The easiest way to describe The Adventure Game is that it’s what everybody who foolishly wants the Celestial Toymaker to come back should watch instead. It is, in effect, that story done right and as an ongoing series. In each episode a trio of celebrities from the B-list or below (possibly far below – I’m not actually sure everybody who appears on the show is actually a celebrity) are stuck on a fictitious alien planet and left to escape by playing odd real-life board games and solving puzzles. And, you know. Talking to angry plants that they have to address with the proper terms of respect or risk evaporation. Like you do.
What is most important to The Adventure Game is not its almost completely incoherent worldbuilding but its sense of tone. All of the elements are familiar in the abstract as parts of a Captain Kangaroo-esque children’s television. But instead of being presented straightforwardly as a world that the viewing children are invited to understand The Adventure Game presents its world as a puzzle to be continually figured out.
A prime example is Rongad, a character in the third and fourth series of the show, who speaks backwards. That is, he reverses the letter order of every word he says as well as his sentence structure. In a normal piece of children’s television, this would be presented as, essentially, an in joke for savvy viewers. His appearances would serve to reintroduce the central concept, and the pleasure would be in the ability of the audience to make sense of the apparent randomness.
But The Adventure Game doesn’t give them the chance. Even if you know the trick to Rongad it’s impossible to make sense of what he’s saying simply because auditory parsing of backwards English at conversational speeds is not actually possible. So instead we get a world in which there are rules, but even knowing the rules is not entirely useful. The show is not a comforting piece about learning by repetition but one about playing within a set of rules.
This, of course, corresponds with what the show is actually about. The actual content of the show is based on watching the guest stars try to figure out puzzles and maneuver their way through Arg. So, for instance, in the episode of most interest to Doctor Who fans, the one where Janet Fielding plays, there’s a puzzle based around floating an egg up from the bottom of a glass to acquire a piece of string tied around it, and the fact that the egg will float in salt water. Elsewhere the players are confronted by strange logic games and expected to figure out some account of what’s going on. All of it is structured so that the audience, particularly if they’re familiar with the show, are just ahead of the players, but only just ahead. The show isn’t about watching people try to figure out a set of rules the audience already has down, but about watching them make sense of a not quite scrutible world just slightly slower than the audience is doing it.
But to anyone who’s been reading this blog from the start all of this should be terribly familiar. Using schoolboy science to solve mysteries on an alien planet with defined rules that the audience figures out slightly faster than the characters? That’s no 80s piece of children’s television, that’s the Hartnell era. But there’s a key difference between The Adventure Game and the Hartnell era. In the Hartnell era the whole point was the juxtaposition of the ordinary people (represented by Ian and Barbara) and the bizarre and hard-to-figure out world. But in The Adventure Game the point is the lack of juxtaposition. The Adventure Game hinges on the fact that b-list celebrities can and do habitually drop in on strange alien worlds to engage in some puzzle solving. Put another way, the Hartnell era hinged on the fact that it was unusual that Ian and Barbara were in these situations, whereas The Adventure Game is utterly unconcerned with this question.
I’d engage in a rhetorical flourish here of holding off on explaining why for a few paragraphs, but anyone who has seen even fragments of The Adventure Game would get the answer immediately, so there’s really no point. The entire visual iconography of The Adventure Game is based around computer games. And not just in a vague “cheap 80s computer graphics” way. No, The Adventure Game goes out of its way to invoke specific games, including bits of what are obviously Pac-Man, Asteroids, Space Invaders, and Frogger in its credits, among others.
Lest anyone think this is just a show about video games, however, the montage of video game footage is paired, in a beautifully dissonant opening credits sequence, with a lovely bit of chamber music. The result is striking, and communicates the strange tone of the show perfectly. It’s about video games, yes, but it’s not about the culture of video games. Rather, it’s about the intellectual aspects of video games. This phrase sounds a bit odd to 2012 ears, when video games have become mass entertainment, often of the crudest sort, but from the perspective of 1980, when the series debuted, it makes perfect sense. Video games – or, more accurately, computer games – were part of the rapidly emerging technology of the personal computer, which was still technology dominated by the computer nerd. These were the days when hackers really were bright kids in their bedrooms messing around and not parts of Eastern European organized crime rings.
I talked a bit about this back in the Logopolis entry (section 32 if you want to be quick about it), and a bit again back in the Hitchhiker’s Guide entry (it’s worth slipping in a comment that Douglas Adams was invited to write The Adventure Game but declined) but here it becomes necessary to dial it in a bit more. Simply put, the early and mid-80s were the heyday of fascination with logic games, puzzle solving, and, oh yes, let’s not forget, Dungeons and Dragons. Which I mention in part because The Adventure Game was explicitly modeled on Dungeons and Dragons.
To the modern roleplaying ear this may sound ludicrous, but go look at the supplements to some proper, old school Dungeons and Dragons. Tomb of Horrors is always a good choice. Far from being an adventure about killing monsters, the Tomb of Horrors module spends considerable effort telling potential Dungeon Masters that this is not an adventure about killing monsters and suggesting that they’re bad people if their games are mostly about that. From there the module proceeds into what is the most infamously absurd set of roleplaying puzzles ever, including opportunities to die horribly trying to find the entrance to the dungeon. From there you get rooms with levers on the wall that if you set wrong kill you, holes you can climb through that permanently destroy your character, secret doors leading to death traps, and other works of pure sadism. There is even a hallway that walking down changes your gender. If you attempt to walk back up it to undo it, your character is teleported out of the dungeon. Naked. Not that anybody was working through some issues here or anything.
I go into this tangent to communicate something that may not be apparent to people whose knowledge of Dungeons and Dragons comes primarily from more recent gaming, which is that in its original conception Dungeons and Dragons is basically about the repeated and extended torture of its would-be players for sport. But perhaps stranger than this is the fact that people actually thought it was fun. Tomb of Horrors is not some hated adventure widely loathed for its unfairness and lack of entertainment. It’s one of the all-time classic D&D adventures. And this is the thing that people who are not familiar with the roleplaying games of the period don’t quite get – that classic roleplaying games are about solving willfully sadistic logic puzzles – a spirit that The Adventure Game captures perfectly.
Equally important is the connection between this and computer games. The ones shown in The Adventure Game’s credits are not, however, the really relevant ones. No, the relevant ones are things like Zork or Richard Garriott’s Ultima. And the thing that becomes immediately clear if you play one of these games, particularly if you play them with, say, The Space Museum on in the background is that in a very real sense these games are the true and proper heir of Hartnell-era Doctor Who and the old “hard SF” tradition that got displaced by Star Wars.
Indeed, in many ways these games are better at this sort of thing than the media that used to contain them. The influence of Dungeons and Dragons on The Five Doctors is blatant, but the really strange thing is that there’s no particular reason to think it was deliberate – Terrance Dicks is not, exactly, the sort to have a bag of D20s. Rather it’s that the basic dynamic of “and then everyone goes on a quest to the scary tower” has, in 1983, been so subsumed by gaming that everyone goes to Dungeons and Dragons instead of “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.” Without anyone meaning to, The Five Doctors becomes Doctor Who as role-playing campaign. Patrick Troughton even gets to cast magic missile at the darkness. Sorry. “Galactic Glitter.”
So by just doing what he and Doctor Who had been doing for twenty years, Terrance Dicks found himself writing a D&D game with Time Lords. Except this is also where the wheels come off. By any reasonable measure the most cringe-worthy sequence of The Five Doctors is the lethal chessboard that’s as “easy as pi,” an attempt to shoehorn in a good old fashioned maths lesson into the Doctor Who plot. But by 1983 this sort of schoolboy knowhow/technobabble blend just didn’t work anymore. Anyone watching could see immediately that there was no actual relationship between pi and how you crossed the floor. And in 1983, that wasn’t going to cut it. In a culture where sci-fi fans were accustomed not only to problems like this but to actually figuring them out themselves you can’t just hand-wave it. Nor can you explain it terribly well, because lecturing about pi and mapping it to a chessboard somehow makes for terrible television.
Well, usually. Somehow, of course, The Adventure Game manages it. But, of course, its trick is fairly obvious – the people playing The Adventure Game are actually solving the puzzles in real time. They’re not delivering dialogue, but muttering and poking at things trying to figure them out. Indeed, in an interview the producers of The Adventure Game noted that one of the hardest parts of getting the show to work was figuring out how to edit the puzzle-solving into watchable television, since it couldn’t be made to sound like TV dialogue no matter how they cut it.
All of this marks, then, the final and sputtering death of the original conception of what the series was for. The idea of Doctor Who as a show about seeing the Doctor solve puzzles is over now. It hasn’t been the main focus of the series for a while, but now we’re at a point where it really can’t be the focus at all. It’s simply not satisfying to watch someone figure out logic puzzles when you can figure out better ones yourself. I said that The Adventure Game was what The Celestial Toymaker was trying to be, and given that, it’s telling that The Adventure Game has as its marquee logic puzzle a kind of cool and reasonably complex maze-based board game whereas The Celestial Toymaker has the Towers of Hanoi.
I’m rarely one for the argument that video games let you “be” the character in the story and that this is preferable, but when it comes to puzzle solving, it largely is. It is, in fact, more satisfying to solve the logic puzzles in Zork yourself than it is to watch William Hartnell play Towers of Hanoi, or to watch Richard Hurndall make some vague comments about pi before walking across the room the same way he would have for any other explanation. The reason, of course, is sensible – because puzzles were something for self-solving first. The idea of showing other people solving puzzles in books or on television was a temporary invention of the golden age of science fiction. Once computers came along they reverted back to type, becoming what they always were: games.
But because Doctor Who started in that milieu there remain a sizable chunk of people who think that the series is about a practical handyman who solves puzzles. But in practice, that approach to storytelling was a blip in the narrative tradition. And The Adventure Game is a fascinating artifact of the period where that function moved back to media more suited to the task.