Sunday, December 27, 2020

Season 15, Episode 9 (Xmas Special)

Episode 9: A Star in the East

With the obliging (if slightly ironic) help of Lady Penelope, Saint-Germain has decided to solve one of the Great Mysteries in human history and visit the Bethlehem Nativity – he must have answers!  Here comes a truly biblical Christmas Special, featuring a meteorite, shepherds, a newborn baby in a manger, the wrong King Herod and far too many Wise Men!

So, as a departure from our previous Xmas Specials (usually involving snowy winters and, well, a suitably Christmassy atmosphere), and after years of play, I finally decided to tackle the Big Issue of the Christian Nativity – and the newly Time Lord-ified (ouch) Count of Saint-Germain was just the ideal character to suggest such an expedition (remember that the real-life Count spuriously claimed to have personally met Jesus Christ…).

Why the reference to the “wrong King Herod”?  Since Herod the Great (the one who supposedly ordered the Massacre of the Innocents) had actually died in 4 BC, I reasoned that, even with some uncertainty about the dates, this part should actually have been played by his son, the Tetrarch Herod Archealos (who, by the way, had a very short reign and a very interesting end – just check it out).

The aforementioned supernumerary Wise Men (six of them – yes, two sets of them!) were in fact (rival) time-travelling scholars from the 48th century, whose intervention could have caused a historical disaster but who were eventually rescued from imprisonment (if not worse) and put to good use by Penelope and Saint-Germain’s cunning plan, eventually fulfilling their legendary part (well, at least some of them) in the story. In the end, Penelope and Saint-Germain did briefly met Joseph, Mary and their newborn child – but the mystery (if any) was not solved, leaving history, legend and belief run their courses…

This was a light-hearted episode, with a predominantly comedic atmosphere – but is also had some surprising moments of gravitas. We had a great, completely improvised scene where Penelope and Saint-Germain, two obviously foreign and decidedly mysterious wayfarers having appeared from nowhere, were mistaken for angels (a word which really means “messengers”) in disguise by the shepherds and some citizens of Bethlehem. Penelope also demonstrated great poise and confidence when she took the matters of the time-stranded, bickering Wise Men in her hands (“First, let me begin by telling you that you are all rubbish time-travellers…”) and there were great conversations with Saint-Germain about the responsibilities and risks of time-travelling.

 Next stop: New Byzantium in the 42nd century – at last!

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Season 15, Episode 8

Episode 8: Ship of Fools

2993 AD. 300 of the wealthiest people in the Earth Empire have abandoned all their worldly riches to embark on the ultimate voyage – a one-way trip beyond the Gates of the Sun, to the cosmic city of Heliopolis, where the divine Solarians will grant them the gift of immortality. Yes, they’ve been conned and will soon meet their fiery doom. Enter Lady Penelope...

Another great adventure – and a masterful performance from Sylvie, who played Penelope with a perfect mix of self-confidence, wit and humanity. So far, the Seventh Penelope has displayed a brilliant form of grace under pressure and what I can only describe as sprezzatura – an elegant and nonchalant self-assurance, which was already a strongly latent personality trait but seems to have become full-blown since her latest regeneration…

The plot was directly based on the recent Big Finish audiobook Shadow of the Sun, with some significant alterations and somewhat different NPCs. I changed the identity of the main villain and greatly emphasized the “happy cult suicide” angle, drawing inspiration from the real-life OTS tragedies, but with space opera trappings, including a crumbling (and slightly decadent) galactic empire and a lot of space VIPs in white and beige (with some slightly kitsch gold bling thrown in for good measure).

Last but not least, the presence of the newly-transformed Count of Saint-Germain at Penelope’s side added a very interesting dimension to the episode, which served as the perfect illustration of what the Time Lady has discussed with him during the prologue (their responsibilities as time travelers, the temptation to act as demiurges, etc.) – a great moment of narrative serendipity.

Next episode: our Xmas Special!

Monday, December 14, 2020

Season 15, Episode 7

Episode 7: Incroyable!

Lady Penelope decides to take a holiday to 1799 Paris, at the time of the Directoire – an era of post-revolutionary extravagance, salon intrigue and moral liberation, where the foppish Incroyables walk the streets in their eccentric attire and the scantily-clad Merveilleuses reign over high society. Soon, she will meet an old enemy with a new face and an Eternal grudge…

We really had a magnificent time with this episode!  Somehow, it encapsulated my favorite ingredients for DWAITAS adventures: a historical setting with colorful NPCs and some leisure time to get a taste of the chosen time period; a sudden twist with direct connections to the past or continuity of the campaign; witty, delightful dialogue; a lot of dramatic tension, with occasional flashes of humor and darker overtones; tough choices for the heroine and a great master villain – in this case, the Eternal known as the Marquis de Carabas (see episode 14.08 for more details). I had been searching for a new, interesting and really powerful Nemesis for Penelope and I clearly found it with the Marquis. The scenario also involved the beloved Count of Saint-Germain… whose body was destroyed but whose mind, memory and psychic consciousness Penelope managed to save in extremis.

The story ended with the Doctor (who has been tampering and experimenting with the secrets of regenerations for the few last seasons…) giving the Count a new body (as he had done with the disincarnated Zoe in an earlier episode) – and turning him into a Neo Time Lord!  And of course, the new, regenerated Count wants to travel.

Time to bring back the old Lady & Count duo!  Allons-y!

Saturday, December 12, 2020

The First Six Penelopes: A Retrospective

Following Lady Penelope's recent regeneration into her seventh incarnation, I thought it'd be a good idea to present a summarized retrospective of her six former selves...

The First Penelope (season 1) was raised as Lady Penelope Ashworth, the daughter of a British aristocrat and top Torchwood agent in late 20th century England, before discovering her true heritage and the reality of time travel. She still thought of herself as human and had to earn the respect of her TARDIS’ resident ghost-in-the-machine. She took an active part in the creation of an alternate Earth timeline (known as “King Arthur’s future”) and died by sacrificing her life in order to ensure the death of the Witch Queen Morgana, her true mother.

The Second Penelope (season 2 to mid-season 4) was much more self-confident than her first incarnation – and eager to fully embrace her heritage as a semi-alien Time Lady. She had quite a lot of adventures in space and time, during which she had a fling with Lord Byron, enlisted Christopher Marlowe as a travelling companion, battled a resurrected Morgana, fought to escape the enthrallment of the Black Guardian and eventually met her end by (once again) sacrificing herself to save her friends from certain death.

The Third Penelope (mid-season 4 to mid-season 7) helped to consolidate Arthur’s future and, most importantly, assisted the Doctor in the creation of Avalon, which would become a safe haven for the few surviving Gallifreyan Time Lords, Neo Time Lords and temporal refugees. She developed a unique relationship with her former foe, the renegade Mortimus, and helped the Doctor defeat a regenerated Master. She died a violent and unexpected death, mortally injured by an axe blow from Harald Hardrada in medieval Constantinople.

The Fourth Penelope (mid-season 7 to mid-season 8) was the most short-lived incarnation of the Time Lady – as well as the most militant, a “War Time Lady” if you will. Strengthened by the Sisterhood of Karn’s Eternal Flame, she fought against the resurgent Fenric, whom she eventually defeated, along with his would-be successor, the Eternal known as Wayland the Smith. Having vanquished other powerful foes, she died a hero’s death inside her TARDIS while preventing the returning Silver Nemesis from destroying Earth.

The Fifth Penelope (mid-season 8 to mid-season 11) lived a very varied life of adventure. After becoming the lover of her former enemy, Lord Fenn of the Tanu, she travelled through time, space and beyond - entering E-space, meeting the Tharils, the Rani and the War Chief in the process… Her exploits included saving the Count of Saint-Germain, defeating the Medusa Entity and, of course, gathering the dispersed fragments of the Key to Time. She willingly regenerated to purge her body from the energies of the Dark Dimension…

The Sixth Penelope (mid-season 11 to season 15) was notable for her love of arts as well as for her unique relationship with her travelling companion, Dorian-aka-Miranda. On the cosmic side of things, she witnessed the return of Gallifrey from the Time War, helped the Doctor solve the Great Dissonance, fought the Haemovores alongside William Blake and prevented the apocalyptic rebirth of Kronos… She died in 22nd century Ireland while battling the Lloigor, allowing the Power of the Earth to surge through her body to destroy her enemy.

See you soon for the blurbs of (the Seventh) Penelope's latest adventures!


Sunday, December 6, 2020

Season 15, Episode 6

Episode 6: The Shadows of Yesterday

Penelope takes Constance from 1895 to the astounding future of 1965, the era of Swinging London, Beatlemania and miniskirts… There, her path soon crosses that of the recently returned Miss Wright and Mr. Chesterton, who are doing their best to Get Back to Normal. But some memories just won’t go away - and somewhere, a lost child is screaming in terror. 

This episode was quite reference-heavy; in addition to Ian and Barbara, it also featured the Counter Measures group and the little girl from Remembrance of the Daleks - the "lost child" mentioned in the blurb above. Two years after the Shoreditch Incident, the child was still in a state of deep psychic trauma, haunted and terrorized by her own memories / ghosts of the Daleks (particulary the black Supreme Dalek). For two years she had lived under the watchful eye of the Counter Measures group, who kept her in a secret clinic near London. Her subconscious psychic struggle had connected with the recently-returned Barbara's own traumatic memories of the Daleks, creating the mystery that kicked off Lady Penelope's adventure in 1965 London.

During Penelope's own investigations and her final battle with the child's "Dalek nightmares" , Constance Norcott (the young Victorian woman who had embarked in Penelope's TARDIS at the end of the last episode) had a very long, offstage talk with Barbara, who told her how adventuring in time and space had changed her life forever - and during the epilogue of the scenario, Constance finally decided that she was not cut for this kind of life and that it was time for her to go back to 1895 Florence - to face her mother, make her own choices and build her own fate. 

So now Lady Penelope is (much to her satisfaction) back to her usual "lonely traveller" mode, ready for some advenures and fun in time and space. Next stop: Paris in the complicated time of the Directoire (1795-1799), right between the Revolution and Napoleon's rise to power - a time noted for its unbridled extravagance, with its "Incroyables" and "Merveilleuses"...

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Season 15, Episodes 4-5

 Episode 4: The Last Star Whale

Before embarking on a new series of adventures in time and space, our freshly-regenerated Time Lady decides to make a quick stop at Avalon to speak to the Doctor about a few things and entrust Rose Doherty to the Count of Saint-Germain. Well, at least that was the plan before she received a desperate call for help from a very old friend - Victoria the star whale…

Episode 5: Strangers in Florence

Florence, 1895. Lady Penelope is enjoying a summer holiday of dolce vita, farniente and post-regenerative contemplation in one of her favorite destinations… but Time soon catches up with her, in the shape of a familiar face and a mysterious, anachronistic gentleman, who turns out to be a 28th century professional assassin sent to kill her… The game is afoot!

Victoria the star whale had appeared back in our fourth season (2012...) - in episodes 4 and 11, where she had guided Penelope to the secret, block-transfer-computation-created "spare" Eye of Harmony. This crucial discovery eventually led to the creation of Avalon, which has been her "home" (or "port of call"?) ever since (as well as the home of the Doctor and a growing number of NPCs)... So having her appear again after all this time, right after a new regeneration, created a pure moment of wonderment for Lady Penelope (and her player!) - but this time, the star whale needed the Time Lady's help to save her from a horrible and gruesome death at the hands of ex-space pirates turned star-whalers-for-hire - acting for another (more or less) forgotten NPC from 2012, the Bothan crime boss Akkam Velek (who looks like THIS), who wanted to adda few centuries to his already far-too-long lifespan by consuming the cerebral kernel of the (supposedly) last star whale. 

This adventure was started by an "emergency call" between Penelope's regeneration and her brief return to Avalon. I wanted to catch the character off-guard and throw her into action before she even got the time to get used to her new body and find out if she had developed any new personality traits. 

It worked like a breeze, with a confident and cool-headed Penelope quickly grasping the problem at hand and its possible solutions. Before she discovered the identity of the whalers' patron, there was a really great scene of witty, easy banter between the Time Lady and Captain Korba, the captain of the star whaling expedition, a roguish space adventurer à la Lando Calrissian - a character whose assistance Penelope cleverly enlisted during the following episode and whom she intends to see again in a later episode - a completely unexpected and delightful development.

In the end, Victoria the star whale escaped unscathed... and sent a "thank you" song to Penelope, before being joined by several other star whales - so no, she was not the last of her kind! 

The destination of episode 5 (Florence in 1895) had been chosen in play by Penelope's player during the final scenes of episode 3 - after her quick stop in Avalon she wanted to take break (for some post-regeneration contemplation) in a beautiful, familiar place and Florence in the late Victorian times immediately came to her mind. She had visited it in 1894, back in season 12, during a very James Ivory-esque episode featuring the author Vernon Lee and (among other NPCs) a Miss Honeychurch-like young woman named Constance Norcott. 

Of course I went along with the idea (I always try to give Penelope's player as much control as possible on her character's destinations) but this particular choice was something of a GMing double-challenge (but hey, isn't this what Doctor Who RPG GMing is all about?).

The first challenge was to give the episode a novel, fresh atmosphere, while playing on the memories of Penelope's previous stay in the city, three seasons and (historically) one year ago. In other words, I couldn't simply just play the James Ivory vibe again - a feeling of déjà vu may be an interesting element of atmosphere but I needed a new, fresh perspective. Since the 1894 Florentine adventure (The Quantum Ghost, episode 10 of our 12th season) involved the investigation of  mysterious, seemingly supernatural events already tied to Penelope's previous stays in Florence (back in 1827 and season 10 - yes, I told you she LOVED this city), I needed to bring something new - and unexpected - into play.

And this brings us to the second challenge. Every time Penelope visits a historical destination, I try to avoid as much as possible using the "Big Temporal Coincidence" alibi - you know, a time traveller chooses to visit a certain place at a certain time just for fun and, BANG, she just happens to choose the time and place where Something Mysterious and Otherworldly is going on. I know it happens on a regular basis in the TV series but, whenever possible, I try to devise a slightly more complex explanation or to tie the mysterious events / otherworldly threat / whatever to Penelope's very presence or to her own timeline. Of course, it's not always possible and the "Big Temporal Coincidence" is also part of the spirit of the game... but in this particular case, I felt I really couldn't play this card. I needed a plot which was somehow tied to Penelope's own actions yet also would also create an element of surprise.

First, I decided that Penelope would meet miss Constance Norcott again - I wanted to play on the "déjà vu" vibe as a distraction, to establish the familiar James Ivory-esque atmosphere in which Penelope's player wished to re-immerse herself... before bringing a completely unexpected twist - a threat to escape from or to neutralize, a mystery to solve and, of course, some timey-wimey elements. After some ruminations, I came to the conclusion that the best choice would be a direct backlash from the previous episode - yes, the one about the star whale in the 25th century.

I eventually came up with the following plot: back in the 25th century, Akkam Velek had carefully plotted a vicious, merciless revenge against Penelope... Having managed to locate Penelope in time and space (how he did this was one of the main mysteries of the adventure), he had sent a Vortex manipulator-equipped professional assassin (masquerading as a Time Agent) after her... in 1895 Florence! Of course, Penelope had not entirely dismissed the possibility of a vengeance from Velek - but certainly not as quickly (from her perspective - it actually took him 13 years to put up the whole operation) and certainly not outside of the 25th century...   so the element of surprise was, I must say, complete!

In the end, she managed to neutralize the assassin (who almost managed to kill her with a regeneration-preventing disintegrator so yes, the stakes were indeed quite high), hand him to the Time Agency, unmask Akkam Velek and, with the help of Captain Korba (see above), discover HOW the 25th century crime boss had managed to track her down through time and space - a shocking and moving moment, involving the artificially life-supported brain of a precognitive / time sensitive individual she had met (and seen killed) in the previous episode.  

After laying the long-suffering brain to rest (at its request), she left the 25th century and returned to 1895 Florence. There, during the epilogue, she (more or less reluctantly) took a new passenger on board of the TARDIS for a few travels - miss Constance Norcott, our aforementioned Lucy Honeychurch-like NPC. 

Next stop: London, 1965!