Monday 29 July 2013

Persuasion, by Jonathan Barnes (Big Finish Audio)

For the first time we get a Klein story that is a bit disappointing. Not that this is Tracey Childs' fault; as usual her superb acting range shines through this story. It is still wonderful to have another Klein fix (and this is the first of a trilogy of new Klein stories as well!). I complained in my review of UNIT Dominion that Klein needs to get out of her laboratory a bit more. The writer had obviously read my review, because she was given a scene in a bar, where she sips a white wine and soda. This is in the context of trying to be a considerate and approachable boss to her subordinate, Will Arrowsmith. The decision to introduce a new character for Klein to interact with was a sensible one from a character development point of view, though oddly, the pair are separated for much of the story. Despite the positive signals of continued development for Klein, this audio does little with her, leaving her to simply complain about Dr. Who not telling her anything, like so many other companions. I disagree with reviewers who say she has become a generic companion in Persuasion, but it is not material that complements the character.

So, Will Arrowsmith? What does the cover suggest to you? A character who is rugged, easy-going and sexy? A character who is smart, if perhaps a little out of his depth, like most companions? Clearly a contrasting character to Klein; one expects she will find him exasperating, but admit grudgingly that he is useful to have around. The character that we actually get in the audio, voiced by Christian Edwards, is the most appalling and cliched caricature of a nerd ever. I found it impossible to imagine the character voiced by Edwards looking like the chap on the cover. My mental image was something of a cross between Billy Bunter and Herbert in Timelash. It was a really big mistake to give the character such a silly voice. We ought to be be able to feel for Will. We can laugh at his inadequacies, but this laughter should feel painful, knowing he reflects ourselves. Instead, we are encouraged to ridicule the man. The character needed to be played straight, or at least straighter (not necessarily in a sexual sense!) It's a real failure of direction.

The story itself is a bit uninspiring, with a rather meandering plot. Ostensibly, it is set at the end of World War Two, but this setting plays no real role in the plot, other than offering some Nazi characters who don't really show much ideology. It could have been set in any historical period. It also suffers from an unevenness of tone. The sections with the alien god-like beings are grandiose and ethereal, while the sections with alien races doing battle has a comic satirical tone that jars with the rest of the material. One can only hope that the next two stories in this trilogy show some improvement. Personally, I'm not sure we needed a trilogy like this for Klein. We got an awful lot of grandiose cosmic drama in previous Klein stories. What we need with Klein is a more low-key, more incidental story. That would probably do more for Klein as a companion than another big story arc.

On the positive side, it was a good idea to have the alien gods speaking in Shakespearean poetry was a great idea and sounds beautifully haunting. It really makes them stand out for other run-of-the-mill Space Gods. There is also a lovely reference to Quatermass.

Continuity Question

According to this story, Klein's parents moved to Britain after the Second World War. I had been pretty sure, based on Colditz, that Klein's parents had emigrated before the war. I suppose this could be a result of the re-writing of her history. It might allow her to be a bit younger than she would be had she been born in say, 1935 (a detail I created for my fan fiction).

Saturday 20 July 2013

TARDIS Eruditorum Volume 3: Jon Pertwee, by Phil Sandifer

Once again we review the most recent volume of Phil Sandifer's fascinating psychochronography of Doctor Who. As ever we ask, why buy it when you can read the blog for free? Firstly, the quality of the writing is so much better in the book than on the blog. Secondly, we get bonus essays on Torchwood, the mechanics of the TARDIS and a guest essay from Anna Wiggins.

From the outset, Sandifer admits that the Pertwee era is his least favorite period of Doctor Who. This is something I have in common with him, though my reasons for liking the Pertwee stuff are less political than his. This critical stance toward these episodes enables him to write on them with a very evident creative and reflective tension. His concluding essay on Jon Pertwee's tenure is delightfully nuanced, yet for all that he is able to celebrate those things about the character, the actor and the era that are enjoyable.

The book begins with a very interesting essay on Monty Python's Flying Circus. Phil points out that Monty Python had a sketch entitled Science Fiction Sketch, which comes across very much as an absurd parody of the Third Doctor and UNIT. However, remarkably this was broadcast before Spearhead from Space! Thus, the Pertwee era had been effectively lampooned before it had even begun. This observation sets the theme for much of the book, with Sadifer viewing Pertwee-Who as a sort of unintentional parody of itself.

Phil's leftist politics come out in his strong criticism of the Doctor's involvement with UNIT. He makes two criticisms, firstly that the Doctor so quickly becomes involved with a military organisation. Secondly, that the Doctor remains involved with UNIT after the Brigadier's actions at the end of Dr Who and the Silurians. He feels the Doctor's relationship with UNIT ought to have ended then and any criticism in that story is muted by this failure to disengage. He is also uncomfortable with the patrician demeanor adopted by Pertwee.

The essay on The Ambassadors of Death is primarily about David Whitaker, being his last story. It is an affectionate tribute to one of the most fundamental creators of the show. Phil is much more critical of Inferno, a story that gets a lot of undeserved praise from fans. I very much agree with Phil's preference for the former story.

Sandifer does not view Season 7 as a distinct era of Doctor Who, as some fans do. He does, however, make a distinction between 'Action Pertwee' and 'Glam Rock Pertwee.' The former is basically a straightforward action thriller styled science fiction story. The Mind of Evil is perhaps the best example of this. Phil is very critical of this kind of story and seems to feel it is too great a departure from the ethos of Doctor Who, as well as tending towards a dangerous moral simplicity. 'Glam Rock Pertwee' is a rather more complex beast. It is a kind of colourful composition of action and exotica that is absolutely serious, yet somehow feels like a pastiche. Sandifer views The Claws of Axos as the defining example of this genre, with each character playing a clearly defined role that on the surface appears absurd.

I was glad to see that Phil finds things to like about The Time Monster. It's a terrible story, yet he recognises that it has a fascinating combination of Platonism and Buddhism. His essay on the mechanics of the TARDIS also explores the alchemical properties of the Doctor's ship. I found the essay on David Bowie's music and it's thematic similarities to Pertwee-Who very enlightening, particularly as I have never been a Bowie fan.

Phil's essay on The Three Doctors is a marvel. He refers to Doctor Who characters by names taken from William Blake's mythological works. It's beautifully written, but I'm not sure I understand it. I do wish Phil would write a more straightforward essay about Blakean themes in Doctor Who for the benefit of more matter of fact people like me. Anna Wiggins, adds a little clarity to what Phil is trying to do, but her piece is not aided by her unfamiliarity with Blake. I would love to have a better understanding of what Phil is trying to say in his comparison of Blake and Doctor Who.

Unsurprisingly, Carnival of Monsters gets a lot of praise from Phil. It is definitely his favorite story of the period. It is of course, completely different anything else in its era. I would suggest that it feels more like a Season 24 story. Phil seems impressed with Frontier in Space, despite the problem of the Doctor spending much of the story in various jail cells. He comes up with an interesting redemptive reading of the underwhelming and rather tedious Planet of the Daleks. He points out that Terry Nation does not really capture the Third Doctor's usual persona:

"So Pertwee does not get to run around and be ostentatiously imperious as he prefers. Nor does he get to be ignored and occasionally tortured, as he's best at. Instead he stands around and gives speeches about the meaning of courage. Pertwee certainly isn't bad at this, but it's neither in his wheelhouse nor something he visibly enjoys."

Sandifer suggests that Planet of the Daleks is the kind of old fashioned space adventure that the Doctor has outgrown. Now that he is capable of dealing with more complex stories, he can take a back seat and just make speeches about courage and leave the heroism to others.

I was glad to see that The Green Death came in for some criticism. This story tends to get let off easily by fans, despite its shortcomings. While praising The Time Warrior, Phil savages it for its sexism. He finds little to praise and much to criticize in the (in my opinion barely watchable) Season 11.

I am a bit puzzled by Sandifer's handling of Jo Grant. He attacks the sexism of Terrance Dicks which led to her creation. However, he seems to offer some sort of redemptive reading, describing her as 'alchemical' and claiming that she subverts the narrative structure of the stories. I'm not quite sure what he is talking about. This seems to be an example of our author getting lost in his nether-world of radical literary theory and losing the rest of us. That said, this volume is yet another interesting read from Phil and I must say I can't wait for the Tom Baker volume.

Wednesday 17 July 2013

Counter-Measures Series Two

There are some signs that Big Finish have raised their game with Counter-Measures Series 2. There is more humour, which is welcome, though I might have liked to have seen some more. The quality of the story writing and plotting has also vastly improved since Series 1. We also get some brilliant guest performances, most notably Celia Imrie, who is given much more chance to shine than she was in The Bells of St. Johns.

There are echoes of Quatermass, particularly in the sense that society is just a step away from descent into madness and savagery, but the Quatermass influence is less literal here than in series 1. This is reflected in the theme matter; there is a complete absence of aliens and non-human monsters in this series. This creates a stronger sense of realism; this is set in a world closer to our own than that which we are used to seeing in Doctor Who. Yet I did find myself missing aliens and monsters. It would have been nice to have at least one story with aliens or monsters in.

If you thought Sir Toby Kinsella was a bit Machiavellian, you will be amazed to find him paired with another scheming civil servant, Templeton, played by Philip Pope. Templeton and Sr Toby have a beautifully vicious rivalry. Somebody on the bonus documentary made a lovely, but surprising comparison with the Frasier brothers. These two characters are fun to listen to because they are so similar, yet subtly different. Sir Toby himself gets an awful lot of character development in series 2. While we don't ever see quite what makes him tick, we find out just what a tantalisingly complex character he is.

Group Captain Gilmour gets a lot of attention in Manhunt, which is very much his story. Yet series 2 does not resolve one of the fundamental problems with the Counter-Measures set-up, which is the redundancy of Gimour's character. Gilmour was basically created to be a substitute for the Brigadier. Thus, his whole purpose was to be the leader of a military operation. Counter-Measures is not UNIT, however, and so Gilmour is deprived of his natural role as a military leader and is reduced to being just an heavy or an odd job man. This role might suit a junior officer, but seems very out of place for a senior officer. An RAF group captain is the equivalent of a colonel in the army.

Alison Williams suffered an awful lot of trauma in the previous series, having been forced to shoot her fiance. She spends most of this series doing an awful lot of moping, which gets tedious. She also ends up shooting somebody again, which runs the risk of creating a new trope. I know I keep on about accents a lot, but Karen Gledhill really needs to learn or re-learn Received Pronunciation. She simply does not sound like a well spoken girl from the Sixties. I find it incredible how so many actors today seem unable to speak in RP. Professor Rachel Jensen is given absolutely no character development in this series. Still, it is enough just to hear Pamela Salem's lovely voice again.

All of these stories have very downbeat endings. There is a very dark tone to the series. I can't help feeling that I would like to hear a few stories with a bit more of a lighter tone. There is a bit more humour in this series, but I still think we could do with some more. I'd also like to hear a few more references to Doctor Who in Counter-Measures. It is Doctor Who fans who are listening to this and we deserve to be rewarded.

Shabogan Graffiti: A Clarification

Shabogan Graffiti: A Clarification: If you think this... what Chinese people actually look like, then guess what: you're a f****** racist!

Sunday 14 July 2013

The Comic Strip Companion, by Paul Scoones

The Doctor Who comics, particularly the early comics, have often tended to be a bit neglected by fandom. Yet they are an important part of the history of the franchise and were of great importance to young fans in the era before Doctor Who novels and audios. I have tried to argue on this blog that they should be treated as equal to other media in their canonical value and John and Gillian should not be excluded from lists of Doctor Who companions.

The Comic Strip Companion provides a useful reference tool for the first phase of Doctor Who comics, that is those before the Doctor Who Weekly. This volume includes entries for all the Doctor Who TV Comic strips, the Countdown and TV Action strips, the World Distributors annual strips up to 1979, as well as the TV Century 21 Dalek strips and other strips in Terry Nation's various Dalek spin-off material. Sadly, the book includes no reproductions of strips.

It follows the pattern of so many episode guides, giving a synopsis of each story, as well as continuity details and goofs as well as a critique. Information about these stories can be found online, however, Scoones offers much more detail than has previously been available. What particularly stands out is the wealth of historiographical materail that Scoones collects, providing a clear picture of the publication history of the comics. Regarding the critiques, it can be tedious reading the author's continual laments about the quality of the strips, particularly the Sixties TV Comic strips. I might have liked him to show a little more enthusiasm for his chosen subject matter. On the other hand, I would have liked to have seen some acknowledgement of the racial stereotyping that can be seen in the TV Century 21 Dalek strips (Power Play and Menance of the Monstrons).

The author makes the assumption that the comics are set in an alternate universe and therefore makes no attempt to reconcile them with Doctor Who television continuity. I was very dissappointed and consider the alternate universe view a rather lazy assumption. To my mind, a major appeal to the comics is the idea that the Doctor had more adventures than can be seen on television. It would have been so much more interesting had the author attempted to suggest ways to fit these stories in to the wider Doctor Who mythos.

This is definitely a useful book for fans to buy, but it is not the comic companion I would have liked to have read.

Thursday 11 July 2013

The Final Sanction, by Steve Lyons (BBC novel)

The Final Sanction is a really bleak, depressing war story. I did enjoy it though. Part of my enjoyment was down to the fact that the Selachians are such a great Doctor Who monster race and part of it was down to the really well constructed plot. This has a much cleanly and efficiently delivered story than Lyons' previous Past Doctor novel, The Murder Game. There was also a lot of NAstalgia involved in my enjoyment too. It is clear reading this that Steve Lyons is very much a writer in the mould of the Virgin New Adventures, with all their harshness. While there is a definite feeling that one has read this before, it still feels good. Like the best of the Virgin novels, it makes effective use of Doctor Who continuity, with a humanity scarred by the events of the Dalek invasion.

This is a novel all about war; about the complex morality of war, about terrible atrocities and about the war criminals who command unspeakable acts. In The Final Sanction, Jamie gets involved in the fighting directly, Zoe is captured and faces torture and deprivation in a Selachian prison camp, while the Second Doctor meets face to face with Wayne Redfern, who will be infamously remembered as the man who ordered the destruction of the Selachian's planet along with the thousands of innocent human prisoners held there. This TARDIS team feel a oddly suited to this role, being more generally suited to fun romps. However, they are written well and are not as badly served as they are in The Indestructible Man.

The Selachians are a great monster race; they're aquatic nature sets them apart from other aliens and their memorable visual image is impressive to imagine. They are fleshed out a little here and we see something of a different side to them. Their is a beautiful moment where a Selachian tells Jamie his name and it triggers images in his mind of another world, a beautiful and mysterious aquatic world. Yet they are as militaristic as ever, which does make them a little diffcult to sympathize with despite Lyons' efforts.

The war criminal, Wayne Redfern is perhaps a slightly cliched character, being a bellicose, gung-ho American with a Southern drawl. However, Lyons does give him enough complexity to make him interesting. I also loved the poignant ending the book leaves us with. The Doctor takes Jamie and Zoe back to the aftermath of the Dalek occupation, where we see a younger Redfern. The Doctor asks Zoe if she could kill the young Redfern and thus prevent so many future deaths. She replies that it would be logical, but she could never do it. In the next scene, we see Redfern saving the life of a young girl trapped under rubble. This is a beautiful way of showing the complexities of history and time travel.

One continuity complaint that I had was that the Doctor showed an awfully detailed knowledge of future human history. He had not previously shown such knowledge during the Second Doctor era. It is only in the Third Doctor era that the Doctor seems to show any detailed knowledge about future human history. I found it interesting that the Selachians regard the Doctor as a habitual enemy who has thwarted them many times. Do they mean only The Murder Game and the The Selachian Gambit (not published at the time of this novel!)? Did the Second Doctor have a further encounter with the Selachians with Victoria? Had the First Doctor tangled with them? Or did the Selachians recordss include defeats inflicted by a future Second Doctor from the Season 6B era? These questions really do fascinate me.

This book defintely reinforced my feeling that Steve Lyons is among my favorite Doctor Who authors. It is a shame that he is not better regarded for his output among fans.