Monday, 29 March 2010

The Geek Factor #2: On novels

The first time I did a list on here, I said I wouldn’t make a habit of it – yet here we are. There’s far more Doctor Who that I feel strongly enough about to review than which I can do so, at least while maintaining a semblance of a social life, so, indulge me.

Ever since the series returned in 2005 and plunged me back into fannish obsessiveness, I’ve been rereading old favourites and catching up on novels I missed out on the first time round. Since several of these books are either totally underrated, or split opinion, Marmite-like, for what it’s worth I thought I’d add my ten cents.

Genre snobbery annoys me, and, as I tend to be a bit closety about the extent of my geekiness in ‘real life,’ I often find myself putting Doctor Who novels down, even to myself. So I’d like to say, bollocks to snobbery - I genuinely think the following are simply excellent novels, exhibiting some brilliant writing, regardless of their sci-fi TV tie-in status.

So, in no particular order…

Post-Doctor New Adventure novel written by Lawrence Miles, 1999

Regardless of what you think of his self-appointed role as Doctor Who’s answer to Charlie Brooker, Miles’ novels are incredible. This is probably his best, showcasing his stunningly inventive imagination, in a clever and devastating story. Its ‘unofficial’ status (as a spin-off from the New Adventures proper) gives it an amazing edge, allowing familiar Doctor Who concepts to be reenergised.

New Adventure novel written by Ben Aaronovitch, 1992

Given this novel’s uncompromising nature its poor reputation is dispiritingly predictable, but it is a mature and beautifully written realisation of Doctor Who beyond the confines of the ‘kids’ TV’ label. Stark and terse, and full of effective cyberpunk worldbuilding.

New Adventure novel written by Ben Aaronovitch, 1995

Utterly different to Transit, but equally gorgeous, demonstrating Aaronovitch’s versatility. Set on a huge scale, the utopian atmosphere is involving and compellingly unusual for Doctor Who, but this is balanced by a sense of intimacy and focus on character.

Faction Paradox spin-off novel written by Philip Purser-Hallard, 2004

Although from a spin-off range, this is one of the best ever Doctor Who-related stories - densely written and epic in the truest sense, taking place on an enormous canvas.

New Adventure novel written by Kate Orman, 1993

Possibly the best New Adventure - certainly definitive, in that it encapsulates beautifully descriptive adult prose, often experimental literary devices, violence, and a wealth of big ideas. Improbably but effortlessly includes hippies, drugs, Aztecs, torture, and the Titanic.

New Adventure novel written by Simon Bucher-Jones, 1996

Completely underrated; a wonderfully dark, grotesque, complex and richly imaginative novel. Although the ending is slightly unsatisfying, Bucher-Jones revels in a grand guignol atmosphere and joyfully weaves together a large cast of (often changeable) characters and multiple factions.

New Adventure novel written by Andrew Cartmel, 1992

The whole of Cartmel’s ‘War trilogy’ – Warhead, Warlock, Warchild - is devastatingly well written. The foregrounding of realistic characters couches the Doctor Who elements in an almost unheard of level of realism, and creates a powerfully effective and truly adult Doctor Who novel.

Novelisation by Donald Cotton, 1985

Very sharp, witty, and clever reimagining of an already excellent TV story. Narrated by Homer and rich in genuinely effective wordplay, this has to be one of the funniest takes on Doctor Who, by a long way.

New Adventure novel written by Lawrence Miles, 1996

Miles’ first novel is already bursting with invention and a combination of big, creative ideas, humour, and absurdity which many other authors would kill for. Not perfect, but verging on genius.

Telos novella written by Daniel O’Mahony, 2003

Beautifully experimental novella – the Doctor hardly features, and when he does he appears to be an unknown incarnation, but the story is all the stronger for its ambiguous relationship with ‘the canon’. Full of reinventions or lateral takes on existing elements from the series, this is a deceptively straightforward story enriched by excellent prose. It would also make a fantastic TV episode. Steven…?

Eighth Doctor Adventure novel written by Lawrence Miles, 1997

Pretty much as perfect as the EDAs ever got – funny, devious, full of digressions and backstories, and casually brilliant new takes on normally staid Doctor Who mythology. Leaves the vast majority of the BBC novels in the dust.

Missing Adventure novel written by Daniel O’Mahony, 1996

Another wildly underrated one; a First Doctor story which transcends the conventions of its on-screen period with a twisted milieu and pleasingly idiosyncratic style.

Past Doctor Adventure novel written by Jim Mortimer, 1998

Not as strong in terms of plot, but elevated by its non-chronological structure and rotating first-person narration (which, memorably, includes the Doctor). In terms of structure alone it is unlike much else in the various Doctor Who novel ranges, and it’s great to see Leela explored so thoroughly and made so credible.

Post-Doctor New Adventure novel written by Lawrence Miles, 1997

A very funny play on pulp archetypes, featuring a journey into the centre of a planet where prehistoric beasts roam, with cartoon Nazis and a thirties-style action hero thrown in. What’s most impressive is that this concept is fully justified, and has a killer twist.

New Adventure novel written by Ben Aaronovitch and Kate Orman, 1997

The opening funeral scene is both hugely sad and a gorgeous piece of writing. Though (justifiably) disjointed in places, it is wide-ranging and has a surfeit rather than lack of detail and event. Forms a worthy – if inadvertent – epitaph for the New Adventures.

Eighth Doctor Adventure novel written by Paul Magrs, 1998

Gleefully illogical, but with an especially winning atmosphere that draws you in and makes you care what will happen, despite the plot seeming to operate on authorial whim alone. Though as daft as Magrs’ later efforts, it seems like a more complete and fully-realised excursion into his imagination.

Novelisation by Marc Platt, 1990

One of the late novelisations which formed a precedent for the NAs, fleshing out backstory and characterisation. Platt adapts Aaronovitch’s script so well that I always assumed the TV story must be as good as the rest of season twenty-six, and was sorely disappointed by comparison when I finally saw it.

New Adventure novel written by Kate Orman, 1996

The plot’s a runaround, but the characters are all beautifully drawn, and it’s nice to have a Doctor Who book almost devoted to the emotional states of its characters. Its range of alien refugees and continuity should seem overindulgent, but I’d love to revisit these characters, and the potential for tweeness is tempered by Orman’s trademark hero-punishment.

Missing Adventure novel written by Gareth Roberts, 1996

I’m not an enormous fan of Roberts’ Fourth Doctor-and-Romana II books, but this is an impeccably enjoyable evocation of the wonderful First Doctor, Ian and Barbara TARDIS crew. The Doctor having to explain to a dragged-up Vicki why King James I is so interested in her is a particular gem.

Post-Doctor New Adventure novel written by Kate Orman, 1998

Another excellent Bernice Summerfield-starring spin-off; Babylon is wonderfully evoked, as is Benny’s perceptively-written love affair.

Faction Paradox spin-off novel written by Daniel O’Mahony, 2008

More hugely impressive Faction Paradox. Dense, inventive, meticulously plotted, the well-drawn characters and period setting are extremely compelling. Another example of how far ‘the Whoniverse’ can be pushed. (And, no, there’s not meant to be an apostrophe.)

Eighth Doctor Adventure novel written by Lawrence Miles, 2001

Written as an almost dialogue-free historical text, this novel recasts the Doctor as a ‘fallen elemental’ demigod, fighting alongside eighteenth century prostitutes. Mythic, intriguing, and unlike anything else – what other Doctor Who novel would open with an extended bout of tantric sex?

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Kasterborous article

Another shameless plug!

Christian Cawley very generously gave me the opportunity to pitch for the Opinion section of online magazine Kasterborous – you can read the resulting brief article HERE.

It’s about Matt Smith’s youthfulness (although he’s older than me, haha) and the marginalisation of older figures in the media. It namechecks Donald Pleasance, Angela Lansbury, and Johnny Ball. Go read!

"Keep warm"

Written by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis, directed by Derek Martinus, 1966

Watched alongside The Next Doctor and Attack of the Cybermen in an inadvertent cyber-fest, it’s fascinating having a chance to directly reconcile these wildly disparate periods of Doctor Who. These stories couldn’t be more different (despite all featuring the Cybermen), but are comparable in that none of them are very good examples of their eras.

Of the three stories, I actually found Attack the most enjoyable (bizarrely, as it is rubbish). It’s gratifying to see the Sixth Doctor – magician’s outfit and all – in an urban environment (a relatively unsanitised one, to boot), while Colin Baker’s dangerously unhinged joie de vivre comes across particularly well when combined with how compelling he is playing it straight.

Where Attack is infamously unfocused, with too many elements crammed in, The Tenth Planet is altogether more lacking. It has a status verging on the legendary, but this just isn’t deserved.

As a huge fan of the sixties, and of Hartnell in particular, this story is a massive disappointment. It feels like what I guess non-fans’d expect Doctor Who of this era to be like: dull and naïve and humourless. Which is ironic, as it barely feels like Doctor Who at all; it has a very fifties mentality (making a mockery of its then future setting), while the Doctor, Polly and (at least initially) Ben, are barely involved. There are plenty of Doctor Who environments which would be perfectly compelling sans regulars, but unfortunately this isn’t one of them.

The dynamism of The War Machines’ extreme angles and crash-zooms is replaced here by choppy editing and an impetus-less story. Much as I love Ben and Polly, even they seem depressingly at home in this shlocky situation – they seem like the arbitrary young couple archetype they normally surpass. Polly is saddled with some particularly dubious B-movie expository dialogue, while Ben is reduced to narrating aloud what he’s doing (though Michael Craze’s likeability and evident devotion to the character still carries the part – that he’s a fox and looks good with a machine gun undeniably helps).

The story itself is undermined by clichéd characters like the tediously intransigent Dyson, and hokey science. (The idea of a mirror-image planet rolling up is stupid enough to work on Doctor Who terms, but patently inaccurate scientific ideas such as said planet turning into a sun, and the boring-as-sin space programme, are rather more unforgivable.) Although mainly due to the upside down globe used to represent Mondas, that it takes everyone so long to realise why the planet looks ‘so familiar’ makes the production seem particularly moronic.

On the other hand, General Cutler is quite threatening because rather than being ‘bad’ per se, he simply has no respect for the Doctor (the blunt line, “I don’t like your face. Nor your hair,” is surprisingly shocking for its relative crudeness). He’s still rather tedious though, and that’s the most memorable character of the lot!

As a late video release, The Tenth Planet isn’t an established bastion of Doctor Who in the way the earliest VHS releases are (your Arks in Space and Day of the Daleks; the ones which invariably turn up in car boot sales). As such, the Cybermen here feel like retrospectively-devised Hartnell-era parodies of the Earthshock and Troughton versions. And you couldn’t make up a more sixties-looking version of the Cybermen! However, they work, if mainly in concept over realisation (though my appreciation of this design does owe a lot to Adrian Salmon’s DWM Cybermen strip, which made them look fantastically low-tech, chunky and powerful).

Though not my favourite Cyberman design – that’d have to be the sleek Wheel in Space wetsuit-and-garter look – I’d take these over the noodley ‘high-tech’ eighties version any day. There’s something grotesque about their crudeness, which is lacking in all later versions: the sense that they really are corpses with technological additions bolted on. With their creepy, doll-like faces, the Cybermen are arguably at their most potent here. (Helped by their booming theme, which sounds pleasingly – if unexpectedly – like something from Liars’ Drum’s Not Dead album.)

Though due to unavoidable rewrites, it does seem somewhat inexcusable that, in the swansong of the original Doctor, Hartnell gets very little send off. It’s certainly no finale; it’s only episode three in which he is completely written out, but even when present, he barely gets anything to do. (Has the Doctor ever been so passive in scenes where he’s present? At least his apparent prescience is interesting.) It’s fortunate then that when he does appear, Hartnell is on great form – both playful and exuding great authority (he is especially at his commanding best in episode four). He genuinely enlivens the scenes he’s actually in, and is the main source of enjoyment in this lacklustre story.

It’s hard to judge the first regeneration on the basis of The Tenth Planet, as it is only actually addressed in Power of the Daleks. I like the mysteriousness of the Doctor’s change – but still wish there were more build-up to it. God knows David Tennant’s exit from the show in The End of Time was cringeworthily overblown, thanks to Russell T Davies’ all too keen awareness of the expectations surrounding it - so maybe it’s best to appreciate the low-key nature of this initial, ground-breaking change. In fact, the poor-quality footage of the build-up to the regeneration used in the VHS reconstruction – grainy, strobbing images; all throbbing menace – is rather glorious; the whole thing has a climactic feel despite its lack of build up. There is an eeriness to this regeneration which is unmatched by any of those to come, where it would become a somewhat flashier, more crowd-pleasing (and obviously, expected) occurrence.

There is pathos in Hartnell’s last weakened handful of lines, increased by their understatedness (“I must go now”) – in comparison to a speech contrived to show how ‘fantastic’ he was. In fact, there is a wonderful weary sadness to his final dialogue, despite how little light it sheds on what is about to happen. I suppose, viewed in this way, even the Doctor’s marginalisation from the story adds to the poignancy of what amounts to his death.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

"Ice cream. Ice cream. Ice cream"

Written by Steven Moffat, directed by Euros Lyn, 2008

It’s funny, but rewatching this story my overriding impression – over its cleverness and complexity, or visual beauty – is how emotional it is. I’m not one of those people who pride themselves on crying every episode, and lap up every contrived Emotional Moment, but for the whole last half of Forest of the Dead, I cried and cried.

Miss Evangelista’s death (a scene I believe will become rightly iconic); the little girl’s increasing anguish in the living room; Donna’s incoherent reaction to her children disappearing, and the separation from her husband (“I’LL FIND YOU! I PROMISE YOU I’LL FIND YOU!”) – which is all the more poignant than it would have been with Rose or Martha, as Donna is older and apparently unlucky in love; River’s sacrifice… I found it all completely heartbreaking.

The story’s sadness wasn’t my main impression before, but it is quite wonderful - especially as this level of emotion arises naturally from the story (as opposed to, say, the bolted-on codas to Doomsday and Journey’s End).

I know Lawrence Miles has criticised Steven Moffat’s approach, as encapsulated by this story – especially what he calls the fetishisation and “impending godhood” of the Doctor. In a sense, I can see that there is a very conscious mythologisation of the character and the series at work here. Arguably, Russell T Davies attempts this too, but doesn’t really manage it; I concede there is something almost too deliberate about the epic, big ideas about the Doctor’s power and majesty here, but I quite enjoy it (as long as it doesn’t become overdone in series five/one/thirty-one/fnarg).

There is also something very arch about Moffat’s stories, which operate on an almost hyper-real, almost too self-aware level (especially in terms of River, here), which I can see could become tiresome. In fact, the whole thing could almost be seen as too smart for its own good, or fitting together too slickly – but, let’s not be complaining about an embarrassment of riches at this stage.

(River is a fascinating addition to the backstory (well, future-story) of a character it’s easy to think we know, or take for granted and barely even consider as a ‘character’ per se. Certainly far more than the entirely anodyne non-daughter, Jenny. It’s funny how Moffat randomly created a character who has immediately been taken up as a big deal, compared to the committee-approved feel of Jenny, who was so obviously intended to be an ‘event,’ but ended up as a complete nothing. River is also perhaps the most plausible of the Tenth Doctor’s romances, mostly because a lot of the groundwork is filled in by their (to her) pre-existing relationship, which has a detail it’d be impossible to match purely on-screen.)

In the run up to Moffat’s take on the series, I don’t want to be lumped with the anti-RTD squad by saying I’m glad to see the back of Davies, because I am hugely appreciative of his revitalisation of the series. On a personal level, his ratings-friendly savviness is perhaps a little too transparent at times, and, often, I simply don’t enjoy his writing (the aptitude of which I think is massively exaggerated, especially in media circles). However, it’s too easy to say Steven Moffat’s approach appeals far more to me because given that, at the time of writing, we still haven’t seen Moffat take on story arcs, season finales, or returning monsters or characters, it's impossible to compare the two directly,.

I kind of feel this is a story that doesn’t need a great deal said about its specifics, as everyone must already be aware of its brilliance (and their loss if not), but this is how I want Doctor Who to be; complex and clever, and with genuine emotion, beyond the emotional pornography of contrivances like Rose’s twice-over separation from the Doctor.

Stories like this (arguably then, I’m talking about Human Nature/The Family of Blood and Moffat’s preceding stories) feel like the series progressing from those it was beginning to tell in season twenty-six (the ultimate example of how wonderful, clever, unusual and imaginative Doctor Who can be, in my opinion), rather than feeling exclusively like a successor to Pertwee and Tom Baker’s eras.

Visually, it’s also wonderful to see Doctor Who which – like Human Nature/The Family of Blood, its predecessor of comparable, atypical quality – is literally visually stunning. Beautiful isn’t something you can accuse much Doctor Who of being, but it is here. It’s such a relief to at least temporarily ditch conventional by-numbers sci-fi trappings for something richer and almost steampunkish.

There’s also a surfeit of particularly memorable imagery: the skeletons in spacesuits, obviously; the Victorian Evangelista in suburbia; the multiple identical kids; the nodes; the little girl watching the adventure on TV.

Stylistically, it’s modern, but not overly flashy or vacuous; this doesn’t look like Hollyoaks in space. It’s stylish and gorgeous - helped no end by the location filming for the Library; I love the contrast of the Jules Verne Victoriana with the almost pop-art stylings of the little girl’s house. The CG exteriors are, for once, equally beautiful, and not only add to the atmosphere but are so good they barely register as special effects (compare and contrast with The Next Doctor’s toy-town London, for example).

I find it both bizarre and depressingly all too credible that The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End and even Turn Left were popularly ranked above this story in DWM’s series four ratings poll (and that it didn’t make the top ten of The Mighty 200). Evidently, people really are taken in by transparently popularist button-pushing and the mentality that a surfeit of recurring characters increases quality; as far as I’m concerned, a story like this, bursting with original ideas, characters, and set pieces, utterly belies that thinking.

The joke in the same issue of the magazine that fans are hoping Moffat’s series will be so dark that they won’t be able to see it, is probably on the money – but I still can’t help but wish at least for an increase in intelligent, challenging stories like this. Emotional and complex – and, yes, dark – it may be, but this is also a witty and exciting adventure; ‘darkness’ doesn’t necessarily have to equal the po-faced humourlessness of, say, Christopher Nolan’s (bizarrely overrated) Batman films. Predictable it may be to say so, but I can’t help hoping this story is representative of the show’s future. (We’ll soon see.)

Monday, 15 March 2010

Colin Brockhurst

"Kidnapped by an unearthly Lolita!"

I love this reimagining of An Unearthly Child as a lurid, pulpy shocker. (Though I do hate the word 'reimagining'.) There's lots of lovely stuff on Colin's site - I'm also particularly fond of the Hartnell-era version of Planet of the Dead.

Colin's also one of the creators of the Vworp Vworp! fanzine, which I'm pretty excited about. Although, having said that, I haven't got my copy yet. Cough, cough.

Friday, 12 March 2010

"Our troops will flood your rivers with the discarded shells of their nut rations!"

New Adventure novel written by Paul Cornell, 1996

I adore the New Adventures novels, and though I realise a lot of that’s nostalgia for an adult-oriented take on Doctor Who, and for the manipulative, charming, morally conflicted Seventh Doctor – and Benny, Chris and Roz – the series forms one of my favourite (and formative) periods of Doctor Who. Equally, I do appreciate how shit a lot of the (especially earlier) books were. At best though, I love their intelligence, emotion, and that they didn’t have to bend over backward to accommodate a mainstream audience – at least when their basis in fandom was characterised by the understanding and investigation of the series displayed by Cartmel, Aaronovitch, and Orman, rather than a devolution into fanwank. Those are the authors I love best – the ones who can genuinely write, not the fan-pleasing ones like Gary Russell, Gareth Roberts or, yes, Paul Cornell.

Cornell’s righteous, right-on ‘bleeding heart liberal’ standpoint bugs the hell out of me, even if my sympathies (ie, environmental) are probably quite similar. With this novel’s little references to a late twentieth century environmental collapse, it’s all a little holier than thou and finger-wagging. (Not to mention his mystical, spiritual approach to the British seasons and country village.) Also, Cornell’s characters are all terribly, terribly nice, even the bad or questionable ones – which, in this book, amounts to a whopping two, Hamlet Macbeth and Alec Steel.

Having bashed Cornell - and despite never having liked his writing - though I feel I should hate this sort of indulgent romp, while Happy Endings may not be representative, it is a worthy celebration of the NAs. Based entirely around Bernice’s rush wedding to the dissolute Jason Kane from Death and Diplomacy, such an unashamedly fun and silly novel is inevitably never going to be seen as an ‘important’ story. But, it is still a million times better than the convoluted, po-faced, and surprisingly emotionally cold Shadows of Avalon (say). In fact, though I used to have a soft spot for this book way back when (Jesus, 1996 is a looong time ago), revisiting it as part of my mammoth Oxfam haul, I wasn’t sure what to expect – but I actually found it a great deal more likeable than even Love and War or (the novel version of) Human Nature. Perhaps because of their more serious intentions, Cornell’s ‘signature’ stories expose his prose limitations. He seems to have an unexpectedly surer touch at comedy – for example in the scenes told from the alternating, and clashing perspectives of Benny and Dr Watson’s respective diaries.

Having said this is a fun romp, it’s unfortunate that anyone who isn’t up to speed with the NAs (ie, particularly anyone who came to Doctor Who through the new series) would be as baffled as a casual viewer stumbling upon The Stolen Earth’s inclusion of Gwen, Ianto, Luke, et al. (And that’s even if they could even find a copy.) It’s so (deliberately) heavy with NA references and characters and loose ends that it’d probably be impenetrable. Although… as a kid, it was fun for precisely that reason, being able to launch myself into all this stuff I didn’t understand.

Not being an active completist (there’s loads of NAs I have no interest in bothering with) a lot of the characters here are still a bit of a mystery to me, or my only experience of them comes from this book (eg, the Ice Lord Savaar). But, in spite of a lot still going over my head, the book feels charmingly rather than disconcertingly full – there’s a lot of substance to the world the NAs created, which is very distinct from any other strand of Doctor Who. Something never equalled by, say, the Eighth Doctor BBC books – even down to references to NA future-history in the form of the Thousand Day War with Mars, or that this story is set in a period of recovery after the grim cyberpunk dystopia of Warhead and Iceberg is a pleasing link.

The whimsy of numerous aliens and time-travellers visiting a country village - especially for something as innocuous as a wedding - could be awfully twee, but fortunately it is very likeable. The nudity and shagging that’s thrown in helps, too.

Along for the ride (so to speak – not necessarily the shagging) are a chuckling Master; Saul the sentient church; Ace (aka Dorothée Sorin-McShane – who I definitely prefer in small doses, as in these later books); a particularly sardonic, centenarian Brigadier, along with Doris, and an elderly Benton and Yates; Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson; an Ice Warrior battlecraft; a unicorn; William Blake; Muldwych; a couple of gay Earth Reptile lounge singers; Leonardo da Vinci; the Travellers from Love and War; Audrey McShane; Kadiatu, with aM!xitsa disguised as an owl; two oversize gerbil reporters; Ishtar Hutchings (formerly the Timewyrm); Nathan Li Shou and Sgloomi Po (“Is maximum English muffin! Oh yes!”); Irving Braxiatel; and the Isley Brothers. Oh, and a couple of old, Dutch, lesbian dressmakers.

It’s so pleasing, meeting old friends again (though I hate it when Russell T Davies does it… repeatedly… because that’s not for a laugh; and just feels cheap and rating-hungry), and Cornell juggles the massive cast really well, so the book’s plotlessness doesn’t feel aimless. It’s surprisingly welcome to have a Doctor Who story with such a languid pace; a story set in the Doctor Who world, among recognisable, well-loved characters, but with no real conflict or plot getting in the way. (Notably, the setting of Cheldon Bonniface might as well be The Tides of Time’s Stockbridge, albeit with a Battlefield-like near-future veneer of an agricultural ‘Reconstruction,’ and (inconspicuous) references to automated night trains, electric cars and ten pound coins.)

Equally welcome is the conceit of one of the Doctors most capable of both humanity, but also one of the most alien, trying to do something as down to earth as organise a wedding in such a genteel environment - something that he doesn’t really understand. It’s a wonderful contrast to the often tedious insistence of the modern series to operate at a syncopated pace, to see the Doctor act as peacemaker between the bickering couple, providing plates of scones, taking the vicar out for an Italian meal, and even indulging in a nudist pagan ceremony. It’s those quieter, more down to earth moments (well, compared to Saving The Universe) that the Doctor is afforded in the novels that make me really miss them. They’re so much more rounded than the series’ insistence on unremitting crowd-pleasing.

The Seventh Doctor, the ‘odd little man’ – definitely an unusual hero – reminds me how much I prefer that approach to the Doctor, rather than a more predictable, young, good-looking, energetic, emotionally-entangled one in the mould of David Tennant. There is certainly something to be said for all those attributes, but it’s just so mundane, for the Doctor – he should be better, more interesting, less predictable than that. Cornell has an obvious love for the character which really lifts him above an often nothingy (or out and out bastard) portrayal in some of the more amateurish NAs. The tactility of his relationship with Benny and their obvious affection is lovely too.

Cornell is good at humour and emotion – the other stuff’s a bit blah – which is good, as that’s what this book comprises. It’s arch and quite postmodern, in the way a lot of the lighter NAs were – maybe that’s quite nineties, but it’s also very funny; lots of fairly filthy innuendo and deadpannery. And in spite of all that, the more typical Doctor Who plot elements, when they emerge, hang together almost unfeasibly well. The whole thing’s rather unfeasible, in fact – including the amount of enjoyment I derived from it. The book may revolve around a massive fan contrivance, but is more fun and less ‘unhealthy’ than that implies, just by being so unapologetically straightforward about it – it isn’t a tortuous sequel, just loads of memorable characters bunged into one place. The sheer reliance on past books for its cast (but not plot) makes recognising them all – or not – part of the joke. It even comes with a poem, a song, and cricket match!

The whole thing feels like a fun, throwaway joke – a big, silly wedding with loads of faces from the past – which’d be easy to dismiss as an apocryphal Dimensions in Time-like frivolity… But, actually, it really works, because with its energy, and the sheer amount of people (especially in the multi-author reception chapter) – it actually feels like what a real wedding should be like, and as such, doesn’t feel out of place in the series. And I actually felt very (emotionally) involved (ie, the Doctor’s plan to leave all his companions and slip off) - Cornell is very good at writing for the Brigadier, so the scene where he admits he’s dying is very moving. It manages to balance a refreshing lack of cynicism with a surprisingly realistic view of relationships.

All in all, Happy Endings can’t help but make me feel how tragic it is that the New Adventures never have or will be reprinted, so they only mean anything to one generation, and despite their influence, will be forgotten. However, the NA world may be a niche within a niche, but… it doesn’t mean any less for that. For what it’s worth, I love it.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

The Mythological Dimensions of Doctor Who

A shameless plug here. This is a book of essays, one of which by yours truly, which is being released in the next couple of months. It's edited by Anthony S Burdge, Jessica Burke, and Kristine Larsen, with a preface by Barnaby Edwards and foreward by Simon Guerrier. Here is the blurb:

"This volume of essays examines the abundant mythological elements underpinning the 46-year-run (and many more!) of popular BBC television series Doctor Who. Contributors include a well-known Doctor Who novelist, an organizer of one of the largest Doctor Who online communities, plus several university scholars and founders of the American Northeast Tolkien Society. Explore the universe of the Doctor as seen through the eyes of myth and legend."

There will be a UK launched, hosted by the BSFA, featuring a panel chaired by Tony Keen, and consisting of Melissa Beattie, Simon Guerrier and Colin Harvey. Other contributors, Leslie McMurtry and Dr Matt Hills, will also be on hand:

Wednesday, May 26, 2010, 7pm.
British Science Fiction Association UK Launch.
Upstairs Room, The Antelope Tavern, 22 Eaton Terrace, Belgravia, London, SW1W 8EZ.

In the US, the official launch will be on May 20th at The Waystation, 7pm.

Available for pre-order now - check it out!

The Facebook and Twitter pages have a lot more information.

Friday, 5 March 2010

"I had to invent this rudimentary pulley system…"

Written by Russell T Davies, directed by Dan Zeff, 2006

I was one of those who absolutely loathed this story on its original broadcast; rewatching it now, more than anything I just see a wasted opportunity. Taking a look at the Doctor via an oblique viewpoint is a strong idea, and unique for the TV series up to this point – but the concept deserves far better than its cartoonish realisation.

Bitching about this particular episode, I know people will assume I’m either too closed-minded to deal with an story that doesn’t obviously fit into an established format from the original series, or feature the Doctor all the way through, or that I’m completely heartless and immune to, y’know, emotional exchanges and meaningful stuff about friendship. But none of the members of LINDA are recognisably human beings; the emotional content and background is there, but only as a token gesture that’s swamped by the clumsy realisation of the story at large.

While the video diary format could have been interesting, the story drowns in its numerous flashbacks and -forward (though the Super-8 style ones of Elton’s mum are arguably more effective), making the format very ugly. (Similarly, I don’t expect total verisimilitude, but I hate approximations of videocamera images; that’s just not what they look like.) Imagine this made in the more serious and (by contrast) higher-minded approach of Steven Moffat’s stories, say; that could have been really interesting. As it is, the format is disjointed and (though you get the impression this is meant to be ‘postmodern,’ as if that means anything at all) the tone all over the place – it’s supposed to be funny, I guess, but just comes across as throwaway and superficial, but with moments of pathos (ie, Elton loosing Ursula).

Drinking, football, Spain. I’m sure this isn’t Russell T Davies’ world, but he’s so obsessed with his lower-middle-class milieu – which he presumably thinks appeals to the broadest audience – it comes across as very arbitrary, like those are things he uses as shorthand for ‘normality’ and ‘real life’. It results in archetypes – Elton as ‘crap normal everyman’ rather than a real character – and is dispiritingly lazy. He’s a horrible eyebrow-less goblin anyway; not likeable, just irritating.

As for the final paving slab related revelation (which, surely, undermines the ‘emotional core’ the story seemed to be trying so hard to develop), Jesus Christ… Actually, if this were, say, a Paul Magrs story, he could probably take the, erm, more outlandish elements and make them seem perfectly believable, by creating a world consistent with such things, where they wouldn’t seem out of place. The trouble here, I think, is that Davies is trying to make such implausible events co-exist with a pseudo-‘realistic’ harsh world in which there is pain, unfairness, etc. Unfortunately, these two approaches completely defuse one another. Which is not to say that implausible events (even to the degree of living paving slabs) and emotional content are mutually exclusive; however, this episode is such a mess that nothing whatsoever gels. (Don’t even get me started on the Scooby-Doo running around at the beginning.)

This story epitomises everything that doesn’t quite work in the lacklustre season two. From the original broadcasts, especially since it took til series three for me to really be bothered about Doctor Who again, I found it hard to judge the new series in terms of seasons (especially since I’m used to watching the classic series piecemeal and out of order). Now, I appreciate why people still see series one as the best so far; it’s more focused than those that follow, its obviously (relatively) tight budget giving rise to something more inventive and coherent than any of the subsequent series managed. I know calls for increased ‘darkness’ are the eternal lament of the unsatisfied fan, but, by comparison to Tennant’s era – speaking in broad terms – series one is darker (even visually), despite its undeniable mass appeal, and I do like that. It feels less of a cartoon than what followed.

Series two, by contrast, I really dislike. It’s bland and brash and seems far more desperate to be ‘modern’ – never a good idea for a franchise with a forty-year shelf life. Even a seemingly well thought of episode like School Reunion, despite Lis Sladen, is tired and flimsy (Toby Whithouse, I expect better). And the trouble is, there’s nothing redeeming. I truly love The Girl in the Fireplace, but that isn’t enough. Whereas series three and four are to an extent redeemed by Human Nature/The Family of Blood (and, arguably, Blink) and Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead, series two has The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit, which, though entertaining, just doesn’t live up to that slot.

A lot of people seem far more down on series three and four, but to me series two really is the doldrums of new Doctor Who, which just doesn’t have the variety of those around it, and a brash, somewhat irritating Doctor who doesn’t really get any stories that stretch him. Love and Monsters, the Barratt Homes soullessness of the subsequent Fear Her, and the execrably mundane, tedious Army of Ghosts/Doomsday makes a run of four stories set in dull old contemporary London, exemplifying a relentlessly one-note tone. In a series predicated around variety of locations and approach, I can’t think of anything more damning than that.