Saturday 29 September 2018

REVIEW: Archer - Danger Island

Archer reaches its ninth (and penultimate) season, once again retooling the series' set-up and taking place within an elaborate fantasy within the comatose Archer's brain. After the noir-styled detective antics of season eight, this run relocates the action to the fictional Pacific island of Mitimotu in the year 1938 (for the first time ever we have a definitive dating for an Archer series!) The island is occupied by the French but is a haven for drop-outs of all nationalities, and soon ends up swarming with Nazis getting ready for WWII.

Danger Island isn't short on adventure cliches, with cannibalistic natives, a legendary idol, stormtroopers and Komodo dragons all appearing. Oh, and quicksand. I've missed quicksand. With Archer reconceived as an alcoholic charter pilot (and former US Army air commander), who co-pilots with Pam. A lot of people will see Indiana Jones in all this, but it's mostly inspired by its TV brother Tales of the Golden Monkey which came out soon after. Creator Adam Reed has confirmed that this was one of his favourite series (I don't think it's been aired in years, at least not in the UK), and the set-up is pretty much identical. Although, in Golden Monkey, it was the dog who wore an eye patch, not the hero. (You know what else was based on Golden Monkey? Disney's TaleSpin. Really.)

One thing I really like about Danger Island is the Archer-Pam relationship. There's a nice moment in an earlier season where they realise they're pretty much best friends and despite all their bitching at each other, they've always got each other's backs. That's the case here, with Pam and Archer being long-time partners and coming to the same conclusion in about six episodes. The other characters are re-jigged to a similar extent as the previous season, although some go to more ludicrous extremes. Cyril is the villain again, now the evil Nazi Fuchs (later to become UberFuchs in the story's most over-the-top development), on the island to secure the legendary idol for the Reich. Lana has gone from being African American/mixed race to now apparently being a Pacific Islander, princess of the island and determined to free her people from the French Empire even if it means siding with the Germans. Malory runs a hotel on the island, is still Archer's mother again and is basically the same character as always. Ray is refashioned as a French gendarme, a role he is perfectly suited for. No Jeffrey Tambor this year, unsurprisingly.

Judy Greer's character is, this time, Charlotte VanderTunt, on the island for her honeymoon before Archer seduces her and wrecks her life. She's as batshit crazy but for once it's actually in response to some pretty traumatic experiences instead of her inbred genes and glue habit. to be honest, as brilliant as Greer is and as funny as some of Charlotte's moments are, I'm really not a fan of what happens to the character. Archer has never been afraid to cross the line when it comes to good taste, but a lot of what happens to Charlotte is pretty horrible and too tragic to be funny.

Bizarrely, Krieger is not brought back as one of the Nazis, in spite of his legendary status as a clone of Adolf Hitler. Instead, Lucky Yates voices a macaw named Crackers, who is somehow possessed of human intelligence and acts as Archer and Pam's sidekick. One of the better running jokes is that no one can understand how a bird can act like this but it's never even vaguely explained, beyond Archer handwaving it away as "he's a parrot." Anyway, Crackers gets a lot of the best lines, and some of the best scenes involve Archer, Pam and Crackers adventuring together.

The adventure stuff is generally pretty fun, but, just like with Dreamland, there's a real drop in the quality of the comedy. Archer just isn't as funny as it used to be, and, while the new setting seems like a real winner (albeit one that's going to piss off Germans and Pacific Islanders alike), it just doesn't seem to lend itself to comedy the same way as previous years. That, or perhaps the show's just running out of steam. Nine years is a long time to keep something with a pretty thin premise going, and while the new format of changing the setting every year is helping keep it fresh, it's starting to strain. Still, I'm looking for to next year's Archer in space, something I've been asking for for years. Although I had hoped more for Archer Trek than Archer meets Alien, but still, here's hoping the final season sends it out with a bang.

Sunday 16 September 2018

Who Novelisation Quest 8: The Novel of the Film by Gary Russell

Officially titled, like its TV predecessor, simply as Doctor Who, this is one of a very few DW novelisations that was never published under the Target banner. This was the first Doctor Who novel to actually be published directly by the BBC, before even Virgin's licence had run out and the New Adventures were winding down. It was the first novel to star the eighth Doctor, and indeed, his first major appearance in the UK, being released shortly before the movie was aired by the BBC. Oddly enough, however, it was never officially published outside of Britain. It seems that with the recent revival of the Target imprint it would be a perfect opportunity to reprint the novelisation, but there are apparently rights issues preventing this (the TV Movie being something of a copyright minefield).

Despite my fondness for the movie, this is the first time I have read the novelisation. I did listen to Paul McGann's reading of it (on audio cassette!), but that was heavily abridged and reworked by the author to bring it more in line with the broadcast programme. As Russell points out in his opening to the book, this was adapted from an early draft of the script and based on limited visual information, and so in places differs wildly from the actual film. When he wrote the novel, Russell was still quite early on in his Doctor Who career, which is still going strong, and he is one of the stalwart writers of tie-in books material. I've always found his prose unchallenging but entertaining, exactly the sort of style that suits a novelisation. I get the feel that it was knocked out in something of a hurry, though; there are a few glaring typos, including one amusing moment when the Doctor is described as having "long back hair."

The differences between the novel and the film are, as with the best of Target's novelisations, a huge part of the appeal of the book. While the story is still breathless and strange, it actually hangs together rather better than what we got on screen, with some of the more howling plotholes filled in. There's also a lot more insight into the characters' lives than in the film, which really only found time to examine Grace and the Doctor. In particular, we learn a great deal more about Chang Lee's harsh childhood, giving us an understanding for why he would side with the Master (aside from the villain's obvious hypnotic abilities). He even gets a proper redemption, rather than simply being killed as soon as he turns on the Master.

The Master is far more like his old self here. While inhabiting the body of Bruce the paramedic, he still sounds much more like the verbose, eloquent Master of the Ainley and Delgado incarnations. He is also visibly decaying throughout, as was ostensibly the plan in the film before production difficulties reduced it so much it was scarcely noticible. By the time he captures the Doctor, his body is falling apart. The climax is especially different, with the Master almost managing to create a new body from the Doctor's life force, leaving him in a half-formed state, rather like the Watcher from Logopolis.

The relationship between the Doctor and Grace is more one-sided here, with the Doctor more overwhelmed with excitement when he kisses Grace rather than any real romantic interest. There's also a continual reminder of the Doctor's past in the form of his straw hat, mysteriously still in the Doctor's possession throughout and providing a link to his previous incarnation. Russell also peppers the story with little nods back to the New Adventures, making it feel rather more like part of that series than the BBC Books EDAs that were to follow.

The novelisation is a strong Doctor Who adventure, perhaps rather better a story than the film it's based on, and a good introduction to the eighth Doctor in prose that would slot in nicely between Lungbarrow and The Dying Days.

First published by BBC Books in 1996
Based on Doctor Who, first broadcast in 1996
Audiobook read by Paul McGann

WHO REVIEW: "Seasons of War: Gallifrey" by Paul Driscoll and Kara Dennison

Declan May's Seasons of War was a triumph of fan fiction. Multiple authors came together to create a story of the Time War from start to finish, affording glimpses of how the Time Lord formerly known as the Doctor resorted to acting in the universe-threatening conflict. It was a big enough success that further explorations of the Time War under its banner were welcome and inevitable.

The first such release – is it a spin-off? A sequel? - is Gallifrey, the hugely impressive debut novel from Paul Driscoll (The Black Archive, A Clockwork Iris, The Hybrid, the original Seasons of War) and Kara Dennison (The Hybrid zine, Crunchyroll, Owl's Flower). Together, they create a version of Gallifrey that is at once steeped in Doctor Who lore, and entirely original. It's always been difficult to reconcile the different images of Gallifrey we've seen over the years, from the aloof demigods of The War Games to the agrarian homesteads of The Day of the Doctor and Hell Bent, but that's exactly as it should be when catching glimpses of a whole planet and an ancient civilisation. The authors present a vision of a Gallifrey torn apart by caste divisions, riddled with distrust, but home to decent, real people who just want to get on with their lives.

Although ostensibly a Doctor Who story, Gallifrey focuses on a cast of four new characters, living on the Time Lord planet at the outbreak of war. We follow the intertwined stories of Savalia, a poet living in the outlands of Gallifrey; her cousin Kendo, a newly inducted Time Lord senator; Tor Fasa, an ancient Time Lord on his penultimate regeneration; and his protege Mordicai, the Engineer, and idealistic young man who shares a strained romance with Savalia. They are all fascinating, well drawn characters; as the novel progresses, their paths diverge and cross repeatedly, and we see the same events from different perspectives. How the characters present themselves to each other and how they really feel about their actions are frequently at odds, and the same actions take on very different colours when seen from inside and outside.

Of the core characters, I enjoyed Tor Fasa the most. An old contemporary of the Doctor – who even asked Fasa to travel with him when he left Gallifrey – he's an elderly, idealistic but pragmatic schemer, whose one consistent physical feature across his regenerations is a vicious scar across his face. His manipulations drive much of the plot forward, but events are forever out of his control. While the Doctor appears only sparingly, his fingerprints are all over the book, not just in his obvious influence on the character of Fasa but particularly as the inspiration of Mordicai's philosophy. Easily the most na├»ve of the four main characters, Mordicai is also the most noble, and takes the Doctor's transformation into a soldier as a personal betrayal. The War has irreversible consequences on all the characters, though, with perhaps Savalia changed the most, dragged into the war effort and finding herself surprisingly suited to it.

The bizarre realities of Gallifrey are explored in depth. Regeneration, and its chaotic consequences, is a theme running throughout the novel. The authors take the concept to its extreme, exploring just how devastating such a transformation could be, even if it went to plan. There's a character suffering from a regeneration sickness, perpetually cycling through all her incarnations, while one of my favourite characters, Commander Bez, has regenerated from a hulking male soldier to a hyperactive little girl. The Death Zone is a major location, taking on critical importance to the plot, and explored in far more conceptual detail than it was ever afforded on television.

Perhaps the most fascinating element is how the Time War is presented itself. There's a divide between the very physical warfare seen on screen and the nightmarish temporal warfare spoken about. Gallifrey uses this contradiction well, with the more esoteric warfare happening on the front lines, distant from Gallifrey itself, while the physical soldiery existing as the last line of defence should the War reach its shores. Intriguingly, there's the clear suggestion that the War is progressing faster on the front lines than on Gallifrey, with the constant threat that the future is going to come crashing down on the present. Given the litigousness of the Nation estate, the Daleks don't feature, being only briefly alluded to, but this works in the story's favour. The Daleks hitting Gallifrey is the final event of the War, while for the most part they act through their slaves and allies, both alien and Gallifreyan.

Gallifrey is an excellent exploration of the Doctor's homeworld with some brilliantly drawn characters and some wonderful concepts. There's the occasional bit of clunky dialogue, and it does end rather abruptly, but the ending sets up the possibility of further adventures for some of the characters and further exploration of their universe. This is the best exploration of Gallifrey and the Time Lords since The Infinity Doctors

Seasons of War: Gallifrey is available from Altrix Books in both paper and e-book formats, with all proceeds going to Caudwell Children.

Saturday 15 September 2018

Now available - "The Fossilist"

My latest bit of fanfic is now available at The Doctor Who Project. The Fossilist is my third short for the site, the second written with my talented friend James P. Quick. I'm really rather pleased with this one.

The Fossilist features the TDWP Ninth Doctor and Silver, along with the noted amateur palaeontologist Mary Anning. I previously wrote for the Basil Rathbone-inspired Ninth Doctor in City of the Dragon - his penultimate adventure and my first contribution to TDWP. Anning is something of a hero of mine and I hope we did her wonderful story some justice with this silly adventure.

If you enjoy it, there are some notes at the end which give you a little insight into how James and I work together and how the story developed.

Also, there are dinosaurs in it. Lots of them.

Sunday 9 September 2018

Must-reads: blonderedhead

I feel I should be sharing others' writing more. There are some incredible writers out there, some of whom I'm fortunate enough to know in real life.

Rachael Spellman aka blondereadhead aka Celena Gaia is one of the most remarkably gifted writers I've ever known. Her blog is an astonishing mix of poetry, prose and raw, heartfelt real life accounts.

Start with her latest post, a powerful account of her time under mental health care, but take time to explore her writing. (CW mental illness, suicide, eating disorders).

Wednesday 5 September 2018

Who Novelisation Quest 9: "Rose" by Russell T. Davies

When the relaunch of the Target imprint was announced, there was a brief period of wondering which episodes would be adapted. There was one story, however, that was never in question. "Rose" began the resurrection of Doctor Who on screen in 2005, and so it was quite right that it would be part of the resurrection of the Target novelisations. Technically, this is the first release in the new run, although in practice they all came out together. Nonetheless, it still feels like the first. Even after thirteen years, "Rose" feels like a beginning.

It's a bit of a coup to get Russell the T back onboard to novelise his own story, but equally it's hardly surprising that he jumped at the chance. After all, he's a dyed in the wool Who fan who grew up reading these books. Even he has said in an interview that he feels like he really "counts" as a Doctor Who writer now. Davies has written for a DW book line before: Damaged Goods for the New Adventures back in the 90s. There are some similarities between the two books - the alien life meets council estates approach of Damaged Goods clearly signposted how Davies would retool Doctor Who later - they are very, very different books. Don't expect heavy drug use or gay sex from a Target novelisation, even in 2018. Nonetheless, Davies goes further with his novelisation than he ever did onscreen, with asides to Rose's abusive criminal ex-boyfriend and a much more LGBT-diverse cast of characters than were ever on television.

"Rose" the episode was a breathless affair, deliberately straightforward to make it as accessible as possible to new viewers, many of whom had never seen Doctor Who. The novelisation is a completely different animal, released into a different environment and for a different audience. Davies elaborates his original story in great depth - essential to make a forty-five minute episode into a novel-length story - and gives far more backstory to both major characters and walk-on parts. The episode began with Rose looking for Wilson to give him the lottery money, before being told that "Wilson's dead." The novel makes Wilson a character in his own right, before describing how the bastard has been creaming money from the Lotto fund, before leaving him to the mercies of the Autons. 

There's a lot of this in the novelisation; tweaking characters so that we're happier with their fates. Mickey comes off best; his backstory is cleared up, and he is made into something of a local hero, central to his little estate community with a band of close mates whom he looks out for. Given that he's a more positively written character in the book, Rose's dismissal of him as we saw on TV would have made her seem even harsher than before. In turn, then, her reaction to Mickey's actions and her final goodbye to him are kinder and more understanding. It's a complete reworking of the story, keeping the same story, with only a handful more plot beats, but bringing so much more depth that it feels almost completely new.

Given that the novelisations are aimed at established fans, Rose in book form is far more steeped in Doctor Who mythology than the episode ever was. Not only is the intended audience different, the series has moved on to the point where the first Doctor can co-star alongside the current incarnation at Christmas. The 2005 episode went to lengths to avoid looking back at earlier iterations of the series, with only the basic trappings - police box, sonic screwdriver - and the choice of the Autons as the monster to link it back to the classic series. 

One bit that really stood out for fans in the original episode was Rose's visit to Clive in his obsession shed. Aside from one line - "That's your Doctor there, isn't it?" - nothing suggested that the Doctor had ever looked like anything other than Christopher Eccleston. Of course, it's easy to understand why RTD didn't want to chuck in a bunch of old men in funny clothes and confuse new viewers, but there's no way that scene would be written the same way today. And so it's not. In the book, Clive files his documents by incarnation, kept in strict order as best he can figure out. Rose is shown photos of various Doctors, not only recognisable incarnations (although she does see the eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth Doctors) but even potential future incarnations. The novels have been introducing possible future Doctors since Battlefield but it still adds a little something to the expanding expanded universe, and RTD really flies with it. Apparently, some day in the future the Doctor will look like a dark-skinned woman and wield a flaming sword, while in another life they'll be childlike and use a wheelchair, and own a robot dog (K-9 mark five?) In fact, it makes it clear that Davies was displaying admirable restraint when he wrote the script for "Rose."

Also, hats off to him for managing to incorporate Graham Norton's unintended voiceover from the original broadcast. Now that's novelisation.

First published by BBC Books (Target imprint) in 2018
Based on "Rose," first broadcast in 2005
Audiobook read by Camille Coduri

Sunday 2 September 2018


Ant-Man and the Wasp

Ant-Man was the surprise hit at the tail-end of Phase Two of the MCU, a fun, low-stakes adventure that let everyone cool down a bit after the cataclysmic events of Age of Ultron. The sequel does the same for the universe-shaking events of Infinity War, although this time it's actually set during the events of the previous film. It's satisfying that Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) has to deal with the consequences of his actions in Civil War. We meet him mere days before his house arrest is due to end, remotely co-running a security company with Michael Pena and his buds from the first film (the company is called X-Con, which is pretty nice). Hank Pym and Hope van Dyne (Michale Douglas and Evangline Lily) are on the run due to their technology's use in the crisis. For all this film has co-billing for Ant-Man and the Wasp, though, Lily doesn't get as much screentime as I'd hoped, although she gets to be impressively ass-kicking when she does. Hank Pym is more unlikeable than before, but that's totally in character for him in regards to the comics. 

The villains are bit sketched-in, although Hannah John-Kamen does what she can to make her character, Ghost, both threatening and sympathetic. She has a cool concept behind her - existing out of phase and rapidly losing her hold on physical existence - that lends to some impressive visuals, but neither her character nor her abilities are ever really explored enough. Laurence Fishburne is as classy as ever as her mentor and saviour, the "anti-Pym" Bill Foster, aka Goliath. Apparently, Fishburne was desperate for an MCU role - clearly being Perry White in the DC films didn't cut it for a Marvel guy. Michelle Pfeiffer is as good as expected as Janet van Dyne, the original Wasp and Hope's mother, but by the nature of her fate in the quantum realm doesn't get that much screentime. Still, I think we can expect the quantum realm and Scott to have a significant role in the net Avengers film, as long as he can get out of that rather tricky post-credits situation.

Tremors: A Cold Day in Hell

So, this is the sixth film in the Tremors series, which is by any reasonable argument more than enough. I, however, eat these things up like a hungry graboid, so I picked it up the moment I saw it in HMV (and how often does anyone go to HMV these days? It must be a sign). As with all the films from the third onwards, Burt Gummer (Michael Gross) is the main star, accompanied now by his son Travis (Jamie Kennedy) who he first met in the fifth film, Bloodlines. This one is set in the Canadian Arctic, but still filmed in South Africa like the last one, which really doesn't work (although a few lines about global warming make for an amusing attempt to justify the complete lack of snow). There are some nice elements that add something to the story: Gummer is suffering PTSD from his experiences with the graboids, and is dying from a toxin released by a parasite that got into his system when he was swallowed by a graboid in the third film. This provides the characters with the extra difficult mission of trying to catch and milk a graboid for an antitoxin. I like that we have a female lead scientist again (Dr. Rita Sims, played by Tanya van Graan). A very nice addition is Valerie McKee, daughter of the first film's Val and Rhonda, who has taken inspiration from her parents' stories and become a graboid enthusiast. She's played by Jamie-Lee Money, who's incredibly cute and likeable and should come back if they insist on making a seventh film. It's pretty good fun, if a little too slow, and I'm not keen on the plot device of continually introducing attractive female minor characters and then horribly killing them off. And the constant South African accents are a bit off-putting in a film set in Canada.

TREK REVIEW: "Fear Itself" by James Swallow

Saru was, for many, the most interesting character in Discovery's first season. A genuinely new and fascinating creation, he stood out in a season that focused on Klingons and Vulcans and other familiar inhabitants of the Trek universe. Much of this was down to the performance of Doug Jones, but the concept of Saru and the writing of his character was just as important. It's no surprise, then, that the third Star Trek: Discovery novel features the Kelpien as its primary protagonist.

Many alien races in Star Trek are personifications of human traits. While they still have personalities and, when written well, distinct and complex characters, individuals of these races still embody these traits. Vulcans are logical and oppressed. Ferengi are greedy and opportunistic. Bajorans are spiritual and proud. Now we have Kelpiens, who are frightened. Despite its simplicity, it's a difficult concept to make work, and could so easily make for an unbelievable character who simply panics at every unexpected event. The sort of character who couldn't possibly make a credible Starfleet officer.

Fear Itself takes as its starting point the question: what would it be like to exist in that constant state of fear? How could that come about, and how would it manifest? How could someone live with it? James Swallow, one of the best of the Star Trek authors, gives us a fascinating exploration of Saru's character, looking at both how he is a typical Kelpien, and how he is different from the rest of his people. Much of the novel is told from Saru's perspective, and those scenes where he's absent involve other characters, mostly his colleagues, speculating on what makes him tick.

Saru is revealed to be an even more fascinating individual than he appears onscreen. In a permanent state of near terror, his nature could be a great weakness, but he turns it into a strength. He is revealed as someone who has honed his instincts to remarkable acuity. We learn that Kelpiens possess an electromagnetic sense, allowing Saru to perceive an aura around each being he meets. Saru is someone who is hyper-aware of everyone and everything around him, all the time.

We have some interesting insights into Saru's life before his rescue by Starfleet, but overall we get very little information about his homeworld (here named as Kaminar), probably because the showrunners are planning a visit to the planet in the new season. Most of the exploration, however, is of his time aboard the Shenzhou, and his unique approach to his duties. As well as a strength, it is made clear to him that his cautious nature is holding him back. He puts himself under constant scrutiny and compares himself to his crewmates, particularly the equally analytical but more headstrong Michael Burnham.

It's easy to see Saru's character as a metaphor for someone living with chronic anxiety, but in a high-functioning, proactive lifestyle. Fear Itself sees the Kelpien set out to prove himself when confronted with a delicate but clearly unethical situation, during which time he makes huge mistakes but learns just how to be the officer he knows he can be. It's to Swallow's credit that the novel is both an in-depth character study and a pacy, fun space adventure.

The novel's official blurb makes it clear it's all about Saru. What is unexpected is just how much of the established Trek universe it explores. The Shenzhou stumbles across a ship in distress, revealed to be from Peliar Zel. The Peliar, who were Federation members by the time of their television appearance in TNG: “The Host,” are here proudly independent, and only beginning their negotiations with the UFP. Aboard the ship are Gorlan refugees, a complex nomadic species with a truly unique society. The Gorlans are a perfect example of taking a tiny piece of Trek lore – a one-line mention in TOS, and in the Mirror Universe at that – and using it as a starting point to create an intriguing new element. Described as rather burly humanoids with four arms – I was put in mind of the Mystics from The Dark Crystal – the Gorlans have a difficult to translate language that Saru is uniquely equipped to decipher. His insight into their situation sparks an intervention that has huge knock-on effects. There are no obvious villains among the Gorlans or Peliar; everyone has a perspective that is understandable and relevant. To make matter worse, Peliar space is on the edge of Tholian territory, and their presence hangs over the narrative like a storm cloud.

In spite of featuring so much established Trek lore, Fear Itself feels original and inventive. We get some much needed exploration of the Shenzhou's crew, giving us more insight into Captain Georgiou and introducing new characters who become an important part of Saru's world. It's Saru who is the hero, though, and it's here that we can see the beginnings of his rise to command that we see in Discovery's first season. A must-read for anyone who enjoyed that series.

This review is also hosted, with extras, at Ex Astris Scientia