Archive for December, 2006

A Dr. Who CCG ultra-rare card, Doomsday Machine, went for $125 on ebay about a week ago.  And feedback was left by the seller, so payment must have been received.

That’s crazy.

Back when I was collecting these, the three ultra-rare cards would go for around thirty bucks each.

I do have them all, by the way.

So is it safe to assume that my complete set is worth at least $400 now? :-)


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I know you’re probably all getting bored of me talking about a show you’ve never seen.  But I’m bored approximately 24/7 right now, so look at it from my perspective…  I’m enjoying analyzing the show at the moment.

I’ve been reading some of the online ‘reviews’ that I manage to find (most are on the IMDB, although there are a few scattered elsewhere).  There are a number of complaints about the show which I feel are entirely unwarranted, and a number of actual problems with the show which go wholly unremarked upon.

1. Swearing.  This seems to be the most common complaint, and it completely eludes me.  I can understand the argument that children who are fans of Dr. Who aren’t being allowed to watch the show partially for this reason, and that it is relatively easy to remove swearing from a program.  Yes, swearing is usually unnecessary; that’s a valid complaint.  But, the show is also full of blood and sex.  If the swearing were removed, would children be watching it?  No.  There’d just be something else to remove.  What you’re mandating is a different show entirely; you’re demanding Dr. Who, which you already have.  People seem to be dismissing the idea of swearing with the assumption that ‘bad language’ is, in actuality, bad; that there is no possible argument for inclusion of swearing – any show would be better if it were ‘cleansed.’  This is a questionable assertion, but it seems to be the underlying assumption of most complaints.  I actually find the swearing to be almost perfectly integrated.  I just watched the first episode again last night; there are four fucks, four shits, a couple of bastards, and many many ‘bloody’s.  I didn’t remember these at all after the first viewing.  They don’t fetishistically resort to screaming a swear word in a difficult moment; they swear in passing.  The swearing is natural enough that, when one is prepared for it to be there, it just floats by.  It’s not like this is a Kevin Smith movie where Ben Affleck says the f-word nine times in every sentence.  This is actually quite realistically handled.  I have zero problem with the swearing.  And, quite frankly, I wouldn’t keep my kids from watching the show over this aspect.  They hear more (and more glamorized) swearing on the playground.

2. ‘Adult’ = Sex.  There are some other complaints that the only really ‘adult’ thing about the show is that it includes sex.  I hate to be snotty, but, what else is there?  Sex, blood, and swearing are the only things that qualify as ‘adult’ in the common imagination.  Complex plots, politics, religion, etc…those things don’t have the same one-to-one correlation with the concept of ‘adult’ television.  When something is advertised as ‘sci-fi for adults’ then, as Russell T. Davies said in an interview, “you’ve got to do the sex monster eventually.”  One can argue about the fundamental ‘childishness’ of the concept of ‘adult television,’ but one can’t really attack this show in particular for using the standard definition.  That being said, the sex is also not over the top.  There is no nudity, there isn’t (despite what you may have heard) endless sexual coupling all throughout the Torchwood team.  When sex enters into the equation, it’s either as the overarching theme of the episode, or it’s pushed to the side and televised with typical ‘western’ repression (quick shots of two people, fully clothed, kissing while lying down).

3. No idea of its target audience.  Playing off of the first two complaints, there is a rather generally held complaint that the show is aimed at ‘madmen’ – that it feels like a children’s show with sex and swearing and a bit of blood overlaid onto it.  This is a reasonable complaint and I actually agree.  The sexuality, which seemed like it was going to be so prominent after the first two or three episodes, has become as repressed and tangential as in any family show (except when it explodes as a sex monster).  And the swearing could be removed if one chose to do so.  And it’s not a non-stop gore festival, so some script rewrites to remove suicides, pedophilia, and skinless corpses could make it more ‘family friendly’ without a great deal of impact.  The fact is, it is a pretty shallow, ‘monster of the week’ kind of show.  But, and this is where the complaint falls apart, it wasn’t trying to be that.  It was quite clear, after the first few episodes, that the intent was to make a very soap-opera-esque program, in which character interaction and psychology was more important than the villains.  The fact that this hasn’t turned out to be the case is a fault of the writing, not a fault in conceptualizing the show as ‘adult.’  So this criticism has its hand on the wrong end of the stick.  The writers have no idea of the target audience; the show itself does.  (This is clear when one compares just the level of swearing from episode to episode.  Davies’ first episode uses it heavily and perfectly.  Other writers barely use swearing at all…)

3. Unlikeable characters.  Moving away from the complaints about ‘adultness,’ there is also a general consensus that the characters are unlikeable.  I’m not quite sure where this comes from, because the characters barely exist.  As I hinted at in the previous complaint, character development was shifted deep into the background starting with episode four (when Ianto’s whining and crying became the end-all and be-all of his character).  They’re shallow people.  So shallow in fact, that it’s difficult to feel anything about them.  Owen is not unlikeable so much as undeveloped; his status as a sex-hound never went anywhere, so it’s difficult to judge him for it.  Perhaps the greatest criticism I could level at the series is that Captain Jack, who was such a vibrant character in Dr. Who, is virtually a non-entity here.  He is simply ‘the boss’; his character has stagnated for most of the series.  Leveling the criticism ‘unlikeable’ at any of the characters sort of ignores the real problem – they could be anybody, because they are nobody.

4. Group infighting and Gwen as un-cop-like.  Along with the unlikeability, there is a complaint that no one in the group has any business being in a special ops group.  On one hand, people claim that the team is dysfunctional.  This isn’t really true.  Just because Owen sleeps with all the women, and there’s a bit of tension between he and Tosh, and everyone has secrets from everyone else, doesn’t make them dysfunctional.  It’s a work environment, not a family one.  These sorts of problems are realistic.  They are also necessary to television drama – there is nothing more boring than a well oiled machine.  When the job needs doing, they do their jobs, but otherwise the infighting and the personality conflicts are the interesting element of a group dynamic.  There is an additional complaint that they all suck at their jobs, which results in a number of unnecessary deaths.  That is simply misreading the situation.  The idea is supposed to be that they are in over their heads.  Perhaps the plots are too shallow for that to come across, and instead they seem like buffoons, but in reality many people would die while Torchwood failed to handle a unique experience.  So, again, it’s a scripting issue, not a character one.  The final element of this complaint is simply silly – that Gwen, despite claiming to be a ‘fully trained police officer,’ always seems in over her head, doesn’t have serious weapons training, and freaks out in the serial killer episode.  My question to people who make this complaint would be, what exactly do you think the life of a cop is like?  It’s not an endless stream of murder and gore.  It’s more likely an endless stream of parking tickets and belligerent drunks.  It’s very likely that a cop could spend much of her life having poor weapons skills and being unprepared for serious violence.  There is nothing whatsoever unreasonable about this.  She did not join the group because she was a special-ops ‘run and gun’ kind of person; she joined because she was intelligent and curious.  Again, wrong end of the stick with the criticism…

With those rebuttals in mind, I do have a few criticisms of my own which have strangely gone unmentioned by any reviewers that I’ve read.

1. Though the show is a spin-off, it’s too tied to Dr. Who.  They aren’t allowing it to breathe.  If Jack’s character (wanting to get back with the Doctor so that he can figure out what’s wrong with Jack…and so that they can have fun adventures together) isn’t going to be part of the main story arc, then why invoke the severed hand?  Why bring in the Cybermen?  Why treat the show as subservient to another show, if it need not be that way?  What we end up with is a mishmash.  A nonsensical story about a Cyberman, and references to a severed hand and a time machine, but no explanations.  Things which make absolutely no sense if one hasn’t seen the other show.  Perhaps I wouldn’t make this complaint if the soap-opera aspect hadn’t been botched so badly, but when the characters themselves don’t really matter, these references to a show outside of the show in question are simply grating.  At times, Torchwood simply acts as an hour long commercial for Dr. Who.

2. Anticlimax.  This is a major problem.  As much as I’ve loved most of the stories that are being offered by the series, the endings almost never work.  The story climaxes tend to be pre-figured so that they are unsurprising, and the denouements don’t work as well as they should.  Strangely enough, one of the few endings that did work was “Cyberwoman,” the worst episode in the series, in which a rather profound image of the butler character is used as the fade-out.  So many of the rest rely on character development that either doesn’t occur or is inexplicable.  The horror episode, “Countrycide,” has the problem of telegraphing itself, leaving an anticlimax.  Even my favorite episode, “Random Shoes,” gets a bit wobbly at the end, with a seemingly forced ‘happy ending’ (of sorts).  This series has not done endings particularly well.  The basic problem here seems to be an unwillingness on the part of the writers to really give in to the hazy moral code that seemed like it was going to be a part of the series.  Rather than weeping for ten minutes, “Cyberwoman” could have ended very well if Ianto had just looked up at her one last time and shot her in the head.  Gwen and Owen’s affair would’ve been better if it had been played as lust rather than romance.  Only the character of Susie, who dies in episode one and episode eight is allowed to be truly unpredictable.  Everyone who lives on seems restrained.

3. No character development.  We’ve already dealt with this, but it’s worth mentioning again.  The series, up through episode nine, feels like the first season of the X-Files.  Ever since episode one, there has been virtually zero character development.  So little, in fact, that some characters barely seem to exist at all.  They are all ‘types.’  There isn’t a character in the bunch.  The first two episodes were introductory, getting acquainted with the Torchwood team through the eyes of Gwen; these two episodes were full of pithy one-liners and little hints at character.  No one was defined, but the writers were willing to stab interestingly in the dark.  Since then, almost nothing has been done with the characters.  It’s as though the writers are playing ‘hot potato’ – “you do it; I’m not defining anyone…”  If Captain Jack’s amorality were to be played up the way it was in Dr. Who, or if the characters were allowed to be unpredictable in their actions, or if the soap-opera were to dominate, then the show would be different.  But as it is, these are just good scripts which could be easily rewritten as an episode of any of a dozen different tv shows.

All told, I am quite fond of the show, but in a way I didn’t really expect.  It feels something like “The Outer Limits” or “Twilight Zone,” but with a recurring cast of characters.  There is virtually nothing here to keep you watching from week to week other than the hope that the story will be good.  Any attempt at character development or soap-opera stylistics is handled so briefly (and generally so poorly) that it’s more comfortable to simply ignore it and treat the show as a one off script with no ties to previous or future episodes.

Love the plots.  The characters are useless.

So what would I have done differently?

1. Hired a full time dialogue editor.  The first two episodes of this show came remarkably close to ‘film noir’ style wit – a form of dialogue that is almost chewy.  It landed somewhere between ‘film noir’ and James Bond.  That seems to have disappeared.  The constant sexual humor and one-liners were a huge part of the show’s first two episodes and their retention would’ve aided the show in finding its own style.

2. More recurring plot-points and more open-ended episodes.  On the second run through of the stories, I’m having some reactions to the way they are all so closed.  Imagine the sex monster in episode two not leaving.  What would’ve happened had the girl remained infected, and been stashed in the Torchwood base to keep her from killing people?  She’d need sex to survive, but her sex kills people.  Jack can’t die.  So we could’ve had Jack in a situation where sex was a daily duty, with no joy whatsoever – and, if fact, it would’ve been emotionally draining and disturbing.  This could’ve been a remarkably interesting ‘adult’ storyline, with resonances across the board of marital sex as uninteresting, sex itself as over-glamorized, etc.  But instead, they just cut the story off at the knees.  Likewise, Ianto’s cyber-girlfriend issue could’ve been dealt with in far more interesting ways.  Make him kill her and then force him to deal with that emotionally.  There were options here for a very good psychological series.

3. I’d’ve kept the alien technology, the roof-standing, and the constant sexual tension as a major mover in the plots.  The style of the show has been all over the map.  It needed to be unified.

4. NO ENEMIES FROM DOCTOR WHO.  This is just a no-brainer.  A spin-off will always have trouble separating itself from the parent show.  Why compound the problem?  Wait til season two to start intermixing; let this show find itself first.

I’m sure there’s more.  Mostly what is missing is the progression of character.  The soap-opera that Buffy the Vampire Slayer did so well.  Take that concept and fill it with adult themes and questions of morality and you’d have had something quite special.

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“Torchwood” Redux

Bang. Episode six, the cleverly titled “Countrycide,” though still spending much of its time in situations where anyone could play the part (90% of this could’ve been a script for any number of shows), and still far more grim and humorless than the first two episodes, was a near flawless construction of survival horror. Lots of expansive establishing shots of the group in the middle of nowhere; lots of tight shots with space concealed around corners; lots of ‘where the hell is this enemy that we never get to see.’ Still no standing on rooftops, but this episode has far more expressive direction than the previous three; visually it’s close to being on a par with episodes one and two. Though the plot telegraphs itself quite badly with one unnecessary early line, the episode overall is deftly directed, and when it comes to the rare event of actual characterization, Jack’s moral issues and the group’s sexuality are played perfectly. And Jack gets his first super-badass moment, which all good heroes need now and then. The series finally re-finds its feet with this episode.

Finally, the humor returns in episode seven, “Greeks Bearing Gifts,” and we’ve climbed all the way back to this show as something fresh and fun. Nothing says comedic character-building quite like reading minds. This is a fun episode, with humor that operates all across the spectrum, from straight relationship quibbles to a line spoken drunkenly bass-ackwards on which no one even comments. And the plot gets back to what makes this show new – characters trying desperately to cope with the feeling that human nature is actually not particularly nice. Then there’s Daniela Denby-Ashe as the mystery character who, for reasons that I’ll allow you to read between the lines, is able to sustain interest in the episode all by herself. Jack even stands on a roof again (though without the nice helicopter shot this time…). There are a few hiccups in here, but by and large this episode is fantastic.

And up and up is, thankfully, the continuing trend. Episode eight, “They Keep Killing Suzie,” is superb as well. Opening on a blood-spattered murder in a completely white room, and going into a sci-fi CSI sort of mode, using the resurrection glove from the first episode (tracking an amnesiac by interviewing corpses is the first element of a very complicated plot), this episode manages to be both fun and tragic. I only have two real complaints about this one (aside from the continued lack of roof-standing). First, the Torchwood sex, which initially seemed like it was going to be one of the pillars of the series, still feels like a tangential element that’s being crowbarred in; it’s become so rare and fleeting that it feels more like a gimmick than an actual element of the proceedings. Second, the plot of this one is a bit haphazard; it touches on a number of themes, while I tend to prefer my stories more tightly organized around a single theme. Both styles can produce good work, I simply prefer the latter.

Thankfully, we have episode nine giving me exactly what I just asked for. This one, “Random Shoes,” is all that Dr. Who season 2 episode “Love and Monsters” should have been – an episode told from the perspective of the ghost of a young man who’d been hit by a car. It continues the Russell T. Davies tradition of watching the proceedings through the eyes of an outsider, but does it phenomenally well. The story itself is heartbreaking, the plotline (revolving around images of people’s shoes on the boy’s cell phone) is intriguing, and his self-doubt makes him a compelling character who is easy to identify with. And it features the first intriguing alien artifact since episode two, a brilliant creation that would spoil the story if I described it. Though it suffers a bit as an episode of a series (outside perspectives don’t sit well with soap opera emotional arcs), this is quite a masterful story when taken on its own merits. Watch for the random inclusion of an ambulance speeding down the road about half an hour in…it’s little touches like that that I love. This is, without doubt, the best written episode of the first nine and, dare I say it, may actually be the best episode of the series. I absolutely loved this one.

So, that’s all I have for now. After a great start and a very quick fade, the show finds some serious legs in the middle and starts running. Although the show seems to have lost all of the qualities that initially defined it (the sexiness is no longer prominent, the character interactions are no longer central to plots, and the beautiful helicopter imagery disappeared after episode two), leaving it as something of a collection of great stories without a style of great interest, these four episodes made for some of the best sustained sci-fi story telling I’ve seen in quite some time. What can I say; the British know how to make good TV. They always have. The pace at which I blew through these last four episodes is a testament to how good the show gets in the middle of season one.

Though I really would’ve liked to see the series have a more clearly defined style and attitude, and spend more time being concerned with characters, I can’t wait for more of the actual stories it’s been giving.

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Been watching the first third of the episodes of the Doctor Who spin-off “Torchwood” lately.  Some impressions…

Up through the first five episodes, the show really seems to suffer from the same problems that Russell T. Davies’ current shows all suffer from – squandered potential.  Though the first season of Dr. Who was excellent, there was some slippage in there (the fact that the farting aliens, the Slitheen, were the big baddies in three episodes being a case in point).  And it can hardly have escaped anyone’s attention that season two was a major step down, featuring very few standout episodes, with the relationship between the Doctor and Rose being the prime mover (and, at times, the only mover) of the series.

Torchwood really feels the same.

The first episode is something of a Davies cliché – introducing the main characters by allowing the audience to identify with an outsider who eventually joins the group.  Despite its predictability, though, the episode is really quite phenomenal.  Captain Jack Harkness was the best new sci-fi character since Malcolm Reynolds in Firefly, and he carries the show as an interesting and dashing leading man.  Gwen, the outsider, is also easy to latch onto as a leading lady.  And the ‘weird occurrences,’ including a humorous life-giving glove and an alien called a weevil, are both interesting and entertaining.  The photography is beautiful and the acting is almost uniformly excellent.  Things seem to be going quite well.  And the standing on roofs thing….excellent.

The second episode ups the ante a bit, and really starts to display how the show could be different.  Clearly the plan was to differentiate the show from Dr. Who immediately, as the main villain in this episode is an alien that kills people through sex.  The episode works extraordinarily well, with the alien technology that Torchwood uses continuing to surprise.  The whole thing really starts to feel like “The X-Files” if it had been done by HBO.  And there are still beautiful, sweeping aerial shots, but there are unfortunately no random scenes of people standing on a roof for no reason…  I wish they’d become a staple, as those pleased me to no end.

And then it all falls apart.  Episode three is simply dull.  There’s nothing particularly interesting about a bit of found alien technology that lets you see little bits of the past, and there’s nothing particularly interesting about the way it’s used in the story.  It all comes off as a bit of a wannabe Sherlock Holmes thing.  The use, by Torchwood, of unexpected technology is gone as of this episode, as is the random roof-standing (and the aerial photography in general), and the sexiness of the show feels shoved to one side (the scene where Jack teaches Gwen to shoot is phenomenal, but it feels tangential to the episode itself).  The episode ending isn’t particularly surprising and results in some rather unsurprising ‘shock and depression’ acting.  Nothing terrible here, but the creativity has slipped noticeably in the course of one episode.

Episode four is where it hits rock bottom.  Bringing in Cybermen (a Dr. Who enemy) was a questionable idea from the start, and it is executed poorly.  The characters lose their definition; it is almost impossible to understand their motivation in certain situations, as they are acting in complete contradiction to information and attitudes from earlier episodes.  It is over-acted, badly written, and feels more like an overly earnest episode of Scooby Doo than anything else.  (Why, god, why did we have to summon the pterodactyl?)  The characters spend most of their time running away from danger, and there’s far too much weeping and moaning.  And on top of all of that, the sexiness of the series and the moral haziness of Captain Jack all feel crowbarred in; it’s not compelling, it’s just dull.  It’s almost intentionally campy and it is not at all good.  The Cyberwoman has high heels, for fuck’s sake! (Shown to us in an unnecessary close-up, as though its actually funny…)  This episode sucks.

Things try valiantly to get back on track in episode five, but come up a bit short.  The unexpected alien technology remains M.I.A. for a third consecutive episode, the roof-standing also hasn’t returned, and the sexiness is siphoned off in favor of an admittedly quite interesting Jack subplot.  But the whole thing winds up feeling like a warmed over X-Files plot.  Really, the characters matter very little here; no matter how cool the villains might be, it could be anyone fighting the ‘evil fairies.’  The only character who really has any sort of definition here is Jack, who is allowed to have an interesting back story; it carries the episode, but isn’t quite enough to make it feel like high quality television.  The moral haziness and the mystery of Captain Jack don’t feel like the driving force that they used to…  The ideas are good, it’s simply not written quite well enough.

I’m hoping things start to straighten out in the remaining episodes.  I’ll probably watch 6-9 within the next couple days, and that’s all I have.  (I’ll have to wait for episodes 10-13.)  I really did love this show after episode two.  It was fresh, exciting, sexy, and had great characters and unexpected comedy.  But it seems to have bottomed out quickly and become just a retread of other series.  A shame really.  I’m beginning to wonder if it wasn’t Brian Kelly, director of episodes 1 and 2, who was the real talent here.  Perhaps the magic isn’t going to come back now that his episodes are done…

Fingers crossed for the interest to return…

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Woke up at four thirty this morning for no reason whatsoever and couldn’t get back to sleep.

By six thirty I got out of bed and started working on my story again.

It now has a title, three fully formed characters, a basic plotline (although I’m still letting the actual events come pretty much spontaneously), and an ending that I like quite a bit.  And there’s five pages worth of single spaced writing down on the computer (which probably translates to around 15 pages in an actual book, at a rough guess) and I haven’t even finished introducing the characters yet.

I’m having fun.

I find that my spontaneous writing reminds me a great deal of Douglas Adams.  Prettily written with a ‘huh?’ type of humor.

It entertains me, at least.  And that’s all that matters.

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Went to a used bookstore today for an after Christmas sale (dangerous things, those…).  Purchased a few books, one of which was an old paperback which will probably make a good present for someone.  Inside this paperback was a small yellow card marked “Building Pass,” with an illegible signature and a note indicating that it would expire May 29, 1979.

On that day, I was three years, ten months, and eleven days old.  I was probably walking around a smallish bluish house in Scottsbluff, Nebraska.  Someone else was walking around a building that needed small yellow cardboard passes…

I wonder where it was.

Oddly enough, today I feel like this silly little thing is one of my most prized possessions.  Probably because no one ever truly cared what it was or what it looked like until today when I found it.

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A brain untied to work…

Though I’m not exactly accomplishing much with my break (a great deal of time is being spent watching tv or movies or playing video games…not that these things don’t constitute some form of work for a media scholar…), I find that I’m actually producing some quite good things when the urge to work strikes me.

Firstly, as I was never able to really write, because I could never outline a plot, I’ve decided to just do some spontaneous writing.  Strangely enough, I’ve wound up with two pretty solid story ideas in the last couple of days, each of which is good enough (and interesting enough) to wind up being a short-ish novel.  And, the important bit is that I’m thinking of them as I’m writing them, so there is actually material being produced, rather than just ideas that will become boring and forgotten.

How good they’ll be I can’t say.  But I’m enjoying the writing enough, that I may actually finish a draft of a story…  How amazing would that be..

Secondly, while watching “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” the other night (a film which is decidedly smarter than it lets on), I realized that, although there are many scholarly works out there about how Hollywood deals with history in film (usually focused on how Hollywood stories are ‘bad history,’ only loosely based on reality), there don’t appear to be any works on how historians and historical research actually appear on film.  I find this to be an interesting topic, and am considering working on a study.

I’ll list the films and television series I’m thinking of so far.  Anyone with anything to suggest, feel free to leave a comment.

  1. Bill and Ted
  2. National Treasure
  3. Tomb Raider / Relic Hunter / Indiana Jones
  4. Blair Witch Project
  5. 12 Monkeys (a man from the future doing historical research on the present)
  6. Hedwig and the Angry Inch (an interesting take on personalizing political and religious history)
  7. Sherman’s March (a documentary that does something similar to Hedwig with history)
  8. Back to the Future (primarily the third film, but time travel and learning ‘proper’ flow of historical events is an interesting aspect)
  9. Doctor Who / Voyagers / Terminator / Star Trek First Contact (also in the protecting ‘proper’ history vein)
  10. Logan’s Run (the difficulty of understanding a disconnected past)
  11. Giles from Buffy the Vampire Slayer (a straight historian as world-protector)
  12. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (in a one off, a dry historian is killed by the history he is attempting to define)
  13. Time Bandits / Star Trek IV (adventures in history; probably useless to the topic)
  14. Quantum Leap (don’t remember this too well, but Dean Stockwell needs historical research to help save Mr. Leapypants…)

Obviously these are disparate images and I’m still working out where to focus the idea.  Also obviously, this is a very rough and early idea; I haven’t put much time into it yet, so most of the films I’ve thought of are simply childhood favorites.  But if anyone has any specific examples to mention, feel free to bring them up.

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