Friday, 31 January 2014

1963: The Assassination Games (Big Finish audio)

I think I suggested a while ago that the spin-off Counter-Measures series might benefit from a guest appearance from the Doctor. As part of the anniversary celebration, we get a special audio story in which the Seventh Doctor is re-united with Gilmore, Rachel and Alison. I'm not quite sure if it's the Doctor making a guest appearance in Counter-Measures, or Counter-Measures making a guest appearance in the Seventh Doctor audio range.

Assassination Games evokes the early Sixties Counter-Measures era, with all the Cold War paranoia, the nuclear scares, the allusion to the Profumo affair and the upper class domination of public life (I suppose that's true of today!). In the first half of the audio, the Counter-Measures team get to play their various parts in the story. On the whole, however, it does not quite feel like a Counter-Measures story. For one thing, being a prequel to the series, the team don't quite feel like the characters those of us who followed the spin-off have come to know. Furthermore, the threat turns out to be on a more cosmic scale than Counter-Measures is used to dealing with and so the focus rather shifts onto Ace and the Doctor in the second half.

Regular readers will know that I am not a fan of much of the Big Finish Seventh Doctor material. I feel that the Seventh Doctor and Ace relationship was beautifully developed in the Virgin New Adventures and the Seventh Doctor audios seem to detract from that. In this audio, there is nothing fresh or original that the Seventh Doctor or Ace bring to the story.

I was convinced until the climax that the bad guys in this would turn out to be the War Lords from The War Games. The title of the story hinted at that, as did the delight in which the villains seemed to play their aristocratic role. I do think it would have made for quite an effective re-vamping of this old foe. I was very disappointed when it turned out they were some faction we had never heard of, one that was immersed in the cliched trappings of conspiratorial thinking. It also seemed that there was something of a tension between how the Light were written and how they came across. The writer seemed to conceive them as selfless fanatics, yet they seemed to come across more as self-serving public school bullies.

It must have been lovely for the cast of Remembrance of the Daleks to re-unite and it was nice to have a taste of Counter-Measures prior to Season 3, but on the whole this was a little disappointing.

Friday, 24 January 2014

The Crooked World, by Steve Lyons (BBC novel)

How could you not want to read a book with such a remarkable cover?

In Crooked World, the 8th Doctor, Fitz and Anji arrive in a strange world with different physical laws. The inhabitants are indestructible, observe oddly repetitive illogical behaviour patterns and nobody has sex; babies are delivered by a stork. The inhabitants also resemble the characters of classic cartoon shows. We have stand-ins for Porky Pig, the gang from Scooby Doo, Penelope Pittstop and quite a few others.

On the surface, Crooked World appears quite similar to Steve Lyons New Adventure novel, Conundrum. In both stories, the TARDIS crew entered a world of fictional tropes. Yet Conundrum experimented with a very different style of narrative technique. Crooked World is very much a conventional Doctor Who story in its structure. The TARDIS crew arrive on a strange alien world, they get split up and have to learn the rules of how this world works. In exploring fictional tropes, Conundrum felt quite original back in the Nineties. This story feels a lot less groundbreaking. I can imagine a postmodern enthusiast like Phil Sandifer dismissing it, as he does Conundrum and its sequel, Head Games. However, like most of Steve Lyons' novels, it is very well written and very enjoyable.

While there is plenty of humour in this, Lyons makes it all remarkably straight, perhaps sensibly. The cartoon characters are all very serious and seem surprisingly angsty once they start reflecting on their trope-driven lives. The story leads into a big discussion of the topic of free-will. This does not get beyond a very shallow covering of the topic, but indirectly one can take from this the sense that in a world where it was impossible to harm others, there would be little room for moral growth. One could certainly develop that into a theodicy.

The Doctor is as enthusiastic as ever about this world. Fitz makes an ill-fated attempt to get Angel Falls (stand-in for Penelope Pittstop) into bed. Anji, cool and rational as she is, finds this surreal world utterly bewildering. The 8-Fitz-Anji teams was one of the strongest ever TARDIS teams, being so different from other companions and this is a story that suits them really well.

Thankfully we are spared an inane scientific explanation of the cartoon world. It is left quite mysterious. It is perhaps a little odd that the TARDIS crew don't comment on the similarity of the inhabitants to cartoon shows. Do those not exist in the Doctor Who universe (I've heard Anji had referred to Scooby Doo in a previous novel).

Like the best of the 8th Doctor novels, Crooked World tells an interesting and creative story.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

"He speaks of many things. He speaks of the great journey of life" : The Horns of Nimon

I'm the original discriminating buffalo man
And I'll do what's wrong as long as I can
He'll do what's wrong as long as he can

I live in a labyrinth under the sea
Down in the dark as dark as can be
I like the dark as dark as can be
He likes the dark as dark as can be

I'll even attack you or eat you whole
Down in the dark my bone mills roll
Porridge for my porridge bowl
Porridge for his porridge bowl

The Minotaur's Song, The Incredible Strong Band

The cancellation of the ill-fated (but probably naff) Shada resulted in The Horns of Nimon effectively concluding the Graham Williams era of Doctor Who. This story is a perfect ending for that period, as it embodies many of the faults, yet also some of the strengths of the Graham Williams producership.

Like so many other Graham William stories, it all looks just a little bit cheap. There is the nagging sense that the BBC just can't be bothered to put that much effort into Doctor Who any more. One feels the same from the cast. Tom Baker can't be bothered to get into the story and just wanders about the set delivering comic lines, leaving Lalla Ward to do the Doctor's job. The guest cast are all pretty dull, apart from the co-pilot who is ridiculously hammed, and Graham Cowden who does not seem to be taking his role as Soldeed very seriously.

Yet like so many other Graham Williams stories, The Horns of Nimon does not fail to entertain. The script is witty enough to be funny and there is a tremendous spirit of fun, despite the sloppiness. Graham Cowden certainly should have played Soldeed much straighter, but he is still hilariously fun to watch. As much as he is hammed up, he is still quite an interesting character. I like the way he is convinced he has manipulated the Nimon when he has in fact been completely fooled. He speaks about the 'great journey of life' as though it is some deep philosophy, when actually it is an invasion plan.

While it is sad to watch Tom Baker giving such a lazy performance, it does give Romana the chance to be the main character for a change, confronting the villains and even acquiring some companions along the way. Lalla Ward was never a great actress, but there is a sincerity to her performance here that is quite lovely. She knew the children watching take it seriously, so she took her own role completely seriously. In that sense, Lalla understood the dynamics of children's television better than anybody else involved with the show at the time.

The Nimon looks pretty cheap and clumsy and it is difficult not to laugh at it much of the time. Yet clumsy monsters were not introduced into the show by Graham Williams. Even the Daleks looked a little bit silly. There is something remarkable about the way even the silliest of Doctor Who monsters can still come across as quite chilling. Despite their apparent silliness, the Nimon do have something of a menacing quality, particularly their voices.

Some of the Graham Williams' stories excel in world-building and we see this here. This story very much feels like a shapshot of a much larger history between these planets. Underworld tried to use mythology to create a sense of epic grandeur, but failed miserably at this. Oddly, The Horns of Nimon seems to actually be more successful at this. Perhaps it is the fact that it does not take itself so seriously, or perhaps it is the operatic look of the sets and costumes.

It is often pointed out that this story was broadcast at Christmas time. It certainly does have a pantomime feel that is appropriate to the festive season. Perhaps that is the best time to watch it on DVD. It's not one of the best stories of it's era, but I don't think it is a bad one either. It's not quite accurate to call it a failure as nobody was trying particularly hard in this period of Doctor Who. The Horns of Nimon is a story that should be enjoyed for just being fun and over the top.

Friday, 3 January 2014

Klein and the Smoking Man (my fan fiction)

A Doctor Who/ X-Files crossover featuring Elizabeth Klein and the Cigarette Smoking Man.

Klein watched as the alien corpses were pulled out of the wrecked flying saucer. The grey-skinned aliens had small thin bodies and rounded heads, with bulbous oval eyes. Klein had seen many strange creatures during her work with UNIT, but these aliens just looked- she struggled to find the word. Generic. Yes, in contrast to Krynoids, Axons and Quarks, these creatures seemed rather dull.

The bodies gave off a very strange odor. A sickly green fluid flowed from them.

A man also stood watching the Blue Berets carry out their work on the crashed spaceship. She supposed he was one of the men from some shadowy government branch. The British government left UNIT to mess around with alien debris, but the American government were heavily involved in the extraterrestrial business and jealousy kept the American branch of UNIT in the dark.

The man was in his sixties and wore a dark suit. His hair was grey and his face was worn and weathered. He was attractive in a rugged sort of way. He was smoking a cigarette and looking very thoughtful. Klein felt a sense of danger about the man. He had seen a lot of frightening things and had probably done a lot of frightening deeds.

He discarded a used cigarette butt, and then lit another light from his packet of Morleys.

"It makes you feel very privileged, doesn't it?" said the smoking man. "To see things that every other human being will never know a thing about it. You and I carry such a weight of responsibility."

Klein had expected the smoking man to have a deep and hoarse voice, but his voice turned out to be smooth and delicate, with a hint of an Irish lilt.

"You're Dr Elizabeth Klein from UNIT?" said the smoking man. It was a statement not a question. He took another puff on his cigarette. "I'm very much an admirer of your work, Dr Klein."

"I'm flattered. Might I ask who I have the pleasure of meeting?" asked Klein.

The man drew heavily on his cigarette and gave a mysterious look.

"I could tell you my name, Dr Klein," he said. Klein expected him to add 'but I'd have to kill you,' but instead he continued "but you would have no way of knowing if it was really my name, would you? Is there really any point?"

"You have me there, I suppose," replied Klein.

The Blue Berets work was almost complete. The bulk of the crashed flying saucer was covered with a tarpaulin and then lifted into the air by helicopters. The rest of the debris had been gathered into trucks.

"Why don't we go for a coffee, Dr Klein?" suggested the smoking man. "I think it would be quite helpful to develop the relationship between my organisation and UNIT."

"I dare say it would," replied Klein, though she doubted she would learn much from this obtuse fellow.

The smoking man drove Klein to a roadside cafe.

After they had sat down, the man was about to light another cigarette.

"Those things are dreadfully bad for you," said Klein. "Must you insist on smoking then in here?"

The man looked quite hurt. Nevertheless, he returned the cigarette to its packet.

"I don't suppose I should refuse a lady," he said charmingly.

As they waited for the waitress to take their order, Klein glanced at the menu.

"You Americans do shove some very unhealthy things into your stomachs. I can't see anything on this menu that could be described as a light snack," complained Klein.

"I've had some very unhealthy breakfasts on my visits to England," replied the man.

"Don't go thinking we eat that sort of thing all the time. Anyway, you probably know my parents are German. I have always preferred a continental breakfast."

When the waitress arrived, they ordered two coffees.

The man asked her some questions about some of the cases she had been involved with, with specific referring to Sea Devils and Quarks. The Eurpopean scientist was unsurprised at his access to classified United Nations intelligence.

"I have people in the United Nations," he said, as if justifying his knowledge.

"Thanks for telling me. I shall be sure to let my superiors know."

"As is your duty, Dr Klein," he said with a smile.

"I have to tell you, my people have a lot of concerns about some of the activities on this side of the pond. We have heard some worrying rumours about your people. Rumours of unilateral negotiation with alien races. Negotiations that would contravene international laws," said Klein.

The man was about to instinctively reach for a cigarette, but stopped himself.

"We are acting only in the interests of humanity, Dr Klein," he said coldly.

"I dare say. I'm all for acting in the interests of humanity. The problem I have is with shadowy branches in the US government making decisions about the best interests of humanity. There is an expectation that such matters are decided on an international level these days."

The man looked thoughtful. Ignoring or forgetting Klein's earlier request he took up a cigarette and lit it.

"We would be happy to let UNIT in on our project, we just have to be sure you won't go public with the information," he said, puffing on his cigarette.

"Go public?" spluttered Klein. "UNIT have hushed up countless alien invasions. I think you can rely on us to keep the public in the dark."

"Indeed. Do forgive my lack of confidence," he replied. "Our main concern is alien-human hybridization."

Klein raised an eyebrow.

"Fascinating. That would be an incredible achievement- if you can do it," she commented.

"We can. I'm not a scientist, I'm not the best person to talk to you about the details. I would be quite willing to give you a tour of one of our facilities," he offered.

"I should very much like that."

"I hope that you would report back favourably to your organisation, Dr Klein."

"We shall see," she replied coolly.

"There was something I wanted to ask you about, Dr Klein," said the smoking man. "I've heard a lot about somebody who has worked with your organisation. A man they call 'the Doctor.' I would very much like to know more about him."

"The Doctor," said Klein coldly. "You know, I'm suddenly feeling like I'd like one of your cigarettes. I don't normally smoke, but I wouldn't mind one now."

The man smiled and passed her his packet of Morleys and his lighter.

Klein lit the cigarette.

"You probably know the Doctor worked as unpaid scientific adviser for UNIT. You may also know that he was an extraterrestrial."

The smoking man nodded.

"The Doctor is a law unto himself. He manipulates the lives of others as easily as a child plays with a toy. He's certainly manipulated me. He frightens me sometimes. It seems like he knows more about me than I know about myself," continued Klein.

She took a deep puff on her cigarette.

"I resent his manipulations and his subterfuge. But I do admire him. His schemes are necessary, not only for the good of this planet, but also for many others."

"Other planets? You can't say that about many men," said the smoking man.

"He is quite unique."

The man puffed heavily on his cigarette.

"I should very much like to meet this man," he said. "Perhaps we might have things in common."

"I think the two of you have a lot in common. Both of you share very little, including your names."

He lowered his cigarette and smiled.

"I think you and I have a lot in common, Dr Klein. We both work in secrecy, dealing with strange and disturbing things. We both understand that the fate of humanity is in our hands. Neither of us can allow others to know the truth about what we deal with."

"That is so true," replied Klein. "It is a lonely path we walk."

"I live a lonely life. I've no wife, no family. The work I do is everything to me. I know that is the same with you. You've never married. Your work with UNIT is your whole life."

"You know all about me, don't you? You are so much like the Doctor," mused the scientist. "We're both lonely people, you and I. Perhaps we should ease each other's loneliness while we can."

"Why not."

"I have a hotel room booked. Will you come back with me for a few drinks in the bar? I think you'd be better company than the Doctor ever was," suggested Klein.

"Dr Klein, I'd be delighted to join you. It's not often I get to spend time with an elegant British woman."