Who was that woman?

I am in the middle of Elisabeth Sladen’s autobiography, where she repeats the well-known fact that another actor had been contracted to play the replacement for Jo Grant and gives a couple of reasons (my choice of phrase may amuse those who have read/listened to the book) as to why she didn’t work out. Is it known who the almost-companion was?

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Third Doctor celebration

Trying a different layout suuggested by Edited to add: It's failed miserably, even on my own home view. I am going back to tables, which I at least understand.

1) TV

I've shifted on this as a result of my recent rewatch of the Third Doctor stories. I used to be a big fan of The Curse of Peladon, which speaks to a lot of my interests and is a little untypical of the Third Doctor era. But in fact I now find myself torn between The Dæmons and The Green Death, the closing stories of Seasons Nine and Ten, both largely written by Barry Letts. In the end, I have picked one for my TV choice and one for my novelisation choice: The Green Death ends the longest ever era of stability among the regular cast affectionately, with a certain sensitivity to politics, with a closing scene that brings a tear to the eye.

(I am divided from fan opinion on this; consensus seems to be that Inferno is the best of Pertwee, but I think that the rebooted show is still coming together at this point.)

2) Books

Having chosen The Green Death as my top TV story, I'm going for Doctor Who and the Dæmons as my favourite Third Doctor book. It was the only novelisation of a TV story written by Barry Letts, who was producer of the show throughout the Pertwee years, and he has taken his own script and given it a very good treatment, injecting and subtracting elements to make the story work better, and really drawing the reader in, to the extent that I was a bit disappointed when I finally watched the original TV version and found it was not as good.

There are other good novelisations from this era – Doctor Who and the Cave Monsters, Doctor Who and the Terror of the Autons, Doctor Who and the Day of the Daleks, Doctor Who and the Three Doctors, Doctor Who and the Space War, Doctor Who and the Green Death, Doctor Who and the Planet of the Spiders, the first of which has just been republished with a foreword by Terrance Dicks.

2a) Other books

A slightly unusual choice here – I rate the 1971 Doctor Who annual as the best of the entire run of annuals from 1966 to 1986. Somehow the writing, the illustrations, and the presentation all came together in a way that had not been reached before and was not equalled subsequently. The Doctor/Brigadier relationship is particularly well done. (The annual is included as a freebie on the Inferno DVD.) For some reason there was no 1972 Annual and the 1973 one was not as good.

My second choice among Third Doctor books is also not in the usual series – David Bishop's Who Killed Kennedy?, written as by Bishop and his narrator James Stevens, has loads of fun continuity and is available online.

3) Audio

Not completely abandoning my affection for The Curse of Peladon, Big Finish have done a couple of very effective audios set on the planet. One is a Fifth Doctor play in which we say farewell to Erimem, an audio-only companion, but the other is a tale of the Third Doctor returning to Peladon which is being swamped by Ice Warriorts as a result of a refugee crisis, told by the tremendously effective David Troughton, son of Patrick and also of course King Peladon in the original TV story. I liked it a lot (much more than the Pertwee/Sladen audios of the 1990s which I felt were rather rambling).

4) Dishonourable mention

The Mutants has almost nothing to recommend it – poorly told and acted, with a political message that while basically sound is rammed home tediously over six episodes, and an additional task for the Doctor from the Time Lords which makes very little sense – why not just deliver the damn thing directly? The best thing in it is Geoffrey Palmer who is killed in the first episode; the second best is the location for the misty marshy planetary surface, which has since been concreted over and is now England's largest shopping centre.

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Return to Kosovo, and November Books 24-25

I went back to Kosovo last weekend, for the first time in over a year (and first extended visit for much longer). This was for an excellent conference jointly organised by the European Council on Foreign Relations and its local partners, opened formally by the President and the Prime Minister, and with three visiting foreign ministers to add colour to proceedings. (For me the most exotic participants were a couple of Tory MPs, for one of whom I managed to negotiate a pizza in the airport as we left.) Generally good level of debate with one or two memorable one-liners: a former prime minister worrying that Europe has modelled itself too closely on Kant to cope with Machiavelli, a thinktanker opining that Greece jumped the queue in 1981 and 2002 and we are all now paying the price.

Kosovo – well, Pristina at least – seems to be in great shape. The decision to pedestrianise Mother Teresa Boulevard has given the centre of the city much more focus, and our rather luxurious (if not completely finished) hotel was right in the zone. I made a couple of trips to a nearby supermarket for toothpaste and razors and was interested to note that the range of goods was about the same as one would find in a supermarket of similar size in Brussels, except that the freshly baked bread is probably better in Pristina (and everything is cheaper). I could not find an open internet cafe on Sunday morning, because everyone who cares now has a decent broadband connection at home. There were no power cuts that I noticed. Things have changed.

The Kosovars have been slowly building up international recognitions – 22 out of 27 EU members, 85 out of 192 UN member states – and, faced with the facts on the ground, it is difficult to sympathise with the non-recognisers. For instance, although the European Convention on Human Rights is hardwired into the Kosovo constitution, the European Court of Human Rights lacks jurisdiction because Kosovo is not a member of the Council of Europe. Kosovo officials are blocked from participation in international fora if Serbia's representatives (or sympathisers) object to their presence. It's a bizarre situation.

The conference organisers gave us two books in our goodie bags, and of course I read both (they are short). The first is an essay by prominent Kosovo writer Shkëlzen Maliqi, Why Nonviolent Resistance in Kosovo Failed, originally submitted for a never-published collection of essays on the former Yugoslavia in 2002 (and posted also to his blog). I was familiar with most of the material, but it was very interesting to read the account of an insider, particularly on how the parallel structures set up by Kosovo Albanians actually functioned; Maliqi's assessment of the role of Ibrahim Rugova, elected President of Kosovo though the outside world did not recognise his government, is detailed and far from positive.

However, he misses an important part of the answer to his own question. He quotes a couple of commentators to the effect that Rugova' espousal of non-violence was not "Gandhian". I think that is correct, and crucial: where Gandhi used passive resistance as a means of communication with the British, who would have preferred to ignore him, Rugova used passive resistance to sever contact between Kosovo Albanians and the Serbs. And it did not lead to a solution.

The other book in the goodie bag was Why Kosovo Still Matters by Denis MacShane, the Labour MP for Rotherham. Again, I was interested to read information which I already knew well but told from the point of view of a junior minister in the British government of the mid 2000s. MacShane includes extracts from his own diaries, apparently unrevised, which is honest of him but perhaps a little confusing for the less well-informed reader. It is also striking to realise how much the debate in the House of Commons matters to MPs, as opposed to how little the rest of the world cares about it (certainly outside the UK, and probably outside Westminster). MacShane doesn't really answer the question in the title of his book, but most readers will have made up their mind before opening it.

Where MacShane did add value for me was his dissection, if I may use the word, of the claims by a Swiss politician that Hashim Thaçi, now prime minister of Kosovo, had during the 1999 war been involved with removing organs from captive Serbs to trade them on the international market. It always seemed to me just from the logistics of the alleged process that this is a vanishingly improbable allegation; MacShane adds extra details as to the implausibility of the sources, and, more importantly, the internal politics of the Council of Europe to explain why such an appalling and patently untrue rumour was given legs. I would add that, by comparison, the transport of Albanian corpses to mass graves in Serbia by refrigerated truck during the war is rather well documented. (Those of us with longer memories also recall the Martinović case.)

Anyway, an interesting return to familiar territory.

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Europe: Political swings and roundabouts

My eye was caught by a tweet from SF author David Brin, linking to a map of political shifts in European governments generated by the Guardian during the summer. Brin's comment was that it showed a "Solid shift to the right", no doubt struck by the preponderance of blue on the map at the end of the timeline with only four countries – Denmark, Austria, Slovenia and Cyprus – out of 27 marked in red. (Note for American readers – for most of the world, blue means right-wing and red means left-wing, rather than the other way round.)

While it's a fascinating visualisation, the whole thing is of course a profound and not always helpful simplification. In some countries (including Belgium), dominant parties tagged by the Guardian as right-wing are in fact pretty centrist, believing in social cohesion and strong welfare systems, just without the historical or ideological baggage that parties with the word 'socialist' or 'social democrat' in the name may have; the stark blue/red distinction is not really appropriate. In some cases (Austria in particular) there may have been a strong left-wing party in a junior coalition role at various times, but the Guardian's colour scheme would paint the whole country blue. In some cases (not to give any recent examples), one can seriously question whether a supposedly left-wing party actually behaves that way when in government.

Be that as it may, I don't think Brin's "solid shift to the right" is really correct. At the very start of the timeline, 1972, only one of the original six members of the EEC is marked in red (Germany). Throughout 1980, of the then nine member states, only two (Germany and Denmark) are marked in red. From mid-1987 to early 1988, it's only two out of twelve (Spain and Greece). The map for today includes also technical governments in Belgium, Italy and Greece, so the tally for the right is really 20 out of 27, which is proportionally less than 1987’s 10 out of 12, or 1980's 7 out of 9, or 1972's 5 out of 6.

Probably the reason it looks so striking is that none of the red countries of today is big; and also for the casual viewer, today's map contrasts more recently with that of 1999, when 10 out of 15 member states had leftish governments (the exceptions, apart from Spain, being small and/or marginal – Ireland, Finland, Belgium and Luxembourg). So while Brin does have a point in suggesting that the left are at a historically weak point in EU politics right now, and that's certainly true if compared with twelve years ago, it's not really the first time that this is the case.

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November Books 23) Dreams of Empire, by Justin Richards

This is more like it – epic Richards rather than formula Richards, with the Second Doctor, Jamie and Victoria turning up in the middle of an intricate conspiracy involving imperial politics which are reminiscent of the rise of Julius Caesar, though very different in the detail. Some excellent plot twists and turns, some of which I think I saw coming and some of which blindsided me. The characterisation of the Doctor is a little off-key but I’ve read much worse. Enjoyable, and probably reasonably accessible for non-Who fans.

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Second Doctor appreciation

1) TV

As with the First Doctor, I am choosing the longest single story as my favourite from this era. It's not everyone's favourite – my poll from a couple of years back opted for The Mind Robber, and the dynamic rankings site and the Mighty 200 both went for Evil of the Daleks. The latter isn't even my favourite Second Doctor Dalek story (see below) but I do find it a tough choice between The Mind Robber and The War Games. In the end, the last black and white story gets me with its spooky music, the carefully disguised circular plotting, the revelation of what the Doctor's background really is, the unearthly and sinister Time Lords (who would never be this good again), and most of all that moment at the end of Episode 4 when the War Chief and the Doctor recognise each other. (Incidentally it is also the only Malcolm Hulke story which does not feature reptiles.)

The DVD has loads of good extra features as well.

2) Books

As I noted yesterday, as well as appreciating Who books for their plot, characterisation, and general polish of writing, I also tend to rate them for fannish squeefulness. David A. McIntee's The Dark Path scores on all points, with the Doctor, Jamie and Victoria encountering another Time Lord called Koschei and his companion. Koschei's identity will be apparent from the cover picture. McIntee catches the elusive Troughton characterisation very well, and the story is one of ambiguous villains.

2a) Novelisations

As noted above, I have the unfashionable view that The Power of the Daleks is the better of the two Troughton Dalek stories – not only an interesting tale in its own right, with one of the better base-under-siege scenarios, but also of course the first time we had a new Doctor in the established show. John Peel, given more space than novelisers usually got, made the most of it, tying the story into wider Who and Dalek mythology. I have some nostalgia for the very early Troughton novelisations, but this one, coming almost at the end of the published sequence, still seems to me to score best.

3) Audio

One has to be a wee bit polite about this, but Deborah Watling's voice has changed quite considerably since she played Victoria Waterfield. But The Great Space Elevator, one of the early Companion Chronicles from Big Finish, allows her to relax back into the role with a brilliant script by the usually reliable Jonathan Morris, which pays reverent but affectionate homage to all of the Season Five monster stories. Victoria is some way from being my favourite companion, but this is great.

4) Dishonourable mention

Episode 3 of The Underwater Menace is the first surviving Troughton episode from the Great Burnination, and I would happily swap it for any of the previous 12. This is the episode that includes the cringeworthy Dance Of The Fish People and the villain's closing line, "Nuzzink in ze vurld can stop me now!" It's a low point in a generally terrible story. At least The Dominators is just dull, and The Space Pirates is just silly; The Underwater Menace is simply dire.

PS – does anyone object to my posting in this format? If there are people who would much prefer I used cut tags I will do so.

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Liveblogging the day, part 2

1515 – Job candidate comes over for informal chat re vacancy in our New York office. She makes decent impression. NY are on holiday but inform me from home email over breakfast that other candidates are as good if not better, and offer to send me CVs to inspect. I agree to do so.

1600 – Email friend with op-ed piece in European Voice, accusing him in nicest possible way of pulling his punches on dismal performance of Catherine Ashton as EU High Representative for Foreign Policy. He replies to the effect that it is a fair cop.

1630 – One of our clients calls – their Europe minister wants to drop over for a chat. Drop all plans to do outstanding reports and start doing small tasks that can be easily interrupted. Become unhealthily fascinated by resemblance between former foreign minister of Kosovo and new Italian prime minister (apart from significant height difference). Purge that by doing LJ post about them.

1715 – Minister arrives. Much discussion of imminent strategy which results in phone call to grand old German politican, my assistant meantime researching phone numbers of Spanish journalists in Brussels. Time catches up with us and we leave in a rush for next meeting.

1800 – Normally I try and resist any meetings starting after 1730 but this is unusual, former chief negotiator for Turkish Cypriots is in town to give his impression of how peace process has gone since he (and I) were kicked off that dossier by Turkish Cypriot voters early last year. Özdil in fine form, gives balanced presentation including some self-criticism. But outlook for Cyprus is not good. My mobile phone buzzes with unfamiliar numbers during meeting, I divert them straight to voicemail.

1930 – Meeting ends. Check voice mail. Minister has left his phone in my office which is now locked (my fault really for rushing our departure) and was calling from nearby hotel and neighbouring offices who took pity on him. Coordinate rescue of phone while heading over to Kitty O’Shea’s with former intern who was at Cyprus meeting. Phone successfully retrieved. Former intern has meanwhile bought me pint of Guinness. Consume it and depart.

2015 – Drive home, more Caroline John reading Elisabeth Sladen. By the time I get home Sladen is ASM at Liverpool Playhouse.

2045 – Wife and son have already eaten, sensibly (daughters are elsewhere). Inspect supplies, locate meaty pizza, put on oven, when it is hot install pizza, cook, eat while reading Guardian weekly and listening to homework wrap-up in next room.

2130 – Write this. Still to do Second Doctor post for today. And outstanding meeting reports will have to happen tomorrow. And I haven’t read a single page of any books today, though will probably put that right as I go to bed.

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Separated at birth?

Skender Hyseni
(former foreign minister of Kosovo)
Mario Monti
(new prime minister of Italy)

Actually in real life there would be no danger of confusion – Hyseni is much shorter than Monti.

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Liveblogging the day, part 1

Others doing this too and it seems like fun.

0830 – wake up. Unusual weekday lie-in as I have medical appointment first thing. Fried egg on toast for breakfast (as opposed to usual poached egg). Write half of today’s LJ post about Second Doctor before going to local doctor.

0915 – Doctor sees me immediately, with young student doctor in attendance. Diagnoses small but annoying lump on arm as granuloma, of which I have not previously heard but does not sound dangerous. Refers me to local dermatologist and charges me standard €23 consultation fee, of which 80% will get repaid by the bureaucracy. Both doctor and student speak excellent English.

0945 – Call phone company to fix wi-fi router at home, staggering through conversation in Dutch. They claim it will now work once it has been rebooted. We will see.

1000 – Set off to work by car (unusually, normally commute by train), taking the opportunity to get started listening to Caroline John’s audiobook reading of Elisabeth Sladen’s autobiography. Moving preface written and read by David Tennant. By end of drive, young Sladen has vomited on the future cabinet minister Edwina Currie and is engaged in youthful drama school.

Traffic almost at standstill for last leg of commute; suddenly ambulance and fire engine rush past, horns blaring, and after a few mins I draw level with group of paramedics clustered around prone body on Avenue de Cortenbergh opposite post office. Does not look good. In work by 1100. Embarrassed to realise that old friend from Bosnia thinks we have scheduled lunch for today, when I thought it was next week and have made other arrangements. He agrees on 1 December lunch with good grace.

1130 – Meeting with EU ambassador of small non-EU country. He is newly appointed – arrived on Saturday! – but I knew him from his previous job (and he knows me by reputation). I am pitching for meeting with foreign minister who is due in town next week. He offers me European minister who will certainly be coming to Brussels. I pitch for foreign minister on next Brussels visit as well. Ambassador will see what he can do. Much gossip about mutual acquaintances back in his capital city. Ambassador mentions that his wife is expecting, and I refer him to Brussels Childbirth Trust.

1300 – Ambassadorial meeting was so cordial that it finishes only at 1240 and by the time I have got metro back there is no time to return to office before lunch with English journalist friend at Irish pub (one of at least four within a stone’s throw of the office). Journalist friend appalled by state of EU, forecasts doom unless Merkel decides on firm action; appalled by state of Greece with nutcase Samaras likely to be next Prime Minister; also appalled by right-wing British press, which he assures me is under direct orders to write anti-EU stories, to the point of having copy rejected if not Eurosceptic enough. (His own paper is Brussels-based but international.)

1415 – Back in office, finally chance to clear backlog of email. Fortunately US colleagues will not bother me today as it is Thanksgiving. Take a few moments to fill this entry out. Then back to work (interview job candidate, write meeting reports, then later policy brainstorming).

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Gloomy statistic

At the start of this year, all six writers who had won a single Hugo for one work and a single Nebula for another were alive. Now we have lost both Joanna Russ and Anne McCaffrey. All good health to Robert J. Sawyer, Lucius Shepard, Suzy McKee Charnas and Brian W. Aldiss.

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First Doctor celebration

It being the 48th birthday of Doctor Who today, I thought I would start a brief series of posts about my favourite stories in various media for each of the Doctors, which hopefully will encourage fellow fans to explore a few more books or audios (or maybe even check out some TV stories with a fresh eye).

1) TV

I have the unfashionable view that The Daleks' Master Plan celebrates a lot of what made Old Who great and also looks forward to later stories where the Doctor becomes a man of action. It has Daleks, pyramids, Mavic Chen, Sara Kingdom and Bret Vyon; and it has tragedy as well as comedy. Unfortunately three quarters of it has been burninated, but the BBC's narration with Peter Purves is well worth getting hold of. (Fan opinion differs from me: the poll I did a couple of years ago picked The Dalek Invasion of Earth, and both the Dynamic Rankings site and the DWM Might 200 picked The Daleks as the best First Doctor story. A common theme there.)

2) Books

No novelisation of a Doctor Who story is ever likely to be as good as the very first, originally published as Doctor Who In An Exciting Adventure With The Daleks, by David Whitaker, now reprinted and available in the shops with a foreword by Neil Gaiman. Whitaker has to take the story from the start, from Ian's point of view, and injects darkness and romance into it, and is of course untroubled by dodgy special effects. Many Doctor Who book collections start here and it should certainly be in yours.

2a) Spinoff books

For each Doctor I will pick a favourite book and then also pick favourites from the various other categories of book available for that Doctor. Here, I'm going for Kim Newman's novella Time and Relative, published by Telos, set in a cold London winter shortly before An Unearthly Child and told very much from Susan's point of view. I tend to give extra marks to Who books which capture the characters well and which also tie into the mythology of Who (and indeed other mythologies), on top of their literary merits; I think this one scores on all those points.

3) Audio

It's an early one from the Companion Chronicles of Big Finish, But I particularly liked Marc Platt's Mother Russia on first listening, a story where Peter Purves explains what happened when he, Dodo and the Doctor got caught up in Napoleon's invasion of Russia. (Another early Companion Chronicle, also by Platt and set at almost the same time, is Frost Fire, told by Maureen O'Brien, which tells us how Vicki met Jane Austen.)

4) Dishonourable mention

To balance the picture I will mention a story from each Doctor which I cannot stand. Byzantium!, by Keith Topping, brings the Doctor, Ian, Susan and Barbara to the city of Byzantium. The Doctor ends up producing the Gospel of St Mark and Topping's research into names, languages and architecture is embarrassingly poor. He goes on and on about the city's minarets, which were not built anywhere for another 700 years and not in Constantinople until after 1453. So it edges out The Sensorites at the bottom of my list.

More tomorrow, possibly.

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The Witch From The Well

Sorry to say that I thought this was a rare misfire from the Big Finish main sequence of stories. I love the chemistry between Paul McGann’s Doctor and Julie Cox’s Mary Shelley, but this story keeps them apart in return for a tale of moral, psychological and time-paradoxical complexity which the script didn’t really do justice to. Some elements of the plot were similar to the Who book I was reading at the same time, Justin Richards’ novel The Death Riders, which confused me a bit, though this is not anyone else’s fault.

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November Books 22) Heart of the Sea, by Nora Roberts

I got hold of this some time before I got the first in the trilogy of mildly supernatural Irish romances. In this one, the happily predestined couple fall in love at first sight (on page 24) and spend the book struggling only with each other’s personalities (and their own) and exploring the troubling possibility that the family ghosts are pushing them together before deciding to ignore it. Every other character (ghosts included) wishes them well, so there is no external factor to make things interesting. The anthropologist-turned-barmaid from the first book gives birth at the end of this one, in a graphically described scene which rather gives the impression that she and the baby miraculously managed without a placenta – I know that’s normal for births on film and TV, but hadn’t realised it extended to fluffy romance novels too.

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November Books 20-21) Heart of Stone, by Trevor Baxendale; Death Riders, by Justin Richards

Another of the double Doctor Who books published earlier this year, two 200-page novels bolted together. Baxendale’s Heart of Stone is set in an English farmhouse where things start turning to moon rock, and the Doctor has to put things right – reminded me of that much better YA novel where moon rock starts animating the exhibits in the New York Natural History Museum – can anyone remember its name and author? Death Riders is formula Richards rather than epic Richards, and has a somewhat confused plot of circus folk on an asteroid concealing a deep secret. The two books will be appreciated by younger readers, but otherwise will appeal only to completists like me.

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November Books 19) Jurassic Park, by Michael Crichton

Of course, I saw the film when it first came out, and found myself continually comparing the book to it. But in fact the book holds up well – a lot of the shocking visual moments from the film are reasonably firmly rooted in the book, and sometimes actually come off better on the page. And the book turns out to be not really about the process of reviving dinosaurs, but about the fragility of human endeavour against the chaos of the natural world – the author’s mouthpiece character, who gets to speak long infodumps and whose gnomic statements preface every section of the book, is not a palæontologist but the mathematician played by Jeff Goldblum in the film.

I did notice, however, that very few of the Costa Rican characters and none of the walk-on black characters actually had names.

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Sa’di on Farting

From the Gulistan, II.31

A man, being tormented by a contrary wind in his belly and not having the power to retain it, unwittingly allowed it to escape. He said: ‘Friends, I had no option in what I did, the fault of it is not to be ascribed to me and peace has resulted to my internal parts. Kindly excuse me.’

The belly is a prison of wind, O wise man.
No sage retains wind in captivity.
If wind twists thy belly let it out
Because wind in the belly is a burden to the heart.

Though the original seems to have an extra couplet at the end, which can be roughly translated as, “if you are visited by a sour-faced, uncongenial friend, don’t try and prevent him from leaving.”

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The Blake’s 7 prequel audios

My commuting listening last week was the set of eight audios produced in 2008-09 telling the story of the various characters of the original Blake’s 7 before the start of the story as we know it. I strongly recommend the set as a whole to fans of the series. Some of the characters are taken in a slightly different direction to what we thought we knew of them, but in general I felt it was true to the spirit of the show as I remember it. (Thanks, I think, to for alerting me to these.) All but the last of these is half an hour in length (the last is a full hour).

The first three audios explore the dystopian society from which our heroes escape / are expelled. When Vila Met Gan, told as a flashback from canon time (though I was confused about the references to teleporting not being available), explores future England as a Brave New World society, Gan as an Epsilon being ineligible to court the girl he loves (and the infrastructure meanwhile crumbling round them). I’m coming round to Ben Aaronovitch; the writing and performance really sparkled, and I was really impressed by how well the actor playing Vila had caught Michael Keating’s voice (and then felt a bit silly when I actually looked at the CD cover properly).

Point of No Return, by James Swallow, has the rather icky story of Travis deciding whether or not to torture a detained political suspect who he believes (or claims to believe) is planning a bombing campaign. I was never hugely interested in the Travis stories, so it didn’t scratch my itches particularly, but I felt it did add a layer of conviction to the social background of the future Earth.

Eye of the Machine, by Ben Aaronovitch, is absolutely brilliant, probably my favourite of the bunch. It tells us how Kerr Avon (played by Colin Salmon), a bright lad from a colony planet at the Oxford University of 2230, falls in with Anna Grant (played by Keeley Hawes) and her radical political friends, at the same time trying to satisfy the intellectual demands of his professor (played by Geoffrey Palmer). This is all in the background context of Roj Blake’s Freedom Party contesting the elections; even if the people support them, will they be allowed to win? We know the answer of course but it’s a great ride.

The other five audios switch us away from Earth. The next two, Blood and Earth by Ben Aaronovitch and Flag and Flame by Marc Platt, take us to Auron and the experience of growing up as part of a family of telepathic clone sisters all called Cally. The first has Jan Chappell turning up as a voice from the past helping a younger Cally escape a crashed spaceship; the second has two more Callys navigating physical and political hurdles, manipulated by the men in charge of their world. The Aaronovitch episode is the better of the two, but both do a good job of conveying a non-human culture with general telepathy. It’s a little unsatisfying that we don’t actually find out which of the surviving Callys is ‘our’ Cally as played by Chappell on TV.

We come slightly closer to home ground with two audios about Jenna by Simon Guerrier, The Dust Run and The Trial. Once again, the first of the two is better, taking us through Jenna’s childhood and adolescent rivalry with one Townsend, played very steamily by Benedict Cumberbatch; the second basically fulfills the role of the middle story in a trilogy of getting our main character to where we know she is at the start of the TV series (though again has some colour about the future Earth society). Jenna herself is played by Carrie Dobro from Babylon 5; obviously she was so traumatised by the events of The Trial that she lost her American accent once she was in the London.

Finally, Escape Velocity tells the back story of Zen, or Deep Space Vehicle Nine as he originally was when constructed by The System. The main character is not Zen but the crew member known as healer, played by Zoe Tapper, with no memory of her past life but a strong desire to find out. Zen is played by Alastair Lock and Tracey-Anne Obermann appears as another character. It’s another good portrayal of an utterly alien set-up.

These are mostly satisfying and all worth while for the Blake’s 7 fan. I think the Aaronovitch stories, and The Dust Run and Escape Velocity, would be perfectly accessible for the listener who knew nothing about Blake’s 7, though they might then be a little confused if they started watching the TV show…

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November Books 17) Cold Mountain, by Charles Frazier

What seemed like a long long book (though in fact only 450 pages) set in the devastated Confederacy of late 1864, with parallel narrative tracks following a wounded soldier returning from Virginia to his home of Cold Mountain in North Carolina, and the woman he loves who has waited for him. Lots of lush and graphic description of the physical and human geography; not a lot (apart from one political discussion) about the, you know, slaves; and I spotted the shock ending from some way off. I’m sure some people love it but I didn’t really.

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Interesting Links for 19-11-2011

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Unexpected encounter with an sf fan

[Locked entry]

I got frustrated waiting for the lift to bring me down to the opening session of the conference, and decided to walk downstairs. On the floor below me I found, waiting for the lift with two bodyguards, the Bulgarian foreign minister; and I rapidly persuaded him to walk down with me (we wrote a paper together in 2000, before his political career began).

What I had not realised is that he is also an sf fan – he complimented me on my bookblogging (which I suppose he follows via Twitter) and said that sf is his main leisure reading.

Maybe there’s a potential panel there for an sf convention, pulling together prominent political figures who are also sf readers (though not necessarily active in fandom)?

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November Books 16) The Cambridge Historical Encyclopedia of Great Britain and Ireland

I got this off Bookmooch several years ago, and have now got around to reading it. I was really a bit disappointed. It was published in 1985, and rather shows its age. While there is a lot of useful detail, the system of two to six page essays with (unnumbered and confusingly referenced) notes placed in the middle gutter is not in fact very clearly structured. To get a sense of the full sequence and significance of crucial political developments, your eye has to dart back and forth across the columns. Norman Davies succeeded with the much bolder step of having what are effectively full-page footnotes.

I also found that the material did not scratch my own itches, and did not really live up to the title. This is a history of England, with a fair bit of Scotland and nods towards England and Wales. History began in 45 AD for those parts of the larger island conquered by Rome; it begins in the twelfth century for the rest. There are some honourable exceptions – Patrick Buckland’s piece on twentieth century Ireland is very good; Patrick Wormald (whose ex-sister-in-law worked for me years ago, in a bizarre bit of small-worldiness) brings the Celts into British history a bit ahead of the rest of the programme.

But my jaw really dropped when reading Keith Robbins’ complacent framing essay for the entire twentieth century. On decolonisation, he writes “The French experienced defeat in Indo-China and Algeria and the Dutch in the East Indies, but the British beat a dignified retreat – if we are prepared to overlook Aden and Cyprus… There was no major upheaval in a colony close at hand comparable to Algeria in the case of France”. I am not sure that Palestine or Rhodesia really qualify as ‘dignified retreat’ (one could also query the dignity of the British handovers in Kenya, Burma, and India/Pakistan). And I think there may also have been a British-ruled territory fairly close at hand whose internal upheavals had a certain impact on British politics. I accept that Algeria is very different from Ireland, but I think Robbins is lazy and dishonest not to even hint that there might be similarities.

The book closes with a historical Who’s Who of (I estimate) about 700 individuals, of whom 50-ish are women and 40-ish are Irish. (And none Irishwomen.) I really think this must have been a bit outdated even in 1985.

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November Books 15) The Treason of Isengard, by J.R.R. Tolkien

Next in line of the series of books exploring the process by which Tolkien created TLotR. The most interesting point for me was that Frodo and Sam’s path to Mordor, and even back to the Shire, emerged in Tolkien’s thinking much earlier than the story of the others after the death of Boromir. He seems to almost make up the tale of Gimli, Legolas and Aragorn as he goes along, and I must admit it’s not the most satisfying part of the book (and was the most messed around with by Peter Jackson for the film). In the middle of this, however, the Treebeard chapter stands out as a coming together of long-simmering ideas for Tolkien, who was fascinated by trees and forests and had been dropping foreshadowing references to Treebeard into his drafts without really thinking them through.

Tolkien took great care over names. It’s a bit jarring to read “Trotter” instead of “Strider”, “Ingolf” instead of “Aragorn” and “Ondor” instead of “Gondor”, but I think it’s not just familiarity with the final product – the eventually chosen names are genuinely better. There are a very few exceptions – Tolkien was not happy with “Osgiliath”, and I think rightly so, but didn’t find a good alternative. Irish readers find it amusing that one of Treebeard’s fellow elder Ents is named Finglas; this name is there in the very first draft.

I noted with interest that all the early examples of runes – basically Gandalf’s messages left at Bree and scrawled at Weathertop – use the good old-fashioned futhark, rather than what we came to know as the Cirth. The switch was made while composing the inscription on Balin’s tomb in Moria, and implemented consistently after that. The development of the runes shows off Tolkien’s deep knowledge of phonetics; you would expect him to have some familiarity with the subject as a philologist, but clearly it was a profound fascination. (Do you pronounce the ‘o’s differently in ‘Lord’ and ‘Moria’? I don’t, but Tolkien evidently did, going by his first drafts.)

Anyway, much enjoying this reconstruction of how the classic came to be.

Edited to add: amusingly, two people have responded to disagree with me on the vowels in ‘Lord’ and ‘Moria’, one saying that the ‘Moria’ vowel is longer, the other that it is shorter!

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Interesting Links for 15-11-2011

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November Books 14) Doctor Who: The Prison In Space, by Dick Sharples (ed. Richard Bignell)

This is a beautifully produced edition of one of the most notorious lost Doctor Who stories, a Second Doctor adventure scheduled for Season 6, which had reached the point of casting and costume design before the production team pulled the plug on it. There are a number of other known lost stories out there, many produced by Big Finish in the last couple of years, but I think only two other published scripts, both from the very first season – Anthony Coburn’s “The Masters of Luxor” (a rather dull robot tale) and Moris Farhi’s “Farewell, Great Macedon”, about the death of Alexander the Great (accompanied by a single-episode story about an alien dying for love of Barbara, “The Yellow Arc of Fragrance”), which is much better.

Big Finish did an audio version of “The Prison In Space” a year or so ago, and I noted then that it is an absolutely terrible story, and we are very fortunate that it did not survive to blight the history of Who. The Doctor and pals land on a world (which seems to be a future Earth, though I don’t think this is anywhere stipulated) which is ruled by women; the Doctor and Jamie are imprisoned in the eponymous space prison, but manage to lead a successful revolt which overthrows female rule; Zoe meanwhile has been brainwashed into feminism, but is cured by a vigorous spanking from Jamie. Little more need be said.

Despite the awfulness of the story, fans of the Troughton era will be very well rewarded by getting the book. We get both Sharples’ original outline of the story and his near-final script, which shows some interesting aspects of the production process. We also get some in-depth analysis of how such a dreadful project came so close to being executed, and a review of the script by the former ‘Time Team’ of DWM. On top of that, we get two versions of Brian Hayles’ outline of another lost story, Lords Of The Red Planet (an Ice Warrior story which slightly misfired and which Hayles the replaced with The Seeds of Death), and finally a chronology of what was going on story-wise and cast-wise in the Doctor Who production office between January 1968 and mid-1969, which goes some way to explaining the numerous misfires of Season 6, and indeed makes one glad that things were not in fact worse.

(I’m not sure I can bear to go back to the Big Finish audio, but it seemed to me that the script here was slightly funnier than Simon Guerrier’s adaptation. Maybe it’s just that my appalled reaction to the basic concept has slightly worn off and I can see the humour more clearly.)

Anyway, well done to Richard Bignell and Nothing at the End of the Lane for making a surprisingly silken purse of this pig’s ear.

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Interesting Links for 13-11-2011

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Gibbon Chapter LXVII: The Beginning of the End

In this chapter, the carefully negotiated union of the eastern and western churches does not last, but the pressure on Constantinople is relieved for a few years by the Hungarians, to the north, and Scanderbeg and the Albanians, to the west. We end with Constantine Palæologus on the throne; but not for long. See also my notes on Siberian shamanism, life in India, transliteration, and Albanian geography.

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November Books 13) Moll Flanders, by Daniel Defoe

I’ve had a run of excellent reading over the last week or so, and thoroughly enjoyed Moll Flanders, or to be more precise The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders, etc. Who was Born in Newgate, and during a Life of continu’d Variety for Threescore Years, besides her Childhood, was Twelve Year a Whore, five times a Wife (whereof once to her own Brother), Twelve Year a Thief, Eight Year a Transported Felon in Virginia, at last grew Rich, liv’d Honest, and died a Penitent. Her life is indeed one of “continu’d Variety”, as she lurches from exploitative marriage to disastrous marriage to unwitting incest and back again, before breaking successfully into the business of petty theft, in the end being arrested almost by accident for a crime she had not yet committed. Defoe has her turn moralistic only at the very end, when she and the fourth husband (I think – I lost count) return to England “where we resolve to spend the remainder of our years in sincere penitence for the wicked lives we have lived”, and I sort of forgive that because one can read it as partly tongue-in-cheek, and also though a weak-ish ending it is stronger than the ending of Robinson Crusoe so obviously he was learning. I must also admit that she is rather unrealistically sanguine about the fate of her children, of whom we hear very little.

It’s a fascinating pen-picture of England in the early seventeenth century, where urban social networks were small and intimate enough that you could steal from a shop at one end of town and sell your loot to their competitor at the other; where constables were aware enough of the rights of citizens under the law to be easily intimidated by a sharp-witted suspect; where people would invest wealth not only in hard cash (“which every one knows is an unprofitable cargo to be carried to the plantations”) but also in jewels, silver plate, cloth and easily portable luxury goods. One thing that hasn’t changed, which she reflects on bitterly in the gap between husbands two and three (I think – again, I had already lost count) is the differential social power between women and men, even allowing for economic factors; Defoe verges on feminism in a couple of passages.

Anyway, very strongly recommended, if you like “continu’d Variety”; and who doesn’t?

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