Tuesday, 14 March 2017

the 'Armageddon Factor' factor

I was watching ‘The Armageddon Factor’ recently and it was only as the story neared its conclusion, in perhaps the fifth or so episode, that I realised I could see something. Something I shouldn’t be able to see.

No, I’m not talking about the fact that one of the Shadow’s mute minions, a zombie-like creature from a distant galaxy, is wearing a sensible pair of Clarks brogues. And I’m not talking about any of the story’s special visual effects, modelwork , design or costuming. No, what I suddenly realised I could see was... the script editing.

This was a shock for several reasons.

First, the fact I was noticing it at all. Back when Steven Moffat was writing a short piece on ‘The Ark in Space’ for the DWM Complete Fourth Doctor Vol 1 special he waxed lovingly on the writing of Who being the ‘real’ special effects of the show... and he was right. What the characters said and did sparkled in our minds and imaginations sometimes even more than the purely visual stuff in the stories (robots, models, planets being blasted into minute fragments of polystyrene) that we could actually see. The writing was poetry. That, you’re meant to notice. But script editing... you’re not meant to notice that at all. In truth, ‘Script Editor’ should be a largely unknown factor, a quasi-mystical name in the end credits, who had something important-sounding to do with how the stories ended up on screen but you couldn’t, probably, actually define.

And yet... towards the end of this story, the joins, as it were, were showing. You could almost see the page of one script being cut-up and inserted into the middle of two pages from an older, slightly different draft of the original script. This happened in a couple of ways. For ages, the Doctor and Romana had been aware the Shadow existed on an ‘elsewhere’ that wasn’t either Atrios or Zeos, an “inbetween” that they visualised as the silent moving down of a hand between two objects. In model shots, this was revealed to us the viewer as a kind of space station, four egg-like pods connected to a central hub, hanging in space, concealed from the view of Atrios and Zeos.

And then in part 4 or 5, Romana and the Doctor start talking about “the Planet of Evil”... and neither character, nor any other character, bats an eyelid.

Huh? I actually had to pause the DVD and rewind it to check I hadn’t misheard something! And though I was able to quickly put the name into context, and realise they were talking about That Place Where The Shadow Lives, it was a little ‘bump’ in the viewing process that should really have been much more smooth.

The second was the presence of the Marshall in the second half of the story. Or rather his lack of a presence! I myself had actually been wondering where he had got to, as he opens fire at the start (I think) of part 4 but is... quite literally... forgotten about until part 6. Now admittedly there’s all that business with the time loop, but once the time loop is released, it takes Romana to ask, “Aren’t you forgetting something...?” for the Doctor to suddenly remember, oh yes, the Marshall! Now, is this technically a ‘mistake’, rectified by a clever gag? I’m unsure. To my mind at least it does smack of the writers setting up a particular threat, getting bored with it, writing a new part of the story and then remembering... or more likely being reminded... about the dangling plot string of the Marshall and his planet-destroying missiles. Like the ‘Planet of Evil’, what should have been a smooth transition was made into a bumpy ‘oh, yeah’ moment that briefly took me out of the story.

This is probably bound to happen, especially at the end of a very long story, itself the culmination of an entire season’s worth of build-up storytelling (i.e the entire Key To Time saga). But the second reason why noticing this was a bit of a shock was the fact it was the redoubtable Anthony Read in charge of the script editing.

In fan lore, Read’s role has never been as glamorous as, say, Bob Holmes’. Read seemed to get on well with Graham Williams and worked excellently on making the whole Key To Time linking concept ‘work’ on TV. His successor was Douglas Adams, who brings a dazzling and again much more visible influence to bear on the look, sound and feel of the series. But Read seems to trundle along happily, achieving remarkable results with little apparent fuss... quietly eeking out scripts from the notoriously deadline-shy Douglas Adams with one hand, and whittling down the bonkers ideas of Bob Baker and Dave Martin into something actually filmable on a BBC TV budget with the other.

In short, his very invisibility proved his excellence at the job.

But, we can forgive him some lapses at the very end of this wearying and trying season. Even in the modern BBC Wales version of Who, with a showrunner and teams of proofreaders and the like, script editing-type mistakes slip in. The most famous one off the top of my head is the whole “Change of plan, we don’t need the bomb” from ‘The Doctor Dances’... a holdover from an earlier version of the script where there was a plan involving the bomb in the first place!

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Wholock: The First Generation

In the wake of the massive impact of BBC Sherlock, there’s been a growing body of work on the subject of Sherlock Holmes as the first fandom. The fact that the Holmes fans of yore called it ‘scholarship’ can’t really hide anymore the all-too recognisable hallmarks of media fandom as we know it today: fanfic? Yup, they pretty much invented that, with sundry ‘unrecorded cases’ discovered amongst Watson’s papers; Cosplay? Yup, they invented that too, with late middle aged ladies and gentlemen throwing off the mantle of their respectability to gallivant to the Reichenbach Falls in full Victorian costume; biting the hand that feeds? Oh yes, Conan Doyle may have been the de facto writer/producer/director but if you think Holmes scholars let him get away with anything, think again; the concept of canon? Are you kidding? Who knew their initial ‘joke’ of a Bible studies-style ‘canon’ would evolve (or de-evolve) into the monster it has become; and even ‘Headcanon’ is a Holmes-fan invention – disagree people might but nothing could personally convince William Baring-Gould that Holmes didn’t marry Irene Adler and subsequently spend several happy years with her touring America as an in-demand stage actor-and-contralto singer tag team.

What were the rules of this fandom at its early beginnings? Dorothy L Sayers essayed this question of ‘the great game’: it “must be played as solemnly as a county cricket match at Lord’s. The slightest touch of extravagance or burlesque ruins the atmosphere.”

But did it though? There’s no question that Sayers’ opinion held considerable sway, and for some decades ‘the great game’ indeed rather stuck to her ‘rules’, to sometimes hideously dull effect. The Americans of the BSI seemed to feel somewhat differently, with not infrequent rebelliousness in bizarre theories such as ‘Watson was a woman’ or ‘Mycroft was an artificial intelligence’. Even the British contingent occasionally broke ranks to suggest Mrs Hudson was really Holmes’ mother/sister/secret wife, or even (gasp!) that some of the stories might even have been made up by Watson!

I read back collections of early Sherlockian ‘criticism’ and see links with the Who fandom that’s been my own bedrock. Ronald E Knox, whilst studying to become a priest, made waves with his essay ‘Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes’. In it, his ideas about the ‘Watson saga’ were voiced through such obviously made-up literary critics as ‘Mr Papier-Mache’ and ‘Professor Backe-Necke’, and discussed such Germanic theories as ‘der Watson-khronologie-problem’. Extravagant and burlesque? Absolutely! But such obvious and absurd campery is part and parcel of Who fandom, where one’s favourite fan writers can be sorted out between the droll (‘Regeneration or Rejuvenation?’, endless Dalek chronologies) or the daft (the Gareth Roberts-scripted ‘Matrix Data Bank’ columns, in which readers’ queries were answered by the Krotons, or the DVD reviews of Gary Gillat, ever sensitive to the camp potential of stories made for tuppence in a BBC studio).  It’s telling that even Pixley, the master historian of Dr Who fandom, has utilised a Knox-like fiction in which to discuss his subject matter, such as the ‘awards ceremony’ in DWM to dish out story titles for the 1960s Hartnells!

Really it all comes down to the FUN of the thing. If you know fine well that the thing you’re writing about, and the thing you’re watching/reading which you want to write about, is a wildly made-up slice of complete hokum (“trained cormorants”?? “megabyte modems”??), then detail and diligence and respect for the subject matter is all well and good, but it has to communicate WHY you or anyone else should be even bothering with it in the first place. Nobody, not even fans, really care about chronology or canon whilst you’re in the middle of the story. Old Sherlock fandom and contemporary Who fandom are the best examples I can think of where the perfect balance has been found. The worst example of an imbalance has to be hardcore Trek fans’ response (on the comments board of the programme’s own official website!) to what look like the new Klingons’ design from Star Trek: Discovery (all “shit” this, “fucked up” that and all “you have RUINED the show!!” in between).

As Holmes himself said, ”there is nothing new under the sun.” I look forward to seeing Trek fans discovering Ronald E Knox and chilling the fuck out.

Friday, 10 February 2017

Dr Who Meets (Spiral) Scratchman!

I used to think that continuity-porn novels were the worst kind of trash; anorak-y box-ticking tedium there for the sake of 'explaining' a throwaway reference in an old episode of Dr Who, or coming up with pointless sequels, prequels or spin-offs to link two or more entirely disparate strands of Who lore.

HOWEVER.... I am now soppy and old and nostalgic, and have long since lost my inhibition about admitting to liking 'Attack', thus making me the prime audience for this kind of book! And it doesn't get much better than 'Spiral Scratch'.

Gary Russell's forte seems to be the areas of Who we never got to see onscreen (c.f Liz's departure in 'Scales of Injustice' etc). And this novel is the big one: the last Sixth Dr adventure, leading into the beginning of 'Time' and THAT regeneration (you know, the crap one where the Dr apparently hits his head on the floor and turns into Sylvester McCoy in a blond curly wig). And being the Sixth Doctor's swansong, this is a BIG story (for a BIG personality), taking in several gazillion of the many strands of the 6th Dr (novels, TV, comics, webcasts and even one we've never seen before, a 6th Dr who's Planet Earth is dominated by the Roman Empire, causing the Dr to blend in to suit).

At first the setting-up is confusing, with tales of characters we don't know and I could have cared less about. I was about to put the book down... until the chapter when we discover what is actually going on, with the Lampreys (tentacle time-feeding creatures) messing around with multiple timelines.

This also means we get to meet multiple Mels, including a half-human half-reptile one called Melanie Baal who's rather fun, and a sulky Mel who's a Roman slave-technician.

It's a lot of fun and rather exciting, and there's even a dollop of pathos as the 6th Dr prepares to make what he expects to be his final stand. It's a brilliant moment in a brilliant book.

Just a pity we couldn't have had this on TV. What did we get? "carrot juice"!!

overall rating: 9/10

Saturday, 4 February 2017

Brainy spec(ulation)s!

It's been an interesting week in terms of Who news, and a very interesting week for yours truly to have rejoined the Twitter party. Yes, I refer of course to the announcement at the top of the week that Peter Capaldi is vacating the Tardis after this year's series and Xmas Special.

I have mixed feelings here. I'm sad to see Capaldi go... a brilliant actor and, in his earlier days in the series, a fantastic Doctor... but after his character was softened a bit, and saddled with a long run of inconsistent and (to my eyes) tedious stories, I do feel that we need a CHANGE. In more ways than one.

So of course fan speculation, conversation, rumour, hearsay, devilry and what not has begun in earnest!

Two major themes dominating the speculations at this stage:
(1) is it true that the Beeb have basically ordered new producer Chibnall to find an attractive, YOUNG, (presumably male) Doctor to get back merchandise sales and viewing figures to the Tenant days?
(2) will the new Dr be female?

Re: (1) some well-connected fan friends believe this story to be true in its essentials. In which case (2) is presumably discarded! But young and handsome still covers a lot of talent potentialities.... from Sacha Dhawan to Ben Wishaw to Alex Viahos. (i'm going off the BBC News article BTW!)

(2) Hmmm..... This of course has been addressed a few times before, and every time the hopes are dashed. Now that it's been established in the series that Time Lords CAN indeed change 'human' gender, is the way open? There is a real debate here, and it gets occasionally quite heated, on both sides. I believe I'm right in saying that MOST fans would be okay with the concept of a female Doctor, trusting the writers to deliver the stories (but that's 'MOST' by a margin). But what's the reality of that happening? Is the weight of tradition too much here? Will the Beeb want to play it safe and not risk those all-important viewing figures? (sad that the perception is a change would LOSE viewers rather than the ones they might actually gain!)

My feeling is that if this new Doctor is male, the 'female Dr' question will recede from media chatter the next time round. It was raised as a joke by Tom Baker, has come up seriously only in the last two regenerations. If the female Dr doesn't happen now, I have a feeling it never will (at least, not in this incarnation of the series. When it's been rested in another ten years or so, the New New Series might feel differently...!)

Monday, 30 January 2017

The Secret of the Snows

Now this is more like it - a Sexton Blake book in which Sexton Blake actually appears throughout the whole story! And he's got Tinker in tow, no less.

Unlike the previous Blake book I read (see previous post 'Danger at Westways'), this story is more peripatetic and in keeping with the serial nature of the original Blake story-papers. Every chapter involves the plot progressing dramatically, each taking place in a different setting or with the focus on different characters, and it's choc-full of daring escapes, red herrings, mysterious clues and good old fashioned fisticuffs.

Opening with an arctic explorer's murder, we move to England where a n'er do well tries to hide his stolen Post Office money swag with his sister, who quickly comes to the attention of Sexton Blake. When she appears to be targeted by (of all things) a murderous tribe of visiting Eskimos, Blake connects the woman with the murder of the arctic explorer.... a pot of hidden gold being a prize at the end of the rainbow (well, ecliptic).

It even has a typically cheerful 'wrapping-all-the-loose-ends-up' style final chapter, just in case anybody was wondering what happened to one of the walk-on Eskimos.

Interestingly, it appears that in-universe Sexton Blake isn't actually that well known as a detective. At one point the main female character is asked to come to his house in (yes) Baker Street and when she finds him in residence there reacts with surprise. THis would never have happened with the other Baker Street-dwelling 'tec...!

Rating: 7/10

Saturday, 28 January 2017


I'm a believer in (what I'm beginning to vaguely coalesce into a rough sort of theory I've decided to call) primacy.

Fictional stories and characters, the ones that people really fall in love with, quickly proliferate... through stories picked up by people other than the original creators, through remakes and sequels and spin-offs, or just through sheer regurgitation i.e endless issues of a comic that goes on forever and ever (DC Comics characters have been going for 75 years... that's a lot of continuity!). They become part of our mythology, but 'multiple' mythologies seem to be a part of the deal. (how many different interpretations of Sherlock Holmes has there been just in the medium of film, for instance?)

That's why primacy is so valuable. 'Primacy' here isn't a value judgement. I'm not saying (necessarily) that the 'first' version of any given modern mythology is the 'best' and should be considered higher or above any subsequent versions. But as the first version, they serve as anchors, blueprints, test cases (to mix my metaphors)... you can read/watch them to get an idea of what this character, this setting, this genre started out as being.

It's why I go back to A Study In Scarlet and The Sign Of The Four so often (for Sherlock Holmes), or the very first Hartnell stories (for Dr Who). In theory, everything you love about what came after should, even if in some embryonic form, be present in the original. Read back the very first Batman vs Joker story as created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger and then see how even the ultra-modern The Dark Knight movie has stemmed from it. 

And of course, primacy has an advantage in that everyone can access it. Taking Batman again, there are now, at the moment of writing, so many different titles, ongoing continuities, universes (something called Earth One, I think... New 52... god knows what else, it's probably all changed again actually since the last time I picked up a new Batman comic a couple of years ago!). Somebody taking the plunge into all of these might have a different take from that of, say, a lapsed reader, or someone who only sticks with 'one' title (say, Detective Comics). But everyone can go back to those early stories... even if only as a reference point.

Not that any of this actually matters of course, but there is just So Much Stuff out there that I like to have the illusion of a starting point at least. There will never be an endpoint of course... and sometimes that's oddly frightening! 'Primacy' may be just as illusory a definition for a text as anything else but it has a weirdly comfortable feel to it.

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Dan Dare: The Terra Nova Trilogy

Having bagged my Dan Dare bargain (see previous post) I was eager to read it, and did so over the past few days.


I hadn't known this was the volume that covered the 'transitional era' as the torch was passed from Frank Hampson to Frank Bellamy et al. The transition is covered in an afterword article that makes for sad reading - Hampson had no copyright in Dan Dare and so was effectively kicked off the strip in order for the Eagle's new managament to implement their new vision, which included cheaper production methods (out with the Hampson 'studio' system) and shorter stories (out with Hampson's months-long epic adventures which had ample room for detail, characterisation, etc).

Sadly this change occurs almost at the precise mid-point. The first change is the artwork. Bellamy is great, a vivid artist with his own style.... it just isn't up to Hampson's standard, for this strip anyway. And the story, which has been developing at its own pace, suddenly becomes rushed.

The story is basically a good one. On safari on Venus, Dan and his friends are kidnapped by McHoo, a former colleague of Dan's long-lost father. For various reasons Dan goes along with McHoo's scheme to visit the new planet Terra Nova. There, Dan discovers the truth of what happened to his dad.

The backgrounds are excellent, the characters are excellent, everything is excellent.... up to that mid-point. The it all goes a bit wonky. The main story is wrapped up quickly and a stupid new one (having to overthrow a dictator on one of Terra Nova's continents) is brought in from leftfield. It jars, and it affected my enjoyment of the book as a whole.

On the plus side, I now know that all books prior to Volume 9 will be all-Hampson ones!

Overall rating: 6/10