September 2021 books

Non-fiction 3 (YTD 30)
Rose, by Jon Arnold
The Massacre, by James Cooray Smith
Gods and Tulips, by Neil Gaiman
book cover

Non-genre 3 (YTD 22)
Jack, by Marilynne Robinson
Kipps, by H. G. Wells
4.50 from Paddington, by Agatha Christie
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Scripts 1 (YTD 3)
Great Glowing Coils of the Universe
, by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor

Poetry (mostly) 1 (YTD 4)
Love, Fishie, by Maddy Gaiman

SF 11 (YTD 94)
Zodiac Station, by Tom Harper
The Return of the Discontinued Man, by Mark Hodder – did not finish
Hurricane Fever, by Tobias S. Buckell
The Man Who Walked Through Walls, by Marcel Aymé
Felaheen, by Jon Courtenay Grimwood
The Bloodline Feud, by Charles Stross
"The Saturn Game", by Poul Anderson
Dominion: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction from Africa and the African Diaspora, eds. Zelda Knight & Ekpeki Oghenechovwe Donald
Set This House in Order: A Romance of Souls, by Matt Ruff
The Rain-Soaked Bride, by Guy Adams
Mama Bruise, by Jonathan Carroll
book cover book cover book cover book cover book cover

Doctor Who 5 (YTD 13, 17 inc non-fiction and comics)
Angel of Mercy, by Julianne Todd, Claire Bartlett and Iain McLaughlin
Blood of Atlantis, by Simon Forward
The Ruby’s Curse, by Alex Kingston
Doctor Who: Rose, by Russell T. Davies
Doctor Who: The Massacre, by John Lucarotti
book cover book cover book cover

Comics and art books 5 (YTD 34)
Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts, by Rebecca Hall and Hugo Martínez
Retour sur Aldébaran, Épisode 2, by Leo
Retour sur Aldébaran, Épisode 3, by Leo
De Walvisbibliotheek, by Judith Vanistendael and Zidrou
Reflected, ed. Peter de Rijcke
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6,600 pages (YTD 53,000)
8/29 (YTD 86/200) by non-male writers (Robinson, Christie, Gaiman, Knight, Todd/Bartlett, Kingston/Rayner, Hall, Vanistendael)
3/29 (YTD 34/200) by PoC (Cooray Smith, Buckell, Donald)
6/29 rereads (YTD 23/200) – 4.50 from Paddington, Felaheen, The Bloodline Feud, "The Saturn Game", Doctor Who: Rose, Doctor Who: The Massacre

Current
Quicksilver, by Neal Stephenson
The Wych Elm, by Tana French
John Quincy Adams: American Visionary, by Fred Kaplan

Coming soon (perhaps)
Time Must Have a Stop, by Aldous Huxley
City of Miracles, by Robert Jackson Bennett
"Fire Watch", by Connie Willis
Groetjes uit Vlaanderen, by Mohamed Ouaamari
The Empire of Time, by David Wingrove
Crashland, by Sean Williams
Day of the Dead, by Neil Gaiman
Paul: A Biography, by Tom Wright
The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde
Mortal Engines, by Philip Reeve
The Story of Sex: From Apes to Robots, by Philippe Brenot
The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun, by J R R Tolkien
The Last Defender of Camelot, by Roger Zelazny
Le dernier Atlas, Tome 3, by Fabien Vehlmann
Ann Veronica, by H. G. Wells
An Introduction to the Gospel of John, by Raymond E. Brown
Summer, by Ali Smith
The Empire of Gold, by S. A Chakraborty
Not Before Sundown, by Johanna Sinisalo

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April 2013 books

This is the latest post in a series I started in late 2019, anticipating the twentieth anniversary of my bookblogging which will fall in 2023. Every six-ish days, I've been revisiting a month from my recent past, noting work and family developments as well as the books I read in that month. I've found it a pleasantly cathartic process, especially in recent circumstances. If you want to look back at previous entries, they are all tagged under bookblog nostalgia.

My one trip this month was to Bratislava, where I chaired a session of a conference which was sadly deficient in gender representation. My French intern MG returned to Geneva, her career base, and is still there in the private banking sector. Her replacement, Anglo-American M, was recruited by me at rather short notice when my original choice dropped out; M negotiated an arrangement where she worked for me four days a week and spent the fifth on the Iraq Body Count website. I asked her to at least sit in the office on Iraq days so that I would have company.

We were also honoured and pleased to host the late great Tony De Brum, Minister-in-Assistance to the President of the Republic of the Marshall Islands (effectively Vice-President), when he came to Brussels to meet the European Commission. We took him to a pub on Place Lux afterwards.

We also helped out with a colourful demonstration by Somalilanders and their supporters in the EU district of Brussels.

crowd on Rond Point Schuman with Somaliland flags

In British news, I began the month by dropping my membership of the Lib Dems (since reinstated), and then Margaret Thatcher died. At the end of the month, more positively, my cousin Brian was appointed executive producer of Doctor Who.

My mother came to visit, and got some good photos of us and the kids.

my daughter B my son Fme with my daughter U my mother with U Anne, B and me

I celebrated my birthday with an impromptu pub lunch in The Old Oak. The next day, I went to the Antwerp Science Fiction and Comics convention, which was great fun.

cosplayers, with Anne looking on

I read 20 books that month.

Non-fiction 2 (YTD 9)
Chicks Dig Comics, ed. Lynne M. Thomas and Sigrid Ellis
TARDIS Eruditorum, vol 1: William Hartnell, by Elizabeth Sandifer

Fiction (non-sf) 2 (YTD 7)
Bring Up The Bodies, by Hilary Mantel
Swallows and Amazons, by Arthur Ransome

sf (non-Who) 9 (YTD 26)
Throne of the Crescent Moon, by Saladin Ahmed
The Blade Itself, by Joe Abercrombie
San Diego 2014: The Last Stand of the California Browncoats, by "Mira Grant"
After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall, by Nancy Kress
On a Red Station, Drifting, by Aliette de Bodard
The Emperor’s Soul, by Brandon Sanderson

1632, by Eric Flint
Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury
Blackout, by "Mira Grant"

Who 5 (YTD 22, 28 counting non-fiction and comics)
The Eye of the Giant, by Christopher Bulis
Summer Falls by 'Amelia Williams' (James Goss)
Zamper, by Gareth Roberts
Father Time, by Lance Parkin
The Roots of Evil, by Philip Reeve

Comics 2 (YTD 8)
Aldébaran 3: La Photo, by Leo
Tesseract, by Tony Lee

~5,500 pages (YTD 19,000)
6/20 (YTD 20/73) by women (Thomas/Ellis, Mantel, "Grant"x2, Kress, de Bodard)
2/20 (YTD 2/73) by PoC (Ahmed, de Bodard)

Best of these was the first volume of TARDIS Eruditorum, by Elizabeth Sandifer; you can get it here. However I bounced off both Joe Abercrombie's The Blade Itself, which you can get here, and Mira Grant's San Diego 2014: The Last Stand of the California Browncoats, which you can get here.

book cover: TARDIS Eruditorum
book cover: The Blade Itself book cover: San Diego 2014: The Last Stand of the California Browncoats

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560 days of plague

Well, major drama today. F got pinged yesterday as having had a high risk contact last week, went for a test and was told today that he had tested positive for COVID. So I immediately went and got myself tested at the hospital in Ixelles, finished off the undelegatable stuff at work and came home. He has no symptoms, Anne and I have no symptoms, but you have to do what the rules say.

What exactly the rules say is not completely clear – the chap who I spoke to on the national tracing line said that since I am double-Pfizered, I could leave quarantine if I get a negative test result; Anne didn’t get the same information, but did not ask the same question. But what is clear is that we have to maintain household quarantine for the time being.

It’s actually a little surprising that it has taken this long to strike so close to home. Also a bit surprising that it was F rather than me that provided the first positive test in the household, given that I see such a wide variety of people (but maybe students are not as careful as my professional contacts).

Anyway, it is what it is. Even being asymptomatically COVID-positive would be a real pain in the neck; we had a fun-packed wedding anniversary trip planned for the weekend, and then I have a planned work trip next week and a major work event on Thursday 7th. I would bet that the fact that we’re all double-vaxxed means that F is less infectious and we are less susceptible. But I’ll know for sure tomorrow. (Or sooner if I start to go down with the symptoms, but I think that would have happened by now.)

When I was planning this post this morning, I was intending to cheerily speculate that I’ll finish this series when all restrictions are lifted in Belgium, which should be some time in October from what I read in the papers. But today has reminded me that it may be a long time before all of this is over.

I’m friends-locking this for the moment, so if you happen to see it please don’t make public comment until I have made it public again. Thank you!

Edited to add: My negative test came through this evening. Whew!

My tweets

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Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts, by Rebecca Hall and Hugo Martínez

Second frame of third chapter:

One of my impulse purchases at Shakespeare and Company in July, this is a graphic story presentation of Rebecca Hall's research into a particularly obscure bit of American and British history: the role of women in leading revolts of enslaved Africans, in the 18th century. The first part of the book looks at New York, not usually remembered as the hotbed of the slave trade that it actually was at one time, where enslaved women have been more or less erased from the narrative even when they were the instigators of local (usually very local) attempts to overthrow white oppression. She then goes on to England, where she is abruptly blocked from looking at the records of Lloyd's (a shameful act from the venerable insurance company) but finds enough to keep her going at the role the women had in the shipboard revolts of slave transports – basically, while the men were chained below decks, women were allowed some freedom to sit above, where they served the needs of the white sailors, including their sexual demands, but also had relatively easy access to weapons and the motivation to use them. She finishes up by imagining the environment that slaves would have come from in West Africa, where the tradition of enslavement after a military defeat by your neighbours, lasting a few years and then you went home, was completely disrupted by the Atlantic slave trade.

The whole book is presented as Hall's research process, which anyone who's ever done historical research will deeply sympathise with, against the dynamic of leaving her partner and young child behind while she heads off to New York and England to find answers. And of course it's also rooted against the continuing discrimination against women and people of colour in the USA especially, though also in Europe. The title refers both to the wake of the history of the slave ships, and I think to the need to become woke. It's a really good book and you can get it here.

I'm going to annoyingly divert for a moment to an odd bit of slaving history, the fort of São João Baptista de Ajudá, in Ouidah, Benin, which remained a Portuguese possession until 1961 though it was only 70m square and had a population of less than a dozen; it was probably the smallest territory ever recognised as a separate polity, albeit a Portuguese colony. (The Turkish exclave of the tomb of Suleyman Shah isn't a separate polity from Turkey, and has only one inhabitant, who has been dead since 1236.)

This was my top unread comic in English. Next on that pile is The Story of Sex: From Apes to Robots, by Philippe Brenot and Laetitia Coryn.

book cover
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My tweets

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The Massacre, by James Cooray Smith

The second of the Black Archive books analysing past stories of Doctor Who looks at The Massacre, a 1966 First Doctor story which has been lost from the archives, apart from an off-air audio recording, a few photographs, and the Loose Cannon reconstruction which you can watch here, here, here and here. It’s set immediately before the Massacre of St Bartholomew’s Eve in 1572, also the subject of Christopher Marlowe’s last play. Incidentally, it was the first Doctor Who story to be directed by a woman (Paddy Russell).

Second paragraph of third chapter of Cooray Smith’s book:

Steven also lacks a clear understanding that Paris is a city with a strictly patrolled curfew, which prompts him to remain at the tavern until far later than is advisable. The means that he stays at the Admiral’s house overnight, something that happens simply because he sees Nicholas as the curfew approaches. Had Steven understood the curfew, let alone what will transpire in 72 hours, he might have returned to where the TARDIS is, despite not having a key. (The ship is well hidden.) But simply going home with Nicholas leads others to see him as aligned with the Huguenot faction in French religious politics.

When I first watched the recon in 2007, I wrote:

I was intrigued by this story after the positive write-up given it by Cornell, Day and Topping in The Discontinuity Guide. Although the film of this Hartnell story is lost, I managed to get hold of a fan “reproduction”, with black and white pictures of scenes from the programme montaged against the original sound-track. I watched it late last night, and was not wildly impressed. But this may have been due to just being too tired to take it in properly – I went back to a couple of key scenes this morning to check points for this review and suddenly found myself being drawn into it much more.

Is this the only Doctor Who story featuring just the Doctor and a single, male, companion? Indeed the Doctor himself features only in one and a half episodes out of four, with William Hartnell credited as the Abbot of Amboise in the middle two episodes, though of course Steven (and the audience) are unsure about whether he is really the Doctor in disguise. Peter Purves really has to carry the entire story until half way through the last episode, and is just about up to it.

In some ways it’s actually the basic Doctor Who plot – Tardis arrives in the midst of fiendish political plotting, our heroes make friends with one of the locals and have to sort out the goodies from the baddies. The interesting wrinkles are that the setting is not an alien planet but an obscure corner of French history, the 1572 massacre of the Huguenots, and that the baddies win. Looking at its place in the original broadcast sequence, it came immediately after The Dalek Master Plan in which not one but two companions were killed off, so fitted into a bleak rather than comic phase.

But it really does come alive in the fourth and final episode, when the Doctor reappears without deigning to explain where he has been. He and Steven actually leave Paris with ten minutes of story yet to go, leaving time for them to have a row, Steven to walk out of the Tardis in disgust, Dodo Chaplet to walk into it by mistake, and then Steven to return. In his brief moment on his own, the Doctor delivers a soliloquy which sounds much much better than it looks in script:

Steven: I tell you this much, Doctor, wherever this machine of yours lands next I’m getting off. If your researches have so little regard for human life then I want no part.
Doctor: We’ve landed. Your mind is made up?
(The TARDIS doors open.)
Steven: Goodbye.
Doctor: My dear Steven, history sometimes gives us a terrible shock, and that is because we don’t quite fully understand. Why should we? After all, we’re all too small to realise its final pattern. Therefore, don’t try and judge it from where you stand. I was right to do as I did. Yes, that I firmly believe.
(Steven walks out of the Tardis.)
Doctor: Even after all this time, he cannot understand. I dare not change the course of history. Well, at least I taught him to take some precautions. He did remember to look at the scanner before he opened the doors.

Now they’re all gone. All gone.

None of them could understand. Not even my little Susan, or Vicki. Yes. And there’s Barbara and Chatterton… Chesterton! They were all too impatient to get back to their own time. And now Steven.

Perhaps I should go home, back to my own planet. But I can’t. I can’t.

Going to the Peter Purves narrated audio, I wrote:

The Massacre (.co.uk, .com) was one of the first stories I watched via fan reconstruction, and I was very unimpressed. However, the audio version, with again Peter Purves narrating, is, I think the single best Doctor Who audio I have heard. I very strongly recommend it. Tat Wood and Laurence Miles comment that since director Paddy Russell’s specialty was people creeping around silently, probably the best bits were the bits we will never see.

It helps, of course, that Steven rather than the Doctor is the central character here, so Purves is telling his own character’s story. Freshly arrived in Paris from the end of the Daleks’ Master Plan, having lost three fellow companions in the recent past (Vicki through romance, Katarina and Sara Kingdom through horrible death), the Doctor now abandons Steven who has to make his way through a hostile and confusing environment. No wonder he walks out at the end, giving the First Doctor, alone at last, a great soliloquy.

As a future Englishman, Steven is C of E without ever having really thought about it, but now finds himself in a setting where “Catholic” and “Protestant” are terms which can cost you your life – a cognitive dissonance I’ve seen often enough, and I suppose experienced myself in reverse. While the program tends to side with the Protestants, who after all were the massacrees rather than the massacrers in this case, they are very definitely not completely innocent in their suffering.

The story is very neatly structured, with each of the first three episodes lasting from dawn to dusk. Tat Wood and Laurence Miles have some intriguing speculation as to what was happening after dusk, but you should buy their book to find out more. Unlike me, they can’t forgive the end for the way in which new companion Dodo is introduced; I think Steven is a bit out of character (despite this being otherwise his best story) but I can roll with it.

In my 2010 rewatch, I wrote:

More heavy drama in The Massacre, another downbeat story in which lots of people are killed. Again, I was familiar with the Peter Purves audio narration and less so with the recon [edited to add: actually this was not true – I’d watched the recon too], which is very impressive given the limited source material, and also gives a sense of what we are missing – director Paddy Russell’s trademark of people creeping around the set hiding from each other. This is also the first “Doctor-lite” story, though of course Hartnell is in it as the Abbot. (Are the two middle episodes the only ones in the whole of Who which have no actual credit for the Doctor? And I don’t think he even speaks in ep 2.) The story keeps us guessing as to whether the Abbot is the Doctor in disguise, as Steven thinks and as is also hinted at by the Abbot’s failure to deliver effectively on his fearsome reputation. Then at the end of episode 3, he is dead in the street – and bearing in mind that we have lost Sara, Bret and Katarina in the last few weeks, it looks very grim for our hero. Yet episode 4 fairly effortlessly shifts focus, and once the political story line has its grim resolution established, it becomes all about the Doctor – will he take Anne with him? (No.) Whose reaction do we focus on after Steven storms out of the Tardis? (The Doctor’s.) Will he take Dodo with him? (Yes.) It’s back to the old mysterious time-traveller, working to his own set of rules which we do not know: “None of them could understand.” And this is entirely under the control of Donald Tosh, who drastically altered Lucarotti’s original script though had by now handed over as story editor to Gerry Davies.

Three years later, in 2013, my brother wrote up the story. I have quoted myself at too much length already, so you should read his full post, but he suggests a radical reading of the script:

Here’s what happened. The Doctor has defeated the Daleks with the Time Destructor. It was at a great cost, but he did it. After running from his past mistakes for so long, he’s beginning to stop thinking of himself as a fugitive and to start thinking of himself as a hero. Maybe he can make things better after all.

The Massacre of St Bartholemew is an appropriate test case: an event terrible enough that he can improve things even if he doesn’t prevent the event altogether, but also one that Steven doesn’t know about, so a change won’t affect him (remember my theory that history doesn’t matter, what matters is history you know). For it to work, Steven must not know what the Doctor’s up to, so he slips away. Frustrating for us who have Steven as our viewpoint character, of course, that the narrative focus has to stay with Steven as he’s the stable point, but there you go.

On his own and unobserved, the Doctor can try to act. The real Abbot is waylaid on his way to Paris. The Doctor gambles everything on the hope that preventing the assassination, one tiny change that a real historical person could have made, will avert the massacre. And he manages to prevent the assassination, but for some reason the force of existing history is too strong. It is strange, Father Abbot, that since you came everything which had been so carefully planned has gone wrong. He is revealed as a traitor. He is killed and his body dumped in the streets. His death, blamed on the Huguenots, replaces the assassination as the catalyst for the killing of the next days. He is blasted back to Preslin’s shop. The timelines judder back together.

My dear Steven, history sometimes gives us a terrible shock, and that is because we don’t quite fully understand. Why should we? After all, we’re all too small to realise its final pattern. Therefore, don’t try and judge it from where you stand. I was right to do as I did. Yes, that I firmly believe… Even after all this time, he cannot understand. I dare not change the course of history… None of them could understand. Not even my little Susan.

If you believe my take above, this otherwise bafflingly opaque monologue (“I was right to do as I did” in a story where we’ve barely seen the Doctor do anything; all the references to the companions not being able to understand history as if that had been an important theme anywhere other than in The Aztecs) makes sense: the Doctor has tried to change history, been rebuffed, and is now on his own and ready to give up.

(We also explain the mystery of the story’s name: yes, Steven doesn’t know about the Massacre, but the subtext of the entire story is the Doctor’s attempt to prevent it. And we get thematic unity: the Doctor’s plotting in private mirrors the plots and counterplots onstage. Clearly, no writer thought that this was what was going on in the story, but from now on this is my canon).

And then history throws him a bone: a girl with the same name, a lifeline of hope that he made a small difference and got away with it. A girl who won’t be missed, who looks just like Susan. Surnames aren’t matrilineal? Doesn’t matter here; if history’s sending you a message, it will use whatever channel it can.

There is hope. You can make a difference. Some things are permitted. Onwards.

My main takeaway from rewatching it this time is that a creative reading is absolutely necessary to disentangle the confusing plot. The overall tone of doom is clear, but the details really aren’t. No wonder Steven struggles to work out what is going on. It’s a good illustration of why the story editor and writer should be different people, to have more than one set of eyes on a story; if Lucarotti’s original script had been more usable, Tosh would not have had to revise it to the extent that he literally lost the plot in places.

I’m going to salute a couple of members of the cast. In particular, Annette Robertson plays servant girl Anne Chaplet, basically the woman companion of the story, and would have been an interesting addition to the regular cast.

scene with Annete Robertson, Peter Purves and two other actors in a tavern another scene with Annete Robertson, Peter Purves and two other actors in a tavern

Her major previous film appearance was in The Young Ones starring Cliff Richard, where her role is basically Second Girlfriend to Melvyn Hayes’ sidekick character, but she has a lot more oomph than the official female lead, Carole Gray. Here’s a scene where she rather oddly believes that she is Cleopatra.

In between The Young Ones in 1961 and The Massacre in 1965, she married and divorced John Hurt. (She is still alive, and occasionally active on Facebook, but has no IMDB acting credit since 1988.)

Among the male guests, André “Quatermass” Morell is a particular catch; he has come up several times in my Oscar watching. Here he is Marshal Tavannes, but he also appeared in two Oscar-winning films – as Colonel Green in Bridge on the River Kwai and Sextus in Ben-Hur.

André Morell as Colonel Green in Bridge on the River Kwai

André Morell as Sextus in Ben-Hur

A lot of the male actors appeared subsequently in other Who stories – Christopher Tranchell in The Faceless Ones and The Invasion of Time, Michael Bilton in Pyramids of Mars and The Deadly Assassin, Reginald Jessup in The Invasion of Time, Erik Chitty also in The Deadly Assassin, David Weston in Warriors’ Gate and Leonard Sachs in Arc of Infinity – a lot of these are set on Gallifrey, for some reason. (One other actor also appeared in an Oscar-winning film, James Cairncross who plays Lemaitre here and was Parson Supple in Tom Jones in 1963; he made a return to Doctor Who in The Krotons.)

On to the novelisation. The second paragraph of the third chapter is:

The carriage came to a halt and the driver, leaning over, looked down. ‘That’ll be twenty sous,’ he said and the Doctor handed him thirty as he stepped out. The driver tipped his hat, shook the reins and the carriage rumbled away.

When I first read it in 2007, I wrote:

The novelisation of The Massacre strays furthest from the story as broadcast: we experience it as a flashback from the First Doctor’s point of view, at a moment when he has temporarily made his peace with the Time Lords and is relaxing in the garden from which he is wrenched for The Five Doctors. Rather than the Doctor disappearing from the scene as he does in the TV story, here he and Steven get completely sucked into the Protestants’ attempts to discredit the Doctor’s double, the Abbot of Amboise, and to be honest it is all rather confusing; apparently the story had to be rewritten to allow for Hartnell’s health (or the unusability of Lucarotti’s original script, depending what version you believe). We get the impression that because of the Doctor’s interference to save Anne Chaplet, the Time Lords get grumpy with him again. There is also circumstantial evidence to support the Wood/Miles view of what was going on after curfew, though they are wrong about the chariot pulled by greyhounds (they are Alsatians). Dodo does not appear at all except in that her arrival is referred to by the Time Lords in the epilogue.

On rereading, it’s still pretty confusing, but I guess the most striking difference from the TV script (apart from the carriage drawn by Alsatians through the tunnels of Paris) is that Lucarotti constructs a whole bait-and-switch plan by the Doctor to impersonate the Abbot of Amboise and try to avert some of the looming disaster – for which the Time Lords chide him in the epilogue. It’s ambitious, and even if only 70% of it had made it to screen it would have been a really interesting story, though it would have still needed a lot of tidying up.

James Cooray Smith has done a really superb job of digging into The Massacre for the Black Archives. The first chapter looks at the historical basis of the plot, which more than any other historical Who story engages with the actual political drama happening on the ground, rather than just having dramatic events in which our protagonists get enmeshed. “The Massacre has 15 named speaking characters. Of those, seven are demonstrably real people (and mostly people of sufficient note in their own lives as to be conspicuously embedded in the historical record) and two have a basis in history but are not (necessarily) real individuals. Six are clearly fictional. Of those six, three are the Doctor, Steven Taylor and Dodo Chaplet, the last of whom only appears in the last five minutes of the final episode and not, in any case, in 16th-century France at all.” A glorious footnote to this paragraph begins “To put this into context, only five real people have speaking roles in all of 1980s Doctor Who, and none at all in 1970s Doctor Who.” Cooray Smith questions why a supposedly educational show didn’t make more of the history, and then makes the interesting finding that there really was a fake Abbot of Amboise during the French Wars of Religion.

The second chapter looks at plot and structure, making the point that “no episode of the story, uniquely for episodic 20th-century television Doctor Who, begins with a reprise of the final scene of the previous episode”. In particular, Cooray Smith teases apart the question of why Steven should think that the Abbot is the Doctor in disguise, and why the other characters do not; and tries to find sympathetic readings, or at least excuses, for other plot ambiguities.

The third, and most interesting, chapter, looks at religion. This is a story about Catholics killing Protestants (and to a lesser extent vice versa). The script is on the side of the Protestants, but not uncritically; both sides have their bigotries. Having myself been born in Belfast the year after this story was shown, I find the mid-century take on Christian sectarianism fascinating. It might have been a lot more difficult for the BBC to make a story like this after the Troubles broke out. But Cooray Smith also sees the story investigating the themes of predestination and redemtion. “Resurrection is the central mystery of all variations of Christianity. And The Massacre is a story explicitly concerned with variations in Christianity, which ends with the Doctor’s apparent resurrection three days after the audience last saw him, and which begins with Steven being turned away from an Inn. Just putting that out there.”

In the fourth chapter, Cooray Smith challenges the idea that the end of the story came as a surprise to viewers in 1966. It was not called The Massacre then; each episode had its own title “War of God”, “The Sea Beggar”, “Priest of Death” and “Bell of Doom”, at least three of which rather clearly signal that this is not a comedy. But he further makes the case that actually the 1572 massacre was a relatively well-known historical fact in 1960s Britain, much more so than today.

In the fifth and final chapter, Cooray Smith undertakes the difficult forensic task of working out exactly which bits of the story are Lucarotti and which are Tosh, not least because both writers have given detailed and contradictory accounts of how the story was written (though both are in agreement on the core narrative: that Lucarotti’s work was heavily revised by Tosh). He makes the point that the show was in real trouble at this point. Ratings had collapsed from their 1964-65 peak (which, as Cooray Smith points out, was higher than achieved by any subsequent era of the show, including Baker/Holmes/Hinchcliffe or Tennant/Davies); the new producer John Wiles and script editor Donald Tosh were both already on their way out after only a short time at the helm; there was a merry dance of companions, with Maureen O’Brien fired at three weeks’ notice, Adrienne Hill hired and fired so quickly that her first scene to be filmed was her character’s death, Jean Marsh likewise in and out and Annette Robertson considered but rejected as the new regular. More importantly, management seems to have decided to get rid of William Hartnell at the end of The Celestial Toymaker, two stories after The Massacre, but apparently there was a mistake in the paperwork and instead he was renewed for another six months. Ultimately of course Innes Lloyd and Gerry Davis took over, fired all of the leading cast and made the show what it largely is today. But there was no inevitability about that.

An appendix looks at Dodo Chaplet, the new companion who appears out of nowhere at the end of the story. I’ve written about her too:

Although Dodo is in fact the first companion since the very beginning to come from our own time (Vicki, Steven, and Sara Kingdom from the future; Katarina from the past) she is oddly enough the one we know least about, and find out least about. She is the girl next door, but one whose parents never let you talk to her and who isn’t allowed to discuss anything except the scenery.

Other appendices look a the possible relationship between Anne Chaplet and Dodo Chaplet, the fact that the word “massacre” was first used in English to refer to 1572, the question of the story’s title, contemporary ratings and reactions, and the demise of the historical Doctor Who stories.

I really enjoyed this book which packs a lot of good chunky and new analysis into 100 pages, and took the liberty of recommending it to one of the cast.

He has in fact already held a copy, but may not have read it at the time!

You can get it here, and the novelisation here.

Next up: The Ambassadors of Death, and Dark Water / Death in Heaven.

The Black Archives
1st Doctor: Marco Polo (18) | The Dalek Invasion of Earth (30) | The Romans (32) | The Massacre (2)
2nd Doctor: The Underwater Menace (40) | The Evil of the Daleks (11) | The Mind Robber (7)
3rd Doctor: Doctor Who and the Silurians (39) | The Ambassadors of Death (3) | The Dæmons (26) | Carnival of Monsters (16) | The Time Warrior (24) | Invasion of the Dinosaurs (55)
4th Doctor: Pyramids of Mars (12) | The Hand of Fear (53) | The Deadly Assassin (45) | The Face of Evil (27) | The Robots of Death (43) | Talons of Weng-Chiang (58) | Horror of Fang Rock (33) | Image of the Fendahl (5) | The Sun Makers (60) | The Stones of Blood (47) | Full Circle (15) | Warriors’ Gate (31)
5th Doctor: Kinda (62) | Black Orchid (8) | Earthshock (51) | The Awakening (46)
6th Doctor: Vengeance on Varos (41) | Timelash (35) | The Ultimate Foe (14)
7th Doctor: Paradise Towers (61) | Battlefield (34) | The Curse of Fenric (23) | Ghost Light (6)
8th Doctor: The Movie (25) | The Night of the Doctor (49)
Other Doctor: Scream of the Shalka (10)
9th Doctor: Rose (1) | Dalek (54)
10th Doctor: The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit (17) | Love & Monsters (28) | Human Nature / The Family of Blood (13) | The Sound of Drums / Last of the Time Lords (38)
11th Doctor: The Eleventh Hour (19) | Vincent and the Doctor (57) | The Pandorica Opens / The Big Bang (44) | The Impossible Astronaut / Day of the Moon (29) | The God Complex (9) | The Rings of Akhaten (42) | Day of the Doctor (50)
12th Doctor: Listen (36) | Kill the Moon (59) | Dark Water / Death in Heaven (4) | Face the Raven (20) | Heaven Sent (21) | Hell Bent (22)
13th Doctor: Arachnids in the UK (48) | Kerblam! (37) | The Battle of Ranskoor av Kolos (52) | The Haunting of Villa Diodati (56) | Flux (63)

Dune, part 1

Well, well, well – I had not realised that Dennis Villeneuve’s Dune is not yet out in the UK or America. My British and American (and I guess also Irish) friends, you have a treat in store.

F and I went to see it yesterday in the IMAX near the Heysel stadium. I think in retrospect I’d have gone for the 3-D experience rather than the IMAX; it is such a huge film that one rather gets lost in the perspective.

You have surely read the book, so the only important thing to say about the plot is that we get only halfway – although the film is being advertised as Dune, tout court, it’s actually only the first half, up to the point where Paul and Jessica are adopted by the Fremen. So assuming that the opening night in the US in October is successful (and I think it will be), there’ll be a part 2 next year, or in 2023.

What to say: it looks fantastic. Sets, effects, planets, big buildings, big bangs, ornithopters you can almost believe in, and of course the sandworms. (F wondered if the film-makers had drawn inspiration from SpongeBob’s Alaskan bull worm; it’s pretty clear that SpongeBob in this instance was inspired by Frank Herbert.) Here’s the trailer which gives you some idea (though you really have to see it on the big screen).

So, other things to comment on. The casting is good. I want to particularly note Rebecca Ferguson, who despite her name is Swedish, as Lady Jessica, Paul’s mother. She is less hard-edged than the character in the book, but I think deeper for it. Charlotte Rampling basically just gets one scene as the Reverend Mother, but steals it completely. Javier Bardem is Stilgar, leader of the indigenous Fremen, and is superb – the first scene where he brings the “gift of water” sets the tone. (I helped him with an event in the European Parliament in 2012 – see here at 0:37.) Jason Momoa is great as Duncan Idaho. Slightly less convinced by Josh Brolin as Gurney Halleck. The nobles – Oscar Isaac as the Duke, Stellan Skarsgård as the Baron – are fine. Sharon Duncan-Brewster, who I last saw as Daniel’s friend and Edith’s girlfriend Fran in Russsell T. Davies’ Years and Years (which I don’t seem to have written up), plays a genderflipped Liet Kynes. The two young leads, Timothée Chalamet as Paul and Zendaya as Chani, are good to look at and manage to carry off the freighting of youth combined with destiny very well. There is justifiable commentary that although the Fremen are ethnically diverse, none of them are actually played by actors whose ethnicity comes from the desert.

But the casting is secondary just to the staging and cinematography. All the key moments are there; some of them look as good as I had hoped, most of them look far better than I’d hoped. The music is just right too, though I was a little sorry that the Pink Floyd from one of the trailers didn’t make it to the big screen:

So, it will get one of my Hugo nominations for next year. I think I may still vote for Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings ahead of it, though.

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Rose, by Jon Arnold

Given the very encouraging news that Russell T. Davies is returning to Doctor Who, it’s by fortunate coincidence that today I am reviewing a study of his first ever Who episode back in 2005. I actually wrote most of this entry over a week ago, little realising how appropriate the timing would turn out to be.

Second paragraph of third chapter of Rose by Jon Arnold, with footnotes:

This makes them [Ian and Barbara] outliers in terms of Doctor Who companions. Of the companions during the remainder of 20th-century Doctor Who, only Steven truly carries a whole story by himself (The Massacre). With Innes Lloyd and Gerry Davis reformatting the series from one about exploration to a more standard 1960s adventure format, the companions become mainly a plot function, asking questions and keeping the plot moving. Verity Lambert’s era is rightly celebrated for establishing Doctor Who, but the changes made by Lloyd and Davis have greater consequences. They move the Doctor to centre stage, allowing him to initiate adventures and become the central character, something that’s made more overt by the introduction of Patrick Troughton as the Doctor. He is better able to carry the role of action-series lead than the older Hartnell. But this also makes the role of the companion far less interesting, and for all the quirks and foibles of various characters their roles are essentially interchangeable. And to maintain their ability to keep the plot moving they’re in stasis character-wise – Jamie and Zoe are left unchanged by their travels thanks to memory wipes, Liz Shaw returns to Cambridge, Sarah Jane apparently returns to journalism.2 Even Leela, expressly written to be developed from an alien savage to something more civilised, is all but indistinguishable in character from first story to last, before she suddenly decides she fancies a random Time Lord. The only character development we tend to see comes in the stories where companions have to be written out. Jo leaves to marry a man she sees as a human version of the Doctor; Romana’s sole development before suddenly being inspired to become an interuniversal refugee coordinator is when she regenerates due to Mary Tamm’s departure; and Tegan is just as suddenly sickened by the violence of the Doctor’s adventures3.

2 The 2006 episode School Reunion imposes a degree of retrospective character development on Sarah Jane to explore its theme of the effect the Doctor has on the lives of the people he travels with, but mainly limits this to a backstory of the time after she left the Doctor. It also ignores the events of The Five Doctors (1983) to present its theme more elegantly.
3 At the end of Resurrection of the Daleks, which has the highest onscreen body count in series history. Why this is more traumatic than the Master killing her aunt then wiping out half the universe, possession by the Mara, the death of Adric or the slaughter on Sea Base Four is never satisfactorily explained.

I’ve been shamefully slow about getting into the Black Archive series, published monthly by Obverse Books since 2016, each time looking at a Doctor Who story and digging into it for 100 pages or so. If I start reading them at the rate of two a month now, I should catch up with their current production in late 2026.

I should also in future months do things the other way round from this month, where I read the first two Black Archive books, hugely enjoyed them, and then went back and re-watched the relevant stories and read the novelisations. I nnow realise that I will get even more out of the experience if I take the Black Archive analysis last, after re-watching the original and re-reading the novelisation (if there is one). So I’m going to pretend that I did that this month, even though I didn’t.

The first Black Archive book is about the first episode of new Who, Rose, broadcast in 2005. After I first watched it, I wrote:

Look folks, let’s be honest.

It was good.

Eccleston is good – seriously alien and believable. Piper is good – not just screaming. Even Clive was good – the comic, self-referential moments didn’t overwhelm it. The settings were good (even if I now know that some of them were in Cardiff not London). The background music was OK, certainly not as bad as Sylvester McCoy warned. The only thing that didn’t quite gel for me was the climax, which I thought was drawn out a bit too long.

When I re-watched in 2012, I wrote:

Rose is a great beginning to New Who. The mistake made by other reboots was to take for granted that viewers would take an interest in the central character. Russell T Davies turns convention on its head by making this a story mainly about the Doctor’s companion – with the partial exception of the first episode ever, Old Who had precisely one story which was companion-centric, The Massacre, though the Doctor-lite episode has now become a feature of New Who. Rose leads a fairly normal life – dead-end job, mum but no dad, boyfriend who is not quite on her wavelength – and the Doctor arrives to explode her workplace, break her mother’s furniture and drag her across London to face militant plastic aliens. Yet we move from Clive’s suspicions to the point where there can be few viewers who do not cheer Rose’s joyful slow-motion run to the Tardis at the end. One can see why the bat-shippers decided that this was a show about Rose rather than the Doctor.

The two principals are great here, and Ecclestone has some brilliant moments as the damaged soldier trying to stop things going wrong again. There are some minor flaws – Jackie’s seductive fumbling, the burping bin, the sequencing of the climax, the precise nature of the Nestene plans – but it is an excellent bit of television, in which almost the only elements of Who continuity are the Tardis and the Autons. In contrast to The Movie, or Scream of the Shalka (or indeed The Twin Dilemma) you end the story wanting to know what happens to these people next.

On (at least) the third time of watching, all of the above points re-occurred to me, and I actually found myself more tolerant of the humour – more on this below. But I also found myself cheering for the relatively few moments of reference to the past – for instance, the shot at 7:49 where we first see the TARDIS lurking in the background as Billie Piper runs past it:

Rose runs past the TARDIS

And thanks to Arnold’s book, I realised that the Nestene Consciousness actually refers to the Doctor as a Time Lord.

The other thing that jumped out at me is that while Eccleston’s Doctor is brave and heroic here, he’s also very scared for a lot of the time, and needs someone to help him out. Eccleston himself of course was fighting his demons, as we now know. Fortunately he seems to have come to terms with them.

me with Christopher Ecclestone

Arnold’s Black Archive book was actually published before the novelisation of Rose, which came out in 2018. When I first read it, I wrote:

Back in the bad old days of 1996, Russell T. Davies wrote a Seventh Doctor book called Damaged Goods (more recently adapted for audio by Jonathan Morris for Big Finish). It included the following interesting points:

* The first character we encounter in the story is the daughter of Mrs Tyler, who is a single mother
* She says to the Doctor at one point, “You think you’re so funny”, a line almost echoed by Rose Tyler a decade later
* The Tylers live on a council estate where strange things are happening
* The strange things include (but are not restricted to) a doppelganger of a black neighbour created by an evil alien intelligence
* The Doctor’s female companion is Roz
* At the very end the Doctor goes back in time to meet the young Tyler girl before the adventure started in her time line
* As the alien invasion fully manifests lots of people die horribly and swiftly

So this novelisation is actually the third time, not the second, that Davies has visited some of these themes.

Of course he needs to use the script of the 2005 story as his basis, and also has to make it accessible for the younger audience whose aunts and uncles may have bought this, but he adds a lot more material here, starting with a great pen-portrait of the office caretaker, Bernie Wilson, who is the first of many characters to die horribly in New Who. Most notably, Mickey gets considerably more depth and characterisation than he was ever granted on screen, and it turns out that he is in a band including a trans woman and two young men who are just on the cusp of realising their true feelings for each other. The treatment of Jackie on the page seems much more sympathetic than she got on the screen, and poor Clive gets an expansion to his background as well:

And now, in sudden coordination, every dummy in every window lifted its arm and swung down. Row upon row of glass shattered, bright chips cascading to the floor. All along the street, people screamed, yelled, some still laughing. Caroline said, `Well that’s not very funny,’ and she grabbed hold of the boys to pull them back.
   But Clive was staring. With horror. And yet, with delight.
   Because he remembered.
   In his files. In those mad old stories of monsters from Loch Ness, and wizards in Cornwall, and robots at the North Pole, there had been tales, from long ago, fables about shop-window dummies coming to life and attacking people, a slaughter, so the secret files said, a massacre on the streets of England, hushed up ever since by the Powers That Be, the population doped and duped into forgetting. And Clive, even Clive, had read those stories and thought, How can that possibly be true?
   But here it is, he thought. It’s happening again.
   Which meant the Doctor was true. Every word of him and her and them. All Clive’s fantasies were now becoming facts, right before his eyes. But if the glories were true then so were the terrors. And Clive felt a chill in his heart as he watched the plastic army step down into the street.
   He turned to his wife and children.
   He said, ‘Run.’
   Caroline stared at him, more scared by the look in his eyes than by the dummies. He said quietly, ‘I’ll try to stop them. Now for the love of God, run.’
   And Caroline, at last, believed. She looked at her husband for one last time and said, ‘I love you.’ Then she took hold of the boys’ hands, and ran.

The one character we don’t learn so much more about is the Doctor himself. We get a bit more circumstantial detail about the Time War, but Davies put more than that in the 2006 Annual. Of course, this is sensible enough; the book is told from Rose’s point of view, and for her the Doctor is a mysterious stranger who disrupts her ordinary life; the cosmic adventures are yet to come. But having seen how some of the other characters are enhanced by Davies from the printed page, the enigma of the show’s central personality is even more palpable than it was on the screen.

On re-reading, I loved the extra characterisation even more – another footnote to the TV script who gets fleshed out here is Jimmy Stone, Rose’s dubious ex-boyfriend. But two passages also struck me in the light of Jon Arnold’s analysis (which I’ll get to real soon, promise):

‘So you’re saying the world actually revolves around you?’
   ‘Sort of, yeah.’ He had a massive grin on his face.
   ‘You’re full of it.’
   ‘I’ve missed this.’
   ‘Missed what?’
   ‘Little human beings trotting along at my side and asking daft questions. Those were the days!’
   And now Rose stopped. Making a stand. ‘Hey. I’m not your secretary. And I’m not your pet. Have you got that?’
   To her surprise, he stopped and looked at her with genuine alarm. ‘Oh no, no, no,’ he said. ‘You don’t understand. Those people, asking questions. I loved them. Oh my God, I loved them all.’ It was the strangest thing, he looked as though he could cry. Then he turned and walked away.

and

She said, ‘Why are you such hard work?’
   ‘I had a bad day.’
   ‘No worse than mine!’
   He looked up, eyes blazing. ‘No, I had a very bad day. I had the worst day of all. I lost everything. I lost everyone. I lost myself. In one single moment, gone. And I have survived since then, very nicely, without a little human standing at my side going yap-yap-yap, so if you don’t mind, shut up.’
   She was outraged. ‘You wanted me to ask questions!’
   ‘I did not!’
   ‘You did! You love it!’

Both exchanges are important insights into the Ninth Doctor’s can’t-live-with-’em-can’t-live-without-’em concept of companions. (And neither made it to the screen.)

And here I’m going to finally turn to Jon Arnold’s book, which is not just about Rose the episode but about Rose the companion. Before I get into it, I’ll observe that in the whole of Old Who, there was precisely one episode that name-checked a companion – “The Feast of Steven”, the Christmas episode of The Daleks’ Master Plan. A few other episode titles indirectly referred to companions – the very first episode ever, “An Unearthly Child” (Susan); “The Bride of Sacrifice” (Susan again); “Guests of Madame Guillotine” (Barbara, Ian and Susan); “Prisoners of Conciergerie” (poor Susan again, and others); “Death of a Spy” (Steven); and “Don’t Shoot the Pianist” (Steven again). After Rose there were a few more name-checks in New Who – Martha Jones in Smith and Jones, Amy in Amy’s Choice and River Song in The Wedding of River Song – and some indirect references too – arguably School Reunion (Sarah Jane Smith), certainly The Runaway Bride (Donna), Partners in Crime (Donna again), and The Girl Who Waited (Amy), and arguably The Witch’s Familiar (Clara, probably).

Arnold starts his book with the strong statement that Rose is the most radical episode ever broadcast under the title Doctor Who. In the rest of the book he tries to prove the point, and I think comes quite close. The first chapter looks at Rose as a launch compared with the original 1963 “And Unearthly Child”, and with the unsuccessful 1996 reboot with Paul McGann. He makes the point that unlike, say Batman or Superman, the 1963 Doctor Who successfully avoided an origin story for its hero  for several years, and Rose takes a similar approach by not giving too much away, except through the research of the unfortunate Clive.

In the second chapter Arnold makes the point that the romantic relationship between Rose and the Doctor was core to Russell T Davis’s concept of the show, and also key to its success. I think this is uncontroversial. In Old Who, there was no hanky-panky in the TARDIS; Paul McGann’s snog in 1996 was seen out of order by fans; but Rose adopted romance from the very beginning, starting as RTD meant to go on.

The third chapter makes the point that Rose reimagines the role of Doctor Who companions who in the old era, as Arnold puts it, become a plot function, asking questions and keeping the plots moving, while the show centred on the Doctor. But Billie Piper is given equal billing from the beginning. She was already more famous than any previous companion from Old Who had been, with the exceptions perhaps of William Russell and Bonnie Langford.

The fourth chapter looks at how Davis successfully inserted Doctor Who into the pop culture of the time, and talks about the disconnection between what the fan audience and the mass audience want. The fan audience generally prefer a program with a darker tone that has internal continuity to fascinate us; the mass audience just want an entertaining program for Saturday night. Arnold makes an interesting contrast with Davis’s gritty adult Who novel, Damaged Goods, which as noted above has a number of similarities with Rose, but some big differences too.

Arnold concludes that Rose is one of the most remarkable pieces of television made in the UK this century. It’s a very sympathetic analysis which I largely agree with. I think he misses two important and related points. The first is the very strong and convincing performance of Christopher Eccleston in the lead role – it is crucial to the show’s success as Billy Pipers. The second thing is that it’s actually quite funny in places, and the humour is usually delivered by Ecclestone. I think the charm of the writing and the chemistry of the principals combined are fundamental to the success of the rebooted show. Let’s hope that he is able to deliver that again, seventeen years on. (Imagine if Verity Lambert had been brought back in 1980, instead of John Nathan Turner!)

Apart from that, I found this a very interesting analysis and I learned a lot from it. You can get it here.

The Black Archives
1st Doctor: Marco Polo (18) | The Dalek Invasion of Earth (30) | The Romans (32) | The Massacre (2)
2nd Doctor: The Underwater Menace (40) | The Evil of the Daleks (11) | The Mind Robber (7)
3rd Doctor: Doctor Who and the Silurians (39) | The Ambassadors of Death (3) | The Dæmons (26) | Carnival of Monsters (16) | The Time Warrior (24) | Invasion of the Dinosaurs (55)
4th Doctor: Pyramids of Mars (12) | The Hand of Fear (53) | The Deadly Assassin (45) | The Face of Evil (27) | The Robots of Death (43) | Talons of Weng-Chiang (58) | Horror of Fang Rock (33) | Image of the Fendahl (5) | The Sun Makers (60) | The Stones of Blood (47) | Full Circle (15) | Warriors’ Gate (31)
5th Doctor: Kinda (62) | Black Orchid (8) | Earthshock (51) | The Awakening (46)
6th Doctor: Vengeance on Varos (41) | Timelash (35) | The Ultimate Foe (14)
7th Doctor: Paradise Towers (61) | Battlefield (34) | The Curse of Fenric (23) | Ghost Light (6)
8th Doctor: The Movie (25) | The Night of the Doctor (49)
Other Doctor: Scream of the Shalka (10)
9th Doctor: Rose (1) | Dalek (54)
10th Doctor: The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit (17) | Love & Monsters (28) | Human Nature / The Family of Blood (13) | The Sound of Drums / Last of the Time Lords (38)
11th Doctor: The Eleventh Hour (19) | Vincent and the Doctor (57) | The Pandorica Opens / The Big Bang (44) | The Impossible Astronaut / Day of the Moon (29) | The God Complex (9) | The Rings of Akhaten (42) | Day of the Doctor (50)
12th Doctor: Listen (36) | Kill the Moon (59) | Dark Water / Death in Heaven (4) | Face the Raven (20) | Heaven Sent (21) | Hell Bent (22)
13th Doctor: Arachnids in the UK (48) | Kerblam! (37) | The Battle of Ranskoor av Kolos (52) | The Haunting of Villa Diodati (56) | Flux (63)

Galaxy Quest

Galaxy Quest won the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation in 2000, beating The Matrix, The Sixth Sense, Being John Malkovich and The Iron Giant in that order That was also the order at nominations phase, Galaxy Quest three votes ahead of The Matrix for the top spot and Toy Story 2 just two votes away from the last place on the ballot. In final ballot voting it came behind The Matrix on first preferences but picked up a lot more transfers for a convincing win.

movie poster

It also won the 2000 Nebula for Best Script, awarded in 2001; the Nebulas at this point were suffering from a rather weird nomination system that meant they were often a year behind the curve. The Sixth Sense had previously won the Nebula for 1999, beating The Matrix and The Iron Giant. The other 2000 finalists were Being John Malkovich again, The Green Mile, Princess Mononoke, Dogma and Unbreakable, this last being the only 2000 release on the list.

IMDB users rank it 16th on one ranking and 33rd on the other, way behind The Sixth Sense (14th and 5th) not to mention Oscar-winner American Beauty (8th and 4th). I liked it a lot more than either of the other two.

There is one actor here who has been in two previous Hugo-winning films, and briefly in an Oscar-winning film. It is of course Sigourney Weaver, here playing Gwen DeMarco playing Lieutenant Tawny Madison, previously Ripley in Alien and Aliens, and also Woody Allen's last girlfriend in Annie Hall.

Sigourney Weaver in Galaxt Quest, showing off cleavage
Sigourney Weaver in Aliens Crew of the Nostromo in Alien Sigourney Weaver and Woody Allen, seen from far away in Annie Hall

There is also a Whoniverse crossover. Under many layers of make-up and prosthetics, alien leader Sarris is played by Robin Sachs, best known to me as Ethan Rayne in Buffy the Vampire SlayerTorchwood.

alien leader Sarris
Robin Sachs seen on a TV screen

Well. Anne and I loved this film. As you surely know, it's about the cast of a long-past science fiction TV series, who are reunited by aliens who think it was all real, to assist in their ongoing battle with other aliens. There are several scenes at Galaxy Quest conventions, very very familiar to anyone who has ever attended such an event (and a bit close to the bone, perhaps). The captain is played by Tim Allen, who I was vaguely aware of; I may have caught an episode or two of Home Improvement back in the day. Alan Rickman totally steals the show as Alexander Dane playing Dr. Lazarus, an alien Mak'tar, and actually comes closest to having a character arc, beginning utterly jaded by his ongoing association with his fictional role, and ending by sharing the inspiration he has engendered – by Grabthar's hammer!

It's an affectionate look at fandom and the secret hopes that we sometimes have that our favourite show is more than just people being paid to read out lines of a script. It would have been easy for this to degenerate into point-and-laugh, or alternatively to take itself too seriously, but somehow the film manages to steer a middle path. I'm putting it in my top ten Hugo and Nebula winning films, just below Terminator 2: Judgement Day and above Contact.

Why did none of you tell me it was this good? (Well, actually a lot of you did.) I liked it a lot more than either The Sixth Sense or American Beauty, and I can see why Hugo voters in the end preferred it to The Matrix (though not sure which I would have voted for myself).

Next in this list is Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which won both Hugo and Nebula the following year; but first, Gladiator.

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The Ruby’s Curse, by Alex Kingston

Second paragraph of third chapter:

But even knowing this, I had no all-consuming desire to commit words to paper. I’m an action gal, not a pen-pusher. I wrote my first book just so all of time and space wouldn’t get ripped apart – the book already existed, you see, so not to write it would be a paradox. Melody Malone: Private Detective in Old New York Town was me telling the story of events I’d lived through – the time when the Doctor lost my mother and father for ever. The decision to give myself a hardboiled alter ego was therefore dreamed up somewhere within the paradox, both made by me and not made by me simultaneously. I liked it, though. I liked Melody Malone. She had her flaws, of course, but then don’t we all?

Great piece of spinoff writing, with Alex Kingston's name on the cover but Jac Rayner's on the inside, and very true to the spirit of the character of River Song; lots of side notes to the TV stories, but also a reasonably standalone plot which follows several timelines and parallel versions of River Song and her alter ego Melody Malone simultaneously, and manages to keep them all in balance. Lots of action and snappy dialogue. Fun stuff. You can get it here.

book cover
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Friday reading

Current
Quicksilver, by Neal Stephenson
The Wych Elm, by Tana French

Last books finished
Dominion: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction from Africa and the African Diaspora, eds. Zelda Knight & Ekpeki Oghenechovwe Donald
Set This House in Order: A Romance of Souls, by Matt Ruff
Great Glowing Coils of the Universe, by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor
The Rain-Soaked Bride, by Guy Adams
Retour sur Aldébaran, Épisode 2, by Leo
Retour sur Aldébaran, Épisode 3, by Leo
Kipps, by H. G. Wells
4.50 from Paddington, by Agatha Christie

Next books
John Quincy Adams: American Visionary, by Fred Kaplan
Time Must Have a Stop, by Aldous Huxley

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March 2013 books

This is the latest post in a series I started in late 2019, anticipating the twentieth anniversary of my bookblogging which will fall in 2023. Every six-ish days, I've been revisiting a month from my recent past, noting work and family developments as well as the books I read in that month. I've found it a pleasantly cathartic process, especially in recent circumstances. If you want to look back at previous entries, they are all tagged under bookblog nostalgia.

As previously noted, I started the month in Berlin, but flew immediately to London for a Worldcon planning weekend. No sooner was I back from London than I went to Geneva for a day. At the end of the month I visited Barcelona, where I caught up with an old friend (who you may spot in my college-era photos) and her children.

Sonia Hibbs, me and her two children

Also a lovely picture of the Atomium at night (we were up there seeing the first Hobbit film):

Atomium with balls illuminated

I had one of those funny exchanges at work. I had attended a press conference given by several MEPs in the European Parliament, and was chatting to an assistant who I knew on the way out. He said, "What struck me was that none of them are native English speakers, but their press release was very well written."
     "Oh, do you really think so?" I replied. "Very glad to hear it." (Polishing fingernails modestly.)
     My friend was shocked. "Isn't that a bit off, a lobbyist writing a press release that is then issued by MEPs?"
     I said, "No, not really. They asked me to give a hand with drafting, I did it for free because it's in my client's interests and they all know that, they were satisfied with my text and they used it. They could have changed it if they wanted, but they didn't."
     "Anyway," I added, "I once sat in an MEP's office and wrote and sent an email to other MEPs from his official account. He was looking over my shoulder of course, and could have changed the text or stopped me sending the email if he wanted, but it was my fingers on the keyboard. I'm sure that happens all the time."
     "Wow," said my friend.
     "What's more," I added, "that MEP was in fact the MEP who you happen to work for. Before your time, I think."

No names, of course. Also I got profiled in Brussel Deze Week.

In the outside world there was a by-election in Mid Ulster.

With a lot of daytime travel and also some short books, I read 24 that month.

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

Play 1 (TYD 1)
Observatory, by Daragh Carville

sf (non-Who) 9 (YTD 17)
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
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, 21 counting non-fiction and comics)
Players
, 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

The best of these was The Left Hand of Darkness, a reread of course; you can get it here. Least impressed by the often great Terrance Dicks' Endgameyou can get it here.

book cover: Left Hand of Darkness book cover: Endgame
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My tweets

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The Man Who Walked Through Walls / Le passe-muraille, by Marcel Aymé

Second paragraph of third story ("La carte" / "Tickets on Time"):

12 février. — Il n'y a pas de fumée sans feu. Déjeuné aujourd'hui avec mon vieil ami Maleffroi, conseiller à la préfecture de la Seine. Je l'ai cuisiné adroitement, après lui avoir délié la langue avec une bouteille d'arbois. Naturellement, il n'est pas question de mettre à mort les inutiles. On rognera simplement sur leur temps de vie. Maleffroi m'a expliqué qu'ils auraient droit à tant de jours d'existence par mois, selon leur degré d'inutilité. Il paraît que les cartes de temps sont déjà imprimées. 12th February
There’s no smoke without fire. Lunched today with my old friend Maleffroi, a councillor at the main city hall. I gave him a careful grilling, having loosened his tongue with a bottle of Arbois. Of course, they’re not talking about killing off all non-contributors. These will simply have their time cut back. Maleffroi explained to me that they will have a right to a certain number of days of life per month, according to their degree of uselessness. It seems that time cards have already been printed.

A friend recommended Aymé the the other day, and I hugely enjoyed this collection of short stories, located somewhere in the space between de Maupassant and Philip K. Dick, all published and largely set in Nazi-occupied France of 1943. In the title story, a mid-ranking but frustrated bureaucrat discovers that he can walk through walls, which brings him both petty triumph and personal disaster. I liked most of them, especially "The Seven-League Boots" / "Les bottes de sept lieues" which combines social commentary with magical realism. This deserves to be much better known. You can get it here.

book cover
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My tweets

  • Tue, 18:53: Hurricane Fever, by Tobias S. Buckell https://t.co/SztPAYnpAh
  • Tue, 20:24: RT @aTunkel: Excited and proud to have @apcoworldwide join @TentOrg and the Coalition for Afghan Refugees it assembled, to create economic…
  • Wed, 10:45: Visit Lud-in-the-Mist for Halloween https://t.co/VtVMCESWF7 Great news: Doctor Who writer Joy Wilkinson has adapted the groundbreaking fantasy novel Lud-in-the-Mist into a play for BBC Radio Drama, which airs in October. The novel by Hope Mirrlees was published in 1926 and is c…
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Hurricane Fever, by Tobias S. Buckell

Second paragraph of third chapter:

“I was. . .” Delroy started to excuse himself.

A really accomplished technothriller, set in a slightly divergent timeline where the Caribbean states have got their act together to be an effective counterpart to the larger countries who want to play in their sand. Our protagonist, allied with a mysterious but glamorous French agent, gets involved with a criminal mastermind who plans to wipe out large chunks of the human race through biological terrorism. Lots of split-second escapes and dramatic writing; it would make a good film (though probably couldn't fit in the background politics). It seems to be out of print, but you can get it here (for a price).

This was both the shortest book of my dwindling stack acquired in 2014, and the sf book which had lingered longest unread on my shelves. Next on both piles is The Rain-Soaked Bride by Guy Adams.

book cover
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My tweets

  • Mon, 12:56: RT @G_S_Bhogal: My peoples, the time has come for a MEGATHREAD. In 40 tweets I will explain another 40 concepts you should know. Strap in…
  • Mon, 18:06: Blood of Atlantis, by Simon Forward https://t.co/pOkzFrsPRv
  • Mon, 19:54: RT @wef: The panel agreed that there’s been significant change in recent years. Employees are looking for ‘inspirational ethics’, explained…
  • Tue, 10:45: A giant space rock demolished an ancient Middle Eastern city and everyone in it – possibly inspiring the Biblical story of Sodom https://t.co/gvJ1FozGCt Wow!!!!!
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Blood of Atlantis, by Simon Forward

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Another trawler nosed its way into the circle of piers, hunting for a berth among the gently jostling vessels. The most recent arrival was tying up, a couple of the crew handing off packing crates to be stacked on the pier by a third man.

In contrast to the Erimem series, I'm greatly enjoying these set of adventures of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart set just before the arrival of the Third Doctor into his life. Here he is sent off to the Aegean Sea to investigate mysterious threats, with his usual crew of assistants (who all get something to do) and an eccentric archaeologist and a Soviet officer who becomes a reluctant ally, along with a ruthless South African baddie. It fairly cracks along and I enjoyed it. Forward wrote one of the first Doctor Who books I read this century, before the 2005 reboot, and I've liked his work more often than not; this one's certainly in the "more" category. You can get it here.

book cover
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Jack, by Marilynne Robinson

Second paragraph of third chapter:

“Yes,” she said. “Good evening.” There were tears in her voice.

This is the fourth book in Robinson's Gilead series, about two families from the town of that name in Iowa. We had got parts of Jack's story in the earlier books Gilead and Home, but I confess I had forgotten most of the details and enjoyed Jack as if it had been a standalone novel. The protagonist is the alcoholic, self-loathing son of a preacher, who falls in love with a black woman, Della (whose father is also a clergyman), in St Louis in 1956. It's a slow-moving story, but it's moving as well as slow. Jack gradually finds his path to redemption and Della her path to independence; it's not an easy time for a relationship like theirs, but Robinson takes us through it all carefully and believably. I really enjoyed this. You can get it here.

Jack bubbled to the top of three of my lists simultaneously – top unread book acquired this year, top unread book by a woman and top unread non-sf fiction. Next on the first of those lists is Mortal Engines, by my fellow guest at next year's Eastercon, Philip Reeve; top of both the other two is The Wych Elm by Tana French.

book cover
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Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

More or less on a whim (and a couple of positive recommendations seen on Facebook) I made a rare excursion to the cinema, my first since the pandemic, to see Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. It is a lot of fun. I’m really unfamiliar with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, having seen only Iron Man (which I didn’t like) and Captain America: Winter Soldier (which I didn’t like much more), Thor: Ragnarok (same again) and Black Panther (which I really liked, but failed to write up at the time). But I’m happy to report that Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings can very much be enjoyed as a standalone film, on its own merits. Here’s a trailer.

It’s a super-hero film at heart; our protagonist, Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) is a super-skilled martial arts fighter working as a car valet in a San Francisco hotel. He is estranged from his father Wenwu (Tony Leung), who has become the leader of a global crime syndicate through use of the mystical Ten Rings, which give him super powers. Shang-Chi and his not-quite-girlfriend Katy (Awkwafina) go on a quest to find first his sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) and then their father, who is obsessed with finding Ta Lo, the hidden home village of their long-dead mother Ying Li (Fala Chen). Wenwu, however, is unwittingly being manipulated by dark forces trying to break through into our world to destroy it.

I had not seen any of these actors in anything before. However, I cheered when Michelle Yeoh, who I knew from Star Trek: Discovery, appears as Shang-Chi’s aunt, one of the guardians of Ta Lo; and I boggled at Ben “Gandhi” Kingsley as a dissolute actor who helps the protagonists. I hadn’t quite taken in that Kingsley had actually portrayed the same character in a couple of preious Marvel films, as an actor pretending to be The Mandarin, the leader of the Ten Rings, before he is captured by the real thing. The film as a whole is funny as well as action-packed, and Kingsley carries quite a lot of the humour and does it very well.

I felt it was an interesting window into Chinese culture a fifth of the way into the 21st century. Quite a lot of dialogue is in Chinese (and in my local Belgian cinema that meant squinting hastily at the French and Dutch subtitles to get what is going on). The story starts in San Francisco, and stays there long enough to meet Katy’s Chinese family; we then move to Macao (though we don’t see much more than Xialing’s fight club) and finally meet lots of Chinese mythical creatures in Ta Lo (which is actually filmed in Australia, but we’re led to believe it’s a secret part of China). There is a lot more going on than I realised.

The special effects are really something. The emergence of the monster for the final battle is tremendous, and the various creatures of Ta Lo beautifully done. We take these things for granted these days, but it’s always worth remembering that this is fairly new technology.

But really what makes the film is the fight sequences. Utterly unrealistic of course, and our protagonists have numerous very narrow scrapes. But the choreography of violence is so impressive that it rapidly got me past the ick of people harming each other and into the wow of how well it was put together. I’m well aware of course that there is a long tradition of this from kung-fu and wuxia, which I don’t know so I can’t say how much of this is genuinely new; but I found it all very watchable. Here’s the opening of the fight on the bus in San Francisco, a brilliant scene which must have taken days to stage.

Anyway. My exploration of Chinese sf continues. I have a long way to go.

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My tweets

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The Sixth Sense

The Sixth Sense won the first Nebula Award for Best Script for 22 years, after the original Star Wars in 1978. The other 1999 finalists were The Devil's Arithmetic, The Iron Giant, The Uranus Experiment: Part 2 and The Matrix.

I find several things puzzling about this. I can't understand why anyone would have voted for it ahead of The MatrixGalaxy Quest, which won the Hugo that year (beating The Sixth Sense and The Matrix) and the Nebula the following year, was not on the 1999 Nebula ballot.

The Nebula ballot notoriously included The Uranus Experiment: Part 2, a porn film which includes a 20-second sex scene shot in zero gravity on a parabolic flight. In a spirit of scientific enquiry, I have conducted my own investigation, and I can report that full docking in zero-G was not achieved, at least not in the footage that made it to the screen. (Personally, I think it was an entirely valid nomination, though the film is almost devoid of plot.)

The Sixth Sense has one actor who has returned from a previous Oscar/Hugo/Nebula winner. It is little Haley Joel Osment, playing Cole Sear, the psychic child at the centre of the plot (and in my view the best performance in the movie); five years ago, he was Forrest Gump's son, Young Forrest, in Forrest Gump.

Look, I know that this film is generally considered a masterpiece and won loads of awards. I found it boring and unmemorable. I actually watched it twice within three days, after realising that I had retained almost nothing about it first time round. Without spoiling, there is a major Plot Twist ten minutes from the end, which I spotted eleven minutes from the beginning. Bruce Willis spent an hour and a half working out what I already knew, and it just wasn't very interesting.

I'm putting it right down at the bottom of my list of Hugo and Nebula/winning films, between Curse of the Cat People and Heaven Can Wait. Looking forward rather more to Galaxy Quest, which is next on my list.

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550 days of plague

I’ve been thinking about how long I’ll keep up this series of ten-day check-ins. On the one hand, regular writing is good discipline in general. On the other hand, I really hope this will all be over soon. I posted my 540-day update on the way to a reception hosted by POLITICO:

At the reception, I got talking to Morten Rud Petersen, a former Danish minister; he told me that Denmark was to drop all COVID-related restrictions in a few days’ time, declaring the pandemic effectively over. I can see this happening in Belgium too, in a couple of months, if things keep on as they are currently. Infection numbers here are if anything drifting downward slightly, and numbers in hospitals and ICU are stable, despite the start of the new school term more than two weeks ago; an average of 7 deaths per day is still 7 too many, but it’s a third of the per capita rate in the UK right now, and a tenth of the per capita rate in the USA. The vaccination campaign is coming to an end.

Not to gloat, of course; Belgium has had the worst death rate over the whole pandemic of any Western European country (there are nine Eastern European countries and four in Latin America which are worse). But at least it’s not Peru, where the pandemic has claimed 6 lives in every thousand, one in 160 – twice the rate of the next worst country (Hungary).

I hunted down a picture that has been illustrating some recent articles about vaccinations in history – not a lot to say about it, but it is worth recording.

I had a slightly weird week, with Anne and F off to visit her parents from Thursday to Thursday. It’s the longest time that I have spent alone in this house, which we moved into in 2001 (and paid off the mortgage on last month). I was able to keep myself amused in the evenings, worked from home a couple of days, went to see a film on Saturday (which I’ll write up tomorrow) and went to the Netherlands on Sunday.

I got a slightly more high-profile media opportunity than usual on Thursday, when a colleague kindly passed me an invitation to talk about EU defence on Al-Jazeera. Since that was one of my WFH days, viewers will have been treated to our picture of baby B on the back wall of our study.

As Gore Vidal said, never turn down an opportunity to have sex or appear on television.