This Week in Geek (1-07/04/13)


DVDs: The Master is really about Dianetics, isn't it? Or the Urantia Foundation. Any of those self-actualization "cults" that sprang up in the 50s and 60s and which produced what I've always called "brainwashing books". Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the L. Ron Hubbard figure, a modern mystic toying with pop psychology and science fiction ideas, regressing his followers to their past lives where the problems of today might find their source and cure. The story is told from the point of view of Joaquin Phoenix's character, Freddie, a disturbed and somewhat simple-minded WWII veteran who comes under the Master's sway, but seems the most improbable person to ever get something out of "the Cause". As with most of P.T. Anderson's films, there's a meandering quality to the work that's at once a strength and a weakness. On the one hand, it uses memory in the same way the Master's "processing" does, but on the other, it wears on the audience's patience, clocking in at probably a half-hour too long. Its underlying themes are a bit opaque to me still, so this is likely to be a film I truly discover on the second or third viewing. It's a critique of the power of cult, an apocalyptic father-son story, and gloriously humanistic, but the narrative is so low-key that I have a hard time grasping it whole. The DVD doesn't really help unlock its mysteries, but does include a 20-minute montage of deleted scenes, assembled and scored to create a dreamy short film that's quite beautiful and lyrical. Thanks for going the extra mile with the deleted material.

Our Kung Fu Friday selection was Triangle, an intriguing directorial experiment in which Tsui Hark, Ringo Lam and Johnnie To - in that order, though I wouldn't have guessed it - each direct a third of a film. It shouldn't come as a surprise that the experience is perhaps TOO full. Triangle starts as a heist movie, though oddly, the MacGuffin is an ancient burial vest made of gold, but the characters' lives get in the way. Simon Yam's character is haunted by his first wife's death, and his second is completely crazy AND sleeping with a crooked cop. That cop's informant is Louis Koo's character, a nervous taxi driver who also owes money to some gangsters. Sun Hong Lei plays the third partner, the one who brings the treasure to their attention. It all resolves in a massive shoot-out/comedy of errors, while the audience starts to put some of the pieces together. Funny, sentimental, action-packed, tense... I liked it, though it seemed a bit slow and random at the beginning, it is ultimately a fun ride, with a richness that unlocks once you've been through it. The DVD has an all-too brief making of and behind the scenes footage that truly captures the boredom one might feel on a movie set, if nothing else.

And now for what will seem like an overdose of Doctor Who. First, a look at Special Edition DVD extras on four serials from the Key to Time boxed set. Reviews of the stories themselves were rendered for your pleasure over the course of the last couple weeks. In brief, Douglas Adams' first Doctor Who work, The Pirate Planet, was a fun and colorful romp with lots of big ideas. The extras include the original release commentary, with director Pennant Roberts and actor Bruce Purchase (the Pirate Captain), and they lean heavily on the production side of things. A second, more recent commentary with Tom Baker, Mary Tamm and script editor Anthony Read is more about watching the show again, having fun and recounting anecdotes. The making of is excellent, with contributions from many more people, including vintage interviews with Douglas Adams himself. Adams fans will be fascinated by this regardless of their interest in Doctor Who. Film inserts, deleted scenes and outtakes don't bring a lot to the experience, but these DVDs like to be thorough (similarly, Continuities show us how the show was marketed in "next on Doctor Who..." fashion, hardly important, but there for completeness' sake). The Weird Science 70s science show spoof is sadly, overlong and unfunny once you get past the obvious bad CSO gags. The idea is to look at the Key to Time season's science and act like it makes sense, but it's a grind. A photo gallery and production notes are of course part of the package (they always are, I won't mention it again).

The Stones of Blood started out as a Gothic tale, but ends in silliness aboard a hyperspace ship. Go back for the review if you must. The DVD again includes two commentary tracks, the original with Tamm and director Darrol Blake, and the second with Tamm again, this time with Baker, Susan Engel (Vivien Fay) and writer David Fisher. Together, they give a full picture of what the production was like, though Engel's presence prevents anyone from mentioning just how over the top she is. The making of is once again a solid affair, and is supplemented by a featurette on Hammer Horror's impact on Doctor Who, a visit to the stone circle where Mary Tamm questions local experts, very slim deleted scenes (trims, really), a vintage featurette in which designer Mat Irvine builds the spaceship model, Continuities, and both Blue Peter's and Nationwide's 15th anniversary celebration segments. The latter includes a sit-down interview with Carole Anne Ford, Mary Tamm and Tom Baker, in which the latter shows his usual contempt for interviewers.

The Androids of Tara provided a delightful fantasy based on The Prisoner of Zenda, and that code is variably unlocked by the original release's commentary track (no new track, sadly) with Baker, Tamm and director Michael Hayes, as well as the making of. The rest of the extras package is a bit slim, with the discussion of the use of doubles on Doctor Who strangely omitting this serial. There's a Now & Then location featurette that returns to the castle and its grounds, where very little has changed, really. Not even Continuities? As possibly the strongest serial in the Key to Time, I would have liked to see a little more affection showered on its disc, like a featurette on The Prisoner of Zenda itself, or the Mary Tamm retrospective that's on the next story. This was, after all, her best serial.

The Power of Kroll was disappointing as a story, especially considering the involvement of both Robert Holmes and Philip Madoc, and the trend continues in the extras. The audio commentary by Tom Baker and John Leeson (K9, or in this story, Dugeen) is lazy and often irrelevant. It's from the original release, and no attempt was made to get other people into a sound booth for the Special Edition. Worse, there's no making of documentary, a strange omission given the "Special Edition" status of the disc. Instead, there's a visit to the locations, studio footage of a scene that has to be reshot a number of times, and a retrospective interview with Mary Tamm that's FAR from what I would call in-depth. The DVD's saving grace is the Philip Madoc retrospective interview, but again too short. Oh, and the Christmas continuities are terrifying.

Audios: Having been contacted by Enlightenment to review Big Finish's Fourth Doctor Adventures Season 2, I promptly got to work listening to Season 1. Oh my, WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN ALL MY LIFE? I don't know if Tom Baker was providing some of his famous ad libs, or if he's just bringing the best out of the various writers, but these have all the wit of his classic era and then some. His voiced has aged and mellowed his Doctor, but his relationship to Leela (Louise Jameson) is just as sparkly as before, and her role in the stories, much better on the whole. The Season takes place between The Talons of Weng-Chiang and Horror of Fang Rock, a tough act to follow and a difficult one to preface, but the first three stories, at least, manage it. The first is Destination: Nerva, the Doctor's first chronological (in absolute time that is) visit to the space station, currently a space dock, and unlucky as ever, where an alien threat has just showed up in the very charming guise of Lord Jack Corrigan, leading to tragedy for the crew. Nicholas Briggs brings a sensitivity and a sparkling wit that isn't always part of his stock and trade in this great season opener.

It's Justin Richards' The Renaissance Man that blew me out of the water however. At its core, it's a crazy kitchen sink episode in which a visit to a future era museum goes out of control, knowledge is stolen, data is mistaken for knowledge, and multiple historical eras are invoked. But oh, how funny. I listen to these on an ipod, and I caught myself laughing out loud a number of times, attracting the puzzled looks of people around me, people who likely wondered how I could laugh so much at what they thought must have been music. Richards' audio play amuses, but it also has something to say about the nature of information and how our culture is breeding far more specialists than generalists these days. And Ian McNeice's presence doesn't hurt it either. One I'd love to listen to again, sooner than later.

In The Wrath of the Iceni, John Dorney writes a story about women. His one-sentence pitch: Leela meets Boudica. Are all warrior-women the same? Or will Leela's faith in the fierce Briton amazon turn out to be misplaced? This is a more serious story, certainly, and informed by the new series (in particularly, The Fires of Pompeii), the fourth Doctor must prevent his savage companion from altering history. A third woman, Bragnar, is given the position of alternate companion when Leela turns rogue, and it's through her that we come to understand the Doctor's impact on this doomed culture. Overall, a story where you can't quite side with anyone for long, where heroes are also villains, and doing the right thing will not feel honorable.

Zines: No, I'm not done with Doctor Who-related stuff quite yet. I also finished The Diary of the Doctor Who Role-Playing Games, issue 17 this week. No theme, this time around, just catering to Whovian gamers. Gaming articles cover such things as perception filters, introducing new players to a campaign, attribute point distribution analysis in DWAITAS, random generators that can be found online, and how to start a campaign. In the latter's vein, there's a long synopsis of one particular long-running campaign that can be used as inspiration and example, with interviews with two of its GMs, one of which designed Cubicle 7's Airship Pirates. There are, of course, adventure scenarios, including a Godzilla crossover based on Destroy All Monsters, a Terrileptil module (with stats for the monsters in all three systems), a Hath story that could act as prequel to The Doctor's Daughter, and a oddball mystery set in a bank. Leela also gets the full stat treatment, in all three systems, collating her previously published stats into a more inclusive whole. Reviews of miniatures and the book Who Is the Doctor complete this varied and useful package.

Gaming: Sleeping Dogs was over too soon for me, so I decided, for the first time ever, to dabble in downloadable content. It's a bit unfortunate that these add-ons were so short, because they were pretty cool. The first is Nightmare at North Point, which turns Wei's world of undercover cops and triads into a Chinese horror film, with cool hopping vampires, demons, and an eerie, misty look throughout Hong Kong's poorer district. At only five missions, it's over before you know it, and even the Achievements don't need too much grinding. Zodiac Tournament isn't a separate scenario, but an add-on to the main game, an extra police assignment that sends you to a new island on the map where you can pretty much experience Enter the Dragon. The cut scenes have an old film look with scratches and sepia tones, and the sound track screams 70s. But once again, it's too short. Just one fight after another and little depth (what, I never get revenge on the eyepatch girl?), and no achievements to collect. The enemies have some cool new moves, and you can get a few of those by wearing mixed martial arts or thai boxing costumes, but I'm not sure how much of a replay value those unlockables give you. Year of the Snake, an expansion where Wei becomes a street cop, has a lot more to do, but the premise isn't as exciting. I'll let you know how it goes.

Hyperion to a Satyr posts this week:
Act IV, Scene 4 - Branagh '96

Your Daily Splash Page this week features a splash from every DC title, alphabetically, from Hourman to Huntress.