Doctor Why

...rather unlike a Hollywood movie, really.
Featuring an old man walking slowly away from an explosion…

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.

Tiny Death Star

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It’s a hard life as building manager of the Death Star…

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.

Gravity – The IMAX Experience

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Think about it…

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.

Continue reading Gravity – The IMAX Experience

The Bilocated Man

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The bowl of ages…

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 Invisible Phone

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The box of delights…

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.