Implausipod E019 – The 14th Doctor

What does a sci-fi fan who’s never seen Doctor Who think of their first exposure to a full episode of the series? Can you even be a sci-fi fan if you haven’t? Well, we’re about to find out. Welcome our guest, an academic and Dr Who fan Dr Aiden Buckland who helps guide yours truly Dr Implausible through some of the details of “The Star Beast”.


DRI: Actors have a bit of a challenge in that they can become deeply linked with iconic roles that they play so that the audience always associates them with whatever they first saw them in. And so too it is for me with David Tennant and the Purple Man. Killgrave. From the Netflix MCU series Jessica Jones.

See, that’s where I first saw him. And he was absolutely stunning in that role. Super creepy. And it’s hard to imagine him as anything else. But apparently he has a long and storied history as an actor in various other cinematic universes. And one of those is returning to screen shortly. Something called Doctor Who.

And apparently it’s widely popular, but it’s a bit of a gap in my knowledge. I mean, I was aware. of it, but I’d hardly seen any episodes. Maybe something with Christopher Ecclestone back in the early 2000s and something with a dude in a scarf back when I was around eight, but it was never largely accessible to me.

But with it returning to the screen, it seems now is a perfect opportunity to get on board with the Doctor.

And I’m not kidding, I’m being completely honest with you. I haven’t really watched much Dr. Who and Jessica Jones was the first time I saw David Tennant. So there’s a lot of stuff out there in the media sphere and you can’t watch everything. And for some reason, Dr. Who just never really caught into me, you know, didn’t get its hooks in.

So I’m aware of it. I’m aware of some of the larger themes, but what we’re going to do for this episode is it’ll be in two parts. The first part will be me going to watch the first episode of these 2023 specials, StarBeast. And then I’ll come back and I’ll give you like, some of my initial impressions.

And then the second half is going to be a discussion with a colleague of mine, who’s a big Doctor Who fan. And so once they join in, we’ll kind of go over some of what my impressions are and how that connects to the larger universe. And then we’ll have, If time allows, we’ll do this for the other specials in 2023.

So stay tuned. I’m going to go check out an episode and I’ll be right back to let you know what my first impressions of watching a full Doctor Who episode are.

And we’re back after having seen the Starbeast, and that was an interesting episode. So this isn’t really a recap, it’s just kind of a list of impressions, so it may go chronologically for a little bit.

So, going in with having no history of the characters or any of their connections, it was a little odd. We got the recap at the start with the once upon a time, and I thought that was an interesting way to do it. We have the introduction of A British housewife, Donna Noble, and felt very much like, say, a British housewife canonically, as opposed to one from America or Canada or anywhere else.

And we learn that she is married and has a lovely child, and the child has grown. So there’s been a lot of history, I guess, in the past, but that doesn’t really have a whole lot for me. There’s some lines that they drop there that also stood out with an interesting juxtaposition where Dr. Who goes, this face has come back. Why? And Donna goes, the story hasn’t ended yet. So we get this idea that there’s something going on. And at least a little bit of a mystery that might be hinted at later.

The whole introduction itself felt very like. Marvel comics from the seventies and eighties, where there’d be a recap in the first few pages after a splash page or something, and I’m wondering if that’s common. We get the introductory title by Russell T Davies from a story by Pat Mills and Dave Gibbons. And that is very curious because I recognize both those names from sci fi, especially like 2000 AD and other comics, again, of the seventies and eighties. So I’m wondering what the source was, whether it was a comic or a novelization, an older episode or something like an issue of 2000 AD or something else, heavy metal back in the day.

So I’m keeping an eye out for that and maybe I’ll track down the references after, but for now, that just kind of jumped out like, Hey, I recognize that reference. And while they set up some tension in the recap that, you know, they couldn’t see each other again, they get like right to it with their interaction right away, and kind of release that tension, but also set it up for something later on. We get introduced to Rose, but I got no idea who she is. I, I understand she’s Donna’s daughter, but I got no reference or what those eyes are referring to. So I’m wondering if that’ll pop up later. And then the meteorite or whatever streaks across the sky.

There’s a comment that Donna makes, while her eyes are distracted, about never trust a man with a goatee, and something about being stuck in a drainpipe, and I was wondering if that was a hint to any prior episodes, but I don’t know. And then she makes the reference to the doctor telling him that he has to ditch the tie by the age of 35, that he can’t do that old 80s Duran Duran style anymore. I thought that was cute.

And then following that we have a ride with the taxi driver, Sean Temple. Ends up being a little bit more expository as well. When we get some of the backstory and I was grateful for that. It was kind of, came about a little bit naturally, but also a little bit, Oh, here’s all the main characters all, all at once altogether.

So I’ll get to this later, but it felt like everything was just like one after the other falling into place. Like we didn’t really have a whole lot of mystery. So it was just kind of straight into it. And. We arrive at the factory and this explosion looks like something right out of the nineties, like demolition man or Robocop, which is pretty good for TV, honestly.

I mean, full points. I remember what syndicated sci fi TV shows looked like in the nineties. It was a little rough. As he’s wandering around the factory, I think the only thing that would make it more 80s would be the lighting as we have that gold and teal kind of filter rather than the blue and red filter that was endemic in 80s sci fi.

And then we’re introduced to a few other characters or groups. The ship is being Surrounded by some soldiers or soldier type persons and there’s a woman in a wheelchair, but again, I don’t have a reference here I don’t know if they’re new or supposed to evoke something from past episodes And then we switch to a home scene with an older lady cooking and who says there’s no such thing as spaceships. Now Donna has a neat quote about the 930 mark or she says I will burn down the world for you darling And then she goes, I will dissent, or I will descend. I didn’t quite catch it, but it was kind of neat.

And Oh, okay. So the older lady is her mom, but her mom seems to remember more of the past than she does. So again, I, maybe they were in earlier stuff. There’s a lot of internal reference, even at this point, like, you know, 10, 12 minutes into the episode that it feels is starting to be there for people who watch it regularly. And I admit I’m not lost, but I’m kind of, I don’t have any association that the authors, the show runners might be trying to evoke with this.

So sometimes it’s coming across a little bit flat as again, I don’t know who the people are. I don’t recognize them, and there’s just a lot of assumptions made. About the audience, about who and what they see. So then, we switched to the kids and Rose outside and there’s an escape pod in the middle of a field. And it feels like right now they are speed running through ET and they meet this little critter called a meep.

And while it’s cute enough, I’m not sure what they’re going for here. There’s also some dudes with like bug eyes in the dark and they remind me of like bug from Micronauts, which is weird given that, you know, we had Mills and Gibbons doing this. So maybe they were kind of tying into like the seventies comics.

I’m wondering if there’s that earlier comic book reference there. So, but apparently they’re hunting something. So we’ll see what’s up with that. The doctor is in the warehouse or sorry, in the factory steel factory. So very eighties heavy metal video here with his whole display that he’s able to conjure up on the out of thin air and actually works as an interface.

And that’s super cool. I don’t know if he’s ever done that before. And then. We meet the redhead in the wheelchair again, who knows the doctor is familiar with him. She’s Shelly science advisor, number 56, and she knows his history. At least he was science advisor. Number one, don’t, I’m probably saying that too much, but that comment, I guess about Donna, where the universe is turning around her again.

And the, he does has, I don’t want to be the one who kills her. So there’s definitely linking to that back history again, and so we get more of the officers from the unit. It had unit in the badge. I didn’t quite see what it was from, but you know, they’re like the men in black or something or the paramilitary organization associated with the men in black, maybe like shield or sword or some other group.

So they’re not necessarily regular police officers, but they are something else. And then. They open up the capsule and that is, that stood out. If you remember from like the earlier podcast, I talk about dragon’s domain and how there was like a creature that came out and started possessing the crew members from space 1999.

And we almost have that exact same thing here. This strikes out with. The light and the light changes in the soldier’s eyes, and then it takes them over and is able to possess them and move them around. And that is, it’s kind of wild. So we have these linkages to earlier, like 1970s sci fi, that’s been going on within this episode.

And that’s super cool. I’m wondering how much more that is. I’m just going off what I know, but maybe this is something previously within the show as well. Now the Meep and Rose run back at the show. And then the mother who, I guess now the grandmother, sorry, Cynthia, she seems to know what’s up. She goes, the Meep isn’t real.

So I’m wondering if it’s illusory. With the family all home, they’re trying to keep each other away from it. And I think Cynthia recognizes the past history between the doctor and Donna and doesn’t want anything to happen, but, yeah, that’s a bit of an issue. So they meet the meep and then we have the little bit with the fur harvesting is kind of a bad thing and a discussion about the pronouns for the meep and that struck me as interesting, but it also just struck me as matter of fact that the doctor was able to just accept that and correct and ask and just went with it for the rest of the episode. So that was really interesting.

There’s a comment, I guess the doctor has twin hearts. And that’s cool. The space Marines in the Warhammer 40, 000 universe all have twin hearts too. And so does like, um, Longshot from the X Men and that whole Mojoverse series. So that’s a common thing, I think, with a lot of sci fi series as a way of kind of evoking a subject’s transhumanism that, you know, Oh, they’ve got multiple hearts or whatever. And, and that was kind of fascinating. So I’m wondering if the 40 K guys kind of cribbed that when they were making their trans war, transhuman warriors and the space Marines, or that, if that’s just so common that it’s not from a particular thing, but it’s just a trope in general.

So from there, we’ve get into the firefight, and I’m wondering how many factions are going on here. We obviously. We have the meep plus the family at this point are with them. We have the possessed soldiers. We have the bugs who are fighting the possessed soldiers. We have the regular military, the ones who haven’t possessed. And I don’t know if the doctor is his own faction or what, but you know, we’ve got four or five different groups here.

And again, while they’re doing some cool tricks with the shields and using the. tool, the sonic screwdriver and their defensive capability, and just being clever about getting away from it and trying to escape and save lives. And I thought that was really interesting. There were some airborne troops in there and I was wondering if those were the bugs.

They’re kind of in the black and I didn’t quite see if those were more drop troops coming in to support the paramilitary organization or not, but I guess we’ll learn more as this goes on. And then we get to this parking garage and it says either we’ve escaped or we’ve got things very wrong. And he says, we’re in a court, court is in session.

It’s a shadow court and he puts on a teleport intercept. And then the bug soldiers appear and it turns out that yes, we indeed do have everything wrong. There’s something about a psychedelic sun here that powered the meep’s homeworld as they ate the galactic council and this is the last one left. And we get the whole reveal that yes, curse your inevitable betrayal here as the Meep turns out to be the one that is possessing the soldiers and there’s a whole lot more going on.

The star beast is indeed the furry little creature that finally shows its fangs. And so from there, things move along rather rapidly. The doctor and the family are taken prisoner and moved back to the steel factory. The little critter is being worshiped and brought about on a plank when made out of metal by the possessed soldiers.

And while they’re trapped, there’s a rescue from Shelly, the science advisor, who’s in the wheelchair, who has weapons apparently embedded within it. Because of course, James Bond also probably echoes into the influences here as well. So We switch to the ship and the doctor tries to prevent the launch as the dagger drive is engaged.

And we start seeing this whole scale destruction of London with the tendrils of flame and like earthquakes going out. It feels a lot like Guardians of the Galaxy 3 where we know this is like a populated area with people involved. And like, how are there not casualties and catastrophic destruction from this?

Now, Donna Noble is assisting him as they’re trying to get this right. But it’s a whole lot and there’s a lot of like internal reference going on here. I can see the action that’s going on. And then finally Rose undoes the psychedelic lightness that shining in the eyes of all the possessed and everything kind of goes back to normal.

We’ve learned that the toys in the shed are tied to Rose’s memories of all the beasts that have been encountered in the past and We finally kind of get some resolution here, but as a viewer I was kind of starting honestly, from about the 30 minute point on, I was kind of tuning out a little bit.

There was a lot of internal references and I wasn’t necessarily getting. All of them. It was the thing with like the Phoenix force that was going through Donna and Rose. I don’t know what’s going on there. Some shared memories or something was embedded within Rose that allowed her to be saved and then finally they walk inside the Tardis and we get that tiny little ship or the family’s talking about just taking one tiny trip and it feels like every Rick and Morty episode ever. And honestly, I’m wondering how much Rick and Morty is kind of tying into the doctor at this point. It’s weird that I’ve seen almost all of Rick and Morty, but almost none of Doctor Who.

So is it just a case of picking one and not the other? I don’t know. Or can you enjoy both? To my friend who’ll be joining me later, perhaps that’s the question. We get into a what looks like a redesigned TARDIS interior. It looks almost like Cerebro from some of the X Men films with all the sphere and the railings and stuff.

And it has a coffee maker, but apparently it hasn’t been protected against coffee. It’s fragile enough that one spilled coffee is enough to almost destroy the place. And that’s kind of where we end. So as the credits roll, it It, it feels a little odd, earlier note I made about it feeling like a speed run through ET.

I mean, it feels like the whole story was a speed run as they were racing through the required story beats to try and link everything together with previous seasons and previous episodes. And there was a lot of history there and so much of it was being elided. It was kind of being relying on our cultural memory of other sci fi.

Movies and TV shows and episodes, and we got equal parts of like a very special episode and a lot of fan service going on there. So I’m not sure as a new viewer, it was a representative story of the franchise. I was able to make some external connections to some stuff. Like the authors and some other references to sci fi and even by the midpoint, but by the last 15 minutes or so, it was all very internally referential.

And the titular Starbeast was like a very thin foil for the rest of the narrative that was assumed, like we assumed things would work out. And. They were just used there for the show runner to hang all the connections together. So as a new viewer, I’m not entirely convinced. I do want to discuss this with my colleague though.

So I’m going to step away from a brief second for a brief second, and we’ll be right back.

And we’re back and we’re going to talk about the impressions of the show. I’m here joined by Dr. Aidan Buckland, who’s a professor of digital and social media. You can let him introduce his bona fides. I’ve known him for quite some time. And we’ll get into it. So, thank you for joining us today, Dr. Aiden.

Dr Aiden: Well, Well Dr. Implausible, thank you very much for having me. Yeah, so, Ph. D., Communication, I’m usually somewhere in that pop culture landscape, and Dr. Who is something, you know, I’ve been a fan of for a while, but also had a bit of a Professional interest in: done some presentations over the years at Calgary and Edmonton Expo, and have watched a number at places like the Popular Cultural Association.

DRI: Okay, so you have like an academic interest in that, then. Awesome. Okay. I’ll just let you know I think, I sent you the copy of the of the first half of the episode here. I’m coming in with this, like knowing that exists, I have almost no exposure. And for a franchise that’s like older than me, which is rare, it’s like, okay, Star Trek, Dr. Who, and like, I’m older than Star Wars, right, so it’s a rare thing. And like, how have you not watched any of this? So here we are. Yeah, I, found it really interesting, but I’m kind of like, what’s your kind of take on it as somebody who’s like well versed in this, cause I’ll admit there’s some parts of it that didn’t necessarily land with me, but maybe we’ll walk through the episode a little bit and you can tell me what I missed without going too much into spoilers.

Maybe we can just chat about that for a little bit.

Dr Aiden: For sure. Yeah, and I was thinking that while I was watching it. So, you know, myself as a fan, I jumped on during the new who era. So I have dabbled a little bit and kind of watching and rewatching. I think at this point, all of the doctors for at least a few hours of their runs each just to get a flavor for it before going out and speaking about it. But yeah, this was a daunting episode. I think in some ways for new fans to be jumping on board. It was relying on a lot of stuff that kind of happened during Russell Davis’ 1st run at the show. But at the same time, I also felt it was very emblematic of of his vision of doctor who like, it felt very much like it would fit very easily into, you know, what we sometimes refer to as the season of specials.

DRI: Okay. The season of specials is like the Christmas season where they just have these one offs. I guess there’s two more episodes coming up and if you’re, if you’re down for it, I’ll watch those and we can maybe chat about each of those in the coming weeks too.

Dr Aiden: For sure. I’ll definitely be watching them. So I would love to chat.

DRI: Okay, cool. So yeah, like for me, the first, it kind of had like a, it felt like a Stan Lee Marvel recap at the start of it. And then, I’m not sure if you’re familiar with it; while you do pop culture stuff, so you’re probably sure of who Pat Mills and Dave Gibbons were in that jumped out at me.

Cause I’ve been looking at both their works, Pat Mills, especially in his work on 2000 AD ties into something I’m working on called Appendix W, which are like the prehistory of the Warhammer 40, 000 universe. And so he’s really influential as like a creator from back in like the 70s and 80s, and that was just like, okay, so what am I watching here?

And I don’t know if you had any foreknowledge of that kind of era or influence on Doctor Who.

Dr Aiden: Yeah, I’d be interested. And I think, you know, in some cases with Dr Who, in particular, there is kind of a media kind of explanation for, you know, the influence that runs through here. You have to remember, of course, when Dr Who was.

In its prime, say, late 60s in through the 70s, you know, this is at a point in time where there are actually very few channels to watch in the UK. So whenever we’re talking about sci fi creators, writers, directors, who are living in the UK, you know, you can almost guarantee to a person that they would have been exposed to this show at least in its first run from, from 63 to 89 at some point.

DRI: Yeah. I’m getting a feeling, like we’ve covered Space:1999 a bit, and we’re going to be covering, as I said, 2000 AD and Blake’s Seven at one point, I’m sure. It feels like everybody knew everybody in this community. I mean, Britain is, is relatively small size wise, I guess, especially if you’re from the Canadian prairies, it’s like, well, we can just drive across Britain pretty quick here.

But yeah, so there’s that whole idea of scope and size, but as a community in the seventies, yeah, I’m assuming it was very connected. I can’t say for sure, but it has that feel to it.

Dr Aiden: And a hub of sci fi too, right? Like, there’s so much happening in television, in movies, so, yeah, it would be interesting to sit down and map all of that sort of stuff, like, who’s influencing who, where are we seeing, kind of things pop up, especially as it relates to the Doctor and his travels.

DRI: Yeah, that’s, well we’ll I think that’s kind of like the side project or maybe that’s something assumed with the Appendix W. I mean, we’re tracking everything up to the launch of Warhammer 40, 000, which is in 87. So yeah, it’s going to be coming. So, so how have I never watched the doctor before?

I got no idea, but what stood out to you from the episode? Like what was really kind of like a big thing, or just maybe walk through it chronologically, like how did you feel watching it?

Dr Aiden: I think the first thing that really struck me with the episode was the mixing and matching of the aesthetic of Doctor Who.

So, as, you know, you probably know production wise, there’s been a deal. Disney plus is distributing it now internationally. So there’s a lot more money in the budget, and this has been the case for a while. Chibnall, the previous show runner, also had a pretty big budget, for Doctor Who standards at least.

So, you know, we saw a lot of that, like that really lovely shot in (the) neighborhood. I’m jumping ahead chronologically in terms of the episode. Where we see the soldiers fighting the other soldiers and that nice over the action shot of that, like, that’s, that’s a really expensive thing that, you know, we sometimes got in new Who but we definitely didn’t get in the original run of the show, which was that kind of them flexing their muscles production wise.

I think the Meep in particular, in terms of the creature design, looked a lot more polished than a lot of Doctor Who aliens and and creatures look, but then we also had the Rolf, the, the grasshopper looking gentleman, who talked very nicely once they actually got to speak.

You know, they actually look more emblematic of that old aesthetic of Doctor Who. So I thought that that was, it was one of the things that stood out to me is this really does feel like A kind of crossover for Dr. Who: of Russell T. Davis going from kind of what he was working with in the early 2000s with the relaunch of the show to now having a bit more money, but wanting to stay true to that aesthetic that a lot of Who fans would be comfortable with.

DRI: Okay, so there’s he’s playing to some audience expectations there. Okay, that’s interesting because I mean, I noticed that with like, The set with in the steel factory with the spaceship in there that looked fairly impressive, like production wise. I don’t know how much of that was digital and how much of that was like a practical, but they at least had put that into place.

I mean, there was some obvious places where there’s like the digital layover of the city and the like, but even as you said, like that overhead drone shot that we’re seeing, it’s starting to become very common. We saw that in like The Peripheral and Westworld and a bunch of places where it kind of gives a top down third person perspective or not third person, but almost like an RTS perspective that we’re kind of used to.

Dr Aiden: I was going to say, it reminded me a lot of that series of games XCOM where you’re looking at the field from that and that’s an alien invasion game too. So it almost felt like they were trying to tap into that aesthetic with that shot, which It was neat, I think, for Doctor Who.

DRI: Yeah, for sure. So they’re expanding it now.

Like you said, these are the specials. So maybe it’s like the CFL on Grey Cup or the NFL on the Super Bowl where they’ll bust out multiple cameras and kind of go for broke and the regular episodes don’t quite have that same level of production. I don’t know, we’ll kind of see how that goes, but I’m always fascinated how the production culture elements influence the onscreen workings of it, or, you know, what we see as fans on screen and then how much the fans will, you know, develop the no prizes from Marvel or whatever to come up with explanations that kind of patch over some of those holes that might be simply explained by, well, we, we had no budget, so we had to put a plunger on the end of this, of the Dalek and, and kind of make it a thing.

Yeah, fascinating stuff, but we’ll keep an eye out for that in the future, for sure. So, what else kind of jumped out at you?

Dr Aiden: I mean, off the bat, I am a big fan of David Tennant, both as a doctor, but also as his other roles like Kilgrave, as you had mentioned earlier, having him do that kind of fourth wall break that once upon a time, once upon a time Lord was an interesting opening.

It reminded me of the last time Doctor Who as a franchise really started to, you know, put on a push to get American viewers, which I associate this Disney plus deal with, and they did something similar. They had the Companion at the time, Amy Pond do like a little voiceover kind of explaining her relationship to this being the doctor, and it got a bit of pushback actually, from some older doctor who fans.

It’s that gatekeeping element in fanculture that essentially. You know, Dr. Who’s been around for decades. Most people have grown up with it in the UK and in some of the Commonwealth countries like ours. And, you know, the idea that you would need to put this in here and, you know, clearly it is for newer fans. But how did you find that? Did that help you? or orient you for what was coming up. Did you find that useful?

DRI: I found it super useful, I think between the introductory bit before the credits, as well as some of the exposition that happened with the cab driver, I felt, you know, they kind of put a lot of pieces in place. So maybe they were, I think I commented earlier as a bit of a speed run, but I felt there was enough exposition that I wasn’t necessarily confused about who was what, like I didn’t, I didn’t have any deep connection with any of the characters, but I could generally tell the relationships and the social map of who was who there. Sometimes characters would show up and I wasn’t sure as, Oh, is this an old person or a new person or something?

So maybe, maybe that’s the thing, like what was new in that? What was, what was novel in the episode that I have no reference of. So like, was there anybody, what was new?

Dr Aiden: Yeah, well, production wise, I think that’s actually kind of one of the fun parts with Star Beast is that actually this is, you know, an adaptation.

So we’re, we’re dealing with a Who story that has existed since I believe sometime in 1980, there was a weekly comic strip and that’s where this story first shows up. So in the opening credits, I believe you see along with Russell T. Davis, the original writers for this panel in particular, but in terms of new stuff, I think there’s still lots in there.

I would say, you know, for a lot of older Who fans the Sonic was doing a lot more in this episode than we’ve ever seen it do, which, you know, is some fans have bristled on it. The ones that I’ve been watching reactions from online, but at the same time, it is always like a lot of the elements of Doctor Who, you know, the sonic does what the writers needed to do in a particular context.

So it’s kind of always had that, but generally, as a tool, it’s really done underwhelming things, like it just, it unlocks a door, or it sets off an alarm, or it, you know, turns on a sprinkler, it’s, you know, very underwhelming, so when he starts to look at it as a visual display, very MCU like, which is a comparison that Ellie Littlechild made over there at WhoCulture, or later on where he’s, he’s building light shields out of it, that almost seemed, in a lot of ways, to use a kind of gamer culture term, a little overpowered for the sonic screwdriver, which is interesting.

But again, this is a Doctor who is coming back, which again is something we haven’t seen, so.

DRI: Okay, I just yeah for reference. I didn’t know that any of those abilities like the the shields and like even just the interface I didn’t know that was new. It seemed I felt they were seamless I really liked the like basically passive or non combative use of the screwdriver because it gave a like a different way of solving problems and even though it wasn’t… I guess maybe firefights aren’t that common in Doctor Who, I don’t know.

It did seem like they put a lot of budget in it, you know, blowing up a wall and having the whole chase through the house. But having those ways of reacting that isn’t necessarily offensive, I thought that was really neat. And the interface, I mean, we’ve seen that see-through interface in everything since like Minority Report with Spielberg, Spielberg put a lot of money and effort into the development of that interface for that movie.

And then we’ve seen it from Avatar and Matrix and that whole idea of a see-through interface, which really isn’t that useful, like from a user perspective, this is amazing visually. Yeah, we’ve seen that. So I didn’t realize that was new, but it seemed like an awesome way to like engage with it. What about like characters or anything?

Was there any new peeps that showed up?

Dr Aiden: Yeah, we do have some new people in there, but I, I just wanted to respond to something you had just mentioned there. It is actually, this is the, the classic Doctor Who thing is he almost never is overtly offensive in the way he interacts with other species.

So, you know, he will do things to stop a villain from, you know, achieving their plan. He’ll do things like he shoots the Meep up in the escape pod by the end of it, but like his, his initial reaction is almost always to run, you know, so it’s, it’s something that you’ll see him saying a lot and generally, that’s because he’s trying to observe what’s going on and figure it out, which is usually what you get revealed in the end.

So it’s his non combativeness is actually by design and it was, yeah. At various points in the run in the original run, I think it was the 5th doctor who put his hands on a gun and that became kind of controversial. And then even in this new who run Matt Smith, it was in a trailer at 1 point for an episode, it was the 3rd episode in the season and, you know, it just has him holding a handgun and firing it, which, you know, got a bit of a negative reaction, and then when you saw what was happening in context, you see that it’s not the Doctor using a handgun against a person. It was him shooting a piece of technology with reversed gravity at the time.

So, it’s the kind of thing that he doesn’t like, it’s, it’s rare to see him actually holding offensive weapons, which was interesting.

DRI: Okay. Yeah. That idea that it ties into some of our other more iconic heroes, like, you know, a Captain America or Spider Man or Batman, you know, or there’s generally that idea that they didn’t have offensive weapons.

So Batman’s probably an edge case in that one. And I know they’ve made some changes to cap as well, but for a long time, the silver age view of those heroes was like no guns. Now, some of that was from, you know, especially in America from the comics code, but you know, there was some other reasons for it as well.

That, okay. That’s fascinating. Interesting stuff. What about Peeps? Was there, because again, I kind of got that the family all knew each other, that there was relationships there, but was there any other new characters that were introduced?

Dr Aiden: New character, old organization. So, in the episode, of course, we’re introduced or reintroduced, I guess, to Unit.

This is the, basically the task force that deals with alien kind of stuff on planet earth. They are often associated with working with or working against, depending on the episode needs, the Doctor. And of course, in this one, we get the introduction of an actress who essentially, Ruth Madely, as Shirley Anne Bingham, the newest science advisor.

So, you know, as you saw in the episode through dialogue, the Doctor is the first science advisor for Unit. This is during the period in the original run when he was basically banished to earth for a little while, but Madely, had a role on Years and Years, which is a Russell T. Davis show for the BBC, and I guess that’s seeing her crossover from that now into Who was interesting, and her role was, was fantastic, like, I loved the positioning of her. It was the scene where, you know, “don’t make me the problem”, sending the soldiers on up to the mind control.

And then, later on, having, you know, weapons in a wheelchair, and when the doctor remarks on it, you know, her response is, yeah, we all have as if, you know, this is just, it’s standard operating procedure. All unit members who may or may not be wheelchair bound will have weapons in their devices, which was fun.

DRI: Yeah. There was, there was a lot of that stuff was just and maybe this leads to some of my confusion because they, they dealt with a lot of stuff just matter of factly. Right. Like it did not happen. I noticed there was… okay. so unit, I saw the badge on the lapel, but I didn’t, I thought maybe I was missing something that there was another word for it, but it’s just, it’s called the unit. Okay.

Like they had a Sikh member and there was a few others. associated with it. So there’s a broad spectrum of representation within the show. And like I said, I’m going into this as spoiler free as I can, but I guess there’s some issue. Is there some controversy around the whole woke moment there in the middle?

Dr Aiden: I’m sure there will be just given the, the internet these days and, you know, Doctor Who has run into various.,let’s say communities who perceive themselves as aggrieved, for representation issues in the past. The previous Doctor in particular was the first doctor to be female presenting during her run.

We see another variant, or in Doctor Who terms of regeneration, who is also female presenting and also, African Britain. So it is something that they have run into before. But this is one of the things that I think is again, emblematic of Russell Davis as a creator. He’s not afraid to touch those, those controversial rails or those 3rd rails and really, again, the matter-of-fact nature in which they deal with a lot of the more, I think, sticky issues like the conversation that Donna and her mother have in the kitchen about whether or not she should be, you know, complimenting her daughter Rose for being attractive when she didn’t before the transition, was a lovely kind of way of, again, not, you know, scolding or preaching like, you know, Donna could have, you know, yelled at her mother in that scene.

Like, you know, better stop doing this stuff, you know, whatever, but really just kind of lovingly interacting with her and, you know, modeling that. Hey, it doesn’t have to be uncomfortable for very long. We can actually just have a nice. Little matter of fact discussion, you know, she’s beautiful. She’s gorgeous.

And then, of course, you get the Catherine Tate humor about, you know, “you could be saying that about me”, the generational bit there. But I think that that was quite lovely. And I think the pronoun bit in the middle was also again, another way of making it matter of fact. This, you know, pronouns have been an issue now for a little while.

They tend to cause some people to get very upset about having to use them or not, and you know, turns out, if you’re a Doctor Who fan, you’ve been using alternative pronouns for a long time, because he’s the definite article. He is The Doctor, and Meep is The Meep. So, he idea that it’s Rose that kind of puts that as a question, I think was, it was nice to kind of nudge that conversation in there, and then, you know, to make it so that, you know, actually, the Doctor has an alternative pronoun of the definite article, and always has.

So, You know, pronouns are really not that big of a deal, right?

DRI: Yeah, I liked how they approached it, that it was, it was, a long time ago I talked about, like, I guess it would be framed as agenda-setting in media, like how we learn how to deal with things and everything from commercials to just, you know, how shows present things, especially things like sitcoms, like the Slice of Life stuff, how you might see how the video game or internet is incorporated into family life and then that kind of sets how we talk about it in, in the broader culture.

And so, yeah, just seeing that kind of embedded within it, treated matter of factly and the show moved on, I think was a really effective way of showing to its viewers. a good way of dealing with this. So I know we’re kind of getting a little bit tight on time here. So just in interest of not really spoiling things for any future episodes, but like, what are you looking forward to in the next couple?

Dr Aiden: Oh, for sure. So this is actually an interesting production thing as well. We’ve 60th leading up to this latest episode and it turns out, that most of the footage in those trailers comes from this 1st episode. So, Russell T. Davis himself, in an interview I was reading recently, has mentioned that, you know, they haven’t cut any footage into a trailer from this 2nd episode coming up.

So, we literally know nothing about what’s going to happen in this next episode. We know, of course, how the episode ended. The TARDIS is doing its TARDIS thing. Things look like it’s a crisis and it’s going to take us anywhere it wants in time and space, which is actually something they’ve done quite frequently in Doctor Who, the TARDIS is always enduring and fragile at the same time.

It seems to always be breaking down and going the wrong place and not doing what he wants it to do, but then also always doing what he needs it to do, which is actually a line from the Steven Moffitt episode, called the Doctor’s Wife, I think, and pardon me if I got that wrong, but it’s essentially where he gets to speak to the tardis, ’cause it gets embodied in a human- ish body, for a little while. So you get this idea that, you know, it’s always kind of had that, so that I’m, you know, eagerly anticipating, you know, what kind of surprise are we gonna get next for this next episode?

DRI: All right. And for me, I think it was that toy box at the end with a bunch of little critters.

Some of those I recognize from various… I think there’s a lot of cross pollination between media in, you know, in various, not necessarily transmedia ways, but just the influence from one cultural element showing up in other ways. I’ve seen some of those creatures in other forms and other formats before, whether it’s dungeon and dragons or Warhammer.

So seeing which of those actually show up as dudes in costumes or, as special effects, I’m kind of curious as well. So we will see what happens. So, with that in mind, I think we’re pretty close to our time. So I’m going to, let’s touch base in a week here or maybe less. I think, we’ll get this out probably around the release of the second of the specials, give or take.

And hopefully we can touch base before the third one as well and talk a little bit further. So again, Dr. Aiden Buckland, thank you for joining me. I appreciate the insight, as always. And, from someone with no…, who knows nothing, I appreciate again you taking the time to share with everybody here on the ImplausiPod.

Dr Aiden: Sure. Thanks very much for having me, Doctor, and look forward to talking again.

DRI: Okay. Thank you. And once again, thanks to our guest, Dr. Aiden Buckland. You can contact him at doctoraidenwho at gmail. com. And again, I’ve been your host, Dr. Implausible. Join us again in a week or so for the second of the Dr. Who Christmas specials. We’re going to try and recap that one as well, or give you my impressions as I become a little bit more familiar with the. Dr. Who cinematic universe here. And again, you can contact us at Dr. Implausible at implausipod. com. We have a few other episodes going up shortly, so we’ll keep on with the regular production, but we hope to talk to you again soon until then have fun.

“Wild Blue Yonder” quick take

Had the time to sit down for a watch of the second Dr. Who special episode for 2023, with David Tennant as the 14th Doctor. Found this one much more enjoyable than the first one, as the episode was focused on just the two characters (The Doctor and the Companion), in a spaceship at the edge of the universe.

So there was a lot less of the additional references and information that went into the first episode. Or at least I think there was; as the old Rumsfeld Matrix went, the episode could have been filled with unknown knowns. As a novice viewer, how could I know.

There was some fun stuff there with the idea of “slowness” that I want to get into; there’s at least a couple places where it’s been mentioned in sci-fi that I can recall, and the overall themes of knowning, not knowing, and unthinking thought carried through as well.

I’ll bring up the connections in the next recap episode, which should be out later this week. Until then.

The Star Beast

Finally watched a Dr Who episode. Seriously, hadn’t seen more than a clip or three before. Full thoughts will come in episode 19 of the Implausipod.

An odd episode: it felt like a speedrun through the required story beats to link everything together, and a lot of the rest was elided. So I’m not sure it was a representative story of the franchise; we got equal parts “very special episode” and “fanservice”, and while I was able to make some external connections early (and by the midpoint too), by the end it was all internally referential, and the titular Star Beast was a very thin foil for the rest of the internal narrative that the showrunner wanted to hang over the episode.

As a new viewer, I’m not entirely convinced to stick around. Let’s see how the next one goes…

E018 – Appendix W03 – The Game of Rat and Dragon


In episode 18 of the Implausipod we return to Appendix W with a little known but pivotal short story for both science fiction generally and Warhammer 40000 specifically, and the creation of the Warp, and the daemons that dwell within: Cordwainer Smith’s “The Game of Rat and Dragon” from 1955.

Read along here:

Implausipod E0018 – Appendix W E03 – The Game of Rat and Dragon


“Out in that nothingness, he could sense the hollow, aching horror of space itself, and could feel the terrible anxiety which his mind encountered whenever it met the faintest trace of inert dust. Here, there was nothing to fight, nothing to challenge the mind, to tear the living soul out of a body with its roots dripping in effluvium as tangible as blood.”

This is The Game of Rat and Dragon. Learn all about it in our first visit to the Instrumentality of Mankind, as we return to the Appendix W in this week’s episode of The Implausible.

Welcome to The Implausipod, a podcast about the intersection of art, technology, and popular culture. I’m your host, Dr. Implausible. And it’s been a little while since we talked about Appendix W, so perhaps a quick refresher is in order. It’s been about a year since we last posted on Starship Troopers, and well, things took a little bit of an interesting turn there for a bit.

But the Appendix W is one of the major threads of this podcast. We’re going to include it here for now, though at some point in the future, we may have to spin off Appendix W to become its own thing. We’re going to talk a little bit more about the future of Appendix W at the end of this episode. But for those new to the podcast or unfamiliar with the concept, Appendix W is a look at the science fiction history and influences that went into the development of the Warhammer 40, 000 universe published by Games Workshop.

I’m calling it Appendix W as it mirrors the Appendix N that was originally published in the Dungeon Master’s Guide for Advanced Dungeons and Dragons and showed the influences that went into the development of that game. And while both games share some overlapping elements in their influences, there’s some radical differences that led to the development of the Grimdark.

And it’s that Grimdark that I want to touch on at the start of this episode. Because more than anything else, it’s the defining adjective for the Warhammer 40,000 universe. It was a tagline in the original publication of Rogue Trader: “In the grim darkness of the 41st millennium, there’s no hope, no peace, no forgiveness, only war.”

And it’s kind of stuck, that portmanteau of those first two words, grim and dark, is what’s been used to describe the aesthetic of the Warhammer 40, 000 universe. And it’s managed to sneak out a little bit and enter the larger popular culture being used to describe things like George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones or Song of Ice and Fire.

But what is the Grimdark really, especially when it comes to Warhammer 40, 000? It’s a nightmare gothic future where humanity has decayed and fallen, still living with high technology that they no longer realize how to build and maintain. Humanity is a fallen race living in the shadow of their ancestors.

Humanity is maintained by a ruthless bureaucracy, a massive army, and endless brutality. And it’s this brutality that defines the Warhammer 40, 000 universe. It’s not a pleasant place, and there are no good guys. Whatever side you might think you’re on, there is no good side. 

Warhammer 40, 000 was originally developed by Games Workshop in the mid to late 80s and it drew inspiration from some of their other products. The rules were written primarily by Rick Priestley and assisted by other artists and writers in the Games Workshop studio, and it drew inspiration from a game called Laserburn, which was a sci fi ruleset, as well as their Warhammer Fantasy Battles world and ruleset, which just recently had its 40th anniversary.

It was in the second or third edition by the time 40k was published. As part of this crossover, we can see the inclusion of traditional Tolkien- esque fantasy races like elves and dwarves and orcs, all placed in a space faring format, different, but recognizable. 

There were other fantasy elements included as well, particularly the role of chaos, and we’re going to see a lot more of that in our next episode when we look at the Eternal Warrior. But for right now, the idea of chaos and the warp was manifest in some early science fiction writings, or ones that kind of crossed the barrier between fantasy and science fiction. In the Warhammer 40, 000 universe, Chaos and The Warp are pretty much inseparable, but they don’t completely overlap.

So we’re going to focus on The Warp in this episode and get to Chaos in the next one. And we’re focusing on these two episodes because they work as a pair, as well as something came up in the real world which required some background explanation in order to provide that foundation. We might as well get to it right now.

And in addition to that, there’s currently nothing in production for both these media properties. So they fall outside the domain of the current and ongoing SAG- AFTRA strike. We can discuss them freely. Even though they’re both highly influential, there’s currently nothing under development for either of them to my knowledge either.

But before I go too far off on a tangent, what exactly is the Warp? Well, in terms of Warhammer 40, 000, it’s one of the defining characteristics of the Warhammer 40k universe. It’s the space between the stars, the background behind the scenes of the galaxy. But in true 40k fashion, it’s not a nice place, which is understating it.

It’s a sanity twisting realm inhabited by terrible monstrous entities, where time flows differently, where reality itself can be bent and twisted. And of course, as a space, it can be conquered, but at a terrible cost. During past more enlightened ages of humanity, humans spread across the galaxy and the Imperium of Man along with it.

And now, in the 41st millennium that is, humans in the Imperium of Man can find themselves cut off from the rest of the Empire for years or centuries by vast storms that occur across the warp. So the warp is a vast non-space where time is a little wibbly wobbly, and because of that humanity can travel faster than life and was able to colonize the galaxy.

For humanity, it isn’t easy. It requires some element of psychic power in order to traverse across the warp, and the warp is not without its inhabitants either. In Warhammer 40, 000, these include the daemons and some other entities as well, and in the works of Cordwainer Smith, these include the Dragons.

But the dragons aren’t really dragons at all. It’s just how we perceive them. They’re creatures that we found that manifest out of the dust, like in that opening quote. And when humanity first encountered them, it didn’t go too well for us. But ever the resourceful creatures, we found a way. 

The Game of Rat and Dragon was first published in 1955 in Galaxy Science Fiction magazine, a collection of short stories that was how most science fiction got published at the time.

It was written in 1954 by Cordwainer Smith, and it was influential. It was nominated for Best Short Story at the Hugo Awards in 1956, though it lost to Arthur C. Clarke’s The Star. Other nominees that year included James Blish, and Ray Bradbury, and Theodore Sturgeon. So, you know, you’re judged by the company that you keep.

Cordwainer Smith was the pen name of Paul Linnebarger, who was born in 1913, and was named Lin ba lo by his godfather, Sun Yat Sen, who Linnebarger’s father was an advisor to. He received his PhD in political science from John Hopkins University before becoming faculty at Duke for a number of years during World War II, he served with the United States Army, but because he had an advanced degree, he was a second lieutenant that was working in psychological warfare and military intelligence.

Well, the advanced degree and those other factors, too.) He coordinated intelligence operations with China and was a confidant of Chiang Kai Shek. And a lot of his work post war was also in the intelligence community, so he kept his professional life and fiction writing separate, and the connection between the two wasn’t known until he passed away at the young age of 53 in 1966.

Most of his fiction appeared in short stories written during the course of his career, though he did begin writing at a very early age. His first published work was in 1928 that he wrote while he was in high school. And many of those stories took place in what we might now call a cinematic universe or shared universe.

In this case, the universe of the Instrumentality of Mankind. Now, I think we’re going to need to take a deeper look at the Instrumentality in some future episodes. So, I’ll let you listen for the Mr. Socko reference in that one, but for now, we’ll just give you some brief details about the Instrumentality.

The Instrumentality can be the connective thread that occurs across all of Cordwainer Smith’s future history novels. He’s detailing a period sometime between 6, 000 and 20, 000 years in the future, and as such, the novels are loosely collected, describing the background of the setting, which becomes more and more apparent throughout the course of the short stories and the one novel.

In these stories, humanity are the survivors of a nuclear holocaust that took place on Earth. There’s advanced technology, robots, bioengineered people, and of course, faster than light travel, the planoforming, the technology that’s described in detail in The Game of Rat and Dragon. But without further ado, let’s get into the text.

If you’d like to follow along, the full text is available through Project Gutenberg. I’ll make a link available in the show notes,. And you can treat this as your spoiler warning. Here we go. 

In the story, we follow the tale of our protagonist, Underhill, who is a pinlighter, which has a specialized role on the starships.

They’re the ones who help the starships cross interstellar space safely. Think of them like a psychic gunner. The four pinlighters that we’re introduced to are all telepathic, to some degree. It’s a tough job, though. Two months of recovery is required for every half an hour of work, and mandatory retirement is enforced after ten years.

But, as they say, work’s work. The pinlighters are given a military rank, even though their specialized talents kind of set them apart from the rest of the organization. As we meet Underhill, he’s getting ready for the next space flight by donning a Pinset, a helmet that vastly amplifies his telepathic abilities, allowing him to see the range of the solar system.

If you’re thinking Professor X with Cerebro, then you’re not far off. It presents that image of the solar system to him in a kind of a non space, kind of a precursor to virtual reality or augmented reality that we think of now. But again, this was written in 1954. With the enhanced abilities, you can see this whole solar system, but there’s no danger there, as the bright light of the stars keep the dragons at bay.

They mostly inhabit the Up-and-Out, the dark space between the stars, where the light is too dim to shine. They weren’t really dragons, but the telepaths could sense them, and that’s what they were collectively named. Quote: “Dragons. That was what people called them. To ordinary people, there was nothing, nothing except the shiver of planetforming and the hammer blow of sudden death, or the dark spastic note of lunacy descending into their minds.

Dot dot dot. Beasts more clever than beasts. Demons more tangible than demons. Hungry vortices of aliveness and hate compounded by unknown means out of the thin tenuous matter between the stars.” End quote. 

The dragons preyed on humanity as it tried to spread amongst the stars to leave the solar system behind. They didn’t catch every ship, but enough, and as time went on, more and more dragons pursued ships trying to leave the solar system. 

When a dragon attack did occur, it would either kill everybody on board or leave those touched by it insane. Almost like the Reavers from Firefly and Serenity. Like I said, there’s deep echoes of this text throughout sci fi in the 70 years since its publication.

But through luck or happy accident, humanity was able to discover that all it took was light, super intense light, to turn the dragons back into the immaterial dust that it was formed out of. And once this was figured out, a set of technologies and practices was put into place to allow humanity to once again safely travel between the stars. But it didn’t last long, and the dragons got quicker and faster. 

So humanity had to turn to their companions to help them through, and thus were introduced to the Partners. Cordwainer Smith strings us along for a couple pages until it’s revealed that the Partners are indeed cats, that the telepaths are able to connect to psychically.

I’m not sure if this is the first appearance of psychic cats in science fiction, but if not, it’s very close to it, and that’s the long association of cats joining us in space begins. The cats, the Partners, have much faster reaction times than humans, as I’m sure we’re all aware, and they see the entities not as dragons, but as Rats, as creatures to be chased down and hunted, and so they’re exceedingly good at their job.

The cats are loaded into capsules that are launched outside the ship, and they maintain a… Psychic contact with the telepaths inside, and from there, they hunt the Dragons, directing the pins that are sent by the telepaths, the photonuclear bombs that light up space and destroy any Dragons that get too close.

From there, we’re introduced to the telepaths that are working on this particular mission, a team of four of them per ship. Underhill, our protagonist, Woodley, who’s close to retirement at the age of 26. Father Moontree, an older man who started his career late, and West, a young girl who was recruited at a young age because of her psychic abilities.

We’re also introduced to two of the partners, Lady May and Captain Wow. The other two Partners remain unnamed, though present. From there they get ready to protect the ship, drawing lots to see who their partners will be. Underhill’s partner is Lady May. They’ve worked together before. They have a bit of a history.

Once they’re ready, they let the ship captain know. The captain is a Scanner, introduced by Smith in his previous short story, Scanners Live in Vain, which was his introductory work. When that one was released, everyone thought he was already an accomplished author, writing under a pseudonym, but as we say, Cordwainer Smith had a bit of a gift for the art form early on.

We’ll return to those Scanners when we look at the Instrumentality as a full series in a future episode. And then they planoform, which is when the ship shifts into hyperspace or warp speed or however we might call it nowadays. The ship has to make a number of short hops shifting in and out of real space in this hyperspace.

And it’s during that journey that they encounter the dragons, when it’s most risky for the crew and passengers, and it’s during the second hop that the ship is attacked by something terrible in the darkness. West and her partner Captain Wow have at it first, but they’re unable to score a direct hit. So Lady May swings around from the other side of the ship and is able to finally take it out, but not before it lashes out and strikes at Underhill.

The entirety of the combat has taken milliseconds and the psychics are barely able to get their thoughts out. Lady May was able to direct the photonuclear bombs at the enemy across the distance of a hundred thousand miles, but even then, for a fraction of a millisecond, it struck Underhill, and even that was enough to nearly permanently disable him.

He spends the rest of the flight in stasis as the other pin lighters take over for defense of the ship, and when they arrive at the system that was their target, he is sent into retirement. And he spends a long period of recovery in the hospital, where his chief concern is not the passengers, not the crew, nor the other pin lighters, but only his love, Lady May, and scene.

So the story of the game of Rat and Dragon isn’t long. Maybe over 5500 words, a dozen pages, but within that contains seeds for a massive amount of things we saw in science fiction in general, and Warhammer 40, 000 more specifically. As is our want and as we’ve done in previous episodes, I’d like to run through what some of those elements are right now.

Among those elements include the technology, as we saw with our Starship Troopers episode, as well as those setting elements that were directly or indirectly adapted for the Warhammer 40, 000 universe, and then the key elements and influences for science fiction in general. 

Despite the short length of the story, we did see the introduction of some new technologies, like the pin sets, the telepathic amplification units that allow the telepaths to see the distance of the solar system, and also the pin lighting, the Quote, “ultra vivid miniature photonuclear bombs” that the Partners were able to deploy against the Dragons, generating intense light that vaporized them from existence.

And then lastly is the planoforming, warp travel, hyperspace. There’s other science fiction stories that were talking about similar things, notably Foundation. Foundation was being published around contemporaneously with Cordwainer Smith’s first two short stories. Scanners Live in Vain came out in 1950 and…

Game of Rat and Dragon came out in 55. So they’re around the same time as this serial publication, the development of the universe now, obviously Asimov was a giant even in the early 50s within the science fiction community and Cordwainer Smith was a young and relatively unknown author, but still, the impact that the stories had were outsized.

Now, when we shift over to Warhammer 40, 000, we can directly see some of those influences. The development of the warp, and warp travel, and the daemons that existed within it. And so many of those elements that are now taken as canon within the Warhammer 40, 000 universe are coming directly from 

The Game of Rat and Dragon and the other stories about the Instrumentality of Mankind, the tech, the photon bombs, and that did show up within Warhammer 40, 000 as it was a combat game.

There was more of a focus on that rather than some of the more background elements that we’d see within the instrumental instrumentality stories as a whole and. Within the instrumentality, there was much more influence on Warhammer 40k, even though they were only briefly mentioned or hinted at here.

One of those is the Scanners, people who have had their sensory inputs severed so that they could withstand what’s called the Great Pain of Space. These can be seen in the Astropaths of the Imperium. Others can include the social organization of the Instrumentality itself, reflected in the Lords of Terra.

And the Abhumans, the half-human, half man hybrids that have been bioengineered as part of the Imperium. And finally, that idea of Deep Time. The Instrumentality stories take place over thousands and thousands of years, from 6, 000 years in the future to 14, 000 years in the future. And finally, the idea of the story taking place in the 41st millennium itself may have been drawn from a Cordwainer Smith story.

As Gautham Shenoy notes in their blog post from 2018, there was a misprint on a copy of Space Lords, published by Pyramid Books in 1965, which collected the instrumentality stories that said: “Take a trip 40, 000 years into the future to the weird and wonderful universe of Cordwainer Smith.” End quote. So, yeah, the 41st millennium may have been based on a misprint.

I mean, the Instrumentality stories took place 14, 000 years in the future, not 40, 000, but uh, 40, 000 sounds kinda catchy, doesn’t it? I wonder if it’ll take off. Clearly there was an influence. And we see much of that influence in other sci fi series. that would follow, like Dune. Frank Herbert’s serialization began eight years after the publication of Game of Rat and Dragon.

Thirteen years after the publication of Cordwainer Smith’s first story, and we know it did have an influence. We see a lot of those same elements like the warp travel, space empire, and specialists being needed for the empire to function in space. But we’ll have to go into some of those direct connections when we look at Dune in a future episode.

But we’ll return to the Instrumentality at least a few more times, as the echoes in the warp ring deeply. For now, this has been episode 3 of Appendix W, episode 18 of the Implausopod. Join us next time, we’ll be returning to Appendix W shortly, but there’s some timing issues, we’ll see how long that takes, but stay tuned for an episode on Blood and Souls.

In the meantime, the Implausipod will continue as we investigate a unique occurrence within Las Vegas as this fear has made manifest in our reality, and a film interview outside of the SAG AFTRA strike, Postcards from Earth by Darren Aronofsky, a pseudo- documentary that is showing on the sphere. We’ll talk about this in upcoming episodes.

In the meantime, I’ve been your host, Dr. Implausible. The Implausipod is produced under a Creative Commons Sharealike 4.0 license. All production, including writing, recording, narration, mixing, and music, is done by yours truly, Dr. Implausible. Until next time, take care.

References and Links:

Smith, C. (1955, October). The Game of Rat and Dragon. Galaxy Science Fiction, 11(1), 126–146.

The Game of Rat and Dragon on Project Gutenberg:

The (re)discovery of Cordwainer Smith, the shaper of myths. (2018, September 29). FactorDaily.

Gioia, T. (2013, March 26). Remembering Cordwainer Smith: Full-Time Sci-Fi Author, Part-Time Earthling. The Atlantic.

The (re)discovery of Cordwainer Smith, the shaper of myths. (2018, September 29). FactorDaily.

Gioia, T. (2013, March 26). Remembering Cordwainer Smith: Full-Time Sci-Fi Author, Part-Time Earthling. The Atlantic.

Linebarger, P. M. A. (1993). The rediscovery of man: The complete short science fiction of Cordwainer Smith (1st ed.). NESFA Press.

Grimdark, Tone, (and Disney)

What’s happening to the Star Wars universe? I mean, yes, there are problems, and some of these are coming to the forefront, where the demand for increased throughput of the EFP (ie “content”) through the pipes of consumption exposes any flaws or imperfections in the infrastructure, and… to absolutely bury the metaphor… eventually the system buckles under the pressure and cracks…

Spewing stuff everywhere in full Technicolor with Dolby sound… ?

Anyhoo, this is an article on tone, mostly. Shades of grey and brown, apparently. Disney isn’t using the full color palette is what I’m getting at. But we’re starting at the end of the discussion, with burst pipes and a flooded basement. How did we get here?

It started with a re-watch of SW9:RotS on the streams a little while back. I was half interested, and hardly paying attention when the scene in the Emperor’s rejuvenation chamber came up… and it struck me.

The Grimdark.

The biomechanical rejuvenation chambers, the archaeotech, the fractured remains, the body horror.

These are not elements of a Star Wars movie.

They come from… elsewhere.

And I think this speaks to the recent disconnect [between the fans and the franchise].

As we’ve argued elsewhere on the Grimdark* , it is an essential feature of the Warhammer 40K universe.

(*check out podcast episode #… Whoops. Did I post that? One moment…)

And as we’ve argued at the outset of the Appendix W series, W40K was a hodge-podge of every science fiction trope from the 60s, 70s, and 80s, put in a blender, and with the mix pushed through the speakers turned up to 11. And early Star Wars (the original trilogy, plus some of the EU stuff available at the time, like the ongoing Marvel comic series and early novelizations) was definitely thrown in the blender like everything else.

Vader as an armored force-using, laser sword wielding transhuman cyborg super-soldier definitely counts as a proto-40K influence.

Of course, in the grim darkness of the 41st millennium, there’s a couple thousand like him working for the Imperium of man alone. In W40K, the dial that goes up to 11 increases exponentially. Darth Vader would be in for a very tough fight.

The other big influence that makes the Grimdark grim and/or dark is that fallen sense of technology. The “dying earth” subgenre of sci-fi, where the 20th century may be a distant memory. Often indistinguishable from fantasy, and drawing mostly from a couple strong influences like well, Vance’s Dying Earth and the Wolfe’s Shadow of the Torturer series**. And Herbert’s Dune, after a fashion. All of these are in the grimdark blender too.

** Did we post that up in the Appendix W either? No? Well then, shortly.

And while there is a pretty direct line between Dune and SW4:ANH, the grim dark filter hadn’t been built yet. So the appearance of the Grimdark in the SW universe in 2019 signified a rather significant shift in tone. And it’s appeared in the Mando-verse as well over on Disney+, notably in Season 3, with the Armorer and the mass jet pack fight.

Much like the emperor’s rejuvenation chamber in SW9:RotS, the overlap of the grimdark becomes readily apparent in Mando S3. Part of this is just the material there’s only so many ways to portray a massed group of faceless space knights, and the shift in focal point characters in SW from “space monk with laser sword” to “power armor space knight” will by necessity lead in certain ways. There’s just certain kinds of stories you can tell in that framework, and GW has managed to deliver an exterminatus to the concept with over 100 novels(?) in the 40K universe.

But I digress: when we see the jetpack assault by the massed Mandalorian army in S3E8, there has been no better cinematic visualization of an Adeptus Astartes assault company incursion. And Paz’s stand with the minigun (with it’s echoes of both Jesse “the Body” Ventura’s Blain in Predator (1987) and Jiang Wen’s Baze Malbus in the aforementioned Rogue One (2016)) could substitute for 35 years of a Terminator Astartes armed with an Assault Cannon facing off against innumerable foes. And that last image provides us a rather helpful clue.

It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact moment of inception, when the SW universe made the Grimdark turn. While there are elements of it throughout the sequel trilogy, Rogue One (2016) feels like a reasonable candidate. It too marked a dramatic shift in visuals and tone, standing apart from the “mainline” Star Wars films the way that it does, and with the generally positive fan and critical reception it enjoyed as well. Rogue One was still recognizably Star Wars, though darker in tone and “more mature”, appealing to an older audience that had fond memories of the original (and perhaps even the prequel) trilogies, and appreciated the mature take. In a post-AGoT era for genre on the big screen, the expectations of a more mature audience were met by Rogue One‘s screen presence.

But this more mature audience isn’t necessarily the audience that the sequel trilogy was needing to court. Star Wars seems to be pointed at a mainline audience of “the eternal 12 year old”***, an archetypical audience that is seduced by tales of the hero’s journey and see themselves within it, as long as they have the merch to go with. And Disney loves getting new fans for their franchises.

***: I could be wrong; they could be as young as eight.

And this is where the tone comes back into the picture. Because the Grimdark is defined as a universe where everything sucks and there are no good guys. Star Wars is more famously a universe with a New Hope.

This doesn’t mean there isn’t room for darker tales within the Star Wars universe; there most definitely is. The challenge comes in crossing the streams, mixing the Duff with the Duff Dark and Duff Light. Bringing the grimdark aesthetic over from a one-off that was successful for a host of reasons (of which the aesthetic was only a small part) into the mainline film series risks turning off the fans that the mainline audience are geared toward, the ETYO that Disney craves. Star Wars is an umbrella brand, and not all components that contribute to the franchise need to be geared to every part. They recognize this with the merch (I’m sure there is some overlap between Grogu squishmallows, SW Lego builders, and Mando cosplayers, but y’know, different strokes rule the world).

So is this a problem? No, not really, not in the sense that we’re contributing to the “Problemitization of Everything”. And perhaps not in the sense of it’s connection to other ongoing issues. Just an observation, drawn from the images on screen, and the connections and linkages that exist. It’s part of a trend, perhaps, one that fits with some other things that are going on.

The shift in tone, may be a larger problem, long-term, for a multi-billion dollar corporation that is struggling with producing sustainable results while keeping the franchise afloat. But that’s a them problem, and possibly unrelated to this shift in tone.

But it might be, too. I feel like this bears looking out for over the coming years.


  • Star Wars images copyright Disney 2019, 2023
  • Warhammer 40K images copyright Games Workshop 2023