Saturday, 30 June 2012

REVIEW: The Obverse Quarterly: Tales of the City

 ed. Philip Purser-Hallard


Open up Tales of the City, and there’s immediately something amiss. The copyright page displays the traditional legend “All characters in this book are fictional. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, is wholly coincidental.” Which is rubbish. Tales of the City is full of the genuine, historically verifiable individuals. Technically, it features all of them, but only a few actually show up on the page. Still, not many books could feature authorial interpretations of Socrates, Lazarus, Helen of Troy, Philip and Jane Dick, Kurt Cobain and sundry Neanderthals, and still hold together.

Tales of the City is the first volume in the second year of the Obverse Quarterly range, and the first short story collection to be given over wholly to works set in the City of the Saved, that galactically vast metropolis that is, or will be, home to the entirety of humanity. Every individual who could feasibly be described as human, protohuman or posthuman, who ever lived or will live, resurrected beyond the end of time. The City first appeared in the Faction Paradox series, which itself originated with Lawrence Miles’s work in the BBC Doctor Who novels. Despite this, being a fan of Who is not necessary to enjoy any Faction or City-related material. Equally, while I’d recommend reading the Faction Paradox novel Of the City of the Saved… before Tales of the City (I’d recommend reading it anyway, it’s fantastic), it’s not necessary. Tales can be enjoyed in isolation.

Not that any of the stories exist in isolation. The City, after all, is a place in which almost any character, real or fictional, can interact. Even aliens can turn up on holiday. This volume includes the first City material by someone other than its creator, Philip Purser-Hallard (barring an occasional earlier paragraph), but PPH bookends the tales with his own material. These have the effect of placing the stories in context. The opening short, ‘Akroates,’ as well as being a fun introduction to the concept of the City, also introduces us to the dominant deme of the volume - a deme being a sort of functional family of biologically unrelated resurrectees. These characters, a peculiar mix if ever there was one, feature in their own stories throughout, before reuniting for the closing tale, “Apocalypse Day.”

The overarching theme of the volume is the heavy price of eternal life. Frankly, I can think of little more terrifying than the idea of an unending afterlife. The citizens are physically invulnerable, impervious to harm or pain, but to be left with your insecurities and neuroses for all eternity is something else entirely. Throughout, though, are hints that this state of affairs are set to change (tying into the catastrophic events of the aforementioned novel). Characters question whether a life without suffering is a meaningful life at all.

Blair Bidmead provides the first full-length story, “Happily Ever After is a High-Risk Strategy.” Bidmead is definitely a writer to watch, with a great imagination that is put to good use in this story. A wanderer, having discovered that the love of his life was not the love of his afterlife, hitches a lift in a sentient human car. It’s a road trip story, a touch unfocussed, but is a perfect introduction to the vastness and diversity of the City, and has some points to make about human aggression and clannish behaviour.

“The Socratic Problem” might be my favourite story of the collection. By Elizabeth Evershed, it takes place in a university comprising the greatest philosophers of all time. Among the inevitable politics and petty bickering that occur among its dons and lecturers, one Professor Inigo Faber makes the suggestion to invite Socrates to be guest lecturer. The great man turns up, not quite appearing as his intellectual descendants expected him to be, and becomes a student, threatening to tear the university down with his unending questioning. Very, very clever and very, very funny, this is a perfect example of using the City’s remit to include all humanity to tell an engaging story.

Juliet Kemp’s “Lost Ships and Lost Lands” is more of a straightforward adventure story, exploring the geography and topography of the immeasurably vast City. It still has interesting things to say, though, questioning how it must be to exist in an inalterable, perpetually youthful state. The protagonist, Brianna, has never attained any self-improvement, in her two centuries of City life. Is this because her physical form has remained the same, constraining her? Her illicit attempts to change her physical body, her imago, lead her on a journey that allows her to begin to develop.

Two further stories, “About a Girl” and “Bruises,” explore similar territory. Both take the inviolable nature of the imago as a starting point, and extrapolate from there. The talented Dale Smith provides a very disconcerting story in “About a Girl.” I imagine that an anthology series of the City of the Saved would work well on television, if people could get past the lack of physical jeopardy for the protagonists. “About a Girl,” though, would surely be unfilmable, or at least unbroadcastable. Something that surely occurs to anyone when confronted with the idea of the City: what about those who died as children? Most, it is revealed, mature naturally following their resurrection, becoming as unchanging as their fellows upon maturity. A proportional few, however, remain in their immature state forever. One such is the heroine of this story, a 250-year-old woman trapped in the body of a six-week-old girl. She’s perfectly happy like this, especially with her posthuman, cybernetic enhancements, and doesn’t see any problem in her relationship with an adult man. It certainly raises some uncomfortable questions, not least of which is how the human mindset might be forced to adapt to immortality and all it brings. The story also brings in some famous faces, including members of the notorious 27-Club, those live fast, die young musicians who have become urban legends for all dying at the same age. What would life in the City mean for somebody who committed suicide? What would life as one of untold undecillions mean to somebody who thrived on fame? A fascinating, uncomfortable read, “About a Girl” will stick with you long after reading.

“Bruises,” by Dave Hoskins, is an intriguing, unhappy, erotic story. “Ever hear the one about the masochist living with the sadist? The masochist keeps saying ‘Hurt me!’ and the sadist keeps saying ‘No.’” What would life invulnerable mean to those people who get off on pain? What sort of underground would develop, lusting for this lost part of their lives? “Bruises” explores the fine line between pleasure and pain, asks if the one can exist without the other, and explores the temptation of both. It also comes up with a very interesting solution to the question of what might happen in the City to someone who had already been resurrected. Very well written indeed.

Helen Angove’s “Highbury” is another fine piece of writing. A Jane Austen parody, but with a wit and skill that most such works lack. The City, being so vast in extent and population, has room for societies of every stripe, so long as they don’t require violence or physical harm. There are, of course, untold ways to perpetrate psychological harm. Highbury is a district whose inhabitants choose to live in a late 28th/early 19th century English high society; a living sentimentalist novel. Some originate in the genuine era, while others are Austin freaks. After Socrates, Sophia is my favourite character in Tales; a young woman brought back into her natural family’s dominating lifestyle, smothered by their outdated social norms. By pinning it against the backdrop of the City, “Highbury” shows how utterly ridiculous the obsessions of class, wealth and standing of the 19th century - and by extension, those of today - truly were. Such things are utterly meaningless, but the perennially unmarried Sophia believes in them. It takes an insidious, external influence to open her mind, and allow her to show how strong and intelligent a woman she is. In some ways a very straightforward story - the only one that can be said to feature a genuine villain - it’s also one of the best written.

Every story in Tales of the City is well-written, however. That’s the joy of a short volume like this; there’s no room for filler, only stories that deserve to be read. As well as entertaining me, the stories left me questioning, eager to learn more about the City and wondering about some uncomfortable aspects of human nature. I learned some new words (I’ll be trying to get “omegapuntal” and “bothrium” into conversation). There are still many questions about life in the City to be asked; in particular, I have a morbid wondering about those who died unborn. The great thing about this volume is that’s there’s plenty more left to explore. I hope that there are more collections set in the City of the Saved to look forward to.

Purchase Tales of the City here, in ebook or paper form.
Read more of PPH's material on the City here, but don't read the timeline or final story until after reading Tales.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Caroline John

I'm sure most of you will be aware that Caroline John passed on June 5th. She was 71.

To any who don't know of her: Caroline John played Dr Elizabeth Shaw in the seventh season of Doctor Who, broadcast in 1970. Naturally, she also played numerous other roles throughout her career, but she will be best known for playing Liz. Much of her acting career took place on the stage, so most of her roles will have been seen by far fewer people than her time on Doctor Who. I recall her appearance in an early episode of Agatha Christie's Poirot (a wiki check reveals that it was 'Problem at Sea'). In this she appeared alongside her husband Geoffrey Beevers, who will also be forever remembered for one role by Doctor Who fans: he played the 'interim' incarnation of the Master in Tom Baker's penultimate story, The Keeper of Traken.

Liz was the ridiculously overqualified assistant to the third Doctor, Jon Pertwee, in his first year. Although she was brought in ostensibly to be UNIT's scientific advisor, the Doctor usurped her position and she was relegated to carrying test tubes and looking good in a miniskirt. Caroline John only stayed for one season - she left to have a child - and was replaced by the wonderful Katy Manning as the ditzy Jo Grant. Even so, her short tenure as a regular showed what an excellent actress she was. Liz came across as a believable character, with Caroline John bringing to life a well-written role. Liz had a strong mind and great self-confidence, sure in the knowledge that she was by far the intellectual superior to her commanding officer, Brig. Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney, also lost to us recently). But she had a fine sense of humour, which set her apart from so many of the aggressively strong female characters that had begun to appear on television in the late 60s and early 70s. She made an occasional glib comment about '"female emancipation," but unlike so many supposedly feminist characters, Liz didn't feel the need to broadcast her views. She was a talented female scientist and she didn't tell us, she showed us.

Liz would have been better served as a character as the scientific focus of a series itself, but she was created to be an assistant for the Doctor. Fortunately, John and Pertwee had some great onscreen chemistry. Unlike most companion characters, Liz never travelled in the TARDIS - indeed, she had trouble accepting it as a travelling device at all. She was a different sort of character, and although she had her origins in the super-brainy companion Zoe from the previous year, she became a very distinct character in her own right, even over a mere twenty-five episodes. Indeed, in her last story, Inferno, she spent much of the story playing another version of the character, the parallel universe Section Leader Shaw, who was distinctly different yet recognisably Liz.

Caroline John returned to Doctor Who on television twice, but neither occasion was terribly noteworthy. Once as a sort of spectral figure of Liz, in The Five Doctors, in 1983, the other as the Liz 'phase' of the companion run-down in 1993's god-awful charity skit/Eastenders-crossover, Dimensions in Time. What happened to Liz after she left UNIT and returned to academia is a source of much fan debate, and the expanded universe stories have portrayed various 'last stories' and contradictory fates for the character. Onscreen, the last we heard of her was in the SJA story Death of the Doctor, in which it is revealed she is unable to attend the Doctor's funeral because she is currently working on the Moon.

Caroline John didn't leave the role behind though. She appeared in BBV's direct-to-video series P.R.O.B.E, in which author Mark Gatiss created a new posting for Dr. Shaw - part of the Preternatural Research Bureau. Following news of John's death, I got hold of one of the films - the second of the four, The Devil of Winterbourne. Although clearly an amateur production, I was very impressed, and I loved the pipe-smoking older Liz! It's definitely worth digging out if you're a Whohead, and stars other familiar faces (or voices, in some cases), including Peter Davison, Louise Jameson, Terry Molloy and, of course, Mr John again, Geoffrey Beevers. It's also worth a look if you're a League of Gentlemen fan, as a chance to see a very young Mark Gatiss and Reece Shearsmith - although there's not a lot in the film that can be described as 'preternatural.'

Liz also returned in audio productions for Big Finish, in four releases of the Companions Chronicles series, the latest of which has yet to be released. Caroline John previously played Madame Salvadori in the BF audioplay Dust Breeding, which reintroduced her husband to his role as the Master, this time battling Sylvester McCoy's seventh Doctor. While it's a treat to hear her in a fruity role like Salvadori, it can't compare to having Liz back. The character certainly made an impression on many fans; for example, she was brought back as the Doctor's companion for the first few stories of The Doctor Who Project - also featuring the seventh Doctor facing the Master. (I'm also convinced that Noomi Rapace's character from Prometheus is named after her.) Fans can also hear John's excellent readings of several audiobooks based on three of the four the stories that made up her year on Doctor Who; the remaining story, The Ambassadors of Death, has not had its novelisation read for audio to my knowledge, and is also awaiting a restored DVD release.

Sadly, once Big Finish's final Chronicle for Liz is released, there will be no new material featuring Caroline John. One of the best of Doctor Who's many regular leads, she will be missed. My sympathies go out to her husband, children, family and friends. Big Finish have published a short tribute, and the very talented BabelColour has produced a short video tribute for her, available on YouTube.




Friday, 22 June 2012

CAPTAIN'S BLOG: TNG 1.6-1.7

Well beyond time for some more instalments from The Next Generation.

1.6) Lonely Among Us

or

‘Today’s episode was brought to you by the letter “P”’

The Mission:
Ferry the ambassadors from two cultures vying for Federation membership to their conference planet. Don’t stick your noses in any alien space clouds on the way.

Planets visited: None as such, but the Enterprise beams up ambassadors from Antica and Selay, the two inhabited planets of the Beta Renner star system, and is taking them to the planet Parliament.

Spatial Effects: There’s a great big blue cloud in space on the way, so, in spite of being on a time-sensitive mission, Picard decides to go and have a quick look. Despite looking like any number of nebulae, the cloud is apparently composed of pure energy. They only take a quick gander, but it’s long enough for an alien intelligence to get scooped up through the sensor beams by mistake.

Alien Life Forms:
Anticans: Mammalian creatures from Antica, with dog-like faces and extended skulls. They are passionately carnivorous, believing the replication of meat to be barbaric; they prefer their dinners to be delivered live to their rooms. They do cook their food, though - they try to get the ship’s chef to cook one of the Selayan delegates.

Selay: Archenemies of the Anticans, the Selay, or Selayans, are reptilian humanoids with green scaled skin, clawed hands and cobra-like heads. They’re snake-people basically, ssssspeaking sssssibilantly. They seems a little more sophisticated than the Anticans, but not by much. They insist on being upwind from their enemies. They later go on a hunting expedition of sorts, with a lasso on a stick. Frankly, both parties of aliens are nutters and the idea of them putting aside their differences and stopping eating each other long enough to actually join the Federation seems unlikely.

The space intelligence: Completely incorporeal, composed of energy that manifests as blue bolts of lightning when it jumps from host to host. Frightened at being removed from its natural habitat, the intelligence leaps from crewmember to crewmember, taking a turn in Worf and Dr Crusher, before it enters the computer system and absorbs enough data to understand where it is and how to use the ship. It accidentally kills a crewman named Singh, before finally merging with Picard.

The Picard Manoeuvre: Weird. He doesn’t get possessed like the others do when the alien jumps to him, but actually seems to merge with it, with parts of his personality coming through. Assuming the intelligence is speaking truthfully, Picard is seduced by the idea of becoming pure energy and existing in space, able to explore the universe (perhaps his meeting with Q has given him some strange ideas). We’re genuinely led to believe that Picard decides to jump ship, using the transporter to convert to energy. It doesn’t take, and he has to come back, entering through the computer system and being reconstituted in the transporter. He has no memory of these events, which is probably for the best.

Number One: Poor Riker gets lumbered with looking after the two alien parties, then tries to lead a very poor attempt at mutiny against his alien-influenced captain. Then Picard takes a sick day and leaves him in charge.

Elementary, my dear Data: Is nuttier than ever in this episode. When Picard considers the mystery of the cloud and the anomalies the alien is causing on the Enterprise, Data takes it as a cue to upload all of the Sherlock Holmes media into his head (just the canon, or all the other stuff too? Is Sherlock Holmes’s Smarter Brother in there? What about Benedict Cumberbatch?) Cue lots of scenes with Data pretending to smoke a pipe and saying “indubitably,” a lot.

Space Bilge: Crewmembers are being possessed by an alien intelligence, and are acting out of character. If only they had a psychic on board to help suss ‘em out. Oh, hang on, they do. Troi hasn’t a clue, though. Picard uses the ingenious technique of signing the computer readout with a ‘P’ when he beams himself back aboard to let the crew know what’s going on. Most glaringly, on a mission to transport to hostile alien races that are on the verge of killing each other, to an urgent conference, Picard elects to take time out to explore a space phenomenon that’s not going anywhere, is totally unknown and ends up putting ship and crew in danger. Twit.

Future Treknology: The PADDs make their first appearance in this episode, prefiguring the iPad by a couple of decades. Replicators make all the food on the ship - no one eats real meat anymore.

Trivia: The Antican leader is named, improbably, as Badar N’D’D according to the script. No, we don’t know how to say that either. He’s played by Mard ‘Gul Dukat’ Alaimo under all that latex. Another familiar face is Colm Meaney, making his second appearance as the as-yet-unnamed O’Brien. We love him.

Verdict: Pretty average. The alien delegates are fun, if silly, and it’s nice to have some less humanoid creatures in the show. The possession plot is clich├ęd and poorly played out, though. It’s a throwaway sort of episode.




Tuesday, 5 June 2012

MOVIE REVIEW: Prometheus

Watching the Alien franchise, in its successive iterations with different writers and directors, is a strange and disjointed experience; each film is distinctly different in style, tone and quality. Ridley Scott’s Alien is rightly regarded as a classic of horror cinema (although it’s fascinating to read the less-than-glowing contemporary reviews from 1979), while James Cameron’s Aliens is equally as good, in a completely different way. It’s always been tempting to imagine though, what Scott would have done with a sequel. Now we have some idea; Prometheus is, in effect, Ridley Scott’s Aliens.

It’s a tough movie to review, since I’m loathe to give away the resolution to the film; that said, so many of the plot beats are predictable that it’s questionable that it could actually be ‘spoilered’ at all. This is due, in part, to the impressive viral video campaign that preceded the film’s release. The Weyland Corp. promotional videos give an impressive sense of reality to the universe in which the film is set, but have the drawback of making very little about the set-up seem in any way surprising. We pretty much know what we’re getting as we go in. Equally, though, the film’s storyline is simply not very original, treading well-worn ground familiar from many a science fiction film.

I fear I’ll damn this movie with faint praise. So much of it so is so very, very good, yet I left the cinema feeling strangely flat, and I wasn’t alone. The friends I went to see it with, which included both a proper film buff and someone who has never seen any of the Alien films, were all a little ambivalent about the movie. Still, it gave us all plenty to talk about, always a good achievement for a production, although the discussion was perhaps less philosophical than the creators of the film would have hoped.






Saturday, 2 June 2012

MOVIE REVIEW: Men in Black 3

It’s fair to say that not many people spent the last ten years waiting for Columbia to release another Men in Black movie. However, now the suited alien investigators have returned to our screens, and I’m very pleased that they have. MIB3 has received some very mixed reviews; Charlie Jane Anders at i09 hilariously suggested that Battleship was the better movie of the summer, which just goes to show how low some people’s opinion of MIB3 is.

It’s certainly true that the movie takes few steps to differentiate itself from its older brothers. The titles and music stick to the style of the earlier two movies; the same two leads begin the film doing pretty much the same things they did throughout MIB2. Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones step back into their roles that you’d think that only a couple of years had passed, not ten. While neither actor seems to put a great deal into his performance, they don’t really need to; they can clearly pick it up as if MIB2 was yesterday. However, there is evidence that time has passed. The characters have been allowed to grow older, J feeling the strain, K withdrawing further and becoming more jaded than ever. So, some things have moved on. Z is dead, and Agent O has taken his place as head of the MIB. The Worms are still present, but Frank the Pug has seemingly moved on to the big magazine stand in the sky. Pleasingly, that same guard sits in his chair reading the paper every time J enters the building, so some things really do never change (barring history-altering time travel).





Costume Decisions

Those reading my reviews over the months and years may have noticed that I tend to notice the costumes characters wear in my favourite shows and movies, and focus on them an inordinate amount. It happens in my fiction, as well. It's probably down to my gayer side coming through. Anyway, there are some new behind-the-scenes shots from both Star Trek and Doctor Who doing the rounds, and while some are getting excited about casting details (Anjini Azhar really is the cutest little thing), I'm more interested in the outfits.

First off, the Trek boys are sporting a new variation on the occasionally seen grey uniforms from the first movie:


And they have hats! I want a Starfleet hat!

Also, new shots from the latest work on Doctor Who's seventh series have surfaced. They're from Jenna-Louise Coleman's first episode to be recorded (so not the Christmas special, which will be recorded later). While J-L C is looking pretty hot in a modern ensemble, the Doctor has stepped back to his classic frock coat and waistcoat look, with optional bowtie still available. I do love a Doctor in a frock coat.



There are lots more pictures at SFX and TrekMovie.