Sunday 29 September 2013

Doctor by Doctor (Sidestep 3)

Cheer Up Goth

Richard E. Grant, 2003

In 2003, Doctor Who was celebrating an anniversary. A number of special audio productions, novels and non-fiction books were released to celebrate the series' fortieth year. When 2003 began, the Doctor had eight official incarnations. By the time the year was out, he had acquired a ninth – but not the one most fans are familiar with.

Once again, some historical background. In the absence of a TV series, BBCi (then the name for the BBCs internet presence) had begun increasing Doctor Who's official internet presence, culminating in several webcasts, brand new Doctor Who for the twenty-first century. First there was Death Comes to Time, an abandoned 2000 radio pilot which was reworked for online streaming with some limited animation as an accompaniment. The first episode's success led to the production of a full, five-part serial, the animated illustrations becoming more vital to the following of the plot as it progressed. This peculiar story took an epic approach to Doctor Who, relaunching with Sylvester McCoy's seventh Doctor and eventually killing him all over again. Something of a curate's egg, it was popular enough to convince the BBC to try again with another webcast (and introduced the Minister of Chance, for which we should all be grateful).

Teaming up with Big Finish, the BBC created a second serial, this time starring Colin Baker as the sixth Doctor. 2002's Real Time pitted the Doctor against the Cybermen, and again utilised basic animations as a way of illustrating the audio scenes. With Doctor Who's online presence improved significantly by the dedicated 'BBC Cult' site, the way forward for the series seemed to clearly lie in online streaming. For the fortieth anniversary year, the BBC and BF once again teamed up, resurrecting the unfinished 1980 serial Shada as another enhanced radio production. When Tom Baker declined to return to finish his lost serial, Paul McGann was invited to take part, the story being rewritten for the eighth Doctor. With Shada another hit-rate success, the way forward seemed clear: relaunch Doctor Who properly, as an online series.

For the more ambitious fourth webcast, the Beeb moved from Big Finish to respected animation house Cosgrove Hall.They created Scream of the Shalka, a fully animated webcast written by celebrated author Paul Cornell, featuring a brand new incarnation of the Doctor. Voiced by, and physically based on, Richard E Grant, this new Doctor was described in press releases as the official ninth Doctor. Then the BBC announced the coming of the new TV series and by the time Shalka was broadcast, the new Doctor had been overwritten by the upcoming new ninth Doctor - played, in due course, by Christopher Eccleston. The ninth Doctor of Scream of the Shalka had been consigned to a strange, tangential version of Doctor Who before he even had a chance to make an impact.

Scream of the Shalka was formatted as six episodes of roughly fifteen minutes duration each, presented
with Flash animation and nice, long loading breaks between each scene. At the time, of course, it seemed terrible advanced. As well as Richard E. Grant, always a popular choice for fans' dream-casting, it starred acclaimed actor Sophie Okenedo (now known to Who fans as Liz 10, but around this time filming her Oscar-nominated appearance in Hotel Rwanda) as new companion Alison. Also on the bill were Diana Quick and Sir Derek Jacobi.

It was a strange false start for the revamp of the series, and it's fitting that in such an unusual situation we get a strange version of the Doctor. Physically, the new Doctor is cast much as an archetypal Doctor – tall, slim, dressed in Victorian, rather Sherlock Holmes style clothing. While he is physically based on Grant, for reasons known only to themselves, the animators decided to draw the handsome, rather swarthy actor as a pallid, gothic individual with bags under his eyes. The swept back hairstyle has a touch of the first Doctor about it, but otherwise the overall effect is Dracula-like.

Cornell seemed to have made an effort to make him different from the Time Lord we knew. So, while there are elements that are familiar, there are also several previously unseen quirks. He is snobby, aesthetic, eager to his show superiority to lesser mortals. Yet he is most comfortable talking to a homeless old woman on the streets. He immediately focuses on Alison, his soon-to-be companion, since she is capable and the only person not scared by the strange events in her home town, but refuses to allow himself to become too close to her. Once his work is done, or appears to be, he insists on trying to leave, calling in the military to take care of matters. He seems to have no problem with getting soldiers to do his dirty work, as long as he doesnt have to socialise with them; he has a problem with the army on a personal, not ethical level.

This is a Doctor who continually analyses himself. He seems obsessed with trying to justify his actions, to himself and his associates, and is acutely aware of the contradictions in his own nature. “I say I do not kill, but then I exterminate thousands, he says. It's almost as if he's an imposter, playing the Doctor. “I'm just off to do something eccentric,” he says, rather than actually behaving in an eccentric way. He is clearly working for some greater power – presumably the Time Lords, although this is never made clear – and is answerable to them. How many other Doctors would leave a last message to the universe when facing their death, welcoming, however briefly, the promise of oblivion? As an aside, his use of a TARDIS mobile phone caused a good deal of interest at the time but now, since the television series was revived, it seems sensible and obvious, barely worth remarking on.

Most oddly, he now travels with the Master, or at least an android representation of him a sort of robotic footman. It seems that this Doctor needs someone to keep him in check. The Master has been programmed to look after the Doctors emotional well-being. Some terrible event has had a lasting effect of the Doctor. It may have had something to do with his regeneration; we dont know how this came about, but its strongly hinted that it cost the life of his last companion. This, more than anything, has left him damaged.

There are similarities with the real ninth Doctor. Both act aloof, alien, reluctant to associate with humans. Both hide a vulnerable, damaged soul behind a hard, toughened fa├žade. Both have a streak of defeatism, and are brought out of their shell by a young woman who reinvigorates them. Yet this Doctor is even more of a contradiction, swinging from sullen alien objectivity to show tunes and screaming “Take me home, big boy!” to a giant alien monster. It's the sort of thing one can easily imagine of Matt Smith's eleventh Doctor, but seems bizarre and out-of-place when coming from this vampiric individual.

The presence of the Master is an odd element, but again, it is not entirely against the notions of the revived TV series. Some years later, the tenth Doctor offered to keep the Master in his TARDIS, as a sort of captive companion. Is this perhaps the same sort of deal? Perhaps what's left of the Master after his ignoble fate in the TV movie has been housed in this android body, on the understanding that this is the only chance he will get. He's even voiced by Derek Jacobi, who went on to appear as the Master in Utopia before explosively regenerating into John Simm.

Russell T. Davies later slammed Grant's performance as lazy. It's hard to disagree. Little of the actor's trademark manic charm is present. Grant had, after all, played the Doctor before, in Doctor Who and the Curse of Fatal Death, a comic skit for the 1999 Comic Relief telethon. After regenerating from the waspish Rowan Atkinson incarnation, the new Richard E. Grant version was vain, overconfident and sexy. This version of the Doctor, however, is withdrawn, barely sharing any chemistry with his costars. However you may feel about Grants performance in the role, it has to be said that the Shalka Doctor was a most unusual, intriguing version of the character.

Well never know just how he may have been developed had the webcasts continued, but its fascinating to speculate. We can imagine him softening over subsequent adventures, with a more human side becoming prominent, in the manner of the first or sixth Doctors. He may have followed the other ninth Doctor's trajectory, coming to terms with the tragic events in his recent past as his adventures played out. It's hard to imagine him remaining quite so aloof and distant for long if he was to have a future in what should be a fun and popular series. The mysterious tragedy to which Shalka alludes would surely have been further explored, and the Doctor’s character along with it. The only further adventure for this Doctor was the short story 'The Feast of the Stone,' still available on the archived 'Vampires' magazine on the BBC's 'Cult' site.

Nonetheless, this Doctor, known to fans as the Shalka Doctor or the REG Doctor, is not entirely forgotten. After a ten year delay, Scream of the Shalka has just been released on DVD, and interviews with its creators have revealed more information on both the proposed future for the webcasts, and the new Doctor's background. It seems that yes, it is the Time Lords who employ him as their agent, following a terrible disaster that had led to the death of his lover and the destruction of Gallifrey, leaving the entire race as echoes in the computer Matrix. The Doctor, it is implied, was at least partly responsible for this event, and serves the ghostly Time Lords as penance. Again, not so different from the background of the new TV series. The following adventure was planned to be Blood of the Robots by horror novelist Simon Clark, with such impressive names as Stephen Baxter and James Swallow lined up for further serials. This was not to be. Scream of the Shalka was the final BBCi webcast featuring the Doctor.

The REG Doctor was overshadowed by the announcement of the new TV series, but not immediately forgotten. As well as a novelisation of Shalka, the REG Doctor had a chapter to himself in the BBC's official fortieth anniversary celebration book, Doctor Who: The Legend. (In the updated reprint, two years later, he had been reduced to a footnote.) The mysterious version of the Doctor that appears in the novella The Cabinet of Light holds a resemblance to Grant's Doctor in his description, apparently entirely by coincidence. And of course fan fiction featuring this Doctor abounds, revelling in the chance to fill in the blanks.

While the REG Doctor has been relegated to a sideline – made 'Unbound' in Big Finish parlance – there are, potentially, ways of reconciling him with the rest of the Whoniverse. He never states that he is the ninth incarnation, although he hints at it once or twice. Perhaps he is a future version of the Doctor, having rescued the Master from oblivion in the time-locked death of Gallifrey. Or perhaps he lies in a parallel universe, split from the main timestream by the catastrophic events of the war? Many fans wondered if he really was the ninth Doctor, existing between the McGann and Eccleston versions, forcibly forgotten for some terrible crime (a storyline that now seems to be in use for John Hurt's mysterious incarnation). The appearance of Richard E. Grant as Dr. Simeon/the Great Intelligence in the most recent TV series perhaps offers another answer. Perhaps the Intelligence's infiltration of the Doctor's timeline has led to is sprouting alternative incarnations that look like Simeon – a dark, warped ninth incarnation and a cocky, vain tenth – living in closed off, anomalous timelines?

Today, after eight years of hugely successful Doctor Who television productions, Scream of the Shalka is little more than a curio. Nonetheless, we can wonder where this most mysterious of Doctors may have taken us in the distant parallel world where the series never returned to TV; a world where we instead had an internet-based cartoon series led not by a Northern bloke in a leather jacket but by a prickly, sullen Victorian.

This is an expanded and updated version of an article that originally appeared in Panic Moon.
As well as being available on DVD, Scream of the Shalka is still viewable for free on the BBC Doctor Who website if you have an archaic enough version of Flash. The Feast of the Stone is still available on the 'Vampires' page. The artwork heading this piece is taken from that site and is by Daryl Joyce.
For fan fiction featuring further explorations of the Shalka Doctor, try reading my own A Spoonful Weighs a Ton.

New season double review

Marvel's Agents of Shield: Pilot
Atlantis: The Earth Bull

It's the new season on US TV, and even the BBC is getting in on the act with their latest Saturday night fantasy offering. So there were two new shows to catch over the weekend, thanks to both the Beeb's new production Atlantis and to Channel 4 managing to get the rights to show Marvel's Agents of SHIELD mere days after its American premiere.

Agents of SHIELD was by far the series I was looking forward to more. As a big fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the classic (which is to say, tinted by nostalgia) Marvel cartoons that used to pepper my Saturday mornings, he prospect of a new Marvel comics based TV series was exciting. With Joss Whedon as showrunner, and fan favourite Clark Gregg back as Agent Phil Coulson, surely this couldn't fail? (Unless you didn't like The Avengers, in which case you would surely run for the hills, or at least the remote.)

The series ties in tightly to the latest movies, particular The Avengers itself, with glimpses of footage and numerous references throughout this first episode. It's a fun game for fans, but not too overbearing for more casual viewers; references to the Extremis plot and the Chitauri are kept to a minimum, just enough to reassure us that this is the same universe, without bogging the story down in unnecessary minutiae. The close links to the movies is as much as a curse as a blessing, however; while it will undoubtedly bring in a sizeable audience, the series is inevitably going to seem small and cheap in comparison.

Certainly, this opening installment seems rather safe and low-key (not Loki). The plot is well-worn, and a trifle cliched, but cliches are cliches because they work. The tried and tested method of bringing a newbie into the fold in order to explain the set-up is given another outing here, as is the downtrodden man who goes off the rails but is decent beneath it all. Those coming to the series with a less-than-encyclopaedic knowledge of the comics (which includes myself) will notice more similarities with other franchises; the whole thing has the vibe of a low budget Men in Black, or a restrained version of Torchwood with added Heroes. That's the problem with using a well-established comics continuity as source material; it's already been mined for all it's worth.

Clark Gregg is as likeable as ever as Coulson, and the ongoing mystery of his reappearance following his apparent death in The Avengers is nicely alluded to, without distracting from the main storyline. He is by far the most engaging member of the cast – although Cobie Smulders remains magnetic as Agent Hill – but whether he has the charisma to carry a whole series remains to be seen. There are appearances by some of Whedon's stalwarts, of course, with more, no doubt to come; Angel's J. August Richards is excellent as Mike Peterson, and there's a pleasing cameo from Firefly's Ron Glass as a SHIELD doctor. As for the rest of the cast, though it's early days yet, it's hard to imagine that we'll come to really give a damn about any of them. It's a roll call of cliched pretties with little else to recommend them, from the chiselled, stoic agent to the dotty British pair. Only newbie Skye stands much chance of becoming a decent character in her own right, but for now she's mostly a Buffy-speak spouting cipher. Still, at least Chloe Bennett is very likeable, and she really is quite gorgeous (although nobody living in a van looks that good).

The BBC's replacement for Merlin takes its place in the Saturday night schedules, set to fill the ever-widening gaps when Doctor Who is off the air. Atlantis, much in the same vain as Merlin, takes a popular set of myths and gives them a modern, family-friendly spin. Unsurprisingly, it has Merlin's creative team involved, but this shouldn't be sniffed at; while I was no big fan of Merlin, Johnny Capps and Julian Murphy's previous collaboration was the incisive Sugar Rush, and with Misfits creator Howard Overman involved too, this is a showrunning team to be excited by.

Again, though, this is pretty safe stuff, exactly the sort of thing we'd expect the BBC to replace Merlin with. While there's a nice twist in that our hero Jason is first introduced in the modern day, before being whisked to Atlantis through some kind of time warp, beyond that events proceed with comfortable predictability. Jack Donnelly is likeable enough as Jason, and yes, there are enough shots of his naked torso to keep me happy. Whether he can sustain the viewership's interest in the quest to find his father over the next twelve episodes remains to be seen. Jason seems altogether too quick to accept his sudden materialisation in Atlantis; it's a difficult balancing act, of course, and it's a risk to get too bogged down in the introductions, but he really does take to Atlantis like a merman to water.

Not that this is really Atlantis; rather, it's a hotch-potch of Greek mythology and history. Robert Emms as Pythagoras lives with Mark Addy's overweight, past-his-prime Hercules (probably the best thing about this show). Alexander Siddig plays King Minos, mysteriously emigrating here from Crete; Siddig is just about the most obvious actor to cast in a series like this, and my, he looks bored. The extremely beautiful Aiysha Hart plays his daughter Ariadne, aiding Jason in defeating the ravenous Minotaur, so at least that much matches the traditional account, but there's little chemistry between the clearly signposted love interests. I do enjoy a good monster though, and while the Minotaur was pretty well realised, next week we have Jemima Rooper as Medusa the Gorgon, and I wonder how long they can string out a Greek-monster-of-the-week structure.

Both Atlantis and Agents of SHIELD are a lot of fun, but are cautiously taking things easy with their first episodes. They both have potential, and either might well develop into something car interesting. So far, I'd say that SHIELD shows the more promise, although, on the other hand, Coulson has a flying and talked down Gunn from Angel; Jason fought the Minotaur. I know which of those I find more appealling (better crack my Monster in My Pocket toys out).

Saturday 28 September 2013

Doctor Who video reblogs

Just thought I'd share some videos with my fellow Who fans. First up is the newly remastered first episode of 'The Ten Doctors,' by the supremely talented Babelcolour. Episode two can be found by clicking this link. Amazing editing work.

Doctor Who - The Ten Doctors (Part One) - by Babelcolour from Babelcolour on Vimeo.

Next is the joyously triumphant '50 Years and Counting' by Troughtonlover94. If you are a true fan, it is impossible not to love this.

And finally, another one of the BBC's many mini-episodes that pepper the periphery of the main series these days. 'Rain Gods' is, essentially, the original opening scene of Neil Gaiman's 2011 episode 'The Doctor's Wife,' tweaked to become an unconnected installment for the Doctor and River. (The credit to Steven Moffat is an error; this is written by Gaiman.)

Thursday 26 September 2013

Anthony Nolan: My Experience

As some of my family, friends and other ne'er-do-wells already know, I have recently donated material to the charity Anthony Nolan (formerly the Anthony Nolan Trust). Very recently, in fact; as I write this, I was in hospital only yesterday. I was also expecting to be in there earlier today, but in the event, I only had to undergo one session. It turns out I'm really good at donating stem cells.

For those who don't know, Anthony Nolan is a UK-based charity that works to provide treatment for sufferers of leukaemia and similar blood disorders. It's named after a young boy who died from a rare blood disease in 1979, aged only eight. Anthony's mother set up the original register for blood and bone marrow donors in 1974, from which it has developed into a major non-profit organisation.

I signed up to the register maybe ten years ago. I suspect there was a drive of some sort, I don't recall, but I do remember giving a blood sample for the register. Its even simpler these days - you only have to provide a saliva sample for a cell swab. They send 'spit kits' in the post. It's pretty amazing how much the system has developed even in the short time I've been on the list. There are two processes for the full donation, and the new, cutting edge technique from when I joined is the default method now. It's incredibly easy, mostly painless and really doesn't take much on the donor's part.

I received an email and phone call, out of the blue, a few months ago, saying that I was a potential match for a patient. I'd had this before, in fact, not long after joining up, and in that case, I had been phone to not be a close enough match to go forward. This time, though, after sending off some more blood samples to Anthony Nolan (through the post!), I was told that I was an excellent match for the patient, and to sit tight and wait for further communication. I was giving plenty of information on the donor process and the charity. At one point, it looked like I wouldn't be needed - there was another match, living closer, so he became the best choice purely on cost grounds, I guess - but he was emigrating, so it was down to me. One in depth physical and lots of questions later, I was signed up for the procedure. Easy.

There are, as I said, two methods for donation. The older, more invasive, method, is the direct removal of bone marrow for transplant. Not something I was keen to do, being somewhat petrified by the very idea of operations, but if it had to be done, I hope that I would have been able to go through with it. I don;t know. Thankfully, this is fairly rare now, and most donors undergo the second method, which is known as peripheral stem cell transplantation. In both cases, blood stem cells are removed from the donor for transplantation into the patient, whereupon the patient's body will start transforming them into healthy blood cells to replace their own diseased or damaged cells.

The peripheral method is incredibly easy on the patient. The actual procedure is less galling than the preparation, which involves a series on injections of a natural substance called GCSF (easy to remember if you're British and did GCSEs). This makes your bone marrow go into stem cell-producing overdrive, flooding your blood with the little thingies. It makes your bones ache, since they're super full of marrow and extra cells, and kind of tired and ill for a few days. It's not even as nasty as a bad cold. Four days of mild discomfort isn't so tough. Then it's off to hospital - King's College Hospital in London, in my case - for the harvesting procedure.

I arrived around eight yesterday morning, having been put up in a very nice hotel by Nolan. I was hooked up in a comfy bed, with a tube in each arm. The blood came out of my left arm, went into a centrifuge which separated it into its components, and then returned through my right arm, sans stem cells. There was a bag for the stem cells, a thick orange splodge (probably the trace red cells and platelets giving it that healthy ginger colour), a bag for extra plasma for a medium, and all the rest got plumbed back in, with a little added calcium for my boneses. It took four hours of sitting there, hooked up like a particularly unthreatening Borg. Perfectly comfortable except for a little stiffness in the left arm since it had to be kept straight, and a real need to get up and stretch my legs.

Anthony Nolan keep details of the patients and donors confidential, naturally, but I do know that the recipient of my cells is about twenty years older than me, male, and twice my size. For this reason, I was told I'd almost certainly have to do two sessions in order to get enough cells for the guy. However, it turns out that I have super-blood, and that I react extremely well to the GCSF. Absolutely loads of the stem cells came out. I'd nearly filled half the bag within two hours. So I got to take it easy today.

Everyone involved, from Anthony Nolan, Healthcare at Home who gave me my jabs, and the King's hospital staff, were extremely open, friendly and reassuring. The whole thing was a surprisingly painless experience - in fact, quite a pleasant one, since I got a little holiday in a nice hotel for my trouble. I learned some important things for if I do it again: don't take heavy books to read, because it's hard to hold them up when you're all tubed up; do wear comfortable clothes, because you'll be stuck in one place for a good few hours; and have plenty of meat and dairy to keep your protein and calcium levels up.

I'm now home, feeling quite tired still but otherwise fine. Having all your blood removed, spun round and puts back in again takes it out of you (literally), but otherwise, the only sign that I was ever involved is a tiny hole in my arm. Honestly, peeling the dressings off hurt more than the procedure. And somewhere, there's a big fifty-year-old bloke with leukaemia, and I might just have helped save his life.

To join the register, visit and sign up. They'll send you a spit kit through the post. Unlike the NHS Blood Register, there's no restriction on gay men donating, although you will get asked a lot of questions about your background and sexual history. It's all to assure the safety of both patients and donors, and Anthony Nolan never exempt someone from donating unless absolutely necessary. 

If you are pregnant, you may be interested to know that stem cells can also be removed from your baby's umbilical cord and the placenta, and that these can be donated too.

Sunday 22 September 2013

Fifty years of space exploration

An ingeniously designed infographic, depicting the extent of human exploration of the solar system, that needs to be seen to be believed.

Friday 20 September 2013


In 2009, virtually unknown South African director Neill Blomkamp made a splash with his breakout hit District 9, a movie that combined numerous sci-fi tropes to tell a powerful, if none-too-subtle, allegory of Apartheid. Four years later, Blomkamp has returned to science fiction to create another parable, this time with a vastly increased budget and an A-list star. The result is a film that, while given a Hollywood gloss, has far more in common with his previous production than I would have expected, albeit one that never quite reaches the same level of success.

Set in 2154, Elysium take place in a world defined by a class divide so vast that it crosses the expanse of space. The action is split between a grotesquely overpopulated and run-down Los Angeles, filmed in the harrowing slums that border Mexico City, and Elysium itself, an orbital habitat that houses the world's elite in extreme luxury. The contrast between the two realms couldn't be bigger. The slums of LA are almost tangibly grimy, the inhabitants struggling for survival in the dust, forced to choose between dangerous, drudging employment and petty crime. There are hints of higher technology, but is mostly hidden away, used, broken and hastily repaired. The only elements that appear genuinely futuristic are intrusions from Elysium; the droids that act as police, and the shuttles that ferry people to Earth for their rare business visits.

The eponymous habitat is a fantastic creation, a gigantic ring slowly turning in Earth orbit, its inner edge lines with parks and villas. It's a dream holiday location rolled into a space station. The people on Elysium have access to incredible technology that they refuse to share with the 99%. While some of it is hard to swallow, it works on a allegorical level. The medical technology that drives the plot – sickbeds that can scan a human body and instantly cure it of any ailments – seem so miraculous as to be implausible, but then I imagine that western medical care must look pretty unbelievable to someone with a terminal illness living in Darfur or Mogadishu.

Blomkamp reunited with several members of his Dictrict 9 crew, so it's not surprising that there's a similar aesthetic to much of the production. It's not as South African as its forerunner, unsurprisingly, which will make it more accessible to British and American audiences who might not be inclined to sit through two hours of Jo'burg accents. This wasn't always going to be the case; reliable claims that Die Antwoord's Ninja was approached for the lead role make the mind boggle. Eminem is also said to have been approached. In the event, the role went to Matt Damon, for which we must be grateful. Damon, maligned in recent years, is excellent here as blue-collar worker Max, a slightly thuggish ex-con who is forced to work manufacturing the robotic police that make his everyday life such a misery. Damon, bulked up and shaven-headed, portrays Max as man with a barely restrained aggression, someone who is clearly a bad guy but is trying damned hard to be a good one.

Circumstances conspire to reunite Max with Frey, an unattainable beauty with whom he grew up, now working as a nurse in one of LA's grossly overcrowded hospitals. An industrial accident leaves Max with five days to live, his body poisoned by radiation. His only hope of survival lies with the technology of Elysium. Of course, nobody born on Earth is allowed in. From this point, the films switches gears to become more action-oriented, though not in as tonally jarring a way as District 9. Pulled up on once last job so that he might stand a chance of reaching Elysium, Max is fitted with an old exoskeletal suit, a cybernetic prosthesis used by the elite's squadron of agents who carry out the dirty work on Earth. He staggers around looking like a cut-price Borg, but that's the point; this is functional technology, intended to keep Max's body until the job is done. It's a powerful contrast to the glossy tech of Elysium; even the brightly coloured droids that Max battles with look better-made.

The supporting cast deserve praise, with hugely sympathetic performances from Alice Braga as Frey, and particularly Diego Luna as Max's likeable down-and-friend Julio. Wagner Moura comes into his own as Spider, a smuggler of people and technology, who will no doubt be onto big things worldwide thanks to his greater exposure in this movie. The South African element is maintained by District 9 star Sharlto Copley, who brings a terrifying realism to the role of Kruger, a vicious mercenary enhanced by the same type of exo-suit that Max takes on. Copley, whose career is growing all the time, overcomes his moderate stature to become a genuinely dangerous character. The only weak link is, surprisingly, Jodie Foster, whose role as the overarching villain Delacourt seems ill-suited to her style. As Elysium's Secretary of Defense, Delacourt is the kind of hateful character who is totally convinced of her right to act as she does, and despite the best efforts of both the script and actress, never achieves the depth of the other characters.

The allegorical side of the story is broad, of course, exaggerating the elements for greater effect. The rich/poor divide is not as vast as it is here, and the practicalities of living like this make it seem unlikely it could ever quite become that bad. However, it's the self-perpetuating nature of the system that strikes home, with the yawning gap between the classes becoming ever wider. There are weaknesses to the story. There's a moment that seems intended as an allegory of the immigration policies of several wealthy nations, but most notably Australia, when Delacourt orders three refugee ships heading to Elysium to be shot down when they refuse to turn back and return to Earth. On the one hand, this drives home the overall parallels of the story, but on the other, seems like little more than an “Ooh, isn't she evil,” moment to set up the baddie. There's also an extreme one-sidedness to the divide, with everyone on Earth, excepting the mercenaries, portrayed as rough but basically alright sorts, and the Elysiumites as purely the callous rich. There's an attempt to redress the balance when the President of Elysium calls Delacourt up on her actions, but it seems half-hearted. Some more objection from her inferiors, even one of them, might have been worthwhile.

There are other elements that don't quite work. The ending, though climactic, is a little hard to accept – too easy a victory after the hardships taken to reach it. Some more worldbuilding would have made Elysium work better – it never seems to function as a real place in the same way as the future LA. For the most part, though, Elysium works brilliantly, a socio-politic thriller that packs in action alongside effective characterisation and fine performances. While it's never going to have the impact that District 9 had, it is far more accessible, and should appeal more to the non-sci-fi crowd than its alien-infested predecessor. A warning though: there's a level of gore involved that belies the 15 certificate; this is a film that doesn't shy away from showing the consequences of violence.

On the whole, Elysium is a fine science fiction film, with a good deal more brains and heart than most blockbusters. It does, however, make me wonder just how it must have looked from the other side of the gap, for those poor people living in the slums of Mexico City while the film unit, the A-listers and their entourage made use of their world for their new movie.

Wednesday 18 September 2013

Doctor by Doctor #8

Through the Wilderness

Paul McGann, 1996-2003

The eighth Doctor is my Doctor. He's not my favourite, although I love him like I love them all, and he isn't quite my first, but he is my Doctor. It was Paul McGann's solitary Doctor Who outing on television that got me into the series in the first place, and it was his Doctor who was the current incarnation in the years I was immersing myself in Doctor Who. And yet it's McGann's Doctor who many fans of the series still refuse to count, and who continues to exist somewhere outside of the mainstream Doctor Who universe.

It's true that the eighth Doctor's tenure is an unusual one. Paul McGann's televisual tenure as the Doctor is extremely brief, no more than an hour - he doesn't debut as the Doctor until a third of the way into the TV movie. McGann described himself as the "George Lazenby of the Doctors," but to be honest, more people remember Lazenby's Bond than McGann's Doctor, in spite of the healthy nine million viewers the movie's initial broadcast got. On the other hand, the eighth Doctor has arguably the longest tenure of any incarnation. I've arbitrarily drawn the line at November 2003, when the new series was announced and the short-lived animated ninth Doctor made his debut, but the eighth Doctor era could be dragged right through to the end of the Eccleston series, when his ongoing novel line finally came to an end. The eighth Doctor was the current Doctor for a very long time, and a vast amount of supplementary material has Paul McGann's image attached, and much of it his direct involvement. The eighth Doctor is the Wilderness Doctor, the one version in the official line of Doctors who is defined less by his time on television than his time in the expanded universe of other media. Yet, he began with Paul McGann's hour of frantic material in the anomaly that is the television movie, which is also where it all began for me, after a fashion.

Some history, for those who are less immersed in the ins-and-outs of Doctor Who production lore. After the TV series was cancelled in 1989, various production teams, within the BBC and without, looked at returning Doctor Who to the screens, either as a series or a feature film. Rights battles negotiations and delaying tactics dragged this on for years, with all manner of names attached. A big budget movie seemed the inevitable result, and most of the treatments that gained traction involved rebooting the franchise with a more accessible quest narrative, meeting the Doctor on Gallifrey and taking him on a mission to find his lost father. It all sounds as though it would have been awful, and after much messing about and sudden rights changes, what we eventually got was a ninety-minute TV movie produced by Fox, Universal and the BBC. The idea was that this would introduce Doctor Who to the USA in a big way, and serve as a "backdoor pilot," hopefully convincing Fox to greenlight an ongoing series.

The TV movie is, indeed, a strange beast. The ghosts of earlier movie scripts are to be found in there, with peculiar references to the Doctor's early life that don't really match anything we've heard of before. And yet, it follows on from the original series' continuity, with Sylvester McCoy, explicitly playing the Doctor's "seventh life," coming to Earth only to get shot down, later regenerating into his new, McGann-shaped body. It's very much an Americanised version of Doctor Who, with an American companion (a real one, this time), charging around San Francisco. Except that, like almost all American telefantasy, it's filmed in Vancouver. It's quite a generic bit of TV sci-fi flummery, with lots of action, a dash of romance and because it was 1996, a strange obsession with the coming millennium celebrations. It's a lot of fun, if basically nonsense, and it falls apart in the last act, when any semblance of story logic goes out the window. I won't claim that it's great television, but I do enjoy it.

Most fans, of course, hated it, and still do. The hatred mainly seems to come from what it isn't, rather than what it is. It isn't Doctor Who as anyone remembered it from the sixties, seventies or eighties. It isn't what anyone who has come to Doctor Who watching the new series would expect, although it has its similarities. It's full of what its writer-producer, Phillip Sax, called "kisses to the past." Aside from the inclusion of the seventh Doctor, we've got the Master, Skaro, an off-screen cameo by the Daleks, references to Gallifrey, the Seal of Rassilon, jelly babies, the sonic screwdriver. It's the new stuff that bothers most of the fans, though. The Doctor is revealed to be half human, he kisses his companion, he gleefully predicts the future, all stuff that came out of nowhere and sat badly with the true believers. It's also a terrible pilot for a Doctor Who series, revolving entirely around the Doctor and the Master fighting over the Eye of Harmony (now relocated from Gallifrey to inside the TARDIS), rather than saving the Earth from invasion, visiting other worlds or exploring time. It all feels very enclosed, with now indication of the scope Doctor Who offers. And, despite its decent ratings in the UK, it crashed in the States, and the hoped for series never happened.

I was vaguely aware of it in 1996, and, already a Star Trek geek, a bit of American sci-fi should have enthused me. It kind of passed me by, though. Prior to that, my experience of Doctor Who had been the Peter Cushing movies, some Sylvester McCoy episodes when I was very, very young, and a parade of, admittedly brilliant looking, monsters on Blue Peter. It was 1999 when I saw it properly. It was officially "Doctor Who Night," and the BBC was showing a host of programmes about the series, all hosted by Tom Baker, who I was informed by Mum was Doctor Who. So was the old guy in the sole episode they broadcast, one of the installments of The Daleks. And so were the two other gents in the final element of the night, the latest film. "I'm called Paul McGann in this one," said Tom Baker. None of them were the chap with the moustache who I remembered being Doctor Who, although the little Scottish guy looked familiar. I sat down for ninety minutes of Americanised nonsense, which Mum had the foresight to tape, and I loved it. At the end, there was a trailer for more episodes, to be shown in the Star Trek slot on week nights, taken from the seventies. All this new information, a whole new world to discover. That was it; I was hooked.

So, yes, I came in with the terrible American thing with the Pertwee logo, that nobody likes. Fifteen years old, and making my first steps into the world of Doctor Who fandom. Now I'm twenty-nine, and I'm still here. Over the coming months I absorbed what I could find, reading the novels, watching the repeats and rewatching that movie. I found old videos. Friends fathers, happy to find a young person who understood their obsession,  lent me their tapes, which I copies using two linked up VCRs. There were nine Doctors, although I came to understand that the moustachioed one from my youth was different, and didn't quite count in the same way as the other eight. It was the latest Doctor, the eighth Doctor, who mattered the most though, because his story was still going. It was all new to me, but the eighth Doctor stuff was newer. He was my Doctor.

"These shoes! They fit perfectly!"

The eighth Doctor is rather harder to define than his predecessors. He lacks a definitive portrait, built up over several years of episodes. There is, of course, so much to him beyond the television, but for the majority of people who know of him at all, that is all there is to him. Just his first story. How differently would we view the first Doctor based just on his first story? Or the third, or the fifth, or the seventh? Nonetheless, we can learn a lot about this Doctor and his unique place in the run of regenerations if we look at his short time on screen.

The most obvious thing to note is his youth. A thirty-six-year-old in the part may not seem unusual now, but Paul McGann was the second youngest Doctor at the time, after Peter Davison. He is fit, not quite athletic, but young, strong and healthy, quick on his feet and never quite still. He's also gorgeous, and I don't mind admitting that this was one of the reasons I latched onto the character; Paul McGann stirred feelings in me that a man hadn't previously stirred. For all the good looks and youth, though, there's something very old-fashioned about him. His hair - based on McGann's own, which he chopped off, necessitating a hasty wig fitting - along with his manner of dress, often gets him labelled as Byronic, and while the look is there, there's very little that is truly Byronic about the Doctor. He's a poet, and an adventurer, but hardly a man to run up vast debts due to his excessive lifestyle, or shag his sister. It's all look with the eighth Doctor; indeed, while his outfit harks back to the Victorian/Edwardian style of his first incarnation, it is very literally fancy dress, stolen from the locker of a hospital worker planning to dress as Wild Bill Hickock.

Everything is very urgent with this Doctor, but then, this is a very urgent situation he finds himself in, forced to stop the Master before midnight or face the end of the world. He is highly emotional, excitable, spontaneous and unpredictable. He's quite a contrast to the mature, somewhat stately figure the seventh Doctor had become. He's like a precocious child, acting as if everything is bright and new. His new regeneration, initially lacking his memories and identity, has given a new lease of life. Yet he's polite to a fault, softly spoken when he isn't bellowing with fear or anger. He displays an ingenious sleight of hand, picking people's pockets and, in one of his finest moments, removing a gun from a police officer. It looks like it will be a crushingly Americanised guntoting hero moment, until the Doctor points the gun on himself to persuade the cop to do as he wants.

"In the fight for survival, there are no rules."

So, onto the anomalies, or outrages, or however you like to see them. Firstly, lets look at that strange knack of the new Doctor's for predicting the future. He drops various hints and outright statements concerning the future lives of those he comes into contact with. He claims that time is too complex to meddle with, unless, like him, "you're a Time Lord." He laughs at humans seeing patterns that aren't there; is that because he can see the patterns that are? Or is this seeming precognition not another minor case of psychic power on the Doctor's part, but rather a careless use of his vast knowledge, dropping hints of a future he's already seen?

He certainly comes out with some unexpected information, at the unlikeliest of times. Unlike the previous Doctors, who were extremely cagey about their background, the eighth explodes with information. He can't help himself. While groping his damaged memory for data, he suddenly comes out with titbits about his childhood and his father. His revelation that he is, in fact, half human being the most astonishing. This is very difficult to reconcile with the rest of Doctor Who, not that others haven't tried. At first, when the Doctor blurts out to the Professor Wagg that he's "half human, on [his] mother's side," it sounds like a joke, a non sequitur to put the man off guard. Yet the Master examines his retinal pattern, and remarks that it is human. "The Doctor is half human," he murmurs, "no wonder..." It's all very strange. All other examinations in the film, by his new medical associate, Dr Grace Holloway, indicate that he is quite inhuman. He has two hearts, the fact of which is what leads to Grace's blunder on the operating table, killing the Doctor in the first place and necessitating the regeneration. His blood seems not to be blood at all. And yet his eyes are human. Much later on, the tenth Doctor will produce a duplicate tainted with human DNA, and is quite disgusted to realise that he is half human. It certainly doesn't seem to be that he ever was before.

So, a mystery? Yes, although there are possibilities. The TV movie sees the Doctor once again face off against the Master, now exterminated by the Daleks, his remains, quite inexplicably, living on as a sort of slimy goo creature. This then sabotages the TARDIS, attempting to take the Doctor's body, but having to settle, in the short term, for that of American ambulance driver Bruce - thus giving us the bizarrely wonderful casting of Eric Roberts as the Master. We've seen the Master do this sort of thing before; he absorbed the body of Tremas of Traken, and became hybridised further when he took on the nature of the Cheetah people. The Master is clearly capable of taking on the characteristics of other species in order to prolong his life. What's to stop the Doctor doing the same?

"You see, I can, but only when I die," says the Doctor, in reply to Grace's question as to why he can't change species. Is this the necessary clue? After all, the Doctor's regeneration is quite different this time. In the past, with the possible exception of his third regeneration, the Doctor, as a whole, doesn't die. Rather, his death is prevented by the regeneration; indeed, we shall later see instances that suggest that the Doctor can be killed before regeneration sets in. In this case, however, the Doctor is killed on the operating table, the heavy dose of anaesthetic required to sedate him apparently subduing the regenerative process. (It's a shame, really; imagine getting to see him regenerate on the operating table.) The Doctor later regenerates in the morgue, his dead body coming back to life; we see him begin to breathe again. Clearly, there's enough living energy in his cells to trigger the process. Unlike any other regeneration, though, he is neither in the TARDIS nor in the presence of another Time Lord (even his fourth change had his future avatar, the Watcher, present to assist). Insted, he is surrounded by human corpses. Perhaps, in extremis, his body picked up some local DNA?

Skipping ahead a little, there is little reference to the Doctor's being half human in the further eighth Doctor adventures. It's only really the BBC books series that ever makes reference to it, with little hints of his being a product of a "mixed marriage," and occasional, brief flashbacks to his newborn life with his parents. The novel Unnatural History, by Kate Orman and Jon Blum, is the only out and out sequel to the movie the books ever attempted. In this story, the authors put forward the suggestion that, with the Eye of Harmony exposed while the Doctor was vulnerable at the moment of regeneration, his biodata - his temporal essence, if you will - was exposed, and altered. He was subtly rewritten, creating a new background leading to the same present. The Doctor has always been half human, with a human mother - but only since his regeneration into his eighth life. Confused? The Doctor certainly was. Whether you accept this explanation or not, it certainly seems to be the case that only the eighth Doctor is half human, and not any of his predecessors or successors.

"I'm the guy with two hearts, remember?"

Finally, and most contentiously, is the eighth Doctor's newfound romantic streak. He's always been a romantic, of course, in the classical sense, but now he displays sexuality. It's hard to credit, now, how much furore this incited amongst the hardcore. The Doctor kissed a lady! Three times! The Doctor wasn't meant to do that sort of thing, you see, with fans having happily ignored the occasional flirtatious moments in the past, not to mention the fact that he has a granddaughter, and painting him as an asexual being (literally so, in the New Adventures novels). Nowadays, of course, we've gotten used to the Doctor snogging his companions, and it's really no big deal. The romance of the TV movie is clearly included because all such films must feature such a plotline, and it's very underdeveloped. It's easy to see why the Doctor would be attracted to Grace - an intelligent woman, a gifted surgeon, she's quite remarkable, and being played by the beautiful Daphne Ashbrook doesn't hurt. Equally, it's easy to see why she's swept off her feet by this dashing young Doctor. Even as she struggles to quite take his proclamations seriously, until she can finally no longer doubt the evidence of her own eyes, he's charming her with wild promises. "I can't make your dream come true forever, but I can make it come true today." For the first time in a long while, the Doctor is paired with a woman, not a girl, and they are very much portrayed on an equal footing throughout the film, swept up in each other, witht the Doctor following Grace's lead as often as she follows his.

That first kiss, in the midst of the Doctor's sudden flood of memory as his identity returns to him, is a spur-of-the-moment, rush-of-adreneline thing. It's followed up by another at Grace's request, although it could just as much be down to the Doctor's curiosity at a rarely experienced sensation as any real attraction. Only when they part company and share a kiss goodbye is there a hint of true feeling on his part. She's "finally found the right guy," but he's in it for the adventure. Sure, he asks her to come with him in the TARDIS, but he's taken numerous people travelling with him before. Is Grace an different? She asks him to come with her, and he replies that it's tempting, but look at him: he's staring at the New Year celebrations in the city. It's all about the immediate adventure with him. The Doctor and Grace bid their farewells, and he returns to the TARDIS, settles down and picks up his book, without a hint of regret. Is this the real eighth Doctor, once the immediate excitement is over?

Paul McGann brought a breathless charisma to his portrayal of the Doctor, a joie de vivre that had been lacking from the role in the latter years of the series. However, a new Doctor Who production was an opportunity for something more interesting, and while we could have got something far worse (if the unmade movie treatments are anything to go by, far, far worse), it's clear we could have got something better. The TV movie is dumb fun, and the eighth Doctor is part of that simple excitement. McGann however, being an extremely talented actor, could have brought something deeper to the role, had he been given the chance. Part of the issue, I feel, is that the eighth Doctor is clearly scripted as a reaction against the seventh - an older, mysterious Doctor regenerating into a younger, more obvious one. Something that always makes me chuckle is the publicity photos of McGann next to McCoy, with the new Doctor towering over the old. The fact that they are, in fact, almost exactly the same height passes people by - the photographer tilted the camera and put MGann on a step to make him look taller.

Paul McGann is capable of portraying vastly different characters, from Withnail and I's Marwood to Percy Topliss, The Monocled Mutineer, but one thing he excels at is quiet, unassuming, slightly sinister characters. It's easy enough to see him playing the Doctor like the  New Adventures' seventh, all quiet threat and careful deliberation. Instead, the producers cast him as a dashing Doctor, a young adventurer, and while he pulled this off with aplomb, he's probably better suited to being a small, weird Doctor. This definitely seems more in line with McGann's own view of the character; in interviews, he regarded the Doctor as something of "a vampire," or a Dracula-like figure, seemingly young but in reality ancient, part of the same world as the monsters. He also hated the costume and the wig, preferring to play him short-haired and in normal clothes. McGann wanted to play him how Eccleston eventually would, nine years later. In time, he'd get a chance to sink his teeth into the role a little more, but for now, his time as the Doctor was over.

Saturday 14 September 2013

Voyager 1 goes interstellar

Earlier this week, NASA announced that the space probe Voyager 1, launched back in 1977, has left the solar system and passed into interstellar space. This was first announced over a year ago, but the exact definition of interstellar space depends on where you draw the line marking the solar system's edge, so it's all a bit nebulous (not unlike the solar system itself). However, by any such definition, Voyager has passed beyond the limits of the heliopause, which is generally regarded as the edge of the inner solar system, although it's still got a long, long way to go before it passes through the Oort Cloud, so really, it's still in the bounds of the Sun's sphere of influence. Here's a handy map (it is, of course, drawn to a logarithmic scale, each increment ten times the last:

Still, it's a significant milestone. Beyond the heliopause, the Sun's influence is greatly weakened, and Voyager is essentially cruising free through the interstellar medium. It's the furthest manmade object from Earth, and it's still relaying data. It's 125 AU from the Sun, which is to say, 125 times further than the Earth is, almost eighteen light hours away. That's a long old way.

Gizmodo has a whole load of information about Voyager and its journey, including part of the audio recording that is etched onto the gold disc that accompanies the probe, (along with a record player). In the unlikely event that any intelligent entity ever finds it - space is very, very big, and Voyager is really rather small - said entity will be able to play the record and listen to a selection of everyday sounds and the best of humanity's music (or western music, at least).

Voyager 1 will keep going, and in about three centuries will finally break out of the Oort Cloud, the fuzzy swarm of cometary nuclei and planetessimals that surrounds the solar system. Then it's a mere 40,000 years or so before it brushes past the nearest star on its direction of travel, Gliese 445 (marked on the map above as AC +793888). Perhaps it will meet someone there.

But how long before it returns, hyper-intelligent and searching for its creator? Yes, I know that was Voyager 6, but there never was a Voyager 6 and the V'Ger joke is kind of obligatory.

Thursday 12 September 2013

REVIEW: Alice on Mars by Robert Rankin

Anyone who has read the work of Robert Rankin will know that he is a silly, silly man. He is also a very talented man, the author of dozens of novels that are best described as Far Fetched Fiction, a genre of his own invention. Among his works are the Brentford Trilogy (which runs to seven books), the Armageddon Quartet (which is a trilogy) and sundry other works too absurd to be called science fiction, too warped to be called fantasy, and too chaotic to be called comedy. He is also a talented visual artist, having in the past sculpted the bizarre entities that featured on his covers, and now illustrating covers with his unique style of line drawing. And now, finally, he has created his first fully illustrated novella.

Signed and numbered.
Alice on Mars relates a far fetched tale, told to the author by his grandad, or so he claims, during his misspent youth. Many historical facts have become hidden as mere fiction, you see, the Martian invasion of Britain that was so thoroughly documented by H.G. Wells being a perfect example. Even less well known are the events of 1899, the so-called Worlds War Two, in which Alice (of Wonderland) played a major part. It is her story that is related to us by Rankin, with the aid of not only his mastery of the word processor, but also his skill with pen and ink. Each double-page gifts us with not only a segment of story in prose or verse, but also a detailed illustration.

All of the Rankin essentials are there: steampunkery, skullduggery, windbaggery, strapping young women and nefarious villains. There is the terrible Baron Voice and his sidekick and storyteller, Cheerful Charles, the sentient puppet that is the offspring of the Silver Turk and the figurehead of the Cutty Sark. It's all absolute wonderful nonsense, as usual, with added crabs and kiwis. Alice on Mars is a gorgeous piece of work, and each limited edition volume is personally signed by the master himself.

The great Rankin, along with his wife Raygun and son, Robert Rankin the Second, have set up their own imprint, Far Fetched Books, to make available e-book copies of the Rankin back catalogue, as well as these new, limited edition publications. I look forward to further volumes, for Rankin has vowed to publish one illustrated book and one full-length novel each year. The new, and last, Brentford Trilogy will begin next year with The Lord of the Ring Roads, and we even have an illustrated Rankin autobiography to look forward to, I, Robert, which I'm sure will be even harder to believe than the far fetched fiction itself. So, if you enjoy a good bit of old toot in the company of one of fiction's grandest fools, you should pop along to Rankin's Facebook page and see what all the fuss is about before Alice on Mars is sold out.

Wednesday 11 September 2013

Who Book-Quest #8: The Scarlet Empress by Paul Magrs

Paul Magrs provides a wonderful afterword to this, his first novel for the Doctor Who range, that's just as poignantly beautiful as the best parts of the story that preceded it. He talks about how, for him and his little brother, Doctor Who was always more about the books than the telly.

For me, coming to the series in the Wilderness Years (which must be capitalised), it was much the same. Doctor Who was, for me, books and videos. Big Finish were only just starting up, and it would be a couple of years before I would discover their audios. I didn't have a lot of spare cash, so, to begin with, I searched through the shelves of secondhand shops and libraries, looking out for tapes and battered paperbacks. Even though most of the serials had been released on VHS by that point, the long, slow publication rate meant that there rarely seemed to many about, and often it would be the same few stories that showed up, again and again. The books though, they were something else. Occasionally I'd strike lucky and find some New Adventures in a charity shop or an overflow cheapie store, but rarely, and they had a different quality, something between the Target novelisations which I was also discovering, and the new novels the BBC were publishing. The Virgin novels were, although only a few years old, evidently something of the past; the BBC books were still coming out, all the time.

My local library held a good dozen of them, and they were slowly rotated round the branches, bringing a few more in every so often. The first two I read were Lance Parkin's The Infinity Doctors, about which I rattle on elsewhere, and Chris Boucher's Last Man Running. Parkin's book was astonishingly good; Boucher's wasn't. Thankfully, I read the good one first, and cemented my burgeoning love of Doctor Who. Looking at the release schedule, Last Man Running and The Scarlet Empress must have been released together. They are each the fifteenth release of their respective ranges, Past Doctor Adventure and Eighth Doctor Adventure respectively. The EDAs definitely got the best deal that month. I returned to the library and picked up a handful more BBC novels, and Empress was among them. I opened it as soon as I got home, and within a few pages, I was captivated.

The Scarlet Empress was qualitatively different to the other Doctor Who novels I'd found. For a start, it wasn't science fiction. It was unabashedly, unashamedly fantasy. The usual Doctor Who trappings were there - he arrived on the world of Hyspero in his TARDIS, with his companion, Sam, and went on an adventure. There was talk of Time Lords, and regeneration, and Skaro and whatnot, all of which I lapped up, learning more about this peculiar universe I'd finally found my way into. Yet it was a wholly different sort of adventure to the likes of Bodysnatchers, or Vampire Science, or Legacy of the Daleks. Hyspero was a world of alligator men and bearded ladies, where cyborgs mingled with mages, where queens were pickled in jam jars and stored beneath their palace for all eternity. And most importantly, The Scarlet Empress, unlike those other books, featured Iris Wildthyme, a character as charming, adventurous and entertaining as the Doctor, only not half as serious.

Coming back to it now for my little book-a-thon must be the fifth time I've read this, I think, including the one immediately after the first, when I read it aloud to my sister. Altogether too old for bedtime stories, she still listened to me read to her, exploring my new love for Doctor Who. First I read her Doctor Who and the Pyramids of Mars, making my voice as deep as possible for the fourth Doctor's lines (which is to say, not very deep). Then Legacy of the Daleks, which wasn't amazing, but was good fun and let me scream at her in a Dalek voice, and was, as far as I was aware at the time, the sequel to the Peter Cushing movie (oh, the naivety!) Then I went in with the dense, lyrical, wonderful Empress, renewing it over and over so we'd have time to reach the end.

The Scarlet Empress was published in 1998, the first Doctor Who novel to feature Iris Wildthyme, but not the first novel - that was Marked For Life, a work in the magic realist genre that introduced a distinctly Time Lordy character who would only later cross into Doctor Who. In fact, Iris made her Who debut in the short story 'Old Flames' not long before Empress was published. This, though, was when she crashed her time-travelling bus right into the Doctor's world. A chain-smoking, hard-drinking, barmy old mare who was more than a match for the freshly regenerated eighth Doctor. A woman who claimed to have had all of the Doctor's adventures herself, and what's more, had the write-ups to prove it. It was impossible not to love her.

The Scarlet Empress itself is a beauty of a book. Flitting with ease between first and third person, it has no one core protagonist, with the Doctor, Sam and Iris sharing the limelight with Gila the alligator man, Major Angela the bearded lady, and Cassandra, the Scarlet Empress herself.  Magrs cheerfully references as many adventures in the Doctor's life as he can muster, reinforcing that this is, indeed, a Doctor Who adventure, even if it is unlike any that you have read before. That is, of course, how it should be. Once, fifty years ago, the Doctor stumbled from one genre to another, the story changing every few weeks. Only later did Doctor Who  become its own genre. And by referencing Lungbarrow, or The Dying Days, or whichever story you spot, Magrs gleefully sends up the notion of canon, for all the while, Iris is laying her own claim to the Doctor's adventures and sneering at the very idea of consistency. The sequel, The Blue Angel, would take this approach even further, but wonderful though it is, it's The Scarlet Empress that is by far the better adventure. It's a long, leisurely, meandering journey across a world of marvels and horrors, where magic is more important than logic and story is more important than truth. And it contains one of my favourite ever regeneration scenes, and if that doesn't make it top Doctor Who, I don't know what does.

The Iris image above is by June Hudson.

SpaceX Falcon and Grasshopper

SpaceX continue to stride forward in their commercial spaceflight programme. Having made records three years ago when their Dragon-class spacecraft delivered its package to the International Space Station, SpaceX have continued to make progress with their launch vehicles. Previous flights by SpaceX have been launched using the Falcon family of launch vehicles, which use SpaceX's own designs of rocket engines to great effect. Both the original test flight of the Dragon and its eventual mission to the ISS were launched by the Falcon 9 vehicle (actually the second design built), version 1.0, which is being replaced by the version 1.1. Having already secured commercial cargo contracts from NASA, SpaceX anticipate a human transport sign-off in the near future.

Falcon 1, Falcon 9 v.1.0, Falcon 9 v1.1 and Falcon Heavy
The major problem with the Falcon family is its lack of true reusability. SpaceX aimed to create a reusable rocketship from the very beginning, but only certain stages and components have shown reuse to be viable. Work continues on a fully reusable version of the Falcon, although a successful test is not expected until at least well into next year. Meanwhile, a heavy duty variant, the Falcon Heavy, is in development, provisionally scheduled for launch next year. The Falcon Heavy is intended as a successor to the Saturn V rockets that launched NASA's Apollo missions; an expendable rocket system intended to launch human carriage spacecraft.

Essential in the development of a reusable launch system is the Grasshopper rocket. This is a supllementary system, designed primarily for low to high-to-high altitude, low-to-mid velocity tests that will go towards the development of a reusable variant of the Falcon and its potential successors. In August, SpaceX performed a test flight that demonstrated the Grasshopper's capabilities. As this video shows, it has the capability not only for vertical landing but also lateral maneuverability (it's also good for scaring cows).

After full testing, the Grasshopper's systems could potentially be used to create the next  version of the Falcon. Presumably, the next aim for SpaceX will be the realisation of the Red Dragon project: a modified Dragon spacecraft designed to carry instruments, and eventually, astronauts to and from Mars. The Falcon Heavy would be used to launch the Red Dragon, and some of the technologies used by the Grasshopper could be modified to allow it to maneuvre, land on and relaunch from the Martian surface.

Shameless promotion!

This is just one of posts dedicated to marketing stuff my friends and I have produced. There's some good stuff here, so please do take a gander.

Firstly, Myth Makers' new volume, Golden Years, is finally now available for order. All eleven Doctors make an appearance, and there's a host of material by fine authors like Kelly Hale, Cody Quijano-Schell, Blair Bidmead and Stuart Douglas. Also, my own contribution, 'The Sleeping Ones,' which features the seventh Doctor and Ace. The full description is here and you can order it here!

Now, if you're a geek and you like cool things, you should check out Papyrusaurus, the amazing craft company run by my good friend, Chief Executive Dinosaur, Ashley Croyle-Mankoski. She produces fantastic artwork, most of it riffing on geeky stuff like Doctor Who, Firefly and Harry Potter
And if you're looking for Christmas decorations with a different flavour, you should take a look at her pine cones.If you're more into jewellery and suchlike, you should check out her other company Sticks and Tomes. She does incredible things with natural materials, turning them into incredible, wearable works of art. And while I say 'company,' both Papyrusaurus and Sticks and Tomes are just Ashley. She's awesome talented and wears big glasses, and you should buy her stuff.

On the more business-y side of things, if you're looking for professional graphic design, you should try Ryan O'Hara of Rhinobites. He offers design work for businesses of all sizes, and as a display of his skills, he has created this absolutely amazing poster for the Cornetto Trilogy.

Finally, and though I've pushed it before, I urge you all to buy and read The Terminal by the supremely talented Rachael Spellman. It's a mere £1.54 for Amazon Kindle. This girl is going places, you mark my words. We'll be seeing her name on the bestseller lists, I am sure. And read her blog, for more fiction, articles and thoughts. She's really quite astonishing.

Monday 9 September 2013


1.16) When the Bough Breaks
'Sterile Trek'

The Mission:
Investigate the lost civilisation of Aldea.

Planets visited: Aldea, the fabled lost planet, located in star system Epsilon Minos. The entire planet is both shielded and cloaked, invisible to the rest of the universe.

Alien life forms: The Aldeans: another alien race that look exactly like humans. They've had an advanced technological society for thousands of years, and isolated themselves from the rest of the galaxy for a life of introspection. They are, however, too dense to realise that the technology shielding their planet is destroying their ozone layer, allowing UV radiation to flood the planet. The radiation has been damaging their chromosomes, rendering the entire race sterile. There's no mention of tumours, hair loss, or diarroeah, though, so it's quite specific radiation poisoning, although it does give the big chief headaches. To prevent the extinction of their culture, they've left a trail of breadcrumbs to lead a Federation ship to Aldea so that they can trade for, or failing that, abduct some children to raise as their own.

The Picard Maneouvre: It's an episode about kids, so we get lots of Picard looking generally uncomfortable. He does give the cute little girl a hug though.

Number One: Seems very overexcited to be visiting Aldea. Outright refuses to negotiate with the Aldeans when it comes to the children.

Boy Wonder: Not a Wesley-centric episode as such, but he does become the de facto leader of the abducted kids by dint of being the oldest (and the fact that he's a genius can't hurt either). He convinces the kids to go on hunger strike. He's canny enough to learn the controls of the Custodian computer and to surruptitiously scan one of the Aldeans.

Sexy Trek: Rashella, the last person to be born on Aldea and thus the only remotely young person on the planet, is played by the beautiful Brenda Strong.

Space Bilge: Naturally, the Enterprise crew finds a way to save the Aldeans from sterility within a few days, and even sorts out the planet's atmosphere in a few moments of off-screen jiggery-pokery. The Aldeans' actions are idiotic, as are the crew's. Did the Aldeans really think kidnapping kids was going to go down well with a bunch of aliens they'd just invited to their planet? And from the humans' point of view, why is it so appalling that they want children? OK, so they obviosuly can't have the crew's kids, but surely there are at least a few orphans in the Federation, who could go to some Aldean foster families? They only seem to want about eight of them, after all, which is not a good-sized gene pool to restart a species with.

Future Treknology: As well as a planetary cloaking device, the Aldeans have advanced teleporters, the power to fling the Enterprise through space, and a supercomputer called the Custodian which controls their society - but is at least terribly polite about it. There's a shot of the Custodian's power core, towering over the humans, which is pretty cool.

Future History: The Earth suffered its own  bout of radiation flooding in the 21st century when its ozone layer was depleted.

Of course, in the original series... Kirk would have beamed down and impregnated Rashella, chromosomal damage be damned.

The Verdict: Another society run by a computer - very sixties Trek, which must have felt out of date by the late eighties, and cetainly feels archaic now. A boring, talky episode, enjoyment of which will depend on your tolerance for cute kids.

Friday 6 September 2013


1.14) 11001001

The Mission:
Take back the Enterprise after it is stolen during computer maintenance at Starbase 74.

Planets visited: Starbase 74 orbits Tarsus III, in the Sol Sector (Earth's local sector).

Alien Life Forms: The Bynars, diminutive humanoids with big heads and purplish skin. Like the Talosians from 'The Cage,' they are played by women but with masculine voices (downshifted rather than dubbed) to make them seem androgynous. Their ears are asymmetrical, which is fun, and each Bynar's partner has the same ears, but reversed, so they're symmetrical only in pairs. It's the same with their cybernetic head implants, which channel information from a buffer on their waists.

The Bynars are all tied in to an enormous central computer on their home planet, Bynaus, in Beta Magellan. They live and work in pairs, linked together, finishing each other's sentences, and can communicate in a high-speed digital speech. Four Bynars called 1-0, 0-1, 1-1 and 0-0 are at Starbase 74 for repair and maintenance. However, they take over the Enterprise so that they can use its computer core. The computer on Bynaus is under threat from a supernova, which will knock it out with an electromagnetic pulse. Seeing everything as in yes/no terms, they didn't ask for help in case they were refused.

Sexy Trek: In order to keep Riker and Picard distracted, the Bynars reprogramme the holodeck to create Minuet, a sexy jazz siren. Riker tries out blonde and redhead variations before he settles on the sultry brunette, played by Carolyn McCormack. Minuet is at least partly self-aware, and knows that she is a computer programme intended to captivate Riker long enough for the Bynars to take over the ship. She is far more realistic than any hologram seen so far, and Riker falls for her. She even accesses the French database so she can chat up Picard.

The Picard Maneouvre: Surprisingly affected by Minuet as well - I mean, we expect these things from Riker, but not Jean-Luc. He convinces Riker to assist him in setting the ship's self-destruct systme, before they retake the bridge. He gets to pilot the ship - a rare treat for the captain.

Number One: He loves his jazz, but thinks that blondes and jazz don't go together. He has a go on the holo-band's trombone while he's wooing Minuet. He's pretty cut up to find, after the Bynars have returned control of the computer, that Minuet has reverted to a basic hologram. The Bynars keep him aboard so that they have a back-up if they can't restart the planetary computer.

Elementary, My Dear Data: He's learning how to paint. Riker finds the idea of Geordi, a blind man, teaching an android to paint funny, but thinks it'll be in the history books someday. Takes control of evacuating the Enterprise when the Bynars fake the warp core breach. He and Geordi get everyone off the ship before elaving themselves - unaware that Riker and Picard are still in the holodeck.

Future Fashion: We get the first mention of 24th century sport Parrise's Squares, and see Tasha, Worf and two random extras in some very unflattering navy blue lycra sportswear.

Funny Bits: The commander of Starbase 74, Orfil Quinteros (great name) looks like Picard's Mirror Universe twin.

Space Bilge: The Bynars are named for the fact that they live and communicate in binary. A bit of a linguistic coincidence, isn't it? Still, no more ridiculous than with the Borg or the Cybermen, I guess. If they've only got two-digit names, then there's going to be a lot of confusion on the home planet; the four names in use here are all the combinations possible.

If there's a supernova in their star system, they've got much bigger problems than an EM pulse knocking out their computers.

Verdict: "You might have said no." This is a pretty good little episode, with a nice central sci-fi conceit. We get to see two pairs of characters work together well, showing the effectiveness of the Picard-Riker and Data-Geordi teams. The Bynars are a great idea. However, the holodeck is already feeling overused.