March Books

Non-fiction 2 (YTD 7)
The Unfree French
, by Richard Vinen
What’s Up With Catalonia? The causes which impel them to the separation, translated and edited by Liz Castro

Fiction (non-sf) 3 (YTD 5)
A Rag, a Bone, a Hank of Hair
, by Jonathan Gash
The Castle, by Franz Kafka
The Lady and the Unicorn, by Tracy Chevalier

sf (non-Who) 10 (YTD 18)
The Left Hand of Darkness
, by Ursula Le Guin
Intrusion, by Ken MacLeod
2312, by Kim Stanley Robinson
The Flight of the Ravens, by Chris Butler
Adrift on the Sea of Rains, by Ian Sales
Observatory, by Daragh Carville
How To Train Your Dragon, by Cressida Cowell
How To Cheat A Dragon’s Curse, by Cressida Cowell
How To Twist A Dragon’s Tale, by Cressida Cowell
How To Seize A Dragon’s Jewel, by Cressida Cowell

Doctor Who 5 (YTD 17)
, by Terrance Dicks
Endgame, by Terrance Dicks
World Game, by Terrance Dicks
The Spear of Destiny, by Marcus Sedgwick
Sky Pirates!, by Dave Stone

Comics 4 (YTD 6)
Berlin – A City Divided: Chronicles
, by Susanne Buddenberg and Thomas Henseler
Bruss. Brussels in Shorts, ed. Ilke Froyen and Piet Joostens
Saucer Country, vol 1: Run, by Paul Cornell
Fugitive, by Tony Lee

~5,900 pages (YTD 13,500)
9/24 (YTD 14/53) by women (Castro, Chevalier, Le Guin, Cowell x 4, Buddenberg, Froyen and contributors)
0/24 (YTD 0/53) by PoC – time to change that.

Rereads: The Left Hand of Darkness (1, YTD 3)
Acquired 2011 or before: 12 (The Left Hand of Darkness, The Lady and the Unicorn, Endgame, Sky Pirates!, The Castle, World Game, Players, Fugitive, How to Twist a Dragon’s Tale, How to Cheat a Dragon’s Curse, How To Seize A Dragon’s Jewel) – YTD 21
Acquired 2012: 2 (A Rag, a Bone, and a Hank of Hair, How To Train Your Dragon) – YTD 12
Acquired 2013: 10 (Intrusion, 2312, Berlin – A City Divided, The Flight of the Ravens, Adrift on the Sea of Rains, The Spear of Destiny, What’s up with Catalonia?, Observatory, Bruss. Brussels in shorts, Saucer Country: Run) – YTD 20

Coming next (perhaps):
Chicks Dig Comics
, ed. Lynne M. Thomas and Sigrid Ellis
Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
Swallows And Amazons, by Arthur Ransome
1632, by Eric Flint
The Quantum Thief, by Hannu Rajaniemi
Doors Open, by Ian Rankin
The Last Mughal, by William Dalrymple
A History of the World in 100 Objects, by Neil MacGregor
The Peoples of Middle-Earth, by Christopher Tolkien
Toward the End of Time, by John Updike
Daystar and Shadow, by James Weldon Johnson
Catching Fire, by Suzanne Collins
The Irish Constitutional Revolution of the Sixteenth Century, by Brendan Bradshaw
Dead Souls, by Nikolai Gogol
Starship Fall, by Eric Brown
The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco
Danny the Champion of the World, by Roald Dahl
Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury
The Jagged Orbit, by John Brunner
Desert, by J. M. G. Le Clezio
Confessions of Zeno, by Italo Svevo
The Eye of the Giant, by Christopher Bulis
Zamper, by Gareth Roberts
Father Time, by Lance Parkin
Tesseract, by Tony Lee

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March Books 24) The Lady and the Unicorn, by Tracy Chevalier

‘Is Brussels always so quiet?’ Nicolas asked, picking bits of wool off his tunic.

Not a lot of best-selling novels set in fifteenth-century Belgium, though I have to say I wasn’t hugely satisfied with this one; bad boy artist Nicolas travels between Paris and Brussels impregnating young women, one of them the blind daughter of the weaver of the tapestry which he has designed. There’s a fair bit about art and patterns of patronage and so on, but I felt the writer was a little too much in love with her irresponsible hero.

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March Books 23) Fugitive, by Tony Lee

fugitiveA collection of linked Tenth Doctor graphic stories, the first two issues set in Hollywood in 1926 with the Doctor collaborating with film star Archie Maplin (an obvious duplicate of Charlie Chaplin) and the following four taking him through a struggle with the Shadow Proclamation, or more particularly with Mr Finch / Brother Lassar from School Reunion, aided by a Draconian, an Ogron and a Sontaran. Lee is sensitive to his material and there were several great squee moments for my fanboy heart (including shoutouts to Big Finish continuity).

Unfortunately I felt the artists failed to quite capture David Tennant's (or Anthony Stewart Head's) facial features, with Matthew Dow Smith, doing the second run of four issues, slightly better than Al Davison, doing the first two. (The frame shown here is Smith rather than Davison.) If you can swallow that, the story is quite good, and I will work through the next volumes happily.

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March Books 22) Saucer Country, vol 1: Run, by Paul Cornell

Rather than wait for the Hugo Voter Pack to become available, I downloaded a few of the nominated works available in electronic form after last night’s announcement, and selected this nominee for Best Graphic Story to read first.

Paul Cornell takes us to New Mexico, where the governor has just announced her candidacy for President, and at the same time she and her husband are mixed up in a peculiar incident of apparent alien abduction. It isn’t utterly dissimilar to his London Falling, which also has establishment figures from unusual backgrounds (his varied police squad) having to deal with the unexpectedly sfnal in their work.

Cornell deconstructs the lore of UFOlogy entertainingly (largely through a massive infodump in the last of the six issues collected here, issued by a character who talks to the Pioneer plaque people); meanwhile sinister political forces which want to bring down the governor are at least partly aware of what is going on, and conspiracies simmer. It’s good fun, and I hope I enjoy the other three nominees in this category as much (I won’t be reading Schlock Mercenary).

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Four “How To Train Your Dragon” books, by Cressida Cowell

I asked young F the other day if I might borrow his Cressida Cowell collection. He went and rummaged in his shelves, and came back with three books, apologising that the fourth in the series was missing. "Are these the first three, then?" I asked. "No," he replied, "these are the first, fifth and tenth!" I had no idea that there were so many, but at least I can now say that I have given them a fair sampling. He also later found the fourth book as well.

The series concerns the adventures of a teenage Viking and his faithful but rather useless dragon; although he is the chief's son, he is the weedy boy of his cohort in the tribe, and must find success through superior brain-power, linguistic knowledge and as it turns out predestination as well. The Viking culture depicted will ring rather few bells with readers who know anything about the era. The tribe appears to have no girls (in later books a girl called Camicazi from a neighbouring tribe appears). No other culture apart from the Vikings and the dangerous multicoloured (and occasionally enslaved) dragons is shown, though the Romans are off-screen. The names are rather excruciating (our hero is Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III, his father is Stoick the Vast, and his mother is Valhallarama) and the dragon language a bit embarrassing; the stories are exciting but not terribly edgy. I rather preferred the film.

Book 1: How To Train Your Dragon

As Hiccup somersaulted for the second time he thought to himself, Now THIS, this really IS the worst moment of my life.

The origin story, where Hiccup bonds with a rather useless dragon called Toothless and then must help his tribe deal with a giant dragon which turns up and threatens to eat them all.

Book 4: How To Cheat A Dragon's Curse

On the west of the map, someone had scribbled out the great tumbling waterfall which on most Viking maps was marked 'End of the World', and replace it with a crude charcoal drawing of an island it called AMERICA.

I liked this the most of the four; to save his friend, Hiccupmust retrieve a mysterious vegetable called a potato from a vicious neighbouring tribe who have found it in a new land to the west. The is a lot of humour about how America and the potato are actually taboo topics among the Vikings who ought not to have discovered them yet, and Camicazi is a welcome foil to Hiccup.

Book 5: How To Twist A Dragon's Tale

I have found another Lover, who has already brought me the Fire-Stone, and I am going to marry HIM.

Hiccup encounters a legendary hero who turns out to be his mother's ex-boyfriend, and together they must prevent a volcano from erupting.

Book 10: How To Seize A Dragon's Jewel

The truth is, it is often difficult to explain things to a parent. And most definitely it s particularly difficult when your mother is hunting you at top speed through a dark forest under the impression tat you are the Enemy of the Wilderwest.

This seems to be the middle book of a climactic sequence in which villains from previous volumes have come together and enslaved Hiccup's village, while plotting magical domination of the known world (or at least the Viking archipelago). It's 400 pages, whereas the other three are in the low to mid 200s. The is a fairly spectacular set of scenes around a geographically improbable desert, and Hiccup must deal separately with mummy and daddy issues. I did not feel the urge to seek out any more in the series to see how it ends.

I'd hesitate to recommend these, to be honest. Maybe I am too pedantic, but I prefer my fictional Vikings to be a bit more like real Vikings, and while of course one must lose some verisimilitude once pet dragons have been brought into the picture, I think it's not unfair to expect a little better than this.

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Hugo Best Novel nominee stats

Goodreads Librarything
number average number average
Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas, John Scalzi 11000 3.82 729 3.85
Blackout, Mira Grant 4453 4.20 277 4.09
Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance, Lois McMaster Bujold 2167 4.19 348 4.17
Throne of the Crescent Moon, Saladin Ahmed 1907 3.61 217 3.54
2312, Kim Stanley Robinson 1859 3.41 296 3.52

Well, there’s a clear front-runner. Full nominations list is here.

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March Books 17) Sky Pirates!, by Dave Stone

‘You’ve had more experience with the man. It doesn’t always end like that, does it?’ She realized that Benny was of a sudden looking slightly nervous. ‘Does it?’
‘Um,’ said Benny.

After some very downbeat New Adventures in my recent reading, it was good to read one that deliberately and successfully played up the comedy – this often misfires for me, but in this case I was able to roll with the very alien creatures and their sinister plans while also sympathising very much with the confused new companions Roz and Chris; like them, I was never completely convinced that I knew what was going on, but it was fun and kept me engaged.

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March Books 16) Bruss. Brussels in Shorts, ed. Ilke Froyen and Piet Joostens

These are the ten winning entries of an international competition for graphic short stories set in Brussels, and specifically using the setting of the Oude Graanmarkt (aka the Vieux Marché aux Grains), a city centre square which I occasionally wander through on the rare occasions I am in that side of town.

Inevitably, the mandate was interpreted in various ways, and in fact two of my favourite pieces (Tomáš Kučerovský’s “Stereotypen” and William Goldsmith’s “De Moderne Rondeau”) both contrast the fading gentility of the central square with the European Parliament’s modernist architecture, which of course I know much better. Kučerovský (whose complaint that “I don’t really get Magritte, Brussels isn’t surreal at all”, illustrates this entry) has quite a witty deconstruction of what people think they see in Brussels. Goldsmith’s protagonist gets sucked into a historical mystery linking Brussels and Canada, a hundred years apart.

I bought the book mainly to try and improve my vestigial knowledge of comics in Flanders, but only three of the ten pieces are actually by Flemish writers; of these, the one I liked best was “De Wandeling” by Conz (Constantijn Van Cauwenberghe), in which the protagonist takes a ghostly dinosaur on the walk from the Oude Graanmarkt to the Natural History Museum. (The other two locals are Frederik Van den Stock and Steven “Stedho” Dhondt.) All good stuff though.

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March Books 15) What’s Up With Catalonia?, translated and edited by Liz Castro

Catalonia, our country, is a nation. A nation that, in order to maintain its identity and to move forward, needs tools of state. This nation has existed for many centuries. It has its own identity, culture, and language, and its own institutions. Catalonia wants to follow, and indeed must be allowed to follow, its own path.

(Artur Mas i Gavarro, President of Catalonia, in the Prologue)
This is a digestible book of 35 essays about Catalonia, all written at the end of last year, which is being widely distributed by sympathisers of the Catalan cause. The two key grievances which come up again and again are the question of fiscal imbalance, where Catalonia feels that it is subsidising the manifestly unsuccessful policies of the central Spanish state, over which is has little say and for which it gets little in return; and the language issue – using Catalan in public could get you arrested not very long ago, and Madrid does little to reassure Catalan concerns on this point. There are two pieces about Europe, a snapshot of Brussels opinion by a leading MEP, and a brief but powerful piece by my old mate Edward Hugh on the political economics (or the economic politics) of Catalonia’s drive for independence. We will hear more on this subject in the coming months.

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March Books 14) The Castle, by Franz Kafka

Nirgends noch hatte K. Amt und Leben so verflochten gesehen wie hier, so verflochten, daß es manchmal scheinen konnte, Amt und Leben hätten ihre Plätze gewechselt.
Nowhere else had K. ever seen one's official position and one's life so intertwined as they were here, so intertwined that it sometimes seemed as though office and life had switched places.

Kafka's unfinished novel, published in contravention of his dying wishes, is generally known as The Castle in English, and indeed that is the sense in which the word Schloß is generally used in the text. But Schloß also means "lock", and it is close to Schluß which means "end" or "closure". In one of Agatha Christies barmy later novels, the hero reflects, "’What a nice word it is. A Schloss. So solid-sounding." These are the nuances one loses in translation. (Note also how Amt is translated two different ways in the quote above, neither very graceful.) Unfortunately I am not courageous enough to tackle it in the original.

The book itself was different from my expectations. I had somehow imagined a story of crushing omnipresent bureaucracy; but in fact it’s a tale of a society under constant threat from an oppressive authority which is distant and largely absent, and encountered only in baffling and frustrating ways; but its effect on the villagers is to put everyone on edge and cause ordinary relationships to be distorted, men and women both desperate to prove that they don’t care for authority and also conscious that they must buckle to it. It’s a shame that it isn’t finished, but we know where it is going and where it has been – it finishes in mid-sentence, “…mühselig sprach sie, man hatte Mühe sie zu verstehen, aber was sie sagte” – “…she spoke with difficulty, it was hard to understand her, but what she said” – and there it ends.

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March Books 13) Observatory, by Daragh Carville

Jon: You can’t be in two places at once.
Nicola: I’m not. I’m in one place twice.

The ancient Observatory at Armagh has always been a place of mystery and wonder to me – I worked there for a couple of months during my gap year in 1985/86, and showed visitors Halley’s Comet through the telescope erected a hundred years earlier by J.L.E. Dreyer to round off his New General Catalogue (which gives galaxies their NGC numbers). Later, the observatory’s official historian supervised my M Phil and was the external examiner of my Ph D. It’s an important part of forming my personal approach to knowledge; and I knew it best just at the time of my life when I was getting deeply into science fiction.

So when I discovered that the Abbey Theatre had performed a play about the observatory’s history, written by Daragh Carville (who also wrote Regenerations, a play about Doctor Who set in Belfast) I knew I had to get it. It is a four-handed play, two characters being very loosely based on the Observatory’s first director and his assistant in 1799, the other two being a 1999 astronomer and her occasional lover, a historian. It’s a fairly simple plot – time-travel romance and revolutionary betrayal – but offers some space for reflection on history and place. I would encourage theatrical folks with sfnal and/or Irish sympathies to give this short piece a try; it could work quite well. (Though I winced a bit at a scene where a transit of Mercury is observed at night.)

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Links I found interesting for 25-03-2013

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Links I found interesting for 24-03-2013

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March Books 12) The Spear of Destiny, by Marcus Sedgwick

‘You’re taking us to see the Vikings?’ asked Jo incredulously.
‘I know! Wonderful, isn’t it?’ said the Doctor with a grin.

For the first time this year, I am actually up to date with book-blogging. And you can’t be much more up to date than this; The Spear of Destiny was only published today, so I could hardly have written it up any sooner. The Doctor and Jo, somewhere in Season 10, are asked to investigate mysterious happenings around a spear held in a private museum, and go back to Sweden in the year 141 to find out what’s going on and to discover exactly which bearded villain is behind it all. It’s a bit reminiscent of The Time Monster, but a bit lighter (apart from the iconography of the Spear of Destiny, which is actually rather heavy stuff). Sedgwick doesn’t quite capture the TV Third Doctor, but then neither does Terrance Dicks if we’re honest, and if this wee book is a gateway to a new generation discovering that era of the show, it’s fine with me.

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BSFA Short Fiction – my vote

Not going to justify these in detail, but wanted to record my thoughts anyway.

6) “Limited Edition”, by Tim Maughan

5) The Flight of the Ravens, by Chris Butler – some details rather threw me.

4) “Immersion”, by Aliette de Bodard

3) “Three Moments of an Explosion”, by China Miéville

2) Adrift on the Sea of Rains, by Ian Sales – excellent bleak alternate space race with Nazi occult McGuffin, and twist at the end.

1) “Song of the Body Cartographer”, by Rochita Loenen-Ruiz – somehow grabbed me in a way the others didn’t.

Well done to the BSFA on producing such a lovely awards book.

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Things that jarred me in Chris Butler’s “The Flight of the Ravens”

“It had been almost a century since the French emperor Napoleon had obliged the Dutch to take surnames, against their own custom”
– this is protagonist Elizabeth’s inward response to learning that her acquaintance Doctor Huginn Raaf wishes to be known only as Huginn. The scene is set in 1899; Napoleon’s edict on surnames was in 1811. However it’s entirely wrong to suggest that the Dutch were mononymous before 1811; generally patronymics were used. And the reference to a legal reform of 90 years before spoils the tone. I can’t imagine anyone writing “Helena went to cast her vote, as women of her age had been entitled to so since 1928.”

“Huginn had purchased passage by horse-drawn carriage to Frankfurt, following the path of the Danube, and from there to Amsterdam.”
– in 1899 it would be a lot quicker and more comfortable to take the train (indeed, the previous chapter has an infodump about the train station in Amsterdam). I actually doubt if it was possible to find a regular horse-drawn carriage service (there are other passengers, so this isn’t a special charter by Huginn) on that route in that year. It is implied that the carriage covers the 700km from Vienna to Frankfurt in a single day, which seems utterly improbable. Also the Danube does not go all the way to Frankfurt; you would have to head north-west by Ulm at the very latest. Compare “They travelled from London to Cardiff, following the path of the Thames, and from there to Pembroke.”

“Where will you be staying?”
“In Frankfurt? A hotel called the Mercure, in the old part of town.”
– the Mercure chain of mid-range hotels was founded about 40 years ago, so would not have been available in 1899. A hotel in Frankfurt then would have been called Merkur not Mercure. Anyway the hotel to stay at in Frankfurt, then and now, is the Frankfurter Hof.

Just saying, like.

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Links I found interesting for 23-03-2013

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March Books 9) A Rag, a Bone, a Hank of Hair, by Jonathan Gash

'These aren't padpas, Doshie,' I said. 'They're tsavorite.' A tsavorite is properly green grossular, a sort of garnet discovered some seventy years ago near Kenya's National Park at Tsavo. Its lovely green lies between deep Sri Lankan emeralds and a peridot. (Tip: Don't buy a tsavorite unless it's above one carat in size.) 'Measure its single refraction, Doshie, to prove it isn't green tourmaline or green zircon. Save me a trip to London. Also, I know nothing about precious stones.'

For someone who claims over and over that he hates London, Lovejoy spends a lot of time there in this novel, which has all the rambles of the later books in the series (only three more after this, including The Ten Word Game and Faces in the Pool). At least, however, there is a core plot – with admittedly an awful lot of distraction – in which an even randier than usual Lovejoy attempts to wreak justice on those who have hounded a former lover, caused the death of her husband and threatened their son. (Whose son? Hmm.) There are some lovely Lydia moments as well – she is the most entertaining of the semi-regular characters in these books, and will get an unexpected twist in her tale in a couple of books' time – and the usual incredible detail about antiques and other issues (such as the precise distinction between a padparadsha and a tsavorite). I don't think this is a gateway book for non-Lovejoy fans, but it's an entertaining book for those of us who are.

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BSFA Best Novel: My vote

Not very difficult for me to rank them:

5) Empty Space: A Haunting, by M. John Harrison – possibly jetlag while reading it, but apart from Anna Waterman I found the characters unengaging, and I had difficulty following the plots and grasping how or why they intertwined.

4) 2312, by Kim Stanley Robinson – rambling and dubious but with a couple of good set-pieces.

3) Intrusion, by Ken MacLeod – a good book but quite a tough read, also tantalises with mind-blowing stuff happening off-screen.

2) Jack Glass, by Adam Roberts – a lot of clever stuff; a lot of entertaining writing; ending perhaps a bit too clever, but a good read.

1) Dark Eden, by Chris Beckett – I really liked it, subverting a lot of expectations of young hero versus conservative small society on an abandoned planet.

I'll be happy enough if any of my top three wins.

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March Books 8) 2312, by Kim Stanley Robinson

She was looking at the sun, now four fingers high over the jagged black horizon. “Oh my God, look at it,” she said. “Just look at it.”
Wahram tried, but it was too bright, too big.

A rambling combination of detective story, solar system travelogue, and rather unconvincing romance, this book may be the favourite on the BSFA shortlist for Best Novel, going by GoodReads / LibraryThing statistics. James Nicoll and Vandana Singh have pointed out some of its failings. I too was disappointed by it; I found myself several times looking up from the screen (reading on various combinations of iPad and iPhone) and thinking, "This narrative technique was done much better in the Mars trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson. Who is it who wrote this book and is trying to rip off KSR's style? Oh…"

In particular, I felt that a couple of important plot points were simply badly done – the mysterious person who appears on Io quite early on, and the kidnapping of our heroine while visiting China, are both important developments which are just under-reported. Also, the policeman at the heart of the detective story element behaves in an utterly unprofessional way in terms of sharing his speculation on the crime (the destruction of a large city on Mercury, and related events) with our protagonists – it is as bad as The Terminal Experiment. As both Singh and Nicoll point out, our heroes' decision to crucially intervene in the ecosystem of Earth is arrogant and crazy, but reported in entirely positive terms. And there is a crashingly dull lecture on revolutions in the middle.

There are good bits too. There are two excellent descriptive set-pieces – the long walk through the tunnels of Mercury, and the dangerous spacewalk in the orbit of Venus – which really grabbed me. The descriptions of worlds other than Earth are vivid and engaging (just a shame about Earth then). But it's a bit of a trudge to get to those parts.

(Also, annoyingly, "Yggdrasil" was mis-spelt "Ygassdril" at several points.")

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SJA first season (2007) and Time Crash

So, I reach the first full season of the Sarah Jane Adventures. Absolutely excellent stuff, and if you haven’t watched it you should. The episodes are 30 minutes long, which again is a bit awkward for my commute (two 20-25 minute trains with 5-10 mins between them); I also found I tended to want to watch the good bits again, and there are quite a lot of them.

First time round I rated Revenge of the Slitheen the weakest of the five stories. I didn’t think so this time; sure, it has essentially the same plot as School Reunion, but that’s not such a bad thing. Daniel Anthony as Clyde is a huge improvement and lifts the show. The Slitheen, who I thought awful in the Eccleston two-parter and just about bearable in Boom Town, are really rather good here, and the tension between their threat to destroy the earth, Luke’s deception and the strategic use of vinegar is very effective.

Eye of the Gorgon is really very good. Phyllida Law is fantastic as a guest star, and for a kids’ programme to deal with Alzheimer’s this explicitly is impressive; the sinister nuns are great, and the bits around Maria’s family are very good not just the drama of trying to keep her father unaware and yet seeing him turned to stone, but also her mother’s horrendous insensitivity; the previous season of New Who’s depictions of troubled families (particularly in The Idiot’s Lantern) seem even more cartooney now. The ending is a bit “with a bound, Maria’s mirror set them free” but otherwise this is good.

If Warriors of Kudlak had nothing else, I would love it for its homage to Kate Bush’s “Cloudbursting” (see author’s note). Apart from that, it’s a nice nod to the world of games, a topic which gets fewer nods in the Whoniverse than one might expect, with fairly clear nods to Ender’s Game

[cut and pasted from my original write-up in 2007; I stand by it, except that I am now clearer on the Graske.]

Whatever Happened to Sarah Jane? is, frankly, Hugo-worthy. As their loved ones are torn away from them, Maria and Alan successively have their world fall apart, and Jane Asher (who previously played the Doctor’s grandduaghter in the radio play “Whatever happened to Susan”) is superb as Sarah Jane’s alter ego Andrea. (F asked me, “So does that mean that Andrea had all those adventures with the Doctor instead?” I suppose so – fan-fic writers, get to it!) A really brilliant fifty minutes of television, the only puzzling thing for me being the role of the Graske. Not surprised to see that Graeme Harper directed it.

[added 2013]

It is an interesting historical note that in 1964, as the fictional Andrea and Sarah are reading about the Beatles playing Brighton, the real Jane Asher was Paul McCartney Paul McCartney’s girlfriend. For comparison, pictures of her then and of Francesca Miller playing the young Andrea:

Not a bad likeness.

The Lost Boy wobbles a bit due to its dependence on Thomas Knight as Luke; he was basically the weakest of the core cast and only just about carried it off. It’s also notable that this shares themes of playing with the core characters’ identities and cosmic disaster with the immediately preceding story, and the concept of the Moon being zoomed in to threaten the Earth and then zoomed back out again is very silly indeed. But the mystery of Luke’s identity is very well done, the treachery of Mr Smith well executed, and the cliffhanger between the episodes with Clyde apparently disintegrated and the surprise return of an old enemy is the best of this series. (Also I cheered out loud at the unexpected return of an old friend in the last few minutes.)

Time Crash, the first (and so far only) multi-Doctor story of New Who (apart from regeneration sequences), is a lovely homage to Old from New. Sure, Davison is grumpier (but also funnier) than he ever was in the 1981-84 period, but he’s also clearly delighted to be back; and if there is one particular kind of scene which Moffat excels in writing, it is comedic misunderstanding – see for instance his scene with the kleptomaniac and the detectives in the Tintin movie, or The Girl With Two Breasts. Note also the second ever mention of Belgium in TV Who. If you have any doubts about whether it’s OK to like Time Crash, with its breach of the fourth wall and fannishness, Philip Sandifer will put you right.

I very much enjoyed rewatching all of these. In particular, it’s striking that none of the five SJA stories is very bad, and two (Gorgon and Whatever?) are really superb. There are various runs of Old and New Who where there are five consecutive decent stories (most recently before this, the run from Dalek to The Parting of the Ways which is actually six good stories in a row), but it is rare to have an entire season where even the low points are still pretty watchable. And Time Crash is an added bonus.

< The Curse of Fatal Death | The Webcasts | Rose – Dalek | The Long Game – The Parting of the Ways | Comic Relief 2006 – The Girl in the Fireplace | Rise of the Cybermen – Doomsday | Everything Changes – They Keep Killing Suzie | Random Shoes – End of Days | Smith and Jones – 42 | Human Nature / The Family of Blood – Utopia / The Sound of Drums / Last of the Time Lords & The Infinite Quest | Revenge of the Slitheen – The Lost Boy & Time Crash | Voyage of the Damned – Adam | Reset – Exit Wounds

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The Players trilogy, by Terrance Dicks

Players, by Terrance Dicks

“We don’t know your name either,” said Peri. She glanced at the Doctor. “At least, I don’t. My friend the Doctor seems to think he knows you already.”
“Churchill,” said the war correspondent. “Winston Churchill, very much at your service.” He looked at the Doctor. “I don’t think we’ve met before, sir, have we?”
“We will, Winston,” said the Doctor. “We will!”

This is the first of Terrance Dicks’ three novels about the Players, a mysterious race of manipulators of human history for the sake of a grand Game, reminiscent of Roger Zelazny’s “The Game of Blood and Dust” (a favourite short story of mine). Anyone who wondered why Ian McNiece’s character seemed so chummy with the Doctor back in 2010 can find the answer in this book, which is largely about the Sixth Doctor and Peri encountering Churchill in the Boer War and then in 1936, though with a brief flashback to an adventure of the Second Doctor with Churchill in 1915, in which the future prime minister is rescued from capture by the Germans.

Dicks is of the generation who knew Churchill as a genuine time-travelling hero, in that he progressed from a young officer in the British army’s last meaningful cavalry charge at Omdurman in 1898 to being the man in charge of a nuclear power. It sort of seems obvious in retrospect that Churchill and the Doctor should meet, and it’s almost surprising that it hadn’t happened on screen or page before.

The plot itself is thrilling stuff, ending in confrontation with Joachim von Ribbentrop and a direct intervention into the 1936 abdication of Edward VII, where the Doctor and Peri successfully keep history back on the right lines despite the efforts of the Players. Fun, if not profound, told in Dicks’ characteristically clear prose, and brining in plenty of references to Dicks’ other Who work – The War Games, of course, but also Dekker from Blood Harvest and off-screen references to the events of Timewyrm: Exodus. Interested readers can pick up a brand new edition, as it is one of the 11 books reissued by the BBC for the 50th anniversary.

Endgame, by Terrance Dicks

It occurred to the Doctor that he hated tyranny and oppression. Or was it that he used to hate tyranny and oppression? It didn’t seem to matter much any more.
Nothing did.

Continuing the arc of the amnesiac Eighth Doctor, this novel actually has some similarities with The Turing Test, its immediate predecessor in the series, but I enjoyed it more (not saying much, I’m afraid). We are now in 1951, with the Players trying to resolve their Game through causing, or preventing, nuclear war. The story swirls round the Cambridge Spies, with Burgess, MacLean and Philby playing key roles and the Doctor and Peri eventually flying to Washington and Moscow to prevent the Players from working their way on the minds of Truman and Stalin, with a final emotional appeal on behalf of humanity melting their inhuman hearts. The research was clearly meticulous, but the results not all that inspiring.

World Game, by Terrance Dicks

The Doctor stared hard at the blank white square and concentrated. The card seemed to blur before his eyes – and suddenly he was holding a gold-edged, heavily embossed invitation card to the Duchess of Richmond’s ball.
‘Latest Agency technology,’ said Serena. ‘Psychic paper – gets you in anywhere!’

And finally, we dip back in continuity to an entire book set after the Second Doctor chapters of Players, in which we have a brief return to Carstairs and Lady Jennifer in the First World War, and then the Second Doctor and new Time Lord companion Serena, dipping in and out of the timeline of the Napoleonic wars, trying to prevent history from being diverted by the Players. This is all set during Season 6B (as is the Second Doctor section of Players) with the Doctor sent on mission by the Celestial Intervention Agency in order to diminish his sentence to exile and forced regeneration. It ends with the Doctor accepting the mission which we know as The Two Doctors. Lots of Napoleonic romping, particularly with the very steampunkish submarine which was indeed designed for Napoleon by American inventor Robert Fulton, though some liberties are taken with the historical timeline.

The climax comes just before the Battle of Waterloo, and one inaccuracy tweaked my Belgian sensibilities: the Doctor walks from the denouement at the Duchess of Richmond’s Ball to the Parc de Bruxelles via the Place Royale, which is rather a long way round. (The ball, as far as I can tell, was held roughly on the spot which is now the location of the car park for the City 2 shopping centre.)

It’s an interesting case of Dicks reinterpreting bits of later continuity to fit what he might have done in 1969, had he been thinking about it then; the inclusion of psychic paper (the book was published in 2005, one of the last of the Past Doctor Adventures range, and after New Who had started) is perhaps the most dramatic example. Serena is perhaps a thought experiment as to how Romana might have been done in the black and white era, and the Players themselves are an odd combination of the War Lords and perhaps the Eternals. (The Sarah Jane Adventures took the concept and tweaked it into the Trickster, who operates on a much more personal rather than historical level.)

Anyway, the three books together are a solid case of Terrance Dicks pursuing a single sfnal concept over the 1999-2005 period; if I’m still able to do that when I reach his age, I’ll be glad.

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Links I found interesting for 19-03-2013

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Doctor Who Season 3 (2007), second half

I actually finished these a couple of weeks ago, but am only now getting round to writing them up…

After a somewhat uneven first half of the season, we are onto much better stuff in the second half. It was good to come back to Human Nature / The Family of Blood so soon after rereading the book, though inevitably it meant doing a bit of compare and contrast; I won't do this in detail, since Niall Harrison did it back n 2007, but the things that jumped out at me were the following:

Positive points

  • On the screen, the appearance of David Tennant playing a different character who happens to look like the Doctor is far more effective than the gradually revealed Mr Smith of the book
  • Likewise, Jessica Hynes' performance as Joan brings far more to the concept of the Doctor's human self's lover than did the book, though age of course means she is a very different character
  • Similarly, the watch rather than the cricket ball, and the Book of Impossible Things, exploit the TV format beautifully
  • The Family of Blood are gloriously sinister, far more so than the Aubertides
  • And basically the fact of the Doctor being human because of the threat from the Family makes much more sense than the original idea of the Aubertides just happening to home along just after the Doctor has arbitrarily decided to try the single-heart club.

Less positive points

  • The fate of the Family of Blood still bugs me. The Aubertides in the book are defeated in a fair fight; the Doctor's meting out of judgement on the Family seems cruel – who made him the judge?
  • The battle scene doesn't work for me. The tragedy of real life war, especially the First World War, is that the other side is human, and the linkage between fighting scarecrows in 1913 and fighting Germans in 1915 seems to me both leaden and mistaken. Frankly turning the entire school to glass would have been a better solution (though technically more difficult).
  • The fantasy life-with-Joan-and-kids section is too obvious a borrowing from The Last Temptation of Christ.
  • Poor Martha gets much less of a look-in here than Bernice in the book; apart from Blink it's probably her least visible episode.

My instant reaction to Blink on first broadcast was that it was one of the best episodes ever. I still think so, on rewatching. The story on which it is based is very strong, one of the strongest in the New Who annuals, but everything comes together here, with an excellent, scary, funny script, time paradoxes as the show had rarely dared to do them before (even if Moffat has now made them standard practice), superb effects and the most memorable monsters of New Who in the form of the Weeping Angels. Carey Mulligan, who was only 21 and had barely started her career at this stage, is luminous and fantastic as Sally Sparrow. Tennant is great doing the concentrated Doctory stuff that he excels at. It's a bit minimal for poor Martha, though she does get some good moments at the end. It's great stuff.

In the 2008 Hugos, Blink had by far the highest number of nominations in its category (indeed the highest in any category), followed by Human Nature / The Family of Blood. The Torchwood episode Captain Jack Harkness came fifth. The only other Whoniverse episode to score in nominations was Out of Time, which was for my money the best of Torchwood's first season. I'm a bit surprised that The Shakespeare Code did not feature, but otherwise I think this was a decent take on a season which was not the strongest overall but had memorable high points. The season finale would have been too long to fit this category, and anyway is dragged down by Last of the Time Lords.

Come the actual vote, Blink had a solid lead on first preferences and with transfers from Human Nature / The Family of Blood and Captain Jack Harkness pulled ahead of the other two nominees combined for the most convincing win in any Hugo category of 2008 (the next strongest performance was John Scalzi's victory over Dave Langford and Cheryl Morgan for Best Fan Writer), and New Who's third Hugo in three years. In the count for second place, Human Nature/The Family of Blood was in the lead from the start and took the spot by a convincing margin. Captain Jack Harkness, however, finished in fourth place behind the Battlestar Galactica episode Razor. The final spot went to a fan production, the Star Trek: New Voyages episode Worlds Enough And Time (which features George Takei as a thirty-years-older Sulu).

And so we come to the season finale, New Who's first (arguably only) three-part story, and very much a game of three halves. While nothing can ever reproduce the sheer thrill of watching the denouement of Utopia for the first time when you don't know what's coming, it remains a pretty solid episode on rewatch, with it being apparently fairly clear what is going on until the moment when we realise that Derek Jacobi is returning to the role he played in Scream of the Shalka, in what I think remains the single best plot reveal in the whole of Who. Everyone is great in this – Tennant, Agyeman, Barrowman, Jacobi, Simm for his brief appearance and also Chipo Chung as the doomed Chantho.

The "with a bound they were free" transition to The Sound of Drums is a bit annoying given the buildup to the cliffhanger the previous week, but after that we are on fairly solid ground again, with Simm's Master's first appearance being much his best. Despite his obvious insanity, at this stage his intention to simply capture the Doctor and friends and do unspecified nasty things is pretty clear, and it gives the plot a terrific momentum. Apart from the regulars, Alexandra Moen is superb as Lucy Saxon, given few lines but an inescapable presence. And the continuity with Old Who's Gallifrey is terrifically pleasing, and completes a theme we've had since the start of the season (if we count The Runaway Bride as such). I found that I didn't even mind the "Here Come the Drums" song as much on rewatch; I felt it intrusive first time round.

And then, alas, we have Last of the Time Lords. On first watching, I was just slack-jawed in disbelief that such a promising setup had been so badly wasted, and unable to articulate quite why I hated it so much. This time round, I knew what was coming so was spared the crashing disappointment of the first broadcast, and actually thought it was not quite as awful as I had remembered. But that is not saying much.

Where it fails first, I think, is that the humiliation meted out to the Doctor and friends by the Master is neither funny nor interesting. There's something very skeevy indeed about making some of the most visible black characters ever in the show into slaves, and the script never quite acknowledges that. Torturing Jack Harkness is just nasty. Turning the Doctor into Dobby the House Elf is bizarre and incomprehensible, and then transforming him into Tinkerbell at the end is an appalling lapse of dramatic judgment. The story of Martha is a decent enough plot thread (and of course Freema Agyeman carries it well), and the Doctor's emotion for the Master is effective but would have been a lot more so without the previous 40 minutes, and the massive plot reset button actually comes as a relief because of the inanity of what has come before. For Martha's departure, see below.

I must not forget The Infinite Quest, another venture into animation. I had originally intended to watch it one three-minute episode at a time, but could only find the consolidated version (it was originally shown on the same day as Last of the Time Lords, but in the morning). The animated format allows us a much more space opera type story, with giant metal-eating birds, space pirates and a prison planet. There are a couple of interesting plot twists, too, as the real fate of the prison governor is revealed and as Martha and the Doctor both have to deal with personifications of their heart's desire. But the animation of the two leads is a bit disappointing – the animated Doctor in particular doesn't look much like David Tennant – and it demonstrates how difficult it is to attach emotional freight to cartoons, though Freema does her best.

This third season of New Who will always be the one with Blink, Human Nature / The Family of Blood, and the return of the Master, which kind of make up for the disappointments of the Dalek two-parter and the leaden finale. It's good that the high points are so superlative, because the lows of this season are about as low as you get in the Tenth Doctor era.

I know that Martha comes back in the next seasons of both Torchwood and Who, but I've been writing up other characters after the end of their first set of regular appearances so I shall give my impressions of Martha here. It struck me very forcefully that, unlike Rose, she is both sexy and brainy; she kisses the Doctor in her first episode, and is flirting with Shakespeare in her second, and is also on course to be a highly qualified professional. Unlike Rose, whose life perhaps lacked meaning until she got into the Tardis, Martha gets dragged off course by the Doctor, who takes her utterly, abominably, for granted (blinded as he is by bereavement) and only realises his mistake as she leaves him. As noted previously, she and Mickey are the only two New Who companions to leave the Tardis entirely voluntarily.

I was fascinated to sit in on one of Freema Agyeman's interviews at Gallifrey One last month. (And also delighted to get my picture taken with her.) Although I went on Sunday, she seems to have said much the same to the session attended by Karin Kross on the Saturday, to the effect that (I paraphrase) she felt Martha's unrequited love for the Doctor went too far to be entertaining or comfortable. When RTD explained to her that he wanted gritty emotional realism, she pondered the merits of a more optimistic escapism. She was also rather moving on Martha as a role model, and a lot of people seemed to suddenly have something in their eyes when she told the story of the little girl who, when asked to select a famous person to write about for Black History Week, chose Martha Jones. When Freema Agyeman played a character who was sexy and brainy, she clearly didn't have to try too hard.

< The Curse of Fatal Death | The Webcasts | Rose – Dalek | The Long Game – The Parting of the Ways | Comic Relief 2006 – The Girl in the Fireplace | Rise of the Cybermen – Doomsday | Everything Changes – They Keep Killing Suzie | Random Shoes – End of Days | Smith and Jones – 42 | Human Nature / The Family of Blood – Utopia / The Sound of Drums / Last of the Time Lords & The Infinite Quest | Revenge of the Slitheen – The Lost Boy & Time Crash | Voyage of the Damned – Adam | Reset – Exit Wounds

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