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.