Thursday, 28 December 2017

036. The Evil of the Daleks by David Whitaker: Episode 4 (10 June 1967)

The tiresome Jamie/Kemel fight with which Episode 4 opens - ahhh! a hulking villainous black dude wants to kill the white hero! - certainly grates. It's casting Jamie in a fairly straightforwardly 'heroic' role here, right down to his going to rescue the damsel in distress, Victoria Waterfield, though I'd always rather see a character like Jamie in such a role than the Doctor, mind, so that's something. But there's a rather nice twist at the end of the duel in which Jamie shows mercy to Kemel by throwing him some rope (taking mercy on one's opponent - part of the 'Human Factor'). Kemel in turn repays the favour by rescuing Jamie from a booby-trap involving Victoria's handkerchief (hilariously, placed on the ground by a Dalek in a move that's surely echoing Othello's Iago), which means he is granted, if not any actual dialogue, at least some degree of nobility, so things certainly turn out better than they could have done. Mercy is shown to be almost a tactical advantage: despite fighting, Jamie helps Kemel, and Kemel in turn saves his life. They both retain their humanity in a world of monsters, and Kemel is recast in the mould of a gentle giant who dotes on Victoria and bows respectfully to Jamie. The two opponents team up, Jamie even stating "there's no one I'd rather have with me!" It's still pretty patronising, but it at least betters the trope that we were in danger of fully embracing.

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

036. The Evil of the Daleks by David Whitaker: Episode 3 (3 June 1967)

The middle section of The Evil of the Daleks - Episodes 3, 4 and 5 - is generally thought of as the weakest part, before things pick up again for the final two instalments. Part of this is a little too much luxuriating in the Victorian setting, skirting around the edges of a 19th century ghost story (again with occasional nods to Faust, though nothing substantial in this particular episode) with some unfortunate water-treading. There's also the, ah, somewhat problematic character of Kemel, who is as written a Turkish man (but cast as a black North African, oddly) who is "rather simple" and "quite dumb" with an "underdeveloped mind": certainly not David Whitaker's finest hour. Oh, to be sure, it is a Victorian scientist - and no doubt a believer in phrenology - who gives the descriptions I've just cited, and in many ways the undercurrent of eugenics, inherited strength as scientific specimen, etc., are a fitting match for a story about Daleks and meddling with DNA. But it's not like the script champions Kemel when we actually meet him, nor that he ever proves Maxtible wrong. He doesn't get a single line of dialogue, and is merely portrayed as, well, simple and dumb, just like Maxtible says. Easily the biggest flaw in the story, for me.

Sunday, 24 December 2017

036. The Evil of the Daleks by David Whitaker: Episode 2 (27 May 1967)

I praised Derek Martinus for the magnifying glass shot of Waterfield in the last episode, but what with this one actually surviving it's much easier to appreciate his work: the first pan across the antique clocks is a lovely shot, as is the way the Doctor's silhouette is framed against the glass of the front door (very noir). Distorted figures in glass will be a key running motif in this story, in fact, given the importance of mirrors and clock faces, so highlighting these images early on only serves to show that Whitaker and Martinus are wonderfully in sync. The editing and cuts between scenes are stylish too - take Waterfield bursting through a door when we expect to see the Doctor and Jamie bursting through a different door, a charming fade transition from the late Mrs Waterfield to our first glimpse of Victoria, a pan across the equipment in Maxtible's laboratory, and a great iris shot transition at one point too. 

036. The Evil of the Daleks by David Whitaker: Episode 1 (20 May 1967)

Lovely distortion effect in this shot, all down to a magnifying
glass. A rather nice bit of work from director Derek Martinus.
You can read my take on the previous episode, The Faceless Ones Episode 6, here.

Back when discussing The Faceless Ones, I commented that what Season Four really had left to do was explode apart the past. The last vestiges of the Hartnell era - Ben Jackson and Polly Wright - have just left the TARDIS. The three great Troughton-era templates ("base-under-siege", "weird anarchism" and "alien intruding upon the present day") have been established by now (in The Moonbase, The Macra Terror and The Faceless Ones respectively). We know what things are going to look like next, so for Season Five to truly feel that it has its own identity, I suggested that Season Four needs to end with the tearing down of a key Hartnell-era trope. And what gets more Hartnell-era than Dalekmania? The Evil of the Daleks is, looked at through the eyes of 1967, the last outing for the Daleks. Their final end. They'll be absent from the programme from now until 1972: an unprecedented five-year period of continuous Doctor Who on television without any Daleks, and one which to my knowledge never occurs again ('79 to '84 is close, but even there we have a lone Dalek in The Five Doctors). So to call this a game-changing historic story is a bit of an understatement: it's the one which tried to kill the Daleks off for good. In that respect, it basically occupies the same position in Doctor Who as The Final Problem does in the Conan Doyle canon. Much more importantly, though, it's the first story to feature a fez, future favourite head-wear of Matt Smith's incarnation. I'll come back to the fez.

Thursday, 21 December 2017

On "Divina Commedia 1: Inferno" by Dante Alighieri (1265-1321)

"Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
ché la diritta via era smarrita."
- Inferno, Canto I, 1-3

So begins one of the most influential masterpieces of world literature and a text which has haunted imaginations both medieval and modern ever since its composition in the early years of the 14th century. It's the Divina commedia that, comprised of three cantiche, holds the pivotal position in Italian literature that it does - but it is Inferno that people know most, the one with the most vivid pop culture "cred", the most depicted in paintings or echoed in other stories. I wonder if a tiny bit of this is partly because it's just the first one, and the Divina Commedia is a big project to work your way through. Inferno is 34 cantos alone, and to reach the end of it and eye the stack of remaining 66 cantos to get through next is hardly encouraging! Still, a bigger reason is no doubt the hoary old cliché that the Devil gets all the best tunes (far fewer people read Paradise Regained than do Paradise Lost, for example). As Robin Kirkpatrick puts it, "we have become accustomed to the idea that evil is interesting"[1]. Hell has a lurid fascination, perhaps, that can still draw the crowds in a way that purgatory (Purgatorio) and heaven (Paradiso) cannot. There's even a game named after it, albeit one that was heavily criticised by Dante scholars particularly for its portrayal of Beatrice as some sort of 'damsel in distress'. Long story short, though: this is the really, really famous one.

I read it in the verse translation by Robert and Jean Hollander (he a Dante scholar, she a poet), published by Anchor Books, which has the Italian and the English on facing pages: terribly helpful if you want to actually understand what's going on but would also like to follow some of the Italian as far as possible (French and Latin are an enormous help with this latter task). Robert Hollander's notes are exhaustive and illuminating, and make the book a joy rather than a chore to read, as explanations and elucidations don't clutter up the pages but equally they are always on hand and easy to find if there is a passage that doesn't make much sense on a first reading.

Wednesday, 20 December 2017

On "Sult/Hunger" (1890) by Knut Hamsun (1859-1952)

Knut Hamsun is as controversial a figure as stalks the annals of literature: praised as one of Norway's greatest literary figures, hailed as one of the iconic modernist authors who won sufficient international fame to be awarded the 1920 Nobel Prize for Literature, yet despised for his turn towards Nazism in the mid-20th century. He took his cues from Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche and himself influenced Thomas Mann, Franz Kafka, Stefan Zweig, Ernest Hemingway, and Albert Camus, marking him out as one of the most important figures in the development of 20th century literature. Yet he also supported the German war effort during World War II, met leading Nazis such as Hitler and Goebbels, and was fervently anti-English (though it should be noted that by the 1940s he was over 80, deaf, and undergoing various psychiatric examinations). However we may choose to judge him, Hamsun was clearly a remarkable figure. In just one of his many vivid phrases, he wrote that he believed literature should eschew naturalism and realism and should instead focus solely on the "whisper of blood, and the pleading of bone marrow"[1]. One of his earliest novels, Sult (Hunger), achieves this startling aim better than anything else I have ever read. Written in 1890 and quickly cementing his fame as an experimental modernist, it is a meandering internal monologue of a starving and penniless young writer in Norway's capital Oslo (then Kristiania), who wanders the streets and curses the harsh blows that fate has dealt him. It has been called 'the classic novel of humiliation, even beyond Dostoyevsky'[2], and it is not easily forgotten.

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

The Companion Chronicles 2.4: The Catalyst by Nigel Fairs (January 2008)

The Catalyst is an oddity indeed: a story that comes tantalisingly close to being interesting and even thought-provoking but which then crashes into being horribly generic and pedestrian, completely failing to capitalise on its own best ideas. It's a very polished production of an absolutely maddening script. It starts so promisingly, but becomes an utter mess.

Let's start with the good things: Nigel Fairs is back in the writer's chair, though this time he has replaced the apparently-gone-forever Mark J Thompson in directing his own script, and he goes the whole hog in singing the theme tune composing all the music and doing all the sound design as well. There's something to be said for this sort of complete creative control over your own story - it's led to some quite good results when Nick Briggs has done it, for instance - and Fairs pulls it off admirably. For one thing, his music score is excellent (and at points the strings reminded me of some of Murray Gold's work on Heaven Sent, and there's some great choral stuff too), while the sound design is brilliantly immersive, taking you from the weird noises of Leela's home planet to the TARDIS to an Edwardian drawing room in mere minutes, and the eerie cry Leela hears in the Douglas home is effectively done.

Saturday, 16 December 2017

The Companion Chronicles 2.3: Old Soldiers by James Swallow (December 2007)

"In life," Lethbridge-Stewart Snr. once told the young Alistair on the day he left to join the army, "as on the fields of battle, there are old soldiers and there are bold soldiers, but there are very few old, bold soldiers." The story opens with this aphorism, so it seems an appropriate place to begin this review. The Brigadier pours himself a drink, toasts "absent friends, comrades in arms, and old soldiers", and muses on this saying of his father's. "Wear the uniform long enough and the truth of that will out. What we do - it takes its toll. On those of us left behind and on those of us who are not." It's an appropriately sombre and reflective beginning to what is the most beautifully-scored and melancholic Companion Chronicle yet. This is an old man's memory lane down which we wander - but not just any old man: an old soldier. And down that memory lane we encounter a whole host of old soldiers, some rather older than others. As the German journalist Sabine Bode once put it, "Krieg hört nicht auf, wenn die Waffen schweigen" (war doesn't stop when the weapons fall silent).

Friday, 15 December 2017

The Companion Chronicles 2.2: Helicon Prime by Jake Elliott (November 2007)

The second Companion Chronicle to feature Patrick Troughton's Doctor, Helicon Prime by Jake Elliott, is also the first Big Finish story to be set during Season 6B (see the reference to Victoria studying graphology). I never know what I think about the concept myself, though it has become so widely accepted by now that it's hard to completely ignore. To an extent it does weaken the tragedy of that goodbye in The War Games, perhaps. But equally, if good stories result from it, then who am I to argue? I'm aware that there's plenty of novels and comics set in this gap, not to mention later audios in which Jamie is reunited with the Sixth Doctor anyway, which means he must get his memories back at some point. I suppose the old rule is the best: if there's a good story worth telling, one shouldn't be constrained by the narrative tyranny of what has already been established. Helicon Prime probably isn't quite strong enough to warrant the label 'good' - it's more what I'd call 'OK' - but, fortunately, it is an improvement over Fear of the Daleks. And now I know what a tontine is, so there's that.

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

The Companion Chronicles 2.1: Mother Russia by Marc Platt (October 2007)

Mother Russia feels even more authentically Hartnell-era than Frostfire, and that's mostly because it feels more educational. In this story Marc Platt whisks us away to Russia in the year 1812, as Napoleon Bonaparte (who has recently been mathematically proved the most successful war general of all time, insofar as one can calculate these things) marches on Moscow. A great military tactician feels like a more Hartnell-era personage to revere than a great writer (which is really a new series thing). It's exactly the kind of history that would be taught in 1960s schoolrooms, and particularly apt for the First Doctor who narrowly missed meeting Napoleon in The Reign of Terror (on which occasion Susan claimed that post-revolutionary France was, maybe a little incongruously, her grandfather's favourite period in Earth history). But, more than Napoleon, what excited me most about the prospect of Mother Russia is the setting, my enthusiasm for which owes something to the fact that I am a huge fan of Russian literature and of Leo Tolstoy in particular. One of the happiest reading summers of my life was spent engulfed in War and Peace, one of world literature's greatest achievements and a vivid portrayal of the Napoleonic Wars against Russia (particularly the battles of Austerlitz and Borodino). There are all manner of scenes one will not forget easily - from Natasha's first ball to her traditional folk dance to the moment Andrei Bolkonsky wakes up to the sight of an immaculately blue sky in the midst of a bloody battle to, most pertinently, the long hard winter of 1812 as the Muscovites flee the city and the French approach. Because, according to this story, there was more than one invasion in the second half of that year.

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

The Companion Chronicles 1.4: The Beautiful People by Jonathan Morris (February 2007)

"If you have to manufacture beauty, it ceases to be beauty, because beauty is not about artifice. It's about the idiosyncrasies of nature." 

Lalla Ward had already spent 2004-6 playing President Romana in Gallifrey, which has naturally seen the character evolve quite considerably as she is weighed down by the responsibilities of office. But, just as there is a difference between the broody Jack Harkness of Torchwood and the cheeky fun-loving Jack Harkness as he returns to Doctor Who, for this story Ward is Romana as she was in her light, frothy, care-free Season 17 days (immediately after Nightmare of Eden, apparently), with Jonathan Morris on hand to provide a fun (and at times rather clever) script that has been positively marinaded in Douglas Adams' trademark wit and ingenuity (Romana II, K9 and a bottle of bubbly on the cover - of course it's a Douglas Adams tribute act, and more on that anon). Like Adams and Russell T Davies both often do, Morris gives us a space-faring satire of a very current concern: more specifically, The Beautiful People is a satire about dissatisfaction with one's body image, set as it is in the 32nd-century Vita Novus* Health Spa, which is offering a weight loss therapy programme to help you become a completely new person. As this story's Chapter One title suggests, this seems 'too good to be true'.

Sunday, 10 December 2017

The Companion Chronicles 1.3: The Blue Tooth by Nigel Fairs (February 2007)

The Blue Tooth works as a bit of a curio in several ways, which is one of the reasons both it and Frostfire are successful and Fear of the Daleks is not. For one thing, it has the inevitable draw of being a UNIT v Cyberman story, with Jon Pertwee's Third Doctor going up against a foe he never properly encountered on screen (a few minutes hiding behind a rock for the 1983 reunion party doesn't count). For another, it is set in surely the most unusual and distinctive run of Pertwee stories: Season 7. But finally, it is told by Dr Elizabeth "Liz" Shaw, a companion with one of the shortest runs on TV but nonetheless one of the most popular and fondly remembered. We never saw her actually leave the Doctor (or indeed UNIT), with something of a time jump between Inferno and Terror of the Autons, one which different writers have filled in at different points. The Blue Tooth explicitly sets out its stall from the opening as being set after her enigmatic departure, or at least its framing device is, with an older Liz looking back at one of the pair's adventures. These three aspects combine to make it something of a rarity, then, rather than "very like other Doctor Who stories you've heard before" as was unfortunately the case with this audio drama's immediate predecessor.

Saturday, 9 December 2017

The Companion Chronicles 1.2: Fear of the Daleks by Patrick Chapman (February 2007)

Does anyone know how Patrick Chapman got involved with Doctor Who? He's an Irish poet and co-founder of a literary festival. Seems a bit of an unlikely 'get', even though he has written some kids' television (for Irish channel RTÉ). Cool person to have on board. It's such a shame that, on the basis of Fear of the Daleks at least, he writes pretty poor Doctor Who. It's not outright wretched, it's just very familiar and doesn't really bring anything new to the table. There's some quite nice world-building here, in parts (cinnamon-fish! Aliens with two mouths!), but for the most part Lavonia, a neutral asteroid city with a protective dome and air-cars, is a pretty bland setting. The technobabble nearly sent me to sleep. The plot is quite thin: mad scientist wants to sabotage a peace-treaty, turns to the Daleks, gets double-crossed by them. The rote feeling to proceedings means that it's very hard not to see listening to the story as something of a wearisome chore: you know exactly what's going to happen, and thus there's almost zero tension. As for Wendy Padbury's reading ... it's fine. It's not brilliant, it's not terrible, though quite a long way behind Maureen O'Brien's work on Frostfire; her impressions of the Doctor and Jamie are almost non-existent. The production is much more generic and bland than that of Frostfire, as well, which feels like quite a step back, and the music fails to make a dull story more exciting, as it's clearly trying to do: it just ends up irritating. Bah, humbug.

The Companion Chronicles 1.1: Frostfire by Marc Platt (February 2007)

In 2007, after eight years of Doctors 5-8, new Doctor Who stories with the first four Doctors became available for the first time. As we all know, Messrs Hartnell, Troughton and Pertwee are sadly no longer with us, and Baker the First was as yet unpersuaded. Big Finish got around this via the unique format of character-centric Companion Chronicles, each a narrated audio-book told by a key character from the Doctor's past. Not just 'straight' readings, though, as they each feature a guest star voice, music, and sound effects to make the story immersive. But the narrated aspect obviously makes them much more intimate affairs than your usual full-cast audio dramas. More like diary entries. We see the story, in a manner of speaking, through a single pair of eyes (itself already an interesting conceit) as much as we hear it through one pair of ears. It's like a conversation between the narrator and us ("I'm so glad I've got someone to talk to," as the narrator says here). We get the companion's point of view, their narrative, in that it is entirely focussed on them: the perfect opportunity to develop and flesh out under-served companions, or those who maybe deserved more (something Big Finish has, in its time, been terribly good at). The first in the entire range - and thus key for setting the 'tone' of what these Companion Chronicles could achieve - was Marc Platt's Frostfire, performed by Maureen O'Brien as Vicki Pallister, and it is a joy.

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

"The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden" (2013) by Jonas Jonasson: A Review

The Swedish journalist and writer Jonas Jonasson has become something of a smash hit in recent years, mostly due to the popularity of his bestselling novel The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of a Window and Disappeared (2009, though it didn't appear in English until 2012). He followed this up with The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden in 2013. I haven't yet gotten round to Jonasson's debut, but I certainly will be doing so if it is anything like the follow-up. 

The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden is a tremendously tightly-plotted, outrageously funny novel. It's not quite an outright farce, but Jonasson clearly knows how to use farce to great effect. There is no other writing skill quite like the careful crafting of farce - it's incredibly hard to write, and even harder to write well without it seeming forced. Farce, as a literary form, essentially revolves around comic misunderstandings - that is to say, failures in communication between people (which is why so many farces involve letters, phone calls, texts, emails and the like going wrong: because it's just an irresistible plot device). As I say, that isn't quite what Jonasson goes for, though there is a particularly funny part where a cockup in the post means that Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres receives twenty pounds of antelope meat instead of a top secret 3-megaton atomic bomb. 

Monday, 4 December 2017

Eighth Doctor Adventures 1.8: Human Resources Part 2 by Eddie Robson (August 2007)

The manner in which Eddie Robson handles the Cybermen here (pun intended) makes Human Resources their best Big Finish outing after Spare Parts. It becomes clear that, after Mondas was destroyed and the Cybermen were forced to leave, one delegation ended up on Telos and the others on a new world: Lonsis. The emphasis on them as almost homeless refugees just looking for somewhere to live (they even chose Lonsis for its "unimportance and the lack of other life", which seems remarkably considerate) is again in keeping with the idea of humans as the expansionist power who have come along and stirred up trouble for nothing. And, for instance, the Cyberleader gets to ask the Doctor a pointed question here which is phrased almost childishly, in such a way that it makes you think they might have a point: "why do you offer your help to other creatures unconditionally but oppose the Cybermen?" The Cybermen being at their lowest ebb in many ways brings out their most interesting qualities (e.g. in Spare Parts). It can make them more determined, more dangerous, more terrifying. Because they have much less to lose. 

Eighth Doctor Adventures 1.7: Human Resources Part 1 by Eddie Robson (July 2007)

Human Resources has an impressive and elegant start in the form of this first half; it's grand in scale in a way that in some respects echoes NuWho finales. It opens with the stakes already high and plans having already been set in motion - Lucie has been kidnapped and the Doctor, TARDIS-less, must go and get her back. But it's also the story which this whole season of Eighth Doctor Adventures has been crying out for all along, and is now so much better for including: showing Lucie Miller in her day job. The normality of her, in her work clothes, sitting down at a desk on day one of a new job at a firm in Telford is exactly what the character needed. Okay, sure, it's a fictitious firm in Telford that's actually under the purple skies of the planet Lonsis (a mere detail!), but the point is that for a while we see in her a very 'normal', domestic milieu. Mornings that drag; the need for cigarette breaks; crab paste sandwiches from a vending machine. With a sympathetic co-worker, endless meetings, and a hopelessly on-trend manager who's just a bit too flirty. And this milieu grounds her marvellously.

Saturday, 2 December 2017

Eighth Doctor Adventures 1.6: No More Lies by Paul S. Sutton (June 2007)

"If there's no way of getting round something, you've just got to plough straight through it."

Nick Zimmerman's favourite phrase, spoken on two memorable occasions over the course of this story, might almost be a guideline for the Doctor Who novice: "if the plot doesn't make sense to you at first and there seems no way to get your head round, keep trying". But it actually reflects the fact that No More Lies doesn't "plough straight" at all, but rather in an erratic and fragmented manner which luxuriates in going round, above, up, down, forwards and backwards. It takes place in two chronotopes: the domestic sphere (as domestic as we can call a posh garden party mansion) and the space opera (the Tar-Modowk ship up there in the heavens). It's an archetypal instance of smashing two genres and worlds together and seeing what happens. On screen, we'd focus on quite how different the two look - you can imagine the difference in lighting hues - but here of course the important thing is that they sound distinct. Composer Tim Sutton helps matters enormously, again, by providing some really strong music cues: there's a few great moments where we segue from the Tar-Modowk ship to the garden party but the same piece of classical-sounding music is overlaid over both. This blend of time-jumping, depressurising spaceship with genteel and elegant country house grounds combines two worlds so thoroughly alien to one another that they couldn't possibly sound much more different than they do (compare the grunting Orc-like voices of the Tar-Modowk and the refined, crisp, upper-class English gent tones of Nigel Havers, who is - incidentally - exactly the sort of actor you get in to play this sort of thing).

Friday, 1 December 2017

Eighth Doctor Adventures 1.5: Phobos by Eddie Robson (May 2007)

Phobos has lots of good things going for it: a strong core concept in doing a story about fear rather than just knowing how to use its effects on your audience, a cool setting with some interesting world-building, and the premise of marrying extreme adventure sports and the resulting adrenaline rush with Lovecraftian horror you should actually be afraid of (particularly nicely paralleled, without relying on dialogue, in the scream at the start which transitions into an exhilarated whoop of joy). It's also by Eddie Robson, who has proven himself adept at writing intriguing, surreal stories like Memory Lane as well as tightly crafted and affecting little one-offs like Urgent Calls. It's got some good actors giving some good performances and the direction is decent. So, yes, there's lots of promise. Unfortunately, this is more like Robson's other, weaker contribution - I.D. - than it is his better work: great ideas, and some good individual moments, but it doesn't quite live up to its potential, in part due to a disappointing conclusion and spending more time on exploring the setting than on its best idea, namely 'the Entity of Fear'.

Eighth Doctor Adventures 1.4: Immortal Beloved by Jonathan Clements (April 2007)

Immortal Beloved, the fourth release in this season of McGann audios, sees scriptwriter Jonathan Clements swapping Modern China for Ancient Greece as his key influence. Because this release is absolutely soaked in Greek mythology: Ares, Zeus, Hera, Ganymede, you name it (and the next story, pleasingly, is called Phobos). But we are not in Ancient Greece or Mount Olympus as it might first appear, but rather a 34th century colony world, Caleva, reliant on all sorts of cod-classical language to describe its technology: "chariots" (helicopters), "magic wands" (guns), "the Casket of Healing" (medical supplies), "the Chamber of Incarnation" (a hospital), "the Portal of Cleansing" (a decontamination chamber), and "ether trumpets" (walkie-talkies). All very Erich von Däniken - literally in the case of the idea of Chariots of the Gods. Other planets and civilisations with connections to Earth mythology are relatively commonplace in the Doctor Who universe - and why not? Mythology is one of the richest, most imaginative, and most copyright-free wells you can draw from. Simply put, you'd be mad not to draw from it at some point. Which is why it's not a surprise that plenty of science-fiction does: also unsurprising, given the leanings of science-fiction in general and Doctor Who in particular, is the fact that stories of a mythological bent are frequently about tearing down those who set up their own illegitimate authority in the name of gods or, as with Zeus in this story, keep others under their thumb by pulling the wool over their eyes (a logistically-difficult-sounding mixed metaphor). "He speaks of concepts and ideas we've not permitted outside the palace for centuries": good!

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Eighth Doctor Adventures 1.3: Horror of Glam Rock by Paul Magrs (March 2007)

"Somewhere out in hyperspa-a-a-ace
Exists a race without a fa-a-a-ace
The lonely ones who claim this place,
The Only Ones.

Somewhere deep inside your she-e-e-ell
Exists a heaven and a he-e-ell
It's there these creatures like to dwell,
The Only Ones."

So then. Horror of Glam Rock. I've been excited for this one ever since I've been aware that this title exists. It couldn't possibly live up to a title that good, could it? But it does. It's hard to know for sure whether the title or the story idea came first, but I'm guessing the former - a little joke at the Christmas party, maybe, folks are laughing at melodramatic titles like Horror of Fang Rock and Paul Magrs pops up with "actually, I have an idea..." Something along those lines seems a bit more likely than "I've always wanted to write a story about the music scene in the seventies, got any spare titles hanging around I could use?" Either way, what a title. What a cover. What a cast. What a premise. It doesn't luxuriate in its atmosphere the way some of Magrs' longer offerings have the time to, but it's still enormously entertaining and witty. Doctor Who arrives in an M62 motorway service station, 1974, with glam at its height and an ominous storm outside. Sausage and chips, Top of the Pops, and ravenous monsters tearing people apart. Perfect.

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Eighth Doctor Adventures 1.2: Blood of the Daleks Part 2 by Steve Lyons (February 2007)

So what's this title all about then? 'Blood' of the Daleks? The Daleks don't bleed, unless we stretch 'blood' to mean that horrible goo that comes out of their armour when they blow up. 'Blood' in the sense of 'bloodthirsty', or in the sense of 'the Daleks have blood on their hands'? No, we are talking about blood in the racial purity sense here. The Daleks were conceived as Nazi analogues; of course we mean the crude, ugly, xenophobic sense of the word, as something that can be purified or defiled. Their fake mercy mission to Red Rocket Rising isn't about being a humanitarian force (shock horror!) but rather a quest to find the 'new' Daleks which they have learned Martez has been creating in her laboratory. Daleks which the originals regard as impure ("this deviant species!"). Naturally enough, civil war between the two factions breaks out. Again, Steve Lyons is plundering the Daleks' extensive back catalogue for ideas here, which is fine if not intrinsically inspiring. That said, I'm definitely a fan of the line "A Meeting of the Klans!", especially if we spell it like that, and I think given this story's theme of racial purity we can (confirmed: David Duke is a Dalek). That they should want to slaughter each other because of "genetic impurities" is exactly what stories like Jubilee have been pointing to - if the Daleks were ever to win, eventually they would turn on those Daleks who are not Dalek enough. Even when dying, their chief concern remains maintaining their purity. The last scene of conflict, between the Dalek Supreme and the last of Martez's creations in a dead city as the Doctor stands by, is terribly well pitched.

Eighth Doctor Adventures 1.1: Blood of the Daleks Part 1 by Steve Lyons (January 2007)

Blood of the Daleks Part 1 is a bit of a watershed moment for Doctor Who in several ways, diegetically and extradiegetically. Firstly, it is a new step forward for Paul McGann's Eighth Doctor, giving him his own flagship range of adventures that, just as in the height of the Charley Pollard days, are marketed as whole 'seasons' and have much more of a cohesive feel to them than the more meandering post-Divergent Universe run. This is the Eighth Doctor post-Charley and C'rizz, and the fact that two friends have recently left him inevitably feeds into the slightly new characterisation beats McGann is given here. Secondly, the Doctor's new companion, Lucie Miller, is a sassy northern lass (hailing from Blackpool, no less) who's immensely down-to-earth after the Schrödinger-like dead-and-alive Edwardian adventuress and the shape-changing Eutermesan from a different universe: a quality which, I think, will be key in explaining her popularity. Also relevantly, she's played by Sheridan Smith, who had been in plenty of TV (e.g. Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps) even by 2007 and whose star has only continued its meteoric rise since, to the point that she is now a terribly in-demand actress and was even awarded an OBE in 2015. Finally, the Eighth Doctor Adventures run which this story launches was of course broadcast on BBC Radio 7 and as such they were seen as the most high-profile Big Finish releases to date: a continuing series of stories, with two big and dynamic stars, appearing on the radio every week. All of this combines to give a sense of Big Finish treating Paul McGann's Doctor - still much in-demand himself, of course; he'd just been in four Hornblower films - with renewed respect. Not just Big Finish, though: the fact that the BBC themselves aired these stories on the radio also signalled, perhaps, more willingness to embrace the immediately pre-Christopher Eccleston past now that the revived series was so solidly flourishing; note that it is in the shadow of this season of audio dramas that Russell T Davies and Paul Cornell, in Human Nature, feel comfortable 'showing' the Eighth Doctor on screen for the first time in the new series.

Musings on 10 French Short Stories (Dix contes français)

A short story vending machine in Grenoble (No, really, it is!)
I've obviously caught the short story bug going round at this time of the year, because after my recent Celtic escapade I thought it was time to head over to 'the continent', as people still say, and indulge in something with a touch more élan - or do I mean éclat? (Thanks to Sir Tom Stoppard for that joke). This rather fine collection of ten short stories from French literature goes from Voltaire to Camus, spanning a period of about two hundred years, crossing a number of aesthetic schools and backgrounds but always returning to the same themes of love, compassion, art, religion (primary objection: it's very, very male, in both author line-up and protagonists). It was specifically compiled as a solid place to begin for the newbie to the French 'conte' (and that's me, really: whatever I go into professionally, I think I shall always feel like an enthusiastic amateur. Maybe that feeling never goes...). In a rather pleasant echo of François Mauriac's story in this volume, I borrowed the book from the shelves of my former school, where I'm back once a week teaching French, German and English (well, 'teaching': again with the amateur hour there). But enough preamble. Without further ado: allons-y!

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Musings on 25 Welsh Short Stories (Dau ddeg pump o storïau byrion yn Gymraeg)

[Taking a break from my MPhil application to write about something a little lighter...]

Recently I've been dipping in and out of 20th century Welsh short stories, specifically a collection of twenty-five pieces written between 1919 and 1971 in an anthology overseen by Celticist (and translator of the Mabinogion) Gwyn Jones and by Welsh novelist, writer and essayist Islwyn Ffowc Elis (who contributes one of the short stories in the volume). Except perhaps the fact that the majority of them express empathy towards the powerless, the forgotten, and those thought mad or silly, the stories have no one unifying feature in common, apart from the fact that they are all by Welsh authors. Some (I'm sure you can guess from the titles) were originally written in Welsh but have been translated into English for this volume, in some instances by the author in question; the remainder are 'Anglo-Welsh', in that they are stories by Welsh men and women, often set in Wales, but written in English. In his introduction Gwyn Jones suggests that one can clearly detect differences between those stories written in Welsh but translated into English and those originally written in English; I think, on balance, I agree, though like a lot of these things I would be very hard pressed to identify exactly what this difference was (Jones proposes that the Welsh stories have more decorum about them, whereas the English ones are more wont to express madness or distress or wild qualities; this is true in most instances except perhaps, ironically, Ffown Elis' own story). It's also of note that the balance very slightly tips in favour of stories in Welsh in the later decades, as the 1960s revival of the language comes into full force; other than that obvious one, I don't particularly notice any dramatic stylistic differences between the earlier tales and the later ones (though the very earliest display possibly a shade more religious influence). About half-way through the collection it occurred to me it might be a fun distraction from thinking about the end of the world (as I periodically do - Ragnarok, I mean, not the actual end of the world) to tot up a few thoughts on each of these stories, in the unlikely case anyone out there in the World Wide Web fancies exploring 20th century Welsh fiction and doesn't know where to start. The long and the short of it, though, is that the majority of these are really rather good.

Saturday, 28 October 2017

Saving Time

Tonight, we claw back the hour that we lost;
Each year rings in this hallowed rewind;
The difference now is our paths have crossed,
And where one chamber of my heart was frost,
Its furnaces unlit, it is now I find

You, bringing warmth I pray will last,
Blazing beacon midst a wintry world.
I had not thought snow could melt so fast.
You root me where I am, a solid mast,
My heart billows outwards, a sail unfurled.

All my hours count now, more than before,
Each sixty-minute cluster all shot through
With love for one I helplessly adore;
One hour together, a precious, gleaming ore,
One hour apart, wreathed in dreams of you.

(28 October 2017)

Thursday, 26 October 2017

The Second Moon-Egg: A literary precedent

We're all well aware of how reviled Kill the Moon is in some quarters of Doctor Who fandom - since broadcast it's been as polarising story as I can remember, and most of us would no doubt class it fairly high on a list of "controversial Doctor Who episodes", for a whole host of reasons. Some people adore the politics of it, or the imagery. Some detest the way the Doctor bogs off. Others think it's beautifully shot. Yet others think it's lazily plotted, or scientifically illiterate. Maybe everybody is right in different ways. But one of the commoner criticisms, perhaps because it leads to cries of "trying to eat your cake and still have it" [the correct form of that much-abused expression!], is that of the second Moon-Egg which the dragon creature lays in its stead shortly after hatching, specifically the fact that it is the same size and shape as the egg that has just been broken apart into little bits of floating debris.

But there is a literary precedent for such an eccentric and magical-seeming phenomenon - to be found in the descriptions of Ragnarǫk, "twilight of the Gods", in a piece of ancient Old Norse-Icelandic literature called the Prose Edda. In brief: the Prose Edda (so-called to distinguish it from the Poetic Edda, which consists entirely of eddic verse) is a collection of prose retellings of Old Norse mythology, generally and traditionally assumed to have been written by the Icelander Snorri Sturluson (1178-1241), who is probably the most famous historical Icelander who ever lived. The myths variously explored in this work are usually told as though they were actual historical fact, with stanzas of cryptic poetry composed centuries earlier often given as evidence. The first half of the Edda is given over to a work called Gylfaginning, in which a king called Gylfi questions three manifestations of Odin's personality about Norse mythology and the cosmology of the universe. Towards the end of Gylfaginning, the Three Odins (now there's an anniversary special!) tell Gylfi about the coming of Ragnarǫk and the end of the universe - and the universe's subsequent rebirth, itself a vital part of Norse mythology. Part of Ragnarǫk involves the sun growing black and dying, as you'd expect, and being snatched from the heavens by the jaws of the great wolf Fenrir (of "Fenric" fame). And, as you'd expect, the sun pops up again in the new universe to shine down on the new earth and the new gods and so on. So far, so cyclical. But where it gets really interesting is the following:

Thursday, 12 October 2017

On "Kristin Lavransdatter 3: Korset" (1922) by Sigrid Undset (1882-1949)

"All fires burn out sooner or later." So runs a refrain - almost a leitmotif - in this third and last volume of Sigrid Undset's masterpiece, Kristin Lavransdatter. Highly apt, too, given that we see the lead character slowly lose more and more of what matters to her as she herself slides inexorably towards her death. Yet far from burning out, Korset ('The Cross') is the most powerful, affecting, and dramatically satisfying instalment in the entire trilogy, a rare case of an author delivering the goods and then some when it comes to wrapping up a magnum opus. In the way Undset evokes and deliberately invites contrast with the first volume, she is clearly inviting us to view the two as book-ending and framing the middle section, bringing us full circle to "second childishness and mere oblivion". This is clear in a number of ways: less prominence is given to the cluttered political content seen in Husfrue, Kristin returns to her childhood home of Jørundgard, a more demarcated parent/child dynamic throughout reflects that of Kristin and her own parents in Kransen, and of course the paralleling of 'the wreath' with 'the cross', two objects of enormous import in Kristin's life which together form a chiasmus around her life as the wife of Erlend Nikulaussøn.

By the time the reader reaches the end of Kristin's life they have been in her company for 1,124 pages - not much less than Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace, but with the vast majority of our time spent following Kristin rather than, as is the case there, a huge cast of characters. That is not to say that Undset has not fleshed out her supporting cast. Quite the opposite, in fact: Erlend, Simon, Gunnulf, and in Korset the addition of Kristin's various sons, remain fascinating, flawed figures, figures of sufficient complexity and contradiction that the majority of them could sustain a novel in their own right. And yet here they are merely satellites orbiting around of the woman anchoring this great saga, Kristin Lavransdatter; caught, one could say, in her gravitational pull. We travel with her from the age of seven until the very moment of her death at the hands of the Black Death. She has become so iconic a figure in Norwegian literature that her statue at Sil (pictured above, it is the centre of a literary pilgrimage undergone by the novel's many fans) has become a kind of shrine in itself, one accorded a status not a million miles away from that which the shrine of Saint Olav would have had in Kristin's day.

Saturday, 7 October 2017

On "Kristin Lavransdatter 2: Husfrue" (1921) by Sigrid Undset (1882-1949)

Ahh, the difficult second album. Just ask the Stone Roses, the Clash, or Joseph Heller, none of whose second efforts ever quite lived up to the hype of their barnstorming debuts. Once you've delivered, on your first go, something rich and profound and quivering with the joys and pains of what it means to be human, you're risking setting yourself up for a fall at the second hurdle. Inevitably you disillusion your initially wowed fanbase as you seek to woo both them and the as-yet-unconverted, leading to loud, enraged cries that you have "sold out".

Fortunately, the second volume in Sigrid Undset's Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy - Husfrue ('The Wife'), published in 1921 - does not quite suffer from these traditional symptoms of Difficult Second Album Syndrome. For one thing, it is not intended as a 'follow-up' to Kransen, the first volume; it is rather the second volume of the same novel. In many respects it is a richer, still more developed narrative than Kransen; there is a much more pervasive sense of death and loss, as well as of birth and new life; seasons seem to whip by with greater speed as we race through Kristin Lavransdatter's adult years; and the vast political and religious canvas of Norway and Sweden in the 1330s comes under much greater scrutiny. It is a knottier, more complex book; gone is that streamlined simplicity with which Undset told the story of Kristin's youth and early courtship. This is a deliberate aesthetic choice, of course; as the lead character grows more into the ways of the world, suffers the ups and downs of a complicated marriage, lives with and moves among major political players, and experiences contradictory vacillations of the heart first in this direction and then in that ... it is no surprise that as Kristin's life has become harder still, the narrative which relates it needs must expand and become a more complex affair. And yet at points as I waded through political discussions, I found myself yearning for the sheer beauty of that first book, which was by no means innocent or naive or free of pain, but had a certain simple unclutteredness to it which was like a breath of fresh, unpolluted Scandinavian air. Husfrue is considerably more cluttered, and this can offend one's aesthetic sensibility, but then again, life becomes more cluttered as we move ever onwards, does it not? Perhaps our literature needs must become more cluttered, too.

Monday, 2 October 2017

On "Kristin Lavransdatter 1: Kransen" (1920) by Sigrid Undset (1882-1949)

Hers is not a name which will meet with much recognition in the Anglosphere, albeit perhaps a little more in the USA. But Sigrid Undset, a 20th century Norwegian novelist, was the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928, the culmination of a decade in which her two grand literary projects had been rapturously received. Both are set in medieval Norway: the Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy, published between 1920 and 1922 (consisting of Kransen 'The Wreath', Husfrue 'The Wife' and Korset 'The Cross'), and the Olav Audunssøn duology published in 1925 and 1927 (Olav Audunssøn i Hestviken and Olav Audunssøn og Hans Børn, released in English as a tetralogy with the umbrella title The Master of Hestviken and the individual names The Axe, The Snake Pit, In the Wilderness and The Son Avenger). Of the two, it is Kristin Lavransdatter that is the more celebrated - the story of a life of a woman named Kristin Lavransdatter in 14th century Norway, the story of her childhood and adolescence; her relationship with her parents and her husband; her marriage and children; her religious faith; right up to her death. The life of this individual, spanning the years 1302-1349, is set against a tumultuous political backdrop of knights, lords, kings and priests, and in a society with sharply defined ethical codes and expectations about how people (particularly women) should behave.

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

On "Candide, ou l'Optimisme" (1759) by Voltaire (1694-1778)

Candide, ou l'Optimisme - normally just Candide - is a strange, slippery work to have as totemic a place in world literature as it does: not quite a novella, not quite a short story, it usually gets classed as a 'conte', for which the best English word is probably 'tale'. It's short and slight (often printed with fewer than 100 pages), and yet it traverses the globe, taking in locations as wide-ranging as Westphalia, Portugal, Spain, Italy, Morocco, Turkey, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Russia, Latvia, Germany, Holland, Argentina, Paraguay, Eldorado, Surinam, France, and, erm, England. It's simultaneously absurd yet realistic, picaresque and satirical yet deeply serious, farcical yet full of rape, murder, slavery, and disembowelling. It's timeless and fantastical in many respects yet also deeply rooted in the current scandals, controversies and events of the mid-18th century (set, as the novelist Julian Barnes puts it, "among the headlines of the day"[1]). Despite - or perhaps because of - these contradictions, it lasted, and continues to last, to the impressive extent that the reputation of François-Marie Arouet (better known as Voltaire), for many people in the English-speaking world, rests almost entirely on this single, slim book. Martin Seymour-Smith listed it as one of The 100 Most Influential Books Ever Written; it forms a part of Harold Bloom's Western Canon; it has gifted us the word 'Panglossian' and iconic phrases such as 'le meilleur des mondes possibles' or 'il faut cultiver notre jardin'.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

On "The Life & Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman" (1759-67) by Laurence Sterne (1713-68)

Some early drafts of this review.
[Nota bene, reader: this review is not simply written about Tristram Shandy, but very much also in the style of Tristram Shandy. If it pleases you not, the book is probably not likely to be one of your favourites either.]

How, I beseech you, does an (almost, or as good as) penniless young man, faced with a book as rich and complex and difficult as The Life & Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, - a book which has gifted to this our formerly-Anglo-Saxon tongue such words as disparate and IDIOSYNCRATIC, to be sure, as "Cervantic" and "Shandean", not to mention a film written by Frank Cottrell-Boyce, directed by Michael Winterbottom, and starring Messrs. Coogan and Brydon, - surely one of the greatest cultural artefacts of the as-yet-admittedly-still-green 21st century[1], notwithstanding the apparent lewdness of said film's title, A C*ck and B*ll St*ry - when faced with such a book, I say, how does such a young man have the slightest chance of knowing where to begin? 

"At the beginning!" ---suggests the indignant bookseller who sold that young man the book, or, perhaps, speaking more strictly, as if I were a schoolmaster, in the mood subjunctive as opposed to the mood indicative: he would have sold that young man the blessed tome, were it not the case that the young man purchased the book via the ever-more-popular medium of Kindle. 'Tis the latest in a long string of benighted attempts to usurp the goodly book - not to be confused with the (less general but more capitalized) Good Book, that which was long-ago-usurp'd, and is now yclept the Not Bad But Still Quite Problematic Book -, said string of benighted attempts including the theatrical extravaganza, the film, the television serial, the peculiar evil of the short story, the blog (heaven help us!), the soap (so-named, for the subject matter is always clean, and never bawdy), and the social media, which last is most goodly of all, for in the act of writing it everybody is allowed a turn. To the detractors of this last, I say "Honey's Sarky, Malley Ponce", as they seem to put it in the Twitter's Sphere; you and I, naturally, as devout Francofiles Phrancofiles  Phrancophiles, content ourselves with honi soit qui mal y pense, to wit, "may he think badly on it when he is a-shamed", commonly prayed in nunneries.

Monday, 11 September 2017

035. The Faceless Ones by David Ellis & Malcolm Hulke: Episode 6 (13 May 1967)

What can we say after six episodes of The Faceless Ones? It never exactly set the world alight; it never even really set Doctor Who fandom alight for that matter. Ironically for a story all about identity theft, it has had its central premises done many times since, and often much more memorably or enjoyably, leaving their initial use here looking rather, well, faceless. The Doctor figuring out how to interact in the present day? The Web of Fear, The Invasion, and most of the Pertwee era for starters. Doctor Who does Bond? The Enemy of the World ... and most of the Pertwee era for starters. Bad guys who aren't all evil? Doctor Who and the Silurians, The Curse of Peladon, and Frontier in Space. Evil doubles and aliens disguised as humans? Terror of the Zygons, The Android Invasion (okay I didn't say they were all good)... Simply put, this story's USPs at the time have all been rather undermined by what came after, which is a pity, because much of what The Faceless Ones has done well has been rather enjoyable. 

Sunday, 10 September 2017

035. The Faceless Ones by David Ellis & Malcolm Hulke: Episode 5 (6 May 1967)

"Remember the teaching of our Director: the intelligence of Earth people is comparable only to that of animals on our planet." At the risk of repeating myself, it's one of the funniest aspects of The Faceless Ones that, of all the races the Doctor has fought, the Chameleons must rank both down there among the stupidest and up there among those who go on about their own intellectual superiority the most. Every other line they're saying something about stupid humans or about how clever they are and how assured they are that their plan will work (the silliest bit is where the Director tells Jamie about how brilliant his own mind is, but he does so in third person, because he's pretending to be Crossland at the time). It's so ridiculous that, even though the production is played almost entirely straight, I have to wonder if the whole thing has a significant tongue-in-cheek element, to be honest, particularly because of how frequently, bananas-ly absurd the Chameleons seem to be much of the time: they don't come across as master-planners at all. "It was a pity that the Chameleons themselves were a bit unbelievable," wrote then-fan, later-playwright-and-Doctor Who-scribe Robert Shearman in Cloister Bell 6/7 in 1983, adding that "they .. weren't as clever as they imagined themselves to be". Spot on. It's such a shame that they're as daft as they are, because the make-up work is really good (the stuff of nightmares) and they're responsible for some genuinely intriguing, nasty images - Jamie discovering miniaturised people inside a drawer being another icky highlight. And, more importantly, there's a genuinely tragic dimension to them that's somewhat hampered by the silly 'evil bad guy' pretensions.

035. The Faceless Ones by David Ellis & Malcolm Hulke: Episode 4 (29 April 1967)

One oddity about the Chameleons that seems, if truth be told, rather born out of the necessity of padding a story with a four parter's worth of ideas out to six parts, is the sheer variety of the technology they seem to have available to them. If that seems like an odd complaint, I suppose what I really mean is that none of their weapons or abilities seem to have much to do with one another. They have frozen ice gas but don't do anything to do with temperature or deep-freezing elsewhere, nor are they reptilian which might account for cold-bloodedness or hibernation. They have ray guns but only use them intermittently when they're not using strange pen-like devices that make people immobile. This seems like a rather impractical weapon that fails to kill somebody and leaves them handily lying around to recover later exactly when you don't want them to; why not just use your ray guns on them if they're somebody you want disposing of? Then there's the ridiculous matter of the button that's actually a grenade that Meadows slips onto the Doctor's back (and which Jamie pulls off him, easy as anything), which feels a lot more like a Bond gadget than anything else. Even sillier is the great big whopping laser they have on the wall in this episode, nicked straight from Goldfinger (it's a budget imitation of that famous scene, but the resolution is cleverer). They've tried to kill the Doctor and co. over and over again with all these rather different methods, failing each time; I almost wonder if the Chameleons are meant to be A Bit Crap?

Saturday, 9 September 2017

035. The Faceless Ones by David Ellis & Malcolm Hulke: Episode 3 (22 April 1967)

I don't want to talk too much about Malcolm Hulke's Pertwee stories here - there's a time and a place for that (probably some time in the 2020s...) - but many of their hallmarks are things one can spot here, even if merely in prototype form. We've already discussed the modern-day setting, but it's also worth drawing attention to the fact that the Chameleons are distinctly characterised as individuals rather than as a gestalt - not just presented as mindless creatures stealing identities. Meadows, Blade and Spencer are all quite distinctive, with different attitudes towards the situation at hand, meaning there's potential for conflict on the opposing team as well as on "ours", so to speak. This is something of a step forward in the portrayal of alien species for Doctor Who, and we'll only see it develop with Silurians, Ice Warriors, and others during the Pertwee years. It helps, naturally, that the Chameleons are, well, chameleonic, and that they look just like us because they've stolen human bodies; it's much easier for us to think of them as individuals with whom we can negotiate. But it's one step towards thinking of monstrous-looking reptiles in battle-scarred armour as individuals with whom we can negotiate, too. The whole point of much of Hulke's writing is this expanding of our frame of reference.

035. The Faceless Ones by David Ellis & Malcolm Hulke: Episode 2 (15 April 1967)

The Troughton era, more than the Hartnell era I would argue, makes more effort to be outright, explicitly scary in the way that later phases of Doctor Who will also prioritize.  The stock music here is creepy as anything, going out of its way to unnerve and alarm; the whole thing is so beautifully atmospheric; Gerry Mill shoots it with Hitchcockian suspense and the close-ups of the scorched, veined face of the Chameleon aliens are really unpleasant (Polly lying comatose inside a packing box, her eyes wide and staring, is another good reveal). The Faceless Ones will never go down as the best Doctor Who script ever but, damn it, it's really nicely made. And the villains are basically Ryanair, which, well, yes.

Friday, 8 September 2017

035. The Faceless Ones by David Ellis & Malcolm Hulke: Episode 1 (8 April 1967)

Season Four reaches its penultimate story in the form of The Faceless Ones, probably not one which ranks as anybody's favourite story (unlike, say, The Moonbase or The Macra Terror, both of which have their devoted admirers) and now more of a forgotten curio than anything else, akin perhaps to The Highlanders and The Underwater Menace. The main thing to note about it, in the context of Season Four at least, is that it takes place in our world - and crucially, in what is recognisably our world. Not just in the sense of The Underwater Menace, which was an alien story in present-day Earth where the location just happened to be "the depths of the ocean". Not just in the sense of The Macra Terror, which was aesthetically a 1950s holiday camp and thus imported some degree of social realism into Doctor Who, even if the story was technically set in the far future. No, this is a full-blooded successor to The War Machines, that infamous late Hartnell story which broke the show's mould by being set in what was clearly, unmistakeably 1960s London, complete with the Post Office Tower being part of the story-line. 

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

034. The Macra Terror by Ian Stuart Black: Episode 4 (1 April 1967)

"Stop! You're breaking the law!"/"Bad laws are made to be broken." This is a tight and pacey final episode, which brings The Macra Terror to a fairly strong close; it's good to see Peter Jeffrey get a little more to do as the Pilot, too, including questioning his orders and defying Control even in the face of Chief of Police Ola's narrow-minded authoritarianism. It's a bit late in the day for the Pilot to properly 'come good' and save the day in a moment of self-sacrifice, and though thankfully the story never quite goes for as obvious a conclusion as that, it's hardly unpredictable that it is Ben who 'comes good' and sorts everything out at the last minute. There's a bitter irony in the fact that just as Innes Lloyd was deciding that Ben and Polly weren't really working and they should be written out in the next story - David Ellis and Malcolm Hulke's The Faceless Ones - Michael Craze turned in some of his best work as Ben, in probably the character's most important story to date. But it is clear that the talented Frazer Hines is more than ready to take up his mantle and become Troughton's definitive companion.

034. The Macra Terror by Ian Stuart Black: Episode 3 (25 March 1967)

In this episode, we see a fair bit more of the hard labour colonists are forced to do, specifically mining for a toxic gas that slowly permeates your lungs and kills you. While this feels a little like filler at points, it also introduces a new character into the mix, Officia (could they have made the word any closer to "Official"? Well, one letter closer, I suppose), played in lovely, understated, businesslike fashion by John Harvey. A figure named Officia watching over people mining  a gas which kills them and the purpose of which they do not know and never learn is perhaps the most explicitly Kafkaesque part of the story, along with giving people titles instead of names - Pilot, Controller, even Doctor - and ensuring the colony name and planet and even the year in which the story takes place all remain unknown. Very like old Franz; I do wonder if Ian Stuart Black had recently been reading In der Strafkolonie ("In the Penal Colony"). Officia's no-nonsense approach - he's just a cog in the machine after all, following orders - is another brilliant example of the way the story approaches its politics, rather than giving us villain after villain. "What's it all for?" Polly asks with regard to the toxic gas, and nobody has an answer. They just do what they're told.

034. The Macra Terror by Ian Stuart Black: Episode 2 (18 March 1967)

"NO ONE IN THE COLONY BELIEVES IN MACRA! THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS MACRA! MACRA DO NOT EXIST! THERE ARE NO MACRA!" These deluded ravings, the words of the Controller whose handsome face is projected, Orwell-like, onto screens throughout the colony, are among the most electrifying in the story, and a peak attempt at double-think. It's a brilliant little sequence, as his voice gets more and more hysterical and the electronic music gets more frantic. Brainwashing and mind control (in this story, symbolized by the "hospital for correction") are crimes the Doctor is particularly loath to forgive, in all his incarnations (see the way he responds to the Silence, or the Mandragora Helix, or the Editor, all examples for which I am grateful to Hugh Sturgess for raising): the very worst thing you can do is control how somebody else thinks, deny them the individuality of their own mind and the freedom to make their own decisions, make them all uniform. This is the same threat the Cybermen pose to people, making this a relatively good pairing with The Moonbase, for all that I think it's a far greater story, though it's also an excellent successor to The Power of the Daleks in that it's about power struggles in an Earth colony, deceit and lies, and things not being what they appear. 

Monday, 4 September 2017

034. The Macra Terror by Ian Stuart Black: Episode 1 (11 March 1967)

It's appropriately muddled and in keeping with Season 4's flailing around that the new title sequence debuts not for The Moonbase, the story which seemed to establish the Troughton-era template (that is, claustrophobic base-under-siege stories with armies of monsters forcing their way in, in case you need reminding), but for the following story, Ian Stuart Black's The Macra Terror. I rather like the ripple effects and general tone of the Troughton title sequence, introducing as it does the idea that the Doctor's face should be a key feature, but it's also fair to say that it loses some of the magnetic simplicity of the original. Regardless, I'm glad that it happened this way, because The Macra Terror is much more the kind of thing I want Doctor Who to be than The Moonbase. The former is a stone-cold brilliant Doctor Who story, boasting more in common with the experimental, anarchic tone of Sylvester McCoy era tales like The Happiness Patrol and The Greatest Show in the Galaxy than with much of the rest of the Troughton era. As Hugh Sturgess says, "a Troughton era that took its cues from The Macra Terror instead of The Moonbase would be so much stranger, so much darker, so much madder and so much better". The key difference between the two stories is this: in The Moonbase, the monsters are out there in the dark and they're coming to get you. In The Macra Terror, the monsters have always been right here with you, ruling over you, telling you when to go to sleep, and now you need to kick them out.

Saturday, 2 September 2017

On "Yerma" (1934) by Federico García Lorca (1898-1936)

The twentieth-century Spanish writer Federico García Lorca was known for his association with the Generación del 27 (Generation of '27), a group of poets and artists in the 1920s who deliberately courted the avant-garde, but, like every great figure in an artistic movement, he cannot be easily categorized or pigeonholed. He was both poet and playwright, though he moved from the former to the latter over the course of his life, predominantly because of his rather Brechtian belief that the theatre was the more dynamic art form and had a greater chance of changing people's lives - as he said himself, "the theatre is a school of weeping and of laughter, a free forum, where men can question norms that are outmoded or mistaken and explain with living example the eternal norms of the human heart... theatre is poetry that rises from the book and becomes human enough to talk and shout, weep and despair." Sure enough, the revolutionary plays he wrote in the 1930s - categorized by some as his 'Rural Trilogy' and consisting of Bodas de sangre, Yerma, and La casa de Bernarda Alba (English: Blood Wedding, Barren, and The House of Bernarda Alba) - are all impassioned crusades against the norms of bourgeois Spanish society, questioning its treatment of women, homosexuals, and the lower classes. All three are among his best-known work; of the three, I am only familiar with Yerma.

Thursday, 31 August 2017

033. The Moonbase by Kit Pedler: Episode 4 (4 March 1967)

In this episode we reach the peak of the "under siege" part of the Base-under-Siege construction, what with an army of Cyberman on the march across the Moon's surface, surrounding the Moonbase with sophisticated weaponry and cannons with which they threaten to blow it into the sky. The heroes are surrounded, their armoury is inferior, their communications are jammed ... how will they get out of it? It's a classic set-up. The stage is set up for an epic showdown - and what actually happens? We get such deeply naff silliness as Evans creeping around with the Neurotrope X virus all over his face but not being spotted just because he's wearing a uniform that says "Beckett" on it; a deeply shoddy-looking spaceship-landing where you can still see the wires holding it up; we get the patching up of an oxygen breach in the base's hull with, yes, a tea tray (cue Cybermen: "We shall retreat. We do not know how many tea trays they have"); and best of all the Gravitron is used to send the Cybermen spiralling off into space, looking like they're doing a dance routine in the air (again with the Fish People comparisons!). But far from ruining the story, this amiable silliness actually goes some way to redeeming it for me: it's about a deliberately silly resolution being used as the charming end point of what's so far made pretensions to be "hard SF". It's a move that shows there's life yet in the same eccentricity that animated The Underwater Menace, and that's a very good thing indeed for the Troughton era moving forward, which we don't want to become all po-faced and military and dominated by monsters-in-bases. 

033. The Moonbase by Kit Pedler: Episode 3 (25 February 1967)

Back during The Power of the Daleks, I made much of the key moment where the Dalek identifies the Doctor, toward the end of the second episode: vital in assuring audiences that this is the same character. The equivalent here is much more throwaway ("you are known to us", a Cyberman tells him, and he replies "and you to me", and thus the events of The Tenth Planet are tacitly acknowledged but not dwelt upon), surely a sign of the increasing confidence the show had in Troughton's portrayal and in the new direction the show was taking: the Doctor versus the monsters. These are the new big bads (the things which "must be fought"), the monsters that killed the Doctor last time they showed up. Now, there's nothing wrong with having the Cybermen perform a similar function in a story as the Daleks (especially if you can't actually get your top billing monster); at the same time they're best when they're doing their own thing - which is why they're so good when the show remembers their body horror roots (World Enough and Time/The Doctor Falls). But in fairness, they aren't as Dalek-lite here as one imagines - they talk of "conversion" (not a million miles away from KGB sleeper agents and moles and talk of "switching sides" in the manner of John le Carré's novels), they want to turn humans to their cause, and they are happy to control humans in unison, all part of their MO... but then it all seems to fall apart once they start calling us "stupid Earth brains" (far too passionate a phrasing for Cybermen), mock us with "clever, clever, clever", and reveal they want the Gravitron so they can destroy the Earth's surface and kill everyone on it. Why? That just doesn't seem a very Cyberman plan to me; it's not about making more people like them, which is what they want.