Saturday, July 3, 2010

Optimism 101: the "2015" Dalek

Finally, an update with some meat on its bones.

This is my own take on a “new” Dalek design, whipped up in a Blender not long after pictures of the Series Five New Paradigm Daleks were leaked back in April. Since the NPDs were all about new for the sake of new and different for the sake of different, the idea with the 2015 was to take “existing” Dalek parts and measurements and try to produce something interesting, a logical progression of the design to replace the 2005-2010 NSD.

The name “2015” is, obviously (or at least, it should be obvious), a tongue-in-cheek dig at the 2010 Daleks; the hope – my hope – is that if Doctor Who gets a new producer in another five years (assuming Russell T. Davies’ five-year run was in any way a precedent), it will be somebody with a little more respect for the Daleks, what makes them Daleks, and why they lasted so long with so few changes made to their shape. Somebody who will, in a publicity stunt to end all publicity stunts, line the NPD props up on the edge of a very high cliff and unceremoniously shove them off.

The 2015:

The neck section: no struts, but a more complex shape to the bin.

Color schemes: After experimenting with classic liveries like the Resurrection gray and black and the Cushing movies’ bright blues and golds, I settled on a kind of subtle pale blue and silver for the drone. Colorful enough, but not garish.

Some other variants:

Monday, May 10, 2010

Further Musings on the New Paradigm

I don’t want to turn this blog into a pulpit for trashing the new Dalek design (it does a pretty good job of trashing itself by simply existing), so this will (probably) be the last I say on the subject. But I just can’t figure out why such a stupid idea could ever have been greenlit, from a practical standpoint as much as an aesthetic one.

First, you have the obvious cost. The BBC has always had a reputation for being … ahem … frugal with its Doctor Who budget, particularly where the Daleks are concerned. Sure, the revived series has more resources at is disposal, but every Dalek story since 2005 has (to my knowledge) utilized the same basic pool of NSD props. One was created for “Dalek,” two more for “Parting of the Ways” and “Bad Wolf,” and another for “Doomsday,” plus you had the heavily modified Dalek Supreme from “Stolen Earth/Journey’s End.” So all in all, you’re looking at about four standard Dalek props that were built almost grudgingly, over a period of years.

Then, all of a sudden, the BBC decides to allow the Who production team to build not three, not four but five brand-new props, all at once … props which, having nothing whatsoever in common with the old Daleks, would naturally require a completely new set of molds to be fabricated. And, being so much bigger than the old Daleks, they would presumably consume more resources in their construction. In short, a big, expensive undertaking.

That never needed to happen. Even if the NSD props were starting to show their age, it probably would have been more frugal to simply build new ones from existing molds and parts. Paint ‘em different colors if you must, tweak the design, but don’t fix what ain’t broke.

What a waste.

Then you have the designer of the new Daleks, Peter McKinstry. McKinstry has done a lot of design work for DW – the 2008 Dalek Supreme and the revamped Davros chair, to name two Dalek-related props he was responsible for drawing up. I should be clear that when I trash the New Paradigm design I’m not trashing him; no matter how harsh I may get, calling it “lazy” or “childish,” I don’t really blame him personally. McKinstry is a phenomenal artist, with a skill far beyond anything I was born with or could ever hope to even approach through any amount of practice. This, however, only deepens the mystery. One can only imagine that there was somebody behind him – most probably Steven Moffat – pushing him, prodding him, telling him to warp the Dalek design until it was damned near unrecognizable. And as some other fans have noted, even McKinstry’s concept drawings of the New Paradigms don’t look that bad; they certainly don’t promise anything as awful as the actual props turned out to be.

For the most part I’ve liked what Steven Moffat has brought to DW. I’ve enjoyed every episode he’s written; you can always count on sharp writing, witty dialogue and a good story. The Weeping Angels, Moffat’s creation, are one of the coolest and most original monsters to come out of SF in a long time. So I really can’t figure out why a guy who seems so together, who obviously knows what he’s doing, would choose to do an expensive, utterly unnecessary makeover on an iconic, well-established design.

Make that several well-established designs. The classic DW theme music got a new - and rather bizarre - arrangement. The revamp of the TARDIS interior wasn’t too big of a deal, but I’m biased on that score because I never liked the “organic” design introduced in 2005, and the new one is really no better, no worse. The exterior redesign was completely unnecessary, but it isn’t terribly dramatic so I think we can let that slide. But then you have the drastic change in the Daleks … and now it’s starting to add up.

I really can’t see it being anything other than the needless indulgence of ego, Moffat trying so hard to make the show his own that he’s forgotten that it really doesn’t belong to anybody. Producers can put their stamp on it, sure, but they should be wary of making any major changes, especially to a show with a forty-seven year history. Moffat’s an easy guy to like, but he’s coming off like a crazed fan-fiction writer, twisting and reshaping everything to his own whims whether it works or not. Even the scene in “Victory,” where the “old” Daleks agree with their stupid-looking new successors that they are inferior and therefore actually volunteer to be exterminated, suggests Moffat was taking a petty little shot at Russell T. Davies by literally humiliating Davies’ Daleks before retiring them.

It sounds like typical geek griping, I know. And maybe it is. But when somebody comes in and starts changing this, changing that, just for the sheer sake of it … that’s actually what bothers me most, more so than the new Daleks themselves – the ego thing is just so damned obvious. I mean, look at it this way: if you went into a fancy restaurant and asked for a hundred dollar steak, and they brought you a cold, stale McDonald's hamburger instead, you probably wouldn’t go back. You come to expect certain standards to be adhered to, a certain respect for conventional wisdom … I don’t think that’s too much to ask, even from something as apparently frivolous as a TV show. I’m not going to sit here like a kid throwing a tantrum and say I’ll never watch Doctor Who ever again because the Daleks aren’t Daleks anymore, and I’ll hold my breath ‘till I turn blue and pass out besides … but I can definitely feel something slipping away. That sense of wonder I had when I was a kid … that sense of wonder that I recaptured back in 2005 … it’s slipping away because the old conventions are not being respected.

When any show (or book, or movie franchise, or any kind of modern fable) stops being recognizable as its own distinct self … that’s when the real fans just quietly walk away. No geek tantrums or silly Internet petitions or calls for boycotts. Just a quick shot from the TV remote. Click.

Monday, May 3, 2010

New Paradigm Daleks

This blog has been slow to get going, unfortunately, but I’m hoping to remedy that. Starting today.

The scale model project I’ve been plugging away at for about eight months now is complete … and has been since about mid-April, actually. The Four Incarnations of Davros is, true to its name, a set of four 1/8th scale, scratch-built models representing the character as he appeared in four different stories, spanning four decades:

- “Genesis of the Daleks” (1975) version, as played by Michael Wisher.

- “Resurrection of the Daleks/Revelation of the Daleks” (1984/85) version, as played by Terry Molloy.

- “Remembrance of the Daleks” (1988) Imperial version, as played by Terry Molloy.

- “The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End” (2008) version, as played by Julian Bleach.

Pics coming soon.

Today, however, I’ve decided to address a little development that is high on the minds of Doctor Who/Dalek fans everywhere: the so-called “New Paradigm” Daleks that were introduced in the episode “Victory of the Daleks.”

Here’s the skinny on the New Paradigms: they suck. In a word. And I’m not the only one who thinks so.

I believe I said this in my original post, but I’m gonna say it again: I’m pretty sure the impressive longevity of the Daleks’ appeal comes mainly from their essential timelessness, design-wise – though they’ve gone through several iterations and color schemes in their forty-seven year life span, they’ve never really changed in terms of their basic geometry (even the narrower, straight-backed “Imperial” Daleks of the ‘eighties didn’t go as far as these new abominations in rewriting the rules). They’ve never really changed because they never really had to. The design just worked. It never looked particularly “sixties” or “seventies” or “twenty-first century.” It just looked … right, somehow. Timeless.

Timeless in a way that, say, Star Trek never was. When it fell to J.J. Abrams and his team to reinvent Star Trek, legions of Trek geeks insisted they stick to the same old props, sets and ships of the “classic” Star Trek series. At least, I’m assuming they did – I have zero interest in Star Trek or what Star Trek fans think, but since I am still a geek myself, I can well imagine they’d want everything to stay the same. The movie was awesome, though, precisely because Abrams and his boys knew better – those old designs and props are so painfully dated that they’d never be able to stick them up on a big screen in this day and age and expect them to look remotely believable. Everything from the puny squirt-gun-looking phasers to the cardboard sets to the spindly-looking, toilet-paper-roll Enterprise model itself had to be re-imagined.

There was never any such pressing need to reinvent the Daleks. But even if newly installed Doctor Who producer Steven Moffat just had to assert his manhood by kicking Russel T. Davies’ bronze-and-gold Daleks to the curb, he could have picked a better successor. Out of a hat. In the dark. In fact, I think it’s fair to say a blindfolded monkey on Viagra in a room full of horny lady monkeys could have produced a better Dalek design. Not to mention the dozens of fan-designed Dalek variants that would have made a better choice (stay tuned for my own CG take on what a “new” Dalek should look like) than the clunky, lumpy, childishly designed, parti-colored pieces of crap that we all saw in “Victory.” There’s a gentleman who goes by the screen name “Mechmaster” on the Project Dalek message boards who has created an entire stable of advanced Dalek models, to name but one. The “Mark 6” as they’re called, as well as its offshoots, can be viewed here.

Oh, and be sure to take a gander at his “Second Empire” CG graphic novel - it's just slightly better than "f'ing awesome." Just remember to come back here afterwards.

But enough talk – here now is a comparison study of a ‘60’s “Dead Planet” Dalek (the very first Dalek story, as if I need to say it), a 2005 “New Series Dalek” (or NSD), and the New Paradigm Daleks from “Victory.”

First, we have the original beast from 1963, designed by Ray Cusick:

Okay, I’m feelin’ it. Nice lines. Shiny, no-nonsense silver. Just picture a creepy mutant alien inside it, half-insane with hatred and racial intolerance and claustrophobia. He’s just learned that there’s a whole world of genetically perfect blond people living an idyllic life in his backyard and, understandably, he wants to nuke the crap out of them.

Yes. We’re there.

Now let’s turn to the 2005 revamped Dalek:

Now I’m really feelin’ it. BAD-ass alien war machine. Not sure about bronze and gold as standard livery for a soldier, but it works once you get used to it. Russell T. Davies ushered in the revived Doctor Who series back in 2005, and with it came this newly updated (but not redesigned) Dalek, the construction of which was also overseen by Davies.

Russell, I say this in the nicest, most sincerely flattering way possible: for a gay guy, you really know what a bad-ass hate-filled alien war machine ought to look like.

And now ... the New Paradigm:

How about … no. Just no.

Note: the CG “Dead Planet” and NSD were created by me in the Blender open-source 3D graphics package. The New Paradigm shown is, obviously, an actual prop; shot taken from the British "Radio Times" website.

Know ye this: you will never, ever, under any circumstances, see either a virtual or styrene plastic model of a New Paradigm coming out of my workshops. Ever. I only build Daleks … and they are not Daleks. Any more than an upside-down plastic cup with a couple of straws sticking out of it is a Dalek.

It should also be noted that I have, as yet, been unable to find a decent profile view of one of these things, which is a shame because it’s only when viewed from the side that you really get a feel for just how awful the design is.

Whoops – spoke too soon:

Damn, that’s bad. Especially next to the NSD. There’s that awkward, strangely hunchbacked sort of vibe going on that front-view pics just don’t capture, with the flatly vertical gun box fronts adding to the overall sense that what we’re looking at is not really a Dalek but rather a bad caricature of one drawn by an enthusiastic but essentially unperceptive child, a drawing that has somehow been made real.

The overwhelming sense of childishness – or laziness, at the very least - is present in just about every other detail to one degree or another, from the silly accordion neck, the simplistic half-ping-pong ball dome, the black midsection “band” that resembles some piece of clunky, tacky ‘eighties home electronics (an old Atari or Sega Master System or 8-track player), the pointless, just plain messy raised panels-on-panels of the skirt section, to the fenders, which look like colossal, blocky afterthoughts.

Then you have the colors. Colorful Daleks aren’t necessarily a bad thing – I believe one of the ideas behind the redesign was to capture the feel of the bright ‘sixties movie Daleks of the two Peter Cushing films. I get that. But look at them:

Nothing subtle or inventive going on there. No sleek metallic cobalt blues, or shiny, deep reds, or yellow-golds. Just loud, obnoxious primary crayon colors. Somebody really took an interest, didn’t they?

But again, enough talk. Let’s have some more fun with pictures!

When I look at this -

- I think this:

On the other hand, when I look at this –

- I immediately think these:

Whenever I see this –

- I think of something like this:

And somehow feel that it should be labeled thusly:

And there’s no denying that this –

- evokes thoughts of this:

And the boy is scarier.

Well, Steven Moffat, you just had to be different, didn’t you? Just had to show everybody what a big boy you are, that you can do it all by yourself, that Russell T. Davies wasn’t calling the shots anymore. Let’s change everything – the TARDIS, the console room, the Daleks … just for shits and giggles, right?

Well, congratulations, Steve – you, your design team and your big fat ego just ruined an icon.

Monday, January 4, 2010

The Dalek Workshop

Let's geek out.

I grew up on Doctor Who. Transformers, too. And Mr. T and Nintendo and the A-Team. I'm a child of the 'eighties, basically.

I'm also Canadian. When I was a kid you could catch Doctor Who on either PBS (American public TV) or TV Ontario (our own version) - great, because there were no commercials; not so great, because I seemed to be the only kid within a hundred mile radius who actually knew what Doctor Who was. Nobody else in my class or my neighborhood had ever heard of it, presumably because none of them ever watched public TV. And, as some of my friends would point out whenever I tried to rope them into watching the show with me, a lot of kids just couldn't get behind the idea of an eccentric dude flying around to random points in time and space in a blue box. Transforming robots from the planet Cybertron are so much more believable.

Me, though, I never missed a single episode. Ever. Family gatherings, church, friends, school, homework, funerals, it didn't matter - if it clashed with Doctor Who, it wasn't worth a fart in a hot tub. There was only one thing I loved more than watching a Doctor Who episode, and that was watching a Doctor Who episode featuring the Doctor's arch-enemies, that race of alien garbage cans containing little green blobs of pure, concentrated evil - the Daleks.

The Daleks are sort of timeless from both a design point of view and as a race of believable alien beings. On Star Trek (one of the most overrated franchises in the whole SF genre) the "aliens" tend to be carbon copies of us, exaggerations of one human characteristic: Klingons are aggressive and warlike, Romulans are sneaky and mistrustful, Ferengi are greedy and materialistic etc. And none of them look particularly alien. Generally a few prosthetic appliances were applied to an actor's face - a little ridge on the nose or forehead - and you have an "alien." They were all basically humanoid, and all basically human in their motivations.

The Daleks, on the other hand, are completely out there. They don't look remotely human (in or out of their casings) and their thought processes don't even come close. They are the ultimate racial supremacists, completely unable to see or understand anyone else's point of view. By far one of the greatest moments in the otherwise mediocre "Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks" episode from the 2007 series was the scene where an enterprising human makes an impassioned speech to a Dalek, asking it if it would like to join the human race in the spirit of friendship and the mutual exchange of information and ideas. The Dalek responds by shooting him.

More to the point (the point of this blog, anyway), is the Dalek prop design itself. Created back in 1963 by writer Terry Nation and brought to life by BBC designer Ray Cusick, the Dalek is a kind of visual feast of angles and details and shapes. Though designed in the '60s, it doesn't look particularly '60s - in other words, it doesn't look dated the way many other SF robots and technological doodads look dated (Star Trek, I'm looking in your direction ... again). And even though the 2005 Doctor Who series saw a redesign of the Dalek that tweaked the individual details, the basic shape remains the same forty-seven years after its initial appearance ... and it still looks great. It looks like something that could kill you. It looks like something that wants to kill you.

It also looks like something you'd want to build in your garage.

There are Dalek enthusiast sites out there that provide plans for building full-scale Dalek props. The one I visit most frequently is Project Dalek, where you'll find plans for several different Dalek variants, both the classic and 2008 versions of Davros' Dalek-inspired chair, and a completely new, streamlined take on the Dalek design by forum member Mechmaster. Some of the full-scale creations of the members are absolutely phenomenal - while the Daleks used on the TV series were functional props, with simple wooden seats for the operators and a couple of (sometimes noisy) castors to roll around on, hobbyists on Project Dalek have created replicas that border on REAL alien war machines; radio-controlled beasts with functional eyestalk cameras and guns that shoot anything from water to CO2 gas to bright LED light shows. It's fun stuff.

Alas, this blog is not about me building a full-scale Dalek of such enduring coolness. I lack the space, money and resources to build even a basic full scale prop, as much as I might want to (and I do want to). A few years ago, bitten once again by the Doctor Who bug a full decade-and-a-half after I'd first "grown out of it," I started looking around the Internet for Dalek model kits. I always wanted Dalek toys when I was a kid - naturally, because Doctor Who didn't enjoy the same level of popularity here that it did in the UK, Canadian stores didn't carry any of the Marx or Dapol Dalek figures. When I was twelve a local comic book store did start importing the Dapol figures ... but at $17 bucks a pop, they weren't exactly affordable. When I began trolling the 'net back in 2006 in search of model kits or reasonably accurate figures, I discovered that prices were just as bad - after all, it still has to be imported.

Then I found Nebula7. The site's creator, Christopher Barnatt, had built - correction, had scratch-built - a 1/4th scale Dalek model out of plastic card and other bits and pieces. The result was amazing - a perfect little replica decked out in the gray/black color scheme of the 1980's Daleks I'd grown up watching. The TARDIS and K-9 scratch-builds weren't too shabby either.

It set me off, pursuing a new hobby out of the blue. I hadn't built a model since I was at least thirteen, and the models I made back then were terrible embarrassments slathered in glue and paint. I had no concept of modeling as a craft or an art - I just slapped 'em together according to the instructions and moved on. Now I not only had to follow instructions, I had to make the instructions up as I went. At least, that's what I thought until I found Project Dalek. The plans are intended to produce a 1:1 replica of a Dalek, obviously, but all you gotta do is decide your scale and divide by that number ... in my case, eight, to get an 1/8 scale Dalek.

In my travels over the past few years I learned all about styrene plastic, the properties of different kinds of glue, paints (both acrylic and off-the-shelf spraycans), fiberglass resin, quick casting resins, RTV (room temperature vulcanizing) silicone, airbrushing, mold-making and various other modelers' crafts. It hasn't been easy - there are no hobby stores within miles of where I live, and I'm not big on highway driving. So I have to order most of my stuff online. This means that I'm basically flying blind when obtaining a new tool or medium; I've had a lot of disappointments when I order something thinking it will suit my purposes and then it, well, doesn't. I've also birthed dozens of Dalek abominations fit only for the garbage can as I've made mistakes along the way. Ironically, I've spent more money on building scale Daleks than I ever would have spent on collecting old Sevans Dalek model kits or the new line of Character Options figures ... but it's become about the journey now, not the end result.

I don't know exactly what this blog is intended to do. Show off my stuff, for sure, but it's also here to give inspiration to scratch-builders and modelers like me who dove back into the hobby without the slightest clue as to what they were doing. I'll detail my mistakes so that you don't have to make them. It's about the best I can offer.