We actually saw a glorious total of four films in the cinema this year, probably as many as we had managed in the previous four years combined. They were: The Last King of Scotland, Pirates of the Caribbean 3, 2 Days in Paris, and Stardust. Also I took F to see Alvin and the Chipmunks at the weekend, and Anne took him to see The Simpsons Movie during the year.
We have also been to two classical music concerts in the last few weeks, more than we have managed in the previous decade: Pieter Wispelwey playing the Bach cello suites at the Brussels Royal Conservatory at the end of November, and La Mystère des Voix Bulgares in Leuven last weekend.
Also we got through the whole of the first five seasons of The West Wing, plus Doctor Who and the Sarah Jane Smith Adventures, and The Goodies At Last!
Gradually picking up our ability to engage in these things what with the new circumstances..
There seem to have been quite a lot of books this year. Like, er, cough, about 235 of them, which is rather more than last year’s 207 let alone 2005’s 137. 81 (34%, same as last year) were non-fiction; 44 (19%, same as last year) were by or edited by women; 123 (52%, slightly up from last year) were sf, fantasy, or somehow related to the genre. In the list below the cut-tags, books in bold are the ones I gave five stars to on Librarything.
44 of my year’s total of books – 19% – were related to Doctor Who: 30 fiction (16 novelisations of broadcast stories, 9 spinoff novels, one unbroadcast script, one spinoff anthology, and 3 comics), 12 books about the series in general and two memoirs by actors from the show (incidentally, the only two audio-books per se that I listened to during the year).
Doctor Who The About Time series, erratic in places, are consistently enjoyable, enlightening and entertaining; and Tom Baker was the only person to make me laugh out loud on the train.
Book of the year Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, strongly recommended to everyone; a superb tale of a dysfunctional family, dealing with sexuality and great literature and love and death. We’ve had guests in our house queuing up to read our copy, and you will too.
13) Slide Rule: An Autobiography, by Neville Shute
Probably my last book of 2007, and it’s good to end on a high note – thanks, , for the recommendationEaster Rising of 1916 – his father, as it happens, was the Secretary of the Irish Post Office, so there is a certain immediacy to Shute’s account, from an angle one doesn’t often get – that of a middle-class English teenager pressed into service as a stretcher-bearer.
Then a bit over half the book is devoted to a fascinating account of Shute’s involvement with the R100, the private sector counterpart to the doomed state-funded R101 British airship. This was at the cutting edge of technology, a prestige engineering project every bit as important in its way as the moon landings, which was to open up mass travel between the continents at a time when it was thought that aeroplanes would never be able to be big enough or fast enough to satisfy the commercial demand. Shute clearly loved his own creation (he was deputy to Barnes Wallis but ended up de facto in charge) and goes into fascinating detail about the problems they faced, both technical and political; and looming over the narrative, of course, is the eventual R101 disaster, which he blames on the failings of senior civil servants as technical managers and on the general policy of having any state-run industry (and specifically the ego of Lord Thomson, the Air Minister, who paid for it with his life and the lives of dozens of others). I admit my most substantive encounter with this story before was the (excellent) Doctor Who audio Storm Warning, in which Thomson’s part, renamed “Lord Tamworth”, is played with considerable creative licence by Gareth Roberts (Blake from Blake’s 7), but there’s nothing like the real thing.
The final chunk of the book, a bit over a third of it, is Shute’s account of setting up his own aircraft company, and the difficulties of running a hi-tech startup in the context of the Great Depression. Again, an interesting human tale of innovation, struggle against the odds, the difficulties of balancing the books and the personalities, the intimate involvement of people and capital; I think it ought to be required reading for anyone thinking of setting up their own business. On top of that, the looming clouds of war – in Spain, China and Ethiopia, and coming up close to home – were crucial in making the company break even by the time he was eased out with a golden handshake in 1938.
Shute isn’t shy about his politics, which are certainly to the right: I guess that being caught on the wrong side of a revolution at 17, and then seeing your professional colleagues killed by the hubris of a Labour government minister, may well be formative experiences, but he also argues for the retention of the moneyed aristocracy as a source of start-up finance for innovation. I’m not in huge sympathy with him on these points, but I like his clear and occasionally self-deprecating prose; the two books of his that I have read, Pied Piper and Trustee from the Toolroom, are both rather enchanting tales of older men who accidentally go on long journeys to do good deeds, and it’s interesting to see where this comes from.
I tried this famously impenetrable novel at the start of last year, and bounced off it; but was spurred into giving it another go partly by reviewing my reading resolutions for this year, partly by Bob Shaw’s remark about reading it being one of the new year’s resolutions he had made every year but never managed to keep. Second time around, I found it much easier going, I think because in the interim I have read four volumes of Proust, and the narrative style is not dissimilar – quite a lot of stream-of-consciousness reflection on the central character’s state of mind, and Dhalgren even has a long sequence set at a party reminiscent of one of Proust’s soirées, though with more swearing, and various other social gatherings are set-pieces of the narrative.
Also, of course, while Proust is very naturalistically creating a recognisable picture of urban and rural France, Delany’s city of Bellona is as much as anything a state of mind, detached from the rest of the USA, where strange things happen in the sky and the central character knows that his own sense of time is as badly skewed as the local newspaper’s chronology. Where Proust’s narrator doesn’t have a name, Delany’s central character has two, though neither is complete. Delany’s other characters are more archetypal than Proust’s – the strait-laced Richards family, Newboy the poet, Kamp the astronaut, Calkins the editor, Denny and Lanya the central character’s lovers. I was not always entirely comfortable with the racial or gender stereotypes I thought I detected.
Sex, of course, is a little more frequent and a lot more explicit in Delany’s book; he is unembarrassed about polyamory and bisexuality where Proust is horrified by “inversion” – although Proust too has a lot of sex, the most explicit scene so far is one the narrator overhears rather than one he participates in. The other major difference is that Delany’s central character is a writer, and spends a lot of time thinking about the relationship between his own art and life, compared to Proust who is always observing: watching other people’s plays, listening to other people’s music, reading other people’s books.
Dhalgren is a bit self-indulgent now and then – I think I understand why the last section of the book is presented as a working draft, but the point could have been made without demanding as much of the reader. But I was relieved that the story of the central character’s poetry was told without actually blocking out the text with his poems, a practice I wish other authors (eg A.S. Byatt) would follow.
Anyhow, it was tough going in places, but worth it in the end.
The last of my Doctor Who catch-up posts, which may be a relief to some of you. Three Tom Baker stories, two featuring classic monsters and the third more of a classic in its own right.
Destiny of the Daleks, first broadcast in September 1979, was Douglas Adams’ first story as script editor and Lalla Ward’s first as Romana II, the regeneration happening for reasons utterly unexplained (until the second series of Gallifrey audios). The Tom/Lalla sparking is great fun; sadly the same can’t be said about the rest of it. I hate anthropomorphic robots, and the Movellans certainly qualify; David Gooderson is really not much cop as Davros; and the Daleks are particularly pointless. Alan Stevens and Fiona Moore have defended the story, but I think their hearts are not in it.
Revenge of the Cybermen has a rather poor reputation among fandom, but I rather enjoyed it this time round (I remember it first time round in 1975, when the second episode was broadcast on my eighth birthday, and watched it again in around 1990). If you treat it as Doctor Who and the Vogans, rather than pay attention to the irritating Cybermen, it is a great story – the three main Vogan characters, played by well-established pillars of Who like Michael Wisher (Davros), Kevin Stoney (Mavic Chen/Tobias Vaughn) and Ian Collings (later Poul in The Robots of Death and Mawdryn) all spark off each other well and give a convincing picture of a paranoid, factionalised society. Unfortunately the Cybermen rather spoil the plot – they have a different crucial weakness each time they appear, it seems – and I can never watch the Doctor’s discovery of the Plot Device Cupboard in the last scene without wincing.
Terror of the Zygons is a real classic, also from 1975. I went for it after reading both the follow-up Sting of the Zygons and re-reading the novelisation, Doctor Who and the Loch Ness Monster. While the novel is slightly better – the TV Skarasen looks really crap, the TV Scotland looks peculiarly like West Sussex and the Doctor’s banter is slightly funnier in the book – the original version is still pretty good. One thing it has that the book lacks is fantastic incidental music by Geoffrey Burgon, who went on to great things (incidental music for Life of Brian, all the music for Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Brideshead Revisited, incidental music for Silent Witness). And the Zygons themselves, as my Australian friend said so many years ago, remain “two-cushion monsters”. Plus it’s a decent final story for the Brigadier in his military role.
Big Finish started with these six stories back in 1998, featuring Bernice Summerfield, a companion invented by Paul Cornell in 1992 for the Virgin series of New Adventures with the Seventh Doctor. It’s a much stronger start to the series than their early Doctor Who stories, possibly because they were adapting novels that had already been published, though I think that can’t be the whole story. I had only read one of the books, Kate Orman’s Walking to Babylon, so most of this was new to me. All good stuff, apart from the last one.
Oh, No It Isn’t! – very brave to start with a story that starts as a standard archaeological dig and then converts the cast into pantomime characters – but it works really well. And Nicholas Courtney as the cat is lovely too.
Beyond the Sun is another archaeological dig-goes-wrong story but introduces the character of Jason, Benny’s ex-husband, and lots of emotional angst as well as the actual plot. I was completely absorbed in it, and yet failed to spot the voices of Sophie Aldred and Anneke Wills until I read the sleeve notes afterwards.
Walking to Babylon has been quite heavily changed from the book, mainly to insert ex-husband Jason into the plot, though I was glad that Benny’s love affair with Lafayette survived. And Elisabeth Sladen returning as the High Priestess is gret too. A strong play based on a strong book, the Babylonian setting beautifully evoked.
Birthright brings back Colin Baker rather nicely as a Russian ally of Benny’s, and also evokes its Edwardian setting beautifully. Plus Jason seems a bit less shoe-horned in this time, and there’s a nice set of tensions between the various goodies and baddies.
I thought Just War was the peak of a good run, confronting Benny with the moral ambiguities of a Guernsey under German occupation. Apparently the Seventh Doctor was in the original novel and written out in favour of Jason, but I didn’t really see the gaps. I did spot Maggie Stables as Benny’s landlady. All generally well assembled.
Dragon’s Wrath, like Oh, No It Isn’t!, is detached from the narrative of the other four stories. It is, frankly, not as good; plot too obvious, guest star (Richard Franklin) not sufficiently engaged, sound recording rather poor in places, basically rather skippable.
Another catch-up post for Big Finish adventures 51-55, of which the first features the Sixth Doctor and Iris Wildthyme, and the others are Eighth Doctor and Charlie in the alternate universe which they were banished to at the end of Zagreus, with new companion C’rizz (pronounced “Kerres”) joining for the last three.
The Wormery had previously been recommended to me by (twice) and by by (twice). It is indeed great; I’m not a big fan of Katy Manning or of her Irish Wildthyme character, but with Colin Baker’s Doctor they work well, and I love the framing device of Jane McFarlane’s dulcet Scottish lilt as Mickey – why isn’t she doing more acting? – and the sting at the end as we find out who her listener is. The device of the bar between the worlds – isn’t that Callahan’s from Spider Robinson? (not that I’ve read any.) However this version seems a bit darker.
I thought Scherzo was a bit rubbish, but lifted by the excellent and compelling performances of Paul McGann and India Fisher, talking total nonsense but making it entirely believable.
The Creed of the Kromon takes us back into proper DW territory, slaves revolt against their oppressive rulers, and Doctor gains another companion. Decent, if standard, stuff. C’rizz is OK and balances out the core cast a little.
I thought that The Natural History of Fear was going to be rubbish as well, as it seemed that we must find out eventually that there is some secret plan that the Doctor and companions are working on. But it didn’t come, and didn’t come, and so the eventual revelation of What Was Really Going On totally subverted my expectations.
The Twilight Kingdom brings back Michael Keating – Hooray! And rather a good tale of involved conspiracies, combat and revolutionary ideology.
I’m about four DW review posts behind at the moment, so bear with me while I clear the backlog. It’s not really accurate to think of these five plays as a series in themselves; they follow pretty much straight on from the first series of four uniting Louise Jameson as Leela and Lalla Ward as Romana, the latter now president of the Time Lords, and the end is pretty unresolved. I liked the first two of these most, mainly for fannish reasons, but they were all decent enough.
Gallifrey 2.1: Lies – Romana explores the matrix and meets herself – yes, at long last we have Mary Tamm returning as Romana I, explaining why she chose to regenerate at the start of Destiny of the Daleks. Also the set-up for the rest of the series.
Gallifrey 2.2: Spirit – most of this was just not-quite-sapphic bonding between Leela and Romana, with the actual plot, such as it was, a bit confusing and distracting; but I loved it. I think this would be the play to get Old School fans hooked on the series.
Gallifrey 2.3-5: Pandora, Insurgency, Imperiatrix – the last three plays in the series bring us back to Gallifrey, and are really a continuous narrative of palace politics culminating in Mary Tamm’s return in unexpected form. All engaging enough, and finishes with a documentary interview with the creators.
11) Latin Palaeography: Antiquity & the Middle Ages, by Bernhard Bischoff, translated by Dáibhí Ó Cróinín & David Ganz
My Christmas present from my wife (I got her the lives of early saints). I dabbled in this subject during my medieval astrology phase, and had some dealings with co-translator Ó Cróinín at one point; this book is not a popular introduction, but a scholarly overview of the subject, and so it’s a surprisingly good read, especially when you consider it was originally written in German.
The book starts with an overview of what was written and how – the shift from scroll to codex (a codex being what we normally refer to as a “book”); the shift from papyrus to parchment/vellum to paper; different inks; other things that were written on, like the ubiquitous but ephemeral wax tablets. Fascinating stuff about what has survived and what hasn’t; a personal letter from the bishop of London to the Archbishop of Canterbury, for instance, written in about 704.
Then the middle section, which is the must substantial and technical, on the spread of different styles of Latin handwriting, staring in Ireland and Britain and then concentrating on Germany, France and Italy, with excursions to Scandinavia, and the Czechs get a look-in too, as do the Mozarabs, a group one doesn’t often hear much about. Not a lot of concentration on individual letters, more on general style issues and how they tie in with politics – Charlemagne is of course a very big figure here, the only person whose name is commemorated in a style of writing. But he also looks at the evolution of shorthand, and the abbreviations which are the biggest headache in palaeography (explaining why there is no real standard), and briefly looks at the evolution of the numbers.
For me, that last point was always the weirdest. Although in the documents I used to look at, the numbers 0,1,2,3,6,8 and 9 were normally tolerably recognisable, the others were not: 4 was written 5 was written 7 was written
Easy to mistake an early “5” for a modern “4” if reading quickly. Apparently the man we have to thank for this is Gerbert of Aurillac, whose contribution to Western culture and the history of science deserves to be much better known.
The final section looks rather briefly at the manuscript as a cultural artifact, and while interesting enough could have done with a bit of contextualisation with other cultural artifacts. In fact, that is my biggest complaint about the book generally, that as a monograph on a pretty technical topic, admittedly written for the specialist, knowledge of a lot of the context is assumed. Most seriously, lots of places are mentioned, but there are no maps; I would have appreciated some sense of the geographical as well as intellectual connections between Corbie and Luxeuil, for instance.
Anyway, the business end of this is only 220 pages, so despite the density of the subject matter it is a quick read, and often intriguing for the glimpses we get of individual scribes and patrons who helped to shape the letters we read today. My favourite sentence:
“Nevertheless, in the ninth century, Danila, the scribe of the three-columned bible of La Cava, mastered capitalis, uncial, half-uncial, a slanting half-uncial with uncial admixture, and minuscule, all with equal elegance.” (p. 99)
Yeah, the start, comprehensively prepared for this… Kylie, check; angels, check; small red blobby alien, check. Of course the Titanic sailed in April, so the Christmas theme is already a giveaway.
But what a shock! New theme tune arrangement! Love it!
And here’s Geoffrey Palmer, on Doctor Who for the third time. He is hiding something. Ah, the ship, from the planet.
Doctor talks to the alien which reminds me of that creature from the Bernice Summerfield audio.
The robots are malfunctioning. They have an interesting resemblance to my Christmas present last year, the Robots of Death.
Astrid finds that spaceflight isn’t what she wanted. DT and KM work well together.
Meteor shower, not quite astronomically accurate…
Psychic paper gets the Doctor shoreside. Mr Cooper (Clive Swift returns to DW also) and his off-beat take on Earth customs. Deserted streetn but Earth is exotic for Astrid.
It’s Bernard Cribbins! Christmas in London is not safe in the Whoniverse!
Ah. That might explain why the meteoroids are not standard issue. What is the captain up to? The Doctor’s onto him, but the Captain has superior man- and fire-power. And the angel robot tells them they are all going to die!
Angels queueing up… Why?
Steward sucked into space! And lots of other people have been too… And the Tardis! Landing on Earth, so we know where this is going to finish.
Oooh, nasty angel!
Aha, so the ship crashing will wipe out life on earth. Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without the end of the world!
“I am a Time Lord, I am from Gallifrey…” Great stuff!
Yes, the Doctor agrees with my statement about his Christmases.
A nice bit of character-building from the Van Hoffs. (Rather more cheerful than the Eastenders plot.)
Bk is a cyborg – how will this fit with the robots?
Kitchen staff about to get wiped out… Yep.
Killer robots… Hand stuck in door – a familiar trope – Rose, Robots of Death. (The midshipman is recovering rather well from a gut shot.)
“A Time King from Gabbadee.” “You should see me in the mornings.” “OK!” Oooer!
Space shuffles! A fake degree! Glorious!
“I was sort of made homeless…” Awww.
A bridge across the chasm. Poor Foon… But will the Doctor be able to come back for her?
Angels have wings!, and Banakaffalatta can kill them dead! But not much good for him. Rather moving sacrifice.
…And Foon sacrifices herself too.
“All I do is travel.” “I could squeeze in it…” Makes a change for someone to beg the new Doctor to come too. (Well, Mickey did.) “Old tradition, yeah.” Good music now.
Three questions. Whoops, that blows two of them.
Teleport to safety… No, to deck 31. Good girl, Astrid. (But will you survive to the end of the story?)
It’s Max Capricorn. Looks in bad shape. What is he up to? Is it all just an insurance scam? No, elaborate corporate revenge. This is rather Douglas Adams-ish. Well, if he had written Davros.
Kylie and a forklift truck… Oh dear!!!! Poor Astrid, I thought things might not end well!
How’s the Doctor in charge of the angels? Oh.
Rescue the ship now! Skip into the atmosphere… Oh dear, poor old Buckingham Palace! Getting the Queen out in time! And a near miss (reminiscent of the end of Revenge of the Cybermen) of the target. Looks like Elizabeth II is better disposed to the Doctor than Elizabeth I.
Can we save Astrid? Looks like maybe not. Every victory has a cost, and the good guys don’t always live to see the end.
“If you could decide who lives and who dies, that would make you a monster.” So true. And off they go to England.
And Mr Copper has fallen on his feet, hasn’t he!
“Where are you going?” “No idea!” “Me neither.”
And a tribute to Verity Lambert.
Well, an interesting shift of tone! And I loved the world-building, the Vones and the invocation of Vot.
Idly googling the name of my old school I discovered to my delight and slight surprise that a large feature on Europa, the fourth of the four big moons of Jupiter, has been named "Rathmore Chaos". It is about 57 km across, ie the size of County Antrim (appropriately enough, but we’ll come to that); here is a picture of it.
I was naturally a bit curious as to how this had come about. As a teenager one of my daydreams was that I would grow up to discover lots and lots of asteroids, and therefore get the right to name them; after exhausting my near family I might consider commemorating my old school; I wondered if one of my fellow alumni had ended up in the sort of job I thought I wanted then, and had managed to sort-of fulfill my ambition?
No, the truth is a little weirder than that. The International Astronomical Union, in its wisdom, has decided that features on Europa are to be named after either i) people and places referenced in the original Europa myth or ii) people and places from Celtic myth or iii) "Celtic" (sic) stone rows and circles. The IAU has a right of course to choose to name planetary features after whatever it likes, and I’m pleased that Irish culture is being celebrated in this way, but I would just remind them that the megalithic monuments in question predate the arrival of the Celts by at least a millennium. (I mean, do we talk of the Hagia Sofia as a Turkish monument?) Celtic knowledge may not be the strong point of the members of the relevant IAU sub-committeemildly Celtic name).
The specific derivation for the Rathmore nomenclature is this story by "Ethna Carbery" (Anna MacManus) from In The Celtic Past, published in 1904, two years after she died, based on this appendix to the Voyage of Bran. It’s pretty clear that the place referred to as Rathmore in the story is not my old school to the south of Belfast, but this ancient feature, known as "Rathmore Trench". ("Rathmore" just means "big ringfort", An Ráth Mhór, though there is a local legend about a woman called Mor who lived there.)
So, just think of that, those of you who have occasion to visit Antrim Town; once you’re off the motorway, just glance over to the right as the dual carriageway comes to an end; that clump of trees has bestowed its name on a far off corner of a frozen world.
We spent Christmas 1997 in Banja Luka, Bosnia, with six-month-old B and my mother. B at that stage had all the normal developmental signs, was just sitting up, smiling like anything, and weathered with resilience an attack of impetigo on her neck.
Banja Luka, on the other hand, was a city still in trauma, barely a year after the end of the war, and still worrying if it would start again; the local politicians who I was working with were locked in an internal power struggle with the war-time hard-line Serb leadership, and the political situation was still fragile. None the less I managed to buy a Christmas tree at a stall in the main street.
We used to go to Mass on Sundays at the Metal Factory outside the city, the main base for the British army in the area. On Christmas Eve they had a Midnight Mass, actually at midnight, jointly celebrated by the Catholic and Anglican chaplains (the latter was in fact from Northern Ireland, so CoI rather than CoE). We all went, carrying sleeping B with us. Rather than the usual dozen or so in the congregation, the little metal hut was packed with servicemen and servicewomen, singing Christmas carols lustily and all clearly missing home desperately. Though civilians, we got special attention for having a baby with us.
The next day was Christmas Day itself, though not for the local Orthodox Serbs who stick to the old calendar. I went down to the covered market to buy a turkey, but found my Serbian was not up to it, so found a local friend to help me negotiate.
She did the job, and I went home with a fine bird, though with all innards intact, which my mother bravely prepared and roasted. We settled down to Christmas dinner and remarked on how much fat there was in the skin of Bosnian turkeys. And, yeah, the liver had been a lot bigger than you would expect too. And it tasted different from turkeys we were used to. In fact, it tasted more like, em, a goose. We concluded that it was a goose, not a turkey. No big deal, just not quite what I thought I had brought home. We had a good day anyway, and B enjoyed her presents.
I took it up with my local friend the next day. “Did you realise,” I asked her, “that that bird we got yesterday was a goose – guska/гуска – not a turkey – ćurka/ћурка?” She shrugged her shoulders without embarrassment. “What do I know about that?” she demanded. “I am city girl.” She gave the impression that to know such technicalities of bird genus was the mark of an inferior rural upbringing, far beneath the notice of an urban sophisticate like her.
All in all it was a special Christmas – our first with B, as now we are having our first without her.
10) [In Search of Lost Time #4] Sodom and Gomorrah, by Marcel Proust
I’m more than half way through the seven-volume epic now, and sufficiently engaged to be sure that I will indeed finish it in due course. Sodom and Gomorrah puts homosexuality front and centre; at the very beginning, we discover that the monstrous Baron de Charlus is in fact perpetually on the lookout for attractive men; and throughout the second half of the book the narrator is tormented by the idea that his girlfriend Albertine is having affairs with her girlfriends. Proust is himself a gay but very closeted writer, putting words in the mouth of a heterosexual narrator who observes but is horrified by homosexuality, and for today’s reader there is more of the fascination of watching the author’s mental train wreck than the idea that we are learning anything.
There is other stuff going on as well. At first I was afraid that we would have yet more bitchy and superficial social events, but we have the interesting compare and contrast between two key relationships – the narrator and Albertine, and Baron de Charlus and the young plebeian musician Morel – which drives the narrative. There are a couple of interesting confrontations with modern technology – the elevator, the motor car, the aeroplane. There are reflections on art and how people respond to it (a discussion continued from earlier works). And the significance of placenames is a major sub-theme of the last third of the book. All quite fascinating, and yet again I feel will reward re-reading in due course.
9) Doctor Who and the Loch Ness Monster, by Terrance Dicks
Much of my Doctor Who reading this month has been a displacement activity from Proust (but more on that in my next post). This is one of the good Terrance Dicks novelisations, of the 1975 TV story Terror of the Zygons, the second Season 12 Fourth Doctor story to be written up (after Doctor Who and the Giant Robot), and one of the good early Dicks efforts: decent efforts at background characterisation given for Sarah, Harry and the Brigadier, and much entertaining back-chat between the Doctor and both his allies and his enemies. Obviously I got it as an exercise in nostalgia after reading Sting of the Zygons, at a cost of UK£3.95; worth every penny, I tell you.
I had originally planned to do an overall piece on the first two Doctor Whos, William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton, shortly after I finished getting through all their stories in the summer. But that was a point when energy levels were generally a bit low, and anyway it actually makes more sense to consider them together with Jon Pertwee. Tom Baker’s is the first Doctor I can remember watching consistently first time round, so my experience of all of the earlier three was formed first by the Target novelisations, then by Doctor Who magazine (and the Making of Doctor Who and the Jean-Marc Lofficier volumes), then by occasional viewing of surviving series, and only very lately, in the last year or so, by going through them systematically. And in fact the first three made similar numbers of stories (29, 21, 24) and episodes (134, 119, 128), all well behind T Baker but unmatched by any other subsequent Doctor (Davison ties with Troughton for number of stories but is way behind on episodes), so we are comparing like with like to a greater extent than is possible with any other grouping of three Doctors.
Hartnell, for me, has been the real discovery in this process. He is alien, in a way that only Tom Baker and Christopher Ecclestone have managed to convey since. He is a cosmic wizard in a way that only McCoy and Tennant have approached. He is distant, yet humorous. He is outraged by his enemies. To sum him up as a “grumpy old man” is just so unfair. And Hartnell dominates the camera, positions himself beautifully every time (Peter Purves remembered getting useful tips from him about it), simply cannot be ignored as the star of the show. Shame about the occasional fluffs, but standards were different in those days. Hartnell is the one Doctor who I don’t think has been adequately represented on the printed page; his performance is so visual.
And Doctor Who, in his day, was so very varied. I think each of the first three seasons on its own has more variety of settings and tone than any three seasons since combined. (Bar, just possibly, the most recent three.) It’s not just the alternation between sf and historical stories; look at Season Three, which is my favourite, and you have a) two companions dying horribly and b) a musical comedy, as well as a story in which the Doctor is invisible and another in which he and his companions are not seen at all.
High points: en bloc, Season Three which includes The Daleks’ Master Plan and The Massacre as well as The Gunfighters, a quite different kind of experience. Otherwise the original Daleks story, The Crusade and The Tenth Planet. There are a couple of stories which have brilliant individual episodes which the rest of the story does not match – the last two of The Keys of Marinus, for example, or the first of The Space Museum.
Low points: Two particularly cheesy sf efforts are The Sensorites and The Web Planet.
Companions: The best is Sara Kingdom, who never actually travels in the Tardis, followed by Ian and Barbara, followed by Stephen. I have a peculiar fascination with Dodo Chaplet, but cannot bring myself to argue that she was much good.
While I was immediately intrigued and engaged by Hartnell’s Doctor, Troughton took a while to grow on me, but I came to appreciate him in the end. He’s much more human and humane, much less mysterious, though one picks up odd hints about his home world here and there. There is a warmth towards his companions that is unmatched by any other Doctor (except the Four/Romana II relationship). It’s here that the show takes on the shape it has had pretty much ever since, apart from the Pertwee years, of mainly travelling to future Earth or earth-like planets, with only two and a half stories out of 21 set in the past (compared to over a third of the Hartnell’s stories), and a large number of bases under siege by inhuman monsters.
I started with the CDs of missing Second Doctor stories, and only gradually moved to the videos and DVDs of the survivors, so one thing that struck me was quite how posh his accent actually is – you tend to miss this because of the eccentric clothing, which makes him seem scruffy, but just listen to the vowels; would perhaps have been considered standard Received Pronunciation (or BBC English) in the middle of last century, but I’m sure he’s closer to it than any of the others. Since this was indeed a fairly standard accent, it’s sometimes difficult to pick Troughton’s voice out on the audios; but once you see him, there is no doubt – his face and mannerisms are magnetically attractive, and everyone else responds to him in the scene.
High points: I’m a Season Six rather than Season Five fan. It’s partly because of the company he is keeping, partly also that there are several amazing stories in it: The Mind Robber, The Invasion, and The War Games which established the Doctor’s true nature for the first time (and is Neil Gaiman’s favourite story). Of the earlier stories, I am one of the few who prefers The Power of the Daleks to Evil of the Daleks – I’ve been re-listening to them over the last few days, to reconfirm my prejudice – and the stories from Season Five that I rate are Tomb of the Cybermen and The Web of Fear.
Low points: The Underwater Menace; The Faceless Ones; Fury from the Deep; The Dominators; The Space Pirates.
Companions: Zoe, Zoe and Zoe. Apparently there is a bloke in most of the stories as well, and apparently there is another companion in the middle of the run who screams a lot, but there is only one real Troughton companion as far as I am concerned.
Pertwee has been the loser in my estimation in this process of engagement with classic Who. He comes over as condescending and patronising; his snarling at the Brigadier and Jo in particular often seems to lack any real affection or humour. The Venusian aikido is particularly irritating (there must be a potential Pertwee drinking game where any shout of “Hai!” means you have to down your beverage in one).
Far too many of his stories are interchangeable, and grievously over-padded (oddly the average length of a Troughton story is longer, but doesn’t feel it). The earth-bound setting (for two thirds of the 24 stories) deadens the sense of variety which characterised the Hartnell era and was not wholly muted for Troughton. All the future stories are set in a Star Trek-ish environment, which would have been great as part of a grand narrative plan but doesn’t really hang together. Several of them are rather heavy-handed political parables.
High points: Having said all that, there are some. The first season is, for my money, the best, with Spearhead from Space a great introduction and Inferno a great conclusion, with not too much padding out of the good bits of the two intervening stories. There is a peculiar feeling that the show could have gone a completely different direction if the pattern of Season Seven had been followed, to end up being like The Avengers but with a non-human lead and more armed men that he could call on if necessary. Of the rest, I enjoyed most The Curse of Peladon, The Sea Devils, Carnival of Monsters and The Green Death.
Low points: Far too many. Worst is probably The Mutants, but Colony in Space and The Three Doctors are pretty dire too.
Regulars: Liz Shaw is great, and it is a real shame that she was dropped; they could easily have kept her as brainy woman and brought in a thick bloke to whom the plot would need to be explained. The Master is a stroke of genius, and helps excuse the Doctor’s brusqueness; in a sense, the Master is his Jungian ‘shadow’. The Brigadier, however, gets steadily sillier as the stories progress, and Benton and Yates are good only when they actually have something to do. Sarah’s first season is not her best, and apparently there is another one in the middle of the run who screams a lot.
I think it will be a while before I do another post like this!
Well, that’s it; I have now completed the Jon Pertwee era, as I did the Hartnell era in June and the Troughton era in July. (It will take me a bit longer to get through T Baker and Davison, though I’ve already seen half of McCoy and almost half of C Baker.) I promised a long post on the first two, but now might do a longer one on the first three. Before I get there, though, the last two Third Doctor stories on my list.
I think he is a little harsh on the 1972 TV version. It is indeed nothing like as good as the book; I watched it for the first time ten or fifteen years ago and thought it was really rubbish, but this time round I could see the good points, in particular the excellent performance of Aubrey Wood as the controller, and forgive the basic cheapness of the sets. The looming threat of global war between the superpowers is a piece of context that has now been utterly changed, in today’s unipolar world where threats come from the disaffected. The guerillas too are very seventies. But as political stories of the Letts era go, it is much less strident in its messages than say The Mutants or The Monster of Peladon.
Also, surely this is the first ever flashback showing pictures of the earlier Doctors? (Apart from the brief glimpse of Hartnell at the start of The Power of the Daleks.)
I was trying to think of the times when the Doctor is seen drinking alcohol; he has a jolly good go at the Styles wine cellar here, and the Second Doctor did similarly well out of the Waterfields in Evil of the Daleks, and of course the First Doctor toasts us all in champagne during The Daleks’ Master Plan. I can’t remember the Fourth Doctor going for it though.
The Mind of Evil, first broadcast almost exactly a year earlier in 1971, was completely fresh for me; I don’t think I had even read the book. It is also almost entirely in black and white, so there’s a funny kind of retro-feel to it. Here too we have a world peace conference, a rather more credible one than the one organised by Styles, and we have some really memorable Delgado!Master moments: his aggression towards Captain Chin Lee is very sexual, and his phone calls to the Doctor (of course referenced in The Sound of Drums) hint at the depth of the relationship. Again we have flashbacks to earlier monsters, with even War Machines making an appearance. The prison scenes are memorably nasty, and the gun battles suitably vicious and body-strewn. The plot doesn’t quite hang together (so, what happened with the peace conference in the end? and the nerve gas on the missile?) but Jo was not as bad as usual, beating the Doctor hands down at draughts, and even Benton and Yates as well as the Brigadier seem to get plenty to do. Weirdly, Pertwee’s Doctor seems to be at his worst, condescending and making silly mistakes, and the mind parasite seems introduced a bit rapidly at the end. But it teeters on the edge of greatness.
So there we have it; all 24 of the Third Doctor stories now watched. The Green Death was actually the first Doctor Who story I reviewed here; I started on a relatively high note, and did not finish too badly, considering I had tended to watch the good ones first. A reminder for those of you who care that I have archived all my TV reviews here, and all my other DW reviews here.
The last working day of the calendar year today, and I decided to go to the office in weekend clothes as nobody else is around. Normally I wear suit and tie on the basis that I might just be asked to go on television and thus ought to be prepared, but today I reckoned I could chance it.
So guess what happened? Yep, I was asked to do a live broadcast this evening on a French news channel. (France 24, but it was an English-language programme.)
On a day when I wasn’t hoping to clear my desk for the holidays, and more importantly when the temperature was above freezing, I might have gone home to change clothes and come back in again, though the journey is a good hour each way by public transport. But that was out of the question; likewise Anne was busy and I was not going to ask her to drop by with my suit. I racked my brains; most of my friends who I could ask that kind of favour of had already left Brussels for Christmas.
My brother-in-law. God bless , who happens to live in Brussels barely a kilometre from my office. He is roughly my size – a bit taller, a bit thinner. He kindly came around in the afternoon with a suit and a selection of ties (and his fiancée). I had deliberately worn a shirt today that doesn’t go with any of my own ties, because I didn’t think I would have to wear one. Fortunately we identified one of his that went with my shirt without potentially endangering the TV cameras.
(Perhaps some of you are wondering why the suit is such a big deal. The fact is that a TV interview like this is a performance, and to perform well you have to be wearing the right costume. It helps me to get my mind focussed into public debate mode; it probably helps others to slot me comfortably into the role the situation demands. If I had not been able to get hold of a suit, I would not have done the TV show; I would be too unnerved by my own pullover, comfortable though it is. Gore Vidal famously said that one should never miss an opportunity to have sex or appear on television; I try and take a more relaxed attitude, at least as regards television.)
So I shuffled into the borrowed clothes at the end of the day. Oof, the trousers! Did I say earlier that my brother-in-law is just a little thinner than me? I knew nothing about the studio set-up, and imagined myself sitting very very still on some soft cushiony sofa, minimising both the compression of my viscera and the chance of bursting through the waistline. But fortunately once I arrived I found I was to be filmed seated behind a table. I removed my brother-in-law’s trousers (and that’s not a phrase I use very often) and shuffled back into my comfy green jeans. Behind the camera, of course, but in full view of the amused studio crew in the next room.
Then it was time. Sitting in the otherwise empty studio trying to address the camera as if it were a person. Trying to ignore the only visible human presence, my own image projected onto a screen high above the camera; when I look at it, I see myself appearing to cast my gaze despairingly into the heavens. I beg a glass of water from the floor manager; he puts it on a chair, out of shot, rather than on the table.
It’s a peculiar programme, with the presenter and one panellist in their Paris studio and me and two others being beamed in from afar. The guy in Paris is taking one side; I am on the other. Then they switch to someone in Berlin on my side, and then to an opposing view somewhere else in Brussels. The programme is in two twenty-minute segments; each of us gets roughly two goes of two minutes each. I think my ally and I make more sense than the other two, but I suppose that is natural. My earpiece gets dislodged in the middle of the second half, but I manage to reinstall it without losing too much of the debate. (I’ve heard it all before anyway.)
And then, it’s all over; the broadcasters spring for my taxi home, and it’s the start of the Christmas holidays. Whew!
(And I will give my brother-in-law his clothes back sometime.)
Edited to add: The programme appears to be on-line here, for now anyway.
A business colleague asked me yesterday what I thought of Windows Vista. I said I hadn’t tried it myself, but that anecdotal accounts from the blogosphere were very negative indeed, particularly about the way it freezes up terminally if it suspects that your software might have been obtained in some irregular manner. He then told me of his problems with it, including lost data and generally poor performance.
Given how lousy it appears to be, why are we not seeing an aggressive advertising campaign from the producers of other operating systems to get people to switch?
I was goaded into reading this by a) Dale Smith’s essay in the David Butler book stating that it was the best of all the Target novelisations and b) my own discovery that the author had done me the honour of putting my name on “the list” on his own website, presumably a reaction to my disparaging remarks about his scripts for this Doctor Who series and the later Battlefield.
Well. It’s not the best Target novelisation – realistically, that honour might go to one of Terrance Dicks’ early efforts, before he got into the habit of just doing it by the numbers, or to one of the David Fisher or Donald Cotton books, or possibly Ian Marter’s novelisation of The Rescue – but it’s not at all bad. The flaws, to get them out of the way first, are too much use of commas where semi-colons or even full stops would have done, and a confusion about the spelling of “Alsatian”. But where I felt the TV version of Remembrance of the Daleks failed – in its unconvincing attempt to portray England of 1963 – Aaronovitch is able to push his vision rather better on the printed page. He also is able to show much more of the back story of the Time Lords, the Daleks, and perhaps especially the contemporary human characters, so that the whole thing hangs together much better.
It still doesn’t quite work for me (so I suspect this review will not be sufficient to remove me from Aaronovitch’s “list”) but it all makes a lot more sense now.