Monday 23 December 2019

I watched Blackadder's Christmas Carol last night for the first time in years, and while the future section is still the weakest of the three parts, at least I finally realise where the Doctor got the Nibble-Pibblies from in The Infinity Doctors. Lance Parkin does enjoy a Blackadder reference.

Sunday 22 December 2019

Things that Marc Platt and Ben Aaronovitch predicted for the future in Battlefield, but failed to occur:

  • Five pound coins in general circulation
  • Widespread use of car phones
  • A king on the British throne
  • Adoption of kilometres on all British road signs
  • The ongoing presence of the Soviet Union

Things that Marc Platt and Ben Aaronovitch predicted for the future in Battlefield that came to pass:

  • Cauliflower cheese flavoured crisps

Monday 16 December 2019


This is a little something for my sister Rebecca on her birthday. Bec's always loved the Seventh Doctor/Ace TARDIS team, so when I saw the "Ace Returns!" to promote the blu-ray release of the 26th season of Doctor Who, I thought of writing a little story for her. It follows on directly from the video.

The shape was a question mark. The unmistakeable question-mark shape of an umbrella handle. The umbrella of a man with a mania for that specific punctuation.

Dorothy's heart rushed. Had he really come back?

The umbrella tapped on the window.

“Come in,” she answered, before remembering that the door was locked.

There was a high-pitched whine from the other side, and the door clicked open. Of course, a locked door wouldn't bother him, would it?

Dorothy waited for the little man in the Panama hat to poke his head round, flashing that goofy grin. Instead, she found herself confronted with the face of a young woman, framed by straight, blonde hair. The face broke into a broad smile.

“Hello Ace,” she said, in a voice touched by a soft Yorkshire accent. “Mind if I stop by?”

“Who the hell are you?” demanded Dorothy. “And who do you think you're calling Ace?”

“Why, don't you like that name anymore?” The woman stepped into the room fully. She wore a long pale coat over a rainbow T-shirt and blue culottes. She clutched the familiar black-and-red umbrella in her hands, turning it over slowly as she paced around the room.

“Only my friends call me Ace. Friends I've had for a long time. Now who are you and why have you got that?” She reached out and grabbed the umbrella from the woman's hands, snatching it like she was jealous of another child's toy.

“You don't recognise me?” asked the woman, her face falling. “I know I've changed a bit, but I thought the umbrella would give it away. I should've worn the hat, shouldn't I? That would've done it.” She paused, and looked thoughtful. “Hold on a sec, let me give this a try.” Reaching into the bumbag that hung off her waist, she pulled out a pair of spoons. She rattled off a tune of sorts, before bowing and dropping them back in the bag with a flourish. The smile returned. “Yeah, still got it.”

The impossible truth dawned on Ace.

“Oh, you have got to be joking,” she muttered.

“Nope,” she beamed, “not this time!”

“Mel told me about this,” said Dorothy, returning the smile in spite of herself. “She said when she met you, you were this big bloke with curly hair, and then you turned into the proper Doctor.”

“Oi!” snapped the Doctor, for that was who she was. “I am the proper Doctor!”

“You know what I mean,” replied Dorothy. “The little guy with all the question marks.”

“Regeneration!” exclaimed the Doctor, as if that explained everything. “How is Mel, anyway? Can't remember the last time I saw her.”

“She's fine,” said Dorothy. “Works for me sometimes on the IT side of things. Set up a load of schools in Tanzania with equipment. Can we get back to what you're doing here, and why you're a woman now?”

The Doctor wandered around the office, inspecting the fittings. “Nice place you've got. Very posh. Bit Spartan.” She hung up the umbrella on the hat stand, next to Dorothy's jacket. “I actually met the Spartans. Not too bad once you got to know them, really -” The Doctor stopped, snapping her head back in a double take. “The Ace jacket!” she exclaimed. “You've still got it!”

“Doctor,” said Dorothy in a warning tone. This version of the Doctor was almost as bad as the old one.

“You know about regeneration,” said the Doctor, “I've had a few faces since I last saw you. This time I'm a woman. Just for a change.”

“To be honest, it's the accent that's bothering me. Why aren't you Scottish anymore?”

“Funny thing,” said the Doctor, still pacing the room, “turns out I'm Scottish once every seven regenerations. You just missed my Glazzy phase.”

Dorothy shook her head. This was too much.

“I need a drink,” she said. “Are you coming? Or do you still only drink ginger pop?”

The Doctor looked thoughtful. “Not sure,” she said. “Only one way to find out.”

It was a Wednesday night. There were only half a dozen people in the bar when Dorothy and the Doctor walked in, including the barman. It was the sort of high class place that was so unnecessarily spacious and sparsely furnished that even at capacity it looked empty.

“Not the sort of place I expected you to take me to,” noted the Doctor, eyeing the cocktail menu. “What's a slow comfortable – oh. Never mind.”

“What did you expect? A spacer dive? A Parisian basement?”

“I dunno,” admitted the Doctor. “Somewhere with a bit of character, I guess. This place isn't very Ace.”

Dorothy ordered two large glasses of white wine and sat the Doctor down at a corner table. The alien sniffed the wine, scronching her face up.

“Don't like wine then?” sighed Dorothy.

“I'm sure I do,” said the Doctor, “I'm just a bit out of practise. I used to be brilliant at wine. If I can still do Venusian aikido, I'm sure I can still do wine.” She sipped the drink, but her face didn't look like the face of someone enjoying herself.

“How long has it been, then?” asked Dorothy. “I mean, it's been thirty years for me, but how long's it been for you?”

“Has it though?” said the Doctor. “Think about it. You were sixteen when I met you, but how old were you when you came home?”

Dorothy tried to think about it, but the harder she pushed at the memories, the cloudier and more elusive they became. A jumble of images coalesced in her mind, then faded again.

“I'm not sure,” she admitted. “I've been thinking about him a lot lately – I mean, you – I mean, the TARDIS and the travelling and the adventures. But it's hard to keep it all clear in my head.”

The Doctor looked her square in the eye.

“What's the last thing your clearly remember? The last sharp memory of the old me?”

Dorothy sipped her wine, and thought. There were memories, clear as video, replaying in her head, somehow clearer than ever before now the Doctor was back in her life.

“The Cheetahs,” she said. “Holding Karra as she died. The Master killed her. I thought he'd killed you too.”

“Nah, she never manages that,” sneered the Doctor.

“She? The Master's a she too? Is there anyone else I should know about who's suddenly a woman now?”

“The TARDIS was for a bit,” said the Doctor, as an angry buzz emanated from her pocket.

“Screwdriver?” asked Dorothy.

“Phone,” said the Doctor, making an apologetic face. “Sorry, one sec.” She answered the call. “Hi Graham, not the best time right now, alright if I call you back?”

A blokey Essex voice replied, loud enough to be heard even without being put on speaker.

“Sorry Doc, but we've got a bit of a problem 'ere. There's fifteen of those things now, and every time I count them there's more. We're gonna be overrun soon.”

“Look, I'll be back in an hour, tops.” said the Doctor. “Just don't let them eat anything else, OK? Right. Bye.”

“I'm not even going to ask,” said Dorothy. “Hang on, did he call you 'Doc?' You'd never have let me call you 'Doc.'”

“You didn't even all me Doctor! You insisted on calling me Professor.”

Dorothy frowned. “I'll accept that you're the Doctor. I've seen enough weird stuff to buy that. But he was the Professor.”

“What else do you remember Ace?” asked the Doctor, quietly. “Think hard. What happened after Cheetah World?”

“We went back to the TARDIS, and then...” The Doctor's eyes pierced her own, and a mad tangle of memories flooded her mind. She remembered fighting Daleks on the star frontier. She remembered travelling through time from her base in 19th century Paris. She remembered hopping between universes, sideways in time. She remembered learning about the dimensions of time on Gallifrey. She remembered getting engaged, she remembered screaming for her life, completely alone, she remembered dying in the Doctor's arms.

“Bloody hell!” she gasped, breaking away from the Doctor's gaze. “What was that?”

“Your memories,” said the Doctor. “All real, every one of them. But they might not make sense all together.”

“Too right they don't. No wonder I can't remember what happened clearly. It's like... living a dozen lives, all at the same time.”

“Exactly. You were with me at a complex point in my personal timeline. There was a discontinuity, multiple timelines overlapping. Some more likely than others, I guess – you remember that time in Albert Square? Even I can't believe that one. But they all happened, somewhere out there. In the end, though, we got you back to Earth, straightened things out a little so you could get on with your life, but I never got the chance to straighten things out with you. I'm sorry.”

Dorothy swallowed the last of her wine.

“That might be the first time I've actually heard you apologise. It's taken long enough.”

“I just thought, as I was nearby, space/time speaking, I should set things straight. And look, you're doing brilliantly! Everything turned out fine.”

Anger welled up in Dorothy's chest – thirty years of emotions surging forward.

“Yeah, I did turn out fine, and I am doing brilliantly! And you should have apologised to me a long time ago, Doctor. This timeline thing isn't the half of it. God, I can remember it all so clearly now. You manipulated me, again and again, getting me to do your dirty work. Not just me, either. You dumped Mel in the year one million, you let people die. You didn't care who got in your way, as long as you finished your little missions.”

“That's not true!” protested the Doctor. “I always cared. Whatever I had to do, I always cared what happened to people, especially to you.” She stood up, too uncomfortable to look Dorothy in the eye. “And it was the year two million, actually,” she added, quietly.

“That doesn't matter! The point is, you used people Doctor. You used me.”

The Doctor still didn't look at her.

“I know. I'm sorry. But I promise you, everything I did I did because I thought it was the right thing.” She turned back to Dorothy. “And listen, a lot of stuff's happened since then. I've grown up a lot, I've had to.”

“So have I, Doctor. I was just a kid, remember? And you, you took me on this wild ride with no idea what it would do to me, you toerag.”

The Doctor looked briefly crestfallen, then burst out laughing.

“Oh my god, I can't believe you still say toerag! That's brilliant!”

Dorothy tried hard to keep her face serious, but couldn't help laughing herself.

“Oh shut up, I work with kids, alright? I've trained myself not to swear, even at Time Lord gits like you.”

The Doctor sat down again.

“Come on, Ace. Was it really that bad? Did you not love it, any of it?”

Dorothy smiled.

“Course I did. I saw things I never dreamed of. I did things I never thought anyone could do. It was mad and it was terrifying but it was brilliant.”

“And now you're running the biggest charity success of the century,” said the Doctor. “Helping kids, making a difference. It's fantastic. I bought this in one of your shops, you know,” she continued, pointing thumbs at her outfit.

“Well, I'm not taking responsibility for that.”

They sat in silence for a moment, collecting their thoughts.

“Did you really just come here to say sorry? After all this time?”

The Doctor looked sheepish. “Well... there is this thing I need blowing up, and you were always the expert at that, so...”

Dorothy flung her head back in exasperation. “I knew it! I knew there'd be something! It really is you, isn't it?”

“'Fraid so,” said the Doctor. “What do you say? One last adventure, for old times' sake? Meet my new mates, get your hands dirty for a change? Don't you miss that?”

“Of course. But I've got a whole other life now Doctor. I can't just drop everything.”

“And your life is brilliant, but sometimes, don't you just want to run headlong into it all again, just to see what happens? You were the bravest person I ever knew. I know that's still got to be true, or you wouldn't have done everything you've done. And I've missed you.”

Dorothy closed her eyes, the flood of memories sweeping over her again.

“OK, Professor. One last time.”

The Doctor smiled her huge smile again. She stood up and held her hand out.

“Come on, Ace. We've got work to do.”

Ace smiled.


Sunday 15 December 2019

TREK REVIEW: Short Treks 2-4 & 2-5



After three live action vignettes, the second set of Short Treks presents a double bill of animated shorts, the first animated Star Trek episodes for forty-five years. It's surprising that the franchise hasn't explored the animated medium more often. After all, it's much easier to create alien life forms, spectacular ships and strange new worlds in cartoon form than live action. However, while Star Trek: The Animated Series has experienced a reassessment in recent years, it's long had a poor reputation, and this has likely put the blocks on animated Trek for years.

Now, however, Alex Kurtzman and his team are pushing the franchise back into the world of animation, with two new cartoon series planned: the comedy Star Trek: Lower Decks and an as-yet untitled Nickelodeon series. To whet our appetites are these two sweet mini-episodes, which show us how kid-friendly animated Trek can be done in the twenty-first century. Both rendered using computer-generated animation, “The Girl Who Made the Stars” and “Ephraim and Dot” are cute, straightforward little tales that, while clearly aimed at children, have something for grown-up fans of the Star Trek universe. Like the other Short Treks so far, they tie into elements of parent series Star Trek: Discovery.

The Girl Who Made the Stars” gives us a glimpse of Michael Burnham's childhood, before the awful events that would tear apart her family. We see a very young Michael, here voiced by Kyrie McAlpin, scared of the dark and unable to sleep. She is consoled by her father Mike, portrayed by Kenric Green as he was in Discovery's flashbacks. He tells her the story of a little girl, living in Africa before even the stars were born, and how her bravery brought the stars the sky and saved her tribe and all of humanity from darkness. This is based on a real myth of the /Xam Abathwa, a San people of southern Africa, and was mentioned by Michael in Discovery's season two opener, “Brothers.”

It's good to see Star Trek exploring what will be lesser known cultures for much of its audience. The creation myth is embraced and retold in a visually striking and powerful way. It gives it a Star Trek twist, with an alien visitor giving the young pioneer the gift of the stars before returning to space in his ship (although where he's from if there aren't any stars yet is an intriguing question). The themes of courage, curiosity and the desire to explore and advance are core Trek values and it's good to see them illustrated in another way here. It's also nice to see some positive backstory for Michael, as well as an exploration of her ancestry (although the strong African influence on the episode is somewhat damaged by the visible lightening of the principle characters' skin compared to the live action actors).

Directed by Olatunde Osunsanmi, who has worked as exec producer on much of Discovery and Short Treks so far, and written by Brandon Schultz, it's a rather beautiful episode, and the animation is stunning.

“Ephraim and Dot” is equally family-friendly but takes a very different route. It's a silly, slapstick sketch starring an alien tardigrade of the species seen in Discovery's first season, although made significantly cuter, and a DOT-7 maintenance robot of the type that's been glimpses affecting repairs on the series. It ties into Discovery by exploring more of the tardigrade's life cycle and its swimming through the mycelial network – the fungus-based hyperspace system that the USS Discovery uses. However, for the most part this episode riffs on classic Star Trek, to delightful effect.

The tardigrade doesn't get a name in the episode itself, but she is apparently called Ephraim. This was, reportedly, the name of the tardigrade character that at one point was considered for the bridge crew on Discovery, which would have been bizarre and wonderful. Both Ephraim and Dot have tons of character in spite of having no dialogue at all. Ephraim fins her way onto the Enterprise – rather beautifully rendered in animated style – and lays her eggs in its workings. Dot kicks Ephraim off the ship, leading her to pursue it, and her eggs, through years of Star Trek adventures.

We get glimpses of familiar and memorable Trek episodes and movies, or versions of them, even using original sound clips to accompany the new animation. For those following, the adventures we see are “Space Seed,” “The Naked Time,” “The Trouble With Tribbles,” “Who Mourns For Adonais?” “The Doomsday Machine,” “The Tholian Web,” “The Savage Curtain,” The Wrath of Khan and The Search for Spock. How the eggs manage to stay undiscovered for twenty years, through a ship-wide refit, is anyone's guess, but it's a wonderfully nostalgic run through of favourite moments from the early years of the franchise. There are some stylistic choices that mean the shots don't quite fit with the established events, but that's not really here nor there, although the error of the Enterprise's registration is a glaring one.

Watching Ephraim and Dot chase each other and scuffle is simple, silly entertainment, hardly the most taxing thing Trek has presented. Yet there's still some room for a message, with Dot coming to value the tardigrade's right to life. It's bookended by an information film presented in retro style, narrated by Kirk Thatcher, sounding at times a lot like Leonard Nimoy. Directed by Michael Giacchino, stepping beyond his role as composer, this is a slight but thoroughly enjoyable little story. Does this cutesified version of Star Trek count as canon? I honestly don't care. Sit the kids down and introduce them to Star Trek.

Master Pieces still available

Don't forget, you can still buy Master Pieces, Altrix Books' latest publication featuring the Master from Doctor Who in their many guises. Pop it on your Christmas list, there's still time. All profits from the sale of this book go to the Stroke Association.

The Altrix site has brief interviews with the authors of the book, including this one, where I talk about my story, "The Devil You Know."

Master Pieces is available from Amazon.

Monday 9 December 2019

I can confirm that Bustin' continues to Make Me Feel Good

Well, that was exciting!

Having watched this trailer, oh, a few times this evening, that's my strongest reaction. It's exciting. It looks like an adventure. Yes, it's clearly a film made in the shadow of Stranger Things and the IT adaptation; it's even got Finn Wolfhard, the go-to kid for eighties nostalgia movies. As grandson of Egon Spengler, Trevor looks like he's going to be a great protagonist, but it's Mckenna Grace as his sister Phoebe who I really want to see more of. Just from these glimpses, she's got some real presence. I've only seen her in Captain Marvel, but from what I read, she's quite something, and it looks like she's a real character actor, unlike Wolfhard who, although brilliant, plays to type.

Then we have Paul Rudd, who's always a joy to watch. I like the idea of someone who was actually there in the original and remembers the “Manhattan Cross-Rip.” He'd have been fourteen when the original was released, and, although Rudd is apparently ageless, I assume his character is going to be around the same age as the actor. It makes sense that the events of the original would have passed into legend, and that's not a bad reflection of how we fans feel about the film. There's a real frisson seeing the old equipment – proton packs, a ghost trap (apparently still occupied) and, of course, Ecto 1, bruised and battered but never bettered.

It doesn't feel like the originals. It doesn't really feel like any version of Ghostbusters we've seen before. It feels like a modern adventure film clearly (and sensibly) with an eye on a young audience. It also looks like it might be quite dark, which might be down to the cut of this trailer, or might reflect a more serious version of the concept. Then again, there were a couple of horror movie moments in the originals (heads on fricking spikes), and even The Real Ghostbusters got surprisingly dark at times.

The trailer doesn't make the film look very funny, but then, the trailer for the original didn't much either. It's hard to judge, on one trailer, how this will play out. Have they left out all the jokes, or is this easing us into a more serious version of the franchise? So far, there are two elements that are certain: excitement and nostalgia (and pretty much the entire surviving main cast of Ghostbusters one and two are returning for the film).

We've been here before. This is the third attempt at Ghostbusters 3, after Dan Aykroyd's own script, which stalled and stalled and was eventually recycled for Ghostbusters: The Video Game, and the 2016 reboot, now renamed Ghostbusters: Answer the Call, which I thoroughly enjoyed but utterly failed to set the world alight and didn't do anywhere near well enough to start its own franchise. Still, it did well enough and generated enough talk to show that there was still a lot of interest in the Ghostbusters property.

This looks like a good balance of honouring the originals while pushing ahead into something new. The reboot suffered from trying to be two things: an entirely new vision of Ghostbusters and a cameo-fest for fans of the original. This, potentially, can balance it better. There's a reason for the old cast to appear, and while that still might end up as glorified cameos, it's more fitting than having them appear as new characters. I mean, those cameos were cute, but all they succeeded in doing was make you long for the originals. Here, echoing the originals is kind of the point. Sure, it might backfire, but it could also really work.

And what a beautiful way to honour Harold Ramis. When he died, it looked like Ghostbusters was finished, but if anything, it made the remaining cast realise that they were running out of time to reunite (and seemingly kicked Bill Murray out of his sulk). Having a new generation of Spenglers is a lovely touch, and Wolfhard and Grace just look the part. Plus, you know, it accepts that it's been a long time since the original film, and it's better to embrace that and make something of it than pretend we're just picking up where we left off.

There will be more trailers. I'd like to see more jokes, more ghosts, more of Grace and perhaps a glimpse of the returning cast. But for now, this has me interested.

Saturday 30 November 2019

Buy me a cuppa?

I've joined up to Ko-Fi aka "Buy Me a Coffee," so if you enjoy my posts and reviews, please consider supporting me by dropping me a couple of quid. Even a little support goes a long way. Thanks x

Monday 25 November 2019

Casting Call: The Watch

There's been some very interesting news released regarding The Watch, the BBC and Narrativia's upcoming series based on Terry Pratchett's City Watch books (or rather, those Discworld books and plot strands that featured the Watch, since there was never a clear distinction between different sequences in the books).

The previous casting announcement, including the most important of them all, Vimes himself, was exciting, and in some cases surprising. Richard Dormer is a pretty inarguably good choice for Vimes. I don't know Adam Hugill, but he certainly looks like a Carrot. Marama Corlett is another new one to me, but she has a look about her that says Angua to me. Then things are little more unexpected. Already people are complaining about Lara Rossi, a mixed race actress, being cast as Lady Sybil. Now, she's certainly not how I pictured Sybil, more highly bread than a hilltop bakery, but more than anything, she seems too young and attractive (of course, if there are elements of Night Watch in the mix here, there may also be an older version of the character). But a non-white Sybil? Well, really, why not? Cue everyone with a keyboard and a jammed caps lock pointing out that there weren't black aristocrats, and OK, there were very few rich people in Britain who weren't white and probably no one who was landed, but this isn't Britain. It's a fantastic city on a flat planet which happens to share some similarities with London. You know what else they didn't have in pre-WWI London? Trolls.

Racism isn't generally a thing in the Discworld books, at least not in Ankh-Morpork, since everyone's far more interested in speciesism. Sam Adewunmi as Carcer is no problem - Carcer could just about be any race and it wouldn't really make a difference as long as he was enough of a bastard. More interesting to me is the choice of Jo Eaton-Kent as Cheery Littlebottom, famously the first openly female dwarf. Although if all dwarfs look male to humans, I guess it makes sense to have a male actor in the role.

The new announcement has some even more intriguing choices, though. It's very clear that Narrativia aren't going to be going for a strict adaptation of the books, since several characters have been gender shifted. I suspect that the stories are going to be reworked quite heavily to make the series. There are also quite a few non-white faces in the cast (well, not that many - four out of twelve in the cast list so far). Hakeem Kae-Kazim as Keel, Vimes's mentor, is an interesting choice. In the books, Vimes had at least a passing resemblance to him, so to have them as different races changes things quite considerably. Anna Chancellor as Vetinari is a huge change, and I'd never have considered changing the Patrician to a woman (the title alone is distinctly masculine) but I can actually really imagine Chancellor playing the role.

Then we have the brilliant Ruth Madeley, star of Years and Years, as Throat, a character based on Cut-Me-Own-Throat-Dibbler. Let's be clear: this is a disabled woman playing a character previously described as an able-bodied man. It's unexpected to say the least. We have James Fleet playing Archchancellor Ridcully, which is so perfectly acceptable to be obvious, while Bianca Simone Manie is playing a character called Wonse - not apparently the same character as Lupine Wonse - who is described as a "wizard hopeful in waiting." And female wizards are, traditionally, very rare indeed. Then there's Ingrid "Osgood" Oliver as Dr. Cruces, head of the Assassin's Guild, which is another unexpected bit of casting.

Some people are pretty angry about this, others just baffled, and to be fair, some of these casting decisions are totally different to what I'd envisioned reading the books. But then, why even bother making the series if it's just going to look exactly how everyone imagined it when they read it? Reinterpretation is the most interesting thing about a work like this. And to those who are saying this cast isn't realistic, two things: this is not the real world we're talking about, it's a world on the back of a giant turtle; and you what? This looks more like the real world than I ever expected it to.

Sunday 24 November 2019


Here's a complete list of the articles I've had published at Television Heaven, covering classic TV from the 1950s onwards, all the way up to this year's most interesting releases.

Lately I've written articles on the classic BBC sci-fi series Out of the Unknown, covering two episodes: "Some Lapse of Time" and "Stranger in the Family." There will be more to follow. Bang up-to-date we have Neil Gaiman's Good Omens and Russell T. Davies's Years and Years, and somewhere in between is Gaiman's Neverwhere.

There's a whole host of material on Television Heaven, covering everything from Terry and June to Sliders to Twizzle.

The Good Life: Silly, But It's Fun
Good Omens
Out of the Unknown: Stranger in the Family
Out of the Unknown: Some Lapse of Time
Pathfinders in Space
Pathfinders to Mars, Pathfinders to Venus
The Quatermass Experiment
Quatermass 2
Quatermass and the Pit
Raumpatrouille Orion
Red Dwarf
Years and Years
Doctor Who: The Daleks/The Dalek Invasion of Earth
Doctor Who: The Keys of Marinus
Doctor Who: The Time Meddler
Doctor Who: The Mind Robber
Doctor Who: The Daemons
Doctor Who: Genesis of the Daleks
Doctor Who: Terror of the Zygons
Doctor Who: The Deadly Assassin
Doctor Who: 2005-2019

Tuesday 19 November 2019

WHO REVIEW: A Pile of Good Things (ed. Ginger Hoesley)

“Every life is a pile of good things and bad things,” once said the eleventh Doctor, and he wasn't wrong. He could just have easily have said, “Doctor Who is a pile of good things and bad things – The Caves of Androzani on one side, The Twin Dilemma on the other.” Or, “a fan fiction anthology is usually a pile of good things and bad things – cross your fingers when you open one.”

Fortunately, A Pile of Good Things, the new eleventh Doctor fanzine put together by Ginger Hoesley, is accurately titled. There's not a single poorly written story in here, which, in even the slimmest collection, is really saying something. For me, there was a nice mix of new and recognisable names, and even those stories that were slightly weaker than the best in the collection were great reads.

The collection runs in roughly chronological order from the Doctor's point of view, beginning with “Displaced Persons” by Michael O'Brien. This is a bit of a delight, an affectionate spoof of space opera that drops the Doctor and Amy into the middle of a thinly-veiled episode of Star Trek to solve the problem of the week, only to find some familiar enemies cropping up. I won't spoil it, but I will say that while I might have guessed the first alien race that brought back from the archives, I was happily surprised by second. And for Trek fans, there are little nods at the Whoniverse equivalents of Section 31 and the Department of Temporal Investigations. The interplay between the Doctor and Amy is great, although their dialogue sometimes seems a little off.

Katie and Claire Lambeth bring us a beautiful story with “Lost Soul,” a wartime drama with a solid mystery at its centre. This story sees the Doctor travelling alone but paired up for an adventure with the sparky twelve-year-old Edna. Seeing the Doctor from a new character's point of view, especially a child's, is always a great way to explore him. “Lost Soul” is a quite touching story with some classic sci-fi elements.

“Someone Kidnapped, Something Blue,” my personal highlight of the collection, is a follow-up to the Doctor Who Magazine comic strip adventure “Hunters of the Burning Stone.” This strip saw the eleventh Doctor reunited with Ian and Barbara for the fiftieth anniversary, and was deserving of a follow-up. Author Tina Marie DeLucia absolutely nails the three characters and their dynamic, with Ian and Barbara affectionately coming to terms with this new Doctor while absolutely refusing to get drawn into another reckless adventure. It's a small scale story and all the more effective for it. Beautiful.

Two stories take place during the Doctor's extended sulk on top of a cloud in Victorian London. Paul Driscoll gives us a fun story with some unexpected elements in “The Birds of Sweet Forgetfulness,” which sees the TARDIS try to set the Doctor up with a new companion picked off the streets of London. It's an effective examination of the Doctor's loneliness and depression, which also points out that if he really wanted to be left alone, he wouldn't have picked a bustling capital to hide out in. Driscoll's story even sees the Doctor take over the ownership of a pub, yet still complain about people bothering him, which sounds exactly like the sort of thing he'd do.

Dana E. Reboe's story, “The Stars and Their Promises” is set a little later in the Doctor's self-imposed exile, it seems, as he is beginning to defrost and enjoy his time in London. He's only a little put-out when Madame Vastra recruits him to deal with an alien threat to the capital. It's a lovely little horror story with some great interplay between the two heroes. Both Vastra and Reboe can see clearly that whatever he says, the Doctor's only really content when he's in the middle of an adventure.

It's appropriate, then, that the next story sees the Doctor struggling with the challenge of spending a few days in London without taking in an adventure. “Staying Put” by Ellen Montgomery brings us into the era of Clara and Coal Hill School. Clara doesn't think the Doctor can stay put for a week without the using the TARDIS, and to his credit, he does technically manage this. Perhaps with a little string-pulling from school governor I. Chesterton, the Doctor is given charge of a group of Year 8 pupils. Naturally, his idea of a suitable field trip is to take them back to his junkyard on Totter's Lane, only to find it's been replaced by a Nando's. A very fun story indeed, with a particularly good rendition of the eleventh Doctor.

The funniest adventure, however, has to be William J. Martin's “Lost in Translation.” This doesn't involve two disparate souls thrown together in Tokyo, but the Doctor and Clara's trip to the planet Delphon. Yes, that's the same planet Delphon where they communicate with their eyebrows; the idea of sending the opto-follically challenged eleventh Doctor to this planet is hilarious. The idea of eyebrow language makes you wonder just what sort of creature could possibly evolve to communicate like that, and Martin comes up with a clever answer. It's a funny but clever piece of sci-fi on the universe's quietest planet. (Now do one set on Tersurus.)

Michelle Alvarez brings us “Making Memories,” a very beautiful tale of the Doctor and Clara's of a world where memories can be recorded onto snowflakes. It's a brief but touching look at the friendship between the two time travellers. Kara Dennison's “Universal Love” is another funny one, a biting take on New Age nonsense alternative medicines, which sees the Doctor take Clara on a shopping trip to the least exciting locale in the universe. Fair enough, he needs specific types of crystals and knows that a Wellness Fair is exactly where to find them – even if the vendors have no idea what they're actually useful for.

The stories have enough variety to keep things interesting, while fitting nicely together as a single collection. There are one or two Americanisms that stuck out in the main characters' dialogue, but otherwise this is well-edited and thoroughly enjoyable selection of tales. Not only are the stories great, but the design of the fanzine is eyecatching and the selection of artwork is fantastic. It's a stunning piece of work altogether.

Perhaps surprisingly, there are no appearances by everyone's favourite Roman, Rory Williams, nor any stories set during the Doctor's long vigil on Trenzalore. It shows just how rich the eleventh Doctor's era was that there can be so much in here yet still be more to explore. Still, there's always room for a second Pile of Good Things.

You can order A Pile of Good Things here, but hurry - it's only on sale till the 25th of November!

All proceeds go towards the Cancer Research Institute. There's merc too!

Ginger's site and shop can be found here.

Sunday 3 November 2019


Finally, I've time to sit down and write about Joker, perhaps the most talked-about film of the year. And it's been out long enough now that I feel it's safe to straight in with a SPOILER-filled review, so for those who haven't seen it yet and don't want anything spoiled (although to be fair, it mostly unrolls fairly predictably), stop here. For everyone else, carry on after the break.

Saturday 2 November 2019

"Master Pieces" out now!

The new Doctor Who fan anthology, Master Pieces, featuring no Doctors and lots of Masters, is now available in paperback form. You can get it from Amazon right now, with stories by Paul Driscoll, Chris McKeon, Jon Arnold, Rachel Redhead and more, plus a little something called"The Devil You Know" by me myself. All profits go to the Stroke Association.

An ebook version will be out soon.

Wednesday 30 October 2019

FANS WHO: Mission to the Unknown

This has to be the great triumph of the Doctor Who fan film world. I guess Devious made a big name for itself, getting Jon Pertwee involved and all and making it as a DVD extra, but this is something special. A university drama project impressing the BBC enough to air on their official YouTube channel, with heavy coverage in DWM. In effect, this is now the official BBC version of Mission to the Unknown, given that the original is long gone and only exists as a soundtrack. The University of Central Lancaster has usurped the original episode, 54 years to the day.

Mission to the Unknown is a canny choice by . There are a lot of Doctor Who episodes missing from the archives, but this is one of the few that looks honest-to-goodness gone for ever. There's not a scrap of footage left, there's no indication that any copies sold abroad were retained by their buyers, and there was just less interest for many years since it doesn't feature the Doctor or his companions. This one is not turning up in someone's lock-up.

However, the very fact that this is such an oddity amongst Doctor Who episodes works in its favour as a fan project. There's no need to recast the Doctor or his companions, and barely anyone watching today has seen the episode's star Edward de Souza in the role as space hero Marc Cory. The fan production can really stand on its own.

The UCLan version of Mission really stands up. We can't see the original but, judging from what's left of the follow-up The Dalek Master Plan, the student version looks easily as good as the original. The starship set and the jungle of the planet Kemble look spot-on; yes, they're a bit minimalist and claustrophobic, but that was exactly what the sets were like in the 1965 Doctor Who. Black and white hides a lot of sins, and while this would look pretty cheap in colour, it looks classy in monochrome.

The video quality is a lot better now, of course, so the limitations of the monsters, faithfully reproduced, are going to show up a lot more. The Planetarians look cheap here, but that rather adds to the charm. They were cheap in 1965. This is a recreation of the original Dalek Cutaway, right down to Paul Stenton's hissing barrow boy performance as Malpha. Seriously, if anything, the original was more ridiculous.

Of course, the UClan crew have achieved a real coup getting Nick Briggs in to voice the Daleks. When combined with some excellent Dalek props, having the official Dalek voice artist makes these pepperpots the real deal. Briggs, to his credit, strikes a balance between recreating the idiosyncratic voices of the time and his tried-and-tested modern Dalek staccato. It's not the first time Briggs has recreated the Dalek voices for a fan production, of course, even since he became the Beeb's main monster modulator, but it still lends an air of authenticity to the production.

Then it's down to the human cast. Marco Simioni takes over from de Souza as Marc Cory, with Dan Gilligan as the long-suffering Lowery. Yes, they're a bit hammy, yes, there's some slightly wooden RP, but again, this calls back to the original episode. Listen to the soundtrack - it's hammy. You can't fault this for calling back to 1960s Doctor Who.

To think these students made this in just five days. Great work guys.

And those Varga plants are just the cutest.

Watch the episode here.

Sunday 20 October 2019

New magazines - Whotopia #35 and From a Story By #1

Two new issues of fanzines are now out, featuring my very own work.

Issue 35 of Whotopia is an Earth Reptile special, with reviews of the lizard-men's classic serials. I accepted the daunting task of viewing and reviewing 1984's fifth Doctor story Warriors of the Deep. I also provide the latest in my run of "Master Who?" articles, this time taking a side step to the Master's appearances on audio, something which has recently become a rather busy field. There are also articles on the nature of the Silurians and Sea Devils, on the portrayal of dyspraxia in the most recent series, the late, great Terrance Dicks and more, plus an exclusive comic strip.

To download the issue in digital form, simply click on the cover image to the right, or to purchase a physical copy, click on the link here.

Also available is the first issue of From a Story By... the first ever magazine devoted to tie-in fiction books. I take a look back at the four Red Dwarf novels of the 1990s by Rob Grant and Doug Naylor, while the issue also includes articles on Star Wars, Dark Shadows, Hammer Horror and much more. To purchase a copy of this paper-and-ink magazine, click here to be taken to the Obverse Books site.


TREK REVIEW: Short Treks 2-1 & 2-2: "Q&A" and "The Trouble With Edward"

Ask a silly question...

The Short Treks format proved successful in its first run, with four short adventures that tied into Discovery. Of these, three were really very good, with only the opener “Runaway” seeming rather throwaway, and even that turned out to be surprisingly important for the resolution of Discovery's second season. The far future setting of “Calypso” laid hints for the finale of the second season and will doubtless tie in to the third, while “The Brightest Star” acted as a prequel to very important developments for Lt. Saru. Only the Harry Mudd episode “The Escape Artist” seem to be a completely standalone adventure, and even that may turn out to be more important later on.

Of course, it's not necessary to watch any of these in order to enjoy Discovery, which is just as well, since CBS has made them as difficult as possible to see for the majority of the world. Now a second run of Short Treks has kicked off, with two episodes released within a week of each other, the beginning of a very incoherent release schedule that will end with a sixth episode in January '20. Once again, it's impossible for anyone outside the US to watch any of these through legal means if they want to catch them before the next run of full Star Trek seasons begin.

So, gripe over. Yes, I've watched “Q&A” and “The Trouble With Edward.” No, it wasn't done legally. If you want to get upset about that, CBS, perhaps these positive reviews will help pay my debt.

The second run of Short Treks is going to be even more varied than the first, kicking off with two silly stories that link in with what we might call the greater Discovery universe. The third, out in November, is also set to feature Anson Mount as Captain Pike, who makes brief appearances in the first two. The fourth and fifth are said to be tied to Discovery in “interesting and unexpected ways” according to showrunner Alex Kurtzman. The final episode is to be a prequel to Picard, taking the Short Treks away from Discovery for the first time. We've also been told that some Short Treks are going to be animated, although whether this refers to some of the second run's instalments or planned episodes for a third series isn't certain.

So, nice mixed bag there. Starting with two fun, throwaway stories that tie in to the popular reimagined version of Pike's Enterprise would seem to be a great idea. Both “Q&A” and “The Trouble With Edward” are a lot of fun, with the first episode rather light-hearted and the second an all-out comedy. “Edward,” in particular, is an absurd episode that wouldn't stand up in an ongoing Trek adventure series, but might give us an idea of how the upcoming Lower Decks animated series will play.

Predictably, the more serious Trek fans hate them.

OK, let's look at “Q&A” first. This was a straightforward side story about the fresh-faced young Spock coming aboard the Enterprise and getting stuck in a turbolift with Number One. In there, he bombards his commanding officer with questions so as to pass the time until they decide to sort things out. It ends up with them singing the “Modern Major General” song by Gilbert and Sullivan, Which is exactly the sort of hilarity that two stuck-up Starfleet officers would think was ridiculous and should be kept between themselves. (Seriously, these are people who think opera is a good time and that jazz is risqué.) Some of the more, shall we say, devoted Trekkies have branded this a betrayal of Spock's character.

I mean, talk about missing the point. Back when he first appeared in “The Cage,” Spock's character was completely different. He was a laughing, smiling science officer who couldn't help shouting his head off on the bridge (“THE WOMEN!”). Writer Michael Chabon explicitly wrote this episode to explore Spock's character at this time, to see his more emotional younger self and explain why he later worked harder to suppress his feelings. In reality, it was because Roddenberry was able to keep one character, so ditched Number One and retooled Spock to take on her emotionless demeanour. In the fiction, we discover it was Number One's fault after all, telling Spock to keep “his freaky” hidden after their bonding session. For all the fans saying that this episode violates canon (and so what if it does?), you're missing the point. The episode is about explaining a contradiction that's already part of canon.

“Q&A” gives us Ethan Peck the chance to play a different side of Spock, but it's Rebecca Romijn who benefits most from this episode. She only had a few scenes who distinguish her version of Number One on Discovery, and here we get a chance to learn more about Una: a passionate character who, like Spock, has learnt to hide her feelings in order to be the sort of officer she believes she needs to be.

It's a light-hearted episode with a more serious message, and it's a refreshing change to have something this small scale in modern Trek. Also, Spock's barrage of questions contains some interesting moments, such as a suggestion that he believes in intelligent design. Still, it's his attack on the Prime Directive that hits hardest. “Not ethical but also illogical?” I find myself agreeing with Spock.

“The Trouble With Edward,” is, as the title suggests, a spin on the classic “The Trouble With Tribbles.” It provides us with, essentially, an origin story for the tribbles, not that that was ever a missing landmark of Trek continuity. What it really is, though, is Archer Trek. Finally! H. Jon Benjamin's voice is unmistakable, and it's great to have him in front of the camera for a change. Close your eyes and it's Sterling Archer or Bob Belcher half-heartedly justifying himself in the ready room.

Edward Larkin is an idiot, yes, albeit a brilliant one, and not the sort of person you expect to see on a Starfleet starship. The same story could be told more seriously, of a man who is brilliant in his field but hampered by poor social ability, rather like good old Reg Barclay on The Next Generation and Voyager. But that's not what this story is; no, this is a pure comedy, something rarely attempted in Trek and never as outrageously as this. Benjamin is pitch perfect in his role, awkward and petulant but pretty sympathetic. Rosa Salazar is equally good as the young Captain Lucero, infectiously optimistic until she has to deal with what it can really be like leading people you haven't chosen to work with.

So here we learn that the tribbles' rapid breeding is due not to natural evolution, but to genetic tinkering by Edward, who added some of his own DNA into the mix. It's ludicrous, yes, and flies in the face of what the franchise has already established about the tribbles – they were said to be prodigious breeders by Dr. Phlox in Enterprise, a hundred years earlier – but it's in keeping with the tone of the episode. As a one-off bit of nonsense, this works, and brilliantly. If you don't want to accept this as part of Trek canon, then fine, but that doesn't mean it's not a great little bit of entertainment. We're clearly not meant to take this seriously; there are shots of tribbles springing out of the fur of their parents, Gremlins-style. Just enjoy it and don't get het up about the “damage to canon” or anything else that simply isn't important.

But do you know what is important? Edward was right. Tribbles would be the perfect food source for a planet facing famine, especially his enhanced ones which seem to reproduce without any obvious food source of their own. Well done Lucero. If you'd just listened, the people of Pragine 63 could be enjoying tribble sandwiches right now, and delicious furry tribble cereal wouldn’t be confined to a post-credits gag.

“Q&A” and “The Trouble With Edward” give us the best idea of what a comedy Star Trek series would be like. I fully expect just as much fan ire when Lower Decks finally materialises.

You want tribbles? Because that's how you get tribbles!

Thursday 17 October 2019

The Divine Comedy - Office Politics Tour

It's been a good few years since I last saw Neil Hannon perform. Uninterested in going along to the Foreverland Tour in 2016 - the last album being, let's be honest, rather boring - I was excited to see the Divine Comedy again. It had been too long, and the new album was said to be something of a return to form. Office Politics sees Neil embrace the sillier side of his music again, crafting a concept album about work, life and technology, and indulging in a passion for synth pop; a genre he's always played with, but lately and suddenly pushed to the fore. Office Politcs, then, sees a bunch of styles thrown together in a way that shouldn't really work, but somehow does, united by a tongue-in-cheek pretentiousness. Which is exactly what the best DC albums always were.

The best album tours throw in a bunch of old favourites, of course, and so the Brighton Dome performance could only really start one way. It had to be "Europop," one of the band's first singles in its earliest iteration but here performed in its reworked electro version from 1993's Liberation. Sporting a pink suit which fit the atmosphere of Brighton better than it fit him, Neil performed in an office set with talented support. Playing with the set is a new approach based on the performances I've seen before, with Neil using the setting to tell a story of a working life from joining the company to the ritual discomfort of the office party.

Both singles from the album were of course featured: the catchy, privilege-poking "Queuejumper" and the adorable "Norman and Norma," the hit of the album for me. However, the songs that worked best live were the less celebrated ones from the album, particularly the tragicomic "Life and Soul of the Party," and its follow-up, the gorgeously 80s ballad "Feather in Your Cap." It was probably a mistake to perform the two pretentious hard-synth pieces in succession; after dragging through the sub-Kraftwerk "Synthesiser Service Centre Summer Super Sale," the audience weren't particularly in the mood for the more upbeat but still synth-heavy "Infernal Machines." However, the wistful "You'' Never Work in the This Town Again" and "I'm a Stranger Here" regain a lot of DC's classic charm and worked beautifully live.

Neil Hannon's other calling, of course, has been writing theme tunes for sitcoms, and his theme for the non-existent comedy series "Philip and Steve's Furniture Removal Company" is even more of a standout oddity live than on the album. It was the old favourites, though, that kept the atmosphere buoyant, with the obligatory but always beloved "National Express," "Something for the Weekend" and "Generation Sex" getting rousing renditions. I was pleased to hear several favourites from Absent Friends, including a heartfelt performance of the title song, probably the best single piece of the evening. "Commuter Love" and "Come Home, Billy Bird," fit so perfectly with Office Politics' themes that it would have been foolish not to include them.

Switching between new and classic material kept everyone happy, and we were crying out for the second encore.
Bowing out to "Songs of Love" and "Tonight We Fly," Neil steadfastly refused to sing "My Lovely Horse" from Father Ted. Well, it was worth requesting, that man in the audience. He has sung it before at gigs, after all - when I asked him.

All photos sneakily papped by my sister Rebecca Tessier.