June Books 49) New Tales of Time and Space

49) New Tales of Time and Space, edited by Raymond J. Healy

I got this by mistake – thought I was ordering the famous 1946 anthology edited by Healy and J. Francis McComas, but in fact it is a 1951 followup edited by Healy alone. For all that, I was not too disappointed, at least given my expectations of an original sf anthology of the period; there are average quality stories by Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, AE van Vogt and a half dozen others who I haven’t heard of, and the first publication of Anthony Boucher’s classic “The Quest for Saint Aquin”. Apart from that, the other one that really grabbed me was “Bettyann”, by someone called Kris Neville whose work I don’t think I otherwise know. It is the longest story in the book, about a Mid-American teenage girl who is forced to confront her own always half-suspected nature as an alien changeling; excellent, I thought. Is Neville’s other stuff worth pursuing?

Posted in Uncategorised

June Books 48) The Lost and Left Behind

48) The Lost and Left Behind: Stories from the Age of Extinctions, by Terry Glavin

This is a polemical book about diversity – both biodiversity, in terms of species (and even different breeds of cultivated crops and animals), and ethnic diversity, in terms of languages spoken. Glavin argues passionately that we are losing vast amounts of what makes the world special, and points out that the disappearance of human languages is closely linked geographically to the extinction of species. It is a dramatic story, and some chapters – particularly the one describing the Russian Far East – are simply appalling in their description of what we are doing to our world.

Despite the awfulness of the overall story, Glavin tries to be optimistic, and I too would like to be optimistic, but unfortunately I found his optimistic passages far less convincing than his pessimistic passages. (I also didn’t quite manage to summon up enthusiasm to match his for the whalers of the Lofoten Islands or the Angh of Longwa.) I would have appreciated some more practical ideas for what can be done at an individual or political level to ameliorate matters – Glavin debunks romantic environmentalism, quite possibly with good reason, but without offering much in its place. Still, I guess the purpose of such a book is to raise consciousness, and mine is duly raised.

Posted in Uncategorised

Four Sixth Doctor stories

Well, much to be said about yesterday’s episode – though I won’t say it here, except that I agree with those who believe that surely we will be getting a cop-out of some kind at the start of next week’s 65-minute climax, no doubt involving the hand.

Instead I’m writing up the four Sixth Doctor stories from Season 22 I watched on the laptop yesterday, lying in bed. Two of these are rather meh, the other two awful.

I’ve said before that very few Cybermen stories actually make sense. Attack of the Cybermen is not one of the exceptions. The whole idea of basing a story around the continuity of an earlier story is not intrinsically bad, but once we have reached the real 1986, it is better to just imagine that The Tenth Planet never happened, rather than try and protect it. Even in 1986, we knew enough about Tomb of the Cybermen that the differences between its sets and the “Tomb” sets here killed any visual connection. The Telos scenes as a whole make very little sense – Why human slaves? Why allow escapees to wander round? How did the Cryons evolve on a planet which is clearly warmer than freezing? Above all why haven’t the Cybermen worked out that it might be a bad idea to lock their prisoners in a room full of explosives? Colin Baker is particularly annoying here, but he is far from the worst thing about it. I felt a little sorry for the ice-maiden Cryons, but was left confused by their means and motivation.

I remember catching the first scenes of Vengeance on Varos first time round, where Jason Connery’s Jondar is unpleasantly tortured as an audience looks on, and then the Tardis breaks down and the Doctor decides it can’t be fixed. At that point I gave up and went away to do something else. Well, I misjudged it slightly. The torture scenes are unnecessarily unpleasant, and Colin Baker’s portrayal as annoying as before, but the rest of the story is not bad, Martin Jarvis and Nabil Shaban being especially good. Having said which, the scene with Peri turning into a bird is a bit crap.

Mark of the Rani is just rather dull. The Rani comes across as a more interesting character than in her other TV appearance; the Master’s presence appears pretty pointless; the scenery and setting are nice; the rest of it just isn’t very interesting. (We tactfully pass over the infamous tree shot.)

Timelash comes very close to The Twin Dilemma as being the worst Who story ever. Paul Darrow is just awful. Really awful. The glove-puppet aliens are just awful. Really awful. The pointless continuity with an unbroadcast Third Doctor story is just pointless. The inclusion of HG Wells is just stupid. The climbing wall scene is especially unconvincing. And what happens to all the people exiled to the twelfth century? Are they just left there? The only saving grace is that Colin Baker’s Doctor is a little less annoying here than elsewhere. But that is not saying much.

In summary, it is amazing that the 1986 cancellation was not permanent and that we got another four seasons of Old Who after this.

Posted in Uncategorised

June Books 46) Longitude 47) Fatal Attraction

46) Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time, by Dava Sobel
47) Fatal Attraction: Magnetic Mysteries of the Enlightenment, by Patricia Fara

Back to my former intellectual stamping ground, the history of science. Both of these books are for a popular rather than academic audience; Fara’s perhaps more didactic (she is a historian of science), Sobel’s more for entertainment (she is a journalist).

Sobel’s book is the more old-fashioned. It is a simple biography of John Harrison and his efforts to build a practical chronometer for the purpose of calculating longitude. We get a great deal about the bureaucratic politics which Harrison had to deal with, at one point invoking King George III directly on his own behalf. It is an interesting enough tale, told well; Sobel succeeds in making the 18th century personalities appear just like us.

Having said that, I was not completely satisfied. Sobel’s heroic portrait of Harrison makes little reference to religion and almost none to the wider impact of the longitude question on politics and vice versa; it is ‘Whiggish’ in that the “solution of the greatest scientific problem of his time” is presented as both desirable and ultimately inevitable. It is entertaining enough but not especially profound.

I got my historical training in the same place that Fara teaches (she is now the senior tutor of the Cambridge college I attended, and lectures in the department where I got my M Phil). Fara explores the eighteenth century not as a time like ours but as an alien culture which needs to be explained and unpacked, and does this through three key characters in the history of the understanding of magnetism: Edmund Halley (who also plays an important role in the earlier chapters of Sobel’s book), Gowin Knight (who ended up truculently running the British Museum) and Franz Mesmer (as in mesmerism).

I found this much more satisfying, though would have welcomed even more speculation on what Mesmer was Really Up To. Her section on Knight and his ascent to success on the basis of beautifully designed but functionally useless nautical compasses contains far more about the politics of longitude – both the internal British tension between gentlemen and practitioners, and the colonial purpose of the endeavour – than does Sobel’s book. The book does feel somewhat incomplete, but it is apparently purposely designed as one of a set of four – matching a similar volume also by Fara on electricity in the eighteenth century, and also books by Stephen Pumfrey on the seventeenth century and Iwan Morus on the nineteenth. Must look out for those.

Posted in Uncategorised

June Books 45) Masters of the Fist

45) Masters of the Fist, by Edward P Hughes

A rather dismal Baen collection of short stories about a village in post-Holocaust Ireland where the head honcho is the only fertile man left in the world, and has to grapple with the awful responsibilities of impregnating the local women. Oirish and sexist clichés abound. Amusingly, the head honcho’s unofficial partner’s name is Celia Larkin (and these stories were written in the 1980s, so I suppose it is coincidence).

Posted in Uncategorised

June Books 39-44) The Season 19 novelisations, plus a Missing Adventure

Two good ones among this lot, and one total dud.

39) Doctor Who – Castrovalva, by Christopher H Bidmead

This is rather good: Bidmead has a convincing intensity as he takes us through the narrative, and while it would be going too far to say that it all makes sense, it does at least hang together: there is a feeling that this is the beginning of a new era. The story is very much about the Doctor’s regeneration, and somehow this comes over better on the printed page. An impressive start for the Fifth Doctor novelisations.

40) Cold Fusion, by Lance Parkin

Just to divert for a bit into the Virgin Missing Adventures, here we have a novel mainly about Five, Adric, Tegan and Nyssa, but also involving Seven and (rather more so) his companions from the Virgin New Adventures, Chris Cwej and Roz Forrester. There are some very nice character moments, especially for the Doctors and the female companions, but the plot was not particularly special, and I don’t think a tetrahedron of the size specified in those planetary conditions is very likely. There are some nice nods to continuity as well, as you would expect.

(And apparently, “Ανδ Ι τυρνεδ αρουνδ ανδ τηεψ ωερε αλλ ωεαρινγ εψε&#960ατχηεσ” is a Gallifreyan greeting of some kind, and definitely not a well known Nicholas Courtney anecdote in a funny font.)

Oddly enough I also just listened to The Veiled Leopard, which rather more successfully unites Fifth and Seventh Doctor companions (Peri and Erimem, Ace and Hex) but I’ll leave that to my imminent giant audio catchup post.

41) Doctor Who – Four to Doomsday, by Terrance Dicks

A standard write-up from Dicks, losing the fairly impressive visuals of the original and thus exposing the weaknesses of the plot more visibly.

42) Doctor Who – Kinda, by Terrance Dicks

Another standard write-up, not doing any favours to a story whose impact was visual and implicit.

43) Doctor Who – Black Orchid, by Terence Dudley

Two-part stories give a lot of space to add more to the narrative when it comes time to write the novelisation, and this has been done well (Ian Marter) and badly (Nigel Robinson). This is definitely more at the Marter end of the spectrum. Dudley adds much detail about the cricket match (as incomprehensible to me as to Adric and Nyssa) and roots the story in the class structure of the Britain of the period, the Dowager Marchioness coming across as a particularly memorable personality. He even succeeds in giving Adric a couple of memorable character moments.

It’s a good book – my favourite Fifth Doctor novel so far – but let down by lousy proofing: repeated references to “Portugese” and “Venezuala” (and by the way, the first is not actually spoken much in the second); also we have someone dressed as “Marie Antionette”. A shame that Target couldn’t take more care.

The next in sequence, Doctor Who – Earthshock, is one of the Ian Marter novels – indeed, the last of them in broadcast order – which leads us then to:

44) Doctor Who – Time Flight, by Peter Grimwade

A terrible adaptation of a bad story. Wood and Miles rightly mock one of the particularly bad lines in About Time 5, but actually get it wrong; the full quote in all its glory is “‘Eevanaraagh’ cried out Kalid, as the Plasmatron cumulation entered his chamber.” Truly dreadful and over-written.

I’ve been in the habit of writing up each companion as they leave the sequence of novels. Adric really makes very little impression. His tendency towards siding with the baddies is almost his only interesting characteristic. Terence Dudley does make him rather more filled out in Doctor Who – Black Orchid but that is about the high point of his printed career. (And of course the Seventh Doctor and companions acknowledge his coming fate in Cold Fusion but apart from that he doesn’t get much to do.)

Edited to add: I see I forgot to include Eric Saward’s Doctor Who and the Visitation in this batch. Nt rushing to it, I must admit.

Posted in Uncategorised

Enlightenment and Frontios

These were the last two Fifth Doctor gaps in my list. Frontios is not too bad; Enlightenment sheer genius.

I don’t think I had seen a single minute of this story before, and boy had I missed out. It is simply superb, the best story of the Davison era. Perhaps my appreciation was enhanced by watching it immediately after my operation this morning and needing to be cheered up, but I loved every moment: the creepiness of Striker’s crew, the glorious Lynda Baron as Captain Wrack, the Marriner/Tegan flirtation, the conclusion of the Turlough / Black Guardian storyline, the choice of Enlightenment itself at the end. Granted, the premise of the story is very silly indeed, but I felt that everyone involved carried it off very well. I even felt that Leee John’s performance was peculiar rather than poor. Perhaps that says something about my state of mind this morning.

Frontios is fairly standard stuff; I think destroying the Tardis at the end of the first episode is a bit of a mistake because we know that they must get it back in the end; the Doctor’s concern that the Time Lords might spot him interfering seems a bit belated; as usual for this era, the Tardis gets used as an interplanetary taxi; while the speaking parts among the guest cast are generally good, the direction of the crowd scenes is pretty lousy; the blokes dressed up in rubber monster suits look like blokes dressed in rubber monster suits (as in most Davison stories); but there is a decent sf story in there, and if you consider it against some of the competition it isn’t so bad.

In summary, a decent conclusion to my Fifth Doctor viewing. I will reserve my overall judgement of the Davison era until I have got through the novelisations.

Posted in Uncategorised

June Books 38) Abarat

38) Abarat, by Clive Barker

A YA novel about a teenager from a boring American town who is sucked into a fantasy parallel world which she must save. I enjoyed a couple of Barker’s fantasy novels for adults many years ago; wasn’t really so grabbed by this one, kindly lent to me by . The illustrations, which I guess are Barker’s own from the lack of any separate credit, are a bit jarring as well.

Posted in Uncategorised

Punctured at both ends

I broke a tooth on an olive stone on Wednesday night. It had been twinging for a couple of weeks, and no doubt would have gone sooner or later, but it was annoying none the less. Found a dentist round the corner from the office yesterday, and got them to have a look at it. They shook their heads sadly and said it was basically unsalvageable and will need a full crown, as its counterpart on the other side had two years ago. They also said I would need my remaining two wisdom teeth whipped out in due course, which again came as little surprise but was not particularly good news. They ground the fragmented tooth back to the point where I can at least eat without pain, and I go back next week to get the full job done.

And first thing this morning I went into Leuven hospital for the snip. I made this particular decision as soon as we realised that U had a serious disability, like her older sister; there’s obviously something genetic going on, and it therefore seems sensible to call a halt to my begetting. But it took me quite a long time to move from taking the decision in principle to acting on it – it is the most major surgery I have ever had (indeed, barring dental work and an ingrowing toenail, the only surgery I’ve ever had), and one doesn’t really rush to have one’s delicate parts messed around with, especially if there is no pressing medical reason for it. Anyway, three years on, I finally made the arrangements for this week; the hospital, a Catholic institution, amusingly asked for Anne’s signature as well as mine on the consent form. The procedure itself is not especially pleasant, but fairly brief, and I have been lying in bed rather uncomfortably all day, watching old Doctor Who series on the laptop. So, that’s a sore end to the week. But it will get me out of too much heavy lifting when I move offices on Monday.

Posted in Uncategorised

Mostly literature with some politics, Doctor Who and autobiography

To start with the politics: makes me very glad that I am not an activist in the UK with her reportage of the last three weeks of Question Time.

To go on to the literature: Several people with good taste have been linking to this Alison Bechdel strip today. It’s good. read it.

Also a lot of people have been doing the literary meme with this list, subject to the usual conditions of:
1) Look at the list and bold those you have read.
2) Italicize those you intend to read.
3) Underline the books you LOVE.
4) Strike out the books you have no intention of ever reading, or were forced to read at school and hated.
5) Reprint this list in your own LJ so we can try and track down these people who’ve read 6 and force books upon them 😉

It’s a bit odd because there are some repetitions (Shakespeare and Lewis) but anyway here you go:

1 Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
2 The Lord of the Rings – JRR Tolkien
3 Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte
4 The Harry Potter Series – JK Rowling
5 To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
6 The Bible
(large parts of)
7 Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte
8 Nineteen Eighty Four – George Orwell
9 His Dark Materials – Philip Pullman
10 Great Expectations – Charles Dickens
11 Little Women – Louisa M Alcott

12 Tess of the D’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy
13 Catch 22 – Joseph Heller
14 Complete Works of Shakespeare
(large parts of)
15 Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier
16 The Hobbit – JRR Tolkien

17 Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks
18 Catcher in the Rye – JD Salinger
19 The Time Traveller’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger
20 Middlemarch – George Eliot

21 Gone With The Wind – Margaret Mitchell
22 The Great Gatsby – F Scott Fitzgerald
23 Bleak House – Charles Dickens
24 War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy
25 The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams
26 Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh
27 Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
28 Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck
29 Alice in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll
30 The Wind in the Willows – Kenneth Grahame

31 Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy
32 David Copperfield – Charles Dickens
33 Chronicles of Narnia – CS Lewis
34 Emma – Jane Austen
35 Persuasion – Jane Austen
36 The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe – CS Lewis
37 The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini
38 Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis De Bernieres

39 Memoirs of a Geisha – Arthur Golden
40 Winnie the Pooh – AA Milne
41 Animal Farm – George Orwell
42 The Da Vinci Code – Dan Brown
43 One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

44 A Prayer for Owen Meaney – John Irving
45 The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins
46 Anne of Green Gables – LM Montgomery
47 Far From The Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy
48 The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
49 Lord of the Flies – William Golding
50 Atonement – Ian McEwan

51 Life of Pi – Yann Martel
52 Dune – Frank Herbert
53 Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons

54 Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen
55 A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth
56 The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafon
57 A Tale Of Two Cities – Charles Dickens
58 Brave New World – Aldous Huxley

59 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time – Mark Haddon

60 Love In The Time Of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
61 Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck
62 Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov
63 The Secret History – Donna Tartt
64 The Lovely Bones – Alice Sebold
65 Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas

66 On The Road – Jack Kerouac
67 Jude the Obscure – Thomas Hardy
68 Bridget Jones’s Diary – Helen Fielding
69 Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie
70 Moby Dick – Herman Melville
71 Oliver Twist – Charles Dickens
72 Dracula – Bram Stoker

73 The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett
74 Notes From A Small Island – Bill Bryson
75 Ulysses – James Joyce

76 The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath
77 Swallows and Amazons – Arthur Ransome
78 Germinal – Emile Zola
79 Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray
80 Possession – AS Byatt
81 A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens
82 Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell
83 The Color Purple – Alice Walker
84 The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro
85 Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert

86 A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry
87 Charlotte’s Web – EB White
88 The Five People You Meet In Heaven – Mitch Albom
89 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
90 The Faraway Tree Collection – Enid Blyton
91 Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad
92 The Little Prince – Antoine De Saint-Exupery
93 The Wasp Factory – Iain Banks
94 Watership Down – Richard Adams
95 A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole

96 A Town Like Alice – Nevil Shute
97 The Three Musketeers – Alexandre Dumas
98 Hamlet – William Shakespeare
99 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Roald Dahl
100 Les Miserables – Victor Hugo

The Doctor Who meme: When you see this post, quote from Doctor Who on your LJ. (If you like.)
Hepesh: I would rather be a cave-dweller and free!
The Doctor: Free!?! With your people imprisoned by ritual and superstition?

Autobiography meme: Post 3 things you’ve done in your lifetime that you don’t think anybody else on your friends list has done. I did a version of this before, but here goes:

  • Been a candidate in an election for public office in Northern Ireland.
  • Spent a night in a circus.
  • Explored a Macedonian battlefield.
Posted in Uncategorised

June Books 35) Doctor Who and the Keeper of Traken, 36) Doctor Who – Logopolis; and Tom Baker’s era

It is the end: but the moment has been prepared for.

35) Doctor Who and the Keeper of Traken, by Terrance Dicks

A pretty standard effort from Dicks, closing out his contribution to the Fourth Doctor era with an account of what was visible on the screen.

36) Doctor Who – Logopolis, by Christopher H Bidmead

Bidmead’s write-up of his own story is reassuringly dynamic and exciting, if just a little over-written in places. In particular, Logopolis itself feels more like a real place, and the minor characters more like real people; the whole thing makes slightly better sense than what we saw on screen.

And that takes me to the end of the Fourth Doctor era. Tom Baker was very much my Doctor, and I still rate him ahead of any of the others. It is not just his longevity in the part; he brings a certain integrity in his alien compassion to it which I think only Hartnell and Ecclestone approach. I was surprised by how much Hartnell went up and Pertwee went down in my estimation after watching/listening to their stories; I have been relieved that my positive opinion of Baker (T) remains unchanged.

This was roughly the point when Who settled into the format it has resumed since 2005, of the protagonist and his one female companion, few other recurring characters (a format that had been tried out in the later Pertwee seasons but with a large ensemble in the background). Baker’s Doctor is simply strange, and after Sarah leaves so are his companions (with perhaps Tegan as the sole exception). This is no longer a programme about people like us, it is a programme about an eternal but very odd hero helping people like us.

It helps that so many of these stories are exceptionally good. My top twelve, in broadcast order, are Robot, The Ark in Space, Genesis of the Daleks, Terror of the Zygons, The Pyramids of Mars, The Brain of Morbius, The Seeds of Doom, The Deadly Assassin, The Robots of Death, The Talons of Weng-Chiang, Horror of Fang Rock and City of Death. Most of those would appear in any fan’s top twelve for the whole of Old Who. They are not evenly distributed: ten of those twelve belong to the great days of the Hinchcliffe / Holmes era. Having said that, there are another dozen which were better than I had expected, which balance out the timeline a bit: Revenge of the Cybermen, The Android Invasion, The Hand of Fear, Image of the Fendahl, The Sunmakers, The Invasion of Time, The Stones of Blood, The Armageddon Factor, The Creature from the Pit, The Leisure Hive, Warrior’s Gate and Logopolis. There is of course the occasional misfire, but even the worst story – Underworld – is better than other Doctors’ nadirs (The Sensorites, The Underwater Menace, The Mutants, Time Flight, The Twin Dilemma, Battlefield).

The Fourth Doctor novelisations don’t map their broadcast originals as closely in terms of quality as one might have expected. Of the great Hinchcliffe era stories adapted by Terrance Dicks, only Doctor Who and the Genesis of the Daleks and Doctor Who and the Loch Ness Monster really have it. Yet he sometimes produces good stuff from unpromising material – for instance Doctor Who and the Power of Kroll and Doctor Who and the Nightmare of Eden. Dicks’ version of the Fourth Doctor, like his adaptation of the Third, is more of a cheeky chappie than we saw on screen. Despite his own fascination with classic horror tropes, Dicks is more comfortable with humour than darkness. I believe he is being interviewed at the BSFA in London this evening – look forward to hearing about it.

Of the non-Dicks novels (12 out of 41) there are several very impressive efforts – Ian Marter’s first two, Doctor Who and the Ark in Space and Doctor Who and the Sontaran ExperimentDoctor Who and the Creature from the Pit and Doctor Who and the Leisure HiveDoctor Who and Warrior’s Gate. As noted above, Bidmead’s Doctor Who – Logopolis has its moments as well.

For completeness, I should note that I have enjoyed almost all the Fourth Doctor spinoff novels that I have read, but been much less impressed by the audios – Doctor Who and the Pescatons, Exploration Earth and the two recent Companion Chronicles with Romana and Leela. However, one of the best spinoff audios I have heard is Daragh Carville’s play Regenerations, which brings Tom Baker to a Doctor Who convention in Belfast. Superb.

(Previous summary posts: the first three Doctors on screenFirst Doctor novelisations summarySecond Doctor novelisations summaryThird Doctor novelisations summary.)

Posted in Uncategorised

It’s not easy being green – Four Fifth Doctor stories

Four Fifth Doctor stories of, er, variable quality with one remarkable point in common: the villains are green. (Though in one case for only half the story.)

Fandom is generally rather forgiving of Four to Doomsday, but it didn’t grab me. Adric is at his most annoying, seduced by the Urbankans’ insane plan and pathetically scrapping with Tegan. Davison is uneven, this being the first story he filmed. The villainous amphibian Monarch is far too static – and why does he not supervise his staff properly? I suppose if we have to sit through numerous set-pieces I prefer ethnic dancing to gun battles, but I would prefer, you know, plot. I must admit I did cheer again at the cricket ball in space scene.

This was the first story since Underworld, broadcast four years before, where the Doctor is the only Gallifreyan character. (We’ve had The Invasion of Time, followed by Romana for most of the next three seasons and then three stories with the Master.)

I found myself again at odds with fan consensus in that I rather liked The Visitation. The opening scene of the Terileptils wiping out the local gentry is a gripping start, and Michael Robbins is very watchable as actor / highwayman Richard Mace. The whole thing looks confidently 17th-century and conveys its setting far better than most stories of this era. So what if the villagers blend into the scenery? That is what they are there for. The weakness is actually the overpopulated Tardis crew, who start the story bickering pointlessly about last week’s episode.

I commented after watching The King’s Demons that it was the worst Fifth Doctor story yet. Well, Time Flight is awful. Not quite as bad as The Twin Dilemma but it comes close. How can I count the ways? The woeful special effects – especially the utterly pathetic use of Concorde. The appalling direction – it is always a danger sign when the actors stand around delivering their lines with their hands hanging limply by their sides. (The only exceptions, oddly enough, are the spectral Xeraphins, but this is spoiled by the obvious zips in their body suits.) And the utterly peculiar disguise that the Master adopts has no narrative or aesthetic justification. Dire.

There is lots to hate about Warriors of the Deep: to start with, the Myrka, which is, honestly, not the worst monster of Doctor Who – compare the Fungoids of The Chase – but is certainly among the bottom five. The Silurians are almost passable, but the Sea Devils just look like stuntmen wearing funny hats. Yet, like The Sensorites, I felt that there was a good sf story here trying to get out; and the cast play it more convincingly than in, say, Time Flight. It is still pretty poor though.

So, in summary, The Visitation is not too embarrassing; the other three, however, are – with a particular demerit for Time Flight, the worst story since The Mutants.

Posted in Uncategorised

2008 Films 2) The 7th Dawn

2) The 7th Dawn

Yes, I have watched my second film this year – and June isn’t even over yet!

This is a 1964 film starring William Holden, Capucine, the Japanese actor Tetsuro Tamba and a young Susannah York, directed by Lewis Gilbert (whose next two films were Alfie and You Only Live Twice). It is set during the Malayan insurgency of the early 1950s, with Tamba playing the insurgent leader, Holden the maverick American, Capucine the woman who has (by implication) been the lover of both, and York as the daughter of the newly arrived British governor. Given that somewhat clichéd setup, it does what it does rather well. I was struck that for a film of the Cold War era about an overtly Communist insurgency it was notably unsympathetic to the British colonial administration; also both female leads play sexually confident characters who are frankly more interesting than the men. The music, by otherwise mediocre composer Riz Ortolani, is rather good the first couple of times you hear it (though suffers from too much repetition).

I actually bought it because I had seen in my grandmother’s memoirs that my late aunt was an extra in some of the British colonial crowd scenes; I didn’t actually spot her, but I’m bad at faces (and anyway this was several years before I was born).

Posted in Uncategorised

June Books 33) The Doctor Who Storybook 2007, 34) The Doctor Who Storybook 2008

33) The Doctor Who Storybook 2007, edited by Clayton Hickman
34) The Doctor Who Storybook 2008, edited by Clayton Hickman

Great fun for the Who fan of any age. Each of these features seven lavishly illustrated text stories and a comic strip, perhaps particularly aimed at the 9-13 age group; authors in both books include Gareth Roberts, Tom MacRae, Robert Shearman, Nicholas Briggs, Justin Richards and Jonathan Morris, with Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss in the 2007 volume and Paul Magrs and Nicholas Pegg in the 2008 one. The 2007 volume features Rose in all the stories, the 2008 volume has Martha in most of them.

The two best stories are the top and tail of the 2007 volume, by Gatiss and Moffat respectively. The first is a standard enough plot of the child central character getting involved in the Doctor’s adventure, but Gatiss has given Jason a convincing narrative voice in his diary. The other is a particularly creepy Moffat tale told ostensibly as an IM conversation, with a twist at the end which raises it to a higher level.

Two minor points that grated a little with both books. First, several of the stories, as noted above, feature a child getting involved with the Doctor for the duration of the story. The child is always a boy. I know that this is not invariably the case, as with Sally Sparrow from the 2006 book (which I haven’t otherwise read), and of course you have Martha or Rose as senior kickass females, but it just struck me. Second, the artwork is sometimes a little wobbly – particularly Billie Piper’s features seem difficult to capture. On the other hand Brian Williamson’s art is particularly good, as in this illustration from Robert Shearman’s 2007 story, “Untitled”.

Isn’t that brilliant? Note especially the past Doctors’ faces in the goo!

Posted in Uncategorised

June Books 25-32) The Romana II novels

Well, this week my commuting reading has been the eight novelisations of stories featuring Lalla Ward as the second incarnation of Romanadvoratrelundar. As so often, a somewhat mixed bag.

25) Doctor Who and the Destiny of the Daleks, by Terrance Dicks

A pretty standard transcription of what was on the screen, including the rather threadbare justification for Romana turning into Princess Astra from The Armageddon Factor.

Doctor Who and the City of Death, by David Lawrence

Alas, we miss out on the novelisation of the best story from Season 17 – it is the only one of the five unofficial ones produced by the New Zealanders which is not currently available on their website, and you can't get paper copies for love nor money.

26) Doctor Who and the Creature from the Pit, by David Fisher

As with Fisher's other novelisation, Doctor Who and the Leisure Hive, he has bulked out the narrative with more background and characterisation; and unlike his other book, this one scores by being able to describe what the author imagined rather than the exceptionally naff special effects that were seen on screen. And I love the footnotes. Definitely one to look out for.

27) Doctor Who and the Nightmare of Eden, by Terrance Dicks

This story had some of the least convincing monsters and effects ever, compounded by very few of the actors appearing to take it at all seriously. Rather surprisingly, Dicks has turned into his most memorable novel from this period of the show's history, a fairly impassioned parable of drugs and altered realities which comes over much better on the page than on the screen. The best Dicks novel of this run.

28) Doctor Who and the Horns of Nimon, by Terrance Dicks

This was a fairly blah story on screen, and Dicks has not managed to make it any more interesting on the printed page.

29) Doctor Who and Shada, by Paul Scoones

Scoones says in the commentary to this book that he always wanted to be Terrance Dicks when he grew up. There are both good and bad aspects to that, and Doctor Who and Shada is basically a workmanlike Dicksian retelling of what appears on screen in the footage of the story that was actually shot, and what should have appeared on screen based on the scripts. Rather more interesting, actually, is Scoones' detailed analysis of exactly which bits were lifted directly into Douglas Adams' later novel, Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, and of Tom Baker's ad libs during the punting scene.

Since I read Doctor Who and the Leisure Hive quite recently, that takes us to

30) Doctor Who – Meglos, by Terrance Dicks

For once, Dicks has filled out a lot of background to what was otherwise a somewhat rootless story. The Earthling whose body Meglos borrows gets a name; we get the history of Zolfa-Thura in terms which very nearly make sense, and the whole thing is a definite improvement – though, alas, from a poor starting base.

31) Doctor Who – Full Circle, by Andrew Smith

Hmm. Smith is of course determined to give his own script a fair wind, but the end result is not very special; it is one of those rare occasions when the book doesn't quite do justice to the special effects of the original series. Of course he gives us a bit more background to the Alzarians and their origin – or not – on Terradon, but if anything it rather confuses the picture.

Since Doctor Who and the State of Decay was the first novelisation I read as I was getting back into them, we move on to

32) Doctor Who and Warrior's Gate, by John Lydecker

This is really good, the best book of this run; Romana II departing in style. Lydecker / Gallagher seems almost to be writing a standard genre sf book that the Doctor, Romana and Adric happen to have wandered into – Romana wanting to wander off on her own, of course. (And K9 gets perhaps his best characterisation in any of the novels, even if he is out of order for much of the story.) Of course, with it being the printed page rather than the screen, the story has to be told in a rather different way; but the author, whatever his name is, really rises to the challenge.

So, in summary, Doctor Who and Warrior's Gate, Doctor Who and the Nightmare of Eden, and the two David Fisher books are the ones to look out for from the Romana II set. She herself comes over rather better as a character than Romana I – I think partly because Terrance Dicks wrote relatively fewer of these novelisations, and did them relatively better. Certainly the character arc of her reluctance to return to Gallifrey is well conveyed in the later books, and her banter with the Doctor reads cutely in most of the earlier ones. Though it is a bit irritating that Dicks likes to describe her as "small" – compared to Zoe she is a giant, surely?

Right, only two more Fourth Doctor books left; but they will have to wait until next week.

Posted in Uncategorised

Numbers answer

  • 14, 9
    142 – 92 = 196 – 81 = 115

  • 11, 2
    112 -22 = 121 – 4 = 117

  • 12, 5
    122 – 52 = 144 – 25 = 119

  • 11, 0
    112 – 02 = 121 – 0 = 121

  • 22, 19
    222 – 192 = 484 – 361 = 123

  • 15, 10
    152 – 102 = 225 – 100 = 125

  • 64, 63
    642 – 632 = 4096 – 3969 = 127

Of course, these were the smallest number pairs for each point in the sequence; and I used odd numbers only. The full sequence from 115 to 127 would be

  • 115: 14, 9; 58, 57
  • 116: 16½, 12½; 30, 28; 58½, 57½
  • 117: 11, 2; 21, 18; 59, 58
  • 118: 30½, 28½; 59½, 58½
  • 119: 12, 5; 60, 59
  • 120: 11, 1; 11½, 3½; 13, 7; 14½, 9½; 17, 13; 21½, 18½; 31, 29; 60½, 59½
  • 121: 11, 0; 61, 60
  • 122: 31½, 29½; 61½, 60½
  • 123: 22, 19; 62, 61
  • 124: 17½, 13½; 32, 30; 62½, 61½
  • 125: 15, 10; 63, 62
  • 126: 11½, 2½; 12½, 5½; 13½, 7½; 22½, 19½; 32½, 30½; 63½, 62½
  • 127: 64, 63

113 and 127 are the lowest pair of consecutive prime numbers whose difference is 14.

Posted in Uncategorised

June Books 24) Vellum

24) Vellum, by Hal Duncan

Yeah, I know, I’m behind the times, I should have read this two years ago – most particularly because I bought it when the author was at MeCon and then I forgot to get him to sign it.

It was tough work – this is not light reading – but I found it unusually rewarding for such an ambitious book. The plot doesn’t really resolve – I may even get the sequel to find out if it does – but I really admired Duncan’s delicate handling of linguistics and culture. So many authors get the language thing partly (Stephen Baxter) or completely (Robert Jordan) wrong; but Duncan does have an ear for words and how they may change and re-form over the centuries. Likewise, I was impressed with his confident handling of MacLean’s Socialist Glasgow, revolutionary Dublin and the southern Caucasus – not quite at expert level in the latter two cases, but at least free of obvious howlers and successfully engaging my interest to keep me reading.

And I love the basic concept of the Book – indeed, my most serious complaint is that the book wanders away from the Book at the end. No doubt this is resolved to a certain extent in the sequel.

Anyway, a fascinating, rewarding read.

Posted in Uncategorised

Yesterday’s numbers quiz

The answer is 64, 63. The sequence of numbers is therefore:

  • 14, 9
  • 11, 2
  • 12, 5
  • 11, 0
  • 22, 19
  • 15, 10
  • 64, 63

It is entirely mathematical; this isn’t the complete sequence; for all but the last I have given the smallest pair of numbers that fits the sequence (but 64, 63 is the only pair of numbers that fits there).

So, what pair of numbers should come immediately before the 14, 9 pair? Again, there is only one correct answer.

Posted in Uncategorised

This autobiographical meme is going round. Fill it in if you like.

  1. First Name: Nicholas – definitely not “Nick”!
  2. Age: 41
  3. Location: Belgium; work in Brussels, live some 20 km to the east.
  4. Occupation: I’m an international relations specialist. I work for an organisation that gives diplomatic advice to marginalised actors in international diplomacy.
  5. Partner?: , together since 1990, married since 1993.
  6. Kids: Three. Here is a rare picture of all three with their mother, taken two years ago. Our oldest no longer lives with us.
  7. Brothers/Sisters: One of each: and .
  8. Pets: The tadpoles! Which are growing legs. It’s all very exciting.
  9. List the 3-5 biggest things going on in your life:
    1. Hoping to hold a garden party, all being well, next Saturday. (You can come if you like, but do let us know.)
    2. Anticipating small surgical procedure at end of next week.
    3. Moving to a new office on 1 July.
    4. Planning the summer holiday in Ireland.

    None of which is terribly dramatic, but I don’t mind!

  10. Where and for what did you go to school for? I translate this as “what did you study in higher education” rather than “what is the point in attending high school”. I did a BA in Natural Sciences and an M Phil in History and Philosophy of Science at Clare College, Cambridge; and a Ph D in History of Science at the Queen’s University of Belfast.
  11. Parents: My father died in 1990; my mother still lives in Dublin.
  12. Who are some of your closest friends?: Well, let’s see who comes to the aforementioned garden party next weekend…
Posted in Uncategorised

June Books 23) The Conquest of Gaul

23) The Conquest of Gaul, by Julius Caesar

An interesting first-hand account of seven years of campaigning (essentially the summers of the years from 58 to 52 BC) by the Roman army in what is now France, with excursions to what is now Germany, Belgium and England. The Penguin edition is not bad at all, with decent footnotes drawing attention to where Caesar is nuancing the story to make himself look better (the book was published shortly after his return to Rome, engaged in the struggle which ended with him becoming Dictator in 49 BC). The maps are OK but as usual I wished they were more detailed. There must be scope for a coffee-table book with glossy photographs of landscapes and archaeological finds following his footsteps through France.

Apart from Caesar himself, the most interesting character is the Gaulish rebel leader Vercingetorix, who led the final revolt in 52 BC and was presumably a visible prisoner in Rome at the time the book first came out. Caesar puts in his mouth several set-piece speeches to his followers and allies, and gives him credit for a plan to kick the Romans out of Gaul which came close to success.

There are a few other names here that one knows from their later careers. One sub-commander in Caesar’s victory over Vercingetorix, who had also commanded an innovative Roman naval campaign on the Atlantic coast a few years earlier, is “young Brutus”. Another is Mark Antony, who otherwise only appears in the postscript, written by Caesar’s friend Aulus Hirtius after the assassination (when of course Antony’s fortunes were rising rapidly).

The most striking thing about the book is the detailed description of the waging of war in the first century BC: depending as much on psychology and local micro-politics as on military superiority. The Gauls never seem to have resorted to guerilla warfare, preferring to have large armies in the field under one or more warlords. (Perhaps guerrilla warfare requires an egalitarian political ideology?) I was struck also by Caesar’s account of the battle of the first landing in Britain in 55 BC, as much as anything because the only other example I can remember of a contested landing of an invasion force on either side of the English Channel is D-Day, almost exactly 2000 years later.

Anyway, a fairly quick and not too taxing read, helped by the scholarly apparatus.

Posted in Uncategorised

The Dodecahedra

Browsing through WikiPedia inspired by the book I am currently reading brought me to a fascinating set of objects that I had not previously heard of: the ancient dodecahedra.

Sjra Wagemans thinks they are a calendrical device.
Lloyd Kilford on the Bonn dodecahedron.
The Druidical Research Institute has an overview (in Dutch).
Good article in French.
The Kenchester dodecahedron in Hereford.
Another from Gill Mill in Oxfordshire.
Here’s one in Limerick (though I suspect originally from France)
A squashed one in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.
George Hart has nice pictures including an icosahedron as well.
A German schoolkid’s essay on the one from Schwarzenacker in the Saarland.
Paul Garland’s Flickr photos: 1, 2, 3, 4


Posted in Uncategorised

Four of Five

Not certain that my watching of Old Who will keep ahead of my reading of the novels, but it looks like I will finish both projects before the summer holidays. More or less at random (and out of sequence, but in the order I watched them) here are the most recent four Fifth Doctor stories I’ve (re) watched.

The King’s Demons is the worst Fifth Doctor story I have seen so far. Some of us non-English types bristle somewhat at the presumption that the Magna Carta is essential to World Civilisation; but even if it were, the Master’s plot to derail it Makes No Sense. The Master is cunningly disguised for most of the first episode as a really bad English actor pretending to be a French knight. Turlough, who has always seemed pretty pointless to me, spends most of the story shackled rather unexcitingly to the wall. And we are introduced to Kamelion, the most useless companion of the whole of Who (and that includes Jo Grant, Dodo and Mel), which turns out to be the point of the story, if there is one. The best thing to be said for it is that it is only two episodes long.

There are several good things about Planet of Fire: we lose two of the more useless companions in the show’s history (Kamelion and Turlough – and in fairness the latter gets one of his better stories here), and gain one of the better ones of the late period (Peri). The location filming in the Canaries and consequent swimming costumes are memorable. The problem is that the planet Sarn looks so much like the Canaries (for some strange reason) that it doesn’t feel especially alien. Also the Doctor’s behaviour at the end – where he euthanises Kamelion and apparently allows the Master to die in agony – is very un-Doctorish. Also the story itself is not all that interesting.

As a hormonal fifteen-year-old there was one thing and one thing only that I remembered about Terminus, but to my surprise it actually is a fairly good story as well. Tegan in particular has some good bits (and I don’t mean her physical charms, though there is one moment when we cut from a view of her dramatically heaving cleavage to a shot up Nyssa’s petticoat). The relationship between her and Turlough is nicely mirrored by that between the Doctor and Liza Goddard’s Kari. Peter Benson’s mad knight Bor is pleasantly reminiscent of Don Quixote. The plot doesn’t make an awful lot of sense, but it is always watchable and sometimes compelling apart from two fairly huge flaws: the Turlough / Black Guardian relationship is now very silly indeed, and so is the Garm – not even trying very hard to look convincing.

Fandom seems to be generally fond of The Awakening; it didn’t really grab me. Tegan’s relatives have worse luck with alien invaders than those of any other companion pre-Rose. I found the Malus utterly unconvincing, and as so often its means and motivation made little sense. I did like Polly James as Jane though.

So, my verdict: Terminus definitely one to look out for, The King’s Demons definitely one to avoid, the other two OK but not spectacular.

June Books 22) God’s Politics

22) God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It, by Jim Wallis

Rather sad to report that I’m not going to finish this, even though I agree with a lot of what the author is saying – particularly, that the right wing’s capture of the religious high ground in the 2004 presidential election was both crucial and dishonest. But the style rather put me off – Wallis is preaching rather than analysing, and shows off about his own achievements rather too much. I got the message in the first couple of chapters, and don’t really feel I need to read the rest – especially since the battle lines of 2008 are rather more blurry, but not really in line with Wallis’s prescription.

Posted in Uncategorised