Monday, February 17, 2014


For anyone connected to the Internet at all, it would be hard to know nothing about Doctor Who. The British television series premiered the day after President Kennedy was shot, and aired for about 25 years. It was then revived about ten years ago after a fifteen-year hiatus and has been continuously running in some form ever since, having just celebrated its 50th anniversary.

To say that this show is popular would be both accurate and misleading. Doctor Who seems to occupy a space similar to Star Trek in the American consciousness, in terms of its longevity and ubiquity as an institution rather than a singe show. But really, the fuel in its engine is the extreme loyalty of its dedicated followers, who put the "fanatic" back in "fan." Trekkies have nothing on Whovians, that fandom that lives and breathes the show, the story, the backstory, and the fan-fiction.

And as much as it has cost me some geek cred from time to time, I have had to admit that I have never watched the show, much less been a fan. Oh, of course, I have watched clips of, seen stills from, and read articles about it; as I said, it's hard for a fan of any nerdcore to avoid The Doctor. But actually watching the show - nope.

Oddly, Wonder Wife and I did watch Torchwood, a spin-off from the revived series that centered on an anti-weirdness squad led by the dashing and omnisexual Captain Jack Harkness. Wonder Wife loved the ever-present and fluid sexuality of the show ("Everybody sleeps with everybody!" is how she described it to friends), and the science-fictional elements were fun and engaging. But it wasn't exactly Doctor Who.

Well, after our preoccupation with Dr. Jin ended along with the series, I caught WW on a time-travel roll and we decided to binge-watch Christopher Eccleston's 2005 revival season of Doctor Who. (No way was I going back into "classic Who" from the pre-1989 era.) We raced through the whole short series and the ultimate verdict: not bad.

From what I had read, I expected to resonate with Eccleston's Ninth Doctor, since his is apparently the most working-class of all the "regenerations" of the character thus far - and his trademark plain leather jacket has a simplicity compelling if only for its contrast to the sometimes fussy outfits of other Doctors. Likewise, the traditional companion for this Doctor, Rose Tyler, starts out as shop-girl before traveling time and space in the TARDIS. The two of them had a nice chemistry and brought a bit of a prole vibe in their encounters with authority, alien or human.

The special effects accompanying the melodrama were not quite as cheesy as I had been lead to believe; in particular, the Daleks seem to have been heavily upgraded from the original, amateurish models.

A nice surprise was that this was the series that introduced the Jack Harkness character, so we got a bit of a prequel to Torchwood.

In for a penny, in for a pound; we're going to give the Tenth Doctor a go as well. David Tennant is a little too cute for my taste, especially after the rough-hewn Eccleston, but we have been enticed enough to string along for now.

But I'm not buying any TARDIS-shaped tchotchke any time soon.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Time flies like an arrow

So, Wonder Wife and I have finished watching the complete Dr. Jin, a Korean television show based on a Japanese manga about a modern-day brain surgeon cast back in time to Seoul at the end of the Joseon era, roughly the 1860s. We've had good luck with what I call Seoullywood - for my money, Korean films and TV, particularly the sci-fi, are consistently imaginative and entertaining, and Dr. Jin sure delivered for us.

Jin, initially somewhat cold and arrogant, becomes the very model of medical altruism as he struggles to treat patients with 19th century technology (abetted by a small bag of medical supplies that conveniently traveled with him - more on that later.) Over the course of the season, he handles two subdural hematomas, a cholera outbreak, a case of syphilis (caught from a Westerner, and for which he manufactures penicillin sixty years ahead of time); a tumor on the neck, and a caesarian section, as well as numerous sword and gunshot wounds and the initial emergency tracheotomy that establishes his reputation as an exceptionally skilled doctor.

Of course, a medical drama must be part medicine and part drama, and there's no lack of soap opera here: Jin is attracted to a noblewoman (from a disfavored house) who looks just like his fiancee in the current day, and his first and best friend is a distant royal relative destined to become the Prince Regent in a regime change. There's a puppet king, a scheming Prime Minister and his lackeys (including the Royal Doctor), a stalwart but conflicted police officer, a wise gisaeng (kind of a Korean geisha), a gangster with a heart of gold, and the brother of the noblewoman, who is a scholar by day and a bandit/proto-socialist revolutionary by night. Personal and political intriguing follow Jin's arrival, with Jin sometimes guided by and sometimes confused by his knowledge of the future. It sounds like a total romp, and it is. I'd recommend anyone check it out.

Thee series's only failing (for me) is its model of time travel. It didn't give Wonder Wife too many headaches, because there's not a lot of jumping around - Jin is just stuck in the past - but the show raises a few questions about how it thinks time travel actually works. (What follows is somewhat spoilery but I doubt that will ruin the enjoyment of anyone who seeks the series out.)

This chart shows the three common conceptions* of time travel:

The Fixed Timeline theory lends itself to deep drama dripping with irony: at is most mawkish, it is represented by things like you can't prevent the Titanic from hitting the iceberg, and in fact your misguided attempt to take over the wheelhouse to save the ship actually causes the accident. In the beginning, we think Dr. Jin is going to be following this model: he saves a woman from a head injury, and she is caught in the cholera outbreak; he manages to keep her alive through the disease, but then she dies in fire. Only then does Dr. Jin think that maybe she was not supposed to live on. We see the same forces at work in the political events depicted  - no matter how much Jin influences major actors, circumstances always intervene to force a return to the historical record of events, culminating in a French invasion of Ganghwa Island in response to persecution of Catholics.

But we see some Dynamic Timeline elements at well, so this deterministic interpretation does not obtain totally. In one episode, Jin meets a boy with the same family name and wonders if he's an ancestor. When the boy is injured playing with a toy Jin gives him and Jin must operate (of course), Jin starts becoming immaterial as the boy begins to fail. This cheesy version of the paradox effect never happens again, but there is an even more tangled feature to the overall situation.

Jin initially falls back in time when an unidentified patient from whom he had removed a weird tumor steals some medical equipment and goes to the roof of the hospital muttering "I must go back." In an attempt to prevent him from jumping off the roof, Jin falls, holding the medical bag - and lands in the past. It becomes clear - when we learn that Jin is developing a tumor - that the unidentified patient was -- will be? -- Jin. If this premise were played out, we would have the solipsistic circumstance in which Jin causes Jin to go back in time so Jin could come back to the present to cause himself to go back in time. (See, this is where WW's head would start to hurt.) This is the more complex kind of paradox that is generated from sophisticated treatments of this model.

Unfortunately, the series does not sustain this model, and in the end, clumsily falls into the Alternate Timeline model. (Major spoiler.) Jin does return to the future and becomes an unidentified patient who has a tumor removed - but then his identity is discovered and all is set right. He is back in the present and does not go stumbling up to a roof with a bag of medical supplies. He reads some history books closely and finds subtle differences between what he recalls from school and what he reads. He seems to be in a different future, and just shrugs it of with the Korean equivalent of "oh, well." (To make things worse, he is visited by a ghostly version of the Joseon Prince Regent for a farewell chat in a cringe-worthy scene reminiscent of the worst George Lucas excess.)

But don't let this last complaint sour you on the series: Dr. Jin is 99&44/100% fun. The Joseon-era escapades are wonderful, with good production values, engaging characters, and some nice action sequences, as well as all the medical melodrama you can handle. As they say in Korean: !

(That's "yes," pronounced a lot like "yeah.")

*There are a few good discussions of this topic to be found on line: I recommend Larry Niven's piece and Dr. Kaku's.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Random Geekage

So, here's some stuff that's just been hanging about for a bit:

Have you every played Arkham Horror? Heckuva game. Maybe two-three hours of gameplay, and only four days to set things up:

Seriously, it makes Carcassonne look like tic-tac-toe. But it is fun.

This was my desk display a while back:

Yeah, I noticed the D20 isn't lying correctly. I've changed offices (and jobs) anyway.

And here's something Super Sissy gave me as a gift:

(Yes, I noticed that the D20 is again out of position.) 

I'm still trying to figure out what to do with them. I feel that they all should be eaten at once; otherwise, it would be like losing a die. But that's too much chocolate for me to eat all at once. I thought of bringing it to to the game and sharing it, but I DM for a party of six, so that would mean I don't get any.

A colleague at work is fighting (and beating) a major health challenge, and some frineds of hers gave her this for inspiration:

I'm not sure whether it reminds me more of the Ross Andru WW or the Dick Giordano WW, but it was sure nice to see a superhero-themed artifact at work that I had nothing to do with!

The prodigious Mark Evanier posted this picture a little while back:

I am not the biggest Laurel & Hardy fan, but I sure do love me some Spy Smasher. A quick check of the Grand Comics Database revealed that this was the October, 1942 issue. Under Stan's hand there is a photo inset of Kane Richmond. who starred in the serialized motion picture Spy Smasher based on the comics.

(It's not this picture, but I like this one, too.)

It just so happened that just a day or so before I came across the Laurel & Hardy photo, I had been watching the Spy Smasher serial. On my laptop. On an airplane. What a world. Anyway, it made me wonder what the connection was, but I can't find any.

Well, that's the ice broken. I think regular blogging will recommence now.