We’ve got another piece of C64 scene history today, the Mean Team’s VSP&IK+ from 1987. This is another of those demos from the “Wild West” period when programmers were as much concerned if not more so with getting their latest creations out there and the name is pretty much self-explanatory; the IK+ part comes from the music by Rob Hubbard and Paul “Dokk” Docherty picture which were both being taken from the game of the same name, whilst the VSP refers to it being the first instance of Variable Screen Positioning, a hardware “feature” similar to but much harder to implement than the more common Flexible Line Distancing – FLD to its friends – which was in common use around that time.
This technique is sometimes referred to as DMA delay because that’s essentially how it works, waiting for a badline where the C64 fetches screen data and fooling the VIC-II into waiting for a fixed amount of cycles before that fetch actually takes place by setting the vertical scroll register to a value that won’t see it happen, then changing back to one where it will later in the line. One cycle equates to the width of a character so waiting five cycles will push the screen right by that many characters and it’s possible to travel an entire screen width, with the data wrapping around onto the start of the next line, something this demo masks by changing the attribute data. VSP-based scrolling is how games like Mayhem In Monsterland can move their backgrounds so quickly.
I remember seeing VSP&IK+ for the first time on a friend’s C64, casually thinking “oh that’s nice and smooth” in passing as it started up and the picture slid smoothly in from right to left and then staring in disbelief as it snapped back in the other direction at far too great a speed to merely be a double buffered bitmap scroller – we already knew about FLD and understood how it worked but this was nothing short of witchcraft at the time! It still makes me smile now despite knowing how the routine works and having my own examples.
Before I properly get going here, we’re not going to talk about specific plot points but anyone reading this before watching The Woman Who Fell To Earth for themselves might want to rectify that situation before continuing – if nothing else, you’ll at least be better armed to disagree with me! So for everyone still reading… now the default disclaimer is out of the way, here we go with a new season of Doctor Who, a new Doctor in Jodie Whittaker and three new companions all in need of an introduction.
My Beloved and I sat down to watch it together and enjoyed meeting all of these characters for the first time, learning more about them and finding out how they were connected to and interacted with each other; obviously we knew who the actors were going to be well in advance because that’s how the hype machine works these days but it’s always fun to actually see them in action as it were. That said, it’s been a few years since I last visited Sheffield but I don’t remember it being quite that dark and forbidding… perhaps I just managed to avoid the more ropey, alien-invaded areas?
The response online has apparently been mixed and I’ve already seen this episode described on social media as the “worst opening of a new series” amongst other things, but that rather implies a lack of previous Doctor Who experience on the part of the commenter… this was a post regeneration story and those have always been relatively weak in part because they need to dedicate time to establishing the new Doctor’s character. Other elements tend to be left aside to make room for that process, so classic ‘Who brought us “gems” like Time And The Rani, which I’d argue that still stands as the worst opening of a new season and is incredibly unlikely to ever lose that dubious “honour”. And don’t get me started on The Twin Dilemma…!
So the villain was okay but two dimensional enough to slip under a badly hung door and I felt that the resolution of Twice Upon A Time’s cliff hanger was something of a letdown (oh dear… sorry about that) but at least easily retconned, but as a whole The Woman Who Fell To Earth did what needed to be done in a more than reasonable fashion. The companions will no doubt be fleshed out as the season progresses but are already interesting enough that I want to find out more, the story was a “fun romp” and the new Doctor is a little scatterbrained but charming and likeable, with lots of energy which makes her a good counterpoint to Capaldi’s more brooding and grumpy rendition.
The new version of the theme works nicely with lots of Radiophonic Workshop overtones – I’m thinking it’s an improvement over the last season personally – and I’m very interested to see where things go especially after the cliffhanger and the roll call of upcoming guest cast – again, some people on the interwebs have complained that they felt this showed a lack of confidence on the BBC’s part but it’s no different to the season-wide trailers we’ve seen previously and actually less likely to spoil future episodes in the long run – so roll on next Sunday evening and, whilst I’ sort of expecting a certain missing element to remain so for a while longer, we also have that reveal to look forward to.
I was saddened to hear that Ben Daglish passed away last Monday; I’d only seen him play on a couple of occasions at Back In Time events and we’d met very much in passing at the same time – my own shyness prevented me from taking full advantage of those opportunities – but he, along with people like Rob Hubbard and Martin Galway was behind a significant chunk of the soundtrack from my formative years, composing for games I enjoyed including Krakout, Hades Nebula, Return Of The Mutant Camels and many more on the C64.
Ben also produced a number of demos with his friend and regular collaborator Tony Crowther under the We MUSIC banner – they put out a great cover of Stairway To Heaven amongst others – but there’s one that always stands out for me personally; it’s been known by a couple of names over the years including Space Gladiator but the filename on the version I received as a teenager was 10 Minute Trap. There are two flavours available with the sparser version hidden within the game Trap itself – the cassette inlay features a screenshot with the caption “hi scorers should enter re-arranged MODE” as a hint – as well as being available separately, but a retooled version also exists which added a couple of logos and an upscroller, this was released to promote UK online service Compunet and is the one I’m most familiar with personally.
The demo itself is very much built around the music, which is nearly ten minutes long and truly epic in scale – the burly, sometimes titular Space Gladiator at the bottom left of the screen accompanies parts of the music with his drum and will sometimes practise or just watch the action when not required – and there’s a window looking out on a couple of barren planets where the story unfolds. As the music gets going a flying saucer arrives to beam down a spaceman, leaving him behind to witness what appears to be a pitched interstellar battle with multiple craft flying past, missiles smashing into one of the planets and occasional stroboscopic flashes which are all tied into the soundtrack. I’ve always felt sorry for that spaceman actually, he looks rather lonely stranded there and observing from his solitary platform and waving at the UFOs as they whiz past!
The Compunet version’s scrolling text talks about the various online services available, sometimes punctuating events in the main window as it does so – the phrase “you’re never alone with Compunet” rather ironically appears as the spaceman is dropped off for example – and I’ve always rather liked that integration, the advertising could just have been wedged in with absolutely no regard to the original demo but time and thought obviously went into this. It helps that 10 Minute Trap is already an engaging, unusual demo of course, which is also why I’ll sit down and watch the Compunet version a couple of times a year just because I can… although subsequent viewings will be a little sadder knowing that one of its creators is no longer with us.