruct your way that randomly appear and disappear across the room.  Meanwhile this guy wielding a wrench or something, who looks like one of the regular enemies, shows up, but you can’t harm him with your normal attack;  instead you have to blow him up with your bombs.  When you blow him up, another shows up, and in the end you have to kill three of them.  Now I swear, I went through five lives fighting them and both where the bosses go and how the blocks move are all completely random so it’s really mostly luck whether or not you survive, much less if you can pull off blowing up the bosses.  And it doesn’t help that the bombs take forever to explode.  At least this is the only point in the game so far where the enemies don’t just start praying;  you really do kill them.

After all that, you meet another angel who gives you the Breastplate, which like the armor from Legend of Zelda reduces damage by half. In addition, it lets you get into the Airport area.  I was hoping you end up fighting a Catholic or Hindu pilot who tries to kill you with a plane, but what I did get actually surprised me – an Airplane! reference.

I mean, yeah, it’s one of the more obvious references you could make, but…kudos, Spiritual Warfare!  Here’s hoping that the programmer who put that in there wasn’t forced to do penance for acknowledging the existence of an evil secular film.  Also, believe it or not, in the Airport area and the next area I stumbled across, the Warehouse area, enemies start showing sings of actual AI, rushing directly toward you or targeting you with projectiles.  Now, one of the enemies are these annoying gangsters who fire bullets that knock you backward and can reach much further and faster than any weapon you have so far, which means that in one area you have no chance of getting through except by depending on that temporary invulnerability you get from being hit, but still…actual challenge!  The game is finally reaching for the stars.

Of course, since this is a Wisdom Tree game after all, my good will was short lived.  First off, the Warehouse area is just a confusing mishmash of stairways and buildings you have to run through, and for all that I still didn’t seem to find anything important.  Figuring that maybe I skipped an area I was supposed to go to first, I backtracked to the downtown area and found…a Bar.  Because this game isn’t about the religion whose founder was known for reaching out to prostitutes and other outcasts, just going into a place that serves alcohol is enough to get the game to actually punish you (well, punish you beyond the experience of actually playing it).

First, it isn’t enough that you’re a kid sent to fight a whole city of murderous sinners on your own;  you have to go to a slum to reclaim one of your items.  Plus, you have this game where the whole premise is that you’re supposed to be saving souls, even the souls of all these crazy atheists who inexplicably want you dead,  but you can’t go looking for lost souls in a bar!  That’s Great Lesson #2 for the Christian kiddies.  Third, you don’t see anything else but the empty room and the angel.  Did the angel set up this whole bar just to trick you into doing something he punishes you for?  That’s some Old Testament-style dickery there.  To be fair, though, maybe the game designers were getting their theology from the Book of The Adam West Batman.

Well, that was all I could take for now.  Will I recover the Belt of Truth from the slums, or will I end up stabbed by a crack addict?  Tune in next time, same Bat-time, same Bat-channel!

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Video Games

Final Fantasy Retrospective Part 4: Final Fantasy IV

And thus we enter the Golden Age…

Let’s get this out of the way first:  not only did the game come out in the US as Final Fantasy II (and really, in the dark primordial age before the Internet, most of us who weren’t able to read Japanese or didn’t have subscriptions to trade magazines thought it really was Final Fantasy II), but Square sent us the “Easytype” version of the game.  Back in the day, Square had a low opinion of American RPG players – perhaps with reason – so they gave us a version that not only was made easier, but had less combat options for the characters, because apparently having a main protagonist with a special attack that depletes his Health Points would melt our delicate brains.

Despite all that, Final Fantasy IV was a revelation.  For the first time (okay, fine, extremely arguably*), we had an RPG that was as much a work of fiction as it was a game.  It had a wide cast of characters with diverse personalities, motives, and backgrounds;  multiple plot twists; dramatic dialogue that expressed *gasp* feelings; and villains who, while mostly rather cliched (with the notable exception of Rubicante, who was portrayed as the classic “honorable bad guy”), had motives and goals beyond just “Destroy the world!”  True, for the sake of gameplay the plot had to make some rather bizarre turns, like the various random tragedies that befall your party just to explain why you never have more than five people in your party and the engineer Cid committing one of the most unnecessary (apparent) suicides in history,  but it still felt like a cohesive story just as sophisticated as one you could find in a novel or a film.  I was enthralled and it’s no exaggeration to say that I played the hell out of the game throughout my teenage years.  It got to the point where I was even remembering characters’ dialogue.

From the very start players saw just how much the series had evolved.  Instead of starting out with a group of warriors who pop up out of nowhere or a bunch of orphans, we begin with Cecil, who has a very well-established past as the airship admiral for the Kingdom of Baron (he even starts off at a much higher level than 1, which is a really clever touch).   By the time the game starts, Cecil is worried about Baron using military force to steal the elemental crystals from other cities and kingdoms, but for the time being his loyalty to his monarch outweighs his ethics.  This changes when Cecil and his friend, the dragoon Kain, is sent to deliver a package to the tribe of summoners in the valley of Mist, but the whole thing turns out to be an elaborate pretext for genocide against the summoners.  However, trying to trick his two best commanders into wiping  out an entire tribe is the proverbial straw, but in the chaos Kain ends up missing and Cecil is stuck with Rydia, a young woman who justifiably blames him for the death of her mother.  Riddled with guilt, Cecil sets out to somehow stop the Kingdom of Baron – and the man who is apparently pulling the strings, the sorcerer Golbez.

The game has gone through various re-releases, many adding new elements to the gameplay and new sidequests.  It even got a direct sequel, Final Fantasy IV: The After Years (see, Square Enix, doesn’t using a subtitle to designate a direct sequel make more sense than just calling it Final Fantasy IV-2?).  But in my opinion the original still holds up extremely well.  Even the “Easytype” version is worth playing, although admittedly it does take quite a bit of the fun out of the game.  The game is just beautiful simplicity, using the “new” graphic technology of the Super Nintendo to create detailed character portraits, unearthly multi-layered towns populated with monsters, dungeons with a bizarre quasi-organic look, and a truly monstrous and grotesque final boss.  I’m sure some tech snobs would complain that the gameplay really hadn’t changed much from the 8-bit years, but Final Fantasy IV still stands as proof that, while change is good, you don’t have to completely revolutionize gameplay for every installment in your megapopular video game franchise (hint, hint).  Anyway, I don’t want to end on a negative note, but, yes, this game is an indisputable classic and is still worth playing, even if it’s the watered-down American SNES version.  Sadly, though, even though Final Fantasy IV was both a commercial and critical smash when it first appeared in the United States, Square kept writing off their American fan base, so we wouldn’t see another real Final Fantasy sequel for another three years and instead we got…well, that’s for next time.

*That was mostly for you, Phantasy Star fans.

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Doctor Who Write-Ups

Doctor Who – The Myth Makers (1965)

The TARDIS arrives right in the middle of a fight between Hector and Achilles, who are too busy to notice a materializing box. The Doctor, Vicki, and Steven watch the fight via the monitor. Right away the Doctor is eager to go out and find out when and where they are, noting that the men outside are “doing more talking than they are fighting.” As the Doctor approaches them, Hector and Achilles argue, with Hector challenging Zeus to save Achilles and destroy Troy himself. With the Doctor’s appearance distracting Hector, Achilles stabs him to death. Given the timing, Achilles right away assumes that the Doctor is Zeus in the form of “an old beggar.” The Doctor plays along, but tries to talk his way back to the TARDIS after Achilles begs him to come to the camp of Agamemnon outside the walls of Troy. Odysseus, whom Achilles contemptuously describes as a “pirate”, scoffs at the idea that the Doctor is Zeus and suspects he is a Trojan spy. The Doctor describes the TARDIS as his “traveling temple” and imperiously demands that he be allowed to leave, but Odysseus has his men take the Doctor into captivity.

Vicki and Steven monitor the situation. Steven becomes worried and sets out, leaving behind Vicki whose ankle is too injured for her to travel. At the Greeks’ camp, Menelaus and Agamemnon argue. Menelaus is happy to let Helen stay at Troy, complaining that this hasn’t been the first time she’s been “abducted”, and calls Agamemnon on the fact that he’s just using “family honor” as an excuse to wage a war that would give him sole control of the trade route through the Bosphorus. Achilles interrupts their bickering by excitedly telling them that Zeus has arrived to help them; Agamemnon laughs and says he’s been listening to too much of their own propaganda. Still, Menelaus is concerned that the old man might actually turn out to be Zeus and orders for “Zeus” to be brought to him. Meanwhile Steven is spotted by Cyclops, Odysseus’ deaf, one-eyed servant, who uses sign language to report his findings to Odysseus, leading to Steven’s capture. Brought before “Zeus” and Agamemnon, Steven pretends not to recognize the Doctor, who claims Steven as his sacrifice. Soon enough, though, the Doctor is disturbed when Odysseus laughingly reports that Cyclops also discovered that “the temple” has disappeared.

So what’s happened to the TARDIS? Well, it turned out the curious Trojans took it into the city (after all, they had yet to learn about bringing strange objects behind city walls). Paris insists on keeping the TARDIS, while Cassandra, who had a vision of the “Trojan Horse” incident, demands that it be burned. Frightened, Vicki reluctantly leaves the TARDIS and tries to explain to King Priam that she’s from “the future,” but the Trojans are unable to grasp the concept. Priam, finding her name “outlandish”, rechristens her Cressida. Cassandra sputters about Vicki being a threat, but Priam dismisses her with “She’s all doom and gloom” and begins treating “Cressida” like she was his daughter. Stuck against the wall, the Doctor confesses that he’s not Zeus, although the Greek leaders are convinced that the Doctor and Steven have supernatural knowledge. Menelaus agrees to have them freed, if they can devise a way to conquer Troy; otherwise, they die. Steven thinks “inventing” the Trojan Horse is their best bet, but the Doctor doesn’t believe that it ever actually existed or that it would work, assuming that it was just a dramatic device imagined by Homer. Steven volunteers to pretend to be a Greek soldier to let himself be captured by Paris, so that he can find Vicki and the TARDIS. Left behind, the Doctor pitches a flying machine to Odysseus, but backs off when he learns that he’ll be the one to test fly it.

However, Steven’s plan backfires by getting Vicki in trouble when Cassandra notices that she recognizes Steven. Cassandra accuses her of being a spy and a sorceress and tries to have her killed; Priam defuses the situation by asking Vicki to prove herself by providing information that will help them win the war and keeps her and Stephen in a cell. Even behind bars, Vicki befriends Priam’s son Troilus and becomes close to him. Back with the Greeks, Odysseus threatens the Doctor, who finally offers up the idea of the Trojan Horse, which excites Odysseus. Odysseus and the Doctor prepare to carry through with building and leaving behind the Trojan Horse while the Greek army pretends to leave. Priam believes Vicki has been a good luck charm and frees her. When they see the Trojan Horse, the Trojans, who worship horses, think it’s another sign and decide to bring it into the city, despite Cassandra’s protests. Vicki considers warning them, but is afraid to change history. She helps set Steven free, but is soon saddled with Cressida’s handmaiden, Katarina, who is asked to spy on her. Still, Vicki finds a pretext to get Troilus out of the city to save him from what’s to come, which brings Troilus right into a fight with Achilles, a struggle he decisively wins.

In the midst of the carnage, Vicki is reunited with the Doctor. Vicki sends Katarina to bring Steven, who has been wounded in a fight with a Trojan soldier, to the Doctor while she searches for Troilus. When Katarina returns, Menelaus and Odysseus demand to claim Katarina as “spoils”, but the Doctor refuses, gets Steven and Katarina inside the TARDIS, and pilots the TARDIS away, leaving the two men to wonder if he was really Zeus all along. Back at Troy or what’s left of it, Vicki finds Troilus and convinces him that she didn’t betray him and his family, saying she’ll “explain someday.” They find Troilus’ cousin, Aeneas, and Vicki suggests that they leave the ruins of Troy with him and help him found “another Troy.” Back on the TARDIS, the Doctor assures a delirious Steven that he knew all along that Vicki wanted to stay with Troilus. A confused Katarina thinks she’s in the afterlife and that the Doctor is a god while an exhausted and anxious Doctor worries for Vicki’s future.

Continuity Notes

Vicki leaves, appropriately enough, for more or less the same reason as Susan. Incidentally, a spin-off audio play, “Frostfire”, serves as a sequel of sorts to this story, revealing that Vicki came to regret her decision to stay behind. It’s also the first appearance of new companion Katarina, but…well, we’ll see.

Comments

They must have made the writers put more effort into the historicals than into the more sci-fi oriented episodes. The plots are usually more complex and the dialogue is so much crisper. This rule holds true for “The Myth Makers”, which isn’t one of my favorite historicals but it’s still an episode I’d recommend. In the plus column, it really does feel like a multifaceted story, combining the Shakespearean gravitas of “The Crusaders” with a more nuanced attempt at the humorous tone of “The Romans.” Also it takes the core dilemma from “The Aztecs” and revisits it from a slightly different angle – what if onedoes have it in their power to drastically change history, and doing so would save the lives of many good people, a few of whom have been kind to you personally, but the possible consequences are too much to risk? Not enough mileage is quite gotten out of Vicki’s problem, at least when compared to how central Barbara’s struggle was in “The Aztecs”, but it still works well.

Of course, the acting does get hammy in parts; Frances White as Cassandra is defiantly (and, really, deliciously) guilty, as is Ivor Slator as Odysseus. Hammy acting in “Doctor Who”, though, isn’t something to really complain about; instead I just want to focus on Vicki’s sudden departure. It doesn’t quite get as strong a set-up as Susan’s while leaving about the same qualms; just as it was odd that the Doctor would leave his granddaughter on a post-apocalyptic Earth, so one has to question his judgment when he thinks a child of the 25th century would ever really be happy living in the Bronze Age, devoted Trojan stud or no. Speaking of which, can you begin to imagine how awkward Vicki’s eventual conversation with Troilus about what she knew all along would be? “Well, yes, conceivably I had information that would have saved your family from being enslaved and slaughtered and your society from being destroyed, but…well, I hope you can understand why I didn’t tell your dad anything.” Maybe that’s exactly why in “Frostfire” Vicki is living in Carthage instead of in Italy with the rest of the “New Trojans.”

That aside, even though it sticks mainly to the old show’s formula, it’s a promising start to the new production regime. It will be interesting to see where we go from here (especially since, like Cassandra, I do know at least a little about what’s around the corner).

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Adventures in Revisionism

Adventures in Revisionism: The Secret Ending of “G.I. Joe”

In all the 16 times he had been to the White House in the past, Duke had been in full military regalia and with the honed persona of a devout patriot to match.  This time, he came stinking of alcohol, in worn khakis and a dirty camouflage t-shirt.

“Come on, man.  I gotta see him.  I already told you a bunch of times I’m not armed.” Duke was slurring his words to the Secret Service agent, who Duke knew should have sent him kissing the pavement of Pennsylvania Avenue at least five minutes ago.  Whether he was restrained by a combination of pity and reverence for a member of the celebrated G.I. Joe team or by terror justly inspired by Duke’s reputation, Duke did not know or care.

“Sargeant Hauser, I…”

“God dammit, it’s Duke.  That’s the name I…”

“Duke, sir, I respect everything you’ve done for this country but I can’t let you see the President when you’re…uh…”

“It’s okay, Sam,” a voice said from down the hallway.  It was Flint, dressed in a tuxedo that complimented his square jaw.  However, Duke never got used to seeing him in anything outside camouflage jeans and v-neck shirt.  In Flint’s current civilized state, it took Duke a full thirty seconds to match the voice to the strange, almost unrecognizable figure before it.

“Flint!  You’re still in the Secret Service, right?  You gotta help me.  They won’t…”

“I’ll take care of it,” Flint said through a forced smile.  Turning to Sam, he said in a soft voice that verged on a preemptive apology, “I promise to take full responsibility.”

With a sigh, Sam began to leave.  “Alright.”  He didn’t even look back at Duke.

With Flint positioned carefully right at Duke’s side, they began the walk to the Oval Office.  Duke laughed.  “I’m sorry.  I know I look like shit.”

“You look fine, Duke.  Right now you probably think I look like a joke in this monkey suit.  You know, that’s what made getting shot at with lasers all the time worth it;  getting to pick our own damn uniforms.”

“Amen, man.”  Duke sighed, and for a minute the floor seemed like it would drop out from under him.

“You okay?”  Flint asked, stopping and grabbing Duke’s arm.  Duke looked at him with eyes not unlike the expression of an injured pet.

“No. No, I’m not.  And I have to ask…did you know?  I mean, do you know why I’m here?”

Flint froze for a minute.  “I…I think I know.  I swear I didn’t know at all when I was with the Joes, but when I joined the Secret Service…”

“Yeah?”

“I got hammered too.”

Duke laughed, a little too long and hard.  Flint forced himself to laugh too.  For the first time in his career, Duke thought about abandoning a mission and letting Flint take him somewhere, anywhere.  But the things Zartan said in the interrogation room, and what Duke’s own contacts in the government finally told him after weeks of threatening and badgering about the real reason COBRA helped the Joes fight some drug lord that one time…

“We were so stupid,” Duke blurted out.

“I know,” Flint agreed.

“I mean it.  All the stupid bases in plain sight, their access to laser weaponry, those damn recreation centers in freakin’ Antarctica…we kept guessing that they were getting money from the Ayatollah and the Soviets and Kim il-Sung…”

“It wasn’t just guessing, Duke,” Flint said, although he barely sounded convinced himself.  “The paper trails…”

“Never led to their real big donor, the American taxpayer.  God, every time I think…”

“We’re here, Duke,” Flint interrupted, knocking on the door.  “Mr. President?”

Reagan sat at his desk, and beamed when he saw Duke.  He had always been an enthusiastic supporter of G.I. Joe, or was that also a lie?

“Mr. President, I…”  Before Flint could finish, Duke stumbled forward slightly, the words he had rehearsed being unleashed in a tone miraculously free from the influence of booze.

“All these years, we were fighting, risking our lives against what we thought was a terrorist organization being funded by every bad guy in the world.  But you were paying both of us!  And for what?  The War on Drugs?  Destabilize a foreign regime here and there?!  All the times we risked our lives, all the terrible things COBRA did to our allies, our own country…Jesus Christ, for what?!   Why’d you do it, Gipper?!”

Reagan shined serenity.  Then, after what seemed to be an eternity of silence and careful thought, he said uncertainly:  “Duke, I…I just do not recall.”

The mere words felled Duke more effectively than anything COBRA or Jack Daniels could muster.  He collapsed to the rug of the Oval Office, christening the fabric with the tears of a truly fallen soldier.

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Uncategorized

Doctor Who – Mission to the Unknown (1965)

I forgot to mention, at the end of “Galaxy 4” the Doctor and Vicki spot a random planet and wonder (for some reason) what’s happening there. This just happens to be it…

On an alien jungle, a man in a space suit awakes on the ground and mumbles, “Kill, kill.” Elsewhere two astronauts, Lowery and Cory, bicker over whether or not they should have bothered exploring the planet, named Kembal, in the first place. The man from earlier, who was the only other member of their crew, interrupts their work and attacks. Cory kills him and discovers that the man was pricked with a “Varga thorn”, causing his insanity. Later Garvy’s body slowly transforms into a Varga plant. Cory reveals to Lowery that he’s an agent sent from Earth to investigate the growing interplanetary empire of the Daleks, which may pose a threat to Earth. He brought their ship to Kembal because he suspected the Daleks have a base there. The appearance of the Varga plant, a dangerous hybrid of plant and animal that is actually native to Skaro and that the Daleks use as sentries, helps confirm Cory’s suspicions. Unfortunately, the ship must be repaired before Cory can leave and inform Earth.

When repairs go slowly, Lowery prepares a device that can send out a SOS. Spying a Dalek craft, Cory and Lowery flee into the jungle as the Daleks destroy their ship. While making the escape Lowery finds that he’s been stuck with a Varga thorn and tries desperately, without warning Cory, to suck out the poison. At the Dalek base, the Dalek’s leader, the Dalek Supreme meets the leaders of six allied planets and all agree to a joint invasion of Earth and its colonies in the solar system. When Lowery finds that he’s turning into a Varga plant, he begs Cory to kill him – and he complies. Cory is only able to send off part of the message before he, too, is found and killed by the Daleks.

Continuity Notes

It’s not clear how this fits into the already convoluted Dalek chronology we have so far, especially in relation to “The Dalek Invasion of Earth.” Lowery knows about the Daleks, but scoffs at the idea that they pose any threat to Earth, while Cory implies that the Daleks have only recently started conquering other planets. 

This also stands out as the only episode where neither Doctor or any of his companions appear at all. 

Finally this is the last episode produced by the show’s first producer, Verity Lambert. With her departure the only trace of the original show left is William Hartnell himself. 

Sign of the Times 

Lowery uses a rigged-up tape player to send the SOS (and, no, it’s not a tape player made to pass off as some sort of futuristic device; the dialogue actually describes the device as a modified tape player).

Comments

It’s a little unfair to review just this episode, since it’s meant to be a prologue to – and arguably should be treated as the first episode of – the “The Daleks’ Master Plan.” However, the proceeding serial, “The Myth Makers”, gets in the way, so we have instead a stand-alone and Doctor- and companion-less episode. 

Apparently the writer, who is of course Terry Nation, felt that “The Chase” was much too light-hearted and returns to the darker tone that characterized “The Dalek Invasion of Earth.” Without the lifeline of the Doctor, though, it reveals just how dark the First Doctor era can be: our hero without hesitation kills two other people who are subjected to a fate worse than death and fails to even warn Earth about the massive invasion planned by the Daleks and their allies. It really does feel as if Nation was trying to return the Daleks to form to prepare for the big epic. So the question is…does it work?

Well, one of the strange things about going through the First Doctor era is that I started to feel the exact same emotion I felt watching the 2005 series: Dalek overload. After all, Season 2 had seen not one but two lengthy serials featuring the Daleks, so I suspect audiences were starting to feel the same. Still, having never seen “The Daleks’ Master Plan”, the prologue does have me curious about at least what the tone of the whole affair will be.

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Doctor Who Write-Ups

Doctor Who – Galaxy 4 (1965)

On the next planet the TARDIS lands on, the Doctor is curious to find that this planet is hospitable to life yet completely silent. Setting out, they encounter a robot that senses its way by touch and sound, and which Vicki christens a “Chumbley.” They assume the Chumbley is harmless, but while exploring another Chumbley threatens them with a gun and forces them to follow it. Suddenly a group of human-looking women calling themselves Drahvins damage the Chumbley and claim that they were sent by their leader, Maaga, to rescue them – and bring them to her. Maaga tells them that they crashlanded on the planet along with the crew from another planet, who are from a “disgusting” species named the Rills, and that the planet, located in Galaxy 4, will explode in a matter of days. The Drahvins’ ship is badly damaged, enough that they need the Rills’ ship to have a chance of escaping, and Maaga adds that the Rills had caused their own ship to crash in the first place. Maaga explains that the Drahvins are a matriarchal civilization that grows a small number of men in labs for the sake of breeding and fighting. Even though the Doctor and the others figure out quickly that their society is militaristic, Maaga insists she and her crew were on a peaceful exploration mission.

Learning more from Maaga, the Doctor and Stephen suspect that the Rills are not actually aggressive, but may have actually offered Maaga their help. The Doctor and Steven head back to the TARDIS so the Doctor can use his equipment to determine if the Rills were lying about the eminent apocalypse. Maaga refuses to let them all leave, for the sake of “safety”, and Vicki volunteers to stay behind, where she watches as Maaga viciously berates her crew for failing against the Chumbleys. At the TARDIS the Doctor confirms the Rills’ diagnosis and are distracted when one of the Chumbleys apparently tries to blast its way into the TARDIS. After returning, the Doctor refuses to help the Drahvins unless they try to negotiate with the Rills and leave together. A furious Maaga holds Steven hostage and orders them to steal the Rills’ ship for them. Considering the circumstances, the Doctor reasons that the Rills must not be hostile. Vicki and the Doctor break into the Rill ship and Vicki is apparently captured. She is horrified by what little she sees of the appearance of the Rills, but calms down when the Rills communicate with her telepathically.

The Rills tell Vicki that they never attacked the Drahvins; instead the Drahvins attacked first and the Rills retaliated, causing both ships to crash, and the Rills offered to take the Drahvins with them once their ship was repaired. The Rills then explain that their ship has been repaired but it’s out of fuel and there’s not enough time to gather enough to leave the planet, so the Doctor charges the Rills’ ship by tapping their ships’ engines into the TARDIS’ power source. The grateful Rills send the Chumbleys to rescue Steven, who was nearly suffocated in an air lock while trying to escape. Maaga engineers a last ditch campaign to capture the Rills’ ship, but fails and is left behind with her soldiers on the exploding planet as the Rills and the TARDIS escape.

Comments

Maybe it was still fresh in 1965, but the first thing even people who are not sci-fi devotees would notice is the appearance of the “hideous aliens are actually benevolent, the familiar-looking if not beautiful aliens are actually pure evil” cliche. What I do know was already a hoary cliche in 1965 was – and this is one of my own personal favorite ’50s and ’60s sci-fi motifs – the cruel, emotionless Amazonians. It’s not quite as grating as it might have been – for one thing, unlike in, say, Queen of Outer Space or Cat-Women from the Moon (told you I really was familiar with this particular sci-fi cliche) Steven actually doesn’t seduce one of the Drahvins and introduces her to the glory of emotions – but the usual sense that the audience is supposed to find it all so cleverly ironic since it’s supposed to be women acting contrary to their “nature” is there.

To be fair, though, it’s actually the characterization of Maaga that adds the spice to the episode. She’s not a sympathetic villain by any stretch, but at the same time there’s a method to her fascism, and both her portrayer’s sincere performance and her character’s frustration at being stranded with soldiers conditioned to be all-but-mindless drones are quite well fleshed-out. On the same note, the idea of a society whose members are all bio-engineered for specific tasks might not have been original even at the time this episode aired, but it’s given some depth here. Unfortunately, there’s so little else that makes this episode special or that’s even worth commenting on. The Rills are notable only as perhaps the most cheaply portrayed alien species we’ve seen yet; the “big reveal” of the Rills’ appearance turns out to be a close-up image of a spider superimposed on the screen. The plot itself gives the game away almost at the very beginning. When they try to make it seem that the Rills could still turn out to be hostile well into the middle act, it becomes pretty much insulting. From the first episode on, the whole story just treads water until reaching a conclusion that only a person who has never seen any work of genre fiction before could not predict.

Fellow classic “Who” reviewer David the Wavid compared this serial to a “Star Trek” episode, and I think that’s a dead-on comparison. Tied in with the twist is an idealistic moral, in this instance “Don’t judge a book by its cover”; said moral, apparently for the slow kids, is shoehorned in with a heavy-handed monologue or two; and there’s even an extremely advanced to the point of near omnipotence and perfectly friendly alien species thrown in. The only difference, I think, is that “Star Trek” was usually much better about its mysteries than the way the one in this serial is presented.

I will say that by this point in the serial I like how the companions have shaped up. Vicki does nicely as the veteran companion while still maintaining a youthful personality. It’s much more interesting than her just being Susan’s replacement. And already I like Steven. It seems like he’s already becoming what Ian and Barbara were supposed to have been originally: someone who constantly challenges the Doctor.

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