Friday, 30 September 2011

The Indestructible Man, by Simon Messingham ( BBC novel)

The Indestructible Man is very much a novel that I am in two minds about. Simon Messingham does something very clever and innovative in this book, yet at the same time there are some things about it which I really do not like.

As with Sky Pirates! the cover picture is very misleading. Having read the blurb on the back and seen a smiling Zoe wearing a purple wig, we expect a light-hearted pastiche of Gerry Anderson's various shows. While there is an element of parody in the book, what we actually get is a complete deconstruction of the world in which those shows are set. Instead of being filled with fun and humour, we get one of the bleakest and most depressing novels ever. Messingham turns the world of Gerry Anderson into a dark, violence-filled nightmare. To an extent this is only a step from what we find in the Supermarionation shows. The war of nerves with an unknown enemy in Captain Scarlet is a terrifying premise and for all its goofiness, Stingray is a very militaristic show about a savage undersea war. There is enormous scope for writing dark, adult-orientated fan fiction about the Anderson shows.

Messingham creates a very convincing and detailed world in The Indestructible Man. This world is so brutal and bleak that it makes the future society of Transit seem like quite a nice place. Though I have to admit, with the recent economic problems, the world of Transit actually does not seem that much worse than the real world. For all its miseries it still had stable governments and a welfare state. The Indestructible Man presents a world that has descended into utter chaos.

Although Messingham references a lot of Troughton stories, when it comes to continuity, Messingham is a law unto himself. What we get in this novel simply cannot be harmonised with other Doctor Who novels set in this period. For instance, Messingham has Africa with a decimated population, while Aaronovitch in Transit has rising superpowers in several parts of Africa. The book is also difficult to tie with many televised stories, such as Warriors of the Deep. To cap it all, Messingham puts Wheel in Space in the 22nd century, after this novel. Not only does this ignore the strong arguments that Wheel is set in the 21st century, but it becomes absurd that Zoe has no awareness of any of the events mentioned in the story. This stuff really does bother me. I like to see Doctor Who as a consistent mythos and I don't like authors playing fast and loose with continuity.

It is somewhat frustrating that the book is filled with bitter, cynical characters. Practically every non-regular character is like this. It does remove a lot of colour from the novel. Grant Matthews, who is based on Captain Scarlet seems to be the only character who has any life or holds any interest. Though not a speaking character, Captain Taylor is brilliantly portrayed. A terrible zombie-like figure, he captures the grim demeanour of Captain Black in Anderson's show.

The Myloki are an intelligent creation. Like the Mysterons of Captain Scarlet, we learn little about them. This makes them much more interesting and terrifying than your average alien race. I must admit, throughout the book, I was looking for hints that they might be connected to some other alien race in Doctor Who. It seemed that the Doctor hinted this was the case. I was irritated by the last chapter with its dream sequence. The Virgin novels did dream-like realities to death. It felt rather cliched seeing one here, complete with deceased relatives.

Messingham has a habit of putting his characters through an awful lot of physical and emotional pain. Jamie and Zoe have a really horrible time in this book, undergoing serious psychological trauma. This contrasts massively with the happy-go-lucky child-like pair that we see in Season 6. It's something likely to bother traditionalist fans and possibly even me. I think it's pointless for past Doctor novels to simply recreate an era in print; it's good to do things that could not have been done on television with past TARDIS crews. On the other hand, I don't quite feel able to believe the level of trauma that Messingham inflicts upon Jamie and Zoe. It's a huge leap of credibility to believe that all this happened to the pair somewhere between The Invasion and The Krotons. These are experiences that make or break people. It's impossible to watch Seeds of Death and believe that Jamie and Zoe went through the trauma of The Indestructible Man. On the other hand, Zoe's thoughts about the friendship between herself, Jamie and the Doctor being indestructible is very touching.

I would definitely suggest that readers find a copy of this and have a go. It's a grim and depressing book, but it is quite innovative in its approach, though definitely not without problems.

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Great Post from SPDK1

An American View of British Science Fiction: Is Doctor Who Anti-Religious?

'Another motif that has clumsily popped up in Doctor Who a few times, and about 70 billion times in the original Star Trek, is the “people worship what they don’t understand” trope. In Star Trek we had the episode where the civilization worshipped the U.S. Constitution, The episode where the kids worshipped some guy in a mumu, the one where people worshipped a computer…and so on…Planet of Fire showed this when we find out that people are worshipping an empty spacesuit and the Face Of Evil did the same thing with an evil computer, there must have been a run on god-like evil computers somewhere.

These more-clumsy episodes paint religion as the total antithesis to science, something that uncivilized morons take part in. This is not the norm for the show however, as much of Doctor Who is a lot more “nice” with religious imagery and concepts, even bordering on painting the Doctor himself as a “space Jesus” of some sort. For me Meglos was simply a fluke, if anything Doctor Who teaches us that we should question authority when reasonable, something that actually chimes with my Gnostic worldview, does this mean that I feel that the show is made in that regard, NO, but just like many atheists I can see what I want as well.'

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Are Invasion Stories Rubbish?

I rather hastily suggested in a comment that Doctor Who invasion stories are mostly rubbish. Is that true? Let's have a look.

I'm only counting stories where an alien race seeks to take control of the Earth. That rules out The Dominators (not on Earth), The Dalek Invasion (Daleks already in control) and Remembrance of the Daleks (the Daleks aren't trying to conquer Earth).

I'm not bothering with any BBC Wales stories. Incomplete stories are left unrated.

The Tenth Planet- ?/?

The Cybermen are great, some of the acting is not so great and the Doctor is out of the action for most of the story.

The Moonbase- ?/?

A little too similar to The Tenth Planet for comfort.

The Faceless Ones- ?/?

Enjoyable despite the plot being a little over-padded.

The Invasion- ?/?

This one is pretty good. Nice introduction for UNIT, great direction from Douglas Camfield, great guest performance from Kevin Stony and great work from the regulars. The only problem is that the Cybermen are a bit rubbish.

The Seeds of Death- 9/10

A superb story with an interesting premise, beautiful direction and a strong script.

Spearhead from Space- 8/10

Things start to go wrong with the invasion theme in this story. Writers start to get attached to the notion of the invaders with the gimmicky infiltration tactic. This is a really nicely produced story, but the poor plotting shows the difficulties of the stealth invasion format.

Terror of the Autons- 5/10

This is when the rot really sets in. The invaders are basically relying on a series of gimmicky ways of killing people. It makes for a very uninteresting story.

The Claws of Axos- 6/10

I quite like this story. Visually great, but the plot is a bit of a mess.

The Sontaran Experiment- 2/10

Mercifully short.

Terror of the Zygons 8/10

A strong story with a genuinely menacing atmosphere despite the glove puppet Loch Ness Monster. Perhaps this story feels a little unoriginal and UNIT are not used all that effectively here.

The Android Invasion- 2/10

A really story. Utterly generic drivel from Terry Nation.

Horror of Fang Rock- 9/10

A triumph of amazing script writing over minimal budgets and time pressure.

The Visitation- 3/10

Some fans like this, but I hate it. Lots of running around and getting captured, plus yet another alien strategy involving bio-warfare.

Earthshock- 9/10

The Troughton era is recycled 80s style. Very enjoyable.


While my definition of 'invasion' is rather narrow, the shortness of this list does demonstrate that alien invasions are only a small part of the heritage of classic Doctor Who.

Clearly, there are both good and bad invasion stories. I do think that some of the poorer invasion stories are those that rely on a very generic format of infiltration by stealth.

Monday, 26 September 2011

Hilarious Comment

An anonymous person posted this hilarious comment on my review of The God Complex:

I'll never cease to be amazed that there are Doctor Who fans who are both conservative and religious... The show has continually rallied against everything you stand for, and you seem to hate every new episode, and yet you still watch. I'm willing to bet you have quite a collection of whips and handcuffs hidden in your closet, because you just have to be a masochist.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Closing Time

Yet another story built on the premise that a Yeti in a loo is a good idea. Unfortunately, it's a terrible idea. A Yeti in a loo is not scary; it just looks stupid. Likewise Cybermen in a department store look even more stupid. One of the consistent failings of this season has been the inability to recognise that if you want things to come across as scary and menacing, you have to tone down the comedy.

Closing Time gives us the return of the Cybermen. As with their last appearance, they are big clunky, stupid robotic things. At no point in the episode do they provide any sense of menace. If you thought the Cybermen being vulnerable to bullets in Attack of the Cybermen was annoying, just watch them being defeated by 'the power of love.' We also see the return of the Cybermats, who are equally silly.

James Corden also makes a return appearance. He is dreadfully annoying. A lot of reviewers point out the fact he has a lot of chemistry with Matt Smith. I don't care. He's not the sort of character I want Dr. Who to have chemistry with.

Moffat seems to be a bit obsessed with fatherhood. We get another story sentimentalizing fatherhood and its trials. It is starting to get a bit annoying. We don't have any exploration of motherhood to counter-balance it all; Amy's concern about her daughter is always fleeting and seems to be a bit half-hearted. Themes of fatherhood tend to point in a conservative direction and one can see a decidedly middle-class flavour to the Moffat producership. Doctor Who these days is no longer about people who are outsiders and on the fringes of society, like Ace and Dodo, but about middle-class people. Notice the Doctor's comments to baby Alfie about human life; he talks about mortgage payments and working 9-5. Middle class existence is now the default position for human life in Doctor Who. People who can't get mortgages are outside of the scope of the current series. At times it seems as though Moffat and Co. are singing from the same hymn sheet as David Cameron. I'm an active Conservative party member who believes our prime minister is a decent chap, but I'm not sure I like Doctor Who preaching the message of 'Broken Britain' and the 'Big Society.'

Having seen the departure of Amy and Rory last week, it was very irritating to see them making a cameo in the very next episode. It turns out that Amy has now found fame and fortune in the gold-paved capitalist wonderland that this show now celebrates. This is the same Amy who grew up without parents, was receiving psychiatric treatment and doing a job that would put her ouside of respectable society. The show seems to be out of touch with the realities faced by people outside of a comfortable middle-class existence.

The ending with Mrs Kovarian, the Eyepatch Lady is dreadful. I love camp, bitchy female villains, but this was the stuff of childrens' cartoons. There was also a clear lack of narrative development. There is no sense that the events relating to River Song are moving of themselves, but are being put into place according to script. We are practically being told "now this bit happens next."

It's nice to see Lynda Baron being used again, but it's a shame it is in such a terrible story. It is remarkable to see how much continuity has been brought up in this half of the series. Right at the beginning, we get the Smith referencing Troughton in The Five Doctors and later Tom Baker in Revenge of the Cybermen. This is only a week after we had a reference to the Nimon. As we know from many 80s stories, lots of continuity references do not make a bad story good.

Saturday, 24 September 2011

You came to the right place

Somebody came to this blog from when searching for "unpopular opinions in Doctor Who fandom."

Monday, 19 September 2011

Terror of the Autons

"I refuse to be worried by a renegade like the Master. He's an unimaginative plodder."

It is unfortunate that script editors in various eras of the show did not share the opinion expressed above. If they had, we would have been spared endless tedious stories about the Master coming up with yet more ludicrous and uninteresting schemes. As I have said before, giving the Doctor an evil opposite number was an all-round bad idea. It made for lazy script writing, it gave us really uninteresting stories like Time Flight and it removed any ambiguity from the Doctor's character by making him into the knight in shining armour.

While the Master is deeply enjoyable in Terror of the Autons, the problem with this character is apparent. He lacks any convincing motivation for his actions and his scheme seems half-thought out. The Doctor points out the flaw in his scheme at the end and he immediately changes sides. A lot more of this sort of thing was on its way.

This story marks big changes to the UNIT format- the change of the uniforms, the introduction of the hopelessly drippy Captain Yates and the transition of the Brigadier to comic opera buffoon. These changes were very much for the worse. The harsh and bleak realist vibe of Season Seven was squeezed out in favour of a much lighter tone, but without any reduction in the horribly high body counts. It began to look like Dad's Army, except with people actually getting killed.

The departure of Liz Shaw and her replacement by Jo Grant was also one of the changes introduced in this story. Liz Shaw was never well developed as a character and the miniskirts she was dressed in did not serve her well, nevertheless her departure is saddening. I am one of those that despise Jo Grant;s character. The way she comes across as so child-like is incredibly annoying.

The Third Doctor was arrogant in Season 7, but in this story he becomes particularly obnoxious. Particularly, as he is given a stupid young woman that he can constantly patronise. It also turns out that the Doctor is a patrician who attends private clubs with government ministers. I'm a Tory myself, but I don't particularly care for the Doctor being an establishment figure, regardless of my own politics. It has been suggested that Holmes did not really intend this to be the case; the Doctor was supposed to be making up that nonsense about knowing the minister, but Pertwee misunderstood this and played it as sincere.

Terror of the Autons is not blessed with a strong plot. It feels like a move from one set piece to another. The way it delights in one clever form of killing after another feels gimmicky. It is unfortunate that the creators of the BBC Wales series felt this was the way to do Doctor Who, hence such absurdities as robot Santas and Sat-Navs that kill people. It has been argued that there is a form of satire going on in Terror of the Autons, with the tastelessness of plastic consumer products being shown up. This would be rather more meaningful if it were people that bought plastic products being killed by them, but the plastic chair kills a man who thinks it looks tacky and the troll doll kills a man who thinks it looks hideous.

I'm not sure the Nestenes needed a return after Spearhead from Space. As I argued with regard to that story, the Nestenes don't quite feel believable. Everything about them seems tailored for invading Twentieth Century Britain. It is impossible to imagine the Nestenes having an existence independently of a UNIT story. They are a plot device for writing gimmicky stories.

On the positive side, Michael Wisher gives an impressive performance as the young factory director. His relationship with the charismatic Master is very well accomplished.

A lot of fans regard Terror of the Autons very highly, but I'm afraid it's really not my cup of tea.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

The God Complex

Another rubbish episode, another wave of positive reviews. Why do people like these awful stories so much?

A story about fears coming to life in a surreal nightmarish setting comes across as a bit rich so soon after Night Terrrors. I suppose these kind of stories are much cheaper to make than stories about alien worlds and space ships. The big problem with these kind of surrealistic,'virtual reality' stories is that you can't really believe in them. The terrifying things in the rooms have no capacity to terrify because you know they are not real. The God Complex tries really hard to be scary by throwing in as many stock scary images as possible, but we know what they are trying to do, so it doesen't work. It's all too knowing and all the humour that is thrown in runs counter to it. I pretty much said the same thing about Night Terrors.

The God Complex features some of the worst acting we have seen in the current series. The guest performances are just so dismal. It's a good job that Rita was not intended as a new companion. She would have been even more unbearable than Amy.

This episode takes influences from many past stories- Paradise Towers (the last Yellow Kang dying at the beginning), The Mind Robber, The Horns of Nimon and The Curse of Fenric. The last one is most significant because of the contrast between the two attempts at causing a companion to lose her faith. When the Seventh Doctor sneered at Ace's faults, we really did feel for a moment that he really meant it. It was cold and brutal. It felt right. I fail to see anything in what the Eleventh Doctor said to Amy that would cause her to lose her faith in him. With that awful Murray-Gold music in the background, he might as well have been saying "I'm the Doctor, believe in me!"

I hate comedy aliens. If you are going to create an alien race, why not create one which is believable and which is treated seriously? It's so annoying when an alien wear's contemporary western clothes and talks like somebody from modern Britain. As for his people's chances of survival, Daleks, Cybermen, Nimon and Dominators don't seem terribly merciful to the races they conquer, do they?

I did like the monster. It captured the bestiality of the Destroyer in Battlefield. Finding out that it was a distant cousin of the Nimon was cool. That rather torpedos the theory that the Nimon's immobile heads were helmets or masks. The idea that the creature wanted to die was a bit banal, however.

It was great to see the departure of Amy. Good riddance. though we can be sure that she will be back. Yet again, Amy and Rory don't seem terribly bothered about finding their daughter. I suppose the story arc is so bizarre that nobody really knows how to make it work.

I really don't get what people like so much about this episode. As for all the discussion about what was in the Doctor's room, has nobody watched The Mind of Evil? Don't they know the Doctor is terrified of Koquillion?

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Morgaine Strip Searched (my fan fiction)

Another story about Morgaine's perpetual imprisonment after Battlefield.

Ganymede Correctional Facility 2192

Vraxoin had been found in the prison. Vraxoin was of course the most dangerous drug known to humanity. Those who consumed it quickly became addicted, an addiction which invariably brought death. The discovery of Vraxoin in the prison was always a cause for alarm. Inmates were selected at random to have their cell, clothes and bodies searched for the substance.

This time Morgaine had been chosen to be searched. She had been taken to the dry room after guards had rifled through her cell and she stood before a guard. The guard was in her early twenties with dark skin. Probably of African descent, but as humanity spread into space, people were getting more and more racially mixed.

"Okay, Morgaine, time to strip off," said the guard.

Morgaine stepped out of her flip flops and removed her yellow inmate pyjamas.

Since she had been sent to Holloway prison in 1999, strip searches had become part of her life. After being Battle Queen of the Thirteen Worlds of the S'rax, it had been a new and humiliating experience for her, but she had grown used to it.

Morgaine held no embarassment about her naked body. She was proud of her muscular form and large breasts. When she had been queen of her realm, she had shared her bed chamber with her handmaidens and bathed with them in chrystal clear lakes. It had been death for any man who had dared to behold Morgaine bathing with her ladies.

In the prisons in which she had been held, they were civilized enough to have female guards carry out searches. Of course, plenty of female guards had taken pleasure in the experience. Morgaine knew she would have enjoyed it had the roles been reversed.

"I'm sending your clothes to the lab. I'll give you a new set of PJs when we're done," said the guard.

"Do you really think you are going to find drugs on me? In two centuries of captivity in this miserable cosmos, I have never used drugs. Is this really necessary, Miss?" asked Morgaine.

"Look, I don't decide who to search. We need to get on with this."

"Alright, Miss," the sorceress replied.

Morgaine did not hold a high opinion of prison guards. In her kingdom, the guards of her dungeons had been the lowest of the lowborn. In this world, it seemed that prison guards were also taken from the lower classes; men and women whose education was limited and for whom opportunities were few. The sorceress felt sorry for them at having been led into such an ignoble occupation. It seemed only fair that they should enjoy what little power they had.

The guard looked up and down Morgaine's body. She seemed somewhat disinterested in the way she looked at the prisoner. Morgaine suspected that the woman had little interest in female flesh.

In this century it was possible for bio-scanners to detect Vraxoin without clothing being removed. However, such scanners were not infallible. Vraxoin could be wrapped in material, mixed with undetectable chemicals or shoved deep into orifices.

The guard then began ruffling through Morgaine's long red hair. Her hair was very thick, so it took her some time.

"Your hair is lovely," said the guard.

"Thank you, Miss," the sorceress replied.

She then lifted one of Morgaine's legs and began looking through her toes.

"Open wide." The guard shone a small light into Morgaine's mouth.

"Okay, we need to go a bit deeper now," said the guard.

This was the bit Morgaine always hated. Having her lower regions examined was probably the worst part of being in prison. Did they do that in the dungeons back in her world? She had no idea. She had never bothered to find out how her dismal prison was run.

Morgaine had experienced a few sadistic guards who made intimate searches as uncomfortable as possible. Of course, she had also had experienced a few who made the experience pleasurable. Morgaine enjoyed the touch of other women when it was gentle.

This guard did not seem to care for this job much either. She got it done quickly.

"Okay, Morgaine. You're clean. Put these fresh pyjamas on and you can go back to your cell."

"Thank you, Miss," she replied gratefully.

Morgaine tried to imagine Merlin submitting to a full body search. She could not do it. Merlin would never have submitted to the indignity.

In her world, Merlin had been imprisoned in many a dungeon. Sometimes by her, sometimes by other lords. He had always escaped after a few minutes. He had even been imprisoned by one of the fairies once. He had no trouble escaping from imprisonment in Fairyland. She began to wonder whether his eternal imprisonment in the ice caves would really have lasted. She felt a certain regret that he would not be going through any intimate body searches in the ice caves.

Merlin lacked spirit. His character was weak. He was unable to stay imprisoned for five minutes while she had submitted to two centuries of imprisonment and humiliation. She could do what Merlin could never do. She would prove to him the depths of her humility.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

The Girl Who Waited

A lot of fan reviewers have made some odd comparisons with this story, referencing Paradise Towers and Happiness Patrol. It seems obvious to me that this episode looks to Warriors' Gate for inspiration. The story involves time jumping, has sinister robots, blank spaces and Gothic gardens and is not a little confusing. Of course, these similarities are purely superficial. The Girl Who Waited is a fundamentally different kind of story to Warriors' Gate. The most obvious difference is the lack of a guest cast. Warrior's Gate was a story about history, empires and slavery. The Girl Who Waited is fundamentally about the regulars and their relationships. To my mind, focusing on the regulars is a bad idea. Personally, I don't find them terribly interesting or enjoyable. Amy has no real personality or believability and is not a particularly nice person either. Rory is easier to like, but he is too wrapped around Amy to be interesting in himself. This particular Doctor has not been developed with any sophistication or care. The Girl Who Waited does not tell us anything new about Amy and Rory; we are just reminded yet again that they really love each other, which we already knew. Rather problematically, neither of them mention their daughter in this episode. These story arcs might be stupid, but using them and forgetting about them for an episode is even worse. Surely Amy's daughter is going to have some relevance to her actions regarding being stuck in the quarantine facility?

While Karen Gillen's performance is impressive in two roles, the older Amy does not convince on a visual level. A woman who has spent the last 36 years struggling to stay alive would be a good deal slimmer than what we see. This detail is especially odd given that she appears to be wearing the same trousers. She also has her hair at the same length and her boots have not worn out despite doing a lot of running and jumping. Her bitter attitude is also odd given that the same thing happened to Rory in The Doctor's Wife and he had previously waited 2000 years for her.

It must be said that this story is the sort of thing that happens nearly all the time in shows like SG-1 and Star Trek: Voyager. The problem with a regular character like Amy becoming old is you know that it won't last beyond the episode. There will always be a reset before the end. Of course, they make it complicated by putting the two Amies together, but we all know the old Amy is a red shirt. Her death is absolutely no surprise. Whatever emotion the episode tries to generate is blocked by our awareness that we have seen this scenario before in American shows where it always gets resolved before the end credits.

It's a bit tiresome to see yet another story about divergent time streams. Given that past Doctor Who stories have avoided temporal complexities, it just seems odd that we are getting so much of this now. The show has never shown a consistent approach to how time works and what we see in this episode sits uncomfortably with the temporal mechanics of other stories. There is a school of thought amonst fans that holds that if time is altered, a parallel universe is created and so if young Amy is freed, old Amy would not cease to exist, but would remain trapped. Evidently the writer does not take this view. My own view is that history is generally immutable in Doctor Who. I am thus very uncomfortable with seeing time re-written as in this episode. If the Doctor can save Amy from being trapped for 36 years, why can't he save Katarina or Adric from death? Using time travel to solve problems just makes everything too easy.

On the positive side, it was nice to see Dr. Who being harsh, ruthless and manipulative, but it is unfortunate that in other stories his  character has been less effectively handled. The Girl Who Waited has received many postive reviews and I think it does come close in places to being a good story, but on the whole it left me unimpressed.

Friday, 9 September 2011

Sky Pirates! by Dave Stone (Virgin New Adventure)

Leaving aside the Seventh Doctor's apparent resemblance to Ken Dodd, the cover of Sky Pirates! is very misleading, as is the blurb on the back. Sky Pirates! holds out the promise of a light-hearted and funny adventure about pirates. While the book is filled with humour, it is actually a really dark, bleak book about genocide, with very creepy pirates, hideous monsters and some of the most graphic violence and gore in Doctor Who.

The influence of Terry Pratchett on Dave Stone's writing style is very apparent. There is a clear difference in tone, however. Pratchett's novels contain a lot of cynicism, but they still have a warm, gentle fondness for humanity. Sky Pirates! takes a much bleaker view of life, with much less likable characters, even if it does highlight how people in the most miserable situations thrive on hope. A definite similarity to Pratchett is the way everything becomes a bit chaotic and confusing somewhere after the halfway point; the difference being that Stone's novel is pretty confusing throughout. The style is very verbose and the dry humour can sometimes get in the way of understanding what is going on. Some of the endless footnotes become irritating and the silly appendices are pointless. Nevertheless, it does generate plenty of laughs here and there. It is one of the longest of the Virgin New Adventures. I think it could definitely have done with being edited down to size a bit.

The monstrous Sloathes are one of the novels' highlights. These monsters could comes across as rather generic shape-shifting slimeballs if written by anybody else, but Stone gives them a very colourful character. As a story about a parallel universe, Sky Pirates! is highly effective. It creates a vivid, but bizarre world long before you realise that it is not the normal universe. There is a real sense of location and history about the places and peoples in this novel. Dave Stone definitely shares Lawrence Miles' talent for world-building.

Chris and Roz had only just be introduced in the previous book, Original Sin. The author does a great job of helping the reader to get to know these characters better. Benny also does well out of this book, her relationship with the Doctor having matured considerably at this point. As regards the Doctor, Dave Stone provides the most shocking portrayal of the Doctor since Cat's Cradle: Warhead. If you hate the idea of the Doctor being a god-like figure, then you will hate this novel! Not only does the Doctor manipulate nearly everything that happens in the book, but he produces all kinds of objects from nowhere and his clothes in a pristine condition throughout. At the climax, he grows in size and becomes his other other self, a sort of cosmic being.

I found Sky Pirates! quite a difficult novel, but I certainly did find it enjoyable in places.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Night Terrors

This is one of those Eleventh Doctor stories where reviewers are likely to bandy the words 'dark fairytale.' However, this story fails to really understand how fairy tales work. Most fairy tales are about how the young protagonist is isolated and alone, yet learns to be independent. Fairy tales are about the protagonist being empowered. While the protagonist may be assisted by a friendly gnome or a fairy (clearly the role intended for the Doctor), this assistance empowers the protagonist and in the case of Rumpelstiltskin, the fairy helper actually becomes the problem. Contrast this with George in Night Terrors- he is simply there to be rescued by the Doctor and in the end is saved by the love of his adopted father. Protagonists in fairy tales usually don't have a father who is around to save them; they have to learn to rely on themselves. I don't think Night Terrors (or any other Eleventh Doctor story) is a fairy tale in any meaningful sense.

Given that Doctor Who is a children's' program, the absence of child actors in the long history of the show is very notable. There was always an appreciation that children are not very interesting, especially to child viewers. This is particularly merciful as child actors tend not to be very talented. George in Night Terrors is not much fun to watch really. I have no idea why Moffat thinks it is necessary to throw so many children into the program. It's not necessary all that fairytaleish, as a lot of fairy tales have young adults or teenagers as their protagonists anyway.

Taking heavy influence from horror movies, Night Terrors tries hard to be scary. Unfortunately this largely fails. The heavy dose of humour does not help. Things that are funny tend not to be terribly scary and the episode ends up pastiching its horror influences rather than reworking them into something genuinely chilling. Night Terrors is yet another reminder that putting a Yeti in a loo does not always make for terrifying television. We have to really believe that a Yet is likely to be there; otherwise it turns into comedy.

The portrayal of the Doctor here becomes especially irritating. He has become a figure who is just too kind, too paternal, too saintly. There is no sense that this Doctor has any flaws or selfish tendencies. It's impossible to imagine the First or Seventh Doctor being so concerned about child's anxiety about monsters. The First Doctor wouldn't have cared a jot and the Seventh Doctor would be too busy fighting cosmic evil from before the dawn of time.

In The Unquiet Dead, Gatiss made some uncomfortable noises on the subject of immigration. It looks like he may have put his foot in it again. Daily POP points out his insensitivity in handling the subject of adoption, portraying it as something unnatural, alien and frightening.

The ending, with Alex affirming his paternal love for George comes across as horribly mawkish. As conservative as my own values are, I do feel that Doctor Who needs to give us something just a bit more radical and subversive than the message we get from Disney movies. The Doctor exists in a dark and menacing universe in which not everybody does have a loving dad to affirm them. The last couple of seasons have seen Doctor Who offering a very shallow middle-class perspective on life.

Night Terrors is yet another disappointment from the current series of Doctor Who and yet another uninteresting and uninspired Gatiss offering.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

The Council of Nicaea, by Caroline Symcox (Big Finish audio)

A Doctor Who story about Christian theology!

Caroline Symcox, wife of Paul Cornell did a great job collaborating with her husband on Seasons of Fear. In this audio, she outdoes their joint effort by great lengths. The Council of Nicaea is a beautifully crafted historical drama and one of the finest Big Finish releases.

Mrs. Cornell holds a doctorate in theology and is in Anglican ministry. Proving that it is always a good idea to write about what you know about; she gives us a story about one of the most important moments in the history of Christianity, the Council of Nicaea. For those unfamiliar with church history, it was at the Council of Nicaea that the divinity of our Lord became the official teaching of Christianity and those who rejected it were condemned. Christ was declared to be of 'the same substance as the Father.'

Religion tends to get looked at in a negative light in Doctor Who. High priests and other religious leaders frequently tend to be used as baddies and supporting characters who question religious dogma are often portrayed heroically. The Council of Nicaea departs from this tendency quite radically. Firstly, while the religious conflict is shown to be fearful and menacing, the issues are not dismissed by the Doctor as unimportant. The Doctor says that he 'keeps an open mind' on the question of the divinity of Christ. It is almost as though the Doctor allows the possibility of Christianity and the divinity of Christ to be true. The whole subject of Christian belief is treated as something worthy of respect. Secondly, for once we find out the religious background of a companion. Peri turns out to have been raised a Baptist and refers to her pastor back home (though I despair at the thought that somebody raised as a Baptist would be unaware of the Nicene Creed and the importance of the divinity of Christ!). Religion is seen as something that plays a meaningful part in peoples' lives. We have moved a long way from The Face of Evil and St. Anthony's Fire. That said, I am uncomfortable with the portrayal of Athanasius as the bad guy and all the sympathy being given to the heretic Arius. As an orthodox Protestant, I regard Athanasius as one of the great heroes of the Christian faith who defended and established the doctrine of the Trinity. I suspect that Caroline Symcox is a little more liberal in her theology than I am.

The Council of Nicaea is very thankfully a pure historical. No alien monsters or interfering time travellers this time. The new series has shown the limitations of the pseudo-historical genre. I think a lot of fans would agree with me that the demise of pure historicals in the Sixties was a great loss for the show. While I hold a doctorate in theology, like the writer, I am sure a lot of listeners came to this story with very little knowledge of the Council of Nicaea or Constantine. Pure historicals have a wonderful potential to educate.

This audio takes us back to that thorny old question of 'Can you change history?' that was first explored in The Aztecs, all those years ago. Once again, the answer is 'oh no you can't.' It's good to be reminded of this. While I adore the timeline-hopping Klein trilogy, I think Big Finish have gone rather to far with stories about alternate timelines. Colditz makes it look as though you can alter history just by getting out of the TARDIS, a notion that would shake apart many past Doctor Who serials. I am much more comfortable with the Sixties Doctor Who premise that history is immutable. In this story, Erimem makes the old mistake of Barbara in thinking that she can rewrite history to a fashion that suits her taste. Like her she fails spectacularly.

The Council of Nicaea does a great job of portraying a society in which every citizen is caught up in theological disputes and riots occur over such matters. Symcox avoids it all getting dry by showing it's relation to the Machiavellian politics of the Roman court. This is helped by some strong guest performances. David Bamber is wonderful as the Emperor Constantine. I love the way his character is explored, with Erimem condemning him as a tyrant and the Doctor defending the integrity of his character. Constantine is very much shown to be a 'grey' character, a man who must be harsh, but not necessarily for the wrong reasons. Claire Carroll is also great as the camp and bitchy Fausta. The scene where she gets Peri drunk is delightful. We could perhaps have done with a little more exploration of her character.

I am convinced that the Fifth Doctor, Peri and Erimem are the best TARDIS crew in Big Finish and arguably the best TARDIS crew since Season 1. Peri and Erimem have such a beautifully strong bond that it's fracturing in this story works incredibly well dramatically. Nicola Bryant powerfully portrays a young woman torn between what she knows is right and the emotional appeal of her best friend. Caroline Morris is so powerful in the role of a passionate and idealistic girl. This is perhaps her strongest performance in the role of Erimem. I have some doubts whether this character would identify Constantine as a tyrant (would that concept be all that meaningful to a Pharaoh of Egypt?) and I might expect her to be more sympathetic to the need to exercise restraint over religious divisions, but it still comes across well dramatically. Peter Davison does not disappoint at all as the Doctor. He seems so much stronger when placed in an historical story than he does when on alien planets or Blakes-7 space stories.

The Council of Nicaea is in my judgement one of the finest Big Finish stories and I especially recommend it to Doctor Who fans who are Christians.