Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Day of the Doctor: From War Criminal to Anti-Christ

I'm here to talk about The Day of the Doctor. About apocalypses and reset buttons. And about barns. But let's get the praise out the way. Just about everyone has declared this the best anniversary special to date, and I'll go even stronger: it's not only the best multi-Doctor special in the show's history, it's the only good one. The Three Doctors (10th Anniversary, 1973), The Five Doctors (20th Anniversary, 1983), and The Two Doctors (1985), were nothing more than excuses to have the Doctor interact with his previous selves, in lame stories that didn't hold up under scrutiny. (Those who defend these stories are presumably the same folks who adore fanwank like Journey's End, which is actually even worse.) The Day of the Doctor is not only a good story, it's a glorious one with plenty of solid thought behind it. Most significantly, it involves a reset that's not a cheat.

Resets have been a major bone of contention throughout the new series, and I complain about them myself. But they can be very legitimate plot devices. Examples of good resets are found in Father's Day and The Big Bang. Bad resets are in The Last of the Time Lords and The Power of Three. If you're going to rewrite history, undo holocaust, and resurrect everyone (and everything) in the blink of an eye, you'd better do it right, and you'd damn well better supply enough payoff to compensate in other ways. Victory can't be cheap; it has to cost. The Day of the Doctor costs mostly by way of the past. The Doctor has been drowning in moral guilt for seven seasons now. That's a long time for us to be without Gallifrey, and a very long time for our hero to suffer as a monstrous war criminal. When he finally undoes his decision -- when his Tenth and Eleventh incarnations persuade his earlier self that wiping out his own race doesn't have to be the answer -- the solution is shrewd, and it's not as if everything is magically restored as it should be. We don't know where Gallifrey is. It's frozen in a moment of time, preserved and keeping the Time Lords alive, yes, but not so as anyone would know it. Least of all the three Doctors who will forget their group-effort reset as soon as they resume their timelines, thereby preserving history to the extent that in the past they will still believe they destroyed Gallifrey. In other words, the Doctor will suffer just as before. In his mind, he will have murdered his own race, because (in one timestream) that's still exactly what he did. There's your cost.

The time was ripe to bring back the Time Lords, and I'm anxious to see how they get unlocked. This is a reset I applaud without reservation. So let's talk about barns.

The Doctors' decision to commit mass destruction or not takes place inside a barn, of all places. What the fuck is a barn doing in Doctor Who like this? Is it just a random hide-away to agonize over a monstrous decision? Why not stay in the TARDIS? You can't get more private and safely secluded than that. Why drag the Moment (the red-buttoned artifact of mass destruction) all the way through a desert... and into a barn?

It didn't take long for me to register the barn's symbolism, especially so soon after ranking the Narnian Chronicles. It comes from The Last Battle. It's not nearly as blatant as Moffat's Christmas special, The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe, but it's still as clear as a bell. Both The Day of the Doctor and The Last Battle are about an apocalypse initiated inside a barn, where weird visions and harsh moral judgments unfold. The difference being that what happens in the Doctors' barn saves Gallifrey from destruction (this time anyway), contra Aslan's decision from within the barn to wipe out his precious creation of Narnia. In unmaking his decision, the Doctor has gone from being a proto-Aslan to an anti-Aslan figure. In other words, he's become an anti-Christ of sorts, which could be a compliment in this case. He's no longer a war criminal who commits genocide (on his own race) and xenocide (on the Daleks). He refrains from the mass destruction and hyper-justice demanded by apocalypses.

I wonder if anyone else has noticed this barn-apocalypse allusion. I haven't seen any reviewer pick up on it, but I don't believe for a moment that Moffat wasn't thinking of the lion-savior Aslan. He's used Narnia themes before and is well known for his stated intent to make Doctor Who into a "dark fairy tale". You can't get darker than The Last Battle. It traumatizes children and pisses people off to this day. But of course, that's the nature of apocalypses. They're morally frustrating like the Book of Job, and in Aslan's case force point-blank questions about justice and fury.

We've certainly tasted moments of the Doctor's own "feline fury" over the past seven seasons. Three particular moments stand out in this regard: (1) the Ninth Doctor in Dalek, when he's about to obliterate the Dalek who is acquiring a conscience, and an appalled Rose barely succeeds in stopping him; (2) the Tenth Doctor in Waters of Mars, when he becomes a ranting megalomaniac and defies the laws of time for a supposed "greater good"; and (3) the Eleventh Doctor in The Beast Below, when he contemplates murdering a starwhale to everyone's horror, and he bellows out in rage that no human being has any right to question his decisions. His baggage from the Time War overwhelms him in these cases (and actually defeats him in the second one, with no Rose or Amy to stop him), and I suspect we'll see less lethal outbursts like these now that he's finally made peace with himself.

Let me close on a couple of side notes. As we all know, the War Doctor played by John Hurt was originally scripted as the Ninth Doctor, but Christopher Eccleston wouldn't reprise his role. So Moffat came up with the idea of the "War Doctor", an incarnation between #8 and #9, and we learn that it was he, not the Ninth, who destroyed Gallifrey in the Time War. This logically demands renumbering the Doctors, but fans are furiously debating this. For convenience sake, I do think we should keep calling Eccleston the Ninth, Tennant the Tenth, and Smith the Eleventh. But they're not, and those who insist they are on grounds that the War Doctor doesn't deserve a number because as a mass murderer he lost the right to the name miss the point. Incarnations have nothing to do with names and titles, and everything do with biology. Like it or not, John Hurt is now biologically the 9th Doctor, Eccleston is the 10th, Tennant the 11th, and Smith the 12th. Which means the Doctor gets only one more life -- his final 13th to be played by Peter Capaldi.

And speaking finally of those thirteen lives -- each of whom are being honored by this 50th anniversary special -- the sudden involvement of all of them in the rescue operation was so splendid I wanted to cheer. The sight of a baker's dozen TARDISes hurtling into the atmosphere of Gallifrey was more than a jaw-dropping spectacle; it was every bit necessary. To freeze and hide a planet this way would require a hell of a lot more TARDIS power than even three could provide. And speaking of a "baker's" dozen, the surprise of Tom Baker in the epilogue was a delicious treat... with the camera winking at us through every line of hilarious bullshit implying that the Fourth Doctor actually lives on as a museum curator in London.

Rating: 4 ½ stars out of 5.

Friday, November 22, 2013

The Gazetteer of Hell: Fire and Ice

Before getting to the content of this long-awaited product, it's worth reflecting on its title. A gazetteer is usually understood to be a keyed map of a known geographical region. This is distinct from a module, which in my day (read: the Golden Age of D&D, '77-'83) was a more detailed layout of a site located "off the beaten path" so to speak. Modules were something you could pick up and drop easily into your own setting. They came with recommended locations in Mystarra or Greyhawk, to be sure, but you could ignore that advice and put the Caves of Chaos and the Tomb of Horrors wherever you wanted. As most of us did. That was the whole point of modules -- they were modular, which means based on a concept of interchangeability. Gazetteers were different. They sketched the larger fixed regions of cities, territories, and kingdoms.

In my day, the only D&D products that were actually called "gazetteers" were the domains of Mystarra. But the regions of Middle-Earth were also gazetteers. Iron Crown Enterprises called them modules, but they weren't. There's nothing modular about Southern Mirkwood and Rohan, nor even sites within them like Dol Guldur and Helm's Deep. They're name locations, and everyone played them as such. We sent our D&D PCs to Middle-Earth; we certainly didn't bring Goblin-Gate to Greyhawk, or plant Rivendell in a Mystarran valley.

With this in mind, Geoff Dale's Fire and Ice is a gazetteer in the proper sense, covering the entire region of lower Hell (Circles 7-9), and keying general descriptions of every encounter area -- a whopping 434 of them. This is different from the classic Inferno module, which zoomed in on select encounter areas in upper Hell (Circles 1-4) with painstaking detail (and could pass as a module, even though it's still the "fixed" plane of Hell; Outer Planes can be easily inserted into a Prime-Material adventure via gates, special portals, etc). Both formats have their strengths, and what I like about Fire and Ice is the huge sandbox approach. There's no plot, no railroad, no script slavery, just a massive sprawl of geography and encounter sites that fire the imagination. It does what the old-school D&D modules did on a lower scale, leg-working architectural design and leaving DMs the complete freedom to plot adventures as they please.

As expected, Fire and Ice is faithful to Dante's vision. Circle 7 is the Fire -- the desert of blasphemers. Here vertical jets of flame erupt from the sand, a steady rain of fire pelts down from above, and the temperature gets up to a smoldering 125 degrees. Sodomites are also punished here (running across the burning sands), and I'm glad this wasn't omitted for sake of modern sensibilities. We're enlightened enough to know that homosexuality is fine, but the Inferno isn't about our moral compass. It's a particular vision that should seem rather alien and perversely unfair. Morally good atheists don't deserve to be in a place like Hell, but that's why the Noble Castle in Circle 1 is so effective and haunting.

(If you're wondering why I haven't mentioned the River of Boiling Blood and the Wood of the Suicides, it's because Dale puts them in Circle 6, not 7. See Fight On #3 for his superb module of the fifth and sixth circles.)

Skipping down the bottom, Circle 9 is the Ice -- the frozen swamp of Cocytus encasing all breeds of traitors and backbiters. It's a constant 15 degrees, with winds blowing up to 80 miles/hr, and where white fogs obscure vision and black-cloud thunder makes normal speech impossible. Lucifer is confined at the pit's center, a grotesque invincible terror at 750 feet tall, and unfortunately the only ticket out of Hell for PCs. That's assuming they can get this far.

The in-between of Circle 8 has always been my favorite, containing some of Hell's most creative torments. This is how Dante's second bolgia, for instance, translates into gaming terms. It's the punishing ground for the flatterers, who live in a pit of shit since that's all they spoke in mortal life:
"A noxious mix of sewage, offal, and other liquid filth fills the Pit to a height of 7 FT, and clouds of buzzing insects (Flesh Flies, Poison Gnats, Giant Mosquitos) swarm above the liquid. Mortals swimming across the filth contract 1d3 disease each from the contact. Determine diseases from 1d12: (1) Dengue Fever, (2) Tuberculosis, (3) Diptheria, (4) Tetanus, (5) Malaria, (6) Elephantitus, (7) Yellow Fever, (8) Dysentery, (9) Smallpox, (10) Typhoid Fever, (11) Tapeworms, (12) Bubonic Plague; see Codicil of Maladies for details. An encounter occurs to mortals swimming the muck... (1) Mud Snakes, (2) Giant Slugs, (3) Giant Leeches, (4) Type 8A Devils. Mortals flying above the muck are attacked by Type 8A Devils." (p 64)
Over the entirety of the eighth circle are dark clouds with black streamers draping to the ground like tentacles, red flashes lighting up the sky every 10 minutes, and a foul stench (presumably emanating from the second pit just cited) that causes PCs to suffer rude abdominal cramps. It's great stuff, and the kind of atmosphere we've come to expect from Dale.

In terms of aesthetic, Fire and Ice leaves something to be desired. The cover isn't impressive, and the font makes me think of an old-fashioned typewriter. The other Inferno products (Inferno Beastiary, Codicil of Maladies) have a great aesthetic, so I'm not sure what happened here. For me, however, this isn't a serious strike. Some of the best old-school modules were primitive looking too.

The hex mapwork is satisfactory. Circle 7 has a 20-mile width ending at a 1500-foot cliff to Circle 8, which has an 8-mile width ending at a 1200-foot cliff to Circle 9, which has 6-mile width ending at the centerpoint of Lucifer -- the only means of escape from Hell. (Actually Circle 9 has a 12-mile width, not 6, since it's the bottom and thus a complete circle without a "doughnut hole".)

Keyed on these hex-maps are the 434 encounter areas, which include devil towers, palaces, legion headquarters, oases, toxic pools, perverted shrines, unexpected treasures, and strange surprises you wouldn't necessarily expect to find in Hell. But again, per the gazetteer approach, none of the actual structures are mapped out. If that's what you're looking for -- an analog of what Inferno did for Circles 1-4 -- you will have to await future products. So far the plan includes Diabolic Palace (the home of a devil prince), Oasis of Koessa (a desert oasis on Circle 7), and Samael's Tower (the fortress of the Devil King on the inner rim of Circle 8), but I suspect there will be even more. And there will eventually be gazetteers like Fire and Ice for the other six circles. When the entire Inferno project is done, it will be the best old-school sandbox, eclipsing even The Lost City and Vault of the Drow. That's something I never would have dreamed possible.

Rating: 4 ½ stars out of 5.