Sunday 29 April 2018

Who Novelisation Quest 12: "Twice Upon a Time" by Paul Cornell

With the release of the first new Target novelisations in decades, it seemed a good opportunity to follow up my old Who Novel Quest with a new run through the novelisations - one for each Doctor (excluding the War Doctor). For no particular reason, I'll run through them in reverse. Why not? Timey-wimey, or something. 

The final release of the Target line – for now – is the most up-to-date it could be, with Paul Cornell novelising the 2017 Christmas special, right up to the first, and so far only, appearance of the thirteenth Doctor. Unlike Rose or The Day of the Doctor, Twice Upon a Time isn't covered by the scriptwriter, but by one of the most celebrated authors of the novel line. Cornell shot to Who stardom with the early New Adventure Timewyrm: Revelation back in 1991, being one of the first writers who really looked into what made the Doctor tick. It makes sense then that Cornell takes on this introspective regeneration story.

Twice Upon a Time doesn't spend as much time in the Doctor's head as The Day of the Doctor, but it does look at the Doctor's perspective on his upcoming regeneration - both of them. I'm absolutely convinced that the twelfth Doctor's reluctance to regenerate is completely within character, but the novelisation goes into more depth, adding an element I hadn't considered. The Doctor has now lived what he considers a normal, human life: years spent with his wife, followed by a long retirement as lecturer at a university. Decades longer than a human life, of course, and interspersed with trips through time and space, but still, the closest thing to normality he has ever really experienced. Added to which is the Doctor's defence that he is, after thousands (arguably billions) of years, just tired. This is a man who is ready to let go. From the first Doctor's perspective, the fear of the unknown is more apparent as his reason, having held onto his original body for too long and in dire need of a regeneration (although I'm pleased to see Cornell note that it isn't simply old age, but the energy drain of the Cybermen that finally does him in). A nice touch is that the first Doctor almost accepts the need to regenerate, until seeing his future as “the Doctor of War” puts him off.

It's quite right that the cover of the novelisation depicts David Bradley as the first Doctor, given his wonderful guest role in the special. However, reading the story in prose form provides the opportunity to imagine the adventure featuring the Doctor as portrayed by William Hartnell. The twelfth Doctor is even more bemused by his first incarnation's behaviour in the book, rightly noting that he is behaving rather out of character. He even wonders if he is showing off in front of the Captain, which would be quite in character for the first Doctor. Still, being able to imagine the story as featuring the original Doctor does add a little something, even if it does cause it to slip into black and white in my head from time to time. The one significant element missing from the TV version was Susan, so I'm pleased that the first Doctor comments on how much he misses her. There's even a nice allusion to their reunion in The Five Doctors, something that is normally skated over.

Bill's story is much expanded, which adds an extra dimension to a story that otherwise focuses heavily on the Doctor. We learn a great deal more about her life with Heather, one that saw them settle on Earth surprisingly quickly, in what might be seen as a parallel to the Doctor's longing for an ordinary life. More of the story is told from her perspective, and from the Captain's, than we might expect given the focus on the Doctor on TV. We also get some welcome expansion on the fates of certain characters, from Nardole to Rusty the Dalek, although Clara's ultimate fate remains mysterious.

Most of all, the twelfth Doctor's acceptance of his regeneration is more fluid here, coming over less as a story obligation than in the broadcast version. While Twice Upon a Time doesn't play with the story like The Day of the Doctor, or explore the Doctor in the same depth as Cornell's best works, it does exactly what a novelisation should do, which is to bring depth to a story that leaves it stronger and more satisfying than it had a chance to be on the screen.

First published by BBC Books (Target imprint) in 2018
Based on "Twice Upon a Time," first broadcast in 2017
Audiobook read by Mark Gatiss

Saturday 28 April 2018

REVIEW: A Wrinkle in Time

A Wrinkle in Time is one of those books that it took me ages to get around to reading. Part of this is that it's just never been the huge hit in the UK as it is in America, where it's a commonly read book in schools and the favourite childhood book of many. I finally read it a few years ago, reading my friend's battered school copy on a visit to the States. It's a beautiful book, a wonderfully creative and empowering story for youngsters, about courage and acceptance, and while it's clearly very heavily influenced by Madeleine L'Engle's strong Christian beliefs, it's about being open to other cultures and ways of doing things.

Given its reputation, it's surprising the novel hasn't been adapted for cinema before now. Disney made a previous attempt, a fairly terrible TV movie fifteen years ago, and there have been various stage versions, even an opera. Still, a big budget treatment seems well overdue for such a rich fantasy story. Disney's new treatment has skirted some controversy, having removed the Christian undertones and also cast the Murrys as a mixed race family, with predictable results in some quarters (don't read the comments sections on any site covering the movie, unless you enjoy reading white men crying over how casting black people in these roles is somehow “racist”).

To be fair, while the race of the central characters isn't actually important to the story as such, having a mixed race family in such a prominent Disney production is a big deal, and it represents a move forward in both race and gender representation in front of, and behind, the camera. There are more films lately with heroic female protagonists, but how many where the hero is a young girl of colour? Added to which we have Gugu Mbatha-Raw playing her mother, Dr. Kate Murry (it would have been extremely unusual for a black woman to hold a prestigious academic position in 1960 when the book was written, albeit not unheard of, but while it is less remarkable now it is still something of note). Behind the camera is Ava DuVernay, the first black woman to direct a megabudget film (a production with a budget of over $100 million). While not the point of the film, the multiracial production is worth celebrating.

The cast is impressive throughout. Storm Reid is central as Meg, devastated by the disappearance of her father but still a gifted and exceptional young girl. She goes through more of a developmental journey here than in the book, learning to accept both her strengths and weaknesses and massively improving her confidence as she goes through her adventures. This is the sort of character arc only boys usually get. Her younger and even more remarkable brother, Charles Wallace, is played by Deric McCabe, with a very assured performance. Charles Wallace, here an adopted member of the family rather than Meg's biological brother, is such a genius that he innately understands the motions of space and time that allow the characters to “tesser” across the universe.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw is as excellent as always, while Chris Pine makes a strong impression as her husband Dr. Alex Murry, the brilliant but headstrong physicist (or perhaps metaphysicist) who loses himself across the universe. After his performance here, I can finally see him as playing Captain Kirk long into career, as Shatner did. We also have a strong turn from the young Levi Miller as Meg's new friend/potential boyfriend Calvin O'Keefe, who takes on some of her more openly adventurous spirit from the books, while she takes on his lack of trust.

The alien cast is an unusual one. Reece Witherspoon is absolutely not how I imagined Mrs. Whatsit, but her scatty, irritable mad woman next door works really well, and in fairness, Witherspoon is far weirder than her usual roles ever let her be. Mindy Kaling, who more often performs voice-only roles, here plays the largely silent Mrs. Who, who only speaks in wise quotes, like a sort of living meme. The strangest casting is that of Oprah Winfrey as Mrs. Which, a decision I was quite ready to mock. I'm not the biggest fan of Oprah, by a long chalk, but she's actually really very good here, as the powerful and noble alien. She's another major divergence from the novel, though, in which Mrs. Which is mostly unseen and incorporeal, although having the movie version unable to settle on a reasonable size when she first manifests is a nice touch.

There are other major changes. The Murry twins are gone completely, although their role in the novel is not particularly vital and can be absorbed by other characters. The sidetrip to the planet Ixchel is excised completely, meaning that we miss out of the incomparable Aunt Beast. The Happy Medium is still there, thankfully, but played unexpectedly by Zack Galifianakis and quite unrecognisable as the same character. The events on the dark planet Camazotz are very different as well, although suitably unsettling and exciting.

Overall, I'm left with the conviction that this film just doesn't feel like A Wrinkle in Time. It's a very different thing to the book, and I can imagine that most of the book's committed fans will find it hard to love this. However, I found it very enjoyable, as a family fantasy film in its own right, and it's certainly a visual treat, with strange vistas from across the universe. Watch it with your daughter, or if you're man enough to watch a film targeted at little girls.

Thursday 26 April 2018

REVIEW: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: The Hexagonal Phase

Douglas Adams was one of the great comic writers of his generation, a man whose great propensity for wild ideas was matched only by his difficulty in actually getting them down on paper. He created The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy for radio, following it up with a second radio series, a television series, a ludicrously difficult computer game, the odd short story and five novels, before he worked on a film script that sadly did not make it to the screen before he suffered terminal existence failure.

This is not his story.

This is the story of Eoin Colfer, who wrote the official sixth Hitchhiker's novel, And Another Thing..., and of Dirk Maggs, who adapted it for radio, as he had adapted the third, fourth and fifth novels. Only small parts of it are Adams's, cribbed from recently discovered notes. The rest is the work of people who certainly admire Adams, who want to continue his work and explore the strange universe he created, but are unfortunately not as skilled as he was.

Almost forty years to the day that the original Hitchhiker's began airing, the BBC broadcast the first episode of The Hexagonal Phase (following Primary, Secondary, Tertiary, Quandary and Quintessential in a new ordinal numbering system for the modern age). Maggs had already done sterling work adapting the previous novels for radio (The Tertiary Phase at least having some input from Adams before his death). Due to the fact that The Secondary Phase bore very little resemblance to the second novel, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, The Tertiary Phase consigned much of it to the realms of virtuality. In a similar effort to provide the series with a more satisfying ending, The Quintessential Phase had a multiple choice denouement, all of which have now been retconned to allow the story to continue. This is fine. There are more versions of Hitchhiker's than there are realities in the Plural Zones.

The problem lies with what comes after. It's been some considerable time since I read And Another Thing... but I wasn't impressed at the time, and having read more of Colfer's work since I have come to the conclusion that he's not just a poor Adams impersonator, he's a poor author. However, with Maggs and Adams himself involved in this, I thought it was worth a try. It has its moments, certainly, some of which are genuinely funny, but they are all too few and far between.

It's lovely, yes, to hear the old cast back together, those of whom are still with us. They sound older, naturally, but they all slip effortlessly back into their roles. There's a feeling of reunion about the proceedings. The late Susan Sheridan even has a short role as the original version of Trillian, thanks to some clever use of archived material, before Sandra Dickinson takes over, but I've always felt she was miscast in the TV series and it's no different here. There are some fun cameos - Stephen Hawking makes his final appearance in popular media voicing the Guide Mk. II, Lenny Henry is the mysterious Consultant and Jim Broadbent is perfectly cast as Marvin, the Paranoid Android. Toby Longworth sounds very at home as Wowbagger, the morose immortal who first crossed paths with our heroes in the third book Life, the Universe and Everything and who takes centre stage here.

Unfortunately, The Hexagonal Phase simply isn't funny enough to work as a comedy, nor is it interesting or exciting enough to work as a drama. Colfer's style is more plot-based than Adams's, but the plot is not gripping enough to make up for the lack of jokes and the serial is, even listened to in weekly half-hour episodes, actually quite boring. It also relies heavily on references to the original stories. It's perfectly possible to write a decent story that leans heavily on winks to the past - Ready Player One has shown you can make a reasonably entertaining film almost entirely out of them - but the overall effect here just reminds the listener of how much better the originals were. There's more to a story than persistently mentioning the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal.

I might be controversial when I say that radio was actually never the best format for Hitchhiker's; it was prose were Adams really shone. Nonetheless, the original series was groundbreaking and even in its wonkier moments had real charm and dryly satirical humour. This final chapter of the series is sadly lacking. Almost, but not quite, entirely unlike Douglas Adams.

Tuesday 24 April 2018

REVIEW: Grandma Guignol

Bafflegab Productions have just finished an eight-epiosde run of their new podcast, Grandma Guignol. Well, it's not entirely new; the podcast is a new format for the audio series The Brenda and Effie Mysteries, written by Paul Magrs and based on his successful series of novels. As the series was criminally overlooked, Bafflegab have given it a new lease of life, and it is now available here on iTunes. You can download the episodes or get them up on your podcast app or however you like to listen to them.

If there was ever a series that deserved more recognition, it's this. The story of the Bride of Frankenstein, now running a B&B in sleepy seaside town (and goth capital) Whitby, and her best friend, the aged witch and antiques dealer Effie. The story of ancient mummies, the story elephantine descendants of the London Monster, the story of the dreaded Crispy Cat! All told with Magrs's signature wit and aplomb.

The series stars Anne Reid as both Brenda and Effie (Last Tango in Halifax, Upstairs Downstairs, Coronation Street, A Close Shave, and multiple roles in Doctor Who, including a vampire, meaning she need only play a werewolf to round out the classic movie monster trifecta). Telling the story from Brenda's point of view, it is initially focused on her new life in Whitby, but by the final episode drifts back along Brenda's long and varied life. She's had periods working as a maid to Magrs's C. S. Lewis counterpart Reg Tyler (from The Fellowship of the Ink and Doctor Who: Mad Dogs and Englishmen), a spell as the headline act in a freakshow (palling around with Joseph Merrick) and much more besides.

There are guest roles for the likes of Dan "Strax" Starkey, Chris Pavlo, Alex Lowe and Stephen Critchlow, but this is Reid's production. She gives a wistful performance as Brenda, losing herself in her memories and granting them just as much life as her nocturnal escapades with Effie. In spite of the bizarre Gothic goings on, the stories spend as much time on everyday concerns and idle gossip as they do on supernatural mysteries. Brenda never misses the opportunity to comment on the quality of her lunch or pass busybody judgment on Whitby's eccentric inhabitants.

Anyone who has dipped into Paul Magrs's world with his Iris Wildthyme or Phoenix Court novels, or his many Doctor Who stories, should definitely check out Brenda's adventures, and any fan of magic realism, cosy supernatural stories or old-fashioned adventures should give it a try. Halfway between Hammer Horror and Alan Bennett, you'll find Grandma Guignol. Hopefully it will be popular enough to warrant a second series.

Image copyright Paul Hanley

Tuesday 17 April 2018

Time Shadows available again

Both Time Shadows and Time Shadows: Second Nature are now available for a limited time as ebooks (in ePub, Mobi and PDF formats) with all proceeds going to literacy charity Code NGO.

Order links for both books can be found here.

The second volume includes my own story, "Time-Crossed," featuring the first and eleventh Doctors.

Thursday 5 April 2018

Beyond the Farthest Star

Astronomer have announced the detection of the farthest individual star so far observed. The star, a blue supergiant (so very luminous indeed), lies over nine billion light years away. This means that the light from the star detected was emitted around 4.5 billion years after the Big Bang, according to the current model.

Now, this might sound like the star is pretty young compared to the Universe itself, and indeed, galaxies have been observed which are estimated to be almost 13 billion light years away, so we are seeing as they formed only hundreds of millions of years after Event One. However, this is the farthest, oldest star that has been detected individually. As with the farthest galaxies, the star has been visualised using gravitational lensing - space-time has been severely curved by high mass objects passing between us and the location of the star (in this case, a galactic cluster, with the lensing compounded by an unknown other mass). This magnifies the star making it bright enough to be detected at huge distances. However, the star is now long dead - blue supergiants have an estimated lifespan of a mere ten million years, a thousand times less than our own sun.

This is an amazing discovery, a combination of great luck and ingenious technique. One thing that does puzzle me is the name, though. Like most astronomical objects, the star has a catalogue designation (MACS J1149+2223 Lensed Star-1, the MACS prefix standing for MAssive Cluster Survey) but has been nicknamed Icarus. It's a nice name, but Icarus is famous for flying too close to the sun. It's a strange choice for the star that is farthest from the sun.

Link for more info