Super Mario Kart: A Retrospective

Don’t talk to strangers. Never drink from anything that has a skull and crossbones on the label. Avoid bananas while driving. If you grew up alongside a Nintendo system, the odds are that Mario Kart‘s quirky rules will be etched indelibly into your brain. The series’ legacy is so entrenched in gaming culture that it can be tricky to remember the days before we learned  to power-slide, to drag a defensive shell behind us or to clench reflexively at the ominous trill of a blue shell.

Racing a la Mode.

The child’s doodles in the background of some screens form an odd thematic bridge between Super Mario World and Yoshi’s Island. Coincidence? Probably.

Each new entry has become an expectation; whether you’re surrounded by friends in front of a TV or wedged uncomfortably on a crowded train, you know that sooner or later there’ll be a Mario Kart to enliven your evening or shorten your journey.  The titles have a unique advantage that make them immediately comfortable — by making Mario and his chums so ubiquitous, Nintendo has taught us all a convenient shorthand to understand the games it brings us. Whether it’s karting, golf or soccer, Bowser will never be anything less than a lumbering powerhouse and stars will always be things to covet and strive for. With Mario games, we appreciate something of the strategies available before we’ve even begun to play.

In 1992, attitudes at Nintendo’s Kyoto headquarters were very different. Rules around Mario’s presence in a game had relaxed somewhat, but his inclusion wasn’t being automatically considered. Instead, Hideki Konno and his team were busy prototyping a racing game that could deliver two-player simultaneous play (the recently released F-Zero had been a solitary affair) and were focusing largely on the implementation of this idea and the exploration of mechanics that would eventually become Super Mario Kart’s battle mode. Had the portly plumber not been added as an experiment, we might have been dodging oil cans as an overall-clad mechanic instead.

Mario’s inclusion didn’t sit well with critics of the time, either, with a few of the more cynical reviewers pondering what random pastimes Mario might be wheeled out to front in the future. In fact, the game as a whole received what Metacritic might call a “mixed reception”; UK stalwart Total! gave the game a grudging 50th place in their Top 100 Games, and other reviewers joined them lamenting the title’s perceived simplicity — although the battle mode was generally better received.

I took this shot from the attract mode. IT'S A SECRET FROM EVERYONE.

Coins remain one of the most divisive features in the series, rewarding certain racing lines but punishing poor players by slowing them down.

While it’s easy to dismiss these early judgements in the light of the series’ massive success in the decades that followed, with Super Mario Kart itself going on to become one of the SNES’s best-selling games, it was clear that while huge effort had gone into creating a deep and nuanced two-player game, the experience in single-player left a little to be desired. The AI drivers behaved in ways that far outstripped the abilities offered to human players.

While flesh-and-blood participants did battle with a limited supply of power-ups (placed sparsely compared to the game’s sequels) computer opponents were willing and able to unleash an unending supply of fireballs and other weapons. On higher difficulties they could be often by spotted sending projectiles out at right-angles to their direction of travel, or landing them effortlessly on the player’s head before avoiding a retaliatory assault using superhuman leaps and bounds.

Couple this with a baffling Rivalry system, where the “best” opponents were pre-ordained based on the player’s choice of character — any attempt to sabotage the running order would see the victims graced with impossible speed until they were back where destiny intended — and playing single-player Super Mario Kart could feel like bringing a sword to a gunfight. The aggravation that ensued was a precursor to the more-recent frustration felt when you’re scuppered by a blue shell launched by some inscrutable AI drone rather than the person sat next to you.

The quirks of the Grand Prix races were apparent even then, and revisiting Super Mario Kart today they’re even harder to overlook. Add a second player to the mix, however, and the result is transformative — you immediately start to see where the team spent the bulk of their time. The zip boosts and extra power-ups, eternally ignored by the computer, suddenly become hotly contested as you hurtle around the first lap looking to seize the low-hanging fruit; the dwindling coin supply adding to the frantic, grasping nature of each short race and turning otherwise unremarkable corners into risk/reward-driven dilemmas.

Koopa Troopa is better than Toad. #DealWithIt

Yoshi’s mouth is permanently open whenever he’s viewed from the side. 22 years later it’s still deeply unsettling.

Even with the power-ups, a Super Mario Kart contest relies more on pure racing nerve than any other entry. Over time you’ll realise that the seemingly innocuous hop can carry you over oil slicks and even bananas, learn the different engine classes and the way they overhaul the worth of a particular racer (on 50cc, Koopa Troopa and Toad can actually be better off cutting across the grass) and be ready to memorise and sabotage the racing lines of your opponents.

While it’s possible to attribute at least some of the critical indifference to beleaguered journalists reviewing the game alone, there are a few other design choices that have quietly slipped away from future installments. In Super Mario Kart, just like F-Zero, players will lose lives if they don’t place in the top four — on the one hand this offers a do-over to prevent those last-minute accidents from ruining an otherwise flawless race, but it can also lead to an rookie player staring disconsolately at a greyed-out screen, inanimate in a supposedly “multiplayer” mode.

Not that a Grand Prix was necessarily the best way to spend an evening with friends. Time Trials may have offered long-term bragging rights but the game’s battle mode was a revolutionary experience for SNES owners. It preempted Doom and Marathon alike by bringing a form of deathmatch that only a few titles, like Faceball 2000, had even attempted — least of all on a single screen. Battle mode’s popularity has dwindled over the years, with the rise of the first-person shooter providing more elegant ways to hunt down your friends, but the value of its inclusion in Super Mario Kart should not be underestimated.

With its tight turning circles, lazy drifts and relative paucity of weapons, Super Mario Kart can seem twitchy and impenetrable to players used to more recent entries – the same entries scorned by the sort of purists that bemoan the series’ tendency to level the playing field. In its day, though, it was one of the more inclusive titles in the SNES’s catalogue — certainly the only video game I can remember my parents playing together — and for at least part of that we must look beyond the talents of the team, to Mario himself. From the visual distinctiveness of the characters to the intrinsically understood properties of outlandish elements like fire and ice, the tenets of visual design that underpin the Mario universe are as important to Mario Kart as the racing mechanics themselves. Oil cans? I’ll take bananas any day.

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Games of the Year – 2013

GRAND THEFT AUTO V

Let’s start with the obvious one. So tarred is the GTA series by its controversies, its cantankerously misogynistic plot lines and its own undeniable success that including a Grand Theft Auto in your Game of the Year list can almost feel like a shameful admission. Yes, part of me did enjoy running over that granny – but that’s not the reason it’s made my list; nor, I suspect, the list of anyone who’s of an age and disposition to write about the games they play.

GTA V simply oozes ambition (so a quick wipe with a cloth is recommended before you put the disc in) and while that ambition doesn’t always crystalise into quality, it reaches the player through a sense of scope and opportunity that GTA IV, its gloomy younger brother, rarely managed to attain. Someone recently expressed a desire to me that games media stop awarding points for “effort”, but I’m not sure I agree; I think players can both apprehend and appreciate a sense of hard work, even if it isn’t quite the same as craftsmanship.

GTA’s shooting mechanics are functional, but never exceptional. Indulging in cars with multiple headlight settings and fold-away canopies leaves the player cortorted horribly around their controller trying to change the radio station. There are collectables, but only the most obsessive players will care to find them without the checklist so thoughtfully provided by Rockstar themselves. The characters brush against defining events before stumbling back towards the status quo. (Trevor and Michael lose and gain loved ones at the whim of a mission structure, without any real agency from either the characters or the player.) There are few occasions where the moment-to-moment gameplay of GTA V is anything more than “solid” and yet there is such a banquet, such a wealth of sight and sound available at anyone time, it’s a remarkable accomplishment that even satisfactory results have been achieved. After all, there are games that don’t even succeed in aping just one of the diversions Los Santos tosses casually onto a tennis court or shooting range.

GTA’s ambition is exciting because, with minor stumbles, each iteration noticeably improves and refines what’s gone before – cruising out around Mount Chiliad at sunset, it’s not hard to imagine a day when these cars will feel as good as a racing game, the gunplay as weighty and satisfying as a finely-tuned FPS, and the characters we interact with as likeable and nuanced as the anti-heroes we indulge in elsewhere. Maybe you don’t consider GTA worthy of such a lavish stage on which to play out its chauvinistic mafia stereotypes and bellowed satire, but its ambition is infectious and the game becomes engrossing through the sheer scale it asks you to consider and the choices that scale provides. And in the future, well, maybe we’ll surpass the am-dram and see the same sprawling canvas turned to tales that really do engross and decisions that matter. Anything can happen on a stage, after all — and no-one builds a theatre like Rockstar.

SAINTS ROW IV

Indeed, it’s testament to the opportunities afforded by an open-world “stage” that both GTA V and the fourth installment in the Saints Row series could come out a couple of months apart and provide substantially different experiences. Described quite fittingly by Ben Croshaw as “Mad Mad Mad Mad Mad Mad”, this is a series that has deliberately tuned its core mechanics to be biased, unwaveringly, towards the player. This isn’t to say that the game isn’t occasionally frustrating, mind you, but the intention is clear – keep the player feeling powerful, keep the objectives ridiculously clear and encourage experimentation.

It’s the superpowers that help keep the game firmly out of GTA’s bailiwick, of course. It’s interesting to see how carefully separated the new abilities are from the Saints Row of old; stick to traditional activities like shooting and driving and you’ll level up, as the Saints always have, and unlock better things to shoot and drive with. Superpower upgrades, by contrast, are solely out in the world and it’s physically running and jumping that lets you upgrade… well, mostly your running and jumping. It’s a neat solution to a problem that doesn’t really exist; when you’re able to reach your destination with a few Kryptonian bounds, you won’t be climbing back into a pimpmobile any time soon. It’s for this reason that the initial disappointment at finding the city recycled from the previous game soon becomes irrelevant; the buildings and landmarks are little more than blurry platforms or distant targets and the meat of the story missions take place elsewhere.

A game that does its best to avoid the player having to work hard at anything could go disastrously wrong, but makes it ideal fodder for people who don’t get much time to play games – at times, it feels rather like having an in-built Game Genie. Even when you’re stripped of your superpowers temporarily, there’s a generosity of design that lets you nip around the corner to get your health back, or spam the big gun until you stumble out the other end.

The truly unexpected heart of the game, though, comes from its characters. Freed from narrative expectations, they’ve gradually established themselves as real people and, even better, real friends. There’s no defining moment in the series where this happens, but the game takes pains to point out how far we’ve all traveled together by giving Shaundi an unexpected plot arc of her own that pulls no punches with the series’ own shortcomings and, implicitly, vows to do better. When all is said and done, you can believe that The Boss and Pierce are lifelong friends in a way that never quite rings true with Michael and Trevor.

Oh, it’s really bloody funny, too. It seems like that should be taken as read, but in a generation of space marines popping out from behind monochromatic chest-high walls, any game that can make you laugh is doubly welcome, especially when a lot of the laughs aren’t scripted but from the sheer joyous energy of your own absurd situation and the exaggerated impact of your actions. It turns out that absolute power is actually really good fun.

THE LEGEND OF ZELDA: A LINK BETWEEN WORLDS

If I were a 90s gaming magazine, this would be the space for a tenuous segue: I’d claim Saints Row and GTA to be twisted mirrors of each other, and then use that to feed nicely into discussing the dual-dimensionality of A Link Between Worlds, right before some art editor ruinsed my grand simile by putting a massive screenshot in the way and forcing the player to hunt around the page for the next paragraph.

Like this.

Like this.

Then again, if I were a 90s gaming magazine I wouldn’t have been at once so intrigued and concerned about the prospect of an out-and-out sequel to Link to the Past. Yes, LTTP was fantastic and still gets played regularly, but that was rather the problem… wouldn’t I, not to put to fine a point on it, know where everything was? The answer turned out to be “sort of”.

Even after more than 25 years in the company of the Zelda series, familiarity isn’t necessarily inevitable. Skyward Sword introduced plenty of new gadgets and some truly devious dungeon mechanics, not to mention taking advantage of the Wiimote’s most reliable gestures to add subtleties like bomb bowling. By deliberately hanging their hat on LTTP’s Hyrule this time around, Nintendo were making a choice; acknowledging that this was retreading old ground and taking the opportunity to play with expectations. In some ways, it was like returning to a childhood home and seeing it transformed by an eccentric millionaire.

While the game never managed to bridge the gap between modern Zelda cutscenes and the pace of the gameplay (Ganon was given particularly short shrift) the story could have been told by glove puppets and it wouldn’t have mattered. This wasn’t a world to stand around and drink in the ambience, like Ocarina of Time – it was a childhood dash around a theme park, a dozen glittering secrets all beckoning simultaneously. The dungeons were generally satisfying and occasionally wonderful, with the Palace of Darkness a particular highlight.

In all honesty, though, the removal of the map and the dungeon items FROM the dungeons seemed to do away with a vital “tipping point”. There’s a moment in the best Zelda dungeons where you go from being a bit lost and slightly baffled to having a “click” in your head – suddenly, you understand how everything fits together and the rest of the dungeon is now yours to enjoy conquering. More recent Zelda games have relied on the dungeon item for these moments; you pull a weird gizmo out of a chest, wave it about, and the revelation of its function is accompanied by recollection of half-a-dozen other places it might also be useful. By contrast, dungeons in LBW were often an enjoyable march towards an obvious destination, with all the tools already at your disposal.

The success of the item rental system is debatable, but either way, it was a gutsy decision to dust off something so coated with childhood nostalgia and serve it up in the cold light of 2013. Hyrule was never going to seem so labyrinthine, dangerous or imposing as it did when I was ten, but the joy of finding a hidden door or dashing about with the Pegasus Boots may well be ageless, in both senses of the word.

THE STANLEY PARABLE

For those not in the know; The Stanley Parable is a first-person adventure in which the player guides Stanley through his office building to discover why everyone else has disappeared, with their actions being called out by a narrator. As the narrator generally explains what Stanley’s going to do before the player obliges him, they have the option to pick the wrong door, start backtracking and generally doing all of those things players can do that makes storytelling in games so difficult… and the narrator will attempt to outwit them in return.

How and where you impose your free will upon the game (if you do so at all) will cause a number of reactions, each of which acts as a discussion, deconstruction and – at times – game-endingly bleak acceptance of the problems reconciling a coherent, sensible narrative with a player’s desire to, well, play.

Not since “THE CAKE IS A LIE!” has the dynamic between a player and the antagonist struck such a chord, and it makes sense. In some ways, Stanley Parable and Portal are bedfellows; they both take place in a dystopian and seemingly endless office environment, both GlaDOS and the Narrator view the player’s refusal to do what’s expected as a personal affront and both respond with a passive-aggressive assault on the player’s worth. Yet where Portal uses its titular gun to deconstruct the expectations of movement and space in gaming (but remains resolutely a game), The Stanley Parable tears down the walls of the world itself and asks why we even need them.

Despite moments of introspective nihilism, The Stanley Parable is incredibly funny, blending Monty Python’s surrealism and antagonised monologues with A Bit Of Fry and Laurie’s penchant for metahumour. You can tell a game’s done something right when people are quoting it at you and reviewers are trying to ape its stylings when they talk about it. The fact that people WANT to talk about it speaks volumes. It’s been stated “it’s exactly the kind of thing Steam was made for” but the truth is that the more people who are exposed to this sort of thing, on as many platforms as possible, the better off we’ll all be. Not just for the opportunity to have meaningful conversations about the nature of the games we play, but because they’ll almost certainly think it’s really funny too.

EARTHBOUND

Yes, yes, I know. It’s not cheating because it wasn’t available to buy as a UK release until 2013, so there. While it’s true that some of the aspects that made Earthbound so unique back in the 90s, like its modern-day urban setting, aren’t so unique nowadays the general plot is so bonkers and endearing that it scarcely matters.

While it’s tricky by modern standards, Earthbound is actually fairly forgiving as long as you accept the simple truth: you will grind. The only real penalty for death is losing what cash you had on you, so tenacity can take the place of RPG experience and leave players free to enjoy the simple things in life, like beating up a giant monster made of sick.

Earthbound’s a story about childhood, and the way that children perceive what they see and hear. Adults can get taken over by invisible forces and act crazy; boys use baseball bats as weapons while girls get better results with frying pans. Homesickness is an actual debilitation and must be forestalled by phoning your Mum. Animals can talk and bars are gateways to weird, alternate universes where adults say weird stuff and it’s hard to get to where you’re going. The truly remarkable thing is that so much of this is implicit, waiting to be discovered or ignored by players as they fancy. It’s a far cry from the heavy-handed philosophising of RPGs afforded the luxury of cutscenes, even when the game actually slams the brakes on with a trippy interlude and invites the player to consider how much they’ve accomplished so far.

It can be hard to make time for games like Earthbound, especially with the instant gratification of a Saints Row or a Mario 3D World within your grasp. No other game has quite mirrored its atmosphere, nor provided such a weird and unsettling final battle (which, when researched, becomes even more unnerving in retrospect). Most certainly the hardest game on this list to love, Earthbound was worth the wait nevertheless.

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National Poetry Day

I wanted to write a poem like Michael Rosen
For National Poetry Day.
So I hemmed and hawwed.
Hemmed
And hawwed.
And I got cross because
I just couldn’t seem to capture his style
And I looked out of the window at the zoo instead.
I thought about the zoo.
I thought about the lions
All mane and roar
Locked in their cages together
Like a big gold puddle that wants to eat you up.
I thought what Michael Rosen would have to say
About lions.
But I never really got it right
And got back to making video games instead.
Sorry lions.

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The Star Trek Annual

I’ve inherited the 1968 “Star Trek Annual”; a slightly battered hand-me-down from my Mum, who was young enough to have drawn all over the inside cover with callous disregard for the future invention of eBay. That’s okay, though – I keep it around not for its pristine condition or resale value, but because it’s bloody hilarious.

For a start, the annual’s creators have clearly never watched the show. They’ve got the names and roles of the characters down, certainly, but that’s where they ran out of space on the cocktail napkin. 1968 was the height of the show’s popularity so it’s not as if the staff had to wait for VCRs to be invented, either – but instead of the thought-provoking stories and moral dilemmas of the series, we get things like this:

There are at least some token "space facts" to make up for the giant vacuum plant on the next page.

There are at least some token “space facts” to make up for the giant vacuum plant on the next page.

Each of the three adventures is taken straight from 50s pulp fiction; a planet of rogue construction machinery, a world of predatory plants and an prison asteroid whose leader just is Ming the Merciless. And it’s clear the writers haven’t even been told anything about the Enterprise beyond the name of the ship – the crew are packing “blast-rays”, Janice Rand spends the mission running around with a red beanie on her head and Spock commands that Sulu “Fire all rockets!”

In fact, Mr. Spock is my favourite part of the annual. Witness the deftness with which they’ve captured his stoic, unflappable countenance:

It! Should be! Shatner! Talking like this!

It! Should be! Shatner! Talking like this!

Yes, all they know about Mr. Spock is that he’s clever. Clever enough to casually order the extinction of an entire world simply because the predators are, well, predatory:

"The blast-rays are taking too long! Fire all rockets!"

“The blast-rays are taking too long! Fire all rockets!”

For anyone with the slightest knowledge of the show, every page is packed full of delights. Even the inside cover has its share:

The grafitti can only hide the pain.

The grafitti can only hide the pain.

For starters, just who is that in the Captain’s Chair? I thought at first it was meant to be a chubby Sulu but he’s wearing green, like Kirk. Perhaps he’s aboard to check all of those clocks above Uhura’s station – you know, clocks that would tell you what… the time is… on different… planets…

Either way, that thing Kirk’s holding is obviously a medical device he’s about to use to fix Spock’s burned and swollen hand. That, or he’s about to break into his spoken-word version of ‘Rocketman’.

It’s easy to mock the broad strokes and simple plots of the annual, but then, it’s hardly the first show to suffer low-grade tie in merchandise, especially when it’s stuff aimed at kids. The stories are simple and cliché, but they make sense within themselves and the drawing, on the whole, is pretty–

Vulcans long ago abandoned emotion in favour of excessive foreshortening.

Vulcans long ago abandoned emotion in favour of excessive foreshortening.

Huh, I guess his left hand is just ALWAYS that big.

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The Kessel Run in under 90 minutes

Today, Den of Geek posted an article asking if one Star Wars film per year – as Disney have promised – is too much. And at first blush, yes, an annual film franchise with an end-date of “ten past never” sounds bloated and unwelcome, particularly for older fans who only had six hours of footage to pore over and dream about and, nevertheless, managed to carve out their childhoods.
One a year?!

Films can’t work like that. We KNOW this.

TV, though… We’ve recently shed so many episodes from what networks consider a ‘season’ that the idea of “episode of the week” seems quaint and antiquated. Filming takes months; post-production can take almost as long, and the results are miniature movies in their own right. The line between actually MAKING film and TV is blurring year on year.

Nonetheless, we don’t blink an eye at the expectation that some writers will get together and churn out television that remains consistently amazing for over ten hours every year. We draw ourselves up in anticipation of the “perfect” series of Game of Thrones or Doctor Who or Walking Dead with precisely the same passion that we vomited pea soup when someone told us that The Matrix was getting two sequels filmed at once, or that The Hobbit was going to be two films. No, wait… THREE! Retch. (Oh, except… the first one was quite good, wasn’t it? Hmm.)

We now appear, in short, to hold television to a higher standard than film. We no longer permit a TV series to vary in quality; we’ve become unaccustomed to thinking about a serialisation when considered over many weeks, instead responding reflexively to both the 45 minutes we spent watching any one episode and the five minutes we spent chatting about it on Facebook. We’re demanding annual satisfaction and, astonishingly, we often get it.

All of which leads me to ask – what has happened to us that we can’t accept, let alone predict, that an annual series of Star Wars films (each of which would be ‘merely’ the length of one TV two-parter) will not only exist but might actually be pretty good? TV and film are becoming indistinguishable; their delivery methods, casting and production values are reaching the same plateau. Why, then, not allow a beloved franchise to bring itself to the silver screen at what is, in the Grand Scheme of Media, STILL quite a glacial pace?

It’s a certainty that not all of the entries will be great. But then, there’s every chance that some of them will be. I don’t know about you, but I’d be up for seeing some great films. And if it means I have to gloss over the occasional clunker, that’s no more than I have to do today for generally fantastic franchises like Star Trek or James Bond or Terminator.

Or, as has been the case since 1999, Star Wars.

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The First Q&A

Blimey. It’s been a while since my conceptual pen last caressed anyone’s virtual paper, and I’m not about to scrawl a lengthy tome in the middle of the holidays. I did, though, want to note something down – because I think it’s interesting, because I think it’s elegant and because there’s every possibility that I might be correct. In which case: I told you so.

This is about Doctor Who. If you’re disinterested, at risk of spoilers, or otherwise disinclined to continue reading I heartily recommend visiting TVtropes for an evening of obsessive-compulsive hyperlinking. If you’re still on-board, I’d invite you to consider The First Question.

To recap: The First Question is both something that’s of massive importance within the show’s mythology and also a bit of an in-joke. It is, simply, “Doctor Who?” – most commonly asked by confounded Earthlings when the Doctor introduces himself, pondered by Ian and Barbara way back in An Unearthly Child and, towards the end of the Sylvester McCoy era, a puzzle that was slowly gathering momentum for a gigantic reveal when the show was unceremoniously cancelled. Today, I’m going to tell you why the Doctor’s name is so important. Or rather, I’m going to lay my best guess upon the table and stand by it with my arms folded until such time that hindsight slaps me around the back of the head.

My hypothesis concerns the nature of a society capable of time travel, and the sort of everyday hazards they might face. It’s not inconceivable that a Time Lord — someone attending the Academy and getting ready to broach the Panopticon to head out into the wider universe — might make some enemies. Powerful ones; ones capable of passing through the time vortex themselves and doing their best to unmake another Time Lord’s entire existence; all the better to further their own ends.

A name is also a unique identifier; it marks you and you alone within the Web of Time; a single weak strand at which to pluck. In short, fatigued reader, I’m going to state the following: I believe that a Time Lord’s name doubles as the unique space-time coordinates where they were born – regardless of paradoxes, changes in the timeline or other otherworldly intervention.

If you know a Time Lord’s name, you have the means to unravel them from history; to travel back to the instant of their creation and nullify it. That’s why any Time Lord must surrender their true identity before they leave Gallifrey and enter the rest of the universe. That’s why, given the profound impact the Doctor has had upon untold worlds, his name is by necessity more than a secret. Its safety secures literally trillions of lives.

That, I believe, is how The First Question could imperil the universe in Doctor Who’s 50th Anniversary. It doesn’t immediately ruin the series for us – we viewers aren’t accustomed to referring to people as strings of times and dates, after all – but it would allow any of the Doctor’s enemies to make a singularly-spirited attempt at erasing the entire programme and its lineage. That’s the sort of high stakes that would be both unashamedly excessive and entirely fitting of the show’s half-century celebration.

Roll on 2013! I’m really looking forward to seeing if I’m wrong.

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Taunting with a TARDIS

It’d be hard to pick a subject and then check the internet without finding someone whose views on the matter weren’t contentious, objectionable or downright baffling to you. This is particularly true of social media sites, where thoughts and critiques can be posted at a moment’s notice without time for introspection or the space to really articulate your thoughts.

Nonetheless, surely there’s something askew when the people who’ve earned my ire about the imminent return of Doctor Who are the production team themselves? They’re meant to be the master storytellers – coyly promising excitement and adventure while assuring us that it’ll all be worth the wait.

I understand, in a world where “Saturday evening in front of the telly” is rapidly becoming an anachronism, the BBC’s desire to build up hype around the return of its born-again golden child. I know it’s wildly popular in the States, and around the world, and that marketing has to be a huge part of anything now – at least, if it wants to be noticed amidst the technological soup we’re all swimming about in. Nonetheless, this year’s teaser campaign has really managed to tick me off.

Last night, the British Film Institute premiered “Asylum of the Daleks”, the much-publicised return of every breed of Dalek ever. Press, bloggers, die-hard fans and people who purchased tickets were invited to go along to the event, and its significance was hyped both by showrunner Steven Moffat and producer Caroline Skinner, who jumped onto the BBC’s official Doctor Who twitter account to exclaim her excitement at the imminent soiree.

The thing is, us mere mortals still have no idea when the show we’re meant to be so ravenously anticipating is even going to air. We’re repeatedly told “soon”, in the laboured manner of a parent answering an angsty child in the back of the car. We make educated guesses, but we’re left deliberately in the dark.

That’s a problem, because the two attitudes are pretty irreconcilable when they come together on a place as notoriously self-entitled as the internet.  They’re promising us the best Christmas present ever, and then inviting us to watch as other, richer, more important kids get to open theirs right away. “Don’t those presents sound brilliant? Aren’t they having a good time?”

It got worse. (That happens a lot.) Warnings began to appear, retweeted by the production staff, stating that we should be on the look-out for spoilers now. Batten down the internet, everyone! Stop reading your forums, stop discussing and conspiring and enjoying the wait together – we’ve just unleashed a crowd of people who might be set on ruining the very thing we want you to anticipate!

It’s particularly maddening because it seems they’re not even going to tell us how long we’re expected to huddle in the corner. Given Moffat’s rants against “those who spoil” in previous years, I find myself incredulous that he’s apparently complicit in the whole affair.

I’m not about to launch into a Points of View style rant about why I pay my licence fee, but I would like to be able to enjoy one of my favourite BBC shows without being made to feel like it’s a bit of a hassle. I shouldn’t have to adjust my browsing habits, read every tweet between closed fingers and generally end up wary and annoyed because of a protracted wait that’s been spun into a half-hearted media campaign.

At the very least, if you’re going to have a press screener, why not invite some kids along? They’ll enjoy the episode at its purest level, without the schmoozing and the alcohol, and they’re likely to view the occasion as a genuine treat. As for me, I’m off to hide behind the sofa from Moffat’s latest monstrous creation – the viewer.

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