Doctor Who is a funny phenomenon. (It’s often a funny TV show too, but let’s look at the phenomenon first.) Fifty years old as of this weekend, it’s enjoying a heavily promoted anniversary period, and while a lot of the current level of publicity has been driven by the BBC, it’s a show that inspires a degree of devotion from its adherents that’s unusual even in the world of science fiction.
Part of that is down to its two-part history: the original show, which ran for over three decades before petering out into low-budget irrelevance and a misguided attempt at a U.S.-led revival, and the new show, which launched in a blaze of glory in 2005 and is still going strong, despite sometimes iffy quality (something the show has always endured). Fans of the former are mostly fans of the latter, but fans of the latter aren’t always aware of the former.
Befitting its status as a celebration of all 50 years of the show, the 50th anniversary special, The Day of the Doctor, does its damndest to bridge that gap.
When the show was relaunched, one key element was altered: rather than being one of a race of time travellers, the Doctor instead became the last of them. More than that, it was revealed that he was responsible for their doom, together with that of their archenemies. This had the double effect of making the Doctor unique and adding a melancholy tone to his character that quality actors like Christopher Ecclestone and David Tennant were able to mine to good effect.
So for writer Steven Moffat to not only reveal this hinted-at element of the Doctor’s history in detail but also to effectively rewrite it during The Day of the Doctor was suitably ambitious. For him to succeed so thoroughly was a delight. Inevitably for a show with as convoluted a timeline as Doctor Who, there are some very visible plot holes and seams, but on the whole it makes for a thrilling adventure.
If The Day of the Doctor manages to bridge the gap between old and new though, it does so using the materials of the new. There are plenty of hat-tips and Easter Eggs relating to the old show embedded in the episode, but with the exception of a rather odd cameo towards the end, none of the actors who played the role in the old series make a showing (they did, however, get a cameo-filled anniversary special of their own).
Despite the hopes of some of the old-time fans, this was clearly the best choice. The old actors look nothing like they did when they played the role, and Moffat makes the absolute most of the three Doctors he has to play with (Tennant, Matt Smith and a war-weary John Hurt), making their commonalities and differences central to the unfolding of the plot.
The result is a special that’s all about the show itself, and all the more satisfying for that. I was lucky enough to see it in the cinema, where I was able to enjoy some very decent 3D effects and the reaction of the crowd around me to every grace note of the script and special effects. So many people there were not only dressed for the event but also knew all the show lore, resulting in laughter and applause in all the right places.
Those cinema showings may have been a gift to those fans whose love of the show extended back beyond the 2005 revival, but they weren’t solely enjoyed by them. The show is now bigger and deeper than it used to be, and the fan base is global in a way that only the Internet could allow.
With The Day of the Doctor, Steven Moffat not only celebrates the first 50 years of the show, tying together all of its constituent parts, he also ties a bow on the show as it has been since the relaunch. With a new Doctor in the form of Peter Capaldi incoming at Christmas, The Day of the Doctor strikes the right note: a celebration of all that has come before together with an opportunity to enjoy something new.
Nimblebit, iOS, Free
It’s a mark of how watered-down Star Wars has become that Tiny Death Star even exists. The villains of the original trilogy, a bunch of faceless, menacing, planet-destroying quasi-fascists are here rendered down into cutesy 8-bit form, as you’re asked to fund the construction of the planet-destroying battle station by turning it into a residential/commercial emporium.
Yeah, someone didn’t put a lot of thought into that. Best to just roll with it.
Tiny Death Star is, of course, a reskin and slight reworking of Nimblebit’s hugely popular Tiny Tower, taking the basic mechanics of building a tower block and filling it with inhabitants and things for them to buy and tweaking it for a kiddiefied version of the Star Wars universe. As such, anyone who’s played Tiny Tower will find themselves right at home. However, they may also find themselves uncomfortably constrained.
The big draw of Tiny Death Star is the Star Wars ambience, and the game sprinkles it around liberally, with famous figures from the movies roaming the levels of your growing battle station, sometimes incongruously so. Fittingly, the soundtrack also consists of musak versions of famous Star Wars themes, though these soon enough grate through repetition alone.
Tiny Tower’s gameplay has also been tweaked in several ways. In addition to the standard residential and commercial floors, you can also build Imperial levels, which allow you to complete missions (about which more later). Since these levels don’t make you money though, this slows down the process of building new levels, which was already slow in the original game.
Of the game’s two currencies, then—credits and bux—the former, used to build and stock new floors, comes more slowly than before. Not half so slowly as bux though, which are used to buy elevator upgrades and hurry various other aspects of the game. As purchases of bux are the main form of in-app purchases the game offers, it’s understandable that Nimblebit have chosen to strangle in-game opportunities to earn them, but in doing so they’ve also strangled the sense of progress for players who don’t want to spend extra coin.
Providing at least a modicum of variety to gameplay that strays close at times to Ian Bogost’s Cow Clicker (click on things to earn more things, then click on them to earn yet more things) are the missions, provided by Darth Vader and the Emperor. Both provide credits as rewards, but although the Emperor’s missions are designed to guide your construction efforts, the rewards are meagre. Vader’s missions are slightly more rewarding, but I ran into one that required me to build a specific level (the game chooses which levels in a specific category are built at random), stalling any progress in that direction.
In the end, this is a Star Wars game, offered for free. If that appeals to you, go for it. But be aware that unless you’re willing to pay up, it’s going to present you with a choice between a long, hard slog and an escape route from this doomed battle station.
Until relatively recently, Dublin had no IMAX cinemas. These days it has two, one in Cineworld, one in the Odeon at the Point. Hollywood releasing movies created with IMAX in mind is another relatively recent development—when the format was first introduced, it was filled with short novelty films, often in 3D. Well, full 3D IMAX films are here now, and Gravity is their standard bearer.
Spoilers below the cut, of course.
In my kitchen cupboard sits a bowl that’s stands out from the crowd. My crockery tastes tend to run to bachelor minimalism, but this one has a faded floral border. It also has a couple of hairline cracks, one of which covers more than half its width. It may not be long for this world, but it’s the venue for my breakfast cereal every morning.
This bowl, along with one other plate in that cupboard, is the sole survivor from the package of crockery and cutlery that I was given when I moved down to Dublin from County Down, just over 19 years ago. At the time, I had just turned 19 myself. So, as of late September/early October this year, I’ve officially lived in Dublin as long as I did in Northern Ireland.
It’s not quite that neat, of course: my first year in Trinity College Dublin was very disrupted, and I spent most of it, especially the latter half, up north. Still, insofar as I can identify a tipping point, this is it. When I came down to Dublin to go to college, I was a kid. Now that I’m still in Dublin, having just finished a Masters course, I can’t really claim the same measure of youthfulness.
I will forever be from Northern Ireland. When I first moved to Dublin, I had to face the question of whether I was Irish or British. I definitely didn’t feel like the latter—growing up in a nationalist, Catholic family saw to that. But I didn’t feel like being Irish suited me either. The experience of growing up in the North during the Troubles was a thing all of its own. So I eventually settled on insisting on my Northern Irish identity.
Though being Northern Irish hasn’t changed, it no longer seems to cover everything. This is not necessarily a bad thing. One way of reading it is that there’s more to me than was when I first arrived here in Dublin. I recently added an Irish passport to my British one, so maybe what’s grown about me is the Irish part.
It’s a funny thing, to realise that you’ve built a life in a particular place. Friends, work, education, habitation. An interest in local culture and politics, a landscape littered with memories and associations. The same thing is true up North, of course, but up there it’s a case of experience accumulated in the accidental form of childhood. Down here in Dublin, it feels a little more deliberate. Or perhaps necessary is the right word.
Perhaps the nature of it then is that we all live multiple lives, often overlapping one another. Childhood, teenage years, college, first job, first house. Sometimes, as in my move to Dublin, you get a clear break that allows you to divide what came before from what came after. Not that live is usually that clean. It is, and always ought to be, a work in progress.
With my Masters over and a job hunt underway, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that another life has started, adding another layer to the person that I am. I have no idea where this current path will eventually take me. It might just be that 19 years down the line, I’ll get to write something entitled “The Trilocated Man”. Wouldn’t that be interesting?
The piggy bank has been broken open, and the necessary pieces of paper (actually web forms) have been signed, sealed and delivered. As of last week, I have a new piece of shiny in my life in the form of an iPhone 5S. None of your gold-plated rubbish here, just the standard black for me. “Space Gray,” if you’re an Apple marketer.
Given that my previous phone was an iPhone 4, this marks a three-generation jump. It’s been interesting to observe what that change means in concrete terms. As it turns out, it all comes back to something I’ve mentioned before: the 5S is a phone that’s even better than its predecessor at disappearing when not needed.
The speed of the 5S is the first enabler of this. The 4 was far from a sluggard, but I had to switch off some of the frippery of iOS 7 in order to avoid stuttering animations. With the 5S, everything is silky smooth and instantly responsive. Apps launch without hesitation, and the notification and control centre overlays pop up immediately. Being able to deal with everything swiftly also helps with the already decent battery life—the more time the phone spends snoozing, the less its battery drains.
One of the 5S’s most marketable features is another time saver: the TouchID fingerprint sensor. Like most of the best Apple developments, it verges on being a gimmick but is saved by the fact that it just works. The time saved by using it instead of entering a security code is minimal, but the ability to jump directly to what you want to be doing rather than through a security hoop makes a meaningful difference, and it’s going to encourage people to use security if they weren’t already.
Something of a surprise to me was just how useful an older feature of the iPhone is: Siri. I tend to use features like the timer and alarm a lot, and while iOS 7’s control centre made it easier to get to that functionality, Siri pushes it up another level. You have to speak clearly, as the poor dear gets confused by enunciation that falls too short of BBC diction, but it’s already proven itself more than a toy.
I’ve yet to make more than a cursory acquaintance with the rest of the 5S’s feature set. The camera is clearly an improvement, especially in low light conditions, though I’ve not toyed with slow motion or burst shooting yet. The GPS seems to work a lot faster than in the 4, though as yet few apps make use of the phone’s vaunted motion coprocessor. Battery life seems solid enough, though this can dip quickly when the phone is searching for a decent connection, as mine was at last week’s Dublin Web Summit.
Taken together though, the theme stays the same. This is a phone that does what you want it to, faster and with fewer hurdles than before.
The announcement this week of Apple’s new range of iPhones has generated some new and some standard complaints from pundits. For the new top-of-the-line iPhone 5s, the complaint is that it’s not all that different from the previous model. For the new midrange 5c, it’s that it isn’t a cheap iPhone. Oh, and the colourful plastic shells look tacky.
To deal briefly with the 5s: yes, it’s a speedbump. Everyone saw that one coming. However, initial reports suggest that it’s a substantial speed bump, and there are new and useful features in the form of an improved camera, an intriguing standalone motion detection chip and the much-discussed fingerprint sensor. Perhaps most importantly, it shifts the iPhone towards 64-bit computing, providing some decent futureproofing.
I’m not going to comment on the looks of the 5c until I have one in hand, other than to note that those who have handled them seem to have come away impressed. The issue of whether the 5c is too expensive to work for Apple as a “cheap” iPhone is the more interesting question, and it’s one where most critics (including the perennially misled markets) seem to have missed the point.
For all the talk of a “cheap” iPhone prior to the arrival of the 5c, Apple doesn’t do cheap, certainly not since the second coming of Steve Jobs. Its products tend to fit between “premium” and “affordable luxury”, depending on how you view those scales. In that sense, the 5c has been positioned as a “midrange” iPhone, fitting just beneath the new 5s.
Except that doesn’t tell the entire story either. Up until now, Apple had only one model of iPhone: the new iPhone. (It also sold last year’s new iPhone, and the previous year’s new iPhone too.) Selling older iPhones alongside the new model allowed Apple to leverage investments in manufacturing and economies of scale, but those old iPhones always felt a little second-hand.
With the release of the 5s, Apple has doubled the breadth of its new-iPhone product line in a stroke, giving consumers a choice much more appealing than one between the “new shiny” and the “old shiny that you can actually afford.” Relatively expensive the 5c may be, but to balance that it’s still a fully capable smartphone, in a brand new form factor that offers a splash of colour never seen on iPhones before.
Yes, an old-new iPhone still remains on the product list, in the form of the 4s, but I’m not sure that’ll last even a year. With two lines of iPhones above it, both using the iPhone 5 form factor and manufacturing lines, Apple is going to be shifting as quickly as it can to focus solely on these products. Improved manufacturing techniques and greater output lead to economies of scale and enhanced margins for Apple—or lower prices.
Because that’s really the thing with the 5s. Once the 4s goes, it becomes the new baseline for the iPhone line, and while it will never be “cheap”, I can see Apple cutting its price by €100 or so in about six months, making it even more price-competitive with Android smartphones.
After that, Apple suddenly has two product lines to work with—the “top-end iPhone” for those who want the latest and best iOS device, and the “iPhone for everybody” who wants an iPhone device but doesn’t want to break the bank for the latest and greatest.
What the 5c means is that the latter group no longer has to see themselves as buying last year’s cast-offs. The 5c isn’t about what it is now, as much as it might sell on its release. It’s about what it’s going to be a year from now. Because Apple always plays the long game, and it’s just shifted the iPhone baseline.
A few weeks ago, I went to the cinema with a friend to see one of my favourite films. Specifically, 2001: A Space Odyssey in a 70mm print. Being such an old print, it was scratchy in places, though the glorious visuals more than covered for that. As an old print though, it had another surprise to give: a little over halfway through, the screen went dark and a single word popped up. “Intermission.” Now that was an unfamiliar experience.
Maybe not all that unfamiliar though. Two years ago, a lot of the things that had defined my life had come to an end. The most recent of them was that the company I’d worked for had been bought out and the job I’d been in since college was being made redundant. The first part of my working life was over. Time for an intermission.
My first reaction was the obvious one: start looking for work, start looking for something to fill the yawning gap that had opened up in my life. Obvious, but wrong. I’d been complaining about being in a work rut for years at that point, wondering how I could get out of it. Well, life had delivered a short, sharp answer.
So, I took my severance package, had a quick think about what I really wanted to do, eyed up that yawning gap and jumped. Within a few months, I was travelling around the world, visiting places that I’d wanted to see for years (and, as a direct result, starting up this blog – the earliest posts are all about this trip).
It wasn’t all indulgence though—I was thinking about what sort of working life I wanted on the other side. On my return I secured a few freelance jobs, leveraging my publishing experience, but the two-dimensional nature of my career to date limited my opportunities. Luckily, there was another jump to take.
Not long after my travels, I was at a meeting of publishing folks, where I was told about a course in Trinity (by one of the people taking it), the MSc Interactive Digital Media, which covered a broad array of media forms and the technologies used to manipulate and present them. A pretty good fit for my interests and skills, even if some of them were dusty from years of disuse.
So I applied, to just that one course, and after a certain amount of trepidation on my part, I got in. That was just under 12 months ago. It’s been a year of fascinating education, good company from my new classmates and more pressure to excel and achieve than my job had thrown at me in a decade and more.
This morning, I gave a presentation (together with the rest of my team) on the project that we’ve been working on for the last two-and-a-bit months. You can see our work here, though be aware it’s a hefty download and requires a WebGL-compatible browser (and doesn’t work at all on IE). Tomorrow, we get our results and find out whether we can append that MSc to our names.
So. Intermission over. Time to retake my seat, metaphorically speaking, for the second act. Once again, it has the look of a yawning gap of uncertainty ahead of me. But you know what? Having jumped once, the second time really isn’t all that daunting.
Plants Vs Zombies 2, Popcap, iOS, Free
No game on my iPhone engaged me as long or as deeply as the original Plants Vs Zombies. A tower-defence game blessed with an abundance of humour, impressive cartoon visuals and a catchy score (including the best end credits song since Portal), it also had the benefit of a developer that continued to enhance and upgrade the game for several years after it came out, with new game modes and other add-ons.
Well, the sequel has finally landed, in the form of Plants Vs Zombies 2: It’s About Time, a punning, double-meaning subtitle that reassures fans of the original that the same twisted brains are still in charge. The big change this time around is that PvZ2 is free-to-play. The game itself comes without charge, but players can decided to pay more for extras within the game itself.
Free-to-play is rightly viewed with some suspicion. It’s a new business model for the games industry, and earlier efforts to make it work have resulted in crippled games that frustrate players. Luckily, PvZ2 takes another tack: the game offers an abundance of content, all of which can be accessed for free, but players can spend some coin to make their passage through the game easier or to buy some new plants to improve the variety of the experience.
As far as gameplay goes, the winning formula hasn’t been altered: the player places plants on the left of the screen and zombies attack from the right in waves of increasing intensity. There are some new elements thrown in, such as new plants and new zombies, but if anything the variety is a little bit down compared to the state the first game reached with all its expansions in place.
Tweaks have been added to the gameplay in the form of new special powers. Plant food supercharges plants temporarily and coins can be spent to activate special powers that will squish, electrocute or fling zombies offscreen. For an old-school player, these powers can seem a little like cheating, but the game is balanced so that while plant food is often necessary, the special powers rarely are. However, the in-battle currencies of plant food and coins do add complexity to a game laden with currencies (the familiar sun for buying new plants, stars for completing new levels and keys to unlock new routes).
These routes are the big change in the presentation of the game world. The first game took place in a back yard, by day and night, with a pool and without, and occasionally afflicted by fog. The player progressed from level to level, in a linear fashion. In PvZ2, the game is split into three worlds (Ancient Egypt, Pirates and Wild West, with an upcoming Far Future world having been announced). Each one is completed by following a linear path, but keys gained during battles allow the player to unlock side paths and gain extra plants and abilities thereby.
It’s a slightly more graphically intense game than the old one (only iPhone 4 and above need apply), and the graphics designed for retina displays take a little adjusting to, but everything is in order gameplay-wise. It’s as addictive as the old game—I’ve already completed the first world and made my way through part of the second, at a time when I really shouldn’t be playing games (or writing reviews of them).
The one niggle I’d point out? Although the side routes in each game world do offer different challenges akin to the mini-games of the first game, there’s no way to tell which one is which from the isometric world map. It’s a bit of an odd design decision, and one that I suspect will be fixed in further updates. If nothing else, Popcap’s reputation breeds confidence in the fact that this will be a well-supported game for a long time to come.
Recommending this game is a no-brainer (ahem). For no money at all, you get the same great gameplay of the original PvZ, and you can happily play through it without spending a penny. My only worry is that a lot of people will do just that, and that PvZ2 won’t be the financial success it deserves to be. Because, honestly, we could all do with more games like this.
(A quick reminder to clarify: the Android version of PvZ2 isn’t out yet, but it isn’t likely to differ too much from the above.)
Pebble Smartwatch, $150, iOS and Android
As people smarter than myself have already pointed out, taking part in a Kickstarter funding campaign is like buying a present for your future self: by the time it arrives, you’ll have forgotten that you paid for it, and be pleasantly surprised that it showed up at all. That and the feeling of actually participating in a product rather than just buying it are all the reasons you need to know why Kickstarter is still huge.
To date, I’ve participated in five Kickstarter campaigns, mostly for small amounts. In each case, it was clear that I’d be waiting a long time for the results, something I didn’t mind at all. Well, in recent months my currently impoverished self has been reaping the benefits of my affluent former self, in that two of the results have shown up (in one form or another).
My biggest Kickstarter contribution to date was for one of the site’s most famous campaigns: the Pebble ePaper watch. A customisable bluetooth watch for Android and iOS phones, the Pebble raised $10,000,000 through Kickstarter, far above an original funding goal of $100,000. Due to the fact that I opted for a grey watchface rather than black, red or white, mine took a little longer to arrive than it might have otherwise, but a few weeks ago I wrested it from the hands of Irish customs and onto my wrist.
For the first wave in a new breed of smartwatches (Kickstarter is already hosting its more ambitious next-gen brethren), the Pebble has a definite retro, plastic feel to it. Which is not to say it’s not solid: the plastic case keeps it watertight while allowing charging through a USB lead and keeps the body light despite the its bulk.
The ePaper screen is basic but readable, with a motion-activated backlight, and can be modified with a multitude of watchfaces. Figuring out how to do so can be a bit of a chore: the online setup process is straighforward enough, but for more expansive options, you’ll need to use your phone’s web browser and the app that manages the Pebble itself.
In use, the Pebble is a handy accessory. I often don’t hear my phone when it’s in my pocket, but I can feel the Pebble’s vibration on my wrist without a problem, alerting me to calls, texts and mails. I can even read the mails and texts, or at least the first few lines of the mails, on the Pebble’s screen, though this only works in the moment—there’s no way to browse older messages.
At the time of buying the Pebble, my main reason was to have it as a running accessory. I’d just started recording my running with RunKeeper, and the idea of having a watch that would tell me my pace and distance covered sounded pretty good. Well, mission accomplished on that front: the Pebble keeps updated throughout a run
There are only three issues with the Pebble, all of them technology based. The first is that it drops the bluetooth connection occasionally. This is an issue because the Pebble isn’t a smartwatch. It’s a terminal for your smartphone, and lacking the connection, it can tell you the time in various pretty ways but not much else (there are game apps for the Pebble, but the chunky buttons don’t allow for sensitive control).
The second issue is battery life. I’ve averaged around five days so far, which isn’t too bad for a bluetooth device, but the phone software doesn’t do a great job of indicating when you need to recharge, so there have been a couple of times when I’ve looked at my wrist and found a blank screen looking at me. Annoying, but some of those multitude of watchfaces promise to fix that issue.
The last issue is probably the biggest one for Pebble: this is a first-generation device, cute and functional, but staring down the barrel of technological innovation. As stated, Kickstarter is already hosting second-generation devices, and Apple and Samsung look set to enter the space before long, bringing all their engineering know-how to the field. When that happens, Pebble’s retro looks may become all-too apt.
For now though, I’m wearing a watch for the first time in a couple of years, and I’m more than happy with the present my former self bought me. Runkeeper functionality, message and call alerts and a variety of funky watchfaces. It may not be smart, but it sure is handy.