Five Movies I Like (But No One Else Does)

Apologies for being so long to update, but in the past month or so real life has been intervening in a big way. Real life is still throwing its weight around, but in the meantime I thought I’d throw out one of those lists the denizens of the Internet love so much.

A list like this is kind of meaningless, since in the days of the Internet you can find a following – even if it is just an ironic following – for almost any movie. But I’m always interested in how “taste” works, and the reasons why I myself go against the conventional wisdom on certain works. These movies definitely aren’t without fans and I don’t think any of them will be that controversial (certainly not as much as if I came out in favor of, say, Rob Zombie’s Halloween remakes), but they are movies that, at one time or another, I felt like I had to apologize just for liking.

The Cable Guy

I should start with The Cable Guy because it is, paradoxically, everyone’s favorite movie that no one else likes. Maybe it would have been received at least a little bit better if it came out after Jim Carrey’s typecasting success faded a little, maybe not. It does have its flaws: there are hints throughout the movie that at some point in the production process the film was defanged to a large degree, Matthew Broderick really is the Steve Guttenberg of the ’90s, and it  wants to be a black comedy along the lines of War of the Roses but never quite gets there (partially because the infamous “Carreyisms” are still there). For all that, the whole premise is a fantastic take on the whole Fatal Attraction genre, and has clever ideas like Carrey having an army of loyal cable customers at his disposal to enact his jealous revenge on Broderick or the trial with the former child stars. I wouldn’t quite call it a lost classic, but it is one of the more original and clever comedies to have come out of Hollywood in recent decades.

Predator 2

While for most of the films on this list I can understand why they’re not darlings with the critics or audiences, I honestly don’t know why this one gets forgotten at best or blamed for almost killing a franchise at worst. The premise – setting a Predator loose in a violent urban environment – is a natural and logical progression, it builds on the Predators’ culture without taking away the mystery of the monsters, and, hey, it’s got Danny Glover and Garey Busey. Okay, it’s also got a Jamaican drug lord/voodoo priest named “King Willie”, which really is a stereotype trifecta, but, to be honest…I kind of like this movie better than the original. Forgive me for my heresy!

Halloween III: Season of the Witch

I’m behind the curve on this one, since Halloween III in recent years has gotten a reputation for being an unfairly unappreciated film just because it didn’t have Michael Myers in it, but I swear I had this opinion before the Internet told me it was okay to have it. This movie’s just hardcore in a way few horror films dare to be; not only is the plot about a cult-run corporation that’s selling boobytrapped Halloween masks to children that will subject them to a horrific death, but the bad guys win. Also Daniel O’Herlihy as Conal Cochran is one of the great villains of horror history, just for his “villainous motive” speech. This is probably the only movie out of this list that I’d say I love. At the least, I wish I could visit the world where this movie was a success and the original idea of turning the Halloween series into an anthology series was carried through. The existence of Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers alone proves that in this case we are not in the best of all possible worlds.

Atlantis: The Lost Empire

A Disney film that wasn’t a romantic musical based on folklore or literature? That’s awesome, but, well, that’s probably why nobody liked it. I shouldn’t say “nobody,” but this movie doesn’t even really seem to have much of a cult following, which is a shame, because the film’s designs are based on the style of Mike “Hellboy” Mignola (oh, and it has Jim Varney’s last performance). Now I concede that the story especially in the second half was weak and it would have been a much stronger movie if the Powers That Be at Disney had the guts to go all the way in trying to go a new direction and made a more adult action adventure film, but the writers put in some fantastic worldbuilding (a quality that’s sadly lacking in so many similar films) and the animation was the perfect compliment to that.

Nothing But Trouble

I swear I have never seen anyone defend this movie, nor have I seen it get anything but one-star reviews. Also I sort of grew up with this movie (I have no idea why, but the local FOX affiliate showed it all the time on weekends) and I am always nostalgic for the comedic stars of the late ’80s/early ’90s like John Candy and Dan Aykroyd, so I’m definitely biased in this movie’s favor. Honestly, though, you cannot imagine a movie like this getting made today. Hell, even in the less uptight and more risk-taking Hollywood of the past, it seems like a fluke that this got made, and it probably wouldn’t have if Dan Aykroyd wasn’t behind it. It’s just so over-the-top and bizarre yet so full of the big names of the day (not just Aykroyd and Candy but also Chevy Chase and Demi Moore) I can’t help but appreciate it. Come on, yuppies being a man-eating roller coaster deathtrap, Dan Aykroyd as an ancient judge who rules like a tyrant over a decaying town, an ending with Chevy Chase basically turning into a Loony Tunes character…what’s not to love? If you did watch it and were not impressed at all, just try to think of it as a really clever remake of Two Thousand Maniacs!

Doctor Who – The Dalek Invasion of Earth (1965)

Ian and Barbara are overjoyed that this time the TARDIS landed near a pier on the Thames in modern London – or so it appears. Their glee turns to trepidation when they find that even though they’re clearly in London there’s no one around, the city is quiet, and their surroundings are decrepit. Susan climbs a wall to look at the street above, causing the decaying structure to collapse, twisting Susan’s ankle and burying the TARDIS under debris just as Barbara and Ian realize they’re actually not at the right London. A furious (and frightened) Doctor and Ian go to a nearby warehouse to look for tools to dig up the TARDIS. While tending to Susan’s ankle, Barbara notices a poster on a wall that reads, “IT IS FORBIDDEN TO DUMP BODIES IN THE RIVER” while at the warehouse Ian sees a calendar marking the year as 2164. A young man, who turns out to be named Tyler, comes across Barbara and Susan. Apparently shocked to see them, he demands that they come with him, going so far as grabbing Susan and carrying her. Barbara reluctantly follows. Back at the warehouse the Doctor and Ian stumble across the corpse of a man wearing an elaborate metallic helmet. The Doctor is curious about what kind of catastrophe befell London, while Ian, naturally, just wants to get back in the TARDIS. As they leave, they spot a flying saucer descending into London.

Susan and Barbara are forced to join with other people who are hiding out in an Underground station and acting as a resistance. After learning about Ian and the Doctor, another young member of the resistance, David, heads back to the pier to fetch them. Unfortunately, he’s a bit late, as the Doctor and Ian have found themselves surrounded by men wearing the same metallic helmets as the corpse, “Robomen.” Their attempt to escape by running into the Thames is thwarted by the emergence of something totally unexpected – a Dalek. The Doctor defiantly mocks the Dalek, who coldly (of course) replies that his people have conquered the Earth and wiped out all the world leaders. As David watches, the Dalek orders the Robomen to take Ian and the Doctor to the ship to be converted into Robomen. In the meantime, Barbara and Susan find themselves drafted into the human resistance. David brings back the bad news and reluctantly informs Barbara and Susan that Robomen are humans who have been taken prisoner, brought to the Daleks’ ships, and forcibly given implants and turned into slaves. Jenny, an embittered survivor, adds that the process is permanent and it is impossible to remove the helmet without killing the victim.

On the Daleks’ ship, Ian wonders why there are any Daleks left. The Doctor tells him that the time they saw all the Daleks wiped out was “a million years in the future” and currently they’re witnessing the “middle period” of Dalek history. Ian happens to observe that the Daleks are now wearing radio dishes on their armor, which he deduces helps them move without need of static electricity. Their cell mate, Craddock, quickly finds out they’re time travelers and explains that about a decade ago the Daleks sent fake meteorites to Earth that carried a plague that wiped out roughly ninety percent of the human race. Afterward the Daleks invaded the planet, converting some into Robomen and enslaving the rest. Most of the English slaves were sent to work in a massive mining operation in Bradfordshire, but nobody knows what the Daleks want from there. The Doctor figures out a way to escape by manipulating a device inside the cell; unfortunately, it was only a test of intelligence set up by the Daleks, who suspected that the Doctor had a higher intelligence than the humans they’ve encountered, making him a prime candidate to be turned into a Roboman. The operation is interrupted when the London resistance, along with Barbara, attack the ship, armed with bombs devised by the resistance’s leader, Dortmun, who thinks the bombs can pierce the Daleks’ armor. The bombs don’t work, sealing the fate of the resistance and causing the Daleks’ leader on Earth, the Black Dalek, to order the bombing of London to wipe out any remaining humans who aren’t under the Daleks’ control. However, the Doctor is rescued by David; Ian remains trapped on the ship but manages to hide himself; and Barbara, Jenny, and Dortmun escape to the London Transport Museum, which has been turned into another safehouse for the resistance.

Ian is discovered by Craddock, who has been turned into a Robotman. In the struggle, which ends with Craddock knocked into some machinery and killed, Ian is helped by Larry, who tells him that the Daleks’ ship is headed toward Bradfordshire. Larry stowed away on the ship to try to save his brother, who was taken as a slave to the Bradfordshire mines and who told him that he thinks the Daleks are after the Earth’s magnetic core for some reason. Meanwhile at the museum Dortmun hopes he can perfect his bomb in time to save the remnants of the human race from the Daleks. After believing he perfected the bomb, Dortmun sacrifices himself to both test the bomb and give Barbara and Jenny enough time to escape. Unfortunately, Dortmun’s bomb is still a clinker. Somewhere else in London, Susan and David look after the Doctor, who is still recovering from the Daleks’ operation. Susan talks David about the TARDIS and invites him to join them, but David refuses to abandon his homeworld. Susan admits she envies David since she’s never really had a home; in fact, Susan admits, “I never had any real identity.” Their conversation is interrupted when the Robomen drop a bomb nearby. David manages to defuse the bomb using acid from one of Dorthum’s devices, but realizes that they have to escape from London ASAP. David and Susan are reunited with Tyler as they explore the sewers for a way out of London without risking an encounter with Robomen. Barbara and Jenny find their own way to escape the city, via a truck from the museum, and Barbara, finding out that Ian is probably at Bedfordshire, drives in that direction. When they run into a small squad of Daleks, Barbara simply and successfully runs them over.

At the Bedfordshire mines, Ian, thinking the others are still in London, tries to convince a black marketeer to arrange for him to be transported back to London, but he refuses unless Ian coughs ups some precious metals. The exchange is interrupted by the Black Dalek’s alien pet, Slyther, who kills the black marketeer. Ian defeats Slyther by knocking it into a pit with a well-thrown rock, but not before he and Larry accidentally find themselves in the mines. Larry finds his brother, but to his horror discovers that he’s been turned into a Robotman assigned to oversee the miners. Larry tries to “awaken” his brother, an effort that only results in them killing each other. Near the mines, Barbara and Jenny are betrayed into the Daleks’ custody by two locals in exchange for food. The two are enlisted into working at the mine, but while Jenny despairs Barbara insists that they find a way into the Daleks’ control room because “that’s what the Doctor would do.” After Ian discovers Barbara and alerts her to his presence, she tells the Daleks that she has information about a human conspiracy. While being escorted to the control room Barbara and Jenny overhear that the Daleks plan to remove Earth’s magnetic core as part of a plan to convert the planet into a giant ship. During their interrogation Barbara distracts the Black Dalek by telling him about a massive human conspiracy that involves details from the Boston Tea Party, Hannibal’s march on Italy, Native American raids, and Robert E. Lee. Taking advantage of the Daleks’ excitement and confusion, Barbara grabs the communication device that the Daleks use to give orders to the Robomen and tries to have them rebel, but the Daleks stop her and imprison her along with Jenny, leaving them to die in an explosion they plan to activate in order to wipe out all the humans in the mines.

Ian accidentally hides in the device the Daleks plan to use to penetrate the magnetic core. Realizing what’s happening, Ian succeeds in sabotaging the device. Unknown to each other, the Doctor, Susan, and David outside the mines and a recovered Ian inside all work concurrently to sabotage the Daleks’ equipment, stopping both the mining operation and the Daleks’ explosives. David and Susan use Dortmun’s bombs to destroy the device that made all the Daleks mobile while Barbara, freed by Tyler, follows up on her original plan by ordering the Robomen to destroy all the Daleks. The group’s sabotage efforts have left the Daleks’ mining complex on the verge of an explosion. Escaping to safe ground, they watch as the explosion also takes out the escaping Dalek ship containing the Black Dalek.

After returning to London and recovering the TARDIS, Susan has a hard time saying goodbye to David, something the Doctor notices. Susan wants to stay, but tells David she feels an obligation to take care of her grandfather, even though she also admits that she’s in love with him. Before Susan can enter the TARDIS, however, the Doctor bolts the door and tells Susan, “I want you to belong somewhere, to have roots of your own”, and promises he’ll return to visit someday. After the TARDIS dematerializes, Susan takes David’s hand and drops her key to the TARDIS on the ground.

Continuity Notes

This is where the original cast breaks up with Susan’s departure, leaving in its wake various unanswered questions, at least as far the TV series is concerned. There was a recent Eighth Doctor audio play that does serve as a direct sequel to this serial, “An Earthly Child”, where the Doctor visits Susan, David, and their young son Alex several years after the events here, but as every fan-site and Wikipedia entry will tell you “it is uncertain if the audio plays are canon.” As far as the actual show is concerned, Susan does reappear in “The Five Doctors” and “Dimensions in Time”, the “Doctor Who”/”Eastenders” crossover (no, really*), which also may or may not be canon.

Susan being stranded in the year 2164 raises a couple of deliciously nerdy continuity questions, which will hopefully one day be resolved in the 2005 series. The main question is, of course, what ever happens to Susan? The 2005 series has so far maintained that all the Time Lords were wiped out except the Doctor and the Master while episodes like “Father’s Day” and “The Age of Steel” more or less spell out that the Doctor is certain that his entire biological family, including presumably Susan, has died. However, even before the 2005 series an offhand comment by the Doctor in “The Curse of Fenric” suggests that he doesn’t know if Susan is alive or where she is. This leads into the second question about Susan: what happens to a time traveler who is left in a specific era and that timeline changes? Do they continue to exist in a timeline that “branches” off, does their present reality change around them (and if so do they remember the way it was?), or something much worse? It’s possible that this possibility would involve the actual final fate of Susan since it’s vaguely hinted at in “Day of the Daleks” that the Daleks have been mucking around with their own history, specifically the events of this serial, but I’m getting into “fan theory” territory here.

As for the Daleks…oh, good God, do I really have to talk about what this serial means for their continuity too? Well, suffice it to say that the Doctor’s comment about the events of “The Daleks” taking place millions of years in the future has been thrown out. Also the idea that the Daleks could invade Earth doesn’t jibe with “The Daleks”, where it’s all but spelled out that the Daleks have been isolated in their city since they became the Daleks. Finally it hasn’t been established why the Daleks would so desperately want the Earth, although one spin-off novel, “GodEngine”, suggested that the Daleks needed the Earth since it was a rare type of planet that could be converted into a super-weapon. And that’s all I have to say about any of that, at least until the next serial starring the Daleks.

On a simpler note, it’s the first time the Daleks bark, “Exterminate!”

Not really a continuity note, but worth pointing out somewhere: the plot of this was recycled in the 1966 film, The Daleks’ Invasion Earth: 2150 AD, the sequel to Peter Cushing’s first film as Doctor Who, Dr. Who and the Daleks, which was released the previous year and was based loosely on “The Daleks.”

*Maybe people in Britain don’t find it surprising, but I have to keep reminding myself that it exists, solely because I keep thinking the exact American equivalent would be a “Star Trek”/”General Hospital” crossover.

Our Future History

The Daleks’ plague wipes out most of the global human population in the mid-2100s, including the entire population of South America, reducing what’s left of civilization to small isolated communities. Also London is largely destroyed in 2164 (although really it looks fine by the end of the serial).

Comments

If you can look past the unforgivably silly premise – the Daleks want to go through a lot of trouble to turn Earth into a giant ship, just ’cause – and all the conveniences that help the heroes defeat the Daleks in the end, you have a grim, action-packed serial that serves as the ultimate rebuke to people who assume that “Doctor Who” in the 1960s would be childish and slow-paced. In quite a few ways, this serial does resemble the 2005 series, especially in its handling of bleak subject matter with a sort of sincere optimism. I wouldn’t be surprised if this serial in particular was a chief inspiration for Russell T. Davies.

I’ve said it before, but for this serial it’s worth repeating that I’m stunned at the gap between the sort of children’s entertainment I grew up with, where all the guns fired colorful lasers that never even seemed to hit anyone instead of bullets and the deaths, if there were any at all, were merely vaguely suggested, and this show, which expects its young audience to be able to handle multiple violent deaths (that are admittedly largely bloodless but still take place entirely on screen), the idea that nearly the entire human race can be wiped out by a disease, fairly realistic glimpses of what a post-apocalyptic society would be like, and the sight of their own country’s capital being invaded and devastated. Placing this – or really most of the early “Doctor Who” episodes – alongside American 80s’ fare like “Inspector Gadget” or “He-Man” is downright staggering.

The Daleks were a sensation pretty much out of the gate, as the speed in which the Peter Cushing “Dr. Who” films were produced and released attests, and Terry Nation’s script really tries to drive his concept home – literally, with plenty of shots of the Daleks marching (well, wheeling) past London landmarks to frighten the kiddies, especially the ones unlucky enough to be living in London when this first aired. The sight of the Dalek slowly emerging from the Thames, even if it doesn’t make much sense, was a fun re-introduction, while the use of open sets for the first time in the show’s history gives all the proceedings a blockbuster feel. There’s still some obnoxious and obvious padding here and there – I’m thinking especially of Susan and David’s utterly pointless expedition into the sewer – but Terry Nation compensates by peppering the action with quite a few effective character moments, most of which are as depressing as hell, of course.

To Nation’s credit, he also handles the unenviable remit of writing off Susan fairly well. No doubt if the serial was released today a legion of bloggers would be screaming about Susan leaving the TARDIS because of a man, but at least the script does take time to also explain that Susan is and has been feeling the effects of her groundless upbringing (of course, it would have been nice if this had been built up more in previous serials, but what are ya gonna do?). In execution Susan’s sudden relationship with David comes across stronger than it sounds on paper. It still has all the fingerprints of a showrunner-mandated decision, and the idea of the Doctor leaving his granddaughter on a devastated Earth just because she’s fallen in love with a guy she’s known for a week tops really doesn’t hold up to scrutiny that well (unless you’re thinking he just wants to get rid of her!). On the other hand, the Susan in this serial is a character with depth, as shown in her first long conversation with David, and not the perpetually terrified woman-child of other episodes, so she carries the improbabilities quite well. Plus the scene of departure is handled very well by both William Hartnell and Carol Ann Ford, thanks in no small point to a genuinely well-crafted monologue.

So all in all a largely successful attempt to make an epic out of the TV show, if you can get past the odd contrast between the bizarre and the very dark aspects. At the least it deserves to be remembered as the first “blockbuster” episode of “Doctor Who.”

Doctor Who – Planet of Giants (1964)

Well, we’ve made it to the second season, so let’s get started with a serial whose premise also became a level in “Super Mario Bros. 3″…

As the TARDIS lands in what the Doctor assures Barbara and Ian is their native time, something malfunctions and the Doctor panics. When they try to view what’s outside, the scanner breaks. Outside they’re puzzled by what seems to be a stone monument shaped like a massive pebble. Splitting up to investigate further, Susan and Ian find a dead ant the size of a cat while the Doctor and Barbara find a gigantic earthworm that’s also dead. Soon Ian and Susan also find a large box of stock (that is, the broth kind, not the finance kind) that was manufactured in Norwich. Simultaneously the Doctor and Susan realize that the TARDIS and they as well have become smaller than an inch. Unfortunately, the revelation comes a bit too late for Ian, who happens to be standing on a giant matchbox that gets picked up. The man who inadvertently carried off Ian is a government scientist named Dr. Farrow, who is there to analyze a new insecticide, DN6, about to be released into the market by a company owned by Mr. Forrester. Farrow tells Forrester that he’s concluded that DN6 works too well, completely wiping out even beneficial insect life, and must advise the authorities not to allow the formula to be released. Desperately Forrester, whose company is on the verge of ruin, tries to bribe Farrow, but he insists, “This isn’t business, this is science.” Forrester shoots Farrow before he can call and make his report.

After seeing a bee drop dead, Barbara and the Doctor deduce that there is a poison around and that it endangers them as well. Escaping the matchbox, Ian is found by the others on the porch; unfortunately, Forrester’s cat finds them as well. They manage to cause the cat to lose interest by standing still, but worry if the creature will be back. The sounds of someone stomping into the room scatters the travelers and drives Barbara and Ian to hide in Farrow’s bag. Meanwhile DN6’s inventor, Smithers, who zealously believes that his invention will help end world hunger, agrees to help Forrester cover up the murder by trying to convince Farrow’s employers that he had already left for a planned vacation to France. Barbara and Ian end up on a table inside Smithers’ lab, which strands them. Barbara faints once she finds herself facing a giant fly, which soon dies after landing on a pile of seeds, coated with DN6, that Barbara had just touched.

The Doctor and Susan make it inside the lab too via a chemical sink. Barbara and Ian try make it down from the table to the sink, but are interrupted when Smithers, having just cleaned up Farrow’s blood, comes in to wash his hands, driving Susan and the Doctor back into the pipes. They manage to save themselves by standing in the overflow pipe. Back on the porch they find Farrow’s notepad with the DN6 formula written on it, which inspires them to use the information to stop the insecticide from being produced. The Doctor realizes that DN6 not only kills all insects, but has the potential to last within the soil and poison water and crops. Barbara, who has not told the others about being exposed to DN6, grows progressively weaker, which she blames on not eating. Going back into the house, the crew props up a phone, but find that the operator doesn’t hear them. The Doctor learns about Barbara’s condition and guesses that once she returns to normal size she will be well, but Barbara insists that they stay long enough to find a way to stop DN6.

Meanwhile the operator and her husband, a police officer, figure out, after Forrester tries to imitate Farrow to make a call to Farrow’s employers, that someone is imitating Farrow. Smithers finds Farrow’s notes and realizes what DN6 will do, but their argument is interrupted – and Forrester is knocked out – by an explosion in the lab deliberately caused by the Doctor and the others to attract attention. On the way back to the TARDIS, the Doctor sees the operator’s husband arrest Forrester and Smithers. After the Doctor repairs and malfunction and restores the TARDIS and everyone to their normal size, Barbara makes a full recovery.

Continuity Notes

First of all, it’s established that the TARDIS also has the capability to alter its size and those of everyone in it. While this seems like a silly, one-note idea, the concept becomes a plot point again later in the series, perhaps most notably in “Carnival of Monsters” and “The Armageddon Factor.”

Susan mentions that she and the Doctor were around for an “air raid.” Right away one might assume she’s referring to the Blitz, but, since from her description zeppelins were involved, it might be a reference that the Doctor was once right in the middle of World War I.

This serial also deserves to be remembered as the first time the Doctor and his companions hang around not because any of them are detained or because access to the TARDIS is blocked, but to do a good deed. It’s also the last serial to begin and end with the entire original cast.

Comments

As early as its second season opener, the showrunners were willing to break with the formula that was so rigidly sustained through the first season by having a setting that was neither an alien world (the exact opposite, in fact) or a historical era. It presages the madcap experimentalism that will dominate the show, for better or for worse, soon enough, and helps establish that “Doctor Who” is truly a series where just about anything could happen.

Beyond the novelty of the premise, this serial doesn’t really have much to offer. The serial’s production history bears that out, since it was decided to cut the serial from four episodes to three. It’s easy to see why; as creative as the show’s set designers had already proven themselves to be, the sets strain visibly at the budget limitations (especially in the Doctor and the companions’ “encounter” with a cat) and the fundamental idea of the Doctor and the others finding lethal obstacles and useful tools in mundane objects wears thin quickly. Further, while most of the first season serials had at least one aspect that expanded beyond the setting and the premise, like Barbara trying to alter history in “The Aztecs” or the Doctor and his companions navigating intrigue and rival political agendas in “The Reign of Terror”, “Planet of Giants” only has a half-hearted agricultural lesson on the downsides to too-powerful insecticides. This weakness might have been covered up if the writers had been willing to do more with the characters of Forrester and Smithers, but they hardly even begin to reach beyond the archetypes of the amoral capitalist and the mad scientist.

So all in all a weak opener to the second season, but I guess you could argue that the real opener is just around the corner…

Final Fantasy Retrospective 1A

“Final Fantasy” fans who got hooked in the ’00s don’t know how lucky they were. Being an old-school fan, who was literally with the franchise from the start, was a weird ordeal for anyone living outside Japan and wasn’t enough of a hardcore gamer to own a genuine Famicon and have the ability to fluently read Japanese. The majority of the games in the series were simply not available to people unwilling to learn Japanese until the advent of the Internet, emulators, and fan-translations, and even if you did know enough Japanese to play the games it was still a hassle and an expense to actually order the games and a Famicon or Super Famicon to play them.  To twist the knife, Square made the decision to title the real “Final Fantasy IV” as Final Fantasy II, which eventually created a huge (and now proverbial among console RPG fans) amount of confusion when saps like me finally got wise to the fact that all of North America was deemed unworthy to receive the series in full (I suppose it’s a good thing they ended the policy before “Final Fantasy VII” became “Final Fantasy IV.”) To make matters even more confusing, Square, despite the international success of the Final Fantasy franchise, decided that RPGs were unprofitable in the North American market and that the only RPGs that had any chance of selling had to be under the Final Fantasy brand name. So, when they did decide to release two other RPG franchises to North America, they released them as Final Fantasy Adventure and Final Fantasy Legend, despite the two series having almost nothing in common, even in gameplay, with any of the Final Fantasy games that did make it to North America and Europe. I never played “Final Fantasy Adventure” until fairly recently, but I did get to experience “Final Fantasy Legend,” albeit years after the series was first released on Game Boy.

The truth is that the Final Fantasy Legend games were really the first installments in a series called SaGa (yes, the “G” is capitalized for some reason). The games did not start being released in English under their real name until the Playstation era and even then a sizable chunk of the series, the Romancing SaGa trilogy released on the Super Famicon, never saw an official English translation. While I forever curse Square for never releasing the FF series in full (especially for releasing the severely watered-down and just plain boring Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest instead of FF V), I can understand why they never brought over the 16-bit SaGa games, even though the Final Fantasy Legend trilogy was a smash hit. Whereas from pretty much the beginning the Final Fantasy series values story over gameplay, SaGa games take exactly the opposite approach. Instead of the near-universal system of gaining experience levels, SaGa always encourages obsessive tinkering with how your characters act in battle or with certain choices made post-battle, making for a much more demanding but vastly more flexible (or, depending on your point of view, more infuriatingly random) system of character development. The worlds were often at least abstractly defined and at most downright surreal. And again the plots never aimed to be operatic; if anything, they never ventured far past their basic premises. Even though I think the SaGa games generally were made more to scratch the cultural preferences of Japanese gamers than anything else, I’ve actually grown to have a fondness for SaGa, and in fact I’m probably one of eight Americans who actually enjoyed the sort of infamous SaGa Frontier, if only because it’s the game where you can play a lesbian vampire, a superhero, a wandering minstrel, a robot, and a supermodel-turned-hitwoman all in the same game!

Anyway, case in point: Saga I or Final Fantasy Legend has the really barebones premise that your party is climbing a tower that leads to different worlds and ultimately to Paradise. There really isn’t that much more to the story than that, except for a glorious part where you end up in a post-apocalyptic cityscape that manages to feel like a “Mad Max”-“Akira” combo and where all the secondary characters you befriend die horribly. After that, you fight the Devil and kill him. Then you meet God and kill him too.  Even better, there’s a glitch in the game where you can kill him in one hit with a chainsaw. I just can’t get past that Nintendo at the time kept their games from displaying churches and crosses in order to not offend anybody’s religious sensibilities, but a game with a climax where you literally go and butcher God with a chainsaw was perfectly acceptable. Speaking of which, has anyone noticed a trend in Japanese games where you fight, if not kill, God? Dragon Quest VII, Shin Megami Tensei I and II, Shadow Hearts…there’s a trend there.

Anyway, you get to kill gods again in FFL II, but this time they’re pagan gods from “our” world. It turns out the “gods” are really just people who have collected enough Magi, pieces of a magical statue that grants their holder special powers. Of course, it turns out that most of the “gods” are dicks. Deicide aside, the real fun of the game was the sheer randomness of the entire game’s universe. While in the first game you could and did have an arsenal that included swords, guns, and chainsaws, t’s here that the SaGa series put down its potential for surrealism, because you get to have in your party robots, monsters, and “Mystics” (who were translated as “Mutants” in the first English port of the game, but from what I understand they’re actually more like vampires). And in the course of the game you go to a dragon-racing world, Valhalla, a city where unattractive people are exiled, a Japanese world (where in probably one of the most famous examples of Nintendo’s watering-down translation policy all mentions of “opium” are turned into “bananas”, which caused many a kid in my generation to wonder why there was this Shogun hellbent on outlawing bananas), and at one point you get involved in a Fantastic Voyage-esque adventure. Still, though, I don’t think I ever finished the game, because I became much too frustrated at the fact that most of your weapons run out, which was a factor in the first game too but somehow it’s even worse here. Even when you buy, say, Broadswords, there’s a number next to them like “70” and it goes down by one each time you use it. I think instead of you literally buying 70 Broadswords and using them one by one, in the logic of the game it’s supposed to mark how your weapons slowly wear out, which I guess makes sense, but why the hell would they pick that point to display realism?!  (And having played Silent Hill: Origins for the first time recently, the game where your steel pipe can break after using it four times at most, I have to say that my attitude toward this kind of “realism” has not changed).

Luckily they dropped that in the third game, and threw in the old-fashioned RPG system of levels. Unfortunately, you also couldn’t make a party of robots and monsters anymore, but at least you could turn your human party members into monsters (by eating monsters’ meat, which is a little disturbing when you think about it) and cyborgs. But FFL 3 honestly had one of the best premises I’d seen in a RPG; these evil gods from another dimension are slowly flooding the world and your party has to travel between three time eras to be able to get into said dimension. Admittedly, though, the time travel part of the story doesn’t lead to as much madcap exploring as there was in the second game.  There are only three time zones, and except for the futuristic…well, future there isn’t much difference between them.  Also, once the time travel part of the plot is dispensed with, you end up in the eeee-vil dimension where the game enters standard issue RPG territory, although there is one last fun part where you can buy weapons and armor in a shopping mall complete with escalators.

Oh, and you kill God…again. To be fair, it turns out that God has been corrupted by the evil gods and is turning into a monster, but still! Oh, Japan.

Doctor Who – The Reign of Terror (1964)

The Doctor lands the TARDIS somewhere, angrily telling Barbara and Ian that they’re now home and they must leave. The companions aren’t so sure, but to keep the Doctor from just abandoning them they try to soothe over his ego, with Ian convincing him to at least join them for a drink before they go. Finding that they’ve landed in the middle of a forest, they come across a boy with ragged clothes who tells them that they’re in France, near Paris. The Doctor insists that his landing of the TARDIS was still “quite accurate” – after all, it’s only a hundred miles or so – but Ian adds that they might also have the wrong when. Coming across a seemingly abandoned farmhouse, they learn bit by bit that they’re not only at the time of the French Revolution, but have landed at the height of the Reign of Terror, and that the farmhouse is actually a station on an “underground railroad” designed to help aristocrats and counterrevolutionaries escape the country. Everything comes together when the Doctor and the rest run into two aristocrats, who are being pursued by revolutionary troops. The aristocrats are killed trying to escape, while Ian, Barbara, and Susan are found and arrested by the soldiers. Meanwhile the Doctor is trapped inside the farmhouse, as one of the soldiers burns it down. The boy from earlier, Jean-Pierre, rescues the Doctor and tells him what happened to the others.

In Paris, Ian, Barbara, and Susan are all condemned to die under the guillotine without a trial; Ian and the women are taken to different cells in the Conciergerie. Barbara discovers a weak spot in the cell that might enable them to escape, while Ian shares his cell with a dying British spy who recognizes him as British and begs him to finish his assignment for him by finding another spy named James Stirling at the sign of Le Chien Gris (“The Gray Dog”) and giving him orders to return to Britain. After the spy dies, an official, Lemaitre, interrogates Ian about the spy and then marks Ian off the list of prisoners scheduled to be executed. On his way to Paris to save the others, the Doctor is drafted into a press gang because he manages to piss off the overseer and he isn’t carrying any identification papers (this was before psychic paper). Soon enough, the Doctor exploits the overseer’s greed to help everyone in the press gang escape. As soon as he arrives in Paris, the Doctor acquires the garb of a provincial officer. Susan and Barbara get a lucky break too, as they are rescued while being carted to the guillotine by Jean and Jules, two men in charge of the escape network the Doctor and the others stumbled across before. In the meantime, Ian succeeds in escaping on his own, thanks to, unknown to him, the unexplained intervention of Lemaitre.

Pretending to be an official, the Doctor, armed with credentials he forged himself, blusters his way into the Conciergerie, only to learn the people he set out to rescue have already escaped. Before he can leave, the Doctor runs into Lemaitre, who insists that the Doctor go see Robespierre and discuss with him the status of his province. The Doctor can’t help but get into an argument with the paranoid Robespierre (“I will triumph, even if I have to execute every last one of them!”) over the ethics of the Reign of Terror, which at least saves him from having to discuss the province. Susan becomes sick while Barbara and another of their benefactors, Léon Colbert, become infatuated with each other. Ian’s quest to find James Stirling leads him to Jules, who suspects he’s an informant, knocks him out, and takes him to his hideout. However, he gives Ian the chance to tell his story, but Jules claims he doesn’t know James Stirling. When Barbara takes Susan to see a physician, he betrays them to the revolutionary guard. Inside the Conciergerie the Doctor is enlisted to interrogate Barbara and Susan, but it’s all a set-up by Lemaitre to confirm his suspicions about the Doctor. Ian is likewise betrayed and captured by Colbert, who is determined to learn what the spy had told Ian.

The Doctor manages to trick the none-too-bright jailer into releasing Barbara and goes to retrieve Susan himself. Ian gives in to Colbert’s demands for the truth by telling him, “I flew here with three friends in a small box. When I left England it was 1963”, which infuriates Colbert. Just before Ian is about to be tortured, Jules appears and saves him, killing Colbert and his minions in the process. Barbara, who joins up with Ian, is upset when she learns of Colbert’s death and defends his actions, furiously concluding to Ian, “You check your history books before you decide what people deserve!” Still, Barbara apologizes to Jules, who explains that he is not an aristocrat but he does strongly oppose anarchy and those who rule by fear. Back at the Conciergerie, the Doctor saves Susan, and runs into Lemaitre before they can escape. Lemaitre offers to free Susan if the Doctor leads Lemaitre to Jules’ hideout or else Susan and the Doctor will stay prisoners.

The Doctor leads Lemaitre straight to Jules, but he, Ian, and Barbara quickly find out that Lemaitre is actually James Stirling. Ian relays the order to return to Britain, but also recalls that the spy mumbled something about the deputy Paul Barras and a “sinking ship.” Barbara and Ian, disguised as two innkeepers, are sent by James Stirling to observe events at an inn called the Sinking Ship, where Barras is meeting an up-and-coming general named Napoleon Bonaparte. Barras explains that Robespierre is about to fall victim to a coup, which will end in his arrest and execution, and that he stands in line for leadership under the Republic’s constitution. Since Napoleon is a war hero, Barras would need him to join him as a consul to rally popular support. The next day James Stirling and Ian go to witness Robespierre’s overthrow while the Doctor again bluffs his way into having Susan freed. Ian suggests to Jules that Napoleon will eventually become the country’s leader, but he’s completely incredulous that a Corsican would ever rule France. Before James Stirling can query Barbara on who they really are, the party is united and head back to the TARDIS. There Ian and Barbara suppose that any attempts to either stop Napoleon’s rise to power or to warn him about future events would have simply been unsuccessful. The Doctor claims there’s no point in speculating; instead they should focus on the fact that their “destiny is in the stars, so let’s go search for it.”

Continuity Notes

It’s implied throughout all of first season, but this is the first serial that truly raises the question: is the Doctor able to pilot the TARDIS at all? So far it seemed like the Doctor can’t and the TARDIS ends up landing in places and times that are random – almost, since the TARDIS does land on Earth at least half the time. The Doctor insisting that he can accurately pilot the TARDIS when the entire season suggested otherwise is played for laughs, but it does leave behind one question: what if the Doctor isn’t just being sensitive? Putting aside all future continuity that reveals that the Doctor actually can pilot the TARDIS – sort of, kind of (after all, it is established later that the TARDIS was meant to be piloted by six people, not one, which is why there are so many shots of the Doctor madly running around the console) – this serial does open up the possibility that from the start the Doctor wanted Ian and Barbara to come with him and Susan, and that his bumbling is mostly if not entirely a ruse, like any of the tricks he uses to free himself from tight spots. Of course, I’m not sure if viewers were supposed to pick up on that; as far as I know, the writers were just trying to juggle the necessity of arriving at extremely different locales for the premise with the fact that they have to address why the Doctor seems so incompetent at using his own machine.

Still, it wouldn’t be impossible for the writers of this show to be that devoted to surrounding the premise with some ambiguity.

We also learn from Susan that the French Revolution is “the Doctor’s favorite period in the history of Earth.” One wonders if his scholarly opinion has changed nine incarnations later.

The Doctor’s anti-authoritarianism has been bubbling up throughout the series so far, but the scene where the Doctor berates and then defies the overseer arguably establishes it without question for the first time.

Comments

Watching this one, I couldn’t help but get the feeling that I was being punished for giving Susan a pass last time. Susan’s antics were rising to the point where she was like a straightforward, decades-too-early parallel to the ludicrously inept Chris Farly character who constantly thwarts the plans of the competent David Spade character. Barbara thinks they can tunnel out of the cell? Susan is frightened of the rats in the dirt. Barbara believes she and Susan can make a break for it on their way to be executed? Susan complains that she’s too tired and hurts too much to run. If I had the chance to write a remake of the episode, I expect that I wouldn’t be able to resist hitting a pop culture homerun by having Barbara shout, “What, are you dense? Are you retarded or something? It’s the goddamn guillotine!”

I really liked this one the first time I saw it, but upon a second viewing I feel like I have to seriously revise my opinion.  It’s still not nearly as bad as a couple of the historicals to come (like the deservedly infamous “The Gunslingers”), but it really does stumble in using the premise of the show, coming across more as a generic historical drama than as a “Doctor Who” historical.  Where the episode works well, and often very well,  is where it delves into the French Revolution as a time of surveillance and paranoia.  Elsewhere…not so much.

Final Fantasy Retrospective Part 1

Inspired by a retrospective one of the bloggers I follow is doing on the classic Ultima series, I figured I would do something similar with the one RPG series I followed from the beginning, at least as much as an American of the ’90s could have, Final Fantasy.

I was actually fortunate enough to receive “Final Fantasy” as a Christmas gift a year or so after it was released, although I can’t remember if I specifically asked for it or not. If I didn’t, then I am impressed that I got such an 8-bit classic from the family whose unprompted video game gifts tended to fall more on the “Back to the Future” side of the spectrum of quality than the “Legend of Zelda” side. However I got it, I was instantly taken in by the packaging’s art work:

They don’t make them like that anymore. I still wish I kept the box, along with the map and all the other little extras, but now I’d have to sell them on eBay or something.

The funny thing is that I hadn’t read – hell, I was barely aware of – “Lord of the Rings” and I had never played Dungeons & Dragons, so basically without realizing it I was playing a copy of a copy. I wonder how many other kids had that experience with any cultural phenomenon. Anyway, yes, “Final Fantasy” is basically “Lord of the Rings” via D&D and filtered through a Japanese interpretation of medieval Western Europe, the sort of artifact that seems weirdly postmodern and can only exist in our era of endless cultural regurgitation. Now to be fair, unlike its onetime rival series “Dragon Warrior Quest,” “Final Fantasy” from the very beginning was throwing in odd sci-fi elements. Alongside your warriors armed with swords and axes and chain mail, you had robots, the airship that would pretty much become one of the series’ mascots, and even a space station. “Final Fantasy” does pretty much a more seamless job of bringing in futuristic things into the otherwise medieval setting unlike “Ultima I,” where at the local merchant’s you have your choice of either a horse, a flying car, or a space shuttle, but it did bother me even as a kid that you were able to fight laser-shooting mechanical soldiers with a sword, a hammer, and fists.

Oh, speaking of fists, when you get to pick your party members in the beginning, you do get to pick a martial artist. And the funny thing is that, in a world where you also get to choose sword and axe-wielding knights and black mages who casually toss around god-like, apocalyptic powers, including a spell that recreates the impact of a nuclear bomb, the martial artist will, once he starts getting fairly high in levels, be your most powerful fighter. Ogres, snakes, spiders, ghosts, primordial Babylonian goddesses…he can just punch all of them into oblivion. I mean, damn, the average martial artist in the “Final Fantasy” world must be able to casually tear off Superman’s arm and beat him to death with it! Even Steven Seagal in his early ’90s prime wouldn’t last five seconds in a fist fight against one of them.

Except for that, the intrusion of robots and outer space, and the fact that your thief can get promoted into a ninja (if you give a dragon a rat’s tail…just roll with it), the gameplay really does come across as a D&D campaign. However, for the 8-bit era and for an early RPG, the story is surprisingly complex. It starts out fairly simple, with even a classic “rescue the kidnapped princess” mission, yet it turns out to be a little more than just “bad guy(s) out there, find special item(s) and/or weapon(s), kill bad guys,” which alone starts out the “Final Fantasy” tradition of an emphasis on story. Now if the story has any flaws, it’s because it’s a little too ambitious. See, when the game gets going your overall quest is to kill the Fiends, these four demons, each one representing a different classical Greek element, who are slowly wiping out the planet in the manner of BP or “Captain Planet” villains (same difference). As it turns out, Garland, the knight your party effortlessly slaughtered while saving the requisite captive princess at the beginning, is really the mastermind behind it all. In what probably is the most convoluted scheme for achieving immorality ever (with the debatable exception of what Dante is up to over in Fullmetal Alchemist), Garland is sent 2,000 years in the past from which he sent the Fiends into the game’s present, creating a time loop that somehow results in the end of the world and insures Garland’s immortality. So how does Garland last 2,000 years, why does he kidnap the princess in the present, and what about the little fact that you do kind of kill him at some point? And why does he turn into a hellspawn at the end? Yeah, you just have to poke at the storyline for it to fall apart, but how many early RPGs tried to incorporate time travel into their plots? Maybe the cliche that “Final Fantasy” hasn’t “aged well” is true to an extent, even though in my opinion it holds up better than the first “Dragon Quest” which, let’s face it, was just 95 percent level grinding, but the slight weirdness of the story alone still stands out and justifies the existence of the mega-franchise to come.