You Were Expecting Someone Else 10 (FASA)

(43 comments)

The 1984 Doctor Who roleplaying game published by FASA is, as roleplaying games go, not hugely exciting or interesting. As Doctor Who merchandise it’s slightly more exciting - and inadvertently hilarious at times, such as when it provides a character sheet for Peri that reveals her to be wildly less competent than a newly created player character would be. (So far as I can tell from a perusal of the rules she’s spent exactly eight attribute points and three skill points. A new character should have 74-84 skill points and 38-48 attribute points. I assure you that if you knew what any of this meant it would be hilarious.)

But what’s interesting about it, and why it gets more than a footnote in the blog is that it allows for an interesting look at the rather nebulous process of “identification” and its slightly saner cousin “empathy.” It should come as no surprise, given the rather hardline anti-realist and anti-escapist position of this blog, that I am no fan of “identification” as a concept. In almost all cases I strongly favor models of reading/viewing/whatevering that openly and consistently acknowledge the fact that fiction is fiction, feeling that even if the resulting theories are a bit more complex at first glance they avoid the sorts of absurd contortions that are needed the moment you start digging into a model based around the idea of immersion, escapism, realism, or, yes, identification. Readings based on some flavor of “suspension of disbelief” require the reader to continually moderate between a knowingly false premise (“this is real”) and a true one (“this is not real”). In practice this is always going to be more complex than a system that sticks to one set of true premises.

Many years ago a professor expressed the problems of identification with the following example, which I don’t know if was his originally or not. Imagine a horror movie with a female protagonist walking up a hill towards what the audience knows to be a haunted house, but that she does not. The girl is not afraid in this circumstance, but the audience is. Then, at the end of the movie, imagine her battered, injured, but having finally killed whatever monster lives in the house. At this moment the audience feels triumphant, but the girl feels traumatized, hurt, and terrified. Not only is the audience clearly not identifying with the protagonist here, were the audience to identify with the protagonist the story wouldn’t work at all. In order to function that plot has to have the audience and the protagonist feeling almost the exact opposite.

To my mind, at least, everything one wants to get out of the concept of identification can be accomplished with far more sensible concepts like “investment” and “empathy.” What’s at issue in the hypothetical horror movie is not that we feel the same things as the protagonist but that we both understand what she feels and have an emotional investment in it that is rooted in similarities between her and her situation and things we recognize in our own lives. This sort of structure lets us have all of the emotional responses that an identification-based structure lets us have with the handy side-effect of actually making sense.

There are, however, two consequences of this line of thought that are worth looking at. The first has to do with Doctor Who. In An Unearthly Child, it is easiest to invest in and empathize with Ian and Barbara. One can invest in/empathize with Susan, but it’s harder - on the one hand her basic position is familiar (a slightly rebellious granddaughter with profound love for her grandfather), but on the other she knows a lot of things the audience doesn’t, and that makes empathy harder. It’s nearly impossible, on the other hand, to invest in and identify with the Doctor, who has unclear motives, knows scads the audience doesn’t, and whose basic position is at best unfamiliar and at worse familiar but negative (he appears to be a runaway criminal).

Over time, however, this changes. The Doctor, by dint of having been around for decades, becomes increasingly familiar. Many of the key things he knew that the audience didn’t - his origins, for instance - become progressively better known to the audience. His motivations crystalize and become predictable. Meanwhile, the companions cycle in and out. This both makes us less likely to invest in them (we know they’ll be gone, after all) and makes it so that we never get the chance to invest in them as deeply as the Doctor.

On top of that there is the fact that the universe of Doctor Who is teleologically configured around the Doctor. He’s the only completely irreducible part of the show - it’s impossible to have a Doctor Who story that the Doctor isn’t at the heart of. Even in a story where he's absent like Mission to the Unknown, his absence becomes a tangible force that is at the heart of what happens: When he's not there, everyone dies. Heck, even if you decide to make the Doctor less well known and less famous, as Moffat obviously has recently, it doesn’t mean that he isn’t the center of the universe. It just means not everyone knows it. In the end, he still is. This isn’t some flaw in the show - there’s no way that, over twenty-plus years, this wouldn’t happen. And so eventually the audience focus was going to be on the Doctor - not just in the sense of him unambiguously being the hero, but in terms of his reactions and character arc being the focus of a story. Simply put, the thing that most defines Doctor Who's setting is the fact that the Doctor arriving somewhere ensures that everything is going to go to hell in a handbasket, and, more specifically, that there's going to be some serious social upheaval. In this regard it really is the case that the universe revolves around the Doctor.

All of this is to say that the old truism that the companion is the audience identification figure is rubbish on two levels. First of all, as I said, screw identification. Second of all, the companion isn’t even the figure the audience invests in the most. The role of the companion is to provide a consistent voice to people who aren’t the teleological focus of the entire universe in the story. That doesn’t mean that their perspective is the one the audience is most invested in, though. I mean, if nothing else, the story follows the Doctor when the companions leave, not the companions. It’s his story. The companions provide a moral grounding to the story more than they provide a narrative perspective.

The second major consequence of this line of thought about identification, on the other hand, applies to role-playing games, which are one of the few media in which identification does, or at least can happen. This is because roleplaying games (and in this regard I would even separate them from video games) are in part derived from acting, and the fact of the matter is that the Method exists. The deliberate blurring of the line between self and character is something that happens in acting, and it’s not surprising that in some cases it ports over to role-playing games. Indeed, I’d argue that much of what’s interesting in role-playing game design since about 1991 has relied on this phenomenon.

But there’s a problem here, and it’s a problem that goes beyond what we talked about back with The Adventure Game in terms of “puzzle-solving” as a storytelling technique. Because when you take these factors in concert there’s an obvious gaping problem with a Doctor Who roleplaying game, which is that everyone is going to want to be the Doctor.

The FASA game takes a relatively clever, if hilariously convoluted route to solving this by expanding the role of the CIA (the Time Lord one, obviously) to be a loosely knit organization of Time Lords in rackety TARDISes “liberated” from the scrapyards to go fix bits of space and time. Silly as this is with relation to the television show, it at least expands the milieu to where players can come up with interesting variations on “renegade Time Lord” and make the game something more complex than just communal fanfic writing. Of course, even here the game can't quite control itself. It wants to open the door to the idea that there are tons of quasi-Doctors running around working for the CIA, but the rulebook keeps pulling back from this and continuing to concede that the Doctor has some ontological role in the universe.

But even aside from this, there's a larger problem, which is that any troupe is going to be configured to be one “leader” Time Lord character and a bunch of companions, despite the fact that the structure of the underlying show pushes everybody to invest primarily with the Time Lord and to view the companion not just as a “less cool” character but as a character who is by definition not who the story is about. Doctor Who isn’t a narrative that lends itself to an ensemble cast. There’s one very clearly defined lead, a very important supporting role(s), and that’s it.

This leads one to ask the relatively straightforward question - why the heck does this game exist? I mean, on a fundamental level a Doctor Who roleplaying game does not make a heck of a lot of sense. The show doesn’t lend itself to this sort of storytelling at all.

The answer is prosaic. Roleplaying games are the sorts of things that cult sci-fi properties have made of them. Star Wars got its role-playing game from FASA in 1982, and Star Wars got one from West End Games in 1987 (though FASA’s earlier Traveller snuck in stats for Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader in one of its supplements). Marvel superheroes, Lord of the Rings, Conan the Barbarian, and Ringworld also had games in the same general time period.

In the US - and to be clear, FASA is an American company - this made some sense. Doctor Who’s popularity in the US was at least substantively overlapping with fans of other science fiction shows. But this was more because science fiction had a relatively narrow range of things it could be in the US. The problem is that in this period by all appearances “cult sci-fi property” is what Doctor Who is aspiring for in the UK as well. Part of this is the over-arching tendency to focus on the export market for Doctor Who - as I’ve noted, there is a problematic tendency when talking about the series in this period and its hiatus to point out that the show was exceedingly profitable due to overseas sales.

But there’s a more basic common logic behind the series in this period and the FASA game. Increasingly the series is acting as though there’s a coherent world in which it takes place and that this presumed world is in some sense inherently valuable. American fandom coined the ghastly term “Whoniverse” for this setting. In practice, this is something the series never even came close to aspiring towards until the Bidmead era, and even there the uptick of references to other stories is less about establishing a single setting in which all of the series took place than about a continual exploration of a theme over multiple stories. But of late, and obviously this is going to get miles out of hand in Friday’s entry, there’s been an increasing tendency of the show to act as though it as a single coherent setting.

In truth, though, it's not, and this is at the heart of why the idea of a role-playing game is so intrinsically strange for Doctor Who. Because Doctor Who is not a world, it’s a type of interaction with a character. Doctor Who isn't about the world in which the Doctor travels, it's about the way in which the Doctor, when introduced to a world, deforms it. And that makes it very much unlike something like Star Trek, where the Enterprise may be the shiniest ship in Starfleet but where there are implicitly scads of ships each of which have an ensemble of crewmembers. Or even Star Wars, a series where there overtly is a chosen one, but where there’s also a ton of effort made painting one big war in which there are necessarily going to be other stories going on. Or, most obviously, Lord of the Rings, which is in many ways a world in search of a story. (Or, actually, a language in search of a world in search of a story. Which is even better, really.)

But Doctor Who, even if it is science fiction, doesn’t work like this. In those cases the franchise is about a particular type of world and a man character is selected who exemplifies the world. Doctor Who, on the other hand, is about a main character who completely screws up and destabilizes any world he's introduced to. So glorifying the world just doesn't work. This is not, I should be clear, the somewhat cliched attack in which fandom likes to complain about excessive continuity references in the series (which has always been, first of all, a bit perverse, and second of all, a reaction against a perceived reason for the failure of the Nathan-Turner era more than an actual reaction against the continuity). Rather, I mean it in the sense that a number of major ways in which most cult science fiction texts engage with their audience and create a paratext for themselves to increase profitability are only partially, if at all, open to Doctor Who. There are simply ways in which Doctor Who is very, very bad at being a cult science fiction show. The FASA game demonstrates some of these very thoroughly. More troubling, though, is the fact that the series itself is attempting many of the same things. Which brings us to...

Comments

John Callaghan 5 years, 7 months ago

I'm an ardent role-player and have been running an enjoyable Doctor Who game for many years (on and off, like the show itself). Although I appreciate your reading that the Doctor is at the centre of the TV show, the success of my game (polishes nails against lapel) indicates to me that it's just one way of looking at it.

I might enjoy an episode of Who and want to discuss and share it with my friends. An RPG is a way of sharing the experience of exploring that genre with my friends, but in an active way (rather than analysing a fixed text that we're presented with).

The Doctor doesn't feature in our games (and would probably result in the player characters taking second fiddle if he did). So how is it like Dr. Who? Well, the players have joined to be in a story where

(a) the planets, aliens and events of the Dr. Who world can be dipped into for inspiration.

(b) Dr. Who-style things can happen. The 'rules' of the world are known and appreciated by everyone, such as the price of failure or that cod-science works but, say, magic doesn't. This ensures that players and referee can relax and share that 'imaginative space', knowing what is and isn't appropriate.

(c) They can place themselves at the centre of the story. Watching TV is (in this instance) a passive experience, and the Doctor is at the centre. Whereas in an RPG, the players should always be the heart of what's happening. They're the most important thing in that universe, rather like (SPOILER for Restaurant At The End Of The Unvierse) Zaphod being at the centre of Zarniwoop's universe (SPOILER ends).

An RPG is supposed to be fun above everything else, of course. As long as it works for me and my group, I feel it can be said to function perfectly, even if it shouldn't 'officially'.

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Iain Coleman 5 years, 7 months ago

Traveller was by GDW, not FASA.

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Carey 5 years, 7 months ago

"One can invest in/empathize with Susan, but it’s harder - on the one hand her basic position is familiar (a slightly rebellious granddaughter with profound love for her grandfather), but on the other she knows a lot of things the audience doesn’t, and that makes empathy harder."

I'd disagree here, as surely knowing things others don't is precisely how a teenager feels about themselves (even if that may not necessarily be true). Something that points to the genius of Susan's original character outline, and (in its abandonment) the tragedy of the character in how she was was eventually written.

"In almost all cases I strongly favor models of reading/viewing/whatevering that openly and consistently acknowledge the fact that fiction is fiction"

I have to ask here, although it's slightly off topic, but are you planning on addressing "The Singing Detective" in the future? Partly because it was contemporaneous with "Trial of a Time Lord" and deals with many of the same themes (unreliable narratives; fiction versus reality and how to present meta-fiction to an audience) but also because Dennis Potter casts such a huge shadow over the BBC's drama output in the same period as the original series was transmitted, and was often held up as the exemplar of tv drama. And, of course, because Potter was at least sounded out about contributing a story to season one, although nothing ever became of it. Potter's absence from your essays so far have created quite a hole in my opinion (there's definitely an essay to write regarding Potter's career mirroring the original series, from earnest drama in it's early phase to a more and more anti-realist presentation, with a side helping of suffering the wrath of Mary Whitehouse on the side).

Actually, while on possible future essays, are you also going to include one on Alan Bleasdale's G.B.H. from 1991, as it included the hilarious episode of a politician having a nervous breakdown in a hotel hosting a Doctor Who convention (as well as being a withering attack on the political state of Britain in 1991)?

Hope you don't mind me asking.

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Tom Watts 5 years, 7 months ago

I was disappointed at first to see that we have to wait another two days for Attack, but having watched Attack this morning in preparation, my heart just sank, thinking about the labour you would have had to do in order to wring something worthwhile and provokative out of that cyberdreck.

A few niggles: when I played Dr Who in the garden at home with my friends, I don't think being the Doctor was necessarily the best gig. Kids also identified with the Brigadier, the Master and the Cyberleader for example – to the extent that one would have preferred sometimes to BE them. The enemies of the Doctor are rarely utterly vanquished, and I would have thought that roleplaying could have satisfyingly re-enacted that eternal stalemate.

As a horror fan: "At this moment the audience feels triumphant, but the girl feels traumatized, hurt, and terrified". To me, this is a typical professorial misunderstanding. Perhaps you've read Carol Clover's "Men, Women and Chainsaws" for a useful take on the fluidity of gender identity in the male spectator. Identification is a word than seems necessary to me in order to evoke the visceral intensity of the viewer-response to a traumatic horror scenario, but that identification switches and bilocates with wonderful flexibility between monster, girl-victim, hero figure and one's own self sitting with back to the doorway. If I may risk a generalisation, though, I would say that the horror audience never feels exultation at the death of the monster. That's not what monsters are for.

"but the girl feels traumatized, hurt, and terrified. ...were the audience to identify with the protagonist the story wouldn’t work at all."

"The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" and "I Spit On Your Grave" are the academy's favourite examples of films that seem to contradict that statement. But I could have written a hundred down if there had been a quiz and some money in it.

Also on identification: horror films are things which viewers sometimes can't stop themselves believing in the reality of, even once they have switched them off, or even if they never wanted to watch them in the first place. Hence perhaps the Video Recordings Act of 1984. I don't mock MPs and morality campaigners who think they've seen a snuff movie. Steven Thrower has pointed out that the cruddy way in which a lot of horror films were photographed didn't so much disguise the unreality of the effects, but like Lynchian sound design, subtly destabilised the viewer's bearing on reality, so they indeed started to identify with the victim and the perpetrator, felt their personality crumbling at the edges and tried to compensate with their own elaborating fantasies. That's quite understandable, on a human level.

"Because Doctor Who is not a world, it’s a type of interaction with a character. Doctor Who isn't about the world in which the Doctor travels, it's about the way in which the Doctor, when introduced to a world, deforms it."

I think children especially are natural world builders, partly because they know so little of the real world that Dr Who represents a part of the adult world no less graspable in its totality than the hidden world of teacher or policeman. You gradually have to build up a picture, and one does that in fiction at the same time as one does it in one's everyday life.

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David Anderson 5 years, 7 months ago

I remember the disproportion between the companions you could generate and the game statistics for tv series companions as well. What especially struck me was the piece of prose introducing the statistics (copied over from the Star Trek RPG) which read 'do not worry if your character is not as good as these. These characters are the best of the best.' Followed, as you say, by Peri.

All the same, I don't think roleplaying games were entirely invested in world-building at the time. Dragonlance has only just been released. The basic model is still picaresque - the protagonists show up, loot the dungeon (or die horribly) and leave. There's no reason you can't run an RPG with the structure of Doctor Who (apart from the companion/time-lord disparity that you note). The shift to releasing games where the default assumption is a heavily defined setting occurs perhaps around Forgotten Realms.

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David 5 years, 7 months ago

All very good points and exemplifies why Doctor Who doesn't really work as a video game either(hence why it doesn't really have any, and the few that do exist are very bland).

Most Star Wars games, for instance, involve you creating a guy and running around the Star Wars universe. But in Doctor Who, you'll want to be the Doctor... who, to stay in character, can't be running around and shooting people. So despite action / adventure being a main component of the TV show, you can't translate that to a typical video game and have the Doctor being Doctorish.

So that leaves either a) do a Doctor Who game where you're the companion getting instructions from the Doctor or b) do a different type of game.

A) doesn't quite work because most people, as you said, don't want to be the person tagging along beside the cool guy. (Which is why this new Doctor Who Universe online RPG thing which keeps getting advertised on websites I visit doesn't seem that much fun - I played it a bit and you're still just running around, doing what the Doctor tells you, and not getting up to anything truly dangerous or thrilling.)

I'm not sure if you've ever played Destiny of the Doctors? A mid 90s game with memorably bad graphics but a valiant attempt to do a Who game with lots of monsters and stuff. But you played the Graak, a weird blob thing that the Doctor apparently made, who spends the whole thing running around the TARDIS finding objects and avoiding Cybermen, Daleks, Yeti, Zygons etc. So you weren't even a character you recognised or one you could create yourself, or even something you could empathise with. You were just a blob, with no hands or face or eyes or even a voice. Added to which, any action - like, say, moving - depleted your energy, and using a weapon to attack a monster took off more health than if the monster just hit you and let you wander by. The game's notable for having Tom, Davison, Colin, McCoy and Nick Courtney providing audio material, and Anthony Ainley playing the Master in lots of specially shot video material, but as a game itself it's woefully mismanaged. The worst part is that, like an ungodly repeat of Castrovalva episode 1, it's entirely set in the TARDIS. You don't visit any worlds or explore new planets. You're in TARDIS corridors, which occasionally gets merged with the Master's TARDIS so that you can go to "monster database rooms" - which means that the Master's TARDIS apparently contains the Cybermen's ice tomb on Telos, a Dalek control room, a Silurian cave etc. It's a truly bizarre game and Youtube will throw up tons of videos for it (the best one showing the terrifying humping Sea Devil).

Of course there was also that Dalek Attack game in the late 80s / early 90s which was a platformer where you ran around a Dalek occupied Earth as either the Doctor (2nd, 4th or 7th) or a companion (Ace or the Brig) and did typical platformer things like collect items and gun down Ogrons and Robomen. Which was fun, but still odd to have Tom Baker blowing away living beings left, right and centre.

Continued below

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David 5 years, 7 months ago

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David 5 years, 7 months ago

All very good points and exemplifies why Doctor Who doesn't really work as a video game either(hence why it doesn't really have any, and the few that do exist are very bland).

Most Star Wars games, for instance, involve you creating a guy and running around the Star Wars universe. But in Doctor Who, you'll want to be the Doctor... who, to stay in character, can't be running around and shooting people. So despite action / adventure being a main component of the TV show, you can't translate that to a typical video game and have the Doctor being Doctorish.

So that leaves either a) do a Doctor Who game where you're the companion getting instructions from the Doctor or b) do a different type of game.

A) doesn't quite work because most people, as you said, don't want to be the person tagging along beside the cool guy. (Which is why this new Doctor Who Universe online RPG thing which keeps getting advertised on websites I visit doesn't seem that much fun - I played it a bit and you're still just running around, doing what the Doctor tells you, and not getting up to anything truly dangerous or thrilling.)

I'm not sure if you've ever played Destiny of the Doctors? A mid 90s game with memorably bad graphics but a valiant attempt to do a Who game with lots of monsters and stuff. But you played the Graak, a weird blob thing that the Doctor apparently made, who spends the whole thing running around the TARDIS finding objects and avoiding Cybermen, Daleks, Yeti, Zygons etc. So you weren't even a character you recognised or one you could create yourself, or even something you could empathise with. You were just a blob, with no hands or face or eyes or even a voice. Added to which, any action - like, say, moving - depleted your energy, and using a weapon to attack a monster took off more health than if the monster just hit you and let you wander by. The game's notable for having Tom, Davison, Colin, McCoy and Nick Courtney providing audio material, and Anthony Ainley playing the Master in lots of specially shot video material, but as a game itself it's woefully mismanaged. The worst part is that, like an ungodly repeat of Castrovalva episode 1, it's entirely set in the TARDIS. You don't visit any worlds or explore new planets. You're in TARDIS corridors, which occasionally gets merged with the Master's TARDIS so that you can go to "monster database rooms" - which means that the Master's TARDIS apparently contains the Cybermen's ice tomb on Telos, a Dalek control room, a Silurian cave etc. It's a truly bizarre game and Youtube will throw up tons of videos for it (the best one showing the terrifying humping Sea Devil).

Of course there was also that Dalek Attack game in the late 80s / early 90s which was a platformer where you ran around a Dalek occupied Earth as either the Doctor (2nd, 4th or 7th) or a companion (Ace or the Brig) and did typical platformer things like collect items and gun down Ogrons and Robomen. Which was fun, but still odd to have Tom Baker blowing away living beings left, right and centre.

Continued below

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David 5 years, 7 months ago

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David 5 years, 7 months ago

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David 5 years, 7 months ago

Very sorry, I have a comment but it's over the amount of characters. I keep trying to post one comment with the first half and then a second with the other half, but that ends up just deleting the first half and I've no idea why...

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David 5 years, 7 months ago

All very good points and exemplifies why Doctor Who doesn't really work as a video game either(hence why it doesn't really have any, and the few that do exist are very bland).

Most Star Wars games, for instance, involve you creating a guy and running around the Star Wars universe. But in Doctor Who, you'll want to be the Doctor... who, to stay in character, can't be running around and shooting people. So despite action / adventure being a main component of the TV show, you can't translate that to a typical video game and have the Doctor being Doctorish.

So that leaves either a) do a Doctor Who game where you're the companion getting instructions from the Doctor or b) do a different type of game.

A) doesn't quite work because most people, as you said, don't want to be the person tagging along beside the cool guy. (Which is why this new Doctor Who Universe online RPG thing which keeps getting advertised on websites I visit doesn't seem that much fun - I played it a bit and you're still just running around, doing what the Doctor tells you, and not getting up to anything truly dangerous or thrilling.)

I'm not sure if you've ever played Destiny of the Doctors? A mid 90s game with memorably bad graphics but a valiant attempt to do a Who game with lots of monsters and stuff. But you played the Graak, a weird blob thing that the Doctor apparently made, who spends the whole thing running around the TARDIS finding objects and avoiding Cybermen, Daleks, Yeti, Zygons etc. So you weren't even a character you recognised or one you could create yourself, or even something you could empathise with. You were just a blob, with no hands or face or eyes or even a voice. Added to which, any action - like, say, moving - depleted your energy, and using a weapon to attack a monster took off more health than if the monster just hit you and let you wander by. The game's notable for having Tom, Davison, Colin, McCoy and Nick Courtney providing audio material, and Anthony Ainley playing the Master in lots of specially shot video material, but as a game itself it's woefully mismanaged. The worst part is that, like an ungodly repeat of Castrovalva episode 1, it's entirely set in the TARDIS. You don't visit any worlds or explore new planets. You're in TARDIS corridors, which occasionally gets merged with the Master's TARDIS so that you can go to "monster database rooms" - which means that the Master's TARDIS apparently contains the Cybermen's ice tomb on Telos, a Dalek control room, a Silurian cave etc. It's a truly bizarre game and Youtube will throw up tons of videos for it (the best one showing the terrifying humping Sea Devil).

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David 5 years, 7 months ago

Of course there was also that Dalek Attack game in the late 80s / early 90s which was a platformer where you ran around a Dalek occupied Earth as either the Doctor (2nd, 4th or 7th) or a companion (Ace or the Brig) and did typical platformer things like collect items and gun down Ogrons and Robomen. Which was fun, but still odd to have Tom Baker blowing away living beings left, right and centre.

B) Different sorts of Who games, which is pretty much limited to puzzle games or those rather boring "adventure game" activity things you find on the BBC website, where you control Matt Smith and Amy Pond and wander around places desperately clicking on anything you can in the hope that you're meant to, and sighing when yet another slidy-block-puzzle type game appears which you must complete to get into the next room. These games circumvent the need to have the Doctor / companion committing acts of violence, but - aside from The Celestial Toymaker, Death to the Daleks and Pyramids of Mars - I can't remember that many Doctor Who adventures that revolved around a thrilling race against time to solve a children's newspaper puzzle.

I suppose the only thing that might work is a UNIT based game, a traditional shoot-em-up where instead of shooting Johnny Foreigner you can blow up Daleks and Ice Warriors. Which would be fun but nothing particularly Doctor Who-like beyond a few palette swaps.

I'd love to play a genuinely good Doctor Who video game but I think it's probably impossible.

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Abigail Brady 5 years, 7 months ago

If we're venturing into Potter, I'd love to see a treatment of Karaoke/Cold Lazarus, as well. Apart from the all the games with narrative that they play, Cold Lazarus shows us what sort of production values a mid-1990s Doctor Who might have had.

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Anton B 5 years, 7 months ago

I'll put in a word for the 1980 'Doctor Who the Game of Time and Space' Board Game by Games Workshop. I believe it's been mentioned here before. Many zen-like therapeutic hours could be whiled away just setting up the countless little cardboard counters but it was worth the effort. The game board was a beautiful 'map of Time and Space' with strangely retro feel even at the time. There was Skaro and Peladon and Marinus, Alpha Centauri and Earth, Telos and Sontar as well as a whole bunch of real and possibly made up planets all nestling in a gridded star-field with, at the centre,'Gallifrey Domain of the Time Lords' though the illustration actually looked more like Silver Age DC Krypton. The game play was terribly over convoluted. If friends hadn't been put-off by the time it took to set up they certainly balked at the rule book. The best bet was to have it pre set and reassure that it was just for fun and the rules didn't matter. Once it got going it was great though. There was room for sneakiness and double crossing within the set-up. One could make aliances with other players and the search for the 'parts of the key to time' at least nodded to the original source even if the rather random selection of companions and monsters were puzzling. It wasn't world building, one didn't much care if one was playing the Doctor or not (though we tended to each play as different incarnations and approach the game-play 'in character'. I love your description of LOTR as a language in search of a world in search of a story. I think this was a game in search of a story in search of time and space.

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David Anderson 5 years, 7 months ago

The game also had sourcebooks for the Master and Daleks. (Apparently, they were divided into a player section and a GM only section. I don't know whether the GM-only section made a lot of information up, or whether the players pretended not to have watched the program.) The review of the Master supplement in the UK magazine White Dwarf included the memorable sentence, 'Fans will be disappointed to learn that Adric was snatched from his death in Earthshock by an interfering and no doubt American timelord.'

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Seeing_I 5 years, 7 months ago

The sourcebook for the Daleks was a trove of wonderful apocrypha, including illustrations of the mutants themselves and great stuff like Daleks with metallic tentacle arms. Still waiting for that to show up on screen.

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Seeing_I 5 years, 7 months ago

I think you sell the world of Doctor Who quite short. You're right about the Doctor's pivotal role in it, but the so-called Whoniverse is so vast and strange, and with so much implied off-screen action and history, that it's only natural for people to want to play in that sandbox.

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GAZZA 5 years, 7 months ago

I don't know that there's a problem with the idea of a Doctor Who roleplaying game per se. Certainly I'm not defending the one you describe above, but it is hardly unique in that problem - everyone wants to be a Jedi in Star Wars, everyone wants to be the captain in Star Trek, and few Babylon 5 games let you play a Vorlon.

However, roleplaying doesn't have to fit that mould. Take a game like Capes, for example - where the roleplaying experience has no games master, the characters shift from player to player, and the entire game mechanics are narrative. Doctor Who would work fine in that sort of environment - everyone gets to play the Doctor eventually, and those who don't get to play his antagonists.

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Alan 5 years, 7 months ago

I played the DW-RPG as a high school freshman, and the thing I remember most about it was how gonzo we chose to make it. At the time, I don't think any of us had seen anything of the show other than Tom Baker and Peter Davison, but we seized on the idea of "everything that happened, everything that ever will" and just assumed that a TARDIS could visit any reality and pickup a companion. The result? A party consisting of a Timelord, a Jedi Knight, a Vulcan Starfleet Officer, a 10th level magic-user from D&D, and Rogue from the X-Men (who was played by a guy who justified his choice on the grounds that she had the most versatile power set). I vaguely recall the plot (such as it was) involving an evil alliance between the Sentinels and the Cybermen, with Vecna of all people lurking in the background puppet-mastering everything. It was crazy but fun.

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Adam Riggio 5 years, 7 months ago

I take it that Phil's point, though, isn't literally about the question "Is it possible to make a Doctor Who RPG?" but about the nature of world-building and Doctor Who continuity. That's the problem with Parkin's AHistory, the K-hole of references the show starts on in Attack of the Cybermen, and the attempts of some of the worse Virgin books to clear up apparent contradictions in continuity. The stories are always terrible, because stories that are written to repair apparent inconsistencies in a single continuity always lose sight of narrative and character that make a story good.

(Sidebar: I think this was a major failure of Star Trek: Enterprise as a show. They wrote stories solely for the purpose of filling in a perceived gap in the continuity of a single world history, and put so much of their energy into that, they forgot to build characters or narratives.)

Remember what Phil said in the Longleat post last month. When the production team saw a bunch of people debating different continuities and narratives for the history of Doctor Who, their reaction was to give them definitive, tightly researched answers, depending on the relations among often obscure facts from a wide variety of stories. But fans arguing about what happened in the world of Doctor Who don't want a right answer; they want to create their own narratives and talk about them. The argument is more important than the resolution. A resolution would have a fan told some new fact about one world. An argument is a bunch of fans building their own worlds.

From the beginning, Doctor Who hasn't had one world. It has existed in many worlds, can go to many worlds, and in so doing, create many worlds.

Alan's comment about how his RPG ended up with players from five different continuities fits this idea of Doctor Who perfectly. He and his friends created their own world where these characters all coexisted and went on adventures. Doctor Who isn't a single world that can be wrenched into one continuity. It's a way of telling stories with a narrative anchor in one character. There's a wonderful scene in The Gallifrey Chronicles where I see Lance Parkin realizing exactly this (which gives AHistory a wink of irony), when the antagonist looks at the Doctor's timeline and is incensed at all the paradoxes and contradictions — "He has three ninth incarnations!" — But that's exactly how best to understand Doctor Who.

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Philip Sandifer 5 years, 7 months ago

A wink of irony? I've always treated AHistory as being distilled irony itself - a project that is only entertaining because it's so completely doomed and everyone involved, the author especially, knows it.

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Philip Sandifer 5 years, 7 months ago

May 30th, in Pop Between Realities, Home in Time For Tea 31, along with Edge of Darkness.

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Adam Riggio 5 years, 7 months ago

Sometimes, I understate. I once described Toronto's CN Tower as "a bit on the tall side."

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Stuart Ian Burns 5 years, 7 months ago

Also worth noting that via Dragon Magazine, FASA actively wanted people to convert scenarios from one series to another. I remember one description of an adventure that amounted to Indiana Jones vs Daleks, with the implication that plays could have the Doctor seek some archaeological mcguffin.

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Deinol 5 years, 7 months ago

" Roleplaying games are the sorts of things that cult sci-fi properties have made of them. Star Wars got its role-playing game from FASA in 1982, and Star Wars got one from West End Games in 1987 (though FASA’s earlier Traveller snuck in stats for Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader in one of its supplements)."

I assume you meant Star Trek got its RPG from FASA. Also as someone else noted, Traveller was by Games Design Workshop (GDW).

I've never tried any of the official Doctor Who RPGs, but I have played a one shot using another system that worked well. As long as the players go in knowing most of them will be companion characters, I think it works out. Although probably best in episodic one-shot style so that one person doesn't dominate an entire campaign that way.

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WGPJosh 5 years, 7 months ago

I'm still not entirely convinced Doctor Who is the story of The Doctor, or at least that it should be. I understand how a show that's almost 50 years old with The Doctor as the only real constant can support that reading, but it's still not one I hold to. The Doctor as the super-cool main character? I'm not sure I believe that, seeing as the two times the show tried to literalize that interpretation in the narrative we got Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker, both of whose portrayals raise numerous problematic implications we've discussed at length before.

In contrast to Phil's view, I guess, I very much believe Doctor Who should be the story of the companion, and it's pretty clear to me that's what was going on in the Cartmel era, my favouirte era of televised Doctor Who. It was the story of Ace, originally a directionless rebel without a cause displaced in space and time, learning to channel her anarchic energy in targeted, constructive ways all while learning to be more cosmopolitan from her mentor, the enigmatic Doctor. There's a secondary thread about The Doctor's origins being shrouded in mystery, but Virgin notwithstanding, that never materialized into a concrete story and it's telling the last two serials are extremely Ace-centric, not to mention the planned Season 27 would have capped off her story arc in a very satisfying and epic way and introduced a new "Sorcerer's Apprentice" for The Doctor.

Barring a companion, Doctor Who should in my view be expressly the story of whatever setting the show happens to find itself in, such as how the excellent "Robophobia" was the story of Liv Chenka and the Kaldor transport ship. The Doctor's there to set some things in motion and inspire the protagonist hero to take up action, but he's not the narrative thrust or emotional core of the story. He can be a constant sure, but that doesn't mean he has to be the star. It's like The Master in Season 8: You know he's going to be there, the fun game is trying to figure out *why* he's there, what he's planning and where he's hiding out for much of the story. McCoy, it goes without saying, is gangbusters at playing the role this way and a not-insignificant amount of the satisfaction I get from his later stories comes from me knowing a little bit more than the characters about what's going on and who The Doctor is and gleefully anticipating his appearances in the narrative.

It's not that I object to a more celebrity take on The Doctor: I still love the superhero antics of Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker, I like the manic charisma of Colin Baker (trying to stay somewhat more on topic today) and I've gotten some things out of the flawed leading man tales of David Tennant and Matt Smith. However, even though I can enjoy those interpretations, that's still not how I would write Doctor Who or entirely what the show is about to me.

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WGPJosh 5 years, 7 months ago

I'm also going to second Tom Watts and problematize the notion that "everyone is going to want to play The Doctor" in an RPG or backyard game. When me and my friends played science fiction games as kids, that certainly wasn't the case for us either. There were a lot of people who wanted to slip into the shoes of the Brigadier and even some of the companions, like Jo. Same as true for other franchises: When we played Star Trek none of us ever wanted to be the Captain: The most popular roles were always Number One, science officer, chief engineer and security chief, but a lot of that had to do with the bond we felt for the specific characters in those roles: We all really admired those characters and, even if we didn't "identify" with them we found some commonality with them that made us think they were really cool and want to play their parts for a bit. I think it comes down to the fact that good science fiction, like any good fiction, will have an abundance of characters who, regardless of whether or not we "identify" with them as in the context of today's essay will inspire us in a way that we can relate to them and think they're cool. Different characters can speak to us in different ways.

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David Anderson 5 years, 7 months ago

Auden, talking about Dickens, floats the idea of a mythopoetic character. A mythopoetic character differs from a conventional literary character in that:
a) they embody some aspect of the human condition;
b) they are not changed by the plot they take part in - the only way they can permanently change is to die, or do something that amounts to dying - retiring, converting, travelling to Australia;
c) there are potentially an infinite number of stories that, as it were, the author didn't get around to telling us.

Don Quixote and Falstaff are literary examples, but most mythopoetic characters come from a sub-literary level: Sherlock Holmes is the most obvious example. Sherlock Holmes can't have a character arc. Doctor Watson can't either: Conan Doyle tried to marry Watson off, but it didn't take. (If you try to mix character arcs with mythopoetic characters you get something like the X-Men or a soap opera: the characters are perpetually dying and marrying but then coming back to life or getting divorced. If X-Men is published for sufficiently long, every team member will have at some point married and divorced every other team member.)
The Doctor is clearly a mythopoetic character in this sense. The Doctor can have a potentially infinite number of adventures, but the Doctor cannot change in any way that is more significant than regenerating. You can claim that Rose or River are the love of the Doctor's life, but the fact is neither of them will matter to the majority of the audience in twenty years time. That doesn't preclude the Doctor being the main character - you wouldn't say that Sherlock Holmes' clients are the main characters of Sherlock Holmes' stories - but it does mean that the Doctor is not the main character in the same way that, say, Bill Adama is the main character in the new Battlestar Galactica.

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Alan 5 years, 7 months ago

While I mostly agree, I would point out that the only X-Men to have ever gotten married, IIRC, were Scott and Jean. Fortunately, Grant Morrison came along, correctly realized that Scott and Jean in "wedded bliss" was mind-blowingly dull -- the two had been dating since 1964 or so! -- and had Emma Frost break up their marriage. Scott is now more interesting than he's ever been as a result.

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Zapruder 313 5 years, 7 months ago

I'm still not entirely convinced Doctor Who is the story of The Doctor, or at least that it should be . . . In contrast to Phil's view, I guess, I very much believe Doctor Who should be the story of the companion, and it's pretty clear to me that's what was going on in the Cartmel era, my favouirte era of televised Doctor Who. It was the story of Ace.

Just a quick note to completely agree with WPGJosh here. My two favorite eras are Early Hartnell, which is a programme about Ian and Barbara, and Late McCoy, which is (another, different) programme about Ace. The Doctor is a significant secondary character, and the mechanism that generates the plots that act upon the primary heroes, but he is not the subject of the story, any more than Gandalf is the "hero" of The Hobbit or Merlin the "hero" of the Arthurian legends. The Doctor, at least in my personal view of the show, is something that happens to the main characters, not the main character himself. Doctor Who really goes off the rails for me when the writers mistakenly think that it is a programme about the Doctor, which just sounds (and often is) dull.

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BerserkRL 5 years, 7 months ago

Sherlock Holmes can't have a character arc. Doctor Watson can't either.

BBC's Sherlock seems like a counterexample.

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David Anderson 5 years, 7 months ago

Yes. And at the point where Moffat's Sherlock genuinely becomes a good man as Lestrade predicts the series will either have to reinvent its premise or come to an end. Therefore, either the series is only pretending to have a character arc or else it can't be indefinitely prolonged.
So, Moffat's Sherlock is a reinvention of Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes in more than just the twenty-first century setting.

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Henry R. Kujawa 5 years, 7 months ago

"it does mean that the Doctor is not the main character in the same way that, say, Bill Adama is the main character in the new Battlestar Galactica."

And here I thought the ship was the main character. Except, K-9 had much more personality. (Come to think of it, K-9 had more personality than ALL of the cast members introduced during JNT's run put together, except maybe for Sylvester & Ace.)

Clearly, JNT was jealous. HE wanted to be the "star". Why else did he go to so many conventions?

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BerserkRL 5 years, 7 months ago

I don't see why the arc can't be about his becoming a better person than he is at the beginning, without his ever becoming "good" in Lestrade's sense.

And with just three episodes a year, there's plenty of time to develop the arc.

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BerserkRL 5 years, 7 months ago

Certainly BSG is more of an ensemble show than the original Star Trek was.

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sleepyscholar 5 years, 7 months ago

Guilty as charged, m'lud.

I should note that I was still more generous to the game than I was 'supposed' to be. Games Workshop were annoyed at having lost the license. Ian Marsh's Doctor Who game was mostly written -- and you can see some of the ideas it contained later appeared in Time Lord. I had played in a playtest of the original card-based game with Mike Cule (the Vogon guard from Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy) as the Pertwee Doctor. I played Sergeant Benton, and had no problem with not being the Doctor. I think something else was going on, and that something else came out in Time Lord, where Ian pretty well makes it clear that his isn't a game about the 'Whoniverse' (as the FASA game was) but about the TV show.
The 'identification' involved in the game was not exactly with the characters. Nor was it _exactly_ with the actors per se. But it was with the show as a gestalt entity. Very fannish.

But in long-lost pre-FASA Doctor Who game, the guy who played the Brig got to say to me, as we faced a cyberman: 'Benton! Silver chap, five rounds rapid.'

Nowadays, of course, it would be 'Benton! Benton! Benton! Benton! Oh Jesus Christ! Benton!'

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Henry R. Kujawa 5 years, 7 months ago

I always suspected, watching the first 13 episodes of STAR TREK (the ones Gene Roddenberry was Producer on) that he wanted the show to be more of an "ensemble" thing. When you watch something a "simple" as "THE MAN TRAP", the halls of the ship are crowded with crewmembers, and so many of the regulars get to shine in little moments. Uhura, in particular, was probably never more cute or sexy than in that one, both the scene where the alien (in disguise) is coming on to her, and earlier, on the bridge, where she's flirting with Spock. Too bad by the time Gene Coon took over, and made the show more "viewer-friendly" and less like "THE OUTER LIMITS" in color, the focus tightened to mostly Kirk, Spock & McCoy.

Glen Larson's BATTLESTAR GALACTICA (which I had confirmed for me this past year was far, far more entertaining on just about every level than the Ron Moore redo) was really ahead of its time when it came to a large "ensemble" cast, all of whom were so likable and watchable. It's frustrating that so much time was spent on repetitive effects shots, instead of making the show even more "soap-opera" in format (one thing the redo definitely picked up on). Without non-stop network and censor interference, and just a bit more focus on better writing, BG could have been so much better than it was. Kinda like DOCTOR WHO Season 17. The very best stories-- "THE LIVING LEGEND" and "WAR OF THE GODS"-- and in their own way, "BALTAR'S ESCAPE" and "THE HAND OF GOD"-- really showed how good the show could be when it started to live up to its potential.

I was aghast when I heard, only recently, that the show did actually have very good ratings when it was cancelled by ABC, who decided, STUPIDLY, that it was "too expensive" to keep it going. Spoken like a drug-addicted network exec too much in a hurry to get his next fix to have the patience to let something live JUST long enough to hit the magic number of 52 episodes for a really successful sydication run. If you're gonna give a show the okay and put it on the air at all, it deserves COMPLETE support, not incessant second-guessing.

I always pictured doing a scene in my "Galacton 2230" tribute comic of someone coming across a Dalek trashcan in the hallway of the great ship, just to show how tough the Galactic Warriors really were.

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jdm314 5 years, 7 months ago

Ah, you mean like this? https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=346532308733538&set=o.110298935669685&type=1

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BerserkRL 5 years, 7 months ago

Glen Larson's BATTLESTAR GALACTICA (which I had confirmed for me this past year was far, far more entertaining on just about every level than the Ron Moore redo)

Have to disagree on that one. I loved it when it was originally on, but it pales in comparison to the reboot for me.

I was aghast when I heard, only recently, that the show did actually have very good ratings when it was cancelled by ABC

But they did worse than cancel it. They kept it around in a semi-alive zombie state in the jaw-droppingly bad GALACTICA 1980.

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Alan 5 years, 7 months ago

There was also the problem of the George Lucas lawsuit, which was, IIRC, eventually dismissed but at the time probably had some execs quivering in fear.

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Lane Williams 5 years, 7 months ago

Regarding "Identification" issues: Cabin in the Woods. *drops microphone and walks off the stage* http://ultimateguidetocool.blogspot.com/2012/04/cabin-in-woods-final-comment-on-horror.html

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Daibhid C 1 year, 10 months ago

Talking of sci-fi properties that don't lend themselves to roleplaying games but get them anyway because that's what you do with sci-fi properties, I remember once seeing a Red Dwarf game at a convention. Yep, a game based on a show which has the basic premise that humanity is almost extinct and there are no aliens. As I recall, there were rules for playing mechanoids, holograms, evolved animals, and ... GELFs, maybe?

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