Saturday, April 19, 2014

New Wallpaper

One of the ways I've been busying myself lately is by building a new desktop computer. It's way faster than my last model, and seems way more stable. Hopefully it'll also be able to run games that are more complicated than FTL. It'd become a bit of a tradition among my electronic devices that I give them network names that are Batman-themed, but make the wallpaper Superman-themed. I was having a bit of trouble settling on a new image that I really liked for the wallpaper this time, so I ended up making one. It started with this José Luis García-López image, which I already have on a fridge magnet:


I was surprised to find that on an image search, since I kind of assumed the weird clipart rainbow was added in by whomever made the magnets. I did a little Photoshop surgery, and came up with this nice, minimalist wallpaper background--sized for a 1280x1024 screen. Feel free to use it, if you like.

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Thursday, April 10, 2014

Collapse

Huh, for some reason the tags to collapse that last post didn't work. Sorry about that, folks. I've noticed that's been kind of hinky lately, but hadn't seen that particular variation. Looks like I'll be trying to clean up the HTML around here soon.

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Monday, April 07, 2014

Soldiering On

Spoilers Ahoy for "Captain America: The Winter Soldier"!


Look, I know "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." Isn't very good, but it seems like there are easier ways to cancel it.

Seriously, what a movie. "Captain America: The First Avenger" was easily my favorite of the previous Marvel flicks, and this cements the Cap franchise as, I think, the best superhero movie series going. Some thoughts, in my usual bulleted list format:

  • Holy crap, Batroc the Leaper. And with plenty of leaping, too.
  • The fights in this flick were fantastic. I imagine it's hard to keep things interesting in these films, especially since Cap doesn't have any flashy powers to fall back on, but I thought the choreography was well-done, that everyone got a good moment in the sun, and that each fight felt like an appropriate escalation from the previous one.
  • I liked how much characterization Black Widow received. She's largely been the River Tam of the series, quiet and badass, but without much of her own personality up 'til this point, so it was nice to see her open up, be friendly, and show some vulnerability.
  • The same largely holds true for Nick Fury, frankly.
  • I liked the twists and turns that kept this feeling like a spy thriller. I also liked the little nods to Bourne and "Skyfall," between Steve's parkour antics and his plunge into the ocean. In that latter scene, I half expected Moby to start playing.
  • I thought the film did a pretty good job of knitting together several different stories from the comics into a coherent narrative.
  • I also really liked how at least a little attention and lip service was paid to the point that Allied actions in World War II weren't all heroic and virtuous. That kind of nuance gets lost when your film's about superheroes vs. laser Nazis, and the shift to the secret war and shades of gray in this film could have turned into a misguided commentary on the changing times, but I think they did a decent job of making it clear that things have never been quite so rosy.
  • I about lost it when Arnim Zola showed up. Somehow I had both forgotten he was around and forgotten he was announced in the cast some time ago. I love Arnim Zola, and crazy 1970s Arnim Zola is amazing. Though for a second I thought the AI was going to be Ultron.
  • Speaking of last-minute reveals, I'm really curious to see what the legal fallout of Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch showing up here is. Conventional legal wisdom had held that whoever got them on the screen first was going to have the rights to them, which made it look like they were a lock for Fox, but here we are. I can't imagine notoriously-litigious Disney letting "X-Men: Days of Future Past" go by without some legal challenge, and I would be surprised if this weren't going to be leverage to reclaim some of those licensed characters. If there isn't a legal challenge, then you'd better believe Sony and Fox are going to be looking at what other characters they can potentially poach, as per precedent. Spider-Woman's a Spider-Man family character, right? And She-Hulk and Black Panther were in the Fantastic Four. It's gonna be an interesting few months.
  • Falcon was pretty great. I liked (and didn't notice until my wife pointed it out) the parallel between Cap's status as a man out of time, and the experiences of soldiers returning from long deployments. The war never really ends, and life moves on without you, whether you're in Kandahar or a block of Arctic ice. It's a great take on the character.
  • Speaking of takes on the character, I really wish we could get a Superman movie like this. You know, one where he's optimistic and inspirational and always doing the right thing, even when the world he lives in would drive anyone else to cynicism and despair. Superman and Captain America should be the unshakable moral foundations of their respective universes, not weepy angsty guys who struggle to be heroic.
  • I love how many hooks the movie left at the end for sequels. Nick Fury running an underground war against Hydra, Cap searching for Bucky and taking down Hydra bases, Arnim Zola doing whatever he's going to do...they could make Captain America movies forever and I'd be okay with that.
Overall, I loved it. Marvel is killing it on the movie front, and it's even getting me excited to see what happens on tomorrow's "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." Excited. About "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." I know, I'm surprised too.

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Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Ender Bender 12: Chapter 8, "Rat" (Part 3)

*Cough*

So, as it turns out, it's really difficult for me to motivate myself to read and write about terrible books (on top of the real-life stuff I have to do) when I'm not being paid for it. That said, I'm trying to make writing a bigger part of my life, so that means proving to myself and the general public that I can finish things and meet deadlines.

Just don't ask about Superman Sundays. Not yet, anyway.

So without further ado...

Ender arrives at his evening practice with the launchies, only to find that it's poorly attended. Could it be that he's not the effective leader of men that he thinks he is?

"Haven't you heard?" said another boy, a Launchy from a younger group. "Word's out that any Launchy who comes to your practice sessions won't ever amount to anything in anybody's army. Word's out that the commanders don't want any soldiers who've been damaged by your training."
No, of course it's another conspiracy against Ender! And halfway through the practice, some commanders from different armies came in and took note of everyone there! And fewer and fewer people started coming to practice each night, as the Launchies who did show up were harassed and assaulted.

Hey, it must really suck to be part of a group of people whose existence merits disapproval from those in power, which trickles down to abuse, assault, and harassment in the halls of schools. Good thing Orson Scott Card is the sort of guy who'd stick up for people like that, right?

Ender's ready to quit, but Alai talks him out of it. Who's our protagonist again?

Alai stopped him. "They scare you, too? They slap you up in the bathroom? Stick you head in the pissah? Somebody gots a gun up you bung?"
As an excuse to stop reading this book, I decided at this point to look up what awards Ender's Game has won. Turns out it picked up the Nebula in 1985 and the Hugo in 1986, as well as earning a spot on Amazon's Best Books of the Millennium poll.

Think about that for a minute. Think about the books that have been published since 1001 C.E. Let's assume that we're omitting plays, thus kicking out all the works of Shakespeare. That still leaves Things Fall Apart and A Brief History of Time and Newton's Principia and Dante's Divine Comedy. It still leaves all the works of Jane Austen and John Locke and Charles Darwin and Geoffrey Chaucer and Charles Dickens and Emily Dickinson. It leaves Candide and Gulliver's Travels and 1984. Le Morte d'Arthur! Paradise Lost! Frankenstein! The entirety of the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the modern age, and that's just the last half of the millennium.

Ender's Game held the number 32 slot. "Somebody gots a gun up you bung?"

I...I don't know that I was ready for this.

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Wednesday, February 19, 2014

QuizUp, Up, and Away!

So, for the past almost-a-week I've been addicted to QuizUp, a game that scratches a trivia itch that I'd forgotten I had. I've always been kind of a trivia buff, growing up on Jeopardy! and the like, excelling in Scholastic Bowl in high school, and spending way too much time among the top spots of a comic book trivia game on an IRC channel back in college. I've been rising up the ranks in a few categories (I beat the guy who's ranked top in the world in Superhero Comics!), and reporting the occasional inaccuracy and spelling error along the way, because the only thing I'm better at than trivia is pedantry.

But early on I noticed the fundamental unfairness that Batman gets his own category under "Literature" and Superman doesn't. So I submitted fifteen sample questions for a Superman category, and they seem to have gone over pretty well. A content editor at QuizUp sent me back their guidelines for submissions, and I've been working on expanding that list. I've got my Superman Encyclopedia, my Official Superman Quiz Book, and The Chronological Superman open as references and inspiration right now, not to mention years and years of sponging up this information instead of something useful.

So here's where you can come in (it's okay, the content editor said I could enlist friends!): submissions usually consist of 100-300 questions, and I'd like to be on the high end of that. I know I could probably break the bank just on minutiae from the post-Crisis-pre-Flashpoint era, but I want to have some variety and some other super-brains involved. So if you're a Superman enthusiast, feel free to toss over some questions, fun facts, or other bits of content and/or inspiration that you think could be helpful. There's no deadline, but I'd like to submit within two or three weeks. There's also no apparent difficulty limit (though after playing through one too many "who said this random line" questions in the "Star Wars OT" category, maybe there should be), and I figure the softball questions will be the easy ones anyway. So get obscure with your bad self and let your multicolored freak flag fly.

In terms of question content, here's the scoop:

  1. Questions are multiple choice, with three incorrect answers and one correct answer.
  2. I'll be submitting everything on their Excel template. You don't need to worry much about formatting, but if you do send stuff in Excel/table form, lovely.
  3. Questions can't be longer than 130 characters, including spaces. Answer options can't be longer than 30 characters, including spaces.
  4. All answer choices should start with an uppercase letter.
  5. Try to avoid questions that involve choosing the one answer that's incorrect. If you do one of these, make sure "NOT" is in all-caps. For instance, I have "Which of these has NOT been a location for Superman's Fortress of Solitude?"
  6. Any titles within questions should have double quotation marks (") around them. Titles in answer choices don't need any special punctuation.

I've already contacted some Superman Superfans of my acquaintance, but if you know someone I missed, feel free to direct them this way. You can leave stuff in the comments here, or e-mail me at tfoss1983 [at] gmail.

Oh, and if you want to challenge me on QuizUp, my username is tfoss1983, but the display name is Tom-El. Friends are very welcome!

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Saturday, February 15, 2014

Guessing Game

I watched a movie today. The screenplay was written by a critically-acclaimed filmmaker who had previously worked on Batman films. The protagonist was a dark-haired guy, played by an actor from the British Isles. As a baby, our hero was sent away in a ship to a new world by his dying parents, carrying with him their hopes and dreams for a better future. He was raised by simple folk, who were nonetheless wiser than they seemed. He grew up yearning for Justice, wondering where he came from. As an adult, it turned out that he had special abilities not shared by mortals, and that he was part of a greater destiny. He fell deeply in love with a red-haired woman from another land, and in a secluded sanctum in the frozen north, she helped him find his true purpose. But there were other forces at work, forces of evil, forces who stood against the hope represented by our hero, and who would stop at nothing to remake the world to fit their ideals. The hero fought his nemesis to defend those he's sworn to protect, and in the end, he killed his foe with an injury to the neck, and saved the life of the red-haired girl. He then flies off into the sky, and it's said that others will follow him into the stars. I had wanted the movie to be really good, but in the end it was kind of dumb and overlong.

Oh, and Russell Crowe was in it.

Do you know the movie?






Naturally, it was "Winter's Tale," an urban fantasy-tinged romance that was released this week. Parts of the story were quite good, and the special effects (when they showed up) were quite nice. There were some nice, moving moments, but the attempt to turn what should have been an interesting, character-driven story into an epic battle between good and evil--right down to having Lucifer himself involved--fell flat. There were a couple of characters whose brief appearances lead me to believe there's more of them on the cutting room floor or in the book that this was based on, leading them to become little more than magical black man and mystic Native American stereotypes. The film ends with a bit of narration that seems overly concerned with justifying the logical implications of the metaphysics suggested by the plot, and it fails mostly in that it calls specific attention to those shaky metaphysics in the first place. If it had toned the scales down a bit, and been more confident in its central romance and characters, it might have been quite good. As it turned out, it's the third disappointing movie with Russell Crowe I've seen in the last year and a half.

And it would have been greatly improved with someone being pursued by a bear, but that's true of most films.

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Friday, February 07, 2014

The Problem of Doomsday

Apparently there's talk about DC redoing the Death of Superman story for the New 52, which shouldn't be entirely surprising. They've spent the last year redoing Batman: Year One, so naturally they'd look toward their most successful single story as another greatest hit to replay (Heaven forbid they try to make new stories; the New 52 is about repeating things that worked in the past). It's just a shame, because Doomsday is so completely played out. Doomsday has been played out since the last page of "Superman" (vol. 2) #75, which frankly should have been the last time we ever saw him.

I love the Death and Return of Superman storyline. It's bloated, it's tied into a huge mess of early-'90s subplots that make the story difficult to recommend to new readers, but it's better than a lot of people give it credit for, and it's a pointed commentary on the '90s trends toward younger, edgier, more violent versions of heroes. Given how DC has embraced those trends wholeheartedly with the New 52, it's again unsurprising that they'd want a version that was free of such uncomfortable subtext.

But I don't love Doomsday. Doomsday was never a character; he (it?) was a tool. Doomsday was designed to be a mindless force of nature, an unstoppable creature of death and destruction made incarnate, something that could believably kill Superman, without making Superman's sacrifice entirely anticlimactic. Doomsday was also a creature who could die in the battle without triggering all our uneasiness over Superman killing, since Doomsday was barely even alive in a conventional sense. There are probably other ways to read that battle besides Superman fighting against popular sentiment, against the idea that he's outdated and no longer has a place in the world, but I think that's the reading that makes the most sense given the rest of the story.

Just like that notion, Doomsday just won't go away, no matter how many different ways he's disposed of. I've talked before about my distaste for General Zod, and the problem with Doomsday is perhaps even worse. Zod, at least, has a personality. Zod can be reasoned with; Zod can form plans and have nuances to his character. Doomsday is pure, unrestrained, unthinking brutality, which makes him kind of a one-note character, inasmuch as he even is a character. And while Zod can presumably be killed for good, Doomsday's actual power is that he can't. Ever since his second appearance, his ability has been that whatever kills him only makes him stronger, so you can't even have the out of breaking his neck.

Doomsday's appeal, in addition to his presence in the top-selling comic story of the last twenty-five years, mostly has to do with his unique (if frequently ridiculous--bike shorts?) appearance, and the fact that he presents a physical challenge to Superman. There was a time when recurring physical villains were a fairly small part of Superman's rogues gallery, mostly consisting of Metallo, some Apokoliptians, a rotating cast of Phantom Zoners, and arguably Parasite and Bizarro. Over the course of the last thirty years, that roster has grown somewhat. Lex Luthor got a bodysuit, Brainiac got various upgraded bodies, Atomic Skull was altered into a more physically threatening form, villains like Conduit and the Eradicator and Mongul were introduced, but the number of villains who routinely go toe to toe with Superman is still rather small. The problem is that these are the villains who are largely perceived to be Superman's A-list, I think. It's understandable that artists want to draw (and audiences want to read) Superman hitting things--I'm certainly among them--but there's a way to do that without having him constantly in fisticuffs with his enemies. Superman's been fighting robot henchmen for most of the last 75 years, and I honestly think that's more satisfying than seeing him avoid hitting a battlesuit-clad Lex Luthor in the unarmored head.

So Doomsday keeps popping up, because people keep looking through Superman's rogues gallery for villains he can get into a decent fistfight with, and running out of options. There have been some valiant attempts to make him interesting, and I'll readily admit to reading and rereading every panel of "Superman/Doomsday: Hunter/Prey" more times than I can remember. But even that story recognized that Doomsday alone is an uninteresting villain; he only worked in concert with the Cyborg Superman and (to a lesser degree) Darkseid. His next outing was as a pawn (and host body) for Brainiac, which was the last story creator Dan Jurgens told about the monster. Then we got the inevitable (and ridiculous) Superman/Doomsday team-up against Imperiex, then "Superman" #175 which gave the creature intellect (and wrapped a bow around the villain's entire existence), then we got the Reign of Doomsday nonsense with variations on the creature and I've kind of tuned that out.

A lot of this would be avoided if writers would stop feeling so beholden to the idea that every Superman story needs him socking the villain across the jaw or punching someone through buildings. Relying on Superman's strength rather than his intellect gives us diminishing returns both in terms of repetitive storytelling and serious limitations on threats and enemies. He's never going to be able to have a satisfying fight with the Prankster or Toyman or Mr. Mxyzptlk. There's a reason most of Superman's villains are more intellectually challenging, because it requires more clever storytelling than "who can punch harder?"

Failing that, they could at least dig a little deeper for a Vartox or a Titano or a Rampage, rather than giving us another unnecessary spoonful of Doom. Or, you know, they could invent new characters and try to tell new stories, but I suspect blame for that falls more on the shoulders of the editorial staff.

All that needed to be said about Doomsday was there in "The Death of Superman." All that reasonably should have been said was done by the time Jeph Loeb finished up his issue with the character. And yet he continues to stick around, because he has evolved beyond the ability to die. It's just a shame that he can't seem to evolve into something interesting.

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Sunday, January 26, 2014

Some thoughts on Doctor Who

I've been on a big Doctor Who kick since a little before the 50th anniversary special. It's been slightly obsessive, to be honest. So I figured I'd do something productive (sort of) with it and pop out another bulleted list of incoherent thoughts. Spoilers ahead for things that have been out for months now.

  • Night of the Doctor: I think Paul McGann might be my favorite Doctor, so it was incredible to see him back in live action--and with his own hair this time! That they actually acknowledged the companions from the audio adventures was a beautiful little cherry on top. I'd love to see more mini-episodes with past Doctors like this, and I hope BBC is thinking really hard about it. This made me run out and find "The Brain of Morbius"--well, this and the fact that the Eighth Doctor Audio sequel to that story was coming up in my listening rotation.
  • The Eighth Doctor Audios: It had been so long since I listened to any of these that I kind of forgot where I left off. I started up listening again with "Immortal Beloved," which was familiar enough that I know I'd heard it before, but nothing else seemed familiar until "Max Warp," which I distinctly remember listening to while mowing the lawn several years back. So, no idea what exactly ended up happening there. I'm most of the way through Series 3 now, and kind of holding off because I know the finale is a sequel to "Planet of the Spiders," which I haven't seen yet. And I've been holding off on watching that because I feel like I should watch more Third Doctor stories before seeing his swansong. And that's led into me watching just a ton of classic Doctor Who whenever I have the chance. Anyway, the EDAs are great (even if I don't like Lucie Miller quite as much as Charley Pollard), and I'm particularly excited to dig into "Dark Eyes."
  • The Day of the Doctor: I thought the 50th Anniversary special was just delightful. Lots of nods to the past (though I'd forgotten that Kate Lethbridge-Stewart had been introduced previously), with a fun story that gave all three Doctors a chance to shine. While I kind of wish Christopher Eccleston had at least done something with it, I frankly think John Hurt's War Doctor fit better in that role, and did wonderfully. I hope that (if Hurt is willing) the BBC is working on getting him to do some other media. I'd love to hear some War Doctor audios, even if they were done by BBC Audio like the "Hornet's Nest" releases and not Big Finish (as I understand there's some weird issues with the rights).

    One of the guys at my LCS said "The Day of the Doctor" was everything he wished "Man of Steel" had been, and I think that works really well. Not only was it fun and reverent of the past while giving a good new story, but it also featured the Doctor doing what the Doctor does (and what Superman usually does): finding a better way to win. And not just when it comes to averting a human-Zygon war, but also with regard to the Time War.

    I've seen criticism about the retcon, but frankly I think it's misguided. I understand the desire to keep the new series' driving tragedy for the Doctor, but it hasn't been mentioned much--if at all--since before "The Eleventh Hour." It hasn't really driven the series in a long time. Moreover, the more we learned about the Time War, the less sense it made for the Doctor's character. Like, it's one thing to know that there was a Great Time War between the Time Lords and the Daleks, in which countless worlds (including Gallifrey and Skaro) were destroyed, and in which the Doctor made the impossible choice to destroy the Time Lords and Daleks once and for all--well, except for the Master and the Daleks, both of whom made it out all right. But it's another thing to think about what that actually means. The Doctor committed genocide. Twice over. Yes, we're assured that by the end, the Time Lords were as bad as the Daleks if not worse, but...really? All of the Time Lords? Even the children (we know there are Gallifreyan children, thanks to "The Sound of Drums")? Even Romana and Susan? It just doesn't hold up.

    It all runs into the same problem that Superman had in the Silver Age. There's a great line in the Wizard Death of Superman Special (I know, I'm surprised too) about how, after awhile, it seemed like the only people actually killed in Krypton's destruction were Superman's parents and a few close neighbors. At least Superman got the people of Kandor, Supergirl, and the Kryptonian Super-pets out of the selective survival deal. Seems like only the evil people survived the Time War.

    And when the Doctor is one of those survivors and has double genocide in his past, it's hard not to wonder if he might not be an exception.

    "The Day of the Doctor" didn't undo the fact that the Doctor was driven to desperation such that he'd be willing to push that button. It didn't undo all the other terrors and atrocities of the Time War, like the destruction of the Nestene and Zygon homeworlds and the disembodiment of the Gelth. What it undid was the notion that he'd try to save Davros of all people, but destroy Gallifrey. The Doctor doesn't do genocide, not even for entities as bad as the Daleks. That's been established for a good long while. It doesn't even negate the remorse felt by Nine and Ten, since he had still been driven to the point of committing that double genocide, even if there ended up being another way. Whether or not he pulled the trigger, he'd been willing to do something that otherwise would have been abhorrent to him, and that would give anyone cause for remorse and reevaluation.

    So, yeah, I generally thought that "Day of the Doctor" was the best that "Doctor Who" has been in awhile.
  • The Time of the Doctor: But the next installment? Hoo boy. What a sharp drop in quality there, as Steven Moffat tried to cram half a season of story into a single episode, and pretend that it had all been planned that way from the beginning rather than being hastily assembled in a rather slapdash manner, which it clearly was. The dinner with Clara's family deserved a full episode (a la "The Power of Three") rather than being the quickly-dropped introduction. Ever since the mystery of Clara was solved (in a way that also didn't make a whole lot of sense), it's become abundantly clear that they've never really bothered to give her any characterization beyond it. Rose, Martha, Donna, and Amy have all had lives and families outside of the TARDIS, and that's helped to give them a sort of grounding in reality (and conflicts to motivate them and create drama). Clara was created as ungrounded initially and intentionally, and as a result the most we've seen is that she's a babysitter who likes to make soufflé. A sitcom episode with her and the Doctor would have been a great way to correct that, but instead we get the unnecessary and weird nudity stuff and hop out into space for the most nonsensical adventure in quite some time.

    There are too many ideas in "The Time of the Doctor," and too few of them are any good. Others have pointed out quite accurately that it doesn't make sense for the technologically parasitic Silents to be confessional priests in the space-church, and also that there's not much point in confession if you can't actually remember doing it. The truth-field is fun, right up until the Doctor lies about having a plan and punches a great big hole in the plot. It'd be nice to have some female characters who aren't instantly and secretly in love with the Doctor, though that goes back to Davies. Then again, at least Davies had Captain Jack also in love with the Doctor, as a small bit of balance.

    And then there's the regeneration. I saw people complaining that he was using regeneration energy as a weapon, and I don't really mind that. It was strong enough to devastate the TARDIS in "The End of Time," so it's not entirely out of the question that it could blow up a Dalek ship or two here. The problem I have is with the unnecessary and wasteful bit where Eleven is actually Thirteen.

    I say "wasteful" because it throws away an interesting dynamic and source of drama without getting anything in return. The Doctor who knows he's the last incarnation is a story we deserve to see (even if we know he's not really the last incarnation). What does he do differently when he knows that the end isn't just the end for this body, but the end, period? It gives the search for Gallifrey a sense of greater urgency, since we and the Doctor know the Time Lords have ways of granting additional regenerations (they did it for the Master, after all).

    Instead, we cram all that angst into a single brief scene in a single episode, for no reason except that Moffat wanted to cram the Time Lords into this episode as well, shoving them behind the crack in the universe that never got much of an explanation and wasn't helped by the throwaway attempt in this episode. It was a dumb choice, especially hinging it on a fairly brief scene in a show that aired six years ago (okay, five and a half when "Time" aired). Dumb, dumb, dumb, and that kind of dumb choice making really muddied what should have been a heartfelt and tearful goodbye to Matt Smith.

    And that's ignoring the constant wink-clever metatextual dialogue, the eye-rolling bowtie drop, the unnecessary (and weird-looking, I imagine because of the wig) Amy, and the plot that was done better in "Orbis." I've liked Matt Smith's Doctor a lot, despite some of the writing choices along the way, and he deserved a better sendoff than he received. "The Night of the Doctor" was a mess.

    And it won't get cleaned up until flipping August.
Wow, somehow I wrote all that and didn't even get into my classic Who binge or the ebooks and comics I've been consuming. I guess I'll have to write up a part 2...

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