Thursday 17 January 2013

Interference, by Lawrence Miles (BBC novel)

Do you remember the Nirvana song In Bloom? In that song, Kurt Cobain sneered at the listener who:

likes all our pretty songs
And he likes to sing along and he likes to shoot his gun
But he knows not what it means
Knows not what it means

I imagine I'm probably the equivalent reader of Lawrence Miles' books. I love Lawrence Miles books and count myself a fan, but I suspect I haven't really understood what they are about. I also suspect, in the unlikely instance of Lawrence Miles ever reading this blog, that he would hate the fact that a Tory like me, who stands for everything he is against, is a fan of his work. So I'm an odd fan for Lawrence Miles, and possibly not the best person qualified to review his work.

Interference is uniquely for a Doctor Who novel, published in two volumes, Shock Tactic and The Hour of the Geek. It seems very surprising that BBC books were willing to do this. This is certainly a novel written on a grand epic and cosmic scale, but it has to be said that it is overly long. The first volume is very slow moving, with the plot unfolding at a snail's pace. The Doctor in particular, spends a good deal of the first volume imprisoned in a jail cell, contributing little to events. The second volume is faster paced, but the whole novel is in much need of trimming down a bit.

While Interference is overly long and poorly paced, it is undeniably well written and of a much higher standard than a lot of Doctor Who novels. Miles switches between different genres; diary entries, movie scripts, television documentary dialogue as well as more standard novelistic prose. A couple of scenes are cleverly turned into film and television drama, with one character described as being played by Nicole Kidman and another by Wesley Snipes. In a particularly glorious chapter, the Dark Times of Gallifrey are retold as a BBC costume drama with Rassilon played by Brian Blessed!

Interference does all the things that I love about Lawrence Miles books. There is the cosmic sense of scale, the playful use of continuity and the grappling with big intellectual ideas. I think Miles does better with these things in his other novels, but I enjoyed them no less in this work.

Interference is very political. It deals with the issue of the arms trade and how British companies were selling electro-shock batons in the late nineties. While I am not against the arms trade in general (it does play a pretty big part in our economy and every country needs an air force), I think everyone ought to agree that this country should not be exporting torture equipment. Lawrence Miles deserves credit for spotlighting the issue.

The novel has generated a lot of controversy for the way it re-writes Doctor Who continuity. As a result of the intervention of Faction Paradox, the Third Doctor regenerates before his encounter with the Great One on Metebelis 3 and as a result of a gunshot wound. This is a really interesting trick, even if it falls foul of my own dislike of 'timey-wimey' (I hate that word) stuff. Whatever one's opinions of Miles subversive retcon, he does a beautiful job of portraying the Pertwee Doctor. His classic regeneration line, A tear, Sarah Jane? is made even more poignant when he follows it with This is wrong. In a typically postmodern touch, Miles has the Third Doctor observing that the story he is in does not feel like one of his typical adventures.

Miles' portrayal of the Eighth Doctor is a little more problematic. He does next to nothing in the story. He spends a major part of the first volume suffering brutal torture in a Saudi Arabian prison. I'm not quite convinced by the idea that the Doctor would be completely helpless in the situation in which he is placed. In all his adventures, has he never experienced the kind of random brutality that overwhelms him here? That sort of thing is pretty common on Earth, so I don't see why other worlds have not cottoned on to the idea of random brutality.

The Doctor's prison cell discussion is very interesting. He admits to his cellmate that he interferes on future colonies, but he never interferes on Earth without being able to give any rational reason why. I don't buy this. In my opinion, the reason the Doctor does not interfere on Earth is because he knows he can't change history, not one line. When the Doctor interferes in the future, he is not changing history, but participating in it. His knowledge of the future is not exhaustive, so he has no reason to worry about failure on his part. If he tried to overthrow Hitler in 1938, he would know his failure was inevitable. He has no idea of the fate of Terra Alpha, so he can try to overthrow Helen A without worrying about the consequences.

Sam is handled very well in this book. She is given real depth of personality. The only problem is that she ends up looking a bit stupid. Compassion suggests to Sam that if she is against electro-shock batons, she should also be against matchsticks, as they can also be used to torture people. I can't believe any intelligent person would be unable to see a logical flaw in this proposition. Strangely, Sam does a lot of running around in high heels for somebody who is not used to wearing them. I loved the use of the older Sarah Jane Smith in this story. She is given a personal life and an identity beyond her travels with the Doctor. She also interacts nicely with Sam. I am not a K9 fan, but he was great in this too.

Interference is an overly-ambitious work that has some problems, but I enjoyed it as much as any of Lawrence Miles' books. The cameo appearance of Iris Wildthyme is a nice treat too.

Sunday 6 January 2013

Klein's Holiday in Hastings

A fan fiction featuring Elizabeth Klein, UNIT scientific adviser.

Klein sat in a cafe in Hastings. Before was set a plate of fish and chips. They were very greasy. This was not going to do anything for her figure. Once she got back to work, she was going to have to go on a long diet.

Taking holidays by the seaside and eating fish and chips. What would her German parents have said?

Face it, Dr Klein, you're British, Klein thought to herself. You've lived in this country all your life, you hardly sound German and you watch the Queen's speech on Christmas day. You're an Englishwoman.

Yet in the back of her mind, Klein could never shake off the feeling that something about her life was not quite right, that she did not belong. She had found out only a year ago, when she had been landed with an extraordinary revelation about having another life in an alternate timeline. She was not sure how much of this story she understood or even believed, but she knew deep down that her past was more complicated than she had ever realized.

Klein glanced out of the cafe window and looked at the sea front beyond, bustling with holidaymakers. If it was true that there had been another timeline, with Britain under Nazi rule, she wondered how different the town of Hastings would look. She supposed it would be a lot more orderly. There would be a lot less crazy young people dressed in the most outlandish outfits.

The radio was playing in the background. The DJ announced a new single by some pop group called the Pet Shop Boys. Klein smiled at the thought that in the other timeline, there might be no such dreadful music. The radio would be playing Wagner. Her German parents had brought her up to love Wagner.

No doubt her parents would have been happy in a Nazi world. They never talked about it, but they had been National Socialists before the war. Klein doubted they would ever get over the shock of the events of the Forties.

Having finished her meal, Klein took a walk by the sea. She didn't remove her sandals on the beach. The Hastings shore was pebbled and not sandy. I really should have chosen to go somewhere with a decent beach, she thought. Never mind, she could drive to Camber Sands tomorrow and experience a proper beach.

Klein's thoughts drifted to the recording she had listened to of the Doctor. Not the Scottish one, or the one with curly hair and the big grin; the one with grey hair and the sharp nose.

"The Sea Devils? Well. old chap, the 'Sea Devils,' as you call them should properly be called Eocenes. They colonised our oceans some 50 millions years ago..."

Klein smiled as she thought of this Doctor's slight lisp. She wished she had known this incarnation of him better.

"The thing is, we don't know how many Eocene cities survive in the oceans. There may be none left or there might be hundreds of their colonies out there. They have a technology far beyond the ken of man. They may have weapons of terrible destructive power..."

As Klein looked at the roaring waves, she tried to imagine teeming Sea Devil cities deep below the sea. She imagined their hatred of the walking apes on the surface lands. She imagined the terrible violence they might do to the civilization and she thought of the nuclear firestorm her people would retaliate with.

She really had to stop thinking about work.

Klein had not wanted to go on holiday. She had been practically ordered to take some long overdue annual leave. Relaxing did not come naturally to Klein.

"You want to know about the Nestene Consciousness? Jo, can you be a good girl and make us some tea? Thank you. The Nestene Consciousness is a formless energy lifeform. It has the power to animate plastic. Twice it tried to infiltrate the Earth and I shouldn't like to see them try again. I have been doing some research in the TARDIS library and it seems the Nestenes are known to my own people, the Time Lords. Apparently, the Nestenes are the offspring of Shub-Niggurath, a being that existed before the very birth of the universe. If that is true, then we are talking about an entity that is utterly alien and utterly unknowable. Such a power is a menace even to the Time Lords of Gallifrey."

How was anybody who worked for UNIT supposed to relax? How could anybody enjoy walking by the sea knowing that humanity faced the possibility of alien invasion every day?

Klein headed towards the shops. Perhaps shopping for clothes might take her mind of the horrors of her job.

"The Great Intelligence is another energy being. This being is a master manipulator. It knows a thousand strategies, a thousand tricks. Robotic Yeti were just one of the tricks up its metaphorical sleeve. It is a creature older than the universe. It is also called Yog-Sothoth, one of the Great Old Ones of legend. I defeated it twice, but I have no idea what has become of the Great Intelligence now. Is it drifting on some astral plane, or has it returned to Earth and dwelling in some dark corner?"

Browsing clothes in Marks and Spencers seemed to take Klein's mind off work for a while. It was a little difficult to tear herself away from the dark grey suits that she usually wore and to look at the summer outfits, but she managed it.

"Yes, there is a lot of uncertainty regarding the Axons. It is possible that Axos is not one spacecraft, but part of an whole cosmic fleet. If the Axonites come again, they won't be beaten so easily. It is my belief that Axos is the creation of Nylarthotep, a terrible cosmic entity that dwells in the Time Vortex. I have never encountered Nylarthotep before, and I do hope I never shall.."

After selecting a light skirt, Klein handed her money to the girl on the check out. She was young, barely eighteen. Klein remembered working in a clothes shop when she was eighteen, during a break from study. She remembered the first feelings of excitement as she began her studies in the world of physics. The cosmos had seemed so fresh and exciting. She had no awareness of all the tentacled horrors that lurked beyond the Earth, waiting for the chance to crush all life on its fragile sphere.

That poor girl; if she had any idea of just how fragile her future was..

"You are referring to the incident with the Euro Sea Gas drilling station? Yes, I do find that whole thing quite perplexing. I have no idea how that algae, that ought to have just been harmless seaweed, was able to develop consciousness and intelligence. We don't know if it was mutated by industrial pollution or exposed to some alien influence. It poses the terrifying possibility that the very forces of nature could be turned against civilization..."

Clutching her purchase, Klein hurried out of the store. Was this job going to drive her mad? Perhaps people were simply not meant to know just how much horror and madness lurked in the dark places of the universe. Klein realized she needed a drink. She headed back to the hotel at which she was staying.

"Did you know that this universe is just one of many, floating in a sea of universes. Just like our sea, there are things swimming in that super-cosmic sea. Some of these things, creatures if you like, are larger than our universe. They actually consume universes as food. It is not impossible that our universe could be swallowed up and eradicated at any moment.."

"A gin and tonic, please," she instructed the barman.

She drank it quickly and ordered another.

What was she to do if some alien entity were to invade the Earth at this very moment? She would hardly be much use. Away from her laboratory and getting drunk in a hotel bar.

"Look before you drink, Klein," came a familiar Scottish voice.

Klein frowned. The 'Umbrella Man' once again.

"I should have known I'd run into you again sooner or later," said Klein.

"How are you enjoying your holiday?" asked the Doctor.

"I might be enjoying it a bit more if I was not constantly thinking about alien invasions and assorted cosmic horrors. I rather wish you had left a few less details in the UNIT files," Klein replied.

"Oh, Klein, you really aren't good at shutting down are you? What are you planning on doing with the rest of it?"

"I was thinking of going to Camber Sands tomorrow," said Klein.

"Perfect! We can go paddling and play beach games! And I shall build you the biggest sandcastle you have ever seen! I shall bring a huge picnic too," said the Doctor.

"I don't remember inviting you, Doctor," said Klein wearily.

"Klein, I've taught you about aliens, I've told you about strange worlds and how to fight monsters, now I'm going to teach you how to enjoy being at the seaside. It's only fair."

"Very well, Doctor. If anybody is going to teach me how not to go insane in this job, it's certainly you. We visit Camber Sands tomorrow."

Saturday 5 January 2013

The Daemons

I first watched The Daemons in when it was repeated on the BBC in 1992. I was eleven years old at the time. I remember my parents being a little concerned about whether it was morally wholesome, with its depictions of Satanism. I remember sharing their concern. Even though I was keen on Doctor Who at that time, I don't remember enjoying it all that much.

The Daemons has a reputation of being a classic, a pinnacle of Seventies Doctor Who. While the story benefits from its beautiful location filming, I really don't see what is so amazing about it. Phil Sandifer has claimed that the New Series has far superior writing and direction than anything in the Classic Series. I don't feel able to dispute the point; I haven't taken a course in media studies and I don't watch television. I don't even own a television. I have absolutely no idea what makes good television. But I think it is fair to say that a lot of classic Doctor Who has been vastly overrated by fans and when held up to scrutiny often shows glaring failings.

To a large extent, The Daemons is Quatermass and the Pit relocated to an English village. I vastly prefer the Quatermass story to this. That story felt eerie and disturbing. The Daemons fails completely to generate the menacing atmosphere of Quatermass and the Pit. The Daemons feels far too cosy. I also prefer the choice of the Quatermass story to give the ancient aliens an insectoid appearance. Making Azal look exactly like a traditional image of Satan is the kind of crass literalism that treats the viewer like an idiot. It's the same crass literalism that requires the Kaleds to look like Nazis and wear Iron Crosses in Genesis of the Daleks.

In Quatermass and the Pit, the ancient aliens are long dead. They are kept at a distance from the viewer, which adds to the sense of eerie mystery and avoids the difficulty of portraying terrifying cosmic evil on the screen. In contrast, in The Daemons, the devil makes a personal appearance and what a letdown he is! Satan turns out to be just another alien. Dr. Who facing the devil ought to be a glorious moment, but we've seen alien races before, but this one is defeated without any effort. There is something utterly soul crushing about the lazy and stupid resolution to this story that matches even the banality of reducing Satan to just another lame monster.

As mentioned above, one of the great strengths of the story is its delightful use of an English village as a location. Unfortunately, the script gives us an appalling set of stereotyped yokels. There are no real a characters among them. They are just a mob. They can be inspired to burn witches simply by the quotation of Scripture. Seriously, how often did witches get burned in Twentieth Century English villages?

Miss Hawthorne is the only real character, other than the regulars. Given her obsession with the Devil and her cosy relationship with the previous vicar, one might have expected her to be an eccentric and over-zealous Christian rather than a witch. She certainly comes across more like a middle-class High Anglican spinster. I suppose having a character with a real Christian faith would raise too many awkward questions about religion.

Although this serial is uniquely a five-part story, it has all the padding of a six-parter. The story is basically gearing up for the big confrontation at the end, but it takes a very long time to get there, with all the nonsense about the heat barrier and the repeated attempts to kill Dr Who. The story feels just too elongated to be really enjoyable.

I don't care much for Jon Pertwee's version of Dr Who, but in this story he is especially annoying. He is so rude, arrogant and patronizing! I want to scream when he tells Jo off for being rude about the Brigadier! And then when Jo saves his life, he does not even bother to thank her. Fans endlessly quote the Brigadier's line about five rounds rapid, but this rather obscures the fact that for most of The Daemons, the character is left standing around.

We do get a lovely performance from Delgado. He never let us down. That said, as a mastermind manipulator, he falls rather short in this. He gathers together the locals to persuade them to join his side. How does he do this? He accuses them of various misdeeds, than insults them and then starts telling them to obey him or he will destroy them. Don't bother running for the local council, Master.

Perhaps I am a bit harsh in my judgement of this story, but it does seem to get a lot of undeserved praise from fans. I do think the production team deserve praise for their ability to come up with Earthbound stories like this one, without ending up with variations on mad scientists and alien invasions. This may not be the most original story, but it does make creative use of the Doctor's exile on Earth.

Thursday 3 January 2013

Elizabeth Klein, UNIT Scientific Advisor

Inspired by UNIT Dominion, I asked French artist ClaireLyxa to draw Elizabeth Klein as UNIT security adviser. I think she did a fantastic job.

That is the outfit I imagine Klein wearing for work at UNIT.