Friday, 30 June 2017

Gallifrey 2.3: Pandora by Justin Richards (June 2005)

[I'm writing this on a plane from Bangkok to Auckland, so if it's all nonsense I would like to blame air pressure or oxygen deficiency or lack of sleep or something.]

If we can view Gallifrey Series 2 as a traditional five-act structure, then its third part - Justin Richards' Pandora - is The One Where Things Escalate. After the 'breather' that was episode 2, Spirit, this instalment sees events ramping up fairly significantly. The idea of a villainous embodiment of Time Lords' worst thoughts developing sentience and breaking through into the present is a tantalising one, if only because it emphasises the Time Lords' more despotic nature. While they have never exactly been presented in the televisions series as unambiguously good, some portrayals have lacked the bite of tackling just how oppressive, fascistic and corrupt the Time Lords really are. Here, Richards embraces their propensity for Gothic, chthonic underworlds of forbidden secrets and terrible deeds, of the kind we glimpse in Hell Bent - "not all our thoughts are pure and innocent. The Pandora partition is how the Matrix deals with the darker thoughts of the departed Time Lords: ambition, greed, lust for power... all these are siphoned off and stored separately." Even the words signifying the concepts over which they would claim to be Lords ("past", "present", "future") are echoed by the spirit of Pandora as she watches over her world's future.

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Haikus for Grenfell

I went past Grenfell
Today, blackened monument
To world unequal.

Its towers-in-arms
Stand guard, say "never again",
Take rage to the top.

Thursday, 22 June 2017

On Jean Renoir's "La Grande Illusion" (1937)

The French director Jean Renoir (1894-1979)'s most celebrated film, La Grande Illusion (1937), is a humanistic masterpiece of profound anti-war sentiments. A war film which - unlike its counterpart All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) - does not show a single frame of conflict or battle and does not have a single scene set on the trenches, La Grande Illusion focuses instead on a group of French officers who have been taken prisoner by German forces during the First World War, on the way they are treated differently to ordinary prisoners because of their rank, and specifically on class relationships, both between the French officers and between the French and the Germans they encounter. It's a deeply realistic film in many ways - not just based on Renoir's own wartime experiences, but lead character Maréchal (Jean Gabin) is even wearing Renoir's old aviation jacket throughout the film - but its director was not averse to stylized touches, saying in his autobiography that he was "incapable of doing good work unless it contains an element of the fairy-tale". In the context of the "low dishonest decade" of which Auden wrote, the 1930s, Renoir's film is also a way of examining relationships between European countries in the light of the rise of fascism in Germany (post-1933) and sabre-rattling between the various powers. Any pusillanimous Brexiteers sitting down to begin negotiations would do well to watch such a film and think of what can be learned from it in a modern context, though I'm sure the fact that it's in French would put them off...

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Gallifrey 2.2: Spirit by Stephen Cole (May 2005)

"You see no magic in anything."/"You see it everywhere."/"Then which of us is wiser?"

Stephen Cole's Spirit is, for the most part, a two-hander between President Romana and her bodyguard Leela, with only small appearances from the rest of the supporting cast. At this stage in Gallifrey, with ambitious arc plots firmly in place, it makes a lot of sense to slow the pace down a little and do a character piece focussing on your two leads, and fortunately the result is much stronger than Cole's effort for the first series. Spirit convincingly looks at the relationship between Romana and Leela from several different perspectives - as mystic to sceptic, as two former friends of the Doctor's, as President addressing her bodyguard, as someone not used to surviving in the wild speaking to someone who is. Better still, it mines Leela's former troubles and anxieties - grief at losing Andred and disappointment when he returned a different person - for all they're worth, selling the idea from the off that she is fed up of Time Lord machinations and wants to leave Gallifrey as soon as she can. It might be my favourite thing Stephen Cole's written (discounting The Wormery, which feels more like Paul Magrs in any case).

Gallifrey 2.1: Lies by Gary Russell (April 2005)

Gallifrey's second season - at five releases, one story longer than its first - kicks off with Lies by director of the range (and then-BF supremo) Gary Russell. I am not, generally speaking, a fan of Gary Russell's writing; he's a great director and producer, but his scripts themselves tend to leave a lot to be desired - an overuse of continuity being the typical shortcoming. And yet Lies is actually pretty solid. What it has in spades is a sense of scale and atmosphere I often found lacking in Gallifrey I. From the haunting strands of those opening chords, as a young Romana, still in her first incarnation, trespasses into the Capitol's ancient Vaults and is called back by her Tutor, Irving Braxiatel (who I thought was Paul McGann's Doctor for a weird moment), to the moment she hears a shadowy female voice addressing her as 'Imperiatrix', we begin in an intriguing fashion which seems to set up a newer, more expansive arc plot, a storyline that's intimately connected to Romana herself and to her history, as well as to the past of Gallifrey itself.

Monday, 19 June 2017

Gallifrey 1.4: A Blind Eye by Alan Barnes (May 2004)

A story set entirely on Earth - on the Vienna-Calais train, to be precise, on 3 September 1939, the eve of World War II - is not exactly what one would expect from the finale to a series about political intrigue among the upper echelons of a vastly sophisticated race who act as custodians of time travel. That the story sees India Fisher return, this time to play Cecilia 'Sissy' Pollard - sister of the more famous Charlotte Pollard - is merely the icing on the proverbial cake when it comes to serving up the unexpected. Hugo Myatt makes an extremely welcome return, too, as the Glitz-like "trans-temporal crook" Mephistopheles Arkadian, meddling in interesting temporal distortions far and wide as he does, but being damn likeable at the same time. I commented in reviewing Weapon of Choice that the more earthy vagabond characters are often of greater interest than the uptight bureaucrats we find on Gallifrey itself, and so it's definitely a step in the right direction to bring Arkadian back. It makes for an eccentric cocktail, and not one I could've predicted after the relatively 'straight' developments of the previous three stories; this one feels much more like a Doctor Whoish mash-up of disparate elements, and frankly it's all the better for it.

Gallifrey 1.3: The Inquiry by Justin Richards (April 2004)

In one sense it's surprising that bringing back the Inquisitor from The Trial of a Time Lord - there a nameless character, but here called 'Inquisitor Darkel' - should turn out to be A Good Thing, because good though Lynda Bellingham was (and she was), she had so little to do, and is so associated with a somewhat unloved part of Doctor Who's history, that you wouldn't think she's a self-evident choice to bring back for this Gallifrey series. But then I wouldn't have thought that 30 minutes of phone conversation would make the brilliant story that is Urgent Calls, or that a comedy about Richard III could be as emotionally rich and true as The Kingmaker is, or that Auld Mortality could possibly spawn a rich and imaginative sequel without killing the ambiguity of the original. And on each count I have been proved wrong. Because the addition of Lynda Bellingham to Gallifrey's impressive - and, as I've highlighted before, impressively female-led - line-up is a good thing for the range, on the whole; The Inquiry is generally more engaging than its two predecessors.

Gallifrey 1.2: Square One by Stephen Cole (April 2004)

From the disarming opening segment ("it is happening again!") and the title - Square One, a reference to political manouevring as well as time-loops - it's fairly clear that this is going to be a story about the frustrations of repetition and not getting anywhere. Sure enough, that's what we get - a story that is frustratingly repetitious and doesn't really go anywhere. Despite recent cataclysmic events, the Temporal Powers are meeting at a historical temporal summit, but it's never quite clear what they're meant to be discussing, nor why Narvin is chosen to represent Gallifrey at the conference other than that he's a name we know (the head of the CIA seems a weird choice), especially given his hot-headed tendency to wade into the "jingoistic mire". Though it's a nice idea that time resets back to square one every time the delegates quarrel, the presentation of the squabbling politicos is all a bit peremptory and undercooked, and rarely attains the same sense of scale or brio to it that Weapon of Choice did, whilst, as in the film Source Code, it quickly gets wearing to watch the same scene unfold over and over. There's some clever plotting, and a good twist at the end, but it's a bit of a tortuous route to get there.

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Gallifrey 1.1: Weapon of Choice by Alan Barnes (March 2004)

Another spin-off for me to waffle unrestrainedly about: this time it's Gallifrey, centring on political struggles among the higher echelons of Time Lords. That risks sounding dry almost immediately as I type it, so of course it's a move of typical maximum common sense - and typical maximum marketability - to foreground characters we already know and care about. Leading the cast in this instance is Lalla Ward's second incarnation of Romana (last seen in Warriors' Gate, though she's also popped up in The Apocalypse ElementShada, Neverland and Zagreus), and Louise Jameson's Leela, who of course is also on Gallifrey as of the endings of The Invasion of Time and Zagreus. The ending of that 40th anniversary extravaganza, in fact, went some way towards setting up this spin-off series, in leaving Gallifrey and Time Lord society in the capable hands of Romana, Leela, and - who else?! - K9 (strictly speaking, K9s). What followed only a few months later, in March 2004, is a set of stories exploring what happened next, with Neverland and Zagreus writer Alan Barnes sensibly tapped to write the launching point, Weapon of Choice

Thursday, 15 June 2017

The least-known bit of Shakespeare everybody should read

I don't have anything clever or profound to add. I just think that as many people as possible ought to read this speech, which is taken from "Sir Thomas More", and is generally assumed by scholars to be one of William Shakespeare's key contributions to the play. The context is that More, in 1517, is addressing a large rabble of protesters who want rid of Italian Lombard immigrants who have come to London, accusing them of taking their jobs and so on (the same was true of French Huguenots closer to Shakespeare's day). More argues for compassionate treatment of immigrants and asylum seekers - the "them" of the first line. It could hardly be more timely.

Grant them removed, and grant that this your noise
Hath chid down all the majesty of England;
Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,
Their babies at their backs and their poor luggage,
Plodding to the ports and coasts for transportation,
And that you sit as kings in your desires,
Authority quite silent by your brawl,
And you in ruff of your opinions clothed;
What had you got? I’ll tell you: you had taught
How insolence and strong hand should prevail,
How order should be quelled; and by this pattern
Not one of you should live an aged man,
For other ruffians, as their fancies wrought,
With self same hand, self reasons, and self right,
Would shark on you, and men like ravenous fishes
Would feed on one another….
Say now the king
Should so much come too short of your great trespass
As but to banish you, whether would you go?
What country, by the nature of your error,
Should give you harbour? go you to France or Flanders,
To any German province, to Spain or Portugal,
Nay, any where that not adheres to England,
Why, you must needs be strangers: would you be pleased
To find a nation of such barbarous temper,
That, breaking out in hideous violence,
Would not afford you an abode on earth,
Whet their detested knives against your throats,
Spurn you like dogs, and like as if that God
Owed not nor made not you, nor that the claimants
Were not all appropriate to your comforts,
But chartered unto them, what would you think
To be thus used? this is the strangers' case;
And this your mountainish inhumanity.

Saturday, 10 June 2017

Dalek Empire 4.4: The Fearless, Part 4 by Nicholas Briggs (January 2008)

This fourth part of Dalek Empire IV, the eighteenth and final instalment in the Dalek Empire series overall, plays out like that lovely old mixed metaphor of Sir Tom Stoppard's: "all the skeletons in the cupboard are coming home to roost". This finale sees quite the showdown between our two major players, Commander Salus Kade and General Agnes Landen. Briggs gets a good deal of tension out of delaying the confrontations between this pair, but when they do arrive they're electrifying. Together they make for a fearsome combination, both orphaned children of war, the one a marine named 'Fearless' and the other the woman in whose image these marines have been moulded. The idea that Kade and the other Fearless are, as it were, children in Landen's image is not entirely surprising - it's a fairly common trope, going back to the Doctor being used as the Cyber-template in Spare Parts, and as we've noted there's always been something a bit ... motherly about Landen's relationship with her protégé - but it works. As O'Brien puts it in the CD extras, "if you see a marvellous young person who's got this something, whatever it is, in whatever field, in your field, and you know about your field because that's what you've spent your life doing, and you can impart to this person some of what you know and what you think, and see that person rise up - they're like your own creation, aren't they?" And as with the Daleks and Davros, the children quickly outgrew the parent: Kade is a more fearless fighter than the woman who created him.

Dalek Empire 4.3: The Fearless, Part 3 by Nicholas Briggs (December 2007)

The Fearless, Part 3 follows Kade's mission as he and the other members of the Spacer-wearing Fearless set out to kill Susan Mendes, the Angel of Mercy, each of them on their own in deep space as they close in on the ship carrying her, the Amorist. I was unsure about centring the story around assassinating the first series' lead character; the Kade and Landen stuff was far and away the most engaging material of the first two discs, and as such it's a shame to split that pair up and spend most of our time on a plan to kill a character we know from having heard Dalek War cannot possibly die in this set of stories. It seems like an artificial tension, though one which, as the story goes on and we reach a new twist, Briggs goes some way to justify. The revelation that the Susan Mendes of this story is in fact a robot duplicate isn't immensely unpredictable, but it does help keep what happens here distinct and less like it's playing second fiddle to Dalek Empire I: a new bit of political intrigue in another part of the conflict rather than retreading old ground. Better still, the final twist of the knife - traps within traps, schemes within schemes - promises some excellent Kade/Landen material in the grand finale. It's quite the rug-pull.

Thursday, 8 June 2017

Dalek Empire 4.2: The Fearless, Part 2 by Nicholas Briggs (November 2007)

What's interesting in The Fearless Part 2 is that for brief bits of the story, the Daleks are victims: the fearful, almost. There's also a cracking - and to my mind, quite Davies-ish, whose reciprocal influence on Nick Briggs is not to be underestimated by this point - bit of humour early on in this instalment in which the Daleks are chanting "Victory!" over and over but then interrupt themselves with "Silence!" the moment they hear that the Fearless are on the hull of their ship, about to burst in on them. Then there's their hubristic belief that their firepower is superior to that of the Fearless, quickly proved wrong. It's a unique little instance of getting tension out of the Daleks being in danger and being afraid of what's coming to get them: a proper way of selling quite how dangerous and formidable the Fearless really are. Kade's bravado, swagger and intensity - you can almost see his broad shoulders and determined expression just from how Clarke delivers his lines - shine through once again and raise the quality of the whole piece. He pivots on a dime from fury to despair, and it's compelling stuff.

Dalek Empire 4.1: The Fearless, Part 1 by Nicholas Briggs (October 2007)

The definition of a sidequel is a story which "portrays events that occur at the same time as the original work, but focuses on different characters in a different setting. Such stories may intersect with the original work, and often involve similar themes" (Our Lord and Master, Saint Wikipedia). The Star Wars anthology film Rogue One doesn't quite count, I guess, since it is really a sequel to one set of films and a prequel to another set; Philip Pullman's forthcoming Book of Dust trilogy is being called an "equel", what with the first book taking place 10 years before His Dark Materials and the others some time after (that is to say, none of it during the original). But Dalek Empire IV: The Fearless is a classic instance of a sidequel. The entire four-part series is its own work, it seems, but slots seamlessly into the earlier Dalek Empire I, during the time in which Suz was the "Angel of Mercy" and serving at the Daleks' command; it thus spans a roughly similar time period as the original, but with a whole new set of characters. So far, so uncomplicated. 

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Why "Extremis" by Steven Moffat (2017) is a masterpiece

I'm basically a bit suspicious whenever people say a certain story isn't "needed". Or "necessary" or other words to that effect. No story is needed or necessary in any way whatsoever. I know that's a bit unfair on people using those words because it's not quite what they mean, but I do think it's a helpful starting point for perhaps sharpening our senses on why we talk about stories in these terms, where "needed" or "necessary" become barometers of whether something is worth one's time or not. Boiling entertainment down to whether it's "necessary" or not does seem an awfully clinical way of looking at things. There are books or films which I don't want to waste my time on, sure, because they don't look like my cup of tea, but I don't think that makes them "unnecessary" per se. Is a story good? Does it entertain people? Then its existence is justified, surely.

I'm also suspicious of the way "needed" and "necessary" are bandied about because I think people are only use them on the prosaic plot level: is X episode of Doctor Who necessary for the plot of the next one? Is a wikipedia summary of Extremis needed to grasp the wikipedia summary of The Pyramid at the End of the World? Well, you know, maybe not. But that's plot, not story. Plots are accounts of what happened; stories are how those happenings feel. The former is something it makes sense to discuss in terms of "needed" and "necessary"; the latter less so.

Mark Gatiss at the Oxford Union

This afternoon I had the pleasure of hearing Mark Gatiss - the well-known actor and writer - speak at the Oxford Union. As many readers will know, Mark cuts a charming and suave figure and is always good value in these sorts of settings. He's best known, indeed, for playing charming and suave characters (albeit also rather sinister ones): Mycroft Holmes, Stephen Gardiner, Tycho Nestoris, Peter Mandelson. The usual suspects. And in person he is, indeed, a very lovely man (his parting words to my friend Louis McEvoy and myself - see the picture on right - were "speaking as someone who wore tweed a lot in my twenties, a word of advice: it's just too damn hot. Dress like Peter Davison instead!"). That said, he's also a lovely man who is very angry and unhappy with the current state of the world. Both Louis and myself had the opportunity of asking questions both in the Chamber itself - where the Q&A took place - and afterwards in the Union bar (pictured). Details follow.

Monday, 5 June 2017

Geisterstunde

I

A whole new hour has appeared on the clock -
Not by physicists' edicts, nor by governmental decree,
Nor has word reached us from Geneva
Along with astronomers' astronomical fees.

This is no right-on think-tank's idea,
Nor is this done at the City's behest.
Who came up with it first nobody knows.
All sane folk will no doubt shelve it with the rest

Of the mad, bad notions, the wacky, the weird,
Odd socks in the drawer, loose change in the purse,
Spare screws unneeded, the needy unheeded,
Anyone who deviates, makes society worse.