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.

033. The Moonbase by Kit Pedler: Episode 2 (18 February 1967)

Much has been written about how it's The Moonbase in which Patrick Troughton really works out how to play the Doctor, and I think that's mostly fair, especially here in Episode 2 (where he's very strong indeed). We get the first sense of his resigned but determined moral duty ("there's something evil here, and we must stay"), the meddling adventurer slowly becoming more of a crusader who puts a stop to evil at all costs ("there are some corners of the universe that have bred the most terrible things. Things which act against everything we believe in. They must be fought!"). Philip Sandifer is exactly right to claim this famous line is more of a weary acceptance of his duty to fight evil than it is a triumphant call-to-arms, and that's key to how Troughton plays the role over the next two and a half seasons. Also of note is that he's much more of a doctor here, actively combatting disease, using microscopes, examining patients, and name-dropping Joseph Lister, while his charmingly impish nature is also at the fore: witness the bit where he creeps around the base taking hair samples from the oblivious crew, or the moment he complains about dust getting into his slides, or his and Polly's repeated "excuse me, please"s to Hobson when he's in the way.

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

033. The Moonbase by Kit Pedler: Episode 1 (11 February 1967)

Ahh, The Moonbase. A story that does, at least, seem to know what it wants to be, after the surreal floundering-around on display in The Highlanders and The Underwater Menace, both of which are - to put it kindly - far from being fan favourites (though I think redemptive readings of both are possible). As I see it, Season 4 (1966-7) can be divided into those stories which are wildly throwing around concepts with reckless abandon in the hope that something will stick and provide a template for the series going forward in its post-Hartnell uncertainty, and those stories which play it safer and attempt a kind of "new normal", as discussed when covering The Underwater Menace. Here we have a story which clearly falls into the latter camp, in that it is the most straightforward and least inexplicable Troughton story so far; furthermore, it does minimal messing around with genre. The mode here is predominantly "hard SF", or what Doctor Who thinks "hard SF" is (often deeply silly and necessitating implausible solutions involving tea trays). But, as bridging different genres goes, that's a much easier sell than "hi-jinks and cross-dressing meets Culloden" or "Fish People and Atlantis meet Indiana Jones meets a mad scientist", while the first post-regeneration story, The Power of the Daleks, brought with it a unique kind of strangeness. That's not to say there aren't some surreal moments here too, mind - the off-the-wall design of The Underwater Menace continues, with some beautifully retro space suits for our adventurers as they cross the Moon's surface, while even the fun little moon-jumps at the story's beginning resemble the Fish People's dancing.

"The Other Side of Silence": On the Novels of George Eliot (1819-1880)

with gratitude to Bethan Hughes

A while back I did a "marathon" of Fyodor Dostoyevsky's major novels, which was a lot more fun than most people I spoke to seemed to assume it would be. Before that (we're talking 2008 or so) Dickens was my Purist Obsession of Choice. This year it was George Eliot's turn, and as such I've read seven of her major works over the summer - Adam Bede; The Mill on the Floss; Silas Marner; Romola; Felix Holt, the Radical; Middlemarch; and Daniel Deronda (though I didn't read them in quite that - chronological - order, thus making the more pedantic part of my brain recoil in horror, but it's a part of the brain one should frequently ignore). I've also missed off Scenes of Clerical Life (1857-8), which will no doubt annoy other subscribers to the Purist Obsession of Choice weeklies (and, funnily enough, Dickens, who wrote 'the exquisite truth and delicacy, both of the humour and the pathos of [these] stories, I have never seen the like of'), but, in any case, to err is human and there's something rather healthy about limits, loose ends, and frayed edges. As many of George Eliot's books illustrate, in fact.

George Eliot was the nom de plume of Mary Anne Evans (1819-1880), born in Nuneaton in Warwickshire to a father who managed the 300-acre Arbury Hall estate and a mother whose father had been a local mill-owner. It is no surprise, then, that rural life dominates her works, with all but two of these seven set entirely in provincial England, while one of the two outliers, Daniel Deronda, is at least partially set there. In this respect she more closely resembles Hardy than she does Dickens, for she has none of the latter's irrepressible love of cities (by which I really mean 'London'). And yet it is not, primarily, the rural landscape in which she is interested, as Hardy is; for Hardy - and we must use the old cliché, I fear - the landscape is a character, and a vividly alive one, not simply a backdrop against which the lives of complex individuals play out (see the storm sequence in Far from the Madding Crowd, to give one example). Eliot's fascination is with rural lives, in which she (like Wordsworth) saw beyond what polite society thought of as the inanity of yokels, unearthing a whole treasure trove of emotional and psychological insight.

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Gallifrey 3.5: Panacea by Alan Barnes (August 2006)

And on the pedestal these words appear:
'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
-Percy Bysshe Shelley, "Ozymandias" (1818)

Alan Barnes doesn't half get lumped with the task of tying up behemoths of story-lines (Neverland, Zagreus, The Girl Who Never Was, and now Panacea). Though I suppose he has to take some credit for usually being the one who starts them, and so in that light there's a certain pleasingly circularity that he comes back to the range he launched to pen Panacea, Chapter Fourteen and the end of Gallifrey (for now). What I like most about Panacea is that it wallows in a tangible sense of decay that Series 3 could perhaps have focussed on a little more. Gallifrey is suffering "the privations of a ruinous war", all power cuts and overfull hospitals; Romana is an outcast in the Outlands, even lower than the prisoner and usurped President she has been in earlier releases; and her ancestral house, Heartshaven, is now dilapidated and desolate, overrun with vermin, soon abandoned to the flame (I'm a sucker for all this lyrical, wistful nostalgia: "When I was a Time Tot the lamps of Heartshaven lit up when the heirs to the house crossed the hall, and the paintings would whisper their welcome").

Sunday, 20 August 2017

Gallifrey 3.4: Mindbomb by Justin Richards (July 2006)

"So everything is back to normal," a character observes early on in Justin Richards' Mindbomb, the thirteenth chapter in the Gallifrey series and penultimate of Gallifrey III. And, in a way, they're right: we have moved past civil war and are now in the more familiar milieu of political machinations, hotly contested elections, and pomp and ceremony. Not to mention plenty of Legalese, though I have to say I actually find the way the writers have dealt with Gallifreyan Legalese to be surprisingly engaging - all the ins and outs of who is or isn't eligible to stand for election, or who does or doesn't have power over whom. It helps that the characters are all so terribly manipulative and back-stabbing, of course, while the series has its tongue firmly in its cheek at the same time - much like the original House of Cards in that respect (and "think about that" isn't that far away from "you may very well think that; I couldn't possibly comment"). Matthias' sudden and unexpected betrayal of Romana, resulting in her impeachment and imprisonment, is an immediate way of raising the stakes in exactly this vein, whilst simultaneously proving almost funny given the tortuous twists and turns we've taken to reach this point, and Matthias' own narcissistic insistence (try saying that when you're drunk) on shooting down Darkel's attempts to oust Romana only to do it himself anyway.

Friday, 18 August 2017

"The Antipodean Excursion" 5: Nelson, Franz Josef, Wanaka, Queenstown, Milford Sound, Dunedin, Christchurch

We left Wellington on the InterIslander ferry in the soft pale glow of an early morning. The weather clouded over and the waves got choppier as we went further out to sea, but whatever the gusts there's no feeling quite like feeling the wind whip through your hair and snatch your breath away as you stand up on deck, so I was sure to pop up top every so often. It's a long journey between North and South Island - through Cook Strait and the Marlborough Sound, the ferry weaving its way down different waterways and between steep, forested hills. Upon arrival at the small town of Picton we disembarked (with a strange sense of déjà vu, in my case at least, of arriving at Tarbert on the Isle of Harris off the west coast of Scotland), and were just in time to catch our InterCity bus to Nelson.

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Gallifrey 3.3: Appropriation by Paul Sutton (July 2006)

Gallifrey III has gone for a pretty unusual structure: all-out civil war for its first two stories, then three stories dealing with the aftermath. It doesn't strike me as a completely cohesive arc in the way Gallifrey II got more or less spot on, but the sudden swerve that Warfare took in its climactic moments - it felt much more like a finale than an Episode 2 of 5 - means that I'm properly in the dark as I head into these last three stories (Appropriation, Mindbomb, and Panacea). Where could the writers possibly take things from here? Well, as Matthias observes early on, "the war may be over, but the real fighting is about to begin". Appropriation sees a return to the first two series' focus on political infighting over Gallifrey's future - but this time taking place in the wake of a devastating conflict which saw much of the Time Lords' history and culture destroyed in a single stroke. 

Saturday, 5 August 2017

Gallifrey 3.2: Warfare by Stewart Sheargold (June 2006)

Warfare focuses further on, and more or less resolves, the ongoing Gallifreyan Civil War which we saw begin in Imperiatrix and really kick off in Fractures. As already identified, this is a war of individual psychological identities as much as - if not more than - it is a war of laser guns and barricades. Two sides of Gallifrey clash, with Romana in the centre of it (twice) and the pressure cooker is tearing both planet and president apart. That's an undeniably epic premise woven from appropriate bits of Doctor Who mythology, and as such the story has both a forward momentum and a sense of import to it. Warfare also dwells on the fragments of different voices heard in the minds of both Romana II and Pandora, still using the body of Romana I. In the latter's case, this allows Mary Tamm the opportunity to play the actual Romana I (or at least her voice... no, really, I mean her voice in-story), which distinguishes her from Pandora, makes Romana I more active in the story-line, and generally keeps things clearer than they were last time round. There's a fun moment where President Romana realises that her past self is actively working on her side against Pandora. Mind you, I still don't think this series has made very good use of Tamm, and I'm itching to actually hear her do a full Big Finish story as her proper character in the future. Time for the allegedly "weaker" incarnation (and I still don't know what I think of that) to get a crack of the whip!

Meta-Metamorphosis (2010)

The first drama script I ever wrote, when I was about 15. I've just discovered it on my hard drive, much to my surprise, so here it is, ready to be unleashed on an unsuspecting and mostly indifferent world... (How weird a thing it is to read one's juvenilia back! I have, at least, retained my affection for all things Kafka, theatrical, and metafictional, so I am consistent if nothing else...) The script version of Kafa's "Metamorphosis" used here is that of Steven Berkoff and I cast myself in the part of the rather inhuman director, described here as "the git": something of an ego-trip with a sprinkling of self-deprecating humour. 

Also, when I was 15 apparently I didn't know how to spell "Gary", so at least I've learned something.



A black stage; a curtain, chairs, etc. The rehearsal space/studio of a Theatre Company, although when the lights come up they are reddy-green, with shadowy edges...surreal, unnerving. It is as if the play is real, and the studio is a dream. 
There are three characters on stage: JAN, EFFY and GARRY, the three members of the acting company. The director, MARK, referred to by the others as MR MILLIGAN, is sitting with the audience.
 Jan is playing the part of GREGOR SAMSA, the main character in the play they are rehearsing, ‘Metamorphosis’. Effy is playing the part of GRETA SAMSA, Gregor’s sister, and Garry is playing the FATHER of the family. When playing the ‘Metamorphosis’ parts, it would be good if the actors do it with as much conviction as possible, almost as if this were the play, but the parts should be clearly distinct from their own roles.  
Cue creepy music. 

Thursday, 3 August 2017

"The Antipodean Excursion" 4: Himatangi Beach, Otaki, Whanganui, Tongariro, Wellington

This update covers the rest of our activities on the North Island right up until our departure from Wellington on the morning of August the 2nd, bringing our time in the North, our time with Steve, and the first four weeks of our holiday to a close, so it seems as good a point to break off as any. Most of this time we spent at Himatangi Beach (or in the near vicinity, e.g. Palmerston North) but we certainly had the occasional opportunity for excursions away, some of which were among the most memorable on the entire trip so far. It's reached the point where I think the two of us could just sit around doing nothing for our two weeks on the South Island and we'd still be pretty content with one of the most active holidays we've been on!

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

The Memory of Grass

The surface of the Earth is just 1% postcard:
Everywhere else has been pillaged and spoiled.
Nowhere looks like it did in the 'zines.

But it perseveres,
That 1%, oases in a post-oasis world
For all who remember things as they were
When 'desert' mostly meant 'Sahara',
When oceans were small and unambitious,
When not all green was artificial.
The most untouched of all is Urupukapuka,
Or, as some folk called it, Little Eden.
I don't get it.