Saturday 31 August 2013

TREK REVIEW: A Choice of Futures by Christopher L. Bennett

Christopher L. Bennett is the first Star Trek author I've found myself following since the prolific Peter David. I look forward to each of his new Trek projects. He has a knack for balancing the two conflicting interests of both authors and fans: the desire for a new, original adventure, and shameless fanwank. I know of no other author who can fill a novel with so many references to elements throughout a franchise, while never letting those references overtake the story. It's a good thing that Bennett provides his novels with an appendix, and posts copious notes on his own website, to inform readers of the winks they may have missed.

His latest novel, which goes by the lengthy full title Star Trek: Enterprise - Rise of the Federation: A Choice of Futures, is no different, and it's clear that Bennett takes great pleasure in picking up on minor characters and background elements, and extrapolating their significance. As a titular Enterprise novel, A Choice of Futures focuses on the core characters and cultures of the Enterprise series, but looks forwards to the greater Star Trek universe and all the many series and sub-series that are to follow. Individuals briefly mentioned in the original series become fully-fledged characters, and unexplained mysteries of the Trek universe come under examination. Even the oft-forgotten animated series is pillaged for goods. It's all great fun for a fan, with plenty of cute 'Ah, I see what you did there!' moments.

All of this would be for nought, of course, without a decent story to back it all up. Bennett spins a great adventure here, taking us along on three missions of the fledgeling Federation Starfleet. There's the USS Endeavour, essentially the substitute Enterprise, now upgraded (and redesignated Columbia-class), under the command of Captain T'Pol and crewed by characters new and old. A particularly nice touch is the inclusion of Elizabeth Cutler, who was set up as a minor recurring character during Enterprise's first season before the sudden and untimely death of actress Kellie Waymire. The Endeavour becomes part of a taskforce dedicated to investigating the mysterious aliens from the Enterprise episode 'Silent Enemy,' an alien race that, having no explanation in the series, has intrigued fans since their appearance. Here, they are generally referred to as the 'Mutes,' although the fan and crew nickname the 'Shroomies' gets a nod. This main storyline is a good, old-fashioned Trek adventure, with the added interest of involving a new, still-forming Starfleet saddled with confusion and mistrust among its various members.

Alongside that, we have Captain Malcolm Reed, once armory officer on the Enterprise, commanding the USS Pioneer, on a mission that sees him and his crew put through dire straights and a near-fatal encounter with the many hazards of space travel. These scenes are some of the best at illustrating the difficulties that the newly allied species would have working together, and how they might overcome them. Then there is a third mission, involving Captain Bryce Shumar of the USS Essex, and his diplomatic mission to the planet Sauria. This strand illuminates how the Federation's current interventionist policy might do more harm than good, and will no doubt lead to the establishment of the famous Prime Directive.

It's not all Starfleet, however. The three starship-based stories intersect through the politics of the Federation as it deals with the tenuous treaties and alliances of the turbulant galaxy. Admirals Archer and Shran represent Starfleet (and it wouldn't be an Enterprise novel without Archer), but the Federation President and other officials are involved in events that will shape the future of the galaxy. Some familiar faces make some surprising appearances, with Orions, Malurians and more all becoming involved. There are intriguing developments both in the open and behind the scenes. There's a real sense of old friends being caught up in major events, making decisions that will have greater consequences than they could imagine.

A Choice of Futures follows on from the previous post-series Enterprise novels, including the Romulan War sequence. While it probably helps to have read those, it's not essential (indeed, I haven't read the War novels and still followed the set-up happily). Rise of the Federation isn't the first attempt to tell the story of the UFP's early years. Pocket books made an interesting attempt years ago with the serialised Starfleet: Year One, which was superceded almost immediately by Enterprise, and Titan Books have just released Federation: The First 150 Years, an entirely different account of period. As always, the novels provide an extra serving of Star Trek alongside the on-screen adventures, and there's no obligation to accept this as the 'true' history of the Federation. However, as far as I'm concerned, Rise of the Federation is the real deal, at least until Paramount one day produce a series about the period. I'm looking forward to the second volume, Tower of Babel, although I'd love to see Bennett's proposed 'Beginning' storyline see the light of day. I want to know what happened between First Contact and Enterprise.

Monday 26 August 2013

The Men Who Would Be Doctor (part two)

In 1989, Doctor Who was cancelled. These are the men who might have been the Doctor, had things gone differently during the wilderness years of the nineties, the tumult of the noughties, and the speculation of recent years.

Peter Cook

Following the cancellation of Doctor Who, various production teams proposed relaunches for the series to the BBC, which was keen for an external company to take on the series. Once such proposal which might have an actual chance of being picked up was that by Cinema Verity, the company owned and run by Doctor Who's original producer, Verity Lambert. She went on record later saying that her preferred choice for the Doctor would have been comedian and actor Peter Cook. This could have been truly amazing, but we wouldn't have got many years from Cook; he died in 1995.

Alan Rickman

Another production company, going by the names Green Light and Daltenreys, held the movie rights to Doctor Who for some time in the nineties (and there's a long and complicated story to those rights and how they lost them). Their proposed Doctor Who film would have brought together multiple Doctors, but the lead incarnation would have been a big name to sell tickets, and Alan Rickman is said to have been their top choice. Whether they actually approached him at all is another matter. However awful the movie sounds, and it does, Rickman would have been amazing as the Doctor.

Liam Cunningham

Famous to Doctor Who fans as Captain Zarkov in this year's episode Cold War, to Game of Thrones fans as Davos Seaworth, and to anyone who likes television and film for hundreds of roles, Cunningham was one of many actors who auditioned for the role of the Doctor in what eventually became the 1996 TV movie. Other actors who auditioned included Tony Slattery, Tim McInnerny and Mark McGann, whose brother Paul got the part. It is thought that Eric Idle and Rowan Atkinson were also approached; the latter would go on to play the Doctor for Comic Relief.

Anthony Head

Another actor who auditioned for the movie, and one whose name has appeared at the top of 'Who should play the Doctor?' roles since 1997, when he leapt to geek hero status as Giles on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Obviously he's got the terribly English thing going, but his performance as Mr Finch in the 2006 Doctor Who episode School Reunion shows that he can freakishly alien as well.

Harry van Gorkum

No, I've never heard of him either. A quick look on IMDB shows he's been in a lot of stuff though. Van Gorkum was the back-up plan for the TV Movie. Producer Philip Segal and the BBC had decided on Paul McGann, but the American parties involved, Fox and Universal, wanted someone American. Van Gorkum, English but based in America, was a compromise, but was apparently brought in to make McGann look like the better option. Which clearly worked.

Robbie Williams

Believe it or not, there's truth to this rumour. In 2003, the BBC commissioned an animated Doctor Who story for webcast on BBCi. This became Scream of the Shalka, and featured Richard E. Grant as the voice and physical template for the Doctor - officially, albeit briefly, the ninth Doctor. When looking to cast the role, the producers looked at all sorts of names, and Robbie Williams was one that cropped up. He was apprently "very interested." This was mumbled back in the day, but it's there in black and white in the latest issue of DWM. Can you imagine?

Alan Cumming

Another shadow project at the BBC around this time was a production by fan-turned-pro Bill Baggs, based at BBC South Today. In early 2004, information began to leak out concerning a new Doctor Who production made for the news and culture programme. While some reports linked Sylvester McCoy with the role - which might be a garbled account of his presenting a programme about Doctor Who - the name that was being bandied around the most was Scots-American actor Alan Cumming. Quite how South Today thought they'd afford a Hollywood actor like Cumming is another matter. In the end, this was shut down before it even got started, in the interests of the flagship relaunch series.

Bill Nighy

Famously Russell T. Davies's preferred choice for the role when he was first looking to cast the new series. Whether there was anything more to it than a suggestion wasn't clear until recently, when Nighy admitted that he was approached for the role. “I was offered the role once," he told the Huffington Post. "I won’t tell you when because the rule is that you’re not allowed to say you turned that job down because it’s disrespectful to whoever did it. I will say that I was approached. But I didn’t want to be the Doctor. No disrespect to Doctor Who or anything. I just think that it comes with too much baggage.” It seems pretty likely that this was in 2004, for the role that eventually went to Christopher Eccleston. Nighy's refusal didn't stop the papers touting him as the new Doctor, though.

Hugh Grant

While Nighy might have made a good Doctor, he wouldn't have impacted the part the way Eccleston did. Still, he surely would have been a better choice than the second actor who we know was approached. RTD admitted that he offered the role to Hugh Grant, who later expressed regret for declining, once he saw how the show turned out. Having a film star that famous and bankable would have been a huge boon for the series, of course, but it's hard to see the series working as well with a man of pure romcom background in the lead role. Then again, he did have a good turn playing the 'twelfth Doctor' for Comic Relief's The Curse of Fatal Death, so who knows?

Martin Clunes

A bit of a garbled one this. Some reports around the time David Tennant was leaving the part suggested that Martin Clunes was offered the role and was the preferred choice to take over. Appearing on The One Show later to promote Doc Martin, he did say that "there was a lunch," and it was suggested by the press that he turned the role down. However, most reports then linked the role to David Morrissey, and considering how early these talks were supposedly happening, it seems more likely that Clunes was offered the part of the false Doctor, Jackson Lake.

Russell Tovey

Russell T. Davies mentioned more than once that he was keen for guest actor Russell Tovey to take on the role of the eleventh Doctor. However, since he was leaving the series at the time, it was never his choice; still, it's unlikely that Stephen Moffat and his team didn't listen to his advice. It turns out that he did in fact audition for the role, as he told the Independent earlier in the year, but lost out to Matt Smith.

Paterson Joseph

Another popular name for bookies and casting pundits, and certainly one of my preferred choices for the role. It's something of an open secret that Joseph auditioned for the part. Neil Gaiman recently said: "I was rather disappointed Paterson Joseph didn't get it last time, although I've loved Matt's Eleven." He then went on to say that "I know one black actor who was already offered the part of the Doctor, and who turned it down." Now, was he talking about Joseph then, or someone else? The way it was worded suggests the latter, or is he just being coy about the actor's identity?

Read part one here.

Sunday 25 August 2013


1.12) Datalore
‘The Abominable Snowflake’

The Mission: Investigate the site of Data's discovery.

Planets visited: Omicron Theta, former Federation colony and the planet where Data was discovered many years ago. It's now a dead planet, and the colony has vanished.

Elementary, My Dear Data: He's practising sneezing. He stores the memories of all the colonists, which allows him some semblance of human knowledge, but not necessarily how to use it. He was created by Dr Noonien Soong, whose nickname was 'Often-Wrong' Soong (that's a bad rhyme). He seems genuinely emotional when he finds another android. He has an off switch on his abdomen, but likes to keep it quiet.

The Picard Maneouvre: He's super pragmatic about the android and puts everyone at ease by reminding them that humans are, in their own way, machines too. He's totally up his own arse for a lot of this episode, though, refusing to listen to advice.

Villain of the Piece: Lore, an identical android, was Data's prototype but claims to be his improvement. Has real emotions, but this has made him unstable. He's got a nervous tick too. He's ambitious, arrogant and completely nuts. He poisons Data and tries to take his place, kicks him in the head and then beats up Worf. He's a complete bastard.

The Boy: Wesley realises that Lore has replaced Data while everyone else is taken in. They all shout him down and act like dicks to him. Quite how the teenage character is supposed to be smarter than everyone else on this highly-trained crew is beyond me, but you've got to feel sorry for the squirt.

Alien Life Forms: The Crystalline Entity, a huge snowflake-like creature flying through space at warp speed. It devours organic life, stripping all life energy from a planet. Lore drew it to Omicron Theta, and tries to feed it the Enterprise. It doesn’t really do much in this episode.

Future History: Apparently the common cold no longer bothers people. This is enough to make me want to live in the 24th century.

Cliche Count: Lore can use contractions, while Data can't. Not in this episode, anyway. And it's both an estanged family member episode, and an evil twin episode, so double-cliché points for that one.

Links and References: Isaac Asimov is name-checked.

Sexy Trek: Android bum!

Space bilge: Lore has a special way of talking to the entity that only he can perform. It sounds a lot like him just talking to the entity.

Things to Come: Both Lore and the Crystalline Entity will be back to threaten the Enterprise in later episodes. Another prototype android is found in Star Trek Nemesis, and another Crystalline Entity appears as an enemy in Star Trek Online.

Verdict: "And you want to be as stupid as them?" A clichéd but fun episode which is livened up no end by a fantastic performance by Brent Spiner as both Data and Lore. It's a shame the crew have to be so stupid in order for the episode to work, though.

Saturday 24 August 2013

Try a new short story - 'Terminal' by Rachael Spellman

My good friend Rachael Spellman, aka CelenaGaia, has released her first e-book, Terminal.

"Paul is the oil in his company's machine, smoothing out deals across the world. Forever on the move, he's the guy his colleagues raise a glass to, even while he shivers at a ghost-light taxi rank, or is stuck listening to airport muzak. Dulled in the face of the world, he is trying to recall the traveling dreams of his youth - but more often than not, remembers only the last touch of his dying mother's hand.

When a winter storm shuts him inside yet another airport lounge, he welcomes the arrival of a strangely cloaked girl as something of a distraction. The recessional that follows - a blurring of lines between past and present - could be his awakening." 

Terminal is a beautifully written piece, channelling real, raw emotion. It's a powerful story, and you should all take a little time out of your day to read it.

You can buy it from Amazon here, for only £1.54. 

Friday 23 August 2013

The Men Who Would Be Doctor (part one)

The twelfth Doctor has been cast. Of course, there have been more than twelve Doctors. Since BBC Wales brought the series back to our screens, it has introduced no fewer than seven new Doctors - Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant, Matt Smith and now Peter Capaldi as proper, regular incarnations, plus John Hurt as a mysterious missing incarnation, Toby Jones as the evil Dream Lord version of the Doctor, and David Morrissey as the pseudo-Doctor, Jackson Lake. And this doesn't cover all the other extra Doctors from the original run of the programme, the movie versions of Doctor Who, the various spin-off versions for Comic Relief, BBCi, stageplays, Big Finish 'Unbound' plays and all manner of other oddities.

Look back into the series' past though, and the list of would-be Doctors is even longer and more baffling. The men who were considered, approached and auditioned. The men who would be Doctor...

Hugh David

The original choice for the Doctor, right back in the very beginning. Hugh David was the choice of Rex Tucker, the caretaker producer for Doctor Who until Verity Lambert took over as full producer. At thirty-eight, David was younger than the original conception of the part, although it's likely that he would have been required to 'age up,' much as Hartnell did when he won the role. In any case, Lambert did not consider David to be right for the role, and the dashing star of Knight Errant is thought to have declined already. David moved into directing, and went on to direct two Doctor Who serials, The Highlanders and Fury from the Deep, both starring Patrick Troughton.

Geoffrey Bayldon

Another younger man considered for the part of the Doctor before Hartnell won it. He would have been thirty-nine at the time, but had experience in playing older characters. His reluctance to accept another 'old man role' is part of the reason he declined the part, as he later told Doctor Who Magazine. Bayldon has played numerous roles over the years, including Organon in the 1979 serial The Creature from the Pit, but is most famous for his starring role in Catweazle during the early seventies. He would finally play the Doctor in two 'Unbound' audios for Big Finish, Auld Mortality and A Storm of Angels. Other actors considered for the role of the first Doctor include Cyril Cusack, Leslie French and Alan Webb.

Boris Karloff

Now, this is an odd one. While most of us now think of Boris Karloff as the star of such monster movies as Frannkestein, The Bride of Frankenstein and The Mummy, his impressive physical stature wasn't his only unusual aspect. Karloff was once as famous for his powerful voice - modern audiences might remember this best from the animated How the Grinch Stole Christmas, in which he was both Grinch and narrator. Karloff was the preferred choice for a Doctor Who radio series designed for sale to America, capitalising on the success of the 1960s Dalek films. In the event, Peter Cushing reprised his role as Doctor Who, and recorded an unsuccessful pilot episode, which is now long lost.

Michael Hordern

Patrick Troughton was always the first choice to take over from William Hartnell - it's rumoured Harntell insisted upon it. However, there was never any guarantee Troughton would agree to taking in the part, and negotiations began with the respected stage and screen star Michael Hordern. In the event, Troughton took on the role, and secured the programme's future.

Valentine Dyall

Another actor considered for the second Doctor was Valetine Dyall, well known for his deep, booming voice (not unlike Boris Karloff then). The imposingly tall actor took more voice roles than screen parts, and was radio's 'Man in Black' for years. He eventually joined the Doctor Who fold in 1979, as the evil Black Guardian, a role to which he returned in 1983. Can you imagine him as the Doctor? He would have been terrifying!

Brian Blessed

Although perhaps not as terrifying as Brian Blessed and his legendarily powerful lungs. Long linked in fan lore as a potential choice for the role of the sixth Doctor, Blessed recently revealed he was offered to take the role of the second. Precisely how formal an offer this was is unclear, particularly considering Blessed's propensity for tall tales. Blessed would have been a mere thirty years old at the time, but still possessed of a prodigiously projectable voice. In 1966, he had just finished a three-year stint on Z-Cars, making him a very recognisable actor in Britain. He would eventually appear in Doctor Who in 1986, as the mighty King Yrcanos in Mindwarp.

Ron Moody

In 1969, following the success of the musical Oliver! Doctor Who producer Barry Letts looked to secure Ron 'Fagin' Moody as the third actor to play the Doctor. It's easy to see Moody playing the Doctor in a similar vein to Troughton, quirky and mercurial. He declined the role, and expressed regret at his decision years later. Jon Pertwee was cast and the show went onto huge success in its colour years.

Graham Crowden

When Pertwee left the role in 1974, a long list of actors was drawn up by Letts and the production team looking for a new Doctor. Early thoughts were to return to an older actor, which led to the addition of Ian Marter as Harry Sullivan, to take on the physical stuff. One actor offered the part was Graham Crowden, who would later join the Doctor Who fold with his, um, unique performance as Soldeed in 1980's The Horns of Nimon, opposite the man who eventually won the Doctor role, Tom Baker.

Fulton Mackay

Having already impressed the producers with his performance in 1970 serial Doctor Who and the Silurians, Scottish actor Fulton Mackay was a preferred choice for Letts's team. Indeed, the role almost went to him, but a comedy pilot that he recently shot went to series, and he was forced to choose between the two regular roles. He chose Porridge.

Jim Dale

With the search for an older actor bearing no fruit, the Letts and co began to look at younger men. Jim Dale, best known for his Carry On... roles, might seem an odd choice now, but he was very seriously considered by the creative team. To see how it might have worked, try watching his disturbing performance as snake oil salesman Doc Terminus in Pete's Dragon. Other actors who auditioned for the part include Michael Bentine and everyone's favourite grandad, Bernard Cribbens.

David Warner

Another name that has been linked with the fourth Doctor shortlist over the years is genre favourite, David Warner. Very recently, he was asked about this in an interview, and has explained that although he was invited to discuss the role, he was never offered the part, and that any talk of him turning it down is hyperbole. In any case, he was already engaged in other work and wouldn't have been able to commit to the role. Warner eventually played the Doctor for Big Finish in 2003, as a version of the third Doctor in Unbound: Sympathy for the Devil, one of many roles for the audio series, and finally appeared onscreen in Doctor Who opposite Matt Smith in the 2013 episode Cold War.

Richard Griffiths

The late Richard Griffiths was considered for the role of the Doctor three times. When Tom Baker resigned, John Nathan-Turner wanted someone entirely different to take on the role; the hefty thespian certainly would have been a contrast to the lanky Tom Baker. In the end, of course, the role went to Peter Davison. Years later, Griffiths was on the mind of casting directors both for the potential 27th season of the show, which would have aired in 1990, and again during the troubled production of the Doctor Who TV movie, which went through various shapes until settling down into the Paul McGann oddity we got in 1996. For Doctor Who fans, watching Withnail and I, with eighth Doctor McGann, potential Doctor Griffiths and spin-off Doctor Richard E. Grant is like some kind of bizarre, parallel universe version of The Three Doctors.

Ken Campbell

Various actors auditioned for the role of the seventh Doctor when Colin Baker was let go. The list includes such names as Tony Robinson, Dermot Crowley and Chris Jury, who was once famous as Lovejoy's sidekick Eric, but isn't really famous anymore. Strangest of all was Ken Campbell, stand-up performer and 'one man dynamo of British theatre.' His audition was considered 'too disturbing' by the production team. In the end, his protege Sylvester McCoy got the part. At least Jury got a role alongside McCoy in The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, although it'd be great to see Campbell's audition tapes.

Click here for part two, in which we'll explore the potential Doctors since 1990.

Wednesday 21 August 2013

Who Book-Quest #7: Original Sin by Andy Lane

 For six years in the nineties, the New Adventures were Doctor Who. There were sixty New Adventures featuring the seventh Doctor, travelling the universe with Ace, Benny, Roz and Chris. Original Sin, published in June '95, is the thirty-ninth novel in the series, and introduces Roz and Chris into the Doctor's world.

Initially, having two hardnut cops in the TARDIS seems like a terrible idea. It's the sort of butch, macho nonsense that was ubiquitous in genre works in the nineties. Oh, so gritty, so cool. Yet, somehow, Roslyn Forrestor and Christopher Cwej work far better as characters than, say, their predecessor, 'New Ace' did. Sure, they're tough, they're fighters, they're not averse to firing a blaster, but they work as characters because they actually have character, as opposed to be being the generic toughies they could have been.

Having Andy Lane create them via this novel helps of course. Now best known for his 'Young Sherlock Holmes' novels as Andrew Lane, he has a long history with Doctor Who tie-ins and spin-offs stretching back to the early NA Lucifer Rising(co-written with the equally good Jim Mortimore) and the excellent Who/Holmes crossover All-Consuming Fire. Lane has a talent for handling convoluted, mystery laden plots that balance well-written action scenes with fine characterisation. Here, he builds on the future history of the NAs that had begun with Lucifer Rising and its stablemates, creating the dystopian thirtieth century from which hale the two Adjudicators - think Megacity One's Judges, only not quite so violent.

Make no mistake, though - this is a violent novel. A wave of madness is spreading out from Earth across the Empire, its origin a mystery, its consequences bloody and horrific. This is the sort of thing the New Adventures became notorious for, but, excepting the occasional 'we're so grown-up' bit of gratuitous nastiness, this is well-written stuff that exists to further character development and plot. In this environment, where aliens from conquered worlds live on terrestrial slums, while the elite inhabit floating Overcities, it's easy to understand how both Roz and Chris became the people they are.

Roz, part of an aristocratic family of ancient, noble Xhosa stock (a nice inversion of twentieth century racial stereotyping in fiction), is an ageing Adjudicator, who has become hardened to the violence, death and corruption in the service, and is therefore reacts practically and incisively once a conspiracy at the heart of the Guild of Adjudicators is uncovered. She's already disillusioned, so hasn't far to fall. Chris, on the other hand, the square-jawed young recruit, has the idealism and the enthusiasm needed to spot the corruption in the first place. Along with their mutual, nicely understated attraction, their opposing but complimentary temperaments make them into a fine partnership.

Both Roz and Cwej are illustrated on the cover and within the book by Tony Masero, but somewhat deceptively, for Cwej spends most of the novel looking like a 6'6'' teddy bear. This peculiar trait is a result of 'body bepple,' a fashionable excess popular in the late 2900s, whereby people can alter their cellular structure and temporarily take on different forms. It's a neat way of satirising the contemporary west's attitude to foreign cultures; on the future Earth, aliens are demonised, but the alien has an overpowering allure.

Original Sin is full of wonderfully bizarre images and concepts, from the space marine captain who has chosen to model himself after the Hindu god Ganesh, to the prison planet Dis, hidden inside the photosphere of a dying sun. There are downtown eateries for alien expats, patchwork planets made from lattices of different environments, an aged Empress plugged into the datacore of the Empire, disenfranchised gastropods with names like Homeless Forsaken Betrayed and Alone. It's a grand ideas book, with our heroes being dragged through a strange and unfamiliar world.

The novel never loses its focus, however, devoting equal time to the new and old regulars. Benny manages to avoid being overshadowed by the two trainee companions. By this stage, she is fully the identification figure for the reader, despite being from the future herself, by dint of being closer to us - in time and temperament - than the Adjuducators or the Doctor. The Doctor himself goes through the ringer emotionally, losing his TARDIS and foolishly entering a philosophical debate with the terrifying murderer Zebulon Pryce. He fails to win the argument, unable to justify his own dicisions regarding life and death, finally admitting that nothing gives him the right to choose who live and dies and how history unfolds. It's a sudden, sharp insight into the guilt and indecision of a character otherwise defined as 'Time's Champion.'

Perhaps most satisfying is the sudden continuity headrush in the closing chapters, whereby the identity of the mastermind behind the grand conspiracy is revealed. I shan't spoil it here, for those who haven't read the book, but if you're a fan of the classic series, it can't fail to raise a smile, while remaining perfectly consistent with the tone and content of the novel. Original Sin is one of the most straightforwardly enjoyable New Adventures in the range, and I've read most of them. Definitely worth a look if you can dig it up.

Tuesday 20 August 2013

The Best of The Doctor Who Project

Well, it doesn't look like my previously planned entry to The Doctor Who Project, the long running Canadian Doctor Who fanfic series is going to come to fruition. Sometimes, a story just doesn't work, and, even with help from others on the team, this one wasn;t going anywhere.

But never mind that. The Doctor Who Project is gearing up to launch its latest run of stories, published soon as Season 39 and available on their site. More news on the first story, Reverance of the Daleks by Kevin Mullen, as it becomes available. It is expected to be released this October.

Also rather exciting is the upcoming publication, The Best of TDWP 1999-2012. This is going to be a proper, printed book, available for order from the TDWP website soon. It collects seven of the very best stories published by TWDP since its inception, chosen by readers from the 110 odd stories in the series. It includes works by firm fan favourites like Duncan Johnson and Arnold T. Blumberg, and from the latest season, the rather smashing story The Vault by friend Miles Reid-Lobatto. You can read all about the publication here.

Monday 19 August 2013

Doctor by Doctor #7

The Man with the Plan

Sylvester McCoy, 1987-96

Sylvester McCoy - aka Percy James Patrick Kent-Smith, to give him his birth name - has a special place in Doctor Who lore for several reasons. He was the first non-English Doctor, being the first in a run of three Scots to take the lead. He was the last Doctor of the television series' original run, and thus it was his incarnation who took the series into the 'Wilderness Years.' And, on personal level, Sylvester McCoy was the very first Doctor I ever watched, in my very, very early youth. I was five when the series was cancelled. I can just about remember watching bits of season twenty-four and twenty-five. Many years later, I sat down to watch The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, and, by Jove, I recognised that robot coming out of the sand!

Born and raised in Dunoon, Percy Kent-Smith once trained to become a monk, much like his Doctorly predecesor Tom Baker, before ditching that for the performing arts. He rose to prominence as a stuntman and comedian, performing ridiculous acts for the Ken Campbell Roadshow and such shows as Jigsaw and Tiswas. He'd later bring some of these talents to the role of the Doctor, such as his spoon-playing skills, although sadly we never got to see the seventh Doctor stuff a ferret down his trousers or hammer nails into his nostril.

It's only fair to say that McCoy is far from the most talented actor to play the Doctor. His acting style is idiosyncratic, to say the least. His mode of speech is unusual; it's not simply that he has a roaring Scots accent, but his emphatic delivery and unusual emphasis, not forgetting his rrregular rrrolling of 'r's, makes his every utterence sound peculiar. However, it must also be said that the man brings a unique eccentricity to the role, and provides a strange and charismatic screen presence. Despite being a small, unassuming specimen, it's hard to take your eyes off him. McCoy is unique, as is his Doctor.

Following a botched regeneration (which involved McCoy lying on the floor in his predecessor's costume and a blond, curly wig), the new Doctor seems to spring to life fully form. "Ah, that was a nice nap!" he exclaims, before ringing off his to-do list. Immediately he is very different to his predecessor. Gone is the bombast and proclamations, replaced by a more thoughtful, quizzical demeanour. There's no explanation for where his new accent has come from, or, for that matter, where the rest of his mass has gone (needless to say, Colin Baker's costume had to be taken in considerably for the diminutive McCoy). He seems rearing to go, unaffected by the post-regenerative trauma we have become used to. It's only the Rani's drugging of him, to suppress certain parts of his memory, that puts him on the back foot. If it wasn't for that, he'd already be very much in charge of the situation.

It's refreshing to see that in this instance, the Doctor isn't immediately concerned with fixing a new outfit. I always love to see the Doctor running around in his predecessor's togs, and seeing wee McCoy charging about in his multicoloured tent is a treat. When he does finally find time to visit the TARDIS wardrobe, he takes his time picking through various joke costumes before settling on his new ensemble. On the one hand, it's a perfect outfit for a modern Doctor; the sort of smart-casual affair a respectable man of the 1920s would wear on a day at the golf course. The dress scarf and two-tone brogues add a touch of class, and the panama hat preferred by his fifth self has returned. (The jacket changes from pale grey to brown in season twenty-six to signify the Doctor's darker attitude - yes, chocolate is the universal colour of dark destiny.) Yes, it's altogether a more suitable set of clothes - rather than a costume. That is, except, for that godawful pullover. No longer content with a question mark on each shirt collar, John Nathan-Turner and his design team have now branded them all over the Doctor's tubby torso. Conversely, I love the umbrella; it's a subtler version of the same gag. To begin with, the Doctor holds on to a couple of models before settling on the question-mark-handled version. The umbrella gives him something to play with when he's under stress or knee-deep in trouble. It's clearly a security blanket for the poor love.

There's a touch of the old-style comedian to this Doctor. Much like his second self, he plays the fool so that his enemies underestimate him. He takes this much further, though, pratting about and putting on an act where he can. Some of his previous self's showmanship has certainly survived the transition. This is a Doctor who can't resist an unattended microphone, who loves jazz, and who can pull a bunch of props from his pocket and put on an impromptu magic show. A lot of this silliness and performance is playing on the strength of McCoy's talents, but it's still a major part of the personality of this Doctor. He's fun-loving and carefree for his first few esacapades, excepting some moments of sombre introspection, and even those he punctures with mixed metaphors and malapropisms. Yet there's a great deal more to him, most of which comes out in his second and third seasons.

It's common to label the sixth Doctor as the violent incarnation, and certainly, the overt aggression of this persona seems to have been lost by the mellower seventh Doctor. He seems, at first glance, to have a pacifist philosophy. "Weapons," he muses, "always useless in the end." He has a poetic streak that he can turn into an astonishing defence technique. "Pull the trigger, end my life!" he orders a gunman who has him in his sights, talking him down with sheer force of personality. This isn't a Doctor it's easy to imagine firing a blaster or constructing a bomb. And yet, this Doctor is capable of violence on a vast scale. He's a man with blood on his hands, and more to come - but not immediately.

We must admit that season twenty-four is not a golden era for Doctor Who. Time and the Rani is desperate filler, Paradise Towers has a great script scuppered by a hamfisted production and DragonFire is plainly awful. Only Delta and the Bannermen, Doctor Who's Hi-de-Hi pastiche, is really worth making time for, and it's hardly going to go down in history as a great piece of children's television. Yet the seeds of something better are there, as Andrew Cartmel takes over as script editor and begins to stamp his vision on the show. The earliest change he makes is to write out Bonnie Langford as Mel. Now, with all respect to Langford, who really is a great performer and a far better actor than she gets credit for, Mel is a very poorly realised character. For me, the only thing of interest about her is that she's from Pease Pottage, which is up the road from me, and they never even come out and say that in the programme. Mel is as generic a companion as you can get, but she is actually quite well suited to the sixth Doctor and his grandiloquent, theatrical ways.

The seventh Doctor needs someone altogether tougher. He gets on with Mel well enough, perhaps even more so than his predecessor, but she's of little use to him. It's common for fans to point to the next season as when the Doctor begins engaging in his grand plans, but really, he's at it straight away. Are we to believe that he goes to Paradise Towers purely because Mel wants to try out the swimming pool? They've got one in the TARDIS, after all. Oh, sure, it's pure chance he arrives at the Galactic Tollport at just the right time to get involved in Gavrok's genocidal pursuit of the Chimeron Queen. And as for his search for the 'dragon' of DragonFire - is he really motivated by nothing more than curiosity?

Arriving on Iceworld, he quickly leaves Mel and Ace together, accepting Ace into his lifestyle very easily. When the adventure is over - and Ace has proven her intiative and coolness in a crisis - Mel suddenly finds the urge to go off travelling with galactic scummer Glitz. The Doctor seems surprised - as would we - but is he hiding something? "I suppose it's time," says Mel, somewhat resignedly. The Doctor makes a speech about "days like crazy paving" that he's clearly been preparing, then takes Ace under his wing. All very neat. We know the Doctor has hypnotic abilities, and he'll display these again very soon. Has Mel been 'motivated' to leave the Doctor's company, millions of years into her future, at just the right moment?

Ace is just weird. Sophie Aldred is great, of course, playing the part with a mix of bolshiness, cool and vulnerability. She's still about ten years too old for the part, though, and she can't do anything about the way the character is written. Supposedly straight out of working class Perivale, she comes across more as a posh girl trying to be street. Then there's all that guff about being swept to Iceworld in a time-storm. Any other time, the new girl from Perivale would meet the Doctor in Perivale. Not Ace. She's serving milkshakes in a kids' show version of the Mos Eisley Cantina. The Doctor accepts this frankly bizarre situation without question, but of course he knows better. There are other powers at work here. He has to take Ace with him. She's been put on Iceworld specifically for that purpose.

The relationship between the Doctor and Ace is unusual. On the surface, it's very amicable, and far more relaxed than virtually any Doctor-companion partnership we've seen so far. When he's not on a mission, the Doctor seems to spend much of his time engaging in laidback educational tourism. He's happy to take Ace to a sunny jazz gig, or to indulge her curiosity in the beginnings of the computer age. He even takes her back to Perivale to see her friends, idly stifling a yawn to show he's getting a little bored. It's hard to imagine any of his former selves being so accomodating. It certainly appears that he enjoys her company, and she his. In time, though, we learn that there's a great deal more to this relationship. Ace is but a pawn of Fenric, a being of immeasurable evil with whom the Doctor is playing a long game. The supposedly innocent holidays with Ace lead to confrontations with powerful enemies, and even the usual level of coincidence that meets the Doctor can't explain them away. Ace's desire to see the beginnings of computing is, in fact, a pre-programmed desire that leads the Doctor into his final confrontation with Fenric, and other, incidental conflicts seem less innocent once analysed. How did the Master know that the Doctor would be visiting Perivale with Ace, someone who he has never met? Did the Doctor tip him off somehow, to engineer one last confrontation? Other times he's not so subtle; he takes Ace back to Gabrial Chase to confront her fears, dressing it up as an initiative test but clearly using it as a both a way to train her up for future engagements and defeat whatever alien force has taken up residence in the house.

We don't get to see the Doctor's first trip with Ace. When season twenty-five arrives, they already come across as a seasoned team. Ace is still headstrong, but the Doctor's newfound sense of responsibility holds her in check. She also has a clear respect for him, pretty significant coming from a troubled teen with authority issues. It's from this point on that we see the Doctor truly becoming the proactive forward planner that he is known to be in this incarnation. Now that he has Ace at his side, tooled up with Nitro-9 to provide the brute force, he's ready. There's to be no more playing around, pretending to simply wander from place to place. The Doctor is on a mission now. The gloves are off.

With Cartmel in charge, there seems to be a distinct policy of breaking with the past, while still outwardly celebrating it. Old elements come back, only to be killed off. The Cybermen return, just to have their shiny metal asses handed to them by the Doctor. UNIT are reinvented, and although in the event the Brigadier wasn't killed off, he was retired. Even the Master gets a fairly definitive defeat. First and foremost though, it's the turn of the Daleks. Remembrance of the Daleks is one of the all-time classics of Doctor Who, and it's as if, al of a sudden, everyone remembered how to do this show right. It's an unapologetic love letter to the show's earliest days on its twenty-fifth anniversary, taking classic alien invasion serials as its start point and doing them better. This was, of course, the only ay to beat those rose-tinted memories of the sixties and seventies episodes. Yet, the ethos is different. This new Doctor, this unassuming little comedian, is on a mission: to finish off his long-term enemies, one by one. He hatches a plan to trick the Daleks into destroying themselves, using the Hand of Omega, a deadly and terrifyingly advanced piece of Time Lord tech, as bait. Many innocent people die in the crossfire, but it works. The Daleks are defeated, their homeworld destroyed, and the Doctor shows no remorse.

Over the course of the story, however, we learn some intriguing things about the Doctor. Most insightful is a short scene in a cafe, in which he philosophises with Geoffrey off The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. We see him mulling over the consequences of his actions, something the Doctor has rarely done before. He knows that what he does here will affect many lives. There are some corners of the universe that have bred the most terrible things, and they must be fought - but not without casualties. At the end of the story, he and Ace stay around for the funeral of a major character - another unusual move for the Doctor, who has previously been more fly-by-night. To top it off, we learn that the Doctor was, back in his first life, carrying a weapon of mass destruction in his TARDIS when he landed on Earth in the months leading up to An Unearthly Child.

The successive production teams have continually tweaked the Doctor's backstory throughout the years, creating varying, sometimes entirely contradictory, version of his past. In universe, it's tempting to speculate that perhaps the Doctor's past is being altered, a consequence of his continual trips through time. With Cartmel and his cohorts, however, there was a definite and deliberate aim to create a new background for the Doctor, something that pointed to his being "more than just a Time Lord." There doesn't seem to have been any concrete plans for what this entailed, and anything considered too revealing was vetoed (so out went the inference in Silver Nemesis that the Doctor was, in fact, God). The purpose was to engender an air of mystery, and it worked. Suddenly we were getting scraps of information that pointed to a longer life than we had imagined, involving the architects of Time Lords society, dark secrets and fighting such beings as Fenric and the Gods of Ragnarok "all through time..."

Given all this forward planning, it's understandable that the seventh Doctor has developed a reputation as a mastermind, a player of chess on a thousand boards. On television, though, we only see snatches of this. Yes, he hoodwinks the Daleks and Cybermen into destroying themselves, and shamefully manipulates Ace, seemingly for her own good, but most of his victories remain improvised. While he goes to Terra Alpha to follow up on disturbing rumours, and goes to Gabrial Chase with house-cleaning in mind, once he's knee deep in events he has to find a way to wrap things up on the hoof. He doesn't expect two factions of Daleks to come after the Hand of Omega, or for Lady Peinforte to become involved with his plans for the Cybermen. His masterplans don't rarely go quite to plan. Battlefield is an unusual one; the Doctor becomes caught up in the manipulations of his own future self (revealed to be none other than the great wizard Merlin).

The twenty-fifth and twenty-sixth seasons of Doctor Who showed a massive upswing in quality (Silver Nemesis notwithstanding). Fast-paced, three- or four-part stories with a mix of revamped old villains and brand new threats, displaying the kind of imagination the show had been missing for several years. The writing was better than it had been in years, the effects were top-notch for the time, the music had improved and the Doctor had grown from being a twonk to a mysterious player of games who merely appeared to be a twonk. Doctor Who was better than it had been in years... but nobody was watching anymore, so they cancelled it. Having defeated the Master yet again, the Doctor and Ace walked off arm in arm, muttering about cruelty, injustice and cold tea...

Movie Review: Kick-Ass 2

I'm pretty much done with Mark Millar. You may claim that he's the most talented writer of comics today, and there's a good chance that you're right. His work has pushed comics forward and influenced the modern cinematic treatment of comic properties. He's a great writer. However, he is also coming across as a mysogonistic prick.

I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, and accept that he's probably just an idiot who doesn't realise how offensive his work has become. But that doesn't mean I like his work any more than if it was deliberate. I have similar issues with Alan Moore, an author who frequently uses rape as a plot point in his comics. However, in Moore's work, rape is portrayed as the abbhorantly destructive act that it is, and is used against male characters as well as female. It is disgusting, but it exists, and it is shown as one of the most appalling acts that can be committed. In Millar's work, however, rape is used solely against women, and purely as an attempt to be edgy and controversial.

I didn't read past issue one of Kick-Ass 2, so feel free to discard my argument as uninformed. By the time I'd got round to it, I'd already heard what was coming up in issue four. Katie, the love interest of Dave/Kick-Ass, is brutally gang-raped by the MotherFucker and his gang of villains. This is just one of many incidences of rape in Millar's recent work, but is easily the most well-known and shocking. It is also the most indicative of Millar's complete lack of understanding of the appalling trauma that rape victims suffer. The rape of Katie is committed by the main, male villain for no other reason than to piss off the main, male hero, and to show how bad he is. Millar's own words betray his lack of undertanding:

“The ultimate [act] that would be the taboo, to show how bad some villain is, was to have somebody being raped, you know?” he told me. “I don't really think it matters. It's the same as, like, a decapitation. It's just a horrible act to show that somebody's a bad guy.”

No, it is not. The Kick-Ass comics and films are full of astonishing acts of violence, but rape is another thing entirely. It is not the same as a decapitation. I don't know anyone who has been decapitated, or microwaved, or pureed in a car-crusher. I know a number of women who have been raped. That's the difference.

What's also aggravating is that Millar is capable of creating great female characters. In Kick-Ass 2, the most powerful, intimidating characters on both the good and evil sides are female, namely Mindy/Hit-Girl and Mother Russia. Both are clearly messed-up, damaged characters, but so are most of the male characters o both sides, and it's apparant that both Hit-Girl and Mother Russia are the ones who genuinely pose a threat to their opposing team's plans. In the movie, this comes to a head in a gruesome but visually impressive and well-choreographed fight scene between the two of them, while the other, almost entirely male super-characters flail around them.

The movie version of Kick-Ass 2 thankfully does not include the rape scene. Indeed, Katie, played by Lyndsy Fonseca, barely features, being written out very early on and taking no further part in the proceedings. Clearly, if she isn't on hand to become a convenient rape victim, she's of no use to the story. Jeff Wadlow's script lays off the misogyny, although it is not entirely absent, and shadows of the original remain. In place of Katie, it is Miranda/Night-Bitch (Lindy Booth) who is threatened by the MotherFucker. In the event, this is turned into a comedic moment, where the MotherFucker is unable to perform under pressure. Miranda is still viciously beaten, however, thankfully off-screen.

I am very glad that the actual rape was ommitted from this version. Had it been included, I think I would just have walked out at that point. Instead, we have a female character who is merely threatened with violation, again, purely to show how bad this new version of Christopher Mintz-Plasse's character is. Her suffering, as she lies in a hospital bed after her beating, is there not because she's an important character, but because it gives something for Dave to feel guilty about. The fact that Booth gives one of the best performances of the film will no doubt be lost on most viewers, who will be following Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Chloe Moretz and Mintz-Plasse as they give distinctly mediocre performaces as Kick-Ass, Hit-Girl and MotherFucker respectively. They all seem to have lost enthusiasm for their roles.

What's missing from this sequel is much of the sheer anarchic fun of the first movie, and indeed the first book. The violence was absurdly over the top in the first Kick-Ass, but it was portrayed with an almost slapstick style that removed it from reality. The sequel takes itself far too seriously, and what comedic moments there are mostly fall flat due to the oppressively grim atmosphere they reside in. The main fight sequences are performed with aplomb, but the satirical bite of the original is lost as they revel in their own nastiness instead of sending it up. Call me an old bastard, but I fail to see how a movie featuring copious, bloody violence, nudity and threats of rape can be considered suitable for a '15' certificate.

Owing to the level of violence in the film, and the apparant age of the characters involved, Jim Carrey has famously withdrawn any support for the production following the Sandy Hook massacre. It's an understandable action, although I would be interested to know what he did with the money he received for his role. It's a shame; Carrey's role as Mafia goon turned unlikely superhero Colonel Stars and Stripes, a twisted parody of Captain America, is the highlight of the film. While I don't think such films can be blamed for the violent acts of young people - disturbed people will always find something to latch onto - I can understand why Carrey felt the need to distance himself from the production. Or maybe it's all a publicity stunt, I don't know.

In any case, Kick-Ass 2 the movie manages to avoid, for the most part, falling into the traps of becoming a retread of Millar's questionable work in Kick-Ass 2 the comic. It also, however, manages to avoid being a successful sequel to the first Kick-Ass, failing to capture the irreverent verve that film displayed. While Kick-Ass could be enjoyed with a perverse glee, Kick-Ass 2 is a joyless affair. While I'm sure that's the point, it doesn't make for a good movie.

Monday 5 August 2013

The Actor Factor

Speculation may now cease. Normal service has resumed. The twelfth Doctor has been announced.

So, the sudden rumours naming Peter Capaldi as the new Doctor turned out to be true. Rather different to last time, when Matt Smith never even appeared on the bookmakers' charts and came as a complete surprise to most of us (there were apparently some mutterings on the day of the announcement, but they passed me by. Already, people have started presenting a revisionist account in which everyone knew it was gong to be Matt for weeks beforehand).

The rumours of Capaldi seemed too good to be true. A critically acclaimed, reasonably big-name actor, almost Ecclestonian in his reputation. "That would be fantastic," I said, "but it's never going to happen." Bookies' favourites in these matters are based on betting patterns, and those are often founded on rumours and hot air. Most of the fans I spoke to agreed - great idea, but it won't happen. Just wishful thinking. And yet, here we are, after a special half-hour programme designed to milk the announcement for all it's worth, simulcast around the world. After the BBC announced they were announcing and announcement, for goodness' sake. It was a whole lot of fanfare, but it was worth it.

Having watched the unfolding reactions over the evening and early morning, there seems to be a pretty even split between the overjoyed and the dismayed. On the Suicide Girls dedicated Doctor Who group, which I moderate, and across Facebook, it is mostly, though not solely, the American fans who are underwhelmed by the news. Capaldi isn't exactly a household name here, but he's well-regarded and well-recognised. He's much less known in the States. The British fans, on the whole, seem to be more excited by the news.

Some fans are protesting the fact that Capaldi has been in the series before. Pointing out that Colin Baker played a Time Lord during the fifth Doctor's run, less than a year before his announcement as Davison's successor, doesn't seem to wash with those of this opinion. It's different now, they say, and while I accept that previous casting information and rewatching is much easier now, I don't really see the problem. Capaldi's character in The Fires of Pompeii, Caecilius, was a fairly main character but hardly one who dominated the series. He was a one-off, single episode character, and while watching Pompeii might be rather odd once we've seen a few episodes with his Doctor, I can't see it being a major issue for me. His role in Torchwood: Children of Earth, John Frobisher, was a much bigger, more dominant part, and might cause more issues for those who enjoy both series. It's not something that bothers me, but it is clearly bothering many others.

As for non-fans and casual viewers, the reaction seems generally positive (when they give a damn at all, of course). Although my brother, a definite non-fan who has nonetheless been exposed to a hell of a lot of Who through growing up with me, isn't keen on the choice. Which is interesting, seeing that he likes older, snootier Doctors, and thinks Hartnell was by far the best.

At fifty-five, Capaldi is the same age that Hartnell was when he the series began; given that it will be at least a few months before filming, he may in fact be the oldest of the Doctors once it gets underway (with a caveat, that I shall return to). Fifty-five is hardly old, though, and I think many fans are colouring their perception with Hartnell's portrayal of the Doctor as a much older man. It'll be interesting to see if they come up with an in-story explanation for the regeneration making the Doctor older, or just ignore it.

I think it's about time we had an older actor in the role, so I'm very pleased. Most fans seem to agree. The expected fangurl backlash against an older man hasn't really arrived as much as cynical old bastards like me expected, although it's not entirely absent. And who says an older man can't be attractive? I think Capaldi's rather handsome. I'm also hoping he keeps his native Scots accent for the part.

The caveat? We have had older Doctors before, of course. Aside from those who returned to the role years after leaving the series, both Richard Hurndall, the ersatz first Doctor from The Five Doctors, and John Hurt, the seemingly missing incarnation who will star in the upcoming fiftieth anniversary special, were 72 when they stepped into the Doctor's shoes. And on the subject of the 'Hurt Doctor:' does this make Capaldi the twelfth or thirteenth? Neither, of course; he's the twenty-first. (Runs and hides and goes to watch The Brain of Morbius again.)

Capaldi's most famous role is Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It and In the Loop. Inevitably, this foul-mouthed character has dominated the fans' and media's speculation on how he will play the Doctor. Naturally, this is rubbish, and Capaldi's Doctor will be nothing like Tucker... but it is bloody funny.

Pleasantly, playing the Doctor might actually help Capaldi break away from typecasting as aggressive politicians. His acting range is actually very wide, and he has appeared in series and films too numerous to list. He's also, famously, a huge Doctor Who fan, and while this shouldn't really be an issue in his casting, it's a nice little bonus. Much like David Tennant, we know that playing the Doctor will be a dream come true for the man.

Complaints? Well, I has hoped they'd finally break away from the white male demographic. I really think it's time for a female Doctor, but I'm not surprised it didn't happen. There are any number of non-white male actors who would suit the role. Still, if we're going to have a white male Doctor, then Capaldi is a truly fine choice. There's always next time (they could cast Chipo Chung, and rile the anti-female, anti-black, anti-reusing actors camps all at once).

So, I am very much looking forward to Capaldi's tenure as the Doctor. If you don't think you can cope without Matt Smith, why not watch a bit of Doctor Puppet to help you get over the bad news?