Doctor Who: Escape Velocity [Book Review]

DOCTOR WHO: ESCAPE VELOCITY
By Colin Brake/BBC Books/February 2001

Escape Velocity is a combination of the new and the old. New because it takes place after the pivotal Ancestor Cell, and old, because despite being part of the new arc of Doctor Who novels, it’s basically a traditional Who story.

The Doctor has spent the last hundred years on Earth while his TARDIS heals. He’s not exactly himself either. His memory is full of holes, but he does have a note to meet Fitz, his companion, at a certain bar in London. For Fitz, it hasn’t been all that long, and he’s looking forward to seeing the Doctor again. Unfortunately, he gets sidetracked by a TV news story that hints of the Doctor’s presence in Brussels, and off he goes.

This serves to introduce Anji Kapoor, destined to be the Doctor’s new traveling companion. She’s on vacation with her boyfriend Dave in Brussels, and witnesses the death of a two-hearted alien. It isn’t the Doctor, but it is an alien. The trio’s investigation into the odd occurrences puts Dave at risk, and sends Anji and Fitz back to London to enlist the Doctor’s help.

The ensuing story involves two rival rich men vying to be the first private venture into space, while an alien fleet lies in wait to invade the earth. Aside from the changes the Doctor has undergone, this is a traditional Doctor Who story in every sense, with few surprises. Everything is tied up very nicely and predictably. It’s not badly written, considering it’s Brake’s first novel – he is an experienced TV writer (he was a script editor on the British series “Bugs”) – but there’s nothing new here.

The Doctor and Fitz are handled quite well, and to his credit, Anji Kapoor is a very likeable companion. Unfortunately, the rest of the characters are rather two-dimensional and follow paths that are contrived and all too familiar.

Not a great book, but a reasonably enjoyable light read.

Royal Bank rewards in real time [Portfolio]

With its launch of a year-long pilot program in B.C., Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) is upping the ante in the credit card customer loyalty game by providing selected Visa cardholders with instant rewards when they make purchases with their cards.

Powered by point-of-sale (POS) technology developed by Ernex Marketing Technologies, a Vancouver-based firm acquired by RBC last year (see “Royal Bank buys loyalty program provider,” Strategy DirectResponse, July 19, ‘99), the Royal Rewards program is said to be the first program of its type to be offered by a North American bank.

Selected Royal Bank Visa Gold Preferred and Platinum Preferred cardholders in Vancouver and the Lower Mainland of B.C. are eligible for enrolment in the Royal Rewards program, which debuted Sept. 1.

The program allows shoppers using RBC-issued Visa cards to get instant loyalty point status updates on their cash register receipts, and to redeem their points for instant rewards from participating merchants. For the first three months of the pilot project, cardholders can accelerate their points-earning capability by making repeat purchases with participating merchants. The program also incorporates a Swipe ‘n’ Win component (currently offering a grand prize trip to Hawaii) and custom-couponing capabilities.

The RBC program marks a departure from the standard approach of many retail-oriented loyalty marketing programs, which require customers to wait for their monthly statements to see their points status.

Marlene Thompson, vice-president, value-added programs at Toronto-based RBC, says the Royal Rewards program creates a win-win situation for both the bank and participating merchants because it builds loyalty among the bank’s cardholder base, while providing merchants with an effective tool to attract and retain customers.

“We always want to build loyalty for our products,” she says, adding that RBC had examined the possibility of implementing more traditional promotions – such as coupons – but decided it would be best to develop a loyalty program that would be simple and attractive for customers and merchants alike.

Vancouver was a logical location for the pilot, says Thompson, since it’s a sizable city and Ernex was already well-entrenched there – many of the 74 merchants participating in the pilot already have their own in-house loyalty programs powered by Ernex-enabled point-of-sale terminals.

“It really fit well for building Ernex business with Royal Bank business,” Thompson says.

The development of a new loyalty program for credit card holders can hardly be viewed as a response to declining credit card use, since, according to Visa Canada, there were 22 million active Visa cards in Canada in 1999, up 12.8% from the year before. However, there has been pressure from other fronts. Most notably, perhaps, U.S. MasterCard issuers MBNA and Capital One have both moved north in recent years, flooding the market with introductory offers of low interest rates.

“There’s a lot of competition and, in the last few years, it’s exploded in the Canadian marketplace,” says Thompson.

That may be so, but at least one analyst believes the threat from MBNA and Capital One is less serious than some might imagine.

Michael Szego, a retail industry consultant with Toronto-based J.C. Williams Group, says Canadians are smart consumers, and while many sign up for the cards to take advantage of the low introductory rates, lots of people are quick to dump them as soon as those rates go up.

He says that building long-term loyalty among cardholders, such as RBC is doing, is a much better strategy.

Szego says that, to date, no other Canadian credit card issuers are offering anything comparable to the Royal Rewards program.

“The key is the program’s real-time element,” he says. “Instant gratification is always better than deferred gratification.”

But it’s not just the structure of the Royal Rewards program itself that makes it stand out. Ernex technology also provides valuable consumer data that can be leveraged by Royal Bank and the participating merchants.

According to some of those participating in the trial, the Royal Rewards program has already created some new marketing opportunities. Superstar, a sporting goods retail chain with 25 outlets in B.C., says the program has provided the company an opportunity to broaden its reach beyond its core base of hardcore sporting fanatics.

According Joe Calvano, vice-president of Superstar, the Royal Rewards program is a great way to entice new customers and keep them coming back.

“Once they shop with us once,” he says, “they’ll continue to do so.”

Originally published in Strategy Magazine, October 9, 2000

X-Men film debut rivals Burton’s Batman

I stayed up late enough last night to catch Roger Ebert’s review of the new X-Men movie and it reminded me why I never listen to movie reviewers most of the time: they have no idea how to review a genre film.

It’s not that I begrudge Ebert’s right to give a thumbs down, but why is it that the X-Men only received a minute of discussion when most movies on the show receive a lot more? I’ll tell you why: because it’s a comic book movie and people like Ebert are just too erudite to review these kinds of movies. In Ebert’s case, senility must also be a factor. He found the movie hard to follow. Better count your brain cells, Roger. He also complained there was too much focus on character development. Usually these anal retentive reviewers are complaining that there’s not enough character development and too much action.

Right now you’re probably thinking that I’m a rabid X-Men fan who will stand by his favorite mutants no matter how bad the movie may be. Wrong. I’ve never read an X-Men comic. I was a DC fan when I was younger. Green Lantern. Legion of Superheroes. Hawkman. Not X-Men. But while Ebert says the uninitiated would have problems following the movie, I had no problem at all. The X-Men is probably the best comic book movie since the first Batman, and I would hazard to say even better. This isn’t a bunch of guys in costumes taking each other on and trading one line zingers. This movie actually has depth, much more than any other comic book movie that’s been made. Not only should it be lauded for the effort of making its characters three-dimensional, it should be lauded for succeeding, with some minor exceptions.

The story is primarily told from the eyes of a teenage girl named Marie (aka Rogue), played by Anna Paquin, and Logan (aka Wolverine), played by Hugh Jackman. Rogue discovers early in the movie that she will drain the lifeforce out of anyone she touches and heads north, where she runs into Logan. Logan has the ability to heal very quickly from any wounds and has also been implanted with an indestructible metal, providing him with razor sharp claws. They are just two of many mutants in the world who are feared by the general public. A US senator (Bruce Davison) is leading the push to pass a bill that would force mutants to register. Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) has hope that humanity will learn to accept mutants, but his old friend and now nemesis, Eric Lencher (aka Magneto), played by Ian McKellen, believes that the only recourse is to make sure mutants end up on top no matter what the cost. His mutants attack Wolverine and Rogue, but they are rescued by Xavier’s own X-Men, Storm (Halle Berry) and Cyclops (James Marsden).

Xavier runs a school for gifted youngsters, also a haven for mutants. He promises to help Wolverine unravel his past. The difference between mutants and superheroes is that mutants are persecuted, and in some cases a danger to themselves as well as others, whereas superheroes such as Superman were instantly idolized for their heroic abilities. The movie deals with this aspect in a thoughtful manner and the issue of racism, albeit on a simplistic level. Magneto as the villain is not just some guy who’s gone wacko like the villains in the Batman films. His motivations are very human. Unfortunately the mutants that have sided with him lack depth: the shape changing Mystique (Rebecca Romjin-Stamos), Toad (the Phantom Menace’s Ray Park) and Sabretooth (Tyler Mane) are all just two-dimensional baddies.

The X-Men is a very entertaining movie that’s well cast and well-plotted, balancing the character development and the action scenes. Don’t listen to the stuck up reviewers: they just don’t get it. And any die hard X-men fan I’ve spoken to has loved the movie and says it’s true to the original comic book legacy that inspired it. This X-Men virgin thinks it’s the best movie of the summer.

Gary Hilson is a writer, editor and digital media specialist for hire. He lives in Toronto.

Something Wicca This Way Comes [TV Review]

I never thought I’d ever enjoy a television show with Aaron Spelling’s name attached to it, but I decided to give Charmed a chance.

Produced by Spelling and airing on the WB Network in the U.S., the series revolves around three women played by Shannen Doherty, Holly Marie Combs and Alyssa Milano, who discover they are witches – good witches, but witches nonetheless. Each has her own special powers: Prue (Doherty) can move objects through telekinesis, Piper (Combs) can freeze time, and Phoebe (Milano) can see into the future. In addition, they have other spells at their disposable, thanks to a book Phoebe digs up in the attic of the family house the sisters inherited.

Prue and Piper also have Phoebe to thank for the magical powers. By reading a passage from the book, she activates their powers. They soon discover their grandmother, who recently passed away, was a witch. When she died, her powers her came up for grabs. Unfortunately, an evil warlock, who has been stalking and killing other witches in San Francisco to take their powers, has been waiting for the sisters to realize these powers.

The first episode has a very simple plot, as the sisters have to use their combined talents to defeat the warlock. In the midst of all this they face job woes and sibling infighting, while one of the detectives investigating the murders, an old acquaintance of Prue’s, knows not everything is what it seems.

With some good writers, Charmed could be more than just a ‘evil creature that must be defeated by the sisters’ show. Buffy The Vampire Slayer has proven it is about more than just a teenage girl killing vampires every week.

Charmed has all the right ingredients to become another cult hit for the WB.

Gary Hilson is a writer, editor and digital media specialist for hire. He lives in Toronto.

Once More Unto the Breach [TV Review]

Since its debut, I’ve always tried to like Star Trek: Voyager. It’s not as if I don’t like the show, but for the most part, I’ve been disappointed in it.

Every year I sit down to watch the season premiere and hope that the show will improve. I usually start the season optimistic, depending on the season finale from the year before. Last season, Voyager finished with a ho hum episode, so I wasn’t overly excited about year five.

I have mixed feelings about “‘Night”, the season premiere. It had an interesting premise and some good character development, but still lacked many elements, elements that have made Deep Space Nine my preferred Star Trek sequel series.

While the writers finally to a leap and made Paris and Torres a couple, the relationship has simply gone nowhere. In ‘Night’, they’re reduced to unconvincing squabbling to further demonstrate the frustration the crew is feeling while traveling an expanse of lifeless, starless space.

Admittedly, the story wasn’t horrible and there were some nifty special effects, but it is an obvious example of what is wrong with Voyager: In the Delta Quadrant, everything seems to happen in a bottle. Yes, there have been sequels to previous episodes, but rarely are the consequences of actions carried over from one episode to another. “Year of Hell” was a great episode until it turns out it never happened at all.

It’s not that I’m unwilling to give Voyager a chance. I’ve given it plenty of chances. But after fours seasons, I don’t feel this crew has developed much in terms of characterization and I’ve yet to see an episode that truly wowed or surprised.

Deep Space Nine has given me a reason to come back every episode because of its continuing storyline. Right now, I can take or leave Voyager.

Gary Hilson is a writer, editor and digital media specialist for hire. He lives in Toronto.

Doctor Who: The Janus Conjunction [Book Review]

Doctor Who: The Janus Conjunction
By Trevor Baxendale / BBC Books / October 1998

“The planets Janus Prime and Meridia are diametrically opposed in orbit round a vast Red Giant star. But while Menda is rich and fertile in the light of the sun, Janus Prime endures everlasting night, its moon causing a permanent solar eclipse.

When the Doctor and Sam arrive on Janus Prime, they find themselves in the middle of a war between rival humans colonizing the area. The planet is littered with ancient ruins, and the Mendans are using a mysterious hyper-spatial link left behind by the planet’s former inhabitants. But what is its true purpose?

The Doctor and Sam must piece together a centures-old puzzle. How can Janus Prime’s moon weigh billions of tons more than it should? Why is the planet riddled with deadly radiation? As the violence escalates around them, will the time travelers survive to discover the answers?”

I really liked The Janus Conjunction because it doesn’t strive to be anything more than a straightforward Doctor Who adventure and succeeds.

The Doctor and Sam arrive on a planet, get separated, thrown in prison, get caught between two factions and have a puzzle to solve in the process. Nothing that hasn’t been done before, but it’s well executed. The guest characters don’t take over the story, but are well developed enough that their motivations are understandable, even the villains.

While the recent outing Seeing I had a lot to do about looking at the Doctor and Sam’s relationship in depth, here they are just Doctor and companion working together with really well-written dialogue. The Doctor is the Doctor I’ve always known in any regeneration: the hero that takes charge of the situation.

There’s nothing groundbreaking about The Janus Conjunction, but it’s very functional, entertaining and moves along briskly.

 

Doctor Who: Seeing I [Book Review]

Doctor Who: Seeing I
By Jonathan Blum and Kate Orman / BBC Books / June 1998

Sam is homeless on the streets of the colony world of Ha’olam, trying to face what’s just happened between her in the Doctor. He’s searching for her, and for answers. While she struggles to survive in a strange city centuries from home, the Doctor comes across evidence of alien involvment in the local mega corporation, INC – and is soon confined to a prison that becomes a hell of his own making.

Where did INC’s mysterious eye implants really come from? What is the company searching for in the deserts? What is hiding in the shadows, watching their progress?

Faced with these mysteries, separated by half a world, Sam and the Doctor each face a battle – Sam to rebuild her life, the Doctor to stay sane. And if they do find each other again, what will be left of either of them?”

I was expecting a lot from Kate Orman, who wrote some of my favorite New Adventures, but Seeing I doesn’t quite deliver in the end. However, it’s still well above average.

At the beginning of the book, Sam and the Doctor are already separated, so there is a lot of Sam development going on. In fact, she ages years, not days or months, in this story. Meanwhile, the Doctor is stuck in a prison that even he can’t escape.

For the first two thirds of the book, Seeing I is a departure from most Who novels as it explores the plight of the Doctor and his companion on a psychological level. However, the last third of the book turns into a straightforward Who adventure. That’s not to say it isn’t well done, but it doesn’t quite deliver the ending as promised with the earlier character trials.

All in all a definite must read.

Doctor Who: Dreamstone Moon [Book Review]

DOCTOR WHO: DREAMSTONE MOON
By Paul Leonard / BBC Books / May 1998

“Sam is on her own, but here distance from the Doctor doesn’t make for a trouble-free life. Rescued from an out of control spaceship, she finds herself on a tiny moon which is the only know source of dreamstone, a mysterious crystalline substance that can preserve or dreams – or give you nightmares.

 Pitched into the middle of a conflict between the mining company extracting dreamstone and ecological protesters, Sam thinks it’s easy to decide who the good guys are – until people start dying, and the killers seem to be the same species as some of her new friends.

 Meanwhile, the Doctor has tracked Sam down, but before he can reach her he’s co-opted by the Dreamstone Mining Company and their sinister military advisors. Suddenly, it’s war – and the Doctor is forced to fight against what he believes in. He alone suspects that Dreamstone isn’t what it appears to be. But nobody’s listening – and nobody could dream who the real enemy is…”

After my first BBC Books Doctor Who outing, The Eigtht Doctors, I really needed to read a *good* Doctor Who book. Dreamstone Moon by Paul Leonard didn’t quite deliver, but it wasn’t bad either.

First off this is a Sam book – the Doctor and his companion were separated several books ago, I assume. It isn’t entirely a bad thing because at this point I wanted to get to know the Sam character. But I also read Doctor Who novels to read about the Doctor, and role in the book is very wanting. When he does have scenes in the story, he doesn’t seem on the ball about anything.

The story itself is really predictable although quasi-interesting. It didn’t really grip. Nothing about it really did. The one observation I can make is that Paul Leonard is skilled at creating truly alien characters.

In the end, I don’t know if like Dreamstone Moon or not, so it’s probably worth deciding for yourself.

Star Trek New Frontier: Fire On High [Book Review]

Star Trek New Frontier: Fire On High
Peter David/Pocket Books/April 1998

Fire On High isn’t Peter David’s best work, but it still proves how his Star Trek: New Frontier setting is so much more entertaining then Voyager ever was.

This is the second full-length novel since the debut of the initial four novellas, and while the story stands on its own, there are subplots that have been going since previous books. Fire On High revolves around the reappearance of Lt. Robin Lefler’s supposedly dead mother and a deadly ancient weapon. It actually takes a while for those events to get under way, but in the meantime, Doctor Selar deals with the consequences of her recent Pon Farr, and there are various other character bits percolating.

Overall, the story isn’t exceptional, but the crew of the starship Excalibur is just as lively and interesting as any crew that’s graced either the big or small screen. And they’re definitely more fun than Voyager.

Doctor Who: Lungbarrow [Book Review]

Doctor Who: Lungbarrow
By Marc Platt / Virgin / March 1997

This is it folks. The last New Adventure to feature the Seventh Doctor.

Lungbarrow attempts to answer the main questions raised by the Sylvester McCoy incarnation of the Time Lord, which it does well for the most part.

A warning, however: this is a book you have to read carefully to understand the ending. I don’t think this is Marc Platt’s fault. In this case, I think it’s my own. A second run through cleared up most of the questions I had.

Some high points, besides explaining much about the Doctor’s origin, are the reappearance of past companions, including Ace, Leela and K9. The book also introduces the Doctor’s ‘family’, who play a key part in the story.

There were some disappointments, however. There’s a nice goodbye between Ace and the Doctor, but Chris Cwej sort of just disappears at the end. Bernice doesn’t even appear in the novel, so there’s no real closure between her and the Seventh Doctor, although she does play a major role in Lance Parkin’s The Dying Days, which introduces the Eight Doctor.

If there is one thing Lungbarrow illustrates, it is how the character of the Doctor has evolved since the The New Adventures debuted in 1991. Oh, the last page is a hoot too!

Originally published in The Canadian Science Fiction & Fantasy Resource Guide.