Saturday 31 December 2011

The Ultimate Treasure, by Christopher Bulis (BBC novel)

Quest stories are great for lazy writers. Just give the characters an objective, an opponent, some obstacles to face and throw in a twist or two to make it interesting. It is a banal strategy, but quite often it actually makes for an enjoyable story. Doctor Who has given us a few quest stories, most notably The Keys of Marinus and The Five Doctors. Christopher Bulis manages to pull this off rather well. Admittedly, it feels like it is aimed at younger readers and it is rather slow to get going, but halfway through it is a fairly exciting, if unadventurous read.

This is a Fifth Doctor and Peri novel. That is what got me reading it, as I am quite a 5/Peri fan, even though I admit the improbability and silliness of a gap between Planet of Fire and Caves of Androzani. Both Doctor and companion are characterised very well. Bulis manages to maintain the sense that Peri is new to the business of travelling in time and space. That said, he rather fails to capture the bleak and tragic feeling of Season 21. This feels in general like a positive and upbeat book that contrasts quite a bit with the televised story that follows it. In particular, Bulis gives us a silly retcon regarding Kamelion that rather undermines the tragic narrative of Season 21.

The Ultimate Treasure has a great cast of characters. The police officer,Myra Jaharnus is notably strong, but Alpha the villain is also interesting. Dexel Dynes the reporter is a bit of a caricature, but he is still very fun. The scene in which he interviews one of the criminal goons is very amusing.

That the treasure turns out to be something other than what is expected is no surprise. This novel borrows rather obviously from The Five Doctors in it's resolution.

This is not a deep or clever novel, but it does offer an easy, fun and undemanding read.

Wednesday 28 December 2011

The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe

Another year, another Christmas special, another story that I hate.

I am a massive fan of CS Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia. I actually write fan fiction about Jadis, my favorite character. It was naturally of some interest that the latest Christmas special takes inspiration from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Doctor Who has often thrived when borrowing influences from other stories and genres. This works best when it is done almost unconsciously; this is quite the opposite. In The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe, as with the previous Christmas special, the influences are shouted out over the rooftops.

It is quite clear to me that Moffat does not have a clue what makes the Narnia books so amazing and enjoyable. For a start, the Narnia books are a parent-free zone. The Pevensie parents only make a brief appearance at the end of The Last Battle, they are absent throughout the Chronicles of Narnia. The Narnia books are all about the children having adventures on their own. In contrast, the two evacuees in this story are accompanied by their mother. Their mother enters the strange forest world and the story turns out to be all about parenthood. The last season has shown that Moffat has a peculiar fixation with the theme of fatherhood. While it is a relief to see motherhood getting a mention in this story, it jars completely with the Narnian theme. For Moffat, the idea of children existing independently of a parental relations is simply anathema. In his fictional world, children can have no real existence except within the smothering confines of parental affection. In his book, children just need their daddy and then everything is right with the world.

The second failure to appreciate the Narnia books is in the way the fictional world is presented. Narnia was fascinating because of it's strange inhabitants. The forest world of this story is undoubtedly beautiful, but it feels empty and uninteresting. In fact, it creates no sense of wonder or majesty, but quickly becomes a place of melancholy and terror. On the plus side, the wooden king and queen look amazing, with their delightful folklorish quality, but they are not sufficient to make up for the otherwise hollowness of the forest world.

It is refreshing to see some attempt to deal with the pain and loss in warfare; but this is completely undermined by the resurrection of the children's father. While it came as no surprise and made for an happy ending, it seemed hollow, and almost a denial of the reality of death. I am sure it would have been very upsetting to children watching who had lost their parents and who could expect no return of their lost loved ones. Going back to the issue of motherhood, it also seemed to undermine the attempt to present Janet as a strong capable woman. She was presented as strong and determined, but there was still the suggestion that she was lost without her husband. If you are going to praise motherhood, why not show that mothers can be strong and bring up their children after widowhood as so many mothers had to do in the Second World War?

As for the Doctor, we are served up yet again another portrayal of the Doctor as a Mary Poppins figure who makes everything right for everybody and who appears whenever people wish for him. Does anybody else miss the days when the Doctor was bad-tempered, selfish and a bit scary?

Don't get your hopes up for the next season of Doctor Who.

Sunday 18 December 2011

Earth Aid, by Ben Aaronovitch (Big Finish Lost Story)

This story was built around a proposed opening scene in which Ace is unsuccessfully impersonating the captain of a starship. This premise leads on to what is essentially a parody of Star Trek: Next Generation. Making a parody of Star Trek back in 1989 would have had a caustic note. Back then Doctor Who was a struggling program, unpopular with both fans and public, while Star Trek: Next Generation was proving a massive hit.

It's a bit jarring to see Ace struggling with trying to captain a starship after reading the New Adventures. The NA Ace would have been totally at ease in that situation. It is a bit disappointing that after the strength of character shown by Ace in her two televised seasons, she is unable to summon up any confidence here. She is written as really stupid in this story. I won't go into the question of whether Ace would have actually watched Next Generation before leaving earth, as it is perfectly possible the Doctor has the DVD collection on the TARDIS. The Doctor is also made into a moron, with him breaking down as he is 'taunted to death.' We have had enough stories where the Doctor is put on a guilt trip for this to be in any way interesting. Raine is rather sidelined for much of the story. Doc Oho points out that she sounds an awful lot like Bonnie Langford in this story, which rather fits with the comic tone.

Earth Aid was a really unimpressive story. It tries to hard to be funny and ends up overdoing it. The plot is badly thought out and fails to deliver anything of interest. The idea of a sentient planet is a really interesting one, as is the charitable organisation, Earth Aid, but these ideas are never given any time or thought. It's remarkable that a writer as strong as Ben Aaronovitch would write something so bad. Does he just not care that much about Doctor Who these days?

This story has the Metatraxi cropping up once again. The way these stories are built around a central story arc, as well as the presence of a few timey-wimey moments is remarkably reminiscent of Moffat Who. It is almost like Cartmel had watched the first Moffat season and thought "Yes! That's how Doctor Who should be done!" I beg to differ.

These 'Season 27' stories have been the biggest disappointment I have ever had with Doctor Who. None of them is in the least bit inspiring. As I said in an earlier review, for me the real Season 27 was the New Adventures. Forget everything Big Finish has done with Ace, none of it is at all interesting. The New Adventures took up Ace where Survival left and did amazing things with the character. These stories have done nothing to add to the character. The addition of Raine is just candy, and its candy I don't care for much.

Friday 9 December 2011

Vanishing Point, by Stephen Cole (BBC novel)

Did Stephen Cole really co-write the underwhelming Ancestor Cell? This book is so much better!

This is not a light-hearted book. It deals with serious themes, most notably that of religious belief. It is also very violent (though some of the Virgin NAs are more graphic). All of the characters are continuously put in physical danger and they have to be ruthless and violent just to survive. This actually led me to feel really involved in the book, reading each page with worry about how the characters were going to get through. I seldom find Doctor Who novels as engaging as this.

The society depicted in Vanishing Point feels so much more real than societies in other Doctor Who stories. This is a world in which there are hospitals and police, where people get into trouble for being late for work, where low-paid women have to prostitute themselves to pay the bills, where people have affairs and where there are mentally and physically disabled people. The last point being of particular significance. We have an whole group of people with learning disabilities in this story. How often do we find disabled people in Doctor Who other than a crippled or deformed villain? The writer even departs from convention and has Fitz having sex with one of the disabled girls.

Not only does the planet in Vanishing Point feel like a real place, but the characters feel so convincing and believable. You really feel for Etty with her tragic background and fearfulness, for Nathaniel with his doubts and confusion and for Vettul with her loneliness and frustration. These are characters the reader can understand and identify with. The two companions also come across very well; with Anji contemplating belief in God and Fitz getting involved with Vettul. Whatever one thinks of his going to bed with Vettul, it is done believably.

We see the 8th Doctor in this story as we have never seen him before. Right at the start of the book, he jumps right into the action. He is hardly ever portrayed as so decisive, determined and strong. He is a Doctor who protects the vulnerable and stands for justice. He is also prepared to use violence when he has to. This is a Doctor that evildoers really would fear. One thing that is interesting is that in this novel the Doctor defends the status quo and works with the authorities, even though they are clearly quite flawed. While in stories like Happiness Patrol and The Sunmakers, the Doctor overthrows the Powers-that-be, here he attempts to uphold society.

Where the book does not do so well is in its handling of the big themes. While the discussion about faith in God is interesting, it makes the common error of thinking that faith is incompatible with proof or certainty. The Greek word for faith (pistis) means the same thing as belief. All of us believe lots of things that can be proved and which we are certain about. The New Testament would use the same word faith to refer to those beliefs. The hard science stuff about genetics comes across as rather incomprehensible. I understand the concept of 'junk DNA' is actually quite inaccurate.

Saturday 3 December 2011

Animal, by Andrew Cartmel (Big Finish Lost Story)

Animal has some stinging, walking plants that are remarkably similar to John Wyndham's Triffids. Sadly, they don't play a massive role in this story, which is a shame because I think the Triffids are the creepiest science fiction monster ever.

Finally we get the return to Doctor Who of Brigadier Bambera. While she does not get to say "shame," Angela Bruce gives a great performance. She's a bit wooden, but she is playing a tough military officer. Bambera has a lovely rapport with Ace. Unfortunately, we also get the return of Dad's Army UNIT. The current membership of UNIT appears to be our lovely Brigadier plus an incompetent, mentally unstable and rather trigger-happy corporal. It is a bit disappointing.

Animal features yet another instance of the Seventh Doctor putting in place a meticulous plot and then finding it go pear-shaped. We have seen this in the New Adventures a few times, and in Big Finish. Unfortunately it is played for comedy here, but rather badly. The moment when the Doctor announces the imminent arrival of the Metatraxi to find they don't show up is incredibly painful. Did Cartmel have to subject the Doctor to that?

The alien race that sidelines the almost-Triffids is the Numlocks. Aside from having a daft name, they are pacifists and ostensibly vegetarian. They are very well realised with John Banks giving them wonderfully dull and dreary voices. They manage to come across as quite sinister.

New companion Raine does not have a lot to do in this story, but as I said in my review of Crime of the Century, I don't like her anyway. We do get an interesting seen when she discovers the implications of time travel by learning of her father's death on the Internet.

Cartmel himself admits that this story is full of his tropes- animal experimentation, environmental issues and secret military technology. It's all interesting stuff, but there are a lot of ideas here that never quite gel into a unified whole. It's hard to see exactly what Cartmel is trying to say in this story.

As with the two previous stories in this series, I found myself getting rather bored. These stories really don't do a good job of keeping my attention. So far these 'Season 27' stories have not impressed me at all. Doc Oho makes the interesting suggestion that this series reveals that John Nathan-Turner may have had more to do with the strengths of the McCoy era than he is generally given credit for.

Monday 28 November 2011

The Infinity Doctors, by Lance Parkin (BBC novel)

'The Doctor closed his eyes. This was her, there was no possible cause to doubt that now. She had lived so much longer than him, lived at his Family home for countless generations. She had tutored his grandfather and his father. She had been there at his birth. She had nursed him, taught him, danced with him, loved him, borne his children.'

Aesthetically, I rather wish this had been the last Doctor Who novel ever written. This novel shows us the Doctor on his own planet, shows him choosing wandering over a contented life on that planet, it shows the Doctor's great strengths and desire for justice, yet it also shows us the woman he loves who bore his children; it is the ultimate glimpse into his personal life. This is a Doctor that we can relate to and also a Doctor that we can celebrate and delight in.

The Infinity Doctors is unique among Doctor Who novels in that it is never made clear which Doctor is the protagonist. His close-cropped hair sets him apart from all of the Doctors except Ecclestone. His dialogue suggests the Eighth Doctor, but his oval-shaped face could suggest a younger Hartnell Doctor. I personally dislike the notion that the Morbius faces were pre-Hartnell incarnations so I don't accept the notion that this is an unknown older incarnation. It has been suggested that this is novel is set on a resurrected Gallifrey after the closure of the BBC novels, but the presence of Hedin and the apparent friendship between the Doctor and the Master (the Magistrate) does not support this idea. I prefer to see this Doctor as a pre-Unearthly Child First Doctor before his exile from Gallifrey. This Doctor is not the rebellious student some have imagined, but rather a respected academic who serves on the High Council.

One of the clever feats of this book is the way it puts together everything we have ever been told about the Time Lords. Every Time Lord story is referenced in some way. Lance Parkin admitted that a consequence of this was that inevitably these details contradict different stories in different ways. The story of the Time Lords was never written with continuity in mind and this book does not try to give us a story that fits into any watertight continuity. It is tempting to see this as an 'Elseworld' or 'Unbound Adventure' in which the Doctor has given up travelling and gone home to Gallifrey, but this was not Parkin's intention and I think this detracts from the beauty of what The Infinity Doctors achieves. The Doctor in this novel really is the Doctor.

One of the things I love about this novel is the way it restores grandeur and nobility to Gallifrey. The Gallifrey we see here is an imperfect society (we see crime and squalor in Low Town), but it is not the cynical totalitarian regime of The Deadly Assasin. This Gallifrey is a place of beauty and grandeur, but even more importantly, it is a place in which the Doctor is respected and loved. This actually fits in better with what we know of the Doctor then the Holmseian vision. The Hartnell Doctor really did hope to return home to his world of silver trees and burnt orange skies. He would never have wanted to return to the degeneracy and corruption of the Deadly Assassin Gallifrey. Readers know how much I detest the BBC Wales series, but one of the things they did right was to throw out the Holmes cynicism and to make Gallifrey seem like a wonderful place that was tragically lost. The Time Lords of this Gallifrey are not he god-like figures of The War Games or the Lawrence Miles books. They are also conscious of their own temporality. They are well aware that Gallifrey will not last for all eternity.

The plot of The Infinity Doctors is not the strongest we have read, but it is exciting. Incredibly, this novel offers us a reworking of The Three Doctors that is much better than the original. How this incident fits in with the Pertwee story I can't say, but it's very good. We also get to learn a good deal about the history of the Sontaran/ Rutan war, with the Doctor involved in negotiations between the two races. We are promised that one day the two peoples will be at peace.

She was wearing a loose-flowing gown in ivory silk and lace, with bare shoulders, gathered at the waist by a wide belt. Her long blonde hair was held up by a gold clasp, and swept down to the small of her back. She wore a necklace of white flowers, and held a feather fan. She was his height, a little taller as her feet were bare, and he was wearing shoes.

In this novel we meet the Doctor's wife, not the TARDIS and not that cardboard tart River Song, but the woman who bore his children. This is the same character as Patience who Parkin introduced in Cold Fusion. She was shot dead, but brought back to life in Omega's universe. This lady is definitely somebody we can imagine being the Doctor's wife. She is mysterious and ethereal, like a woman in a Pre-Raphaelite painting. That the Doctor had several children supports the notion that he might have had more than one grandchild, hence the possibility of John and Gillian being canon. It is difficult not to suspect that Parkin has something of a foot fetish; the Doctor's wife is barefoot and the other female character, Larna is barefoot for most of the book.

This is a book that blew me away with its beauty, its depth and by its delight in the details of the show. If you read any Doctor Who novel, read this one.

Friday 25 November 2011

Set Piece, by Kate Orman (Virgin New Adventure)

I found Kate Orman's Left-Handed Humming Bird a little on the heavy-going side, so I was a bit worried about this one. Nevertheless, as it is Ace's departure story (one of them...), it was pretty essential reading. I was pleased to find that it is a much easier read than Left-Handed Humming Bird and much more enjoyable, while still having all the Hurt/ Comfort elements that Kate Orman seems to love so much (amusingly she actually entitles one chapter Hurt/ Comfort!).

The opening chapter is remarkably disturbing. A woman is forced to participate in brutal surgical procedures against her will, along with other humans. For three weeks she has been participating in the torture of an escape-prone prisoner who turns out to be... have a guess. As with Kate Orman's previous novel, Set Piece is a novel that deals with real physical, as well as emotional pain.

Set Piece sees the return of Kadiatu Lethbridge-Stewart, the very likable character introduced in Transit. She is effectively re-introduced without tedious exposition. She comes across as an highly-intelligent, but also a very dangerous character. She has now mastered time travel, with terrible consequences.

Kate Orman clearly loved the character of Ace and in this novel she gives her depths that have not been matched in any other New Adventure novel. This is a truly mature Ace. She is not the confused teenager, but neither is she the thuggish and mentally scarred veteran that we see in previous New Adventures. Set Piece has Ace stranded in ancient Egypt and adapting to new circumstances, while at the same time having a profound self-consciousness about her role in them. Finally, she becomes a sort of Time's Champion, protecting earth from menaces created by rifts in time. It might have been nice to have seen Ace become a Time Lady, as was originally planned, but this is a strong departure for her too.

My favorite part of the book was the parts set in ancient Egypt and Ace's interaction with that culture. It felt very authentic, much more than the attempts of some other writers to do ancient Egypt. The stuff with the Paris Commune was also interesting, even if my conservative instincts are irritated by Ace siding with the revolutionaries. I was a bit irritated by the presence of a number of dream sequences. They are quite well done, but dream sequences in the Virgin books have been done to death. It is very much an NA cliche.

The Doctor is very well written here. Kate Orman very much goes for the NA Time's Champion interpretation. Accordingly, she makes him quite god-like, yet at the same time quite vulnerable. With the presence of Kadiatu and the focus on Ace, Benny still manages to have an interesting part to play in the book. She is perhaps less irritating than in other novels, but I still dislike her overconfidence.

The plot about metallic ants taking advantage of time rifts is very much secondary to the character studies going on. The plot is simply there to develop the relationship between the Doctor and companions. Regrettably, the threat is apparently to the whole of time itself (a very Moffaty trope). I really dislike stories in which the entire universe is threatened. It just reduces the scale of the Doctor Who universe and is never really believable. We might also ask why the Time Lords don't deal with a threat to 'time itself.'

This is a novel about history. It is about how history is paved with suffering and tragedy and so often feels futile. It is about how individuals relate to history, playing their part and ultimately being unable to alter its course. Yet the novel urges the notion that every struggle, every battle, every tear shed really does mean something whatever the outcome.

Set Piece was a massive improvement on Left-Handed Humming Bird and is a great example of how angst can be done really well.

Suggested soundtrack: Nocturnus- The Key

Saturday 19 November 2011

Crime of the Century, by Andrew Cartmel (Big Finish Lost Story)

This is the second part of the lost Season 27. Despite keeping Ace on board, contrary to the original design, it sees the arrival of new companion Raine Creevy (Beth Chalmers), as well as the Samurai-like insect aliens, the Metatraxi.

One interesting stylistic feature of Cartmel's novel Cat's Cradle: Warhead was the minimal dialogue. The characters frequently said nothing to each other. This was clearly a good thing as Cartmel serves up some really appalling dialogue in this audio, most notably Ace's shockingly bad line "Come back and fight, you sexist Metatraxi!" This really does not fill me with confidence in Cartmel as a script writer. Maybe he was better at editing the scripts than writing them.

The new companion Raine seems to have proved popular with reviewers, but I'm afraid I don't care for her. She is sassy and confident, but that is not exactly unusual in modern science fiction. A posh cat burglar is a bit too much of an obvious television trope. Maybe I am a bit of an old fashioned moralist, but somehow I really do have a problem with 'good characters' who are thieves. I mean, stealing is actually wrong, is it not?

I agree with another reviewer, who points out that the tone of this story is rather uneven. It is very dark in places, yet the Metatraxi speaking like surfer dudes as a result of a translator malfunction is incredibly comic. Even more problematic, many elements of the plot do not really fit together, such as the revelation that the recession that ruined Raine's father was engineered by the Russians. Apparently, this is the 'crime of the century' in the title, which is odd given that the story is about alien weaponry. At the conclusion, we are treated to another revelation that seems even more pointless and irrelevant to the plot.

This is on the face of it, remarkably similar to the story that preceded it. A Soviet setting, war-like aliens and a struggle between different factions for alien technology. This is even more disappointing given how much that story owed its plot to Remembrance of the Daleks and Silver Nemesis. I can't help feeling that Cartmel is a bit short on ideas, which is ironic given how he has criticised much of classic Doctor Who plotting for being formulaic.

Friday 18 November 2011

Placebo Effect, by Gary Russell (BBC novel)

Placebo Effect has Kleptons in it. Those aliens from the first ever Doctor Who comic strip; the ones that look like Greedo the Rodian. You know what that means? If Placebo Effect is canon, then so are the TV Comic strips. The Doctor really did have two grandchildren called John and Gillian, really did meet Santa Claus and really did call himself Dr. Who. That Gary Russell references the TV Comic without trying to exclude it from the canon (as Steve Lyons did in Conundrum and Head Games) makes me quite favourably disposed towards this novel.

Although this novel is not highly regarded among fans, I mostly enjoyed it. It's very light-hearted and packed with continuity references. Russell brings back Stacy and Ssard, who appeared in an 8th Doctor comic strip in the Radio Times not that long after the TV Movie. This novel offers some explanation as to how that strip fits into continuity.

Russell claims he originally proposed to write a novel about Nimons vs Macra, but what he gives us here is a novel about Foamasi and Wirrn. Russell does rather a better job with the Foamasi than he does with the Wirrn. His Wirrn lack sufficient body horror to be really disturbing. He does make his Fomasi quite interesting, however. He gives them plenty of character and explains how their disguises work. In a quite disturbing moment, a human realises that the woman he has been sleeping with was really a Foamasi in disguise.

The Doctor is very well characterised. He is dreadfully nice; always remembering the needs of his companions and doing his utmost to look after them. This is perhaps a little strange given that this is the same person who never went back for Sarah and seemed to forget about his own granddaughter. I suppose he has matured, but it makes it even stranger that he has still refrained from paying Sarah a visit. Russell is perhaps a little less successful with Sam, but then it is difficult to avoid having a teenage character coming off as anything other than mouthy and irritating.

Sam gets involved in an interesting debate between creation and evolution. This is not resolved, which makes a nice contrast with the materialistic tendency of the show. I am no longer a Six-Day Creationist, but I am not completely convinced by the theory of evolution. The actual arguments used against evolution are not all that impressive, but at least there is some acknowledgment that the not everybody is convinced by Darwin.

I really liked the Duchess of Auckland. She was a really fun character, even if a parody of the royal family. I thought it was a bit of a shame that Russell killed her off. Why do writers have to kill characters so easily?

Despite its reputation, Placebo Effect is a reasonably decent novel. The cover is good too; especially with its subtle reference to the V series.

Sunday 13 November 2011

Thin Ice, by Marc Plattt (Big Finish Lost Story)

It's a real tragedy that Season 27 was prevented by the show's cancellation in 1989. Script editor Andrew Cartmel had a clear idea where he wanted to go and Doctor Who had a strong set of leads in Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred. Given the presence of a clear design for Season 27, it makes a lot of sense for Big Finish to create this lost era on audio. The big problem with this project is that we already have a Season 27 in the Virgin New Adventures. Those books carried on where the show left us in 1989 and to some extent continued the vision that Andrew Cartmel had set for the show. Cartmel himself contributed to these novels, most importantly with Cat's Cradle: Warhead. Not only do we have a Season 27 in the Virgin novels, but we also have a Season 26B in the Big Finish audios set in between Survival and Timewyrm: Genesys.

This story was intended to see the departure of Ace to train to become a Time Lord, an idea which has a lot of merit and which makes sense of the way the Doctor was continually manipulating her. Big Finish opted not to abandon the continuity of the New Adventures and altered the premise of the story so that Ace is rejected by the Prydonian Academy. Thus, Ace remains through 'Season 27' and an even bigger gap between Survival and Timewyrm: Genesys is created. I am going to speak as somebody who loves the Virgin New Adventures from the bottom of my heart. I have a real problem with Big Finish when it comes to Ace. For me the New Adventures defined how Ace would develop after Survival. We see a progress in them from Ace as an immature teenager to Ace as a hardened, brutalised war veteran (the Ace that everybody hates except me). I refuse to accept that the gap between Survival and Timewyrm: Genesys lasts longer than a couple of weeks. I see the New Adventures as following on directly from Season 26 and being the real Season 27. Big Finish have almost killed this notion by filling up a non-existent gap with audios featuring a pre-NA Ace. We are now saddled with a pointless set of continuity where Ace starts calling herself 'Dorothy McShane' and is then joined by a bloke called Hex. I like Colditz just because it introduced the delightful Elizabeth Klein, who is the most wonderful companion ever, but otherwise I hate it because it detracts from the NA story. The Ace in the early New Adventures is not a young woman who has had a tonne of different adventures and more mature than the t.v. version. The Ace in the early NAs is the same immature teenage Ace at the end of Survival. I refuse to believe otherwise.

Given that Ace does not end up departing the Doctor to go to Gallifrey, one has to ask what the point was in including the subplot about her being tested by the Time Lords. It all feels rather pointless and it just ends up being another example of Ace getting mad at the Doctor for manipulating her and the Doctor promising to be nicer next time (yeah, right..).

Re-locating the original story to Soviet Russia in the Sixties was a nice idea that could have worked well, but somehow the audio does not use this setting to any great effect. The claustrophobic cold war atmosphere fails to register with the listener and it just sounds like any old place with a lot of people speaking in foreign accents. One odd feature of this audio, as pointed out by another reviewer is just how quiet the audio is. There is a real lack of any significant background noise. There are parades going on commemorating the October Revolution, yet we don't hear any military music whatsoever. They should have thrown in the Russian anthem and at least one Red Army marching tune. John Nathan-Turner would have killed for the budget to re-create a Red Army parade as television spectacle. We could at least hear what it sounds like. That said, I do like the musical score with its strong percussion.

The plot is not that unlike Silver Nemesis or Remembrance of the Daleks, with factions competing over alien technology. This time the main aliens are the Ice Warriors. Nicholas Briggs does a great job with the Ice Warrior voices, but many fans have had problems with the way they are portrayed. These are revisionist Ice Warriors who have been living peacefully on Earth and who eat fish fingers. Yes, fish fingers. This could be a reference to The Eleventh Hour. I quite liked these Ice Warriors, but I understand why they will bother some listeners.

This was an interesting audio, but came across as rather dull for the most part and just a little bit pointless. Quite a disappointment on the whole.

Saturday 12 November 2011

The Gallifrey Chronicles, by Lance Parkin (BBC novel)

"My dear, one of the things you'll learn is that it's all real. Every word of every novel is real, every frame of every movie, every panel of every comic strip."

This novel was the last in the series of BBC Eighth Doctor novels. Lance Parkin was given the Herculean task of providing a conclusion to the various mind-boggling story arcs of this series. How Parkin did this is quite surprising. Rather than giving us a big epic event novel as one might have expected, he wrote a light and slightly fluffy novel with a very easy-going plot.

The result of the lighter tone means that the BBC novel series is able to end on an upbeat celebratory note. In every way, The Gallifrey Chronicles celebrates Doctor Who. There is a real sense of magic in the way that the Doctor appears to bring the dead back to life and reunite families with their apparently deceased loved ones. Likewise, the cliffhangar ending, with the Doctor leaping into action to deal with the monsters, for all its uncertainty is a celebration of just what the show is about.

There is a good deal of meta-textuality going on in this story, with the reference to John Peel's goof about Ace being in Paradise Towers, the Doctor being sent to sleep by reading about Gallifrey and the glorious line about every spin-off being true. This very much fits with the agenda of the book being about celebrating Doctor Who. There are also hints in the book of Parkin's frustration at the complexities and problems of continuity. If he it is true that 'every panel in every comic strip' is real, it would have been nice of Parkin to include the TV Comic stories in his majestic AHistory. It seemed a bit mean to me to include the DWM comics but leave out all those wonderful Sixties adventures with John and Gillian.

In Marnal, Parkin offers a really interesting character. Like the Doctor, he has been exiled to earth. Yet unlike the Doctor he feels only contempt for humanity and is obsessed with returning to Gallifrey. There is a strong touch of William Hartnell's Doctor about him and in his attitude and methods he does resemble the Doctor in An Unearthly Child. Marnal is the Doctor as he could have been. He ends up being paired with an human companion, his nurse Rachel. Rachel is well characterised and it was surprising that she did not become a new companion at the end.

The BBC range had already given us the disastrous Ancestor Cell and Parkin had to tie up the loose ends created by that book. The Gallifrey Chronicles provides a flashback to the Doctor destroying Gallifrey. This flashback is a much stronger scene than anything that occurred in The Ancestor Cell. The Gallifrey Chronicles offers the possibility of Gallifrey and its inhabitants being restored (only to be destroyed in the Time War, if you believe the BBC Wales series).

The alien menace, the Vore are oddly incidental to the plot, despite appearing to wipe out much of the Earth's population. They are rather scary and what they do is quite disturbing, but their main role is simply to show the Doctor shine at what he does best. As I said above, the way the Doctor appears to bring back the dead is just magical.

We are also treated to a scene on Gallifrey which features the Doctor's parents. Yes, the Doctor's parents. Those who had read The Infinity Doctors will be already aware of Ulysses and Penelope, the Doctor's mother and father. I'm not at all happy with the idea of the Doctor having a human mother, but as the idea has been done, I feel I might as well accept this admittedly rather intriguing couple as the Doctor's parents.

The Doctor's companions Fitz and Trix form a relationship in this story. This is quite believably done, if a little sudden. There is, however, a note of sadness to this as revealed by Fitz's song 'Contains Spoilers.' The Gallifrey Chronicles does not give any answers to Trix's past. We know she is wanted for murder, but did she do it? This is just a small fault I have with the novel.

The Gallifrey Chronicles is a lovely upbeat conclusion to the 8th Doctor novels.

Friday 4 November 2011

The Kingmaker, by Nev Fountain (Big Finish audio)

To my mind, the 5/Peri/Erimem series is among the strongest of Big Finish developments. The stories that this team have been given have a real sense of fun and excitement that makes a strong contrast with not only the televised stories of the Fifth Doctor era, but also other Fifth Doctor audios released by Big Finish. The Kingmaker is the most comedic of Peter Davison stories. This is not just funny; in places this audio is roll around the floor funny. Davison does not attempt to be overtly comic as Colin Baker or Sylvester McCoy do in The One Doctor and Bang-Bang-a-Boom-Boom, but plays it straight. His dry performance adds a lot to the fun of this hilarious script.

There is a slightly new series feel to this story. It's Bill and Ted theme park view of history reflects how the new series approaches historical stories. To be honest, I was very irritated by the anachronistic modern dialogue used by the characters, though the setting has been more carefully researched and thought out than it would be in a new series story. In a hilarious nod to BBC Wales, Richard III, played by Stephen Beckett sounds remarkably like Christopher Ecclestone, so much so that I actually had to check the CD case to make sure it was not the man himself. Beckett uses all the vocal mannerisms of the 9th Doctor and even says 'fantastic!'

Despite the nods to the new series, The Kingmaker is very nostalgic. A laser-wielding robot from the far future demands that the Doctor completes a series of children's books before they miss the publisher's deadline. These are in fact a real series of books that attempted to cash-in on the series back in the Seventies. We are treated to a brilliant impersonation of Tom Baker courtesy of Jon Culshaw from Dead Ringers.

The plot is extremely complex, being set in different time periods and involving multiple twists. While it is very gripping and full of surprises, I can't help agreeing with people that it does try to be just a little too clever. While nobody would have expected the conclusion, it does feel just a little too bizarre to be true. That said, the writing and the script are of a really high standard. It would be wonderful to see this kind of quality on the televised show.

As mentioned above, Stephen Beckett's Richard III has a strong vocal resemblance to the 9th Doctor. I'm not sure this was entirely for comic purposes, or just because he was a northerner. There is something of a similarity in that both characters have a strong sense of world weariness, but also a hardness and sense of purpose. This Richard III is very far from Shakespeare's version and has real depth. Not a villain, but a man who is prepared to be ruthless. I found it amusing that he is used to getting time travelling visitors. Apparently each of them offered an opinion on whether he should kill the princes in the tower, even before the situation had arisen. Thus, he is a man who knows his own fate in advance. It is interesting to ponder whether other historical characters in the Whoniverse might have had a similar experience.

Together, Caroline Morris and Nicola Bryant deliver one of their best double acts as Peri and Erimem in this story. These girls are great; completely different in their cultural background yet as close and as argumentative as sisters. Peri acts really stupid throughout this story and Erimem amusingly gets annoyed by her idiocy. That's the real charm of Peri for British fans; she comes across exactly as how we would like to imagine American girls- spoiled and a bit thick, but essentially benign and very cute. Not that real life American girls conform to this stereotype at all. There is a touch of Leela to Erimem in this story. In a very impressive moment, she suggests to Peri that the two should kill each other to prevent history being altered. When Peri is absolutely terrified by the suggestion, Erimem claims to be joking, but had in fact been serious.

The Kingmaker is not quite a perfect audio play, but it is one of the strongest audios they have done; hilarious, innovative and distinctive with a real affection for the history of the show.

Sunday 30 October 2011

The Adventuress of Henrietta Street, by Lawrence Miles (BBC novel)

The book in which the Doctor gets married, but not to River Song or the TARDIS!

The same day I began reading The Adventuress of Henrietta Street I re-watched Spearhead from Space, a story I first saw when I was eleven. It's strange to think that 19 years after that innocent Doctor Who experience I would be reading a Doctor Who novel partially set in a brothel which makes Tantric Sex a major theme.

Miles departs from all convention by writing this novel as a biographical account. All of the speech is reported, leaving very little dialogue. The identity of the narrator and biographer is never given and as with Dead Romance, there is the suggestion that he is not altogether reliable. This peculiar choice of style makes for a very distinctive experience of reading a Doctor Who novel, but it does make the whole story a lot more difficult. The reader has to work a lot harder to understand what is going on.

As surprising as it might seem, we see hints of the Moffat era in The Adventuress of Henrietta Street. In The Wedding of River Song, we had the Doctor getting married, a marriage that had cosmic significance in that it repaired a breach in space and time. In The Adventuress of Henrietta Street, we have the Doctor getting married in order to establish a cosmic connection with Earth and it's fate. Scarlette, the woman that the Doctor marries has been compared to Iris Wildthyme, but she actually reminds me of River Song much more. Sadly, her character fails in exactly the same way that River Song fails. Both characters are portrayed as strong and intelligent, with a very blazen sexuality. Both characters seem to be created to appear an equal match for the Doctor. Yet in the end neither character quite lives up to the promise. We expect them to be amazing, but they end up just joining a list of strong, intelligent female characters. In fairness to Lawrence Miles, Scarlette does not fail nearly as badly as River Song because she is just a one-off character in a novel. Moffat made disaster inevitable by deciding to centre the last season around the character of River Song. Miles also wisely keeps Scarlette fairly mysterious. Moffat on the other hand, kept dangling hints about the identity of River and then deliver a big revelation that most of the viewers had already guessed. If you want to find out where Moffat got his ideas, you really need to read this book, along with Alien Bodies. Then you will see just what a mess he made of his influences.

The other main character introduced in the novel, Sabbath also has a similar problem to Scarlette. Miles seems to want to present him as this really amazing interesting character, but with the limitations of the biographical narrative, he never quite succeeds in showing this.I can't help thinking that making Sabbath so much like a James Bond villain renders him a little silly. His only outstanding moment is when he steals the Doctor's second heart, something no villain has ever done before. This development bothered a lot of fans, as it renders the Doctor a good deal more human.

The Adventuress of Henrietta Street is set after the destruction of Gallifrey in The Ancestor Cell. Miles presents the notion that the Time Lords have not simply been destroyed, but removed from history altogether, a notion that seems rather problematic to me. Despite their loss, a good deal of the book is spent presenting Miles' brilliant conception of the Time Lords as cosmic forces or elemental beings. The Doctor and his two companions are continually described by the other characters as 'elementals.' It's a quite fascinating idea and you do see hints of this in the new series. As with other Lawrence Miles books the removal of the Time Lords to an higher plane of existence and their remoteness from the action makes them a far more impressive force, as they had been in The War Games. The Doctor provides a wonderful description of the Time Lords as being like a steady rock in the middle of a river, around which the rest of the universe flows; the consequence of the removal of this 'rock' being complete chaos.

This novel takes Doctor Who about as far away from science fiction as it can go. Like Survival, it is all about the mysticism of female sexuality and menstrual cycles, hence the suggestion that the Doctor's success in 'summoning' his companions resulted from the fact that the prostitutes in the brothel were in their period. The Doctor had initially planned to marry a teenager called Juliette as there was power tied up in her virginity. His plans of course changed and he eventually marries Scarlette. It seems to be the case that the loss of the Time Lords has resulted in the universe becoming more chaotic, allowing magical and irrational forces to take root. In this world, the Doctor is a force of good and order, yet at the same time a sort of god and his companions spiritual beings themselves. Miles does an absolutely fantastic job of portraying the Doctor in this way. In this story he must turn his back on the old order of Time Lord dominance and unite his elemental power with humanity through marriage to a human woman.

The magical arrival of Fitz and Anji is the most enjoyable moment of the book. They just appear out of nowhere and are at once taken by the inhabitants of the brothel to be elemental spirits. Like the Terminator, they arrive stark naked which adds to the amusement of this scene. Despite their glorious arrival, Fitz and Anji get almost nothing to do in the book. Fitz offers some welcome comic relief and Anji gets to do some sulking and complaining. Miles is on record for his dislike of the character of Anji, but he does alright writing for her in this book.

The monstrous apes are really disturbing. They are summoned through Tantric rituals, which seems to connect them to the sensual side of human nature. The way they appear everywhere is very similar to the Sphinxes in Dead Romance. The Kingdom of the Beasts to which they belong is a really creepy place. There is a very Lovecraftian feel to this side of the book.

The Master appears in this book, in the form of the Man with the Rosette. He makes a very clever comment about how the universe has changed so that his struggle to the death against the Doctor is no longer significant at all. On the subject of rosettes, one minor quibble I have is with the politics of the period. The Whigs are identified in this book as defenders of democracy. While the Whigs were closer to this than the Tories, I don't think they would have seen their ideology in exactly those terms. They would probably have seen themselves as the defenders of Parliament and Protestantism, but not democracy as such.

This is a novel that does some really radical things. As with other Lawrence Miles books, it is not so much interesting for the story itself as it is for the way it presents and develops the Doctor Who cosmos. Like every other book by this author (except perhaps This Town Will Never Let Us Go) it is about grand cosmic themes. It's not his best written or most enjoyable novel, but it is one the most daring.

Saturday 29 October 2011

The Crusade

The novelisation of this story, Dr. Who and the Crusaders was in my school library. I really enjoyed reading it at the age of ten, though it was a little more difficult to understand than other Target novels, for instance The Horns of Nimon. As with so many children, a story about knights had instant appeal. The novelisation contained an interesting piece of dialogue, in which the Doctor explained that the TARDIS crew can never change history. Once they land, they are instantly involved in the flow of history. This is how I understand time in Doctor Who. Whatever planet the TARDIS lands on, it's crew don't work against history but perform their allotted role. So when the Doctor goes to Terra Alpha, in The Happiness Patrol, he does not alter history by overthrowing Helen A. The downfall of Helen A was a part of history, the Doctor simply took his place in the tide of history and brought it about. This does not mean that there is no free-will. The Doctor's knowledge of the future is not exhaustive, so he simply does what seems right in the situation, knowing that history will play itself out. That's not how most fans and Doctor Who writers view history in Doctor Who, but I think this makes sense of a lot of stories. As regards The Crusade, if history were not immutable, then the Doctor would surely have been concerned that his involvement in the politics of the court of Richard the Lionheart could alter history. However, he knows that history is immutable and so nothing he does will alter the outcome of history.

Anyway, enough about that. What about the televised serial?

If any story deserved to survive the great wipe-out, The Crusade definitely did. Possibly of all the lost episodes, I think I would most like to see the episodes 2 and 4 of this one rediscovered. The two surviving episodes of this serial reveal just how strong it was, both visually and in the performances. Douglas Camfield is rightly regarded as one of the greatest of Doctor Who directors and in The Crusade he is at his strongest. The Crusade does not attempt to mimic a big movie production, instead what we get is a very theatrical, stagey production that relies on first class acting and exquisite dialogue. It's a very 'talky' story (which is why the audio recordings of the lost episodes work so well without narration), but with such a superb script this works fine. The Crusade tries to hard to be a Shakespeare play and succeeds.

I am a fan who rather likes The Web Planet, yet even I will admit the enormous contrast in quality between this serial and the story prior to it. Perhaps the comparison is not altogether fair. The Crusade was working with familiar historical territory and had access to stock costumes, while The Web Planet required the realisation of an utterly alien world from scratch. Yet one can imagine that Douglas Camfield would have injected some much stronger direction into that serial. The Web Planet suffers not just from the difficulties of realisation, but also from some very clumsy scenes and rather lacklustre performances (though I will always love Roslyn De Winter's plummy voice!).

The Crusade has some remarkably adult features. The regulars are put through some quite terrifying experiences! It's quite disturbing to see Barbara threatened with rape and torture. It must have been quite traumatic for her, having one bloke after another wanting to molest her. It's interesting that younger companions in Doctor Who are never faced with the same level of physical violence that Barbara was so often faced with. One cannot imagine Jo Grant or Zoe ever being threatened with rape. I suppose this is due to those characters being child-identification figures. Maybe the loss of a mature companion, along with the historicals resulted in a certain lack of realism in Doctor Who.

While the villain is an Arab and the Doctor, Ian and Vicky join with the Crusaders, the story avoids taking sides. Richard the Lionheart is not portrayed as a saint and Saladin is given a sympathetic treatment. The Crusades genuinely come across in this serial as the brutal affair that they were.

Together, Julian Glover as Richard and Jean Marsh as Joanna give an absolutely brilliant performance. There is a real subtlety to their work and there is a definite hint of incest in their brother and sister relationship. Odd that Jean Marsh would go on to play Morgaine who also had a dodgy relationship with her brother. The regulars also give some great performances, especially Hartnell, who delivers his delightful lines with such passion. Jacqueline Hill is just so adorable. Perhaps Ian's part in the story is a little dull. Ian does come across here, even more so than other stories, as a bit of a square-jawed hero type.

I have no doubt that if The Crusade were recovered it would go down as one of the greatest of Doctor Who stories.

Friday 28 October 2011

Down, by Lawrence Miles (Bernice Summerfield novel)

Despite loving the Virgin Doctor Who novels, I really dislike Bernice Summerfield. She has always come across to me as too clever and confident, as well as horribly self-righteous. That tends to keep me from taking much interest in the vast range of Benny Summerfield spin-offs released by both Virgin and Big Finish. It does seem that unlike me, Lawrence Miles likes Benny. He writes well for her, though it did not make me like the character any more.

This is of course Lawrence Miles' second novel. He had not yet become the legend that we know. In Down we see Miles' enthusiasm for world-building, his love of deconstructing tropes, playfulness with language and flirtation with intellectual concepts. Yet he has not started his career of shaking fictional universes to the core and rebuilding them in twisted form. That would be seen in his second Benny novel, Dead Romance, which would be re-released as a supplement to the Faction Paradox series.

Down is not as accessible to the new reader as Dead Romance. Down is far more closely tied to the continuity of the other Bernice Summerfield books. In particular, Down is part of a story arc regarding a super-advanced race inhabiting a Dyson Sphere called 'The People.' The parts of the book that deal with this arc are perhaps the least interesting aspect of the novel.

Down offers two likable supporting characters in the persons of Benny's two student's, Ash and Lucretia. While these are great creations, I don't get reviewers who say that Miles' other books lack interesting characters. Christina Summerfield in Dead Romance is just as strong, as is Homunculette in Alien Bodies. The action hero Mr Misnomer is amusing, particular in his discussion of his own character guidance notes! I am not at all keen on comedy Nazis, but Miles a reasonably good job with the Neo-Nazi character Katastrophen.

Unusually for a Miles novel, this is an action adventure. Of course, it is all a big send-up of all the cliches and tropes of pulp science fiction and fantasy. We get a hollow planet inhabited by an ecosystem with Dinosaurs, ape men and Yetis. I am a little reminded of Terry Pratchett's books. It has the humour, the playfulness with language, the mocking of tropes, the likable characters and the hard science fiction concepts. Like Terry Pratchett books it all gets a bit confusing towards the end.

As with all Miles books, there is a strong postmodern streak running through the narrative. Much of the story is told through the recollections of Benny as she is interrogated. Given the inconsistencies in the story and the impossibility of her having access to the interior thoughts of the other characters described there is a huge question over the reliability of the whole story. We are even give the perspective of a criminal psychologist who offers his commentary on Benny's account. Alongside the usual postmodern literary theory on display, Miles' favorite intellectual concept in this novel seems to be Jung's theory of Archetypes.

I like the handling of the subject of transmat technology, with Lucretia's conviction that she dies during the process of molecular dispersal. Miles makes a brilliant statement:

"The machines could easily copy you without killing the original, but they were programed to slaughter you first, because the hardware companies didn't want to rock the economy by letting people know you could produce exact copies of valuable objects out of thin air."

I have never found the idea of matter transporter technology very believable, mainly because the idea that you can create an entire living, breathing, conscious human being. Even if the same matter is used the process of putting all the parts together must be impossible. If you can do that, you can do anything. You could instantly manufacture any piece of machinery, no matter how complex. Hunger would no longer be a problem as you could produce entire herds of livestock. Species would no longer become extinct, because you could always replicate new members of the species. I know they have replicators in Star Trek, yet the characters always complain that replicator food does not taste the same as real food. If Worf or Picard coming out of the transporter is the same as the Worf or Picard that went into it, they could surely replicate food that tastes exactly like the original.

Down is not one of Lawrence Miles' grand cosmic operas, but it is a deep and intelligent novel.

Sunday 23 October 2011

The Underwater Menace

"Blimey! Look at him! He ain't normal!"

Animated recon courtesy of DrWhoAnimator.

I read the novelization of this when I was nine or ten years old. It was the hardback edition from WH Allen. The local library had a whole collection of these hardback Doctor Who novels with beautiful covers. It made a huge impression on me and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Many years later I was to discover that The Underwater Menace is considered one of the worst Doctor Who serials ever, a reputation which I think is entirely undeserved.

Lawrence Miles and Tat Wood point out in About Time that this is the Doctor Who story that comes closest to what was going on in the 60s TV Comic strip, with lots of insane plots, a cranky Second Doctor and mad scientists. The resemblance is even stronger when we notice that the Doctor signs his name as Dr. W, providing yet more confirmation that he really is called Dr. Who. Perhaps my affection for the TV Comic helps to make me sympathetic to this story or just my fond memories of the Target novel.

In many ways The Underwater Menace is cartoonish and silly. It's plot is utterly ludicrous, it has many derivative elements and the most outrageous mad scientist ever. Yet so much science fiction really is like this. You can find elements of this story in Jules Vernes and H. Rider Haggard. There are plenty of B-Movies that are pretty similar to this serial, the sort they always show at 2:00 PM. I really do not see how The Underwater Menace is really all that sillier than Invasion of the Dinosaurs (possibly the most bonkers Doctor Who plot ever) or even The Green Death (toxic sludge that makes maggots become bullet proof).

The plot is full of holes and is a bit of a runaround, with lots of getting captured and escaping again (hardly unique in Doctor Who). It is full of action, however. It is not a story that will send one to sleep. It's difficult to judge the quality of the final scenes of Atlantis being flooded, but you can't fault the ambition displayed. The surviving episode reveals some really horrible direction and some appallingly sloppy fight scenes. On the other hand, the scene at the end of episode one, with Polly menaced by surgeons about to turn her into a Fish Person is quite chilling and effective.

It might be supposed that the Fish People have been thrown in just because somebody thought the story needed a monster. They are, however, quite interesting visually, especially with their balletic swimming. The concept behind them is very reminiscent of the Cybermen, as is their appearance. The notion of being surgically altered is quite a frightening one and is captured quite well here.

It is not just the Fish People that look good; most of the sets are very well designed, despite being pathetically small. There is a real sense of a distinct and alien world, a bit like what we got in Gerry Anderson's Stingray show. The costumes are also very creative and make a strong visual impact. Polly looks glorious after replacing her hospital gown with an Atlantean seashell dress! The musical score is also very atmospheric, with the spooky organ music giving it a really dark mood.

Professor Zaroff is certainly the most bonkers of bonkers Teutonic scientists. Can anyone believe that somebody would attempt to destroy the world just for the sake of doing it? You might have thought that turning people into fish was a big enough achievement in itself. It is as though a character from a children's' cartoon had suddenly been given an extra dimension. That said, he is awfully entertaining. You can't watch it without all joining in with the immortal line "Nothink in ze vurld can stop me now!" It's not like we haven't recently seen any motiveless camp villains on Doctor Who recently. Anybody who dismisses The Underwater Menace while praising episodes featuring the eyepatch-wearing Kovarian is an hypocrite. The servant girl Ara, played by Catherine Howe, was a pretty good non-regular character. She had the potential to become a companion (probably a better one than Victoria), though with three companions on the TARDIS at this point that was not going to happen.

Troughton is great as Dr. Who in this story. He is so wild and eccentric and he looks hilarious in his gypsy outfit. I really wish writers had continued to have Dr. Who dressing up in disguises as the Second Doctor was prone to do at this stage. There is something delightfully anarchic about the Second Doctor in Season 4 that was lost in the next two seasons.

Ben is fantastic in this story, along with The Macra Terror (where he becomes a Daily Mail reading fascist) he is at his best. Polly does not fare so well and does an awful lot of whimpering. It's remarkable how Polly alternates so frequently between being plucky and resourceful to being completely pathetic. Still, being threatened with monstrous surgery must be pretty traumatic. Jamie fails to make much impact in his first story as companion proper, but it's always tricky for writers to manage three companions.

Anybody who likes Indiana Jones or James Bond films ought to be able to recognise the entertainment value of The Underwater Menace. To my mind this is much more fun than The Moonbase or The Ice Warriors. Season 4 is definitely the most interesting phase of the Troughton era. It is such a shame that fun stuff like this was replaced by routine stories about returning monsters and bases under siege.

Saturday 22 October 2011

The Smugglers

The Doctor : "You are now travelling through time and space."

Ben : "Yes, well, make sure I get back by tea-time!"

Animated reconstruction courtesy of DrWhoAnimator.

Perhaps a good deal of charm in watching this story today is that they don't make anything resembling this these days. Historical adventures are pretty much a dead genre. There are historical dramas with lots of emotion and serious themes, but historical adventures with lots of swashbuckling, black-hearted villains and hidden treasure are a thing of the past. I have never actually seen any of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, but the impression I get is that they are more in the realm of fantasy than historical action adventure. Perhaps it is a little surprising that this jolly pirate story was followed in the same season by The Highlanders, which is essentially another pirate story. While this story is on the surface a more light-hearted story than The Highlanders, it is apparent that the Troughton story is treated as more of a comedy, particularly in the lead actor's performance. While The Highlanders is enjoyable, the comedy feels out of place in such a dark story, while in The Smugglers, is able to tell an exciting adventure, not quite a comedy, but with a keen sense of fun.

The most obvious difference between The Smugglers and The Highlanders is that the latter provides a swashbuckling pirate adventure that arises from its historical setting, while the former makes no real use of it's historical location (other than the frequency of smuggling in that era). The Smugglers would not have looked out of place in the Colin Baker, with a change of setting to a far future space colony and the pirates as thuggish Sawardian types. It has to be said that the 17th century offers an awful lot of missed potential for historical stories, with events like the Civil War, the Monmouth Rebellion and the Glorious Revolution. One of the really sad things today is the lack of awareness of this period. Our schools teach kids about the Nazis and Henry VIII, but seem to miss out on this much more fascinating period of English history. Likewise film and television producers are fixated with the Tudors and seem to forget about the far more interesting Stuarts.

Obviously we don't know quite what this looked like, as no episodes survive. Nevertheless, given the BBC's talent for producing great historical drama, we can imagine that this looked quite fantastic. Judging from the audio recordings, most of the performances are pretty impressive.

This is the first story with Ben and Polly as companions proper. I love the way that the Doctor explodes with rage when he finds them aboard; there is something adorable about the way the Furst Doctor lost his temper. After they have left the TARDIS it becomes clear that he is coming to accept the arrival of young strays as routine.

Ben and Polly are a glorious companion team. It's tragic that they have only one completed story in the archives. Ben is tough and heroic, but not in the rather stiff Dan Dare mode of Ian Chesterton. As much as I love the original TARDIS team of Season 1, the cockney sailor is a good deal more fun than Ian. Polly is simply delightful. Her Received Pronunciation makes her seem as though she is from another world. Oh for the days when middle class girls spoke properly! Regrettably, the writers were never very consistent in their portrayal of Polly, even within the same story. One moment she is bold, confident and resourceful; another moment she is whimpering at the sight of a rat, as she does here.

One difficulty of this story is how little Ben and Polly seem to take it seriously. They adjust remarkably easily to the realisation that they have been transported to the 17th century. Then when locked in a dungeon, having been accused of murder, Polly talks about how much fun she is having! We could look to the philosopher Baudrillard and say something very postmodern about this. We might suppose that if a person from the Sixties who was used to watching swashbuckling ITC historical adventures were to be transported to the 17th century and placed in the midst of vicious pirates, she might indeed treat this as only a virtual reality equivalent of what she was used to seeing on the television or in the cinema.

There is no complex characterisation here, but we do get a wonderful cast of characters, the vicious Cherub, Longbottom, the creepy church warden, the corrupt squire and the remarkably heroic taxman, Blake. These people are so colourful!

This is not deep and educational like The Massacre or full of emotional drama like The Aztecs, but it is a wonderfully fun escapist adventure story. I doubt that any future Doctor Who producer will ever make anything like this.

Friday 21 October 2011

Gallifrey: Weapon of Choice (Big Finish Audio)

In his infamous 2002 interview, Lawrence Miles said of Big Finish:

"SOME HAVE SEEN THE NEW RANGE OF BIG FINISH AUDIOS AS THE RETURN OF REAL DOCTOR WHO". Yeah, sure. Never mind the fact that some of us have been doing everything we can to build up a next generation fanbase. Just get a couple of has-been character actors to do the voices, and suddenly that's real. For f**k's sake... When Doctor Who finally dies... and it will die, because now the newcomers are going to start turning away again, and you're going to be left with this dwindling audience of fifty-year-olds who just buy the CDs because they've got Peter Davison's picture on the front...

For all the harshness of this comment, it does hit a certain truth. I'll admit I am a sucker who bought the first season of the Gallifrey spin-off just because it had Louise Jameson and Lalla Ward in it, not to mention Lynda Bellingham. The folks that created Big Finish are smart people; they realise how much we fans love these 'has-been character actors' and they are making capital of this pool of human resources. Just yesterday I went into ecstasy with excitement on hearing about the forthcoming Big Finish spin-off, Counter-Measures. Just the thought of hearing Pamela Salem reprising her role as the delightful Rachel Jensen made me giddy. It is incredible that there are people like me who will shell out fifty quid just to hear a bunch of obscure actors reprising roles from just one story broadcast over twenty years ago.

So it's got Louise Jameson and Lalla Ward in it, but is it actually any good?

A series about Time Lords on Gallifrey is an obvious option for a Doctor Who spin-off series, but that does not mean it is a good idea. In 2004, Doctor Who writers really ought to have learned to move past this sort of thing. Stories like Invasion of Time (as story for which I have a degree of fondness) and Arc of Infinity killed the Time Lords. The idea of the Time Lords as gods of history is a fascinating one, but it is an idea that cannot easily be presented on television. Hence stories about the Time Lords ended up being about a rather mundane society of bureaucrats and technologically advanced Oxford dons. The BBC books and our beloved Lawrence Miles helped to correct this and restored a sense of awe and wonder to the Time Lords. The writers of the Gallifrey series have not learned from this development in the slightest and what we get in Weapon of Choice is a political thriller set in a technologically advanced society. Potentially entertaining, but yet another nail in the coffin of the idea of the Time Lords as an ethereal race of beings who uphold the universe.

The intrigue of Weapon of Choice revolves around a weapon called a Timonic Fusion Device. It's basically just a big bomb that blows up time, barely a step away from the Daleks' 'Time Destructor.' The Book of the War in the Faction Paradox range revealed all kinds of surreal conceptual weapons used by the Time Lords, sorry Great Houses, and their opponents. The Timonic Fusion Device just feels like any old Doctor Who McGuffin.

The plot of Weapon of Choice is quite complex. I listened to Weapon of Choice late in the evening before going to bed. This did not help me to make sense of the complex plot, but I found it extraordinarily relaxing to have it on and just let the atmosphere wash over me. I listened to the rest of the Gallifrey Season 1 this way. These audios are absolutely great for nodding off to.

One obvious question is how old Leela is at this time. Taking into account other aspects of Doctor Who continuity, considerable time must have passed between Invasion of Time and Romana's presidency. Is she being kept alive artificially using Time Lord technology? This question becomes even more pressing in the next story when Leela becomes an exotic dancer!

For all the deficiencies of this story, the cast are absolutely great and make it worth listening to. I had not heard Irving Braxiatel in the Bernice Summerfield audios, but he certainly is great here, mysterious, a bit self-serving and manipulative but quite decent at heart(s).

Weapon of Choice has contemporary relevance in its concern for issues of refugees and asylum seekers. The Enclave of Gryben captures the misery of places inhabited by people stuck in transition. I also love the Gallifrey theme tune. This story may have similarities to American science fiction shows like Star Trek, but the cool, industrial-sounding theme tune indicates that we are in a different league.

If you want something relaxing to listen to before you go to sleep, Weapon of Choice and the rest of the first season of Gallifrey is worth buying.