Thursday 31 October 2013

WHO REVIEW: Gallifrey VI

An impressive ten years after it first began, the Gallifrey audio series comes to a conclusion with its sixth set of episodes. Having begun as an intricate political serial detailing the crossing and double-crossing of the highest echelons of Time Lord society, the series took a diversion into a series of adventures in parallel realities. The fifth series is widely considered as a misstep by followers of the range, so much so that, I confess, I haven't actually bothered to download and listen to it. With the sixth series promising an explosive finale, however, I was tempted back to the range, and, for the most part, I am happy that I did so.

Gallifrey VI begins with Extermination, and with a title like that, even the cover illustrations are unnecessary to guess who's joining the fray. The Daleks previously invaded Gallifrey back in 2000 in The Apocalypse Element, the repercussions of which are felt here. Indeed, Big Finish doesn't make things easy for anyone who hasn't been following the plethora of Time Lord related material they and the BBC have produced over the years. This is high geekery, written for the sort of people who know a Prydonian from a Perigosto stick. In Extermination, Scott Handcock gets to play with the full toybox, having the Daleks invade a parallel Gallifrey inhabited by non-time active Regenerators in place of Time Lords. With the access this gives to the reality-spanning Axis, the Daleks are poised to take on a position of supreme power.

Thankfully for the Multiverse, these Gallifreyans have poured their energies into weapons development in place of time technology, so Romana, Leela and Narvin have a chance of fighting back. The latter pf the three, played by Sean Carlsen, has developed significantly from the once untrustworthy head of the Celestial Intervention Agency, and is now a trusted member of Romana's inner sanctum. Leela, played, as ever, with perfection by Louise Jameson, is also much removed from the noble savage we once watched travel with the fourth Doctor. For all the wisdom she has gained over the years, however, Leela is recognisably the same individual as the Janis thorn-wielding warrior, and remains the heart and soul of the Gallifrey series.

It is Romana who gets the most exploration in this final serial, however. In Extermination, her treatment at the hands of the Daleks, both way back in Destiny of the Daleks on television, and later in The Apocalypse Element, are revealed to have significantly hardened her character. This is a woman who was held captive by the Daleks for decades, and still came back to rule the most powerful civilisation in the universe. If Romana is the leader upon which Gallifrey relies, then Lalla Ward is the lynchpin of the series' success. She puts in a particularly powerful performance here, especially in a scene that puts in a similar position to the Doctor in the celebrated episode Dalek – and shows much further than him she is prepared to go.

The second instalment, Renaissance, brings us the most celebrated and exciting element of this set: the new Romana. Now, don't cry spoiler – Big Finish have certainly not been quiet when it comes to their guest star, Juliet Landau, playing Romana's future self. I was a little wary of this casting; as much as I loved Landau's batty performance as Drusilla on Buffy, her English accent was hilariously off. Having an American play someone as upper-class English as Romana is questionable, but Landau is spot on (and nails the accent this time round). Having utilised a time-twisting villainess and alternative realities to bring Mary Tamm's Romana I back in previous seasons, having a future Romana turn up for the finale is an idea so obvious it's amazing BF haven't tried it sooner. The new Romana – going by the name Lady Trey (as in Romanadvoratrelundar) - is recognisably the same Time Lady but different enough to be interesting, veering from kooky, huggy and enthusiastic to icily calm and unnervingly ruthless. Indeed, it's Lady Trey's darker moments that remind us just how ruthless the Romana we know can be – they bring out both the best and worst in each other. She's a triumphant creation by actress Landau and writer James Goss.

Indeed, Goss's writing is top notch throughout. Renaissance is a brilliantly structured story, moving from a mysterious, slow burn intro to a thrillingly exciting climax. Finally, we're back on the real Gallifrey, so events finally feel like they mean something again. Romana II and Leela have rarely been written so well; you can really believe the friendship between these two very different but equally strong women. Events move with great haste, both Romana's vying for the top spot and each one scheming to exile the other – if you thought two Doctors together could be bitchy, you;ve heard nothing yet. Narvin gets less to do in the foreground but his loyalty to the office of the President gives him some serious scenes. Again, a detailed foreknowledge of Gallifrey and Doctor Who is a must; not only does Goss pepper the script with quotes and misquotes from well-remembered stories, but events throughout are clearly headed in one direction, and that's towards the unmentionable.

OK, so Big Finish never come out and say “Time War,” but, as with the eighth Doctor set Dark Eyes, it's obvious that's where this is heading. As well as the obvious visual clue on the cover – new series-styled bronze Daleks, for once – the story alludes to the destruction of Gallifrey throughout, with Lady Trey hailing from a time when Gallifrey has fallen, determined to shatter the Web of Time and rewrite events to suit the Time Lords. And if that wasn't exciting enough, there's a mysterious figure watching over Romana – perhaps her regeneration isn't too far away?

And then... hhmm. Ascension is a great episode in an of itself, but as a finale, it takes some enormous liberties with what has gone before. Pretty much all of Renaissance is undone by the events of Ascension, with writer Justin Richards choosing to invoke the Gallifreyan virtual world of the Matrix to overwrite events, before pushing a huge reset button and wiping out much of the series beforehand. As resets go, it does make sense and packs some real dramatic weight in its moral questions, but as with dream episodes like Amy's Choice or Voyager's infamously frustrating time travel episodes, it robs much of the story of its impact and point. Which is a shame, because otherwise Ascension is good fun, with a huge amount happening and plenty of fascinating ideas. If anything, there's too much going on at once, and as with previous excursions to the Matrix, it's not always clear what's real and what's not. Nonetheless, it does provide Gallifrey with a clear and distinct ending, while at the same time setting up the eventual, inevitable call to War. A qualified success then, depending on your ability to stomach a plot reset.

Sauropod Gigantism

There's a fascinating paper available at PLOS Collections exploring the physiology and lifestyle of the largest sauropod dinosaurs. The sauropods included the largest terrestrial animals that have ever lived, from the Jurassic diplodocids, through the late Jurassic/early Cretaceous brachiosaurs to the Cretaceous titanosaurs, some of which may even have exceeded the famously huge blue whale in length. The sheer size of such animals raises problems when we consider how they lived. Early theories, such as a submerged lifestyle in swamps, have long been discredited, but the issues remain unresolved. Just how did such vast creatures feed, breed and move around?

The paper is available for download in PDF format and explores the problems of sauropod physiology and motion through various disciplines, with input from a number of specialists. In the overview it explains that:

This new PLOS Collection discusses major efforts by evolutionary biologists and
paleontologists to understand sauropods as living animals and to explain their evolutionary
success and uniquely gigantic body size. The articles address these questions from the
widest selection of disciplinary viewpoints, including those of ecology, engineering,
functional morphology, animal nutrition and palaeontology.

It's quite some reading, but anyone interested in dinosaur evolution would benefit from taking the time to go through it.

Wednesday 30 October 2013

Who Book-Quest #9: Only Human by Gareth Roberts

After sixteen years of the novels being the major line of Doctor Who material, the return of the series to TV screens caused an inevitable change in the status quo. While we expected the novels to become more standalone, playing second fiddle to the TV series, what we got was still a massive comedown. From monthly novels that, for the most part, told strong, mature Doctor Who stories, the range was cut to a mere six books a year, released in batches of three. What's more, despite denials from BBC Books that the range would dumb down, the Doctor Who novels were shortened, become more standard TV tie-in affairs, and at first seemed to be aimed strictly at the eight-to-ten-year-old demographic. Not there's anything wrong with writing for that market, but with the new TV series balancing the adult and child audiences so well, the ninth Doctor books were a missed opportunity.

Except for one, a single novel out of the six that came close to matching the standard set by the NAs and EDAs. Only Human is by far and away the best of the ninth Doctor releases, marrying genuinely funny comedy with an engaging adventure that, unlike its stablemates, actually feels like it's a part of the TV series that it accompanies. Were it not for the enormous budget required, it would be easy to imagine Only Human being adapted for television, starring Eccleston, Piper and Barrowman.

Gareth Roberts was, strangely, overlooked when it came to the initial round-up of writers for the revived TV series. While Russell T. Davies recruited his fellow New Adventurers who had moved onto greater things, Roberts, author of some of the best regarded of the Virgin novels, was overlooked. In time, he wrote for The Sarah Jane Adventures and some supplementary material for the series, before finally getting onto the regular writing staff in time for Moffat's tenure as showrunner. To begin with, though, he provided Only Human, and it's hard not to see it as something of an audition piece for his TV Who work.

Perhaps part of the reason for his not being included from the off is that he is often regarded as one of the more old-fashioned authors in the range. His particular talent when writing for Virgin was recreating the Tom Baker era of the late 1970s in prose, only improving upon and updating it. However, his New Adventures generally tried new things, and even the ones that weren't particularly successful were at least interesting. And anyway, Mark Gatiss got a gig, and he's even more old-fashioned.

With Only Human, Roberts writes to his strengths. There's a strong core concept here – two, in fact – around which he hangs a funny, diverting tall tale. As part of the second trio of new series novels, Only Human features the ninth Doctor, Rose and Jack, a TARDIS team we never really got to see on TV (in The Empty Child Jack was a pseudo-villain being introduced to Doctor Who, in Boom Town Mickey was part of the team, and in the finale, the characters were forcibly separated for most of the run time). While we do get some good moments for the trio at the beginning, Jack is soon separated from the other two and given his own strand of narrative. This works well, since the Doctor and Rose's plot would have struggled to support him as well. Perhaps this goes to show that a regular Doctor Who adventure doesn't have room for both Jack and the Doctor.

All three characters are perfectly recreated on the page. It's one of those books that speaks with the characters' voices, with no effort required to fill in the gap between page and screen. The initial hook is the unexplained presence of a Neanderthal man in modern Bromley, which is batty enough juxtaposition to be both a perfect example of a new series concept and a Roberts one (Roberts's first book, The Highest Science, featured a double decker bus stranded on an alien planet, a concept he resurrected for Planet of the Dead). The Neanderthal in question, Das, is the triumph of the book, a fully fleshed-out, believable character. Unable to return home due to the deadly nature of the “dirty rip” time engine that brought him to the future, Das has to make a new life in 21st century Britain. Roberts chooses to relate this through diary entries, both those of Das and of Jack, who is assigned to help him assimilate. These provide some of the funniest moments of the book, and easily the most poignant, as Das slowly learns to be happy in the modern world.

The Doctor and Rose, meanwhile, travel back 28,000 years to find out how Das was thrown forward, and discover the other big concept for the book. The stone age has become a base camp for a group of humans from somewhere around the year 438,000. an unexplored part of the vast expanse of human history in Doctor Who, people from this era have no access to electric technology and have instead become masters of biology. In a plot strand that would later be co-opted for the episode Gridlock, people of this time suppress their negative emotions with a cocktail of drugs, with the exception of a few stubborn “Refusers.”

The actual plot is fairly perfunctory, with an ingenious mastermind creating a species of mutated human predators called Hy-Bractors, as a replacement for the human race. While the Hy-Bractors are pretty generic, the plot does the job of getting the Doctor and Rose into a series of misadventures that keep the story moving. The Doctor gets to converse with the n while she explored his brain, while Rose fares even worse, finding herself married to a hunky if distressingly primitive cave boy, before getting her head lopped off. She gets better though.

That's just the sort of weird imagery that this book is full of. Scenes that will stay in your head for days, ready to jump back in front of your eyes and make you smirk when you least expect it. Not many authors could get away with the Doctor wandering about in a drugged stupor, and still have him manage to outsmart the villain, or handle Jack's smutty adventures with nothing more than a mildly suggestive comment that leaves no doubt to what he got up to. Meanwhile, Roberts uses the interaction between the various subgroups of humankind to make some harsh observations about the human capacity for hatred and cruelty. While it's hard to believe that Neanderthals were quite as unfailingly good-natured as they are portrayed here, the Homo sapiens involved, prehistoric, contemporary and future, do not come of well in comparison. Yet, Only Human manages ultimately to become a story about different sorts of people finding a way to live together, if not harmoniously, then at least with the minimum of conflict, and shows that human beings really are capable of being quite incredible when we have a mind to be. The Doctor despairs of humans throughout the novel, but at the end of the day, we're still his favourite species.

Only Human was the novel that showed that the Doctor Who books still had something to say, and proved they were worth keeping alongside the new series.

Tuesday 29 October 2013

WHO REVIEW: The Light at the End

Let's admit it, chaps and chapettes – it's getting exciting now! The fiftieth anniversary is almost upon us, and Big Finish has released its own celebratory get together a month early, the devils. While the TV series is focusing, quite sensibly, on the 21st century Doctors, fans who want to see the elder Doctors represented can rest assured that Big Finish has done us all proud with The Light at the End.

BF supremo Nicholas Briggs has spoken of his reluctance to go for a multi-Doctor team-up. This is understandable, of course; balancing the needs of multiple leads and all their companions with a coherent, diverting storyline isn't easy. Big Finish has quite some history with multi-Doctor stories. Briggs himself kicked off the range with The Sirens of Time, which took the fifth, sixth and seventh Doctors, then BF's entire roster, and built a fun but flawed story around them. Each Doctor had an episode, with a finale that teamed them all up to save Gallifrey. For the fortieth anniversary, BF took a different tactic, with Zagreus using the unusual idea of bringing Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sly McCoy in to support Paul McGann's eighth Doctor, but as new characters. The subscriber special The Four Doctors was more straightforward, with Doctors five to eight all taking part in a time-crossing adventure, before a brief fan-pleasing get-together at the end, while Project: Lazarus gave us a rather peculiar Six/Seven team-up.

The Light at the End is a little more traditional in its set-up. It's essentially a new Five Doctors, bringing together the five extant 20th century Doctors together. There's plenty of interaction between the various Doctors, and while the story understandably focuses on the surviving Doctors, the first three incarnations are featured. Though separated from their successors, the first three Doctors do take part in proceedings, mostly appearing as phantoms to the rest of the characters. Big Finish's solution to the lack of the original actors is one that will divide fans, to be sure, but it is, on the whole, successful, and it wouldn't seem right to not have the characters included. The degree to which these Doctor stand-ins will convince listeners is variable, but they ultimately pull it off, and bump this five Doctor team-up to include all eight of the old gents.

The story for Light is, understandably, straightforward, despite the transtemporal shenanigans. The Master, in his pre-Traken form, purchases the services of the Vess, a rather Dalek-like race of intergalactic arms dealers. Using their ultimate weapon, the nature of which is rather ingenious, the Master causes the TARDIS to collapse in on itself, causing the Doctor's timeline to collapse inwards with it. When the various Doctor are first made aware of the threat when a mysterious red light appears in their TARDISes, as they pass through a particular point in space and time. They each track it back to Totton, Hants, on the 23rd of November, 1963. Yet only the fifth Doctor manages to reach Totton, with the others being diverted into a peculiar pocket universe. How these supposedly disparate locations fit together is rather clever, and the crux of the Master's plan.

To begin with, the Doctors are kept separate, gradually pairing off before all eight of them come together for the grand finale. The fifth Doctor and Nyssa are able to reach the house at Totton, the location that is mysteriously linked to the unfolding events. Peter Davison and Sarah Sutton are perfect as usual as an older, more mature version of their televisual team, quietly investigating the mystery that has affected Bob Dovie. John Dorney is excellent as Bob, a perfectly ordinary man whose life is torn apart by the sudden intrusion of the Doctor and Master into his life. There's even an appearance by young Benedict Briggs, son of Nicholas, as Bob's offspring Kevin. It's rather cute, but events become unsettling very quickly in this spooky section of the story.

The fourth and eighth Doctors, and their respective companions, get to team up against the Master, and the result is joyous. The two Doctor who we never thought we'd get back, and here they are, bouncing along together, two gorgeous voices in conversation. Their Doctors get on marvellously, with the exception of a little fashion critique, and the actors have some real chemistry. If there's ever the chance of a further team-up with these particular Doctors, I'd buy it in a heartsbeat. The companions are just as good, with India Fisher's Charley and Louise Jameson's Leela sharing some fun scenes. It's just lovely stuff.

The other pair-up, between Doctors number six and seven, is also very successful. There's something extra appealing about having a Doctor dealing with his immediate successor, especially when it's the exuberant sixth Doctor meeting the more subdued seventh. Nicola Bryant doesn't get too much to do as Peri, but she has some good chemistry with Ace, and gives McCoy a gently moving moment as he comments on the strange feeling of meeting long lost friends. Sophie Aldred gets a treat of a scene as Ace. Not only does she give us the funniest moment of the play with her rundown of the various Doctors (“Old Man White Hair, Beetles Haircut...”), she's fantastic partnered with Colin Baker. It's strange to hear Ace with another Doctor – for some reason, it's hard to imagine her with anyone but McCoy – but she's well matched by Colin Baker. The temporal ghosting as the TARDIS collapses lets us hear some other companions too, with almost everyone that Big Finish still has at their disposal making at least a brief contribution.

Geoffrey Beevers is wonderful as the Master, but that's no surprise. His silkily sinister tones are perfect for the audio version of the Doctor's oldest enemy. While his successor once opined that “a universe without the Doctor scarcely bears thinking about,” this severely damaged version of the Master is fuelled by nothing more than desperation and cold, agonising hatred. He's a particularly nasty piece of work, and using the instantly recognisable villain as the threat for this story save time. It's a strong, streamlined story, well structured, cleverly revisiting the same events from alternative viewpoints. Plus, we get to hear the eighth Doctor face the Master again, which has been a long time coming.

Finally, all eight Doctors come together to solve the Master's plot, but naturally, it's the original who finally cracks it. The eventual solution is a little pat, and might irritate some listeners as it undoes much of what we've just heard. However, it works, and leads to a very funny epilogue. This is a corking adventure, balancing all the Doctors better than ever expected. A well made, well written story that celebrates all eras of the series prior to the great relaunch, The Light at the End is an absolute treat.

Monday 28 October 2013

A Galaxy Far, Far Away

Rather impressive new discovery of potentially the most distant confirmed galaxy ever observed. Thirteen billion years old and thirty billion light years away:

Sunday 27 October 2013

Iris Wildthyme of Mars

I have a brief but exciting announcement to make. My submission for the upcoming book Iris Wildthyme of Mars has been selected for inclusion by editor Philip Purser-Hallard. This is the next Iris Wildthyme volume to be published by Obverse Books, and will feature the transtemporal adventuress visiting various versions of the Red Planet. Here's the blurb:

 Is Mars a dead and sterile desert, or teeming with life? Are the Martians long gone, or waiting still? Will we become the Martians? Will humanity settle Mars in gleaming antiseptic domes, or terraform it into a lush new paradise? Will invaders from Earth come from the skies, raining down death on the innocent canal-dwellers? Are the Martians beautiful humanoids or tentacular monstrosities? Unfallen angels, devils welcoming us in order to corrupt us – or worse? Will humanity’s Mars colonies be utopian or hellish? How many different colours can you put in front of ‘Mars’ to make a clever title?
     These Marses are, of course, mutually incompatible, contradictory and in many cases quite impossible. And Iris Wildthyme has visited them all.

My story is going under the working title "Lieut: Gullivar Jones: His Bad Weekend." I might change that, but for now I'm pretty happy with it. It's a sequel to Edwin Lester Linden Arnold's 1905 novel Lieut: Gullivar Jones: His Vacation, better known as Gullivar of Mars (also spelled Gulliver). which was something of a milestone in science fiction and fantasy. It comes across as very dated now, and is ripe for the Wildthyme treatment.

I'm very excited to be working with Mr PPH, and the wonderful folk at Obverse Books. This is my first ever paid fiction commission, so it's a pretty big deal for me. I shall keep everyone updated on its progress. I've just got to write the thing now.

It's a shame I can't include any Doctor Who characters in there though. I'd love to have Sil the Mentor turn up, just so that he can sneer "Gullivuuurrgh..."

Saturday 26 October 2013

Doctor by Doctor #9

Working Class Hero

Christopher Eccleston, 2005

In 2005, Doctor Who finally returned to our screens, nine years after the false start of the TV movie, and almost sixteen years since the original series ceased broadcasting. Russell T. Davies, along with fellow executive producers Mal Young and Julie Gardner, brought Doctor Who to a new generation of children, as well as legions of old fans who kept the faith, and millions of otherwise sensible grown-ups who had once dismissed the series and now found themselves hooked. When the BBC commissioned the series, there was a great deal of trepidation and concern. Many people believed that the series was a relic from the past, and that a relaunch would be doomed to fail. They were wrong. The new Doctor Who was a huge success – but it was very different to the original.

I first saw Rose, the very first episode of the relaunched series, at the BBC five days before transmission. Others had downloaded a leaked rough cut, but I decided not to give in to temptation. It was worth the wait. The new Doctor Who was wonderful, the new Doctor was fantastic, but to an old school fan like me, it was all so very different. It was faster, funnier, aggressively modern and brilliantly written. Looking back, eight years on (eight years!), it all seems a little quaint, but at the time, this was the very pinnacle of Doctor Who. Yet, for all the rapid editing, contemporary setting and Davies-styled dialogue, one thing really stood out: the new Doctor.

Following the announcement that the series was to return, we engaged in fevered speculation concerning the casting of the Doctor. Christopher Eccleston was not a favoured choice. I can't think of anyone suggesting his name in the run up to the announcement. Eccleston was not a name that was associated with the characteristics of the Doctor. He was – and still is – associated with severe, stern roles, hard-hitting dramas and gritty realism. Aside from an unexpected turn as an eccentric in The League of Gentlemen, the one production that might have suggested what we could expect was The Second Coming. This, a previous Russell T. Davies creation, starred Eccleston as the son of God – and was nothing like their version of Doctor Who. For a fast-paced, frequently silly, Buffy-styled version of Doctor Who, Eccleston seemed like a very odd fit. If there was one thing his many respected performances had in common, it was that they were not much like the Doctor at all. That's what made his casting such a masterstroke. Eccleston's casting was a huge coup for the series. A genuinely well-respected actor, critically acclaimed, his casting leant an immediate touch of respectability to a show that had long been seen as inconsequential rubbish. Very probably the best actor to ever play the Doctor, Christopher Eccleston brought a unique intensity to the role, but could also be surprisingly humorous and camp.

"I've changed a lot since the old days."

The ninth Doctor is, in many ways, very unlike his previous selves. For the kids who were discovering the series for the first time, this was irrelevent – Eccleston was the Doctor, as simple as that. But for us old-school fans, he was very different. Elements that had appeared throughout his incarnations, to a greater or lesser degree, were notable by their absence. The new Doctor's appearance is of particular note. Eccleston's peculiar features are accentuated by the severely short haircut he commonly sports, so he remains striking in any outfit. However, the ninth Doctor, unlike his flamboyant former selves, dresses like a normal man of the 20th or 21st centuries. The battered leather jacket, dark sweater, black jeans and boots are notable for nothing so much as their straightforwardness. It's a far simpler look than his predecessors wore, and far more practical – it's certainly more suitable for travelling and adventuring than a velvet frock coat. This Doctor can slip unnoticed wherever he goes – even in periods of history where his clothing was unusually reserved. He might get branded as a navvy, or even a U-boat captain, but the look he sports doesn't grab attention. For once, he dresses like an ordinary bloke – for in many ways, the ninth Doctor is an ordinary bloke. Yet, in his head he has a gigantic wealth of knowledge, a encyclopaedia of the universe that gives him a unique outlook. He's “got five billion languages,” can narrow down the homeworld of the Slitheen by a elimination, and has the complete future history of human civilisation on hand to check his experiences against.

For all his miraculous technology, his alien outlook and centuries of experience, the ninth Doctor is grounded and unpretentious. Sure, he has moments of arrogance, but while he complains about the “stupid apes” that he's here to protect, he never puts himself above them. He keeps himself separate from the human world, but in the manner of a loner and outsider, rather than a great elder statesman stepping down from on high. He's a Time Lord, but he's no longer lordly. Part of this is down to the casting of Eccleston, a proud Salford lad. Previous Doctors all had a degree of poshness, from the Received Pronunciation of Hartnell to the overbearing annunciation of Colin Baker. Tom Baker and Paul McGann downplayed their Liverpudlian lilts, and even McCoy's Scots brogue had a bit of the posh to it. Eccleston's working class Manc accent is something new for the Doctor, and changes the way the character comes across. Davies makes the most of this in his scripts - “Lots of planets have a north!” being the most celebrated line – but other writers had a hard time adapting to it, their scripts notoriously haunted by “the ghost of Pertwee.” With Davies's guidance and Eccleston's performance, though, a new kind of Doctor was created – it's hard to imagine earlier Doctor's saying “This is me, swanning off,” or “Yeah, mate, not now, eh?” Let alone something like “what the hell?” as mild as that would be in any other drama. There's a casual masculinity to this Doctor that is mostly absent from his forerunners. He's frequently physical and aggressive, but in a rough and ready way, rather than the Queensbury Rules style of his third self. Yet there's still a camper side to him that comes out from time to time, usually when he's joking about moisturising.

All of this is surface stuff though. The real difference is at the root of the character. Rather than rebooting the series, as so many telly execs would have done, Davies opted to make a continuation of the original. However, he made a distinct break with the past, setting the new series very much as Doctor Who – volume two. The ninth Doctor is a survivor of the Time War, a catastrophic conflict that we have gradually learnt more about over the course of the series. This casting of the Doctor as a veteran of war changes the ethos of the series to a degree. While the Doctor left Gallifrey and began travelling the universe for still uncertain reasons, there has always been a sense that he's just doing it all for the fun of it, with good deeds and occasional missions just getting in the way. From now on, it's different; the Doctor is running from his past, and in his ninth incarnation, trying to atone for his actions. The Time War divides the series in two, with the first eight Doctors lying before it, the ninth Doctor and his successors coming after, and accordingly, we know little about the beginnings of the ninth Doctor. He was, in his successor's words, “born in battle,” and either he or his predecessor made the decision to destroy Gallifrey in order to end the War. Whatever caused his predecessor's regeneration, it seems likely it was tied to the events of the War; indeed, the War and its fallout define the ninth Doctor and his single series of the show.

Friday 25 October 2013

REVIEW: Misfits 5.1

I actually gave up on Misfits during series four. Astonishingly, for a series once so brave, uncompromising and unpredictable, Misfits had become terribly boring. The wit it once displayed had faded, and its creators were content to rely purely on the shock factor to keep people watching. So I came into this fifth and final series a little lost, having missed several important developments, but hoping to be proved wrong in my judgment of the series.

Oh, well.

Misfits' fifth series has proved no better than its fourth. It attempts to be shocking, but it's all so crushingly predictable. Alex, the handsome barman, has, through a lung transplant, received a new power. They've already done that, with a superpowered heart transplant back in series two. And what's his power? He can fuck the powers out of people. This so perfectly Misfits that it's slightly unbelievable that they haven't done it before. It leads to scenes of some poor woman whose power seems to be super-clumsiness begging Alex to fuck her. The scene in which she shows Alex her scars and bruises is one of the few effective parts of this, and engenders some real sympathy. However, it's all there merely to provide some more sex scenes and create more tension between Alex and Jess, already rocked by his cheating on her.

As Jess, Karla Crome is still one of the best things about the new Misfits, managing to be sexy, spiky and vulnerable all at once. Natasha O'Keefe might be just as good, but there's no way to tell on the strength of this; her character, Abbey, barely registers. Joseph Gielgun remains great as split-personality twat Rudy. I hadn't previously rated Nathan McMullen, but his performance here showed that he is far better than his annoying character Finn lets him be. The Satanic Scout Group provides some arresting imagery, and Finn's demonic possession allows McMullen to show his strengths as a tougher, more confident Finn.

This all has promise, but it's squandered on a boring, predictable runaround. There are some great moments, such as when a psychic pensioner who knits the future shows Rudy's better half his destiny in a jumper at a powers support group. But it all feels pointless, desperate to shock and failing to do so, because blood and death and sex is just what Misfits does and we've come to expect it.

The episode finally manages to shock with the, pardon the term, climactic scene, in which Alex saves the day by braining the demonic Finn, pinning him to a bed and fucking him in the arse to rid him of his possession. It is, of course, played for laughs. Once, Misfits managed a powerful episode dealing with date rape. Now, it's going for cheap laughs about forced sodomy. Of course, it's funny when it's male rape, isn't it? Try rewriting the story to substitute Jess for Finn and see how different the reaction would be.

I was willing to give the series another chance, but this really is it for me and Misfits. Fuck the lot of them.

Tuesday 22 October 2013

Happy Anniversary

I'm a bit perplexed by some fans' attitudes to the Doctor Who anniversary celebrations. There will always people who moan that things aren't to their taste, and most of it is quite good-natured, but there are a lot of fans who are complaining that we aren't getting enough to celebrate the 50th. I just don't get that. We've got:

- A feature-length special episode on TV, with Matt Smith, David Tennant and John flippin' Hurt playing the Doctor, simulcast globally.
- 3D cinema showings of said episode, with special convention events to go with them in many cases.
- A new teaser trailer came out this Saturday gone, which managed to celebrate the series' past and push the new episode, without giving away anything that might spoil the story.
- A special docudrama charting the series' creation, with a fantastic cast.
- A slew of DVD releases, with an accelerated schedule to get them all out before the anniversary.
- Two long-lost sixties stories recovered, remastered and released for download.
- Special programmes for the night itself.
- For those complaining about the classic Doctors not being in the special, we had a whole episode dedicated to the Doctor's past in 'The Name of the Doctor,' including a new William Hartnell scene, for goodness' sake.
- Plus, Big Finish are releasing a special production featuring the fourth to eighth Doctors, and other special releases to tie in with the anniversary.
- Eleven short stories for kids by well-regarded authors released over the course of the year.
- A special audio series, 'Destiny of the Doctor,' with stories for each Doctor, released over the course of the year.
- An anniversary story in Doctor Who Magazine featuring the original companions from the first episode.
- DWM interviews with Waris Hussein and the remaining cast of the first episode, and features on its creation.
- A new e-books series called 'Time Trips' has just been announced for after the anniversary, featuring some big name authors.
- Special BFI screenings of classic serials and modern episodes for each Doctor.
- More merchandise than I can easily list here.
- And Peter Capaldi announced as the twelfth Doctor.

Honestly, people, what more do you want? Short of summoning the ghosts of Hartnell, Troughton and Pertwee from the beyond, I don't see what more we can ask for.

Monday 21 October 2013

Doctor Who 50th Anniversary teaser trailer

Just in case there's anyone out there who hasn't seen it yet, here's the special teaser for the upcoming anniversary special The Day of the Doctor.

So, what do we all think? I loved it, although some of the Doctors get short shrift. The CGI Hartnell at the beginning is wonderful, as is the hi-res Tom Baker, but the decision to use a lookey-likey for Pertwee is a bit odd (he's already been dubbed the 'Impertwonator'). It certainly looks like it's intended to be shown in 3D, so I expect it to turn up in cinema trails soon. It's very exciting though, and really whets the appetite for the special.

There are also lots of little extras to spot in the video. See how many, and then check out what you might have missed here.

Friday 18 October 2013

Dmansi Man

A new cache of hominin fossils is causing quite a stir in palaeontological circles. Read at The Independent.

The 1.8 million-year-old fossil hominins at Dmansi in Georgia might be late surviving examples of Homo erectus, or possibly even a variant of Homo habilis (or Australopithecus habilis, your mileage may vary). The five specimens show enormous variations in form that would have likely led to them being labelled as separate species had they been found at different sites.

There's been a lot of talk on this subject over the years, particularly with recent finds such as the Denisova man and the Flores 'hobbits' shaking up the formerly reasonably clear-cut human family tree. The fact of the matter is that in palaeontology, with sparse remains and little in the way of ecological data, fossils are frequently assigned to new genera and species as a method of clear labelling. Many related species of animal could, in fact, be examples of the same species at different ages or of different sexes. There's also congenital defects and simple individual variation to take into account.

The sudden proliferation of hominin species over a short period of time, geologically speaking, suggests that we need to rethink how we classify these fossils. As the article above says, there is huge variation across the human population today, and while a smaller community in prehistoric times might not display quite as much variance, it should be taken into account.

Wednesday 16 October 2013

WHO REVIEW: The Enemy of the World and The Web of Fear

And to think we got overexcited by the discovery of two orphaned episodes of monochrome Doctor Who last year. It's truly one of the great finds – two sixties serials, one complete, one very nearly, discovered in, of all places, Jos, Nigeria. All credit to Philip Morris for his diligence and, indeed, bravery, in travelling throughout Africa in search of archived television materials. This trip really paid off. While the rumours did get out of hand – absurd claims that all missing episodes had been found were doing the rounds – it is the greatest single find of lost Doctor Who material since the archive purges began. Tremendous work by the BBC in keeping their secret. I was particularly dubious about the whole thing; usually, the greater the claims, the less likely they are to be true. For these episodes to have been restored to broadcast standard and made ready for download so quickly is also worthy of praise. One small gripe: while I enthusiastically downloaded the serials from iTunes, they really should have been made freely available in the UK. We have paid for them once, after all.

While the recovery of any two serials would have been met with celebration, to get two such excellent entries in the series makes it a real treat. The Enemy of the World hasn't the greatest reputation, something best ascribed to the previous sole available episode, the third, being a rather slow, filler instalment. The soundtrack has always promised a rather good story, albeit one that really needed to be seen, not heard. Now, with the serial available in its entirety, it looks set to get a major reappraisal. The Web of Fear, which follows on directly from Enemy (indeed, it finishes the final seen, oddly cut short), is one of those stories that has long had a glowing reputation. This can go badly; when The Tomb of the Cybermen was discovered, it rather failed to live up to its reputation. Now, while Web isn't a stone-cold classic, it is a great example of the Troughton era, one of the best of the, admittedly overused, base-under-siege stories (or base-under-siege-by-a-monster-for-six-episodes, to give it the full description).

The Enemy of the World is an atypical story, particularly for the Troughton period. Slap-bang in the middle of the 'Monster Season,' it features no aliens, robots or soap suds, although it is not barren of science fictional elements. It's a near-future thriller – the very near future now – and the commonly applied description of Bondian isn't inappropriate. Set in the year 2017, The Enemy of the World is a political thriller combining espionage with some truly unlikely events and an outlandish villainous plan. While it fails to be as globe-trotting as a James Bond film – this is a sixties BBC budget, after all – it does take in Australia and Eastern Europe to give a feel of a feasible future world that has been divided up into international zones. It's tremendously action-packed, with helicopter escapes, gunfights and plenty of fisticuffs. A narrated soundtrack simply doesn't do it justice.

The most notable element of the serial is, of course, the villain, Salamander, played by Patrick Troughton. The Mexican megalomaniac is a sublime creation, a man of quite incredible ambition and utterly ruthless in his goals. It's Troughton's performance that makes him, of course. While the accent is broad, and the blacking up is a little unfortunate, Troughton excels at portraying four different character combinations. He's the Doctor, Salamander, the Doctor pretending to be Salamander, and, briefly, Salamander pretending to be the Doctor. Troughton creates very clever, subtle differences between the characters, to the point that, while the Doctor's impersonation of Salamander gradually improves, it is still distinct from Salamander himself. While the Doctor plays up his own morality in the face of the politicking, back-stabbing and murder, he doesn't shy away from using his likeness to the would-be dictator for his own advantage. In one seen, he rather callously allows Jamie and Victoria to believe he is Salamander, so that they will confirm their innocence in fear for their own safety. It's a good reminder that the occasionally fluffy second Doctor can be ruthlessly manipulative when he needs to be. “I'm the nicest possible person,” he says. Yeah, right.

While Troughton gets both the lead and the villain role, it's Frazer Hines who gets the Bond part. Jamie Bond, if you will. He sweeps into action to foil a set-up assassination attempt in order to ingratiate himself with Salamander, in one of his most action-packed scenes. There's no doubt about it – Frazer Hines and Deborah Watling make a great team, with or without the Doctor, and they're gorgeous in their matching skirts. While Watling's Victoria does sink to the level of wailing damsel in distress on occasion, this is one of her best stories. Indeed, the largely trying third episode puts her at the centre of an infiltration mission with Jamie, and provides some great comedy moments with the unsung hero of this serial, Reg Lye as Griffin the Chef. Throughout, Jamie and Victoria are portrayed as a couple; not only does Jamie refer to her as his girlfriend as part of his cover story, but the actors play the parts as if they were together. Both this and the following story see Victoria's safety as Jamie's primary concern.

The Enemy of the World boasts a large cast, most of it very fine indeed. Much of the material goes to Bill Kerr as the untrustworthy Giles Kent, who gets some excellent, tense scenes with both of Troughton's characters. Mary Peach is essentially playing a Bond girl as Astrid, but is more than a match for the many male characters she is pitted against, and she holds much of the production together, making some of the most important discoveries to progress the plot. Of particular note is Carmen Munroe as Fariah, Salamander's food taster. Munroe gives a strong, dignified performance in what could have been a shallow role. Instead, writing and acting combine to give a rare example of a strong, black female in a show of this period – I believe Munroe is the first black actress to get a speaking role on the series.

Some of the actors will be familiar to fans of the seventies serials, including Milton Johns, who here plays a particularly nasty little sadist named Benik, and George Pravda, who's just as hard to decipher as Denes as he was as Spandrell (funny that they both came back to play Time Lord Castellans). One of the best characters is Bruce, the security chief played by Colin Douglas. His initially villainous role is subverted as his fair manner and desire for justice win out. It's a decent performance by Douglas, as Bruce pieces things together and comes over to our heroes' side.

As with any supervillain's plan, things get battier as they go along. The complete nuttiness of Salamander's plan becomes apparent as we get to see the cause of the conveniently timed earthquakes that threaten the world. A colony of people living beneath the surface of the Earth, believing Salamander's claims that the world has perished in nuclear war. It's mad, and it's just the sort of absurd twist the serials needs in the second half of the story to give it a kick and keep things interesting. It's a pity that Adam Verney's overly intense performance as underground dweller Colin threatens to derail the whole thing. This stuff needs to be played straight, but good grief, calm it down a bit. Still, once the sheer bizarreness of the coincidence of the Doctor's similarity to Salamander has worn off, things are in danger of becoming a little dull and predictable. After this, anything can happen, and events move forward with increased pace. Finally, of course, comes the final showdown, and the confrontation between the two Troughtons. While technical limitations mean that that the Doctor and Salamander only appear on screen together briefly, it's an astonishingly powerful moment, not least because the now desperate Salamander has breached the safety of the TARDIS itself. The normal rules of Doctor Who break down as the villain escapes from the story's conclusion and almost usurps the Doctor's position. It's a thrilling finale, albeit one that rather stops dead in its tracks once the time's up.

Tuesday 15 October 2013

Stephen Fry: Out There

The ubiquitous Stephen Fry has travelled throughout the world to film this new two-part programme, exploring the realities of modern gay life. I would consider this absolutely critical viewing for everyone, gay or straight, homo-inclusive or homophobic. I doubt that many people who are staunchly against homosexuality will have their views changed by the programme, but it might just stop a few of them and make them think about what they believe, and that's a start. It is not easy viewing, but it is essential.

Life in the UK has become vastly improved for LGBT people over the last forty years, but there are still challenges to face. There are eighty countries and territories in the world that criminalise homosexuality and related behaviour, from Iran, which has the death penalty for homosexuality, to Russia, which has now enacted a law against so-called 'gay propaganda.' In many more countries, such as Iraq, homosexuality is not illegal, but homophobic violence and local religious action against gays is allowed to occur freely.

While in most western countries, life is better than it has ever been for gay people, we must not forget how difficult and dangerous life is for others around the world, and we must continue to fight, protest and have pride, for rights can be taken away as easily as they can be granted.

Watch the first installment, in which Fry visits Uganda and the United States, on iPlayer. The second episode, with visits to Russia and Brazil, will be available from tomorrow. The programme's website can be visited here.

Thursday 10 October 2013

The Other Doctors, Part One: On Stage and Screen

As the year has rolled on, I've gradually been writing articles on each of the main incarnations of the Doctor, including a couple of sidesteps. However, far, far more Doctors have appeared over the years than could possibly be covered in this way. Here are some who deserve a mention.

Edmund Warwick
Robot Doctor Who
The Chase, 1965

An inauspicious start to our exploration of the Doctors. The revelation of the “Robot Doctor Who” is one of the classic series' most marvellously crap moments. Edmund Warwick had stood in for William Hartnell in long shots prior to this, when the old boy was on holiday or had injured himself (quite a frequent occurrence in the punishing schedule of the time). This was something altogether different. The Daleks, on a mission to pursue the Doctor throughout all of time and space, created an exact robot duplicate in order to fool his companions. “IT IS IMPOSSIBLE TO DISTINGUISH FROM THE ORIGINAL!” says one, in a moment of self-congratulation. Hmm, not really. For some shots, Hartnell himself portrays the robot, while in others, it's Warwick, badly dubbed with Hartnell's voice. He doesn't even look like Hartnell; even Richard Hurndall made a better first Doctor than him. A big fail on the Daleks' part in this story. No wonder the Mechanoids duff them up so spectacularly.

Trevor Martin
The fourth Doctor
Doctor Who and the Daleks in The Seven Keys to Doomsday, 1974
The Stage Plays: Seven Keys to Doomsday, 2008

He is you, Doctor, somewhere between your eleventh and twelfth seasons... For a few weeks at the tail end of 1974, Trevor Martin was the Doctor, in the second Doctor Who inspired stageplay, (the first to feature the Doctor, after the sixties spectacle The Curse of the Daleks). Martin had already appeared as a Time Lord in the closing scenes of The War Games back in 1969, but no he got to portray the Doctor himself, wearing a hotch-potch of items taken from his first three incarnations' costumes. Martin's Doctor is an alternative fourth incarnation, hitting the stage before Tom Baker had his first lines on screen; he was even shown to regenerate from Jon Pertwee in a pre-filmed mock-up. Fans have long wondered how to fit the Martin Doctor into continuity (no, really, they have), the leading theory being that this was an aborted regeneration that existed briefly during the Doctor's mission home in Planet of the Spiders. Those of us born too late to see the play never expected to enjoy Martin's performance, until Big Finish produced adaptations of the plays for its audio range. This time, he regenerated from Nick Briggs.

David Banks
The Doctor
Doctor Who: The Ultimate Adventure, 1989

Another stage play, the third and final officially BBC sponsored one, The Ultimate Adventure was a gaudy panto with a selection of songs. For the first half of the run, Jon Pertwee returned as the Doctor, with Colin Baker taking over for the remainder. Except for one performance, when Pertwee was taken ill, and his understudy David Banks took over. This little-seen Doctor was as eighties as they come, wearing a Greenpeace T-shirt under his lounge suit. Years later, the Short Trips story “Face Value” made a vague attempt to fit the three versions of the Doctor seen in the play into continuity.

Rowan Atkinson
The ninth Doctor
Doctor Who and the Curse of Fatal Death, 1999

The Curse of Fatal Death, the very first Doctor Who script by Steven Moffat, is quite simply one of the best things ever. I can probably quote the whole thing, but for now, let's just focus on the new Doctors we were presented with. With Paul McGann's eighth Doctor being the latest version at the time, Fatal Death took us forward with a new, ninth incarnation. Rowan Atkinson was perfect as a charming, sardonic, wryly superior Doctor – a sort of Blackadder with a heart. Plus – shock, horror! - he had a fiance! He was all set to marry his longterm companion Emma (played by Julia Sawalha), until he was forced to regenerate after a run-in with the Daleks.

Jim Broadbent
The eleventh Doctor
The Curse of Fatal Death

We've covered the vain tenth Doctor in the Richard E. Grant article already, so let's move straight on to his successor. Probably one of the best actors to ever play the Doctor, sadly Jim Broadbent got about twenty seconds of screen time, most of which he spent hiding his face because he was too shy of girls. Another regeneration quickly followed, all because he forgot to unplug the zectronic beam emitter first. Broadbent had already played the Doctor in a pisstake sketch for Victoria Wood's show back in 1987, and this was included on the Fatal Death video release.

Hugh Grant
The twelfth Doctor
The Curse of Fatal Death

The bumbling Broadbent Doctor regenerated into this uber-charming, handsome incarnation, with Hugh Grant reproducing his trademark English heartthrob persona for all of a minute before residual zectronic energy destroyed his body. Surly, not even a Time Lord could survive that?

Joanna Lumley
The thirteenth Doctor
The Curse of Fatal Death

Naturally, there had to be a female Doctor in there, and who else would it be but Joanna Lumley? Playing it with a jolly-hockey-sticks spirit of adventure, the revitalised lady Doctor might have lost her fiance but she did at least gain a new friend in the shape of Jonathan Pryce's camp Master. “Why do they call you the Master?” “I'll explain later...”

Mark Gatiss
The Doctor
The Web of Caves, 1999

Mark Gatiss has always been a bit of an obvious choice to play the Doctor, and while this will probably never happen for real, he did get the chance in this short sketch. One of three broadcast as part of 1999's Doctor Who Night, made with David Walliams and Paul Putner, The Web of Caves managed to amuse without actually offending anyone, unlike the other two skits. Gatiss's Doctor was flamboyantly well-dressed but emotionally reserved, polite to a fault and with more than a hint of Pertwee to him. This version of the Doctor clearly recalls some of his earlier adventures, but with no other links to his former selves, who knows where he fits? Perhaps this incarnation will come to exist some day in the Doctor's far future.

Michael Jayston
The Valeyard
The Trial of a Time Lord, 1986
Doctor Who Unbound: He Jests at Scars... 2003
The Trial of the Valeyard, 2013

Unlike the majority of Doctors featured in this article, Michael Jayston's version is inarguably canonical, but that doesn't mean he makes much sense. Quite how the Valeyard, an evil future Doctor apparently from somewhere between his “twelfth and final incarnations” can even exist is never made clear. A throwaway line from the Intelligence in The Name of the Doctor indicates that he may still come to be, one day. Jayston got the opportunity to revive his eloquent, intelligent but insanely vindictive version of the Doctor again for Big Finish, first for the “Unbound” audio series, and again for the upcoming subscriber special The Trial of the Valeyard, which pits him against the sixth Doctor once again. Although banned from appearing in the New Adventures, the Valeyard did manage to make a couple of appearances in the books, culminating in his exhaustive exploration in the unofficial novel Time's Champion.

Toby Jones
The Dream Lord
Amy's Choice, 2010

Clearly, the darker impulses of the Doctor's psyche still exist, deep within him. The wonky episode Amy's Choice stranded the eleventh Doctor, Amy and Rory in a dream world, with the cruelly witty Dream Lord in control. It turned out that the Dream Lord was nothing more than an aspect of the Doctor's mind, given form by some psychic pollen. Not entirely unlike the Valeyard, and possibly a precursor to him, the Dream Lord naturally knew all the Doctor's secrets and took him to task for them. He's pretty feeble as a dark mirror to the Doctor, though, even with Toby Jones giving a fantastic performance; in anything, he is more a personification of the Doctor's own deep-seated self-loathing. Perhaps he will show his face again some day.

David Morrissey
Jackson Lake
The Next Doctor, 2008

In 2008, cheeky showrunner Russell T. Davies made the most of David Tennant's announcement that he was leaving the role of the Doctor. The first of the special episodes that bridges the gap between Tennant's last series and Matt Smith's first featured a supposed future incarnation of the Doctor, the “next, or next-but-one.” played by Tennant's old Blackpool sparring partner David Morrissey. Morrissey played the Doctor old-school, as the sort of Victorian, sexist adventurer the general public envisioned the character as. The two Davids took on the Cybermen in a 19th century Christmas, with the tenth Doctor surprisingly easily persuaded that this frock-coated man was his future self. Morrissey's Doctor turned out to be nothing more than a mere human, confused by absorbing the Doctor's own biography and projecting it onto his damaged personality. Still, Morrissey brought tremendous enthusiasm to the role, and played along with speculation that he would replace the star.

Jon Culshaw
The fourth Doctor
The Secret of Germany vs England, 2001
The Kingmaker, 2006

Jon Culshaw performed frequent impersonations of Tom Baker as the Doctor during his radio show Dead Ringers, making prank calls as the character to various people, including Tom Baker himself. When it came to the TV version of the show, he stepped up in full costume – including one sketch in which he played both the fourth and tenth Doctors, along with other impressionists as further incarnations. His greatest appearance in the role was, however, a strange skit aired during the qualifiers for the 2002 European cup, in which the Doctor and his nemesis, '”the Motty,” educated viewers on the history of the England-Germany footballing rivalry. It wasn't very good, but it did score extra performance points for the use of musical cues from The Mind of Evil. Culshaw would later make a semi-canonical appearance as the fourth Doctor with a cheeky cameo in fifth Doctor audio adventure The Kingmaker, five years before Big Finish got Tom Baker on board.

Lenny Henry
The seventh Doctor
The Lenny Henry Show, 1986

There have been dozens of Doctor Who sketches and parodies over the years, and to cover all of them would be a work of madness and dedication (so try DWM). Fondly remembered though is comedian and actor Lenny Henry's turn as the Doctor, in a sketch broadcast during the long wait between seasons 22 and 23. Shown to follow on from Colin Baker's sixth Doctor, the first black Doctor wore a long leather coat and Rupert Bear trousers – not at all out of keeping with the direction of the show in the late eighties. Lenny's encounter with Thatchos and Dennos showed his Doctor to be rather a cowardly character, but now that he's better known for straight acting, he might indeed make a decent Doctor one day.

Tony Garner
The Second-and-a-halfth Doctor
Doctor Who: Devious, 1995-?

There have been many, many fan productions of Doctor Who over the years, from the early eighties onwards, with the golden age of fanfilms occurring during the Wilderness Years following the cancellation of the original series. Rupert Booth, Jon Blum, Antony Sarlo and Barbara Benedetti were some of the more notable fan Doctors, but it was Tony Garner who secured a special place in fanfilm history. Devious began filming back in 1995, picking up from the point that the final monochrome serial, The War Games, left off. Due to his surprising resemblance to both Patrick Troughton and Jon Pertwee, Tony Garner became the 'Second-and-a-halfth' Doctor, bridging the gap between the second and third incarnations. Devious has gone down in history for not only securing the involvement of Jon Pertwee himself, in his last ever performance as the Doctor, but also for never, ever being finished. Theoretically, this film is still in production, eighteen years later. What does exist of the film did make it's way onto the DVD release of The War Games, so it is arguably canonical...

Nick Scovell
The Doctor
The Millennium Trap, 1997
Interalia Theatre productions, 1996-2007
Power of the Daleks, 2012

However, the best of the fan Doctors was Nick Scovell. First appearing on stage in 1996 in The Planet of Storms, and in the 1997 fanfilm The Millennium Trap, Scovell played the Doctor as frustrated genius – and gave us a bearded Doctor years before John Hurt came onto the scene. He then went on to play the Doctor for Interalia Productions in theatrical remakes of lost sixties serials. They produced The Web of Fear in 2000, Fury from the Deep in 2002, The Evil of the Daleks in 2006 and finally The Dalek Masterplan in 2007. I was in the audience of these last two, and Scovell made a mercurial, engaging Doctor. In the closing moments of Masterplan, the Doctor regenerated into... Nicholas Briggs. Thus, in my head, there's a theatrical universe in which the Scovell Doctor is followed by Briggs, then Trevor Martin (until, inevitably, becoming Colin Baker). Scovell returned with the excellent fanfilm Power of the Daleks, a remake of Troughton's debut story, in 2012, and another production is underway for the 50th anniversary.

Next time, a look at those Doctors heard rather than seen.

Wednesday 9 October 2013

The Wildthyme Reviews

There's already been a lot of interest in Obverse Books' brand new anniversary collection, Iris: Fifteen. To read my review of that, all you need to do is scroll down. However, if you care to read my reviews on any of Iris's other adventures, I have provided links. I'm helpful like that.

Doctor Who: The Scarlet Empress    Paul Magrs, BBC Books 1998
Wildthyme on Top                          ed. Paul Magrs, Big Finish 2005
Iris Wildthyme audio series two      dir. Gary Russell, Big Finish 2009
Iris Wildthyme and the Celestial Omnibus ed. Magrs and Douglas, Obverse 2009
The Panda Book of Horror             ed. Magrs and Douglas, Obverse 2009
Miss Wildthyme and Friends Investigate  Smith, Wallace, Schell and Douglas, Obverse 2010
Iris: Abroad                                  ed. Magrs and Douglas, Obverse 2010
Enter Wildthyme                             Paul Magrs, Snowbooks 2011
Wildthyme in Purple                      ed. Douglas and Schell, Obverse 2011

You can buy any of Obverse's Iris collections via this link here.

The fourth series of Iris audioplays from Big Finish has recently been released for CD and download.

Other recent publications from Obverse Books that are worth your time include the Faction Paradox novel The Brakespeare Voyage by Bucher-Jones and Dennis; the first collection of Cody Quijano-Schell's creation Senor 105; the second City of the Saved collection, More Tales of the City, edited by the City's creator Philip Purser-Hallard; and the special collection Storyteller - A Found Book, which has been created to raise money for cystic fibrosis charities in the memory of author Matt Kimpton (review for that coming very soon).

UPDATE: A new Iris novel, From Wildthyme with Love, by Paul Magrs, will be published by Snowbooks in November.

Happy reading x

Tuesday 8 October 2013

Whos in Brief

So, in the last week, the American government broke, the Gambia withdrew from the Commonwealth because the president is scared of gays or something, and scientists finally cracked nuclear fusion for power, but at least there was some important news.

Because, yes, it's true, the BBC really have secured some lost sixties Doctor Who episodes. After all the rumours and vague reports, they finally went and released an official statement. I was quite happily poo-pooing all suggestion of missing episode recovery, and then it goes ahead and becomes true. We've even been promised that we'll be able to buy and download the things soon. We used to have to wait years for episodes to make it onto scratchy old video. We still don;t know how many episodes have been found, although the Radio Times suggested two before amending this to 'some.' They are believed to be Patrick Troughton episodes, although, as yet, this is still rumour.

UPDATE: The nine episodes discovered are confirmed as the five missing episodes of The Enemy of the World and four of the missing episodes of The Web of Fear (ep 3 remains lost).

Still, that's quite a few runaway rumours that have been proven true this year: Tennant is back for the special, Matt Smith is leaving, Peter Capaldi is his replacement. One person who won't be in the anniversary is Karen Gillan, though. From the Radio Times, again:

"I’m not in it, just to put that out there. I think I’m going to be in America, so I’ll probably round up all the people who like to watch Doctor Who in the area. We’ll probably watch it and drink PG Tips and eat Jammy Dodgers, if I can get them."

One person who is desperate to return is Kate O'Mara, who played the Rani in 1985's The Mark of the Rani, 1987's Time and the Rani and the 1993 crossover classic Dimensions in Time. From Sci-Fi Now:

"I would love to come back. I have white hair now, but a lot of it, and I’m still very glamorous and so I won’t disappoint, I hope! I’ll still be wearing the tight leather trousers and high-heel boots, regardless of what age! That’s what the fans are expecting, so that’s what you’ve got to give them."

Beyond television, other exciting news includes:

Honest-to-goodness classic serial City of Death by the late Douglas Adams and Graham Williams is to be novelised. This 1979 serial is quite simply Doctor Who at its finest. It's to be novelised by Gareth Roberts, who previously did the same for Adams's aborted serial Shada,. It will be released next year, as will a second eleventh Doctor novel by Jenny Colgan, Into the Nowhere.

Radiostatic, creators of the Parsec Award-winning audio series The Minister of Chance, are well into the process of making their new cinematic version of the story. As well as reuniting their principle cast, that includes Julian Wadham, Lauren Crace, Paul McGann and Jenny Agutter, they've only gone and cast Tim McInnerny as the king. This promises to be something very special indeed. Radiostatic productions are funded entirely by fans, and they are currently halfway towards their goal for raising £30,000 to produce the first part of the movie. If you want to help out, click this link here. You can also find out more about the production, and download the original audio series for free.

And did I mention that you can still buy the Doctor Who Information Network's new short fiction anthology? Myth Makers: Golden Years features stories by such talented folks as Blair Bidmead, Kelly Hale, Cody Quijiano-Schell and, um, me. Plus it has some cracking artwork and extra contributions by all manner of wonderful people. You can order it here.

REVIEW: Iris: Fifteen

Iris Wildthyme has two birthdays. This is, of course, entirely appropriate. She first appeared in Paul Magrs's 1995 novel Marked for Life, in which she was, at least at first, an improbably ancient lesbian who lived in a battered old bus. This version of Iris has made occasional reappearances, but it was her debut in the Whoniverse that is being celebrated this year. In 1998, Iris made her first appearance opposite the Doctor – the fourth Doctor, in fact – in the short trip 'Old Flames,' before making a big splash (of gin, naturally) in the eighth Doctor novel The Scarlet Empress. And so, after many more adventures in the Multiverse, at the hands of not only Paul Magrs but many more authors, for BBC Books, Big Finish, Snowbooks and Obverse, Iris is fifteen (and eighteen. And nine hundred and seven).

Iris: Fifteen is the straightforward title of Obverse's new celebratory anniversary collection, and, as with any celebration attended by Iris, there's plenty of booze to go round. Iris has already had... I'm not even sure, eight incarnations..? but this is nothing compared to what we see here. While previous volumes from Obverse have featured the version of Iris created for Big Finish, and voiced by Katy Manning, Fifteen features a surfeit of Irises. There's the old Beryl Reid version of Iris; her successor, the Barbarella incarnation; Brenda Soobie, the Scots Carribbean songstress; and a whole host of Irises new to this volume. There's a ravishing, raven-haired Iris, a red-haired dykey Iris, a drag Iris, and a distant future Iris who looks like Carol Channing. Sometimes there are hints of involvement by the being known as Lazarus, or El Jefe. Other times, the boundaries between fiction and reality are blurred. The stories come thick and fast, never giving the reader a chance to get bored with whichever corner of the Multiverse Iris is currently visiting.

Naturally, it starts, as it did before, with Paul Magrs. 'The Ninnies on Putney Common' actually brings the Celestial Omnibus to its supposed destination for once, where Iris faces Paul's monstrous creations, the dreaded Ninnies. Refusing to keep to anything so dull as a linear narrative, it's a perfect start to a collection that hops throughout time and space. The talented Eddie Robson creates a brand new Iris for 'Gimme Shelter,' one who looks so young she can't even get served in the pub. The horror! But even enforced sobriety isn't enough to stop her confronting the latest supernatural terror she encounters.

Collection editor and Obverse supremo Stuart Douglas gives us 'Party Fears Two,' one of the most blatantly, unashamedly celebratory episodes in the volume. Brenda Soobie throws a party in her own honour, attended by her own authors and heroes. Wonderful indulgence. 'God Engine Rhapsody' by Julio Angel Ortez begins as a more straightforward sort of adventure, but takes its action-oriented American version of Iris through a tale of twisted temporal shenanigans.

Cavan Scott and Mark Wright return to their Big Finish creation the Forge for 'Project: Wildthyme.' The Forge, which were doing Torchwood's thing with more competence way before that Welsh rabble turned up, have only one target more sought after than the enigmatic Lazarus, and that's Iris Wildthyme. Poor old Panda goes through the ringer, though. It couldn't be long before that other untrustworthy organistation, MIAOW, turned up, and Ross Douglas gives them a run for their money in the cheeky 'Our Tune.' Nick Campbell scores a belter with 'The Wildthyme Effect,' which takes Iris and her latest victim/companion from a bookshop to a land of wonder. Neil Chester gives us a winning, haunting ghost story with 'Ouroboros.'

Nick Wallace's contribution, 'In Passing,' is a rare slice of pure science fiction for Iris, but no less moving and effective for it. Master of Victoriana George Mann gives us a clever interlude in 'Iris at the V&A.' Our favourite art critic and raconteur, Panda, reviews some of the Iris's appearances in the artwork of the ages. Obverse regular Cody Quijano-Schell pens a mad celebration named 'The Golden Hendecahedron,' a tale that sees Irises past, future and improbable appear in an attempt to prevent a temporal catastrophe (with hints of Meglos). And Iris's old friend Tom is in it too, which is a treat.

James Manley-Buser pens a very different sort of story in 'Samsara,' a sultry, evocative tale of reincarnation in India – with a couple of cheeky misquotes from familiar sources. Eric Brown's 'Iris and the Caliphate' mixes dinosaurs, metatextuality and a truly horrific future world to great effect. Fans of the old 'Find Your Fate' style books will enjoy the brief but fun 'Mix Your Own Adventure' by Patrick Magee. Andy Smillie's 'Time to Exist' is a little longer than most of the stories in this collection, using the extra wordage to take Iris and Panda on a very peculiar adventure beyond the edge of existence.

One of the best stories in the collection is 'Scream in Blue' by Dave Hoskins, an ingenious tale told from the point of view of a young girl with autism and synaesthesia. It's a fascinating read, at the same time as being a bonkers parody of Speed. Finally, Roy Gill's 'Dog Days of Summer' rounds off the anthology in style, with a story that follows one boy's journey to adulthood, punctuated by periodic Wildthyme.

Absurd, funny, poignant, inventive and often over the top, Iris: Fifteen is a wonderful celebration of all things Wildthyme. A must for any fan of the Mistress of the Magical Bus.