Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Samantha Briggs - the "lost" companion

She helped the Doctor crack the mystery of an airport where people were disappearing and replaced by pod people, and she became fast friends with Jamie.

Yet, no list of companions I've ever seen ever counts her among their number at all! But for a while (one six-part episode, The Faceless Ones) Samantha Briggs was a companion of Doctor Who during the Troughton era.

(This one's for you, Eddie, the biggest Doctor Who fan ever.)

It's not surprising she's not better remembered because her debut episode, The Faceless Ones, is totally lost as a result of a mixup at the BBC. After Ben and Polly, the two most "swinging sixties" of all the Doctor Who companions, chose to leave together, there was a mad scramble for several episodes to find a companion to be "the girl."

Samantha Briggs was immediately chosen to be that girl, but unfortunately, despite a personal plea from man-candy Frazer Hines, she turned down a regular part on the series.

The character the show creators eventually chose as the new companion the very next serial was va-va-voom Victoria in the Evil of the Daleks, but not after some deliberation: the character they originally wanted was the Waterfield's maid, Mollie!

Samantha Briggs was groomed to be "the girl" in the very episode Ben and Polly leave, something that the actress's departure put a major crimp in. She was a tough, gutsy, ornery Liverpool girl from the 1960s. More than any other companion, she and Jamie had real chemistry right from their debut episode.

She couldn't have been more different from the sidekick they eventually went with. Victoria was a proper Victorian girl whose most distinctive attribute...other than the obvious, of course...was her Fay Wray scream. Samantha on the other hand was very "mod," a tough London bird and honestly, was a bit of a schnauzer-face. Victoria though, was quite possibly the foxiest companion, at least until that cave girl.

(The irony of Victoria being the prim and proper Victorian lady never ceases to amaze me since apparently in real life she was the Goodbye Girl for the Falkland Islands invasion.)

For the life of me I don't understand why Samantha Briggs isn't considered an official companion. She played a huge role in the resolution of the story, became friends with everyone, and was a scrappy engine for the events of the story. She was clearly groomed to be the big new companion. And even the fact she was only in one six-part serial isn't enough to disqualify her since Sara Kingdom was considered an official companion despite being an ally for only one episode as well! One that is also, by the way, lost.

I for one, would like to see Samantha Briggs restored as an officially numbered companion! That means, when numbering the companions, bumping everyone above her up one spot.

By the way, the actress that played Samantha Briggs, Pauline Collins, was far from done with Doctor Who when she turned down a part as a companion. She later on showed up in the new series playing, of all things, Queen Victoria! I believe she has the record for the longest absence of time between appearances on the series.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Everything you know about these figures is wrong!

There are some figures in pop culture that are no longer characters but are symbols, their names used as verbs. Here’s the problem, though: often everything we know about those characters is wrong, as the characters have been almost totally misrepresented.

The Perils of Pauline

The Perception:

Pauline, according to pop culture, was a silent film heroine who was usually captured and tied to train tracks or a saw mill. She was symbolic of the virginal damsel in distress (and light bondage).

The Reality:

Here’s the thing, though: Pauline often was placed into dangerous situations, but she usually got herself out of them.

It would be crazy to say she was a feminist character or even a really strong woman, but for the time she was a little naïve but smart, scrappy and competent and typically solved her own problems. There were some occasions that she needed a rescue but these were occasional, not constanty.

Pauline was an adventurous female that wanted to be a writer, independently wealthy, and when she got married, she wanted to see the entire world from China to Paris and everywhere in between. Her evil accountant wanted to rob her blind, so he ensured she always faced some mishap.

And while we’re at it, Perils of Pauline is often described as the first of the cliffhanger serials. Only it didn’t have cliffhanger endings! Pauline experienced a problem or life-threatening in an episode and at the end typically solved it. There were no episode cliffhangers.

Incidentally, check out this serial from 1919, featuring both Pauline actress Pearl White as an antiquities thief that duels with Werner Oland as a Chinese gangster. It’s interesting in that both characters are thieves unlike other serials, and also that it features Pauline and Charlie Chan matching wits.

Horatio Alger

The Perception:

Horatio Alger was an archconservative who wrote hoary “rags to riches” stories where scrappy urchin shoe shine boys pull themselves up by their own bootstraps and become wealthy by the end. His stories are fantasies that gloss over real inequality and create a very damaging American mythology.

The Reality:

Horatio Alger’s most famous works like “Ragged Dick” (ha, ha) were all about shoe shine boys and other scrappy underdog kids, but they were not rags to riches stories but have realistic endings where the kids get into middle class respectability in professions like clerk or accountant. He did not write any stories where a kid became Dale Carnegie!

And far from writing stories where a character achieves their status exclusively “by their own bootstraps,” the majority of Horatio Alger stories featured a mysterious wealthy stranger who takes notice, secretly, of some good deed the hero does and works to benefit him in secret.

Let me repeat that: even in Horatio Alger novels, getting ahead is all about who you know!

Seriously, guys! Sure, I am tired of privileged nepotism beneficiaries like Bill Kristol saying poverty and lack of education aren’t real problems because anybody can be a millionaire, so it’s basically the poor’s own fault and they don’t deserve pity. But don’t use imagery of Horatio Alger, who didn’t write the kinds of stories people think he did and if he was guilty of anything, it was being formulaic and a little lazy. Michael Moore wrote a chapter in his slacker-aimed political book “Dude, Where’s My Country?” called “Horatio Alger Must Die.” This was, by the way, also where Moore published his deeply unimpressive Saudi/Bush family connections, which he honestly expected to shock everyone in Fahrenheit 9-11, but instead got a big, fat “why is this important?” from everyone.

What’s more, Horatio Alger was far from an archconservative. He was a Unitarian Minister, which means if he lived today he’d drive a VW van. His later books were often Westerns that were often banned by Church groups because of their extreme and surprising violence. And finally, it’s very likely Horatio Alger was homosexual. Yeah, I know, that’s often said about a lot of figures, but with Alger it’s better substantiated than most: he had to leave the church because of allegations of sex with teenaged boys, not to mention many friends that he confirmed his sexuality with.


Pop Culture’s Perception:

Rambo’s name is a byword for macho, testosterone fueled and brainless soldiery, and in foreign policy is often a symbol for right-wing aggression. In pop culture, Rambo is the ultimate pro-violence kill-crazy warhawk.

The Reality:

The actual character of Rambo, however, is nothing like that. In his first film, First Blood, John Rambo was a flashback-fueled veteran that went on a rampage as he was forgotten by society and unable to reintegrate into it. The final scene in the film was a vulnerable and somewhat pathetic Rambo breaking down crying about how he was a broken person that was the inevitable byproduct of war. It’s a mistake to say that the Rambo movies are anti-war, but Rambo was extremely cynical about it, even when he became a bow-wielding superman in the later films. Even in the violence-intensive later films, Rambo was still a tragic, pessimistic, doomed figure who had nothing in his life.

Rambo is the flip-side of Rocky Balboa. Whereas Rocky movies believed in America and the underdog, Rambo movies are always cynical and bleak, with Rambo as an expendable, Samurai-like, Zen figure that became war itself.

In the later films there was a lot of violence and mayhem and it’s easy to misinterpret that. Kurt Vonnegut once said that there was no such thing as an anti-war movie, because all war movies glorify war somehow.


The Perception:

In the movies and television shows, Tarzan is typically a monosyllabic caveman that lives in a crummy treehouse, a wild man that’s a little on the slow side.

The Reality:

Two things about reading the original Tarzan novels take everyone by surprise: Tarzan is intelligent, and Tarzan is violent.

Tarzan taught himself to read with books left by his castaway parents when he had no spoken language, and in the book series later learned to speak perfectly a dozen languages including French and German. He could pass for a distinguished gentleman (at least on the surface, anyway), which made his savage nature all the more dichotomous and surprising when he ripped his nobleman’s clothes off to rush into the primitive. Return of Tarzan had some shocking images of a heartbroken Tarzan spending time in Paris smoking cigarettes, drinking absinthe and going to art galleries.

And for that matter, Tarzan didn’t have a treehouse. He lived with Jane in a sizable and wealthy plantation house in Africa, a compromise Tarzan was extremely unhappy with, but which he did to keep Jane happy.

Finally, Tarzan was a superwarrior of tremendous strength with a surprising bloodthirstiness that was animalistic – nature red in claw and fang. In Beasts of Tarzan, he actually killed a deer by sinking his teeth in until he drew blood. Tarzan was explosive and strong and a little scary and intense. To my knowledge, these two attributes give Tarzan his mystique and make him intriguing, but I’ve yet to see ‘em in any TV or movie version of Tarzan.

By the way, what do Tarzan and Horatio Alger have in common? Both were published in the first pulp magazine in existence. The Argosy got its start publishing Alger's serials. By the 1910s it changed its name to "All-Story Weekly" where Burroughs printed, in serial form, the Tarzan novels.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

RPGs made under license

RPGs produced under license have incredibly stringent rules about faithfulness to content and that can result in odd and hilarious situations where RPG writers try to passive-aggressively undercut elements of the world they don’t like.

Screw Medichlorians!

I’ve yet to see anyone in a Star Wars RPG product (or, for that matter, any other bit of Star Wars lore like novels and comics) ever mention or utilize the terminally retarded Medichlorians concept.

This is especially strange because in Star Wars RPGs, I’ve seen detailed treatments of something as throwaway as the Kessel Run used as the basis of an entire product, complete with gameboard, map and tokens, not to mention elaborate and detailed RPG treatments of Cantina-scene background races like the Hammerheads and walrus-men.

Medichlorians were explicitly described in the Phantom Menace as part of a huge exposition scene, yet much more detail and energy was spent in the roleplaying game devoted to what the monsters in Chewbacca’s holographic chess game actually are! You can’t tell me that’s not passive-aggressiveness in action.

Here’s another case of Star Wars RPG writer passive-aggressiveness: the adventure module “Tatooine Manhunt” by Bill Slavicek and Daniel Greenberg.

Have a look at that cover. Doesn’t it sound like the coolest thing you can do at your gaming table…have your buddies fight against the awesome, ruthless bounty hunter enemies in Star Wars, like Boba Fett, the Terminator-esque unstoppable assassin robot IG-88, and the lizard guy Bossk?

But wait! Look on the inside.

That’s right – for some reason, the module couldn’t use Boba Fett, Bossk, IG-88 or the rest. But that sure didn’t stop them from doing what the writer wanted to do! He made characters that are so identical to the iconic Star Wars baddies that to call them knockoffs would be misleading, because at least a “knockoff” would imply distance, that in some way these are different people. What happened was, most likely someone told them the characters were unavailable so they went and wrote this.

Star Wars is an interesting case because in many ways, the RPG created the entire expanded universe as we know it. You see, the RPG was the first place to consolidate information about the setting and revealed information previously unknown…so therefore RPGs were for a long time, only Star Wars “reference books.” Because the RPG materials were Lucasfilm-licensed, everything in them was first vetted and therefore totally canon! People writing the novels and comics had to read the RPG books because they were actually the most complete sources of information available on the Star Wars galaxy.

She-Hulk in Fantastic Four

If you replace a member of the Fantastic Four, no matter how good of a character you are, people will hate you because these guys are so beloved. Remember that loathesome motherfucker HERBIE, who replaced the Human Torch in the cartoon?

That goes double for any character that replaces someone as awesome and universally liked as Ben Grimm, who is quite possibly the Morgan Freeman of the Marvel Universe: the guy everybody likes. Take the TSR Marvel Super-Heroes game module, which features the FF vs. Arcade.

The adventure module “Murderworld!” by Jeff Grubb had to use She-Hulk because the TSR game was set in modern continuity, and someone working under license can’t pick and choose. It’s not “cafeteria canon.” But it was obvious the writer wasn’t a big Shulkie fan. For instance, Ben Grimm’s statistics were prominently given in the back “for game masters that want to use him.” Uh, okay.

Notice his sheet is as big and prominent as She-Hulk’s despite the fact the character’s not even in the adventure module!

What’s more, when the FF arrives at the killer amusement park Murderworld, the She-Hulk’s ironic deathtrap was being on a simulator plane targeted by a gauntlet of traps and missiles and so on. The other heroes’ encounters were perfectly tailored for them in a traditional Arcade way. Placed in a plane? That’s something one would subject Ben Grimm to, since Ben used to be a pilot and war hero.

They mention briefly in the module that Arcade assumed the Thing was still in the FF. What does this mean? Two things:

1) The story as written makes no sense if used with She-Hulk but plenty of sense with Ben Grimm. Ben Grimm could fill in for Greenie and it would not require anything about the module to be changed!

2) Even in the story itself, the module writer made sure people are going, “hey, where’s the Thing?”

Women and the Lens

In the Lensman novels, Smith went out of his way to explain that women can’t use the Lens and have minds totally incompatible with the Lens in terms that are hilariously patronizing. There was one scene in First Lensman where it was deliberately stated that one female character went to Arisia and was outright refused to be granted status as a Lensman as she didn't have the mentality for it. This is canon, inarguable as gravity.

To say this creates a problem for gaming is an understatement. To REQUIRE a female player to play a male character against their will is pretty awful, and for the worst possible reason imaginable: because it’s impossible to enjoy being a woman in the setting that’s not a noncombatant nurse.

The Lensman RPG manual desperately tried to work around this limit in a way that could best be described as subdued panic. In fact the guy that wrote the guide once said in an interview that he was nervous about taking on the project because it would piss off his wife! The book contained a few sly, subtle hints slipped under the radar about how something like a female Lensman could be possible. One of them expressed a compromise possibility that perhaps Clarissa MacDougall needed to be the first female to use a Lens and after her, others were possible. That doesn’t make any sense, but it was something.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Things about the X-Men people forget

These things are not just cute little factoids but elements of the characters that ought to really be important, things that ought to influence characterization and propel stories.

Toad had access to the power and technology of the Stranger

The Toad and Magneto were captured by the powerful, superadvanced cosmic being known as the Stranger. The Toad was left behind in the Stranger’s captivity coldly by Magneto when Mags escaped. There the Toad remained, studying the Stranger’s technology. In Avengers #137, the Toad was actually able to use the Stranger’s science well enough to impersonate him and pretty much whoop on the entire Avengers, including powerhouses like Thor and Iron Man.

Consider the implications of that story. The Toad studied for long, long periods of time the science and technology of an advanced being that is either on par with the Watchers or at the very least the Overmind. The Toad was always an underrated genius with a surprising intellect for someone so underconfident and sycophantic, which is an interesting idea in and of itself...but mastery and use of the Stranger’s technology puts him in a very scary category of Marvel Universe high-level tech users. And who’s to say Toad doesn’t have a Stranger gadget or two stowed away? Even if Toad barely understood what he was working with (which Avengers 137 seemed to contradict - every indication was the Toad knew what he was doing and working with), the slightest application of the Stranger’s science can result in superweapons that can put Toad in one of the top tiers of X-Menaces...or at the absolute least, make him a believable villain.

The Angel had an adventuring career long before he joined the X-Men

To the best of my knowledge, no one has mentioned this since the J.M. de Matteis “New Defenders,” but Warren Worthington III was the only one of the X-Men that had an adventuring career and costumed identity prior to joining the original group as the Avenging Angel. We get this element of his origin in Uncanny X-Men #54, where not only did he have a career as a hero, he also fought crime on his own, acquired some moderate fame independently, and even had a classic superheroic secret identity. Back when the Angel left the X-Men and joined the Defenders, he was much more comfortable without the X-Men and in a superheroic occupation because they said he’d gone it alone before. Heck, the Avenging Angel costume is so important it became Warren’s regular outfit when the X-Men acquired real costumes as opposed to training uniforms.

The Avenging Angel period can’t help but arouse curiosity and we only saw the barest hint of it. What villains did he fight? What adventures did he have?

Rogue started off as a supervillain

I can see why writers just let this one drop. After all, doesn’t that poor kid have enough angst and problems in her life, they have to add one more source of internal drama? What with her cruel total inability to have anything like intimacy and the way her powers provoke an identity crisis, and her ultimately heartbreaking attraction to men that are all wrong for her like Magneto and Gambit.

But lest we forget, Rogue was not only a supervillain, she was the nastiest, cruelest member of Mystique’s Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, which was the nastiest, cruelest incarnation of the Brotherhood ever. Just check out Uncanny X-Men 158.

In that story, Rogue shot to kill and was capable of murder. She delighted in mayhem. Rogue was, in short, not a crook that was just in it for the cash or because they were framed or tricked, the way Hawkeye, Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch were.

Rogue was scum that could melt acid, but redemption came when she realized she was losing her mind, going mad, and forgetting who she really was and couldn’t control her power. When she showed up at the X-Mansion wanting help, she was so pathetic and humbled that it was possible to forgive her past cruelty out of sheer pity. This is surprising, because her draining Carol Danvers’s powers and memories (to the point Carol couldn’t recognize her own father) was such a nasty crime that, like the murder of Gwen Stacy by the Green Goblin, it would be very, very easy to consider Rogue totally unredeemable afterward.

To be fair, from Avengers Annual #10 to about Uncanny #158, Rogue was scarred by the power and identity transfer with Carol Danvers and a case can be made she wasn’t 'herself' in these stories. But that doesn’t explain how conflicted Rogue was in her early appearances in X-Men and in Secret Wars, where she was totally uncomfortable being a superhero in light of her past, a person with divided loyalties that could jump ship and turn bad again if the occasion presented itself or the going just got too rough. There was even an intriguing but dark possibility she might become a villain again if it meant being on the winning side in the Secret Wars.

To the best of my knowledge, this inner conflict fell away as Rogue felt more and more like an X-Man, which is to be expected, but it's surprising how few people have brought up that Rogue started off evil. Contrast that to how Hawkeye and the Black Widow’s criminal origins have been a regular part of their characters.

Come to think of it, this whole list could actually be made up of things about Rogue writers forget. One of Ms. Marvel’s powers they just ignored and allowed to disappear was Carol Danvers’ Spider-Man like “Seventh Sense,” although there was one occasion it was stated in dialogue that Rogue lost the Seventh Sense at some point. This makes sense. Considering Rogue’s genetic instability, it would be logical if the power transfer from Danvers was far from perfect.

Alright, so they explained that one…but if Rogue has Ms. Marvel’s powers and physiology, she therefore has Carol’s Humanikree genetics. Did you get that? Rogue is part-Kree.