Thursday, 29 December 2016

Sarah Jane Smith 2.2: Snow Blind by David Bishop (February 2006)

Antarctica - those huge frozen wastes populated only by penguins and David Attenborough, “the last truly unspoiled place on Earth” - is both the ideal location for a Doctor Who story*, yielding claustrophobic bases and agoraphobic expanses, extreme weather and extreme beauty, and yet a terribly difficult one to achieve, mostly because, um, filming in Antarctica isn’t exactly the easiest thing in the world. No surprise then, really, that it’s only been attempted a couple of times as an in-studio job - once in The Tenth Planet, once in The Seeds of Doom (and briefly in the SJA story The Gift) - but you’d think it’s the ideal place to set an audio story, where one can rely on the visuals of the imagination for the full effect. Of those I’ve heard, I can only think of Frozen Time that is set there (although The Land of the Dead and Winter for the Adept have a similar feel to them, even if they’re set in marginally less inhospitable winter wonderlands) so I’m glad that David Bishop chose to set the second story of this second season in an Antarctic base, once more contributing to the range’s globe-trotting feel.

Sarah Jane Smith 2.1: Buried Secrets by David Bishop (February 2006)

Buried Secrets - the opening story of Sarah Jane Smith’s second season - manages the tricky process of feeling both like the stories that have gone before (certainly, it doesn’t feel like a complete break from the past, and indeed the theme of the past haunting you is arguably the crux of the story) and yet almost like the relaunch of a new programme and a new style. For one thing, there’s a new theme - much more appropriate to the investigative Sarah, but with a jaunty lightness of touch that seems to pre-empt The Sarah Jane Adventures. With the new theme comes new incidental music and sound design in general, here provided by Steve Foxon, and in my view a step-up in quality from David Darlington’s efforts. For another, David Bishop relies once more heavily on news broadcasts, something which previously only his own Season 1 story, Test of Nerve, had bothered to do; here it works even better than last time, in no small measure due to the way Bishop has already started setting up plots for later stories in the season (the world’s first tourist flight into space; animal rights activists; and a mission to Antarctica which I already know is going to pop up in the next story, Snow Blind) - but also as a way to sweep the past under the carpet (the newsreader reporting on the deaths of Hilda Winters and Philip Harris, for instance, or Maude Fletcher from Comeback popping up again on the radio).

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

"Slipback" by Eric Saward (July-August 1985)

Slipback surprised me, in that I actually rather enjoyed it. I have no great love for most of Eric Saward’s individual scripts nor for his particular vision of Doctor Who; the kind of macho posturing that, from 1982, he seemed determined to import into a show where it rarely fits leaves me pretty bored and dissatisfied. But perhaps I was forgetting the high esteem in which I hold Revelation of the Daleks, his 1985 script, and how that maybe signals that he was learning as he went along. Slipback is no literary triumph, and by landing us on a vast spaceship, the Vipod Mor, with a rampaging alien creature in the hold, we are plunging directly back into SF cliché territory - but it’s actually rather good for an Eric Saward effort, and in its pleasing eccentricity of tone feels both like a homage to Douglas Adams and a forerunner of Red Dwarf.

Tuesday, 27 December 2016

"Exploration Earth: The Time Machine" by Bernard Venables (October 1976)

Shifting from the Sarah Jane of 2002 to the Sarah Jane of 1976 - just between the start of Season 14’s opening story The Masque of Mandragora and her departure in The Hand of Fear - is a disorientating move in one sense, but entirely apposite in another: this is a time travel show, after all. Exploration Earth: The Time Machine is, nonetheless, a real oddity - firstly, because like Doctor Who and the Pescatons and the subsequent 1980s release Slipback, it is a chance to hear what audio dramas would have been like if they were made alongside the television series, as opposed to several years afterwards. But it is also an oddity because it was made specifically to fit within the BBC Schools radio series Exploration Earth - a study module about geography (and geology in particular). In other words, the characters of the Doctor and Sarah become a vehicle for Bernard Venables to inform the audience about how the Earth was created 4.5 million years ago. Bernard Venables must be one of the most unlikely figures to ever contribute to Doctor Who, but that’s part and parcel of this story’s odd genesis. A conservationist, angler, journalist, cartoonist and author of 18 books about fishing, he was obviously a keen geographer, which must be why he was picked to write this segment; he’s good at the geology but less so the sci-fi (“I’ll just atmosphere-inject it”, the Doctor says of an atmosphere-less capsule).

Sarah Jane Smith 1.5: Mirror, Signal, Manoeuvre by Peter Anghelides (November 2002)

If the first thing to note about Ghost Town is how little it used its Romanian setting, the first thing to say about Mirror, Signal, Manoeuvre (apart from finally encouraging me to make some effort to spell ‘manoeuvre’ correctly) is that it makes good use of conjuring up strong visuals in the imagination -- whisking its audience off to the Lakshadweep and Chagos Islands in the middle of the Indian Ocean, all palm trees, snorkelling and surly fishermen awaiting bribes, and then on to Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu state. My father grew up in India, as did his siblings and his mother; my uncle regularly shoots documentaries there (particularly in the Western Ghats, visible from Coimbatore), and my brother’s in Rajasthan at the moment, so that part of the world has an extensive set of family connections; I’ve always wanted to see more Doctor Who stories on the Indian subcontinent and Peter Anghelides and Gary Russell do some good work in bringing this exotic location to life, with plenty of local colour and some strong tabla and sitar music. That said, it still suffers a little bit from “Brits swanning around in the tropics” syndrome, however much it’s made with an English-speaking audience in mind; you’d think an undercover investigative journalist arriving on the Chagos Islands would have been the perfect vehicle for Anghelides to explore, say, the massive injustice that the British government kicked out all the native Chagossians purely for US-UK naval military bases, and still denies them access to their homeland to this day. That’s the kind of crusade I could easily picture Sarah Jane taking up. Still, ‘tis bad form to criticise a piece of fiction for what it wasn’t rather than what it was, so I’ll desist -- and, in fairness, Anghelides does at least go halfway there in that it’s a Western megacorporation that plans to exploit the locals and indeed poison swathes of the Tamil Nadu population, which is sort of the Chagossians’ tale writ large, so the story’s heart is in the right place.

Monday, 26 December 2016

Sarah Jane Smith 1.4: Ghost Town by Rupert Laight (October 2002)

This is the first Sarah Jane Smith story to take place abroad - namely a small Romanian village nestled in the Carpathian Mountains. It doesn’t particularly broaden the scope of storytelling, mind, or alter what kind of adventures Sarah can go on. This could easily have been a village on a Scottish island (and, indeed, it reminded me of Night Thoughts at points, which is set on a Scottish island). Nothing about this story needed to be set in Romania. I’ve just seen Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu in the last few weeks, and that boasts terrific use of Romanian landscape and folklore: you can’t really set Dracula anywhere else! But this is much more Scooby-Doo than serious horror drama, and it’s got fewer twists and turns than the average Scooby-Doo plot as well (and no, a character saying "it's like a flaming Scooby-Doo plot" doesn't excuse this)! The villain - Christian Ian Abbotly, played by Elisabeth Sladen’s real-life husband Brian Miller - is just about the most transparent bad guy in the history of ever, and as such there is zero tension in terms of “who’s behind all this?” The contrast between the tense plotting of Test of Nerve couldn’t be greater, leaving Ghost Town feeling very lightweight and insubstantial.

Sunday, 25 December 2016

Sarah Jane Smith 1.3: Test of Nerve by David Bishop (September 2002)

I only know David Bishop’s writing through his Unbound audio Full Fathom Five, which - despite notoriously being rather disliked in some fan quarters for how far it pushes the Doctor - was nonetheless a well-controlled piece of drama, taut and tense and challenging. Coming to his first Sarah Jane Smith story with the knowledge that he takes over stewardship of the range for the entirety of the second season, I had high hopes that he could bring a punchy maturity, tight plotting and memorable threats to this currently languishing range, and to my delight he delivers all three. Test of Nerve is primarily London-centric, but far from the anaemic scenes we get in Comeback or the overdone histrionics of the ill-thought-through political organisations in UNIT, Bishop gives us a taut and mature terrorism thriller which is tense right from the start of its (just under an hour) runtime and never lets up, making strong use of iconic locations like the London Underground which both make the story feel more Whoish than the first two but also fit Sarah Jane’s ‘investigative journalist’ brief. Its very title - a far cry from the “airport potboiler” vibe of The Tao Connection and the simultaneously limp and irrational Comeback- is a step-up, conveying both the story’s focus on the nerve gas sarin but also the degree to which this is a tense listening experience.

Friday, 23 December 2016

Sarah Jane Smith 1.2: The Tao Connection by Barry Letts (August 2002)

Despite his poor form when it comes to audio stories (I’ve heard The Ghosts of N-Space and The Paradise of Death; never again), Barry Letts seems to have a better grasp on things than his erstwhile 70s colleague - the story is faster-paced and more involved, for one thing. Sladen continues to be the best thing about her own series (thankfully) for the second story in a row (with a particularly interesting look at how her time with the Doctor has moulded her; kudos to Letts for that). That said, an unexpected cameo from Maggie Stables as a Yorkshire B&B owner almost steals Sarah’s thunder. Apart from his weird penchant for dropping into strange voices, Jeremy James is perfectly fine as Josh Townsend, though I still find his entire character a bit implausible; I can’t quite get a handle on who he is, what makes him tick. There’s none of the elegance about his introduction and relationship to Sarah Jane that you get with Maria, Clyde and Luke in the first few Sarah Jane Adventures stories. Still, if one of the main duo is worth following that’s not too bad a percentage.

Sarah Jane Smith 1.1: Comeback by Terrance Dicks (July 2002)

I hope I am not doing Terrance Dicks and Barry Letts a disservice when I state that the success and popularity of Sarah Jane Smith, from the 1973-76 era of the programme, lies almost entirely at the door of Elisabeth Sladen. Whether or not she was given naff material to work with (and regardless of the attempt to make her more of a feminist icon than Jo Grant, such material seems today now rather subpar), Sladen always rose above it, and her general gumption, gusto and good cheer shines on screen, as does an excellent rapport with both her “original” Doctors. It is thus no surprise that the one thing about Comeback that works, and works supremely well, is that it has Elisabeth Sladen playing Sarah Jane Smith in it. Years after her appearances on Doctor Who and her own abortive spinoff, and years before her return, she played the part for nine audio dramas for Big Finish, and as far as this first instalment goes she does it with the warmth and brio you would expect (frustrating authority figures is something she remains excellent at; witness the scene where she corrects the squire on his use of the quotation "a little learning is a dangerous thing", for instance). For this reason alone - that we have nine more instances of Elisabeth Sladen playing Sarah Jane Smith - I am glad that these audios exist.

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

I, Davros 1.4: Guilt by Scott Alan Woodard (December 2006)

I was, to put it mildly, no fan of Scott Alan Woodard’s Absolution, but fortunately Guilt, which wraps up the I, Davros saga, is free of that story’s worst tendencies. There’s the odd glitch: the Muto stuff isn’t as strong as the rest of it (it doesn’t help that Nicholas Briggs is rather phoning it in as Baran), but by and large this is a strong ending to a terrific miniseries: one of the most inventive and successful productions BF have given us, and certainly the most successful spin-off I’ve come across. Guilt takes place shortly before Genesis of the Daleks, and already the Skaro of Innocence feels like an age ago; the atmosphere in this final instalment feels much closer to the 1975 TV story: a bleak wasteland, mutants, explosions, “rels”, Davros’ familiar voice… and, of course, the presence of the magnificent Peter Miles as Davros’ right-hand man Nyder. It’s really rather hard to overstate - phenomenal though Michael Wisher is as Davros - how much of the success of Genesis of the Daleks revolves around Miles’ terrific performance. He’s pretty good here, too, once you get over the suspension of disbelief at the older actor playing the younger and more junior iteration of his character, of course (I don’t quite agree with Gary Russell that his voice hasn’t aged a day, though he does still recapture much of its former flavour: “I never sleep well, not if I wish to survive the night” is his best line, while his fear as the Dalek first emerges is also terribly effective). Opening by having Davros kidnapped by the Thals, then needing to be rescued by Nyder, is a gutsy move, but it pays off in terms of raising the stakes; his first actual meeting with Davros is a terrific scene, as we hear the inklings of that respect that will grow between them, respect that will eventually become absolute trust. It is only through gaining Nyder’s trust that Davros is able to put his plan into action, after all. The creation of the Daleks is as much something for which we should hold Nyder accountable (or “guilty”, if you like) as it is Davros.

Monday, 19 December 2016

I, Davros 1.3: Corruption by Lance Parkin (November 2006)

“To understand the future, we have to understand the past.”

I, Davros: Corruption is the Big One: war movie, psychological drama, doomed love story, Greek tragedy and Revenge of the Sith all at once. Lance Parkin - who had until now delivered by far the best-written, most insightful work to feature Davros in the form of his own audio, Davros - goes one better than his own previous record, and knocks even that great achievement into a cocked hat. Corruption is marvellous; believe the hype. This I, Davros series is worth it entirely on the strength of this instalment alone.

Unsurprisingly, Parkin takes a number of cues from his previous work, building on it and expanding it. The end result means that Corruption is best appreciated after hearing Davros; although I don’t think the former story is essential to appreciating what’s being done here, the two definitely work best as a double-bill, as it were. As you’d expect, Parkin seizes upon the key role of the Kaled scientist Shan - one of the more memorable and moving glimpses of Davros’ past we had yet seen - and weaves her into the storyline here. Shan’s relationship with Davros is better for its not being too explicit, too obviously romantic; there’s something there, certainly, but it’s a potential that is never realised, and this only makes the storyline more affecting. For all his scintillating intelligence, Davros can be relatively idealist at times, driven merely by the utopias he envisages and the ideas that come to the fore; in a similar manner, his head seems so full of his scientific projects that the net result is he’s a fairly sexless creature, not somebody you can imagine being easily distracted by female Kaleds (“we need women who can give birth to good strong Kaled babies” is again a direct evocation of Aryanism under the Nazis). In her scenes with Davros, Shan tends to represent modern science as we would recognise it; a champion of blind evolution and denier of an overall “genetic destiny” which Davros - more idealistically - believes in. “We were there at the genesis of a species, Shan. How many people can say that?” he asks his colleague, and we can hear the first rumblings of that terrible beginning coming towards us. Terry Molloy is absolutely superb; when his human voice rises in anger you can already detect the familiar cadences of the distorted, raving voice he will later have; and the first time that voice appears at the story’s end is a shiver-down-the-spine moment.

Sunday, 18 December 2016

I, Davros 1.2: Purity by James Parsons & Andrew Stirling-Brown (October 2006)

Purity - the second story in this bleak Davros-centric quadrilogy - picks up around fourteen years after the events of the first, with Davros now almost thirty years of age, longing to escape the military and join the Scientific Corps. This is probably the biggest time-leap that this miniseries will make, and ultimately probably necessary if only to speed things up to get us to the point in proceedings where Terry Molloy can take over and play Davros as an adult, but I did feel a tad frustrated not to hear some more of the fallout of the events in Innocence. Fortunately, authors James Parsons and Andrew Stirling-Brown - previously behind LIVE 34 - fill us in fairly effectively on what we’ve missed, and we soon build up a decent enough picture of the intervening years. Davros here is stuck in a rut. He has a dead-end job that doesn’t interest him. His life isn’t going anywhere. This is the ‘rejected from art school’ step on the long road to tyrannical power.

I, Davros 1.1: Innocence by Gary Hopkins (September 2006)

A term that is pretty apt for discussing Doctor Who stories in general, but even more so for spin-off series like I, Davros, is the Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of the ‘chronotope’ (the Greek for ‘time-space’, and stolen from 1920s Russian scientists, so it’s a pleasingly Doctor Whoish word): the abstract usage of time and space in literature and language. I think the word can be boiled down to the idea of spaces and times within narratives: discussing Dalek Empire, for instance, I made much of the fact that the Daleks inhabit a space of not-Doctor-ness, taking the crown from him as instigator of the story’s events when they fill the void of his absence. In Doctor Who Dalek stories, “Dalek time” and “Dalek space” are very rarely Doctorless chronotopes; even if the story begins with them rather than leaving the Doctor to discover them, they fear he will come along and stop them at any moment (which he reliably does). In Dalek Empire, on the other hand, the Daleks have supreme control over time and space. Not literally, in the melodramatic way they might screech those words through their ring modulators - but the story’s space is theirs to command, theirs to fly their fleet through without fear of being stopped by the Doctor; the years that we leap through of Suz and Alby’s hard labour and suffering are the Daleks’ to rule over. Even when the Doctor shows up (Return of the Daleks) he can only help so much, because he is tacitly within a different chronotope to his own. This is why complaints about the Doctor not showing up to save the day in Torchwood or The Sarah Jane Adventures or Class tend to miss the mark, and why - for all the fun enthusiasm of a cameo - his guest appearances can be a bit distracting: because the rules state that this is not his space. He ain’t in his own chronotope anymore.

Friday, 16 December 2016

Of All The Hugs

Of all the hugs
That ever were
Yours was the one
Which made of me
A Dunkirk soldier coming home
A flag that flickers in the wind
A foetus that aches to be born
A sultan spiced with every spice
A puppy’s tail on Christmas morn
A baby girl that weeps then laughs
A warming whisky on a mountaintop
A single lark not yet too old to sing

So that when we parted
And I was once again
A dancefloor cog
A strobe-lit, sweat-pit mess
Of the worst kind -
I did not mind.
(16 December 2016)

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

On Werner Herzog's "ecstatic truth" in his films "Aguirre, the Wrath of God" (1972), "The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser" (1974), "Stroszek" (1977), "Nosferatu the Vampyre" (1979) and "Fitzcarraldo" (1982)

Werner Herzog’s career spans from the early 1960s to the present day, and consists of nineteen feature films, seven short films and thirty-seven documentaries; he has also published a number of books and staged opera and theatre productions. Arguably his most influential films, however, remain those from earlier in his career, specifically the decade spanning 1972 to 1982; concentrating on no more than five films from this vital creative period allows a tautness of focus which a broader retrospective of his entire body of work would not permit. The five films in question - Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes (1972), Jeder für sich und Gott gegen alle (1974), Stroszek (1977), Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (1979) and Fitzcarraldo (1982) - are in some respects dramatically different (the first and last take place in the Amazon jungle, the third is predominantly set in the USA, and the second and fourth are the only ones that embrace Germanic/European landscapes, while no two are set in the same time period), but in other respects they share common threads running through them. Herzog is a filmmaker who is in the habit of identifying his own themes and dissecting them, whether that is in his prose writings, his commentary tracks, his behind-the-scenes documentaries, any one of the copious interviews he has given, or even in one instance, his commentary track reflecting on a behind-the-scenes documentary about the making of one of his own films; while he would seem to enjoy discussing the inspiration or thematic richness of his films, he is not much given to scholarly analysis of them, or more accurately rarely lets himself be pigeonholed into lending credence to one interpretation over another. Nonetheless, examining what these five films have in common is rewarding in so far as it helps us understand what Herzog means when he talks of his attempts at pursuing “ecstatic truth”[1].

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

On Williram von Ebersberg's "Commentarium in Cantica Canticorum" (c.1060) as polyphonic text

The 11th century abbot Williram von Ebersberg’s renowned bilingual paraphrase and exegesis of the biblical book of the Song of Songs, “Commentarium in Cantica Canticorum” (c.1060) is notable for its use of Old High German and Latin commentary and elucidation alongside the original Latin prose of St Jerome’s Vulgate Bible. What distinguishes it as a text is its multiplicity of voices and perspectives, and the degree to which the five different elements - though usually presented in 3 columns on the page - interrelate. These five are Jerome’s Latin; the OHG prose translation; the Latin verse translation; the OHG commentary intermingled with Latin terms; and the Latin commentary. In order to determine whether the “Commentarium” is polyphonic, however, we must first turn to a Bakhtinian understanding of what polyphony is.
Polyphony was first used as a literary concept by Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975)[1]. The word originally stems from the musical term referring to a multiplicity of voices singing two or more independent melodies, particularly prominent in the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance. In the sense that Bakhtin meant it, however, polyphony refers to the diversity of points of view represented within one single text. Bakhtin’s predominant example in this regard was the fiction of Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-1881), and the extent to which, in his major works at least, Dostoyevsky did not limit himself to a single perspective but rather explored a multitude of different views and beliefs. Nor does Dostoyevsky present different characters’ different takes on a situation simply as a number of different angles; instead, Bakhtin argued, Dostoyevsky crafted ‘novels of ideas’, in which differing accounts of existence or differing justifications for actions, often or indeed usually irreconcilable with one another, were permitted to sit side by side, unevenly, and with no authorial proclamation as to which of many was final. Indeed, Bakhtin uses the word ‘unfinalizability’ to distinguish Dostoyevsky’s art, recognising as he did so that people are not fixed, immutable selves but are capable of fluctuating, disagreeing with themselves, and doubling-back to former ideas, and thus it follows that narratives are not fixed, immutable narratives. A person is never fully and utterly revealed to the world, never fully and utterly understood, and neither is a narrative[2]. It also follows that no one person is fully isolated either, since we are all only understood in relation with one another, and the ways in which we shape each other’s ideas or are shaped by them. In some sense, we are all polyglots -- open to a wide array of different social dialects -- though Williram, of course, takes this further in literally laying different languages down on the page.

Monday, 5 December 2016

"Class" Novel 3: "The Stone House" by A.K. Benedict (2016)

contains SPOILERS

A.K. Benedict has recently broken into the Doctor Who universe with a few Torchwood audio dramas, in many instances alongside Guy Adams and James Goss, her Class co-novelists (their novels are reviewed here and here). It was thus with a sense of relief that I saw the three names lined up to write these three novels, as I knew that the fact that it was Torchwood scribes signalled a certain maturity of content (not needlessly mature, like some of Torchwood's first season, but just appropriately challenging YA themes). Still, the fact that Benedict is a renowned horror writer gave me pause for thought: was the Gothic vibe, the Susan Hill horror of The Woman in Black that her novel The Stone House looked like it was going to emulate, really apposite for Class' general style? Did the two gel - the Gothic and the hyper-modern Shoreditch? Happily, the answer is a resounding yes, as this is, I think, the most successful of the three tie-in novels and a beautiful, elegiac novel in its own right. The old stone house at the heart of this novel turns out to be a perfect new setting for Class to explore, a dark Gothic stronghold amid its urban locale (with this in mind, the "Urban Legend" folklore site is a helpful bridge between the two). A haunted house story is perfect for an exploration of the twisted relationship between inner and outer spaces, of the burgeoning relationship between Self and World which obsesses us all in our teenage years. There is an icy chill to Benedict's prose - something fundamentally haunted and death-soaked about it all - which clings to you long after you've finished reading it, yet which does not by any means stop an essence of warmth and humanity from shining through beneath - in fact, quite the opposite; it only enhances it. It's the equivalent of the sun on your face in a Nordic winter; both sensations are pitched as extreme and heightened.