The Nolan Puzzle Box: Westworld, Memento and The Prestige

Westworld, the brainchild of Jonathan Nolan and his wife Lisa Joy, ended this weekend. Amy had watched the entire series with me, though she spent more of it checking mail periodically on her iPad than I did. Even without my iPad (though I tend to read more often these days on my iPhone 6 because my iPad 2 has practically bricked itself with cumbersome updates), the show was hard to follow. It’s dense with story, clues and narrative sleight of hand. The show frequently reaches up its sleeve for the ace you don’t notice it’s playing, though in the end most of those cards were put on the table. Amy actually didn’t pick up her iPad the entire time.

Delos Destinations advertisement

Delos Destinations: You too can rape, murder and maim.

This led to an argument discussion about the level of confusion acceptable in a narrative. Do you assume, when you don’t understand an event right away, that you’ve missed something? Or have you been presented with a mystery to be solved or even a bit of misdirection? Westworld is not easy viewing, even with all the naked actors on display in the robot maintenance area. It repeats a lot of the material from episode to episode but even then you’re not sure if you’re seeing the same events occurring or a recurring flashback to the same events. Or even the same events recurring at different times, given the programmed loops that the Westworld theme park places its robot hosts through again and again over the decades.

Dolores and Teddy from Westworld

Dolores, Teddy and their eternal loop.

I sort of like confusion. When I was young I hated revisiting the same book twice, while the woman I lived with would read the same books over and over. I wanted something new, something fresh, though there were certain movies (The Graduate and about half a dozen Hitchcock films) that I didn’t mind watching repeatedly. But the work by the Nolan family — Christopher, Jonathan and now Lisa Joy — often demands rewatching and can be at least partially opaque without it. Jonathan and Lisa created a dense narrative in Westworld, filled with misdirection and sleight of hand. I watched the first episode twice, once on television and once on the HBO Go website, but I suspect I should have watched all of them at least twice, because there are so many elements in it that are not what they seem to be that you  practically need to flowchart it to see what piece of the puzzle fits where.

I should have realized this when I saw Christopher and Jonathan’s Memento, though I was afraid it wouldn’t make as much sense on a second viewing as it did on the first. I mean, would a man with a 15-minute memory span even understand where those tattooed Post-It notes on his body came from, much less what they meant? But it works on its own terms, alleviating at least some of that complaint when its prologue slash denouement final scene explains that (SPOILER ALERT!) our tattooed hero had misunderstood everything all along. He had just convinced himself he was getting it right.

Memento tattoes

Tattooed Post-It Notes

I didn’t realize how difficult these Nolan puzzle boxes were until I saw The Prestige. Sure, I got the part about how Christian Bale performed his version of the Transported Man magic trick, but the entire murder subplot baffled me, along with exactly what Tesla had given Hugh Jackman in the laboratory atop his magic Colorado mountain. Why did Christopher (who seems to have been without Jonathan on this one) keep flashing back to those hats on the ground? What was floating in that tank at the end? I finally bought the Blu-Ray and watched it twice, at which point I suddenly got it — and kicked myself, because it was a problem in teleportation that I’ve beefed about for my entire adult lifetime and even wrote a post about in another blog. But Nolan had twisted the plot into such a pretzel, both chronologically and narratively, that it eluded me for several years.

Hats on the ground in The Prestige

“Are you watching closely?”

Jonathan and Lisa do the same thing with Westworld, only they don’t make the pretzel structure quite as obvious. I heard a fan theory the day before the finale that pretty much nailed what the auteurs behind the curtain were doing. I rather wish I hadn’t heard it, if only so I’d know whether I actually got it when it was revealed or would need to watch the whole series another time just to understand the explanation. I suspect I’ll watch it again anyway to see where the misdirection is taking place, though there’s a pretty good fan video, made after the eighth of the ten episodes, that pegs a lot of it. Don’t watch the video if you haven’t seen the show and plan to. Or expect to be surprised by some of the reveals in the finale.

I enjoy this puzzle box approach, but it sometimes is done at the expense of character development. On Westworld, you only feel you know the characters at the end. Of course, that gives us several more seasons where we’ll presumably like them more. And care.

And I really need to watch Inception again. I followed that one pretty well the first time, but now I’m convinced there were a lot of things I missed.

Where’s that Blu-Ray?

Chris Pratt in Guardians of the Galaxy

Mix-Tape Scores: An Assenting Opinion

A friend of mine announced on Facebook a few years back that he hates mix-tape scores. You know — when a movie or a TV show accompanies the action, often in a montage, with a familiar song, one that the viewer associates with good times or bad, sadness or happiness. It’s a trend that probably started in the movies of the 1970s, most likely after the soundtrack album for Saturday Night Fever shot to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 (though as far as I can recall the score to Saturday Night Fever was made up entirely of original BeeGees songs). The first mix-tape score I can remember, though, was the blend of old and new Simon & Garfunkel songs that Mike Nichols used in his brilliant 1967 comedy The Graduate.

Nowadays the mix-tape score has become so common, even cliched, that it was parodied in the movie Guardians of the Galaxy by giving the main character an actual mix-tape, which he plays on an aging Walkman throughout the film (and at the end of the film they give him a new mix-tape to play in the sequel). The music choices weren’t necessarily from my all-time favorites list, but I never get tired of watching Chris Pratt kicking alien lizards to the accompaniment of Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love.”

Chris Pratt in Guardians of the Galaxy

Guardians of the Galaxy: Alien lizards get their kicks with Chris Pratt’s mix.

At some point the trend skipped across media and became common on television, to the point where some shows even give a credit for Music Archivist. (T-Bone Burnett got one on both seasons of True Detective.) Frequently the song is saved for the final scene and often plays right into the credits. You could always tell when an episode of Mad Men had reached its denouement when a thematically and period-appropriate song began to play over Don’s or Peggy’s or Pete’s realization that whatever had just happened amounted to some kind of turning point in their lives.

I don’t hate mix-tape scores. In fact, I kind of like them, at least when they’re done right. Maybe they’re a cheap way for a movie or TV show to project unearned emotions on scenes that would fall flat without some assistance from a singer-songwriter who might well have died before his or her song found new life on a soundtrack. But when the emotion is earned by the story, the burst of familiar music can take a scene right over the top, working with the action to create something that approaches the sublime.

Mad Men was terrific at this. Sometimes the scene where the closing song came in was the only moment in the episode that made me realize it had been worth watching. The one that for some reason sticks in my memory was in an episode where Don Draper holds on to his suave pretensions and talks about his career with a reporter, carefully omitting any mention of his impoverished rural upbringing. But the camera pulled back and the soundtrack told the real story, using the song  “Tobacco Road,” a 1964 hit by The Nashville Teens (a British-invasion group, despite their name). I’m old enough to remember the song and the smile on my face was almost as wide as our large-screen TV.

Don Draper on Mad Men

Don Draper has an epiphany on Mad Men.

And I don’t know if this will inspire a chorus of groans or cheers, but the Leonard Cohen song (“Nevermind”) that accompanied the opening credits of True Detective‘s second season was the best part of the show. Of course, given how the season turned out, that’s about like saying Josef Stalin was the nicest mass-murdering dictator of the 20th century. But I love Cohen’s work when he’s in a dark mood (which has gotten even darker in the last few months) and the song perfectly fit the dark mood that the show was trying, if generally failing, to achieve. (NOTE: This was written before Cohen died.)

The mix-tape score I want to talk about here was in last Sunday’s episode of The Walking Dead, “The Cell.” If you follow the show and haven’t seen the episode yet, you should stop reading here. Spoilers will follow. The Walking Dead is a show that people love to hate, but I hugely admire the skill with which they keep coming up with new ways of pressing old buttons. In “The Cell,” Rick’s gang finds themselves trapped in the nastiest town of survivors yet and the opening number, the Jam’s “A Town Called Malice,” underscored that point. But then the show’s musical archivist found an obscure piece called “Easy Street” (no relation to the song of the same name from the musical Annie) by a one-shot group called The Collapsable Hearts Club and used it as sleep-deprivation torture on poor Daryl, who had made the mistake two episodes earlier of attacking the town’s evil dictator. It’s an extremely happy song, which would seem to contrast ironically with “A Town Called Malice” yet if you listen to the two songs sequentially they have remarkably similar uptempo drum tracks. For a song about evil, “A Town Called Malice” borders on the cheerful.

This uptempo beat recurs throughout the episode and it is indeed an ironic contrast to the horror of the story. (If you follow The Walking Dead at all, you know that the horror very rarely comes from the eponymous zombies. It comes from the people who have managed to survive those zombies.) Yet at the end they switch the tempo entirely, when an unexpected frenemy of Daryl’s does him the kindness of switching his torture song to Roy Orbison’s “Crying,” one of the saddest songs ever written and one that never comes even close to being uptempo. Daryl, who has been stoic throughout his torment, finally gives way to the enormous grief that he’s been bottling up and starts sobbing uncontrollably as the show goes to credits.

Daryl tortured on The Walking Dead

Daryl tortured by “Easy Street” on The Walking Dead.

It was a remarkable use of mix-tape music, with “Easy Street,” a song intended to promise Daryl the paradise that could be his if only he’d kiss the evil dictator’s posterior, actually underscoring his own carefully studied emotional denial and Roy Orbison finally blowing it wide open.

It was one of the subtlest, most remarkable, even most moving uses of a mix-tape score I’ve ever heard. Hell, as far as I’m concerned, it justified the concept all by itself.

The Hardy Boys and Me: A Memoir


For several years, I was Franklin W. Dixon.

I should clarify. I wasn’t the only Franklin W. Dixon nor was I the first or last Franklin W. Dixon, but for over a decade I got to use his name.

Terminal Shock cover

Frank and Joe Hardy in the case of the ageless author.

If the name Franklin W. Dixon sounds familiar but you can’t place it, just think about the Hardy Boys. Based on my experience, there’s a very good chance that you or someone close to you read Hardy Boys novels when you or they were young. The Hardy Boys novels are written by Franklin W. Dixon. All of them, going back to 1927 and continuing to the present. Mr. Dixon is a very prolific — and clearly very long-lived — writer.

That’s because he’s not one writer but many writers, all sharing the same pseudonym. The first Franklin W. Dixon was a newspaper reporter named Leslie McFarlane, who wrote most of the Hardy Boys novels published between 1927 and 1946. But there have been plenty of other Franklin W. Dixon’s, most of them since McFarlane retired. I’m only one of dozens. Honestly, I don’t even know who most of the others are. I’ve only met a couple.

Writing is a lonely job.

What brought my stint as Franklin W. Dixon to mind was a phone call that I got a few weeks ago from a reporter. He wanted to know about a specific Hardy Boys book I’d written called Terminal Shock. (I had actually called it The Computer Clue, but editors often change the titles that writers give things. In that case, I’m grateful. The Computer Clue was an awful title.) He was intrigued because Terminal Shock, published in 1990, included concepts like email, online communications, message encryption and, well, things that most people believe only came along in the last few years.

They didn’t. I was just writing about things I was involved with at the time, posting messages online at places like the Compuserve Information Service and local computer bulletin boards that people, often kids, ran out of their own houses from their own computers on their own telephone lines. It wasn’t exactly the Internet (which existed then, even if the World Wide Web did not), but you could exchange messages publicly and privately from your computer keyboard, just like I’m doing now. The technology just wasn’t as slick yet.

You can read the article here on the Fast Company website. The article will tell you a lot of the same things I just told you, but the author goes into more detail. The site says the article only takes eight minutes to read, though, which is probably only a little longer than you’re spending here.

And be sure to click on the link to my name, which will take you recursively back to this blog. I’ll know you did it because I’ll see it in my stats and it’ll tell me that you’re paying attention. Thanks in advance!


Adventure Games: The Graphics Years

In early 1984, IBM released a computer called the PCjr. It was an attempt to create a low-cost entry-level version of the company’s expensive, business-oriented PC that would be cheap enough to gain IBM a place in the home computer market, then dominated by the Apple II, the Commodore 64 and the Atari 800 computers. It was expected to be a huge hit.

The IBM PCjr

The PCjr. It never grew up.

Only it wasn’t. It flopped. Big time.

Although it was in some ways software compatible with its big brother, which in two-and-a-half years had taken over the microcomputer market the way Hitler had taken over Poland in the late 1930s, the PCjr’s compatibility had been seriously crippled to prevent it from competing with IBM’s more expensive, grown-up models. Very few existing PC programs would run on it and almost none of the ones that people might actually want to use would. But it did have one feature that made it superior to IBM’s business models: state-of-the-art (by 1984 standards) 16-color graphics and impressive sound capabilities, with no add-on cards required. The PCjr was made for games, though unfortunately it wasn’t priced at game console rates.

And because it was made for games, IBM wanted games available for it when the product launched. They approached several companies about designing games that would take advantage of the PCjr’s flashy hardware and one of these companies was Sierra On-Line, the same company that had popularized if not quite invented the microcomputer adventure game with Mystery House on the Apple II. And since Mystery House had been the first game to combine graphics with adventure game mechanics, perhaps its designer Roberta Williams, along with the technical staff of Sierra On-Line, could create something far more ambitious that would take advantage of the Junior PC’s much superior video display.

The game they produced, King’s Quest, delivered on that promise. Unlike previous graphic adventures, King’s Quest didn’t use the bottom half of its screen for text and the top half  for a static image, like a page out of a children’s book. King’s Quest looked more like a proscenium stage on a computer screen, with colorful scenery and characters that could be guided through that scenery using the PC’s cursor keys. You still had to type commands using simple phrases a la The Colossal Cave Adventure, but you could actually see the results played out on the screen as though you were watching (and directing) a play.

King's Quest 1

King’s Quest. It may not look much now, but in 1984 this was the pinnacle of high-resolution adventure gaming.

The PCjr may have flopped — by the summer of 1985 IBM was stuck with a warehouse full of unsold models — but King’s Quest didn’t. Sierra went on to release eight games in the series for multiple computers, many of the later games modifying the interface so that the player no longer had to type in commands. So successful were the King’s Quest games that they spawned several similar Sierra game series, including Space Quest, Police Quest, Quest for Glory (an adventure game-RPG hybrid) and Leisure Suit Larry (a more sophisticated implementation of an early Sierra text game called Softporn Adventure).

Softporn Adventure

Softporn Adventure. Although she didn’t write it, that’s Roberta Williams, wife of Sierra publisher Ken Williams and designer of King’s Quest, on the right. This subsequently became…

Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards

…this. Yes, it was sleazy and included both bawdy humor and graphic sex. Nobody complained.

As computer power increased and audiences demanded more bang for their video game buck, Sierra complied, upping the visual resolution and number of colors as a new generation of home computers arrived on the market. The sophistication of the games increased too, with some fans regarding Jane Jensen’s Gabriel Knight series as some of the greatest adventure games of the 90s, at least from Sierra. (Confession: I’ve only played the first half of the first Gabriel Knight game, so I have to take the word of others for its superiority.)

Gabriel Knight

Gabriel Knight: Apparently not interested in a high-stakes game of chess.

I’ll admit my bias against Sierra here. Although their adventure games were impressive by the technical standards of the time, the puzzle-solving was unimaginative, characters could be killed off suddenly and arbitrarily in ways that were far more frustrating than fun, and you could often find yourself locked in dead-end situations from which the game could not be completed, even though you were never informed of this. It was possible to spend days trying to solve a problem in a Sierra adventure only to discover that it was unsolvable because you’d neglected to pick up a screwdriver four scenes earlier in a location to which you could no longer return.

And yet Sierra had the legitimate distinction of creating a style of adventure gaming that revolutionized the field and saved it from the fate of text adventures in the mid-1980s. Furthermore, their proscenium-style adventures were widely imitated by other companies. And while many of the imitations, from companies like Accolade and Activision, were roughly comparable to Sierra’s titles, there was one company that took the concept and turned what at Sierra had been run-of-the-mill if technologically advanced games into masterworks of late 20th century computer gaming.

Yes, that’s my bias. And the rest of this post will be about it.

The Age of LucasArts

In 1987 Lucasfilm Games, later LucasArts, released a graphic adventure called Maniac Mansion. It was similar to the Sierra adventures, except that it ran on the Commodore 64, which is where I first encountered it.  It was a parody of low-budget horror films and, to be honest, I can’t even remember if I bought a copy when it first came out. I found myself drawn more to Lucasfilm Game’s second adventure, the 1988 Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders, which I found surprisingly engrossing, much more so than the Sierra adventures I’d encountered up until that point. Zak McKracken had a subtlety of wit and puzzle design that made Sierra adventures look as though they’d been designed by sledgehammer. I was enthralled.

Zak McKracken cover

Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders cover at by Steve Purcell. Copyright (c) 1988 by LucasArts, now a division of Disney.

This is not to suggest that Zak McKracken was any kind of technological marvel. Perhaps to allow it to run on lower end machines than those targeted by Sierra, the graphics seemed fairly flat and crude, even by the standards of the late 1980s. (More advanced versions of this and Maniac Mansion were published a couple of years later for more powerful machines.)

Screen from Zak McKracken

Screen from Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders. Note the menu-driven control system that eliminated the need for typed commands. Copyright (c) 1988 by LucasArts.

But the strength of Zak McKracken as an adventure game was its wit. The interactions between Zak and other objects/characters in the game, even the timing with which dialog appeared on the screen (there was no voice acting in the game), suggested a creative sensibility that placed less emphasis on the kind of expensive programming skills that Sierra brought to bear on its games and more on an intuitive sense of what was funny, what was challenging, and ultimately on what was compelling to the player. I found myself enthralled.

LucasArts made rapid leaps forward over the next two or three years with their games for the Atari ST, the Commodore Amiga and DOS PCs, games like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (based on the film) and Loom (an innovative adventure that incorporated music into its problem solving). For me, though, the real breakthrough, the game that showed me just how much quality LucasArts was capable of shoveling into the confines of the graphic adventure format, was The Secret of Monkey Island, a game that remains available in updated versions even today. You can even buy it for your iPhone.

I knew that Monkey Island, about a young wannabe pirate named Guybrush Threepwood trying to discover the eponymous secret of the eponymous island, was going to be good when I spent a couple of hours working my way through the playable demo that LucasArts made available online. How good it was, though, wasn’t apparent until I bought the complete game and played it nonstop for two days.

The Secret of Monkey Island

The Secret of Monkey Island, when LucasArts adventure games went from being good to being great.

Monkey Island wasn’t just the funniest adventure game I’d played up until that time — I still laugh over the three-headed monkey joke — but had the most ingeniously designed puzzles (always fair and just challenging enough not to be frustrating), characters I actually enjoyed spending time with (including not only Guybrush but Governor Elaine Marley and the ghost pirate LeChuck) and a surprisingly effective romantic subplot. And the soundtrack, even on a PC SoundBlaster card, was possibly the best I’d heard up to that point in a computer game.

The Secret of Monkey Island was followed by a string of sequels (Monkey Island 2, The Curse of Monkey Island and Escape from Monkey Island), but also by a raft of LucasArts games that at least equaled if not surpassed the Monkey Island games in quality. These included Sam & Max Hit the Road, The DigFull Throttle, Grim Fandango and the Maniac Mansion sequel Day of the Tentacle, any one of which has a legitimate claim not only to being the greatest LucasArts adventure but the greatest adventure game ever. (My vote is with Day of the Tentacle, which was such an insanely epic comedy adventure that it contained a complete, playable version of Maniac Mansion hidden inside it as an Easter egg, but other gamers will inevitably differ.)

Day of the Tentacle

The tentacles have their day.

The second half of the 1990s, though, saw the output of LucasArts adventures slow to a trickle. Escape from Monkey Island, published in 2000, was the last original adventure game from the company, despite promised sequels to Sam & Max Hit the Road and Full Throttle.

Other than a few new adventures imported from the European market, this was pretty much the death of the adventure game on the American scene, amateur interactive fiction notwithstanding. However, a few years later, graphic adventures would rise again from their graves, thanks in part to a team of designers who had formerly worked at LucasArts.

But more about that in the next installment of this post.

The Force Awakens. And May It Not Go Back To Sleep.

SPOILER FREE. TRUST ME: Until now, there’s only been one good movie in the Star Wars canon. No, don’t argue with me. That movie wasn’t Star Wars itself but The Empire Strikes Back and while it has only grown in reputation in the 35 years since it was released (and the first movie at least remains a turning point in the history of modern science fiction cinema even if it wasn’t quite as good as its reputation suggests), Empire was the peak of the Star Wars experience and perhaps the peak of George Lucas’s career. It was also the film that prevented Lucas’s original box-office smash from becoming a one-hit wonder.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Not your father’s Stars Wars. Not really George Lucas’s, either.

All of that seems like ancient history now, yet I can still remember the excitement I felt watching The Empire Strikes Back on its opening night in 1980, somehow transforming itself from a postmodern Saturday morning serial into something darker, more resonant, more adult. It promised great things to come. Frankly, I had been a little disappointed in the first film, maybe because it had been praised just a little too lavishly by my friends and my expectations had gone through the roof. After Empire, though, I realized that the stars weren’t the limit for these wars. Lucas had already announced plans to make a nine-film series and they were just going to get better and better.

Only they didn’t.

Return of the Jedi, the third film in order of production, was a bland if slickly produced mediocrity with high-budget special effects, a cast of comically demented Muppets, and aliens who looked suspiciously like plush Christmas toys. There was very little of the adult darkness that had permeated Empire. After my hopes had been wildly raised by the second film, they were dashed by this perfunctory resolution to Lucas’s ostensibly mythic arc.

Yet there was still hope: Maybe the prequels, which Lucas was already planning, would be better.

Okay, stop laughing.

The prequels are now history and should remain so, but we now have something that could and should prove far, far better: the sequels. Hollywood media factory extraordinaire J.J. Abrams, who would have been ten years old when the first movie came out on May 25, 1977, may understand the appeal of the Star Wars franchise better than its creator did. While there may be a few points at which Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens falters, Abrams gets so much right that I can’t imagine any but the most churlish fans of the original films complaining that the Walt Disney Corporation has purchased the keys to the Millennium Falcon from Lucas and handed them over to the wrong person. Abrams is perhaps the one person on earth best qualified to make the light speed jump that Lucas failed to make into the 21st Century.

What does Abrams get right? Very many things. Great special effects? Check. Nicely paced action scenes alternating with slower character moments? Check. But Lucas would have gotten those right too. Here are some thing Lucas might have fumbled: Abrams brings back every significant member of the original cast, right down to Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca, Han Solo’s furry copilot on the Millennium Falcon. He gives us two wonderful new cast members, John Boyega and Daisy Ridley, as a reformed stormtrooper and a starship pilot turned scavenger, respectively — and anybody who doesn’t love their characters by the end of the movie lacks heart, soul and eyeballs. And he also gives us a Darth Vaderish villain in Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren.

The cast of Star Wars: The Force Awakens

From top to bottom: John Boyega, Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver looking a lot like Darth Vader

As if that weren’t enough, Abrams had the wit to bring back masterful screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan to work on the script. But most of all he found the darkness that Lucas left behind in Empire and failed to restore in Revenge of the Sith, though you can see him trying, at least, in that last one. The darkness in the The Force Awakens — and, yes, the humor too — prevent it from being just another science fiction action film (and may explain why it wasn’t released as a summer blockbuster) and kick it up into a much higher cinematic orbit.

I can’t tell you much more than that because it would all be spoilers, especially this soon after the movie’s release. Let’s just say that things happen that have deep emotional resonance and that when the final credits appear you don’t want the movie to end: You want to know what happens next. And not because someone’s life is in peril but because there are relationships being formed and revisited that leave tears in your eyes, a smile on your lips and a powerful urge to buy advance tickets for Episode VIII. ( You should get them at the theater where we went, which has reclining seats, stadium seating and surprisingly cheap tickets. No, I won’t tell you where it is.)

If you haven’t seen this one yet, go. It’ll be in theaters for a little while, but see it before the spoilers burst out into your Facebook feed — or from the mouths and text messages of your friends. And see it while you can see it on a huge screen — yes, bigger than that wall-mounted flat-screen baby in your den.

Or just see it so that J.J. Abrams can get even richer than he already is. He’s earned it.

Adventure Games: The Text Years

What’s your favorite type of computer game? If you’re a typical gamer of the 2010s you may have replied CRPGs (computer role-playing games) like Skyrim or The Witcher, or their massively multiplayer online counterparts like World of Warcraft or Star Wars: The Old Republic. If you like your action faster and more furious, maybe you’re partial to first-person shooters, like Halo or Call of Duty. Or if you lean more toward thoughtful, turn-based exercises in strategy, you might have replied 4X (“eXplore, eXpand, eXploit and eXterminate”) games a la Sid Meier’s Civilization series. And if you don’t have much time for gaming but need a quick bit of relaxation during your downtime, you might have put in a vote for casual games like Bejeweled or Candy Crush.

But if you’re a long-time gamer, one who’s been playing for 20 years, 30 years, or even more, you might just have said … adventure games.

Tales from the Borderlands

Telltale Game’s Tales from the Borderlands: What adventure games look like in 2015.

Adventure games have gone through many permutations over the last 40 years. They’ve fallen in and out of fashion, they’ve gone through multiple visual and gameplay styles, and there have been periods when they’ve nearly disappeared altogether. But after four decades, they’re still here. And it’s possible they’re more popular than ever.

In the early to mid 1970s, when microcomputers were still barely a blip on the computer hobbyist horizon, mainframe programmer and part-time spelunker Will Crowther logged on to a DEC PDP-10 and used his FORTRAN skills to write a computer game called, simply, Adventure. It was set in a huge cave not unlike Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, which Crowther had explored. He wrote the game in part so that his daughters could play it and in part to indulge his love for Dungeons & Dragons. By all reports Crowther’s version was fairly rudimentary compared to later versions, but it caught on and spread from computer system to computer system. In 1976, a Stanford University graduate student named Don Woods expanded Adventure with Crowther’s permission into what became known as The Colossal Cave Adventure. Although it was too large to be played on most microcomputers of the period, it was widely available on mainframe and minicomputer systems. Here’s what it looked like running on a DEC PDP-10:

Colossal Cave Adventure

Colossal Cave Adventure: All those words add up to a lot of game.

The Colossal Cave Adventure looks deceptively simple — you type in one- or two-word commands to move around in and interact with a world described purely through text — yet it created a remarkably large, surprisingly open world and went on to become one of the most influential computer games ever written. It spawned a long line of imitations that continues to this day, though you might not recognize most of its descendants based on the text screen reproduced above. If you’ve never played the Colossal Cave Adventure and you’re curious what it was like, here’s a simulation sponsored by the AMC-TV show Halt and Catch Fire.

The original Crowther and Woods version wouldn’t have run on microcomputers in the late 1970s because early personal computers weren’t powerful enough; they didn’t have enough internal memory and they mostly lacked disk drives. However, in 1978, a young Wisconsin programmer named Scott Adams (no relation to the creator of Dilbert) set out to prove that something very much like the Colossal Cave Adventure could be written on a Radio Shack TRS-80 Model I, a popular home computer of the day, and that he could do it in 16-kilobytes of memory. Yes, that’s not 16 gigabytes or even 16 megabytes — that’s 16 kilobytes of memory, where a kilobyte is 1,024 memory locations, each of which can store a single number in the range 0 to 255. To give you a sense for how much memory that is, the text in this blog post takes up about one and half kilobytes, but that picture at the beginning probably uses more memory than Scott Adams’ TRS-80 had in total.

Amazingly, Adams succeeded, writing a game called Adventureland that neatly mimicked the Colossal Cave Adventure without copying it and it ran, as planned, on a 16-kilobyte TRS-80. Adventureland was successful enough in the early gaming marketplace that Adams was able to spin off his own company, Adventure International, and market an entire line of adventure games for several different models of computer. Although no longer for sale commercially, you can still download playable versions from Scott Adams’ own website or play them directly on your browser using the links he supplies at that address.

Scott Adams' Adventureland

Adventureland: Still text, but no PDP-10 required.

Like the Colossal Cave Adventure, the play mechanics of the Scott Adams adventures were simple. You typed in one or two word commands, like “look” (to get a description of what was visible from your current position in the game’s world), “west” (to go in that direction) or “get sword” (to pick up any swords that you may conveniently have stumbled upon).

Even while Scott Adams was marketing his first adventure games, a small group of programmers at MIT consisting of Tim Anderson, Marc Blank, Bruce Daniels, and Dave Lebling were creating their own, far more ambitious variation on the Colossal Cave Adventure. They called it Zork.

That name may or may not ring a bell. If it does, you probably just experienced a pleasant flash of nostalgia. Zork was witty, quite huge by the standards of late 70s games and had something that neither the Colossal Cave Adventure or Adventureland had: a parser that could read English language sentences and respond to commands longer than one or two words. Admittedly, it still couldn’t understand English as it’s normally spoken between human beings, but if you knew how to construct a command properly — say, “Pick up the gold sword on the wooden desk” — Zork wouldn’t get confused. Zork was the next step in the evolution of text adventures.

Zork: The Great Underground Empire

The first Zork game. Be careful. You might get eaten by a grue!

The microcomputers of the late 70s weren’t ready for Zork, but by the early 80s they were and the Zork programmers, following in Scott Adams’ footsteps, created their own publishing house to publish Zork and the sophisticated series of text adventures that would follow. They called that publishing house Infocom.

Like the word Zork itself, the name Infocom sends shivers down the spines of old-time gamers. Infocom was one of the greatest game publishers of the 1980s, perhaps of all time, and they produced adventure game after adventure game, every one of them just as sophisticated as Zork had been and some of them even more so. I’ve written elsewhere about my love for their mystery game Deadline, which I still consider one of the most magical experiences of early 1980s computer gaming, but Infocom spent most of the 80s turning out one classic text adventure after another: more Zork games, Planetfall, Starcross, Suspended, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Leather Goddesses of Phobos and others.

Yet even as text adventures were increasing in sophistication, so were the graphics capabilities of microcomputers. In 1980, a young programmer named Roberta Williams, became obsessed with the Colossal Cave Adventure when she played it at home on and Apple II computer serving as a terminal for her husband Ken Williams office mainframe.

Roberta Williams, game designer

Roberta Williams, creator of the graphic adventure Mystery House and a significant designer of early adventure games.

Williams combined the graphics capabilities of the Apple II computer with the mechanics of a text adventure to produce the game Mystery House, which her husband used as the flagship game for what would become one of the most successful game publishing companies of the 1980s and 90, Sierra On-Line. The graphics for Mystery House were crude, but they were an early sign of the direction in which adventure games were headed.

Mystery House by Roberta Williams

Mystery House: Crudely drawn, but a harbinger nonetheless.

By the mid-1980s, purely text adventures had fallen out of fashion in the commercial marketplace. The graphic capabilities of home computers had improved to the point where nobody wanted to play a game that involved reading words rather than looking at pictures. More advanced attempts than Mystery House were made to create text adventures that showed pictures at the top of the screen while text flashed by at the bottom, but this was only a stopgap measure until somebody came up with a better way of combining high-resolution images with the puzzle-solving interactivity that made adventure games so alluring.

Text adventure with graphics

A text adventure with shifting graphic images at the top of the video display. Published by Telarium.

Text adventures never died, really. Nowadays they’re called interactive fiction and people still write them, primarily as a hobby but occasionally for commercial sale. To learn more, check out the Interactive Fiction Wiki to find out where you can download new games and collect tools that you can use to create your own. (I’ll write more about the current interactive fiction field in a later installment of this post.)

Even as the original Infocom games were thriving in the early 80s, though, the seeds for a radically new type of adventure game were being planted. Those seeds would take root at Sierra On-Line and the game designer who would bring them to fruition was the same person who created Mystery House: Roberta Williams.

I’ll talk about that in more detail in the second installment of this post.

The Worst Christmas Songs of All Time

Even for those of us who love Christmas music, there are certain individual Christmas songs that have all the aural appeal of a buzz saw slicing through a Fraser fir. Several years ago I ran a poll on a forum I frequented asking people what Christmas songs they couldn’t stand. The results were no doubt skewed by the usual self-selection biases that affect Internet polls as well as my tendency to inject my own opinions into the conversation. But some very definite trends emerged. There are several Christmas songs that just make people see red. And I’m not talking about deliberately awful songs like “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” but Christmas classics that, at some point, became more annoying than a barrel full of drunken elves.

Here are some Christmas songs that would make the holiday brighter simply by going away.

“Wonderful Christmas Time” by Paul McCartney  was possibly the single most divisive Christmas song in the poll. In fact, it was witnessing the derogatory comments lobbed in the direction of this song that inspired me to start the poll in the first place. Not that a large number of people hated it, but the ones who did utterly despised it.

Why the hate for Sir Paul? It may be the repetitious nature of the melody or those bouncy synthesizers boing-boing-boinging in the background. Or maybe it’s just the sense that McCartney didn’t spend any more time writing this song than it took him to sing it. But most likely it’s because the song is wildly overplayed on every shopping center audio system from Thanksgiving on.

I actually like the song myself and several other people rose to its defense. Not that the former Beatle needs defending. McCartney’s royalties from “Yesterday” alone have probably paid for several vacation homes, where he can have as wonderful a Christmas time as he wants.

“The Little Drummer Boy” by a Lotta Different People grated on at least as many nerves as “Wonderful Christmas Time.” This is another song that suffers from ubiquity — those endless “pa-rump-pa-bump-bumps” are everywhere during the last month of the year — but “The Christmas Song” by Nat King Cole is just as ubiquitous and hasn’t worn out its welcome, at least not with me. There also seemed to be some question as to why the sound of a drum would be appreciated by a newborn baby. The main problem, though, may be the dirge-like nature of some arrangements, including the Harry Simeone Chorale version linked above. Yet compare this to David Bowie’s weirdly sublime 1977 duet version with Bing Crosby.

This version is marvelous, a Christmas song for the ages, but it also cheats. Bowie, along with the producers of the Christmas special where it originally appeared, added a counterpoint track, “Peace on Earth,” that replaces the monotonous drumbeats with a lovely, flowing melody. Halfway through you barely remember what song you’re listening to.

I have no problem with “Little Drummer Boy” in any version because it makes me think of my childhood, of tiny manger scenes covered in pine needles and sprayed-on snow, of eggnog served next to the radio. But I suspect even I’d be tempted to rip the speakers out of a department store ceiling the 19th or 20th time they played it during a single visit.

Other songs mentioned in the poll included “Do They Know It’s Christmas” by Band Aid, a well-intentioned charitable relief effort weighed down by the same monotony and ubiquity as “Little Drummer Boy” (though I’m pretty sure nobody ever sings “pa-rump-pa-bump-bump” in it); “Santa Baby” by Eartha Kitt, Madonna, Kylie Minogue, Miss Piggy and others, a one-joke song that doesn’t get any funnier the 500th time you’ve heard it; “Feliz Navidad,” which is pretty much just José Feliciano singing “Merry Christmas” over and over in Spanish; and “anything by Mariah Carey.” I’m pretty much on board with all those choices.

There was, however, a clear winner in the poll. Okay, it didn’t help that I made it obvious from the start how much I despise this particular song. I even posted a YouTube link to make sure the lucky people who’d never heard it could experience firsthand how bad it was. It’s a song that’s manipulative, crass, smug and fuzzy on its poorly thought-out religious notions. It’s the awful Christmas song to end all awful Christmas songs.

I am referring, of course, to “The Christmas Shoes” by NewSong.

If you’ve never heard it, you owe it to yourself to listen, though I advise a stiff drink of eggnog first, preferably with more rum than nog. Note that the video above contains clips from the Rob Lowe TV movie made about the song. Yes, this song has even had a TV movie made about it. The movie came out the year Lowe left The West Wing and he must have been really desperate. I hope he changed agents.

The song is about a man — we’ll call him Rob — standing in line shopping for Christmas presents, presumably shoes, and having a lot of trouble getting into ye olde Christmas spirit. Rob is apparently a bit of a jerk, which is no doubt what gives the TV movie its character arc, and then the young boy in front of him starts trying to pay for a pair of women’s shoes with a handful of change.

At this point most jerks would go ballistic and start shouting loudly about how many damned times they’ve heard “Little Drummer Boy” on the audio system, but no. Rob actually listens to what the boy is saying. It turns out that the boy’s mother is dying — on Christmas Eve, which really puts a damper on the holiday — and the kid wants to buy her a new pair of shoes so she’ll look good for Jesus.

It’s possible that you already feel manipulated by just that brief description, but it gets worse. Rob decides to buy the boy the pair of shoes so his mother can go to heaven in style and — guess what? — his heart is suddenly filled with the true meaning of the holiday, which apparently involves giving shoes to a woman who’s more in need of chemo.

The execution of the song is perfunctory in a country-western-lite sort of way, with the requisite children’s chorus (a gimmick that actually works in some Christmas songs) coming in on cue. I suppose taken strictly as a piece of music it’s no worse than one of the lesser songs from the Kenny Rogers oeuvre (something I don’t mean as a compliment), but it’s the song’s message that churns my stomach. The lyrics imply that God is taking the life of the boy’s mother in order to give Rob the Christmas spirit!

I’m not religious, not even remotely, but even I can see what a craven, exploitative message that is. Worse yet, Wikipedia tells me that NewSong is a Christian vocal group, which presumably means they’ve run this concept past their personal Jesus and he gave it his holy okay. The best spin I can give it is to assume that the woman was dying anyway and God decided that this made her son the perfect candidate for spreading Christmas cheer. Yeah, I’m sure those shoes really cheered mom up, assuming she came out of her coma long enough to put them on. I’ll have to watch the TV movie and find out.

Other respondents in the poll were even more cynical about this song than I was. How do we know the kid’s not running a scam, reselling expensive shoes to a fence in an alley behind the store? Or maybe he’s a closeted crossdresser, who’s ashamed to admit that he just wants to wear the shoes to a Christmas party that evening.

Whatever way you look at it, “The Christmas Shoes” is the worst Christmas song of all time — yes, even worse than “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer,” which at least is trying to be bad.


When a Broadway Baby Says Goodnight, It’s Early in the Morning

New York, New York. It’s a helluva town. It’s a wonderful town. It’s the Big Apple. It’s the city that never sleeps. It’s the town so nice they named it twice. If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.

Times Square

The city that never sleeps — or turns off its lights

New York is a city of neon. It’s a city of brownstones. It’s a city of strangers. It’s a city of frenemies. It’s a city of gentrified slums and genteelly decaying mansions. It’s a city of people who travel the world. It’s a city of people who rarely leave the boroughs they were born in.

And sometimes it’s a city of tourists.

Los Angeles, where Amy and I live, is another city of tourists, a sprawling urban region known largely for being in the background of every other television show ever made. But tourists tend to disappear into the Los Angeles scenery, vanishing somewhere between the beaches and the freeways. You don’t see tourists ogling the buildings in L.A. because, frankly, there aren’t a lot of buildings worth ogling. Instead, you find the tourists on the Venice boardwalk or at nearby Disneyland. Or at Universal Studios Hollywood, an amusement park that used to be an actual tour of a movie studio. Universal Studios Hollywood is Los Angeles pretending to be a replica of Los Angeles.

In downtown Manhattan, tourists are hidden in plain sight, mixing with the locals in a gravitational mass so dense that, like a black hole, it traps the light from the neon signs so that it can never escape into the rest of the universe. New York glows on the interior, not the exterior. New York throbs with internal life. See that photo above? It was taken in downtown Manhattan just before midnight on a Thursday evening, during the five-day stay that Amy and I returned from last week. The city was as alive with light and humanity at that hour as it had been at midday, perhaps even more so. New York isn’t just the city that doesn’t sleep. It’s the city that drinks caffeine when everyone else is taking Tylenol PM. It wakes up when Los Angeles is rolling up its sidewalks. It thrives on darkness — and defies it.

When tourists come to New York, they don’t come to do touristy things, like go to Universal Studios. Well, maybe they come to do a few touristy things, like visit the Statue of Liberty or watch the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall. But mostly they come to do real things, the sort of things that actual New Yorkers might do…like theater. Theater is something that Amy and I (and quite a few of our friends) are very much into. Theater is what brought us together. And New York is a city of theater, perhaps the greatest theater city on earth with the possible exception of London. We went to Manhattan to see the city, yes, but even more so to see the shows. Much of our time there was spent sitting in theaters, traveling to theaters, having late night coffee after we’d been to theaters. We’d get back to our bed and breakfast after midnight with programs still clutched in our hands. And every show we saw was terrific.

What shows did we see? I thought you’d never ask.

I used my iPhone to keep a visual diary of our theater experience in New York — a visual diary of the posters and marquees, not the interiors of the theaters, where photography is frowned upon, especially during the actual shows. I posted this diary on Facebook during our visit and now I’m going to share it on this blog. No, you don’t have to thank me. I consider it a charitable work.

A View from the Bridge poster

A View from the Bridge at the Lyceum

On Thursday, our first day in New York, we saw Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge at the Lyceum. A View from the Bridge is not Miller’s best known play — that’s almost certainly Death of a Salesman — nor is it necessarily his best, but the theater company at London’s the Old Vic has mounted a spare, powerful production that recently transplanted to New York and we had the good fortune to see it from seats located directly on the stage, perhaps ten feet from the actors. It was an unusual staging for the Lyceum, which for the purposes of this production had turned its classical proscenium stage into a thrust stage more like the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, with the audience on three sides of the performers.

A View from the Bridge staging

A stage within a stage at the Lyceum. (Not my photo.)

The production is powerful and the cast, headed by Mark Strong, is a standout. Although written in 1956, the play deals with issues that are just as relevant today, if not more so, issues like illegal immigration and acceptance of gays. Director Ivo Van Hove made the somewhat unusual choice of underscoring the entire production with music and ambient sounds pitched barely above the level of audibility — honestly, I’m not sure if the rest of the theater could hear them — that added a nerve-jangling sense of foreboding to the whole show. Well worth seeing.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time poster

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time at the Ethyl Barrymore

Friday night we saw another production recently imported from London, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Simon Stephens’ adaptation of Mark Haddon’s novel about a high-functioning autistic teenager connecting with his family. It was one of the most stunning pieces of stagecraft I’ve ever seen. While reasonably successful on a dramatic level, The Curious Incident functions best as a sensory experience — it uses the electronic machinery available in modern theaters in an attempt to convey to the audience what it’s like to be autistic. To what degree it succeeds at this, I can’t say; I’m not, as far as I know, autistic.

What the play suggests is that autism is a kind of sensory barrage and that the reaction of the protagonist to emotions and external stimuli is not so much a rejection of the outside world as it’s an attempt to organize and categorize sensory information in a logical, internal grid. This grid is represented literally on the stage as a matrix of lines crossing the floor and the three walls of the stage.

Stage design for The Curious Incident

Stage design for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. (Once again, not my photo. Keep your iPhones turned off at all times during shows, folks.)

Inside this matrix, the show’s technicians use projections and flashing electronic lights to suggest how the teenager perceives information. The ultimate effect is not so much moving — though the story is touching and Tyler Lea is excellent in the lead — as it is dazzling. That was enough to make it a riveting evening of theater, though.

Hamilton poster

Hamilton at the Richard Rodgers

Saturday was a two-play day, with a matinee and an evening show. The matinee was Hamilton, which is the hottest and most-difficult-to-see musical on Broadway currently but one we weren’t prepared to visit New York without seeing. It was worth the effort we put into getting the seats.

If you haven’t heard of it — and the fact that the cast album is riding high on the Billboard charts at the moment suggests that you might have — Hamilton is a retelling of the late colonial and early independent days of the United States from the viewpoint of the eponymous founding father. What makes it extraordinary is that Broadway wunderkind Lin-Manuel Miranda has framed the story of our early immigrant nation in terms of modern immigrants and minorities, with the Hispanic Miranda himself as Alexander Hamilton and African-American actor Leslie Odom Jr. as his eventual nemesis Aaron Burr. The cast is extraordinary, not just for their performances but for the sheer amount of energy they put into the production. There’s enough electricity onstage in Hamilton to light half of Times Square. The staging, with a pair of turntables nested inside one another to transport the actors in circular arcs, is almost always in motion, turning Hamilton’s life and America’s birth into a spinning kaleidoscope of singing and dancing humanity.

Staging for Hamilton

A kaleidoscope of humanity on a pair of turntables

What’s most striking about Hamilton, though, is its score, a pastiche of pop musical styles from the last half century with rap used throughout as a form of hip-hop recitative. Rap has never exactly had a high profile on Broadway (though Miranda used it in his previous show, In the Heights), but the way Miranda marries the hip-hop rhythms to the characters and themes gives the show a freshness that signals his arrival as possibly the most original voice in musical theater since Stephen Sondheim. And if you know how much I like Stephen Sondheim’s music, you know that’s not something I say lightly.

Fun Home poster

Fun Home at Circle in the Square

You’d think by this point our appetite for theater would be waning. But no. Theater was what we’d flown 2,500 miles to see and theater was damned well what we were going to do. After Hamilton, we went to dinner with friends and then walked to Circle in the Square, where we saw Fun Home, composer Jeanine Tesori and lyricist/playwright Lisa Kron’s adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s autobiographical graphic novel about, among other things, coming of age as a lesbian, learning that her father was a closeted gay male and dealing with her father’s eventual death in a road accident that may or may not have been suicide.

From that description Fun Home might sound like a bit of a chore to get through, but it isn’t. It’s a delight, with a book and score that move deftly from deeply emotional to whimsical and back again. The show is anchored by a standout performance by Michael Cerveris as the father and an excellent turn by Judy Kuhn as Bechdel’s mother, but the actresses who portray Bechdel at three different points in her life, from childhood through college to middle age, are also wonderful, as electric and energetic as anyone in the cast of Hamilton. It was a terrific show.

First Daughters Suite

First Daughter Suite at the Public

First Daughter Suite by Michael John LaChiusa, which we saw Sunday evening, was our final show of the trip and our only venture into one of the smaller off-Broadway theaters. Off-Broadway is where LaChiusa’s musicals can typically be found, as well as at regional theaters like Signature in Washington, DC, and The Blank in Los Angeles; to my knowledge only Marie Christine and The Wild Party have made it into theaters officially designated as Broadway houses. This may be because LaChiusa’s shows tend to be both eclectic and eccentric or because he doesn’t write for wide popular tastes. I really don’t know. Amy and I have seen several of his musicals and loved almost all of them. His melodies are soaring and his lyrics both comic and deeply moving.

First Daughter Suite, a companion piece to LaChiusa’s 1993 First Lady Suite, is a set of four musical sketches about the daughters of American presidents: Julie and Tricia Nixon, Susan Ford, Amy Carter, Patti Davis and Pauline Robinson Bush, with large, showy roles for first ladies Pat Nixon, Betty Ford, Rosalynn Carter, Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush and Laura Bush. Tonally, the show is all over the place, ranging from fantasy and farce in the Amy Carter-Susan Ford scene (which is set in a dream that Carter is having) to something very close to tragedy in the Bush sequence. Each of the four pieces, different as they are from one another, is strong, but the Bush scene turns out to be a surprisingly powerful note to end on, accomplishing something I wouldn’t have thought possible: making me feel sympathy for Barbara Bush.

Monday, in a remarkably smooth plane ride from New York to Los Angeles, we came home — where we could do something we’d barely had the time or the inclination to do in New York: Turn out the lights and go to sleep.

Sherlock Who? The Brilliance of Steven Moffat

I was never a fan of the original Doctor Who. Maybe I would have been if I’d given it half a chance — a science-fiction-writer friend of mine was so enamored of it that he was guest of honor once at a Doctor Who convention — but whenever I’d catch a few minutes of it on my local PBS station it looked like a science fiction home movie filmed in someone’s basement. (I still can’t bring myself to sit through those old episodes, even though I’ve now got them on two different streaming services.)

The Doctor and friends

Rory Williams, the Doctor, Amy Pond: Two parents, one child.

But the new Doctor Who, rebooted in 2005 by Russell Davies, is different. For one thing, it looks like it was filmed in a much larger basement, one with a budget for special effects. Even that would be meaningless, though, without good actors, good characters and good writers. The new Doctor Who has those in spades and maybe the old Doctor Who did too; I’ll probably never sit still long enough to find out. Davies cast two wonderful Doctors, Christopher Eccleston (for only one season/series, alas) and David Tennant, and one of the best Companions ever, Britpop singer Billie Piper as Rose Tyler, with her dingbat mother Jackie (Camille Coduri), and deceptively useless boyfriend Mickey (Noel Clarke). Davies also gave stage actor John Barrowman probably the best television role of his career (Malcolm Merlyn on Arrow not excluded): the irresponsible, omnisexual Captain Jack Sparrow, who was later spun off to his level of incompetence on Chris Chibnall’s Torchwood, an unfortunate move. But that’s another story.

During Davies’ tenure a new writer, Steven Moffat (who had earlier created the Britcom Coupling), appeared on staff and wrote quite a few episodes, including a couple of brilliant ones, “Blink,” which introduced both the Weeping Angels and future movie star Carey Mulligan, and the two-parter “Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead,” which introduced River Song (Alex Kingston), a time traveler who the Doctor didn’t know yet but who definitely knew him. There was no question that River Song would be back; she said as much. The real shock was the way, or several ways, in which she came back.

When Davies dropped out as showrunner after the David Tennant years, Moffat replaced him and recast the Doctor as Matt Smith, who played him with the same manic energy as his predecessors but also with a surprising edge of melancholy. Moffat also introduced a new companion, Amy Pond (Karen Gillan), who would go on to become as important to Smith as Rose Tyler had been to Eccleston and Tennant, perhaps more so, because her presence on the show ultimately revealed as much about the Doctor as it did about her. The first two-and-a-half seasons of Moffat’s tenure are basically the Amy Pond Cycle and despite the standalone nature of many of the filler episodes — you know, the ones that come between the two-parters — Moffat has managed to make everything seem more coherent, more of a whole, with recurring themes woven throughout a season or half season, even if only in the final moments of each episode: Amy repeatedly glimpsing a crack in space with light pouring out; Amy repeatedly glimpsing a woman with an eye patch staring at her through a rectangular hole; the Doctor repeatedly recalling his own death notice, the one he wasn’t supposed to see with the time and place of his demise printed on it. These recurring images gave each season a focus and the viewer a sense of what sort of startling developments they were hurtling toward.

Okay, if you’re much of a Doctor Who fan at all you probably saw all of this a while ago, but I’m running late and only catching up on the Moffat years now. If I’d known how good they were, I’d have done it sooner. But stick with me. I’m going somewhere here.

The Amy Pond Cycle — and I’ll explain why I call it a “cycle” in a moment, though if you saw it you can probably guess — explores a question that’s always hung over the series like a cloud, but to my knowledge has never been actually addressed on the show itself: Why does the Doctor need a Companion? Sure, the Companion is a kind of audience surrogate and a device for giving the doctor a sounding board for his thoughts and exposition, but you can’t rely for — What is it now? 36 years? — on a screenwriter’s crutch. The companions, who are almost always attractive young women, must mean something to the Doctor and it isn’t sexual (though Davies explored that angle by having Billie Piper’s Rose fall in love with David Tennant’s heartthrob Doctor).

But after some brief sexual tension in the beginning, it became clear that Amy Pond had no romantic designs on Smith’s Doctor. She loved her fiance Rory Williams (Arthur Darvill) and returned to marry him, with the surprising result that not only did Rory become a co-companion of the Doctor’s but an indispensable member of the cast. Whatever Amy meant to the Doctor, Rory came to mean it too. The idea that the Doctor is a child who likes to run off on impetuous adventures with his chums has been explored before, but never as intensely as Moffat explored it here. Smith’s ageless adolescence eventually outlasts the semi-ageless adolescence of the Ponds (who really should be the Williamses, or at least the Pond-Williamses, but only once, in what looked like it would be her final episode at the end of Season 6, does the Doctor finally call Amy by her married name).

Over time Amy manages to become mother to almost everybody on the show, including the Doctor, her husband and her daughter (and that last twist is so stunning that I’m not even going to mention it in case someone hasn’t seen it). And Rory, as the Centurion, actually manages to become older than the doctor, who’s only 1,200 years old, while Rory makes it to 2,000. Even Amy ages into perhaps her 50s at one point (though that timeline is erased.) In the end his chums have all outgrown him, or at least outmatured him, except perhaps for River, who drops in and out of his life like she drops in and out of the show (but is apparently seeing him on a nightly basis for a while after their marriage, as one episode implies). But it’s Rory, not Amy, who finally points out to the Doctor how irresponsible his flitting around randomly through space/time with innocent people on board the TARDIS is. In the end, the doctor actually outlives the Pond-Williamses (though the show conveniently ignores the fact that he could simply drop back into the 20th century and visit them any time he likes).

I call the Amy Pond era a cycle because — and you probably guessed this — it’s circular, ending with an explanation of why Amy was waiting for him in the first place, even as a little girl, and ends on a shot of her young face. The most significant things revealed about the Doctor during the Pond Cycle are that he can’t stand to be alone and he can barely stand to sit still. He can’t settle down to a normal family life, as he tries to do at one point with the Pond-Williamses. He has to be going somewhere constantly, almost as though he’s running from something, and what he’s running from seems to be loneliness, maybe the loneliness of being the last of the Time Lords, or maybe from his guilt at having been complicit in the destruction of his homeworld, Gallifrey. (Note: Gallifrey is apparently revealed in an upcoming episode to still exist in an alternate universe. How that will affect the Doctor I don’t know, but I suspect it will be up to Peter Capaldi’s Doctor to show us and from the couple of Capaldi episodes I’ve seen, he’ll be different in a number of ways.)

The companions, then, are a hedge against loneliness. But why are they almost always attractive young women? I haven’t watched many of the Clara Oswald episodes yet, but when he meets her (for the second time, as he finally realizes) in “The Snowmen” and asks her to sail away with him on the TARDIS, she asks, “Why me?” And he responds (I’m QFMing here), “I never know why. I only know who.”

Which is about the best description of romantic love I’ve ever heard.


Meanwhile, Moffat has been running a second show based on an even more iconic character, Sherlock Holmes. He’s created (along with Mark Gatiss) what I regard as the best television version of Holmes to date and he’s done it by being faithful to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the only way that matters: in spirit. His Holmes has been lifted out of the late Victorian era and plopped down into our own as if by TARDIS, and the result is that the old stories, or new stories based on the old themes, seem fresh again, as Conan Doyle’s stories must have seemed back when the pages of The Strand hadn’t turned yellow and crumbly yet. It doesn’t hurt that Benedict Cumberbatch’s over-the-top yet tightly controlled performance catches Holmes’ arrogant self-confidence with such convincing bravado that you feel like you’re discovering the character for the first time, even if you finished reading the originals by the time you were out of middle school and read the Solar Pons stories afterward as literary methadone.

Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson

Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson: Together again for the first time.

Moffat hasn’t given Sherlock the kind of overarching thematic structure that he magically imposed on Davies’ existing structure for Doctor Who. Instead it’s a show of moments, some large, some small, a great many of them brilliant. And getting better: My favorite moments are from the two most recent episodes, “The Sign of Three” and “His Last Vow,” specifically the drunken bachelor party (What could be better than being inside the head of a drunken Sherlock Holmes?), Holmes’ rambling toast at Watson’s wedding that went from insulting to moving (and I seem to recall that he solved a crime in there someplace too), and his slo-mo near-death sequence after being shot in the chest by an unlikely assassin (and if anything can be better than being in the head of a drunken Sherlock Holmes, it’s being in the head of a dying Sherlock Holmes trying desperately to deduce how NOT to be a dying Sherlock Holmes).

Sherlock could be accused of being everything from maudlin to too-clever-by-half, but that it can be these things and more in such an original and spectacular way is what makes it such transcendentally good TV. (No, I’m not sure what “transcendentally” means either, but I’m not using it to talk about meditation.) The visual innovations are particularly impressive. Some of them remind me of the screen tricks that the CSI shows have been pulling since the early 2000s, but when the first episode began with comical text messages appearing above the cell phones of a room full of reporters at a press conference, I knew that I’d stay with the show for its visual bravura alone and immediately called Amy in to watch with me. (The first season had just hit Netflix.)

It isn’t just the brilliance of Moffat and Gatiss that makes Sherlock so good. It’s seeing Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in what will probably be the best roles they’ll ever be offered and, for Cumberbatch at least, the one that will lead off his obituary several decades from now. Cumberbatch’s talents are so unique that he’s a difficult actor to cast, but in the right role he’s the Olivier of our age. (I suppose that’s self-contradictory in that what made Olivier stand out was his extraordinary range; he was never typed by a single part, not even Heathcliff or his immortal Hamlet. Cumberbatch has range too, but he’s so much more interesting at this end of it that I don’t even enjoy watching him at the other.)

If Cumberbatch goes down as the great British actor of our era, I think Moffat will go down as the great British showrunner of our era — and maybe just the greatest showrunner period. I hope he turns down requests to go Hollywood, except perhaps to develop something for HBO, because there’s something quintessentially English in his style. But if he has the showrunner’s equivalent of Olivier’s range, maybe he can do something quintessentially American too. I’d just rather he not come up against the Hollywood executives who have made such an uneven hash out of the career of his American equivalent, Joss Whedon (and don’t even get me started on J.J. Abrams). I want Moffat to remain forever an original — and as brilliant as he is now.

Captain America, S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Age of Multidimensional Media

It wasn’t until I saw Captain America: The Winter Soldier and the last six episodes of the first season of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. that I realized just how radical an experiment Marvel Studios is performing with their Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) movies and TV shows.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

S.H.I.E.L.D. goes down in flames.

I’m a huge fan of serial TV shows. The broadcast networks have traditionally objected to them because they don’t rerun well and are hard for viewers to catch up with if they haven’t been watching from the beginning, but it’s gotten to the point where, if a show doesn’t have a serious serial continuity, I don’t have any interest in watching it. It turns out that the formula developed many decades ago on radio for soap operas is, in fact, ideal for showcasing what makes television in many ways superior to movies — i.e., the long-term ability to develop characters, relationships and situations such that the whole of a television series becomes greater than any of its individual episodes. But what Marvel Studios is doing with the MCU is even better than serial television. They’ve taken the concept of serial content in a series — of movies, of TV shows — and made it three or even four dimensional. They’re effectively doing something that I’ve only seen done before in one medium: comic books.

Let me back up for a moment. Marvel Studios is the Hollywood wing of Marvel Entertainment Group, which also publishes the Marvel line of comics. That’s the line where, back in the early 1960s, writer/editor Stan Lee and a few artists, primarily Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, created what have become some of the most popular superheroes ever to don spandex unitards. The difference is that, in the 60s, their popularity was isolated to comic books and a few animated television shows. Today their popularity has expanded to movies and live-action television (though one character, the Incredible Hulk, achieved live-action TV success as far back as the late 1970s).

Marvel Studios was initially created in 1996 as a clearing house for licensing movie and TV rights to those heroes and, though it did a remarkably good job of attracting buyers, those buyers did an even better job of making money from Marvel-owned properties. Sony parlayed the Amazing Spider-Man into an ongoing series of summer blockbusters and Twentieth Century Fox has created what is, if anything, an even more popular series of movies out of the X-Men and their most popular solo member, Wolverine. (The Hulk, who was initially licensed by Universal, has had a somewhat more checkered cinematic history, and The Fantastic Four, while they turned a profit for Fox, generally proved to be a critical embarrassment in movie form. Fox is scheduled to reboot that series in summer 2015.)

In 2004, Marvel Studios realized that if other companies were making this much money off their characters, they could make even more money, or at least keep a larger percentage of the profits, if they made the movies themselves. They would also have more control over what was done with their characters and concepts. Over the next few years they quietly reacquired the rights to superheroes who either hadn’t done well for other studios (the Hulk) or had never even been given their own films (Iron Man). In 2008 Marvel Studios surprised everyone, or at least critics, by releasing a remarkably good film based on the latter character, who had mostly been a second-string superhero in the comic book world, starring Robert Downey, Jr., as alcoholic billionaire and arms merchant Tony Stark, who escapes from Afghan terrorists and a potentially heart-stopping load of shrapnel in his chest by building a supersuit that not only keeps his heart beating but lets him slug bad guys like the Hulk and fly through the air like Superman.

The real surprise, though, comes at the end of the film, mostly after the credits, when Stark is recruited by Clark Gregg’s Agent Phil Coulson and then Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury to become part of the Avengers Initiative, a superhero collective being assembled (a pun that old Avengers fans will get) by Marvel’s superspy organization S.H.I.E.L.D. The same basic coda was appended, in one way or another, to the next three films in what Marvel Studios was now calling the MCU: The Incredible Hulk (2008), Thor (2011) and Captain America: The First Avenger (2011). (I’ve skipped Iron Man 2 (2010), a film for which this now predictable coda would have been redundant.) While each of these movies was basically standalone or the launching point for a series, it was becoming clear that they were also part of a larger whole. This whole, which eventually became known as Phase One, culminated in Marvel’s The Avengers, the highest-grossing movie of 2012 and the point at which it became clearest that all of these films were taking place in a shared universe, something that had only been hinted at up until then. This shared universe concept is common in superhero comics and has resulted in continuities so tangled that you pretty much need Wikipedia to sort them out, but it has only occasionally been used in films, so occasionally that I’m having trouble thinking of examples. (It’s more common in television, where character crossovers between shows and spinoffs from hit shows were almost a requirement in the 70s and 80s and still occasionally occur, with the interconnections between the Law and Order and CSI shows in the late 2000s probably being the most recent examples, unless the NCIS shows are doing something similar.)

Marvel’s The Avengers took elements and characters, some of them quite minor, from all of the previous films and threw them together into one big superhero soup. Marvel had been doing this in the Avengers comic books since 1963 and comic books in general had been doing this at least since DC Comics launched the Justice Society of America in All-Star Comics #3 back in 1940. Having such a series-jumping chronology in the movies was remarkable but it didn’t become extraordinary until it made the leap to television in the fall of 2013 with Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., a direct spin-off from Marvel’s The Avengers.

I’ve talked before about how I had great hopes for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and also about my frustration that it was taking its sweet time about realizing them. The reason why it was taking so long finally became apparent with the 17th episode, “Turn Turn Turn”: The show’s writers had been waiting for the second Captain America movie, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, to come out.

Just as Captain America: The First Avenger had been, quite unexpectedly, the best movie of Phase One, Winter Soldier was the best movie so far of Phase Two and possibly the best MCU movie yet, better even than Marvel’s The Avengers. (To be fair, Joss Whedon was handed a nearly impossible task in writing and directing The Avengers. He had to balance at least half a dozen major characters, four of whom had film series of their own — or maybe three, the underperforming Hulk having apparently been phased out after Phase One — and all of whom had to be given roughly equal screen time and importance to the plot. Not surprisingly, the standout was Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, borrowed from the Thor films, who chewed the scenery with charmingly vengeful gusto as the movie’s villain. More surprisingly, the other standout was Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, who I’m pretty sure first hit the screen in Iron Man 2, with her clever backhanded method of interrogating villains by making them think they’re interrogating her.)

Winter Soldier ends with — stop here if you’re one of the few MCU fans on earth who still don’t know what happens — the near total disintegration of S.H.I.E.L.D., which turns out to have been riddled since World War II with sleeper agents from their sworn enemies, the Nazi carryover organization Hydra. The movie ends with Captain America more or less triumphant but S.H.I.E.L.D. in shambles and Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury erroneously believed to be dead. And that’s where it impacted the TV show. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. in the absence of S.H.I.E.L.D. had become a program without a premise and that suited it beautifully. After floundering all season in search of a theme, it had finally found one: a team of agents without an agency trying to defeat the enemy that had stolen it out from under them.

Turn Turn Turn

Things fall apart and S.H.I.E.L.D. becomes very centered.

For the final seven episodes of the season, S.H.I.E.L.D. was the best thing on television — yes, even better than Game of Thrones, which is straining admirably not to start plodding toward its climax the way George R.R. Martin’s books are doing. Agent Coulson’s team developed personality along with purpose. They fought against one another — Agent Ward turned out to be one of the sleeper agents — as well as against other agencies and ended up as a team of self-described vigilantes. The final episode resolves all this a bit too neatly, or at least too quickly, but it leaves some interesting plot threads dangling and the hint that at least one of those threads is going to generate the premise for the second Avengers film, which will terminate Phase Two in 2015.

It’s the way that the MCU continuity has not only jumped back and forth between movies but the way (and the speed) with which it has jumped between movies and TV (and apparently back again) that makes it revolutionary. (There was only a four-day lag between the opening of Winter Soldier and the introduction of its aftereffects into the show.) It would still be possible for a newcomer to jump into the multidimensional network of the MCU without being completely confused, but that window is rapidly closing and I would expect that, by some point in Phase Three, figuring out not only the plot but the interconnections between films, characters and TV shows (with yet another MCU television series, Agent Carter, debuting during S.H.I.E.L.D.‘s midseason hiatus in the 2014-2015 season) might become nearly impossible for a newbie.

This is clearly a studio executive’s nightmare and precisely the reason that broadcast television has fought — in vain, fortunately — against serial TV shows. If the audience doesn’t buy in early, it becomes extremely difficult to buy in late. But the way in which we watch television and movies is changing. We don’t necessarily catch TV shows while they’re on the air, the way we used to in the long-ago 20th century. We DVR them or buy the DVD sets or we get them On Demand or we binge watch them off Netflix or Amazon Prime Streaming. If we’re really desperate we resort to certain Internet back channels, which I’ll leave unnamed, to get our hands on content. The producers of Breaking Bad credited Netflix (and probably some of those back channels) with the show’s abrupt surge of viewership in its two-part final season, with viewers who had finally gotten word about how good the show was rapidly catching up through all-day streaming sessions.

My friend Sean Tucker thinks Marvel Studios is using the MCU to position themselves for a brand new media world and I think he’s right. Now that widescreen TVs with Internet connections have come to dominate the living room, the age of genuine on-demand viewing, which we’ve been promised since at least the 1980s, has arrived at last and I for one wouldn’t mind seeing the cable-TV companies die out altogether. (Unfortunately, they also own much of the Internet infrastructure and until that de facto monopoly is taken away, the true age of multidimensional media is going to be postponed — but I doubt for very long.)

Very soon now, we’ll be watching television and movies in the way people have long read comic books — picking up back issues and reading new ones in whatever order necessary to follow tangled continuities or just indulge sudden whims. To some extent, we’re already there — Amy is downstairs now binge-watching the entire seven years of West Wing on Netflix, something I did a few years ago myself — and I think we’ll need the original thinking of companies like Marvel Studios, which is taking continuity concepts from comic books and repurposing them for higher-budget visual media, to provide content that fits the new way we view what soap opera fans have long referred to as “our stories.” The multidimensional interconnections provided by the MCU may be the perfect model for a world in which TV and movies are only distinguishable by the size of the screens we watch them on — and much of the time not even by that.

I, for one, am thrilled to see the new era arrive. I just wish it hadn’t taken so long.