Sunday, 25 June 2017

"Oh yes, my name's Drake. John Drake."

A few weeks ago I rashly promised to start a regular blog on DANGER MAN. I removed that promise upon the actual arrival of the DVD collection itself, the very definition of an impulse buy.... a huge box containing 33 individual DVDs of said series. Even if I just blogged each individual DVD rather than the episodes that would still be something of a massive commitment given the... dare I say ‘throwaway’?... nature of the series.

That sounds glib and harsh. What I mean is that each episode is a neat little story... nothing to get rhapsodic about... but each story is damn fine entertainment.

Perhaps unsurprisingly watching it is making me much more confident in my belief that John Drake IS ‘The Prisoner’. People and places pop up in Drake’s adventures with such frequency that it ties in with my theory (not in itself original) that the events of The Prisoner are Drake’s dreamspace analogue to what’s happening to him in realtime.

My theory: John Drake really has had enough of the spying game. Everything in the title sequence to The Prisoner is true... until he hands in that resignation, breaks the tea-cup and storms out of George Markstein’s office. From that point on, what we see is an unconscious/dreamspace version of either what Drake is going through at that moment (time being relative of course) or the undercurrent of his thoughts.

For instance: he quits, but is immediately aware that he could be monitored. Possibly this is no more strong than him knowing they’ll at least want to watch and see if he leaves the country; he certainly doesn’t expect to be abducted. But perhaps a part of him is always half-suspicious he’ll be watched and somehow they’ll try to drag him back in to the great game. The Prisoner is a surreal version of him debating within himself whether his values and beliefs stand up against those of the people he no longer really trusts. Perhaps he does eventually go back, after being tempted by his ‘Number One’, and the events of ‘Fall Out’ mirror his own internal struggle, until he ‘returns’ to where he started.

Where does the Village fit in? He populates this dreamspace with places and people he has seen and met. They take on functions within his subconscious ‘narrative’. The very first Danger Man episode is set in an Italian village (in fact, Portmerion!)... perhaps as the site of his first important/dangerous adventure (after promotion to the field from admin/office-based work?) it has a special importance and he therefore uses that place’s geography to situate his internal struggle? Faces such as The Supervisor come from memories of past cases (Peter Swanick is killed in a pre-credits sequence but in a story involving Drake monitoring security leaks... the Swanick character therefore mnemonically stands in for a character always monitoring No 6’s whereabouts)... people high up in his NATO secret service branch become his double-crossing superiors (in ‘Chimes of Big Ben’) etc etc...

See? It all fits!

You can even retcon the fact of Drake’s having an American accent in this first series as representing his multiple identity struggle.... sort of.

WELL, be this as it may or may not, I’m immensely enjoying watching these episodes. Each is a self-contained story of course but the half-hour stories especially have a real neat ‘punch’ to them that feels like having read a good short story in a well-thumbed thriller/action anthology. The familiar ITC tricks of location footage used as establishing shots works surprisingly well; sets and filming look expensive; the scripts are taut and always performed extremely well; and it has a pleasantly jazzy soundtrack which gives it an atmosphere totally different to, say, the brassy swagger of Drake’s ‘competitor’ James Bond.

I will definitely write more blogs on this as the series’ progresses.... just not 32 more of them.

Thursday, 8 June 2017

Raft of Roses

I've been lucky enough to have received the latest CD from British noise artist TYRANNIC HORIZON. 

It is called 'Raft of Roses' and is quite simply magnificent. 

The popular conception of Noise music (if it's ever considered in pop media at all) is all moody and openly misanthropic quasi-Sadean chaos, a vile aural attack. Tyrannic Horizon are one of an in fact great number of noise artists whose music/sound/noise is (and is informed by) a kind of corrupted beauty... an initial theme or concept finds expression in a simple sound or group of sounds (in this case, a vocal repetition of two lines from a poem by one Julianne Davis) which are then mangled and distorted beyond recognition so that something entirely new comes out.

The details of its production can be found here as well as ordering or downloading details.

The CD case includes crushed rose petals as part of the artwork. This is dream music just not as it's popularly known. It's tangible and sensory and deserves to be heard by as many curious souls as possible.

Thursday, 25 May 2017

the sci-fi sound of Joy Division

Joy Division are a pretty sci-fi band. 

((...if you think that’s the most tenuous way I could introduce the fact I’m now brining in pop music to a hitherto sci-fi telly-based blog.... you’d be right))

It’s not that they sing about the sort of themes and subjects you could find in any contemporary literary sf... ALTHOUGH THEY DO THAT TOO... it’s that they SOUND futuristic. They apparently sounded futuristic at the time and they sound so even now. ‘Time travel’, the uncanny (dis)location effect of popular culture as written about in some detail by Jon Savage, centres largely in the Joy Division sound, with shifting, backward-masked and subliminal sounds and delay effects all there in the mix. (delay, as theorised by Pauline Oliveros, is literally time travel, the sound of the past coming forward into the future and both becoming the present) 

It’s music that exists in its own continuum.

This is due in no small measure to their producer, the esteemed Martin Hannett. 

Hannett was a legend in his own lifetime, and posthumously that legend, like that of JD itself, is growing. Whole books can and have been written about him, about his philosophy of sound and his approach to either acquiring new technology or, when this has proved slower than his imagination demanded, inventing his own. Drummer Steven Morris, in the JD documentary film, describes working in Hannett’s studio as being “like some sci-fi adventure”. And well he might. Quite apart from the then-novel profusion of synths, sequencers and drum machines (some of his own devising), there is the use to which all this equipment was put. Hooky may have wanted their records to sound like they did when the group played live; to Hannett’s credit he took the band and sent them travelling off into weird new dimensions. Compare their previous attempts at recording, as Warsaw. The same songs sound... different. More earthly. More normal. Hannett recorded each sound, instrument, vocal pattern and located them at certain points in relation to each other, not for a cheap “ooh, stereophonic sound!” effect but to put the listener of the records into a certain environment, an uncertain psychic/sci-fi space that was the perfect setting for Curtis’ estranged lyrics.

Curtis was certainly a reader with a toe or two in the sf world. Maybe not the pulp sci-fi fiction of previous generations but definitely the 60s ‘New SF’ domain of Moorcock et al. 

Ballard and Burroughs are the two most-cited JD literary antecedents (starman Bowie making up the ‘B’ triad of JD influences). When I first got to hear the first album I always mistook the track ‘Wilderness’ for ‘Interzone’ because the former actually suits the lyric to the latter one better. It is a Burroughsian tour-de-force in which the narrator literally travels through time, witnessing Christ’s death at one point, although that said the (post-apocalyptic?) wasteland of ‘Interzone’  could come straight out of passages in Burroughs’ ‘The Soft Machine’: 
“The town is built over a vast mud flat criss-crossed by stagnant canals, the buildings on stilts joined by a maze of bridges... the whole area presenting the sordid and dilapidated air of a declining frontier post or an abandoned carnival...  Various forms of ritual execution are practiced here.”

As the group metamorphosed, of necessity, into New Order they became much more interested in exploring developing music technology, but were the poorer (in my sci-fi geek estimation) for using it primarily for the purposes OF music, i.e as something to dance to. Without the literary-minded Curtis as quasi-navigator (and don’t forget, as a Kraftwerk fan electronic and dance music IS something JD would have explored more fully had Curtis lived, no doubt about it) there is none of the ‘transporting the listener to a weird new place’ as there was in JD. New Order transported the listener to a place alright but that place was the dance floor. 

No bad thing; just slightly less fun when you’re listening to it through headphones on the bus.

I often imagine what would have happened had New Order collaborated with, say, Afrika Bambata rather than Jellybean as they made their forays into American dance music, but to find that out one would need an actual time machine.

Saturday, 20 May 2017

The Tribe of Target

An ‘idol’ (sic) dream of mine is to locate a lost tribe in some remote part of the globe, introduce them to the written English word and some basic concepts from our culture (somehow) and then, with this in place, give them a full run of Target ‘Doctor Who’ novelisations (I’m assuming electrical gadgets which show moving pictures and sound would be too overpowering for them to appreciate such nuances as Radiophonic music or Tom Baker walking through doors). Future generations of this tribe, and White European liberals of course, may well curse my name for this act but it would prove interesting, to me at least, because I want to see what their idea of Who would be like just from reading the books. Because they would be reading them AS books, as stories in their own right, and as much as I enjoy the books that’s something I don’t think any Who fan can ever do, or ever really has been able to do, even in the days before we’d seen some of them.

The cliché about the Target books is now well-established and the line is the same in every bloody article about them so let’s get it out of the way now... you may want to join in... in (altogether now) “the days before video and DVD” ((cheer)) they provided a way to ‘repeat’ the most recent stories and to get a glimpse of stories made before we became fans or were even born. But this is something of a fallacy (or a phallusy if you’re reading any story with the Tissue Compression Eliminator). 

The fact is that every fan seems to absorb lore through osmosis. I can’t specify how or where I found out about older pre-Me Being Born stories but somewhere in the jumble of Aunty’s anecdotes, Peter Haining, Dr Who Monthly and the occasional old clip on TV nostalgia shows there was bubbling a list of facts, figures and more than the odd mistaken assumption. Reading the Target books was less a case of Young Me reading a fab new adventure in time and space, it was probably more likely a case of Young Me balancing the story on a tripwire with stuff I vaguely knew about it and trying to see if it held steady compared with that knowledge, and with all knowledge I had about Who as a whole.

In fact another of my fantasies is to go back in time and plug Young Me into some kind of MRI scanner and see what’s going on in his brain as he reads them. (my fantasies perhaps reveal a cruel and slightly loopy bent on the part of my subconscious, but bear with me) 

My guess is that all sorts of weird little blips and flashes, perhaps previously unrecorded in neurological science, would be occurring as I did so. For instance, any time Gerry Davis refers to the Cybermen as hailing from the planet Telos would no doubt send parts of my hypothalamus flashing a peculiar shade of yellow (or gold, which would be ironic), whilst different parts would light up when something like explicit references to other stories pop up in the text (as happened when I tried to plot a narrative using facts gleamed from the book of ‘Monster of Peladon’ and somehow ended up believing that the events of ‘Curse of Peladon’ therein alluded to actually happened to the Second Doctor... a misunderstanding I held for some years).

The sad fact is that on some level any reader of the Target books was conscious they were indeed reading A Novelisation, a translation of a televisual ‘original’. Sometimes these were written done stylishly or with clever and deceptive literary techniques;  sometimes they were limp and fairly atrocious retellings so ‘straight’ and bland that even a ten year old felt they’d been handed a shooting script; but we all came to them knowing they were based on Doctor Who and that we knew what Doctor Who ‘was’ and ‘did’ even if we didn’t necessarily know the specific story in question. 

In fact perhaps these books more than anything in the TV episodes was what drove the generation of fans that became TV professionals. Read the Target books against your memory or knowledge of the TV programme and you effectively become a pseudo-script editor. There’s the ‘where does this story fit amid the background myth’ aspect (probably not that big a deal for any actual script editor before the 80s anyway but you follow my drift); there’s the aspect of ‘wow, how did they even realise these special effects on TV’ or alas its more prominent cousin ‘what did they actually do on TV after realising they couldn’t possibly do this 50-foot high octopus monster I’m reading about believably on screen’; and there’s the ‘hang on, I watched this story and I don’t quite remember it being like that exactly’ thing. Your inner TV professional begins adjusting his trendy spectacles and clicking his red pen as your brain starts highlighting odd inconsistencies.

(A simple example because it’s closest to hand and I’ve just been reading it: in the book of ‘Logopolis’ Adric distracts the policemen who are trying to arrest the Doctor by climbing atop the Tardis and throwing a bicycle onto their car. You read that and, if you’ve seen it, you’re congratulating Chris Bidmead for something more dramatic than what Adric actually did on TV and also working out in your mind why they didn’t film that, i.e practicality, Health and Safety, not wanting to risk Matthew Waterhouse falling and spraining his ankle, etc. You’re also doing the ‘hang on’ thing at the same time. And, if you’re me, wondering whether or not to make a fresh cup of tea now or until you get to the start of the next chapter.)

But, ah, look at my precise wording there... what Adric “actually” did on TV. Both artefacts, the TV story and the book, are fictional but the TV story will always, with the best will in the world, be given primacy over what is after all described on the back cover as a “TV tie-in”.

This is veering perilously close to becoming an article on Canon so let me pull back from that fucking cliff-edge double quick. Returning to my Target-indoctrinated jungle tribe, what would be happening in their brains as opposed to the wired-up-to- MRI-scanner one of mine? 

Well presumably what happens in the brain of anyone reading any kind of fiction. I’m no expert but reading anything seems to be a kind of process where you plonk yourself in the story, or are dragged there, and you have to work out where you are in it even before such considerations as whether or not you like it or if it’s ‘for you’. This is really hard to do if it’s something written in an accessible everyday style, which is why results are so much more dramatic when we’re exposed to something weirder or more outside conventional reading experience (like, imagine if newspapers suddenly imparted their information as if they were detective novels, with clues and red herrings and weird genre clichés... that’d throw us wouldn’t it? And yet a lot of journalism almost implicitly expects an angle we’re supposed to be coming from, be that Anti-Trump, Pro-Brexit or what have you. Realising that newspapers from grown-ups have just as much ‘goodies and baddies’ as anything written for kids can be quite a shock to us and can tilt our own philosophy or worldview slightly). 

One of my favourite English lessons in Sixth Form college was a class where everyone had to read an excerpt from Burgess’ ‘A Clockwork Orange’. I smugly had the upper hand because I’d read it shortly before Burgess himself died in 1994 but it was interesting to read the expressions, and to hear the confusion, in my fellow students who were trying to scan a text written in the sort of slang that assumed (on the narrator’s part) the ‘audience’ knew this slang but which the actual writer (Burgess as opposed to Alex) knew full well the ‘real reader’ (i.e us) didn’t... and so had to navigate it and make inferences based on things like context and repetition.

My guess is that all the stuff about Tardises and the vortex and young/old faces and escaping to danger would, remarkably quickly, fall into place. For all the discontinuities in writing styles, descriptions of the Doctor or what order these stories take place in would also just as quickly form a debate amongst them similar to that in Sherlock Holmes fandom since the original Strand publications (such as ‘An Open Letter to Dr Watson’ published in a newspaper during the serialisation of ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ which has fun placing the dates and events in ‘Hound’ with hitherto-known ‘continuity’... possibly making it the first Letter To The Editor that spawned an entire publishing industry). Which stories would be more prized? Would annual festivals be held in ‘Doctor Who And the Cave Monsters’’ honour whilst ‘Planet of Giants’ would be only whispered of in hushed tones, or given to intellectually stunted members of the tribe with bad eyesight? Would a form of tribal warfare develop in which local grievances would be settled between factions who believed ‘Doctor Who and the Daleks’ and not ‘An Unearthly Child’ was the One True Genesis?

But, ah, I’m being facetious. 

Saturday, 29 April 2017

Keff's Japes

This must sound a peculiar form of faint praise but I’ve got into the music of KEFF McCULLOCH through accidentally buying a CD which I thought was by someone else entirely.

I had seen ‘The Music of Doctor Who’ going cheap on eBay and snapped it up, thinking it was a reissue under a different name of an album called ‘Doctor Who: Evolution’. Which it IS. But what that album ISN’T is a reissue of ‘Doctor Who: The Music’, which I thought it was, but a reissue for the American market of ‘Doctor Who: 25th Anniversary Album’.

(confused? So was I)

And this latter album, far from being a Radiophonics-jammed survey of all (then) 25 years of Doctor Who sound design, was composed in fact mainly of incidental music by... Keff McCulloch.

Now, as Mark Ayres very politely phrases it in the ‘The Music of Doctor Who’ magazine special, “McCulloch’s music has come in for some criticisms from fans of the show”.  Up until very recently I was one of those fans. Wedded to the visuals of his six late-80s Dr Who stories his music is almost painful at times; not because of any atonality or texture, nor because of any unorthodox instrumentation; but mainly because of its relentless ‘activity’ (there’s rarely a quiet pause for breath in any of his scores) and often its sheer inappropriateness.  As Miles & Wood observed of ‘Delta and the Bannermen’ it’s only the music that is actually saying ‘This is an out and out Comedy’ underneath scenes which are, at least ostensibly, aiming for Drama.

Having bought the album however I thought I might as well listen to the thing. Not even JNT’s liner notes could put me off. And, bizarrely as it may seem, I now love Keff’s music. (there, I said it)
You’d think it would make even less sense as music in its own right than it did as the soundtrack to a Dr Who story, but listening to it in this way his production style really comes into its own. One of the things that got Keff the gig was the fact he had his own studio, complete with his much-vaunted 24-track mixer. The temptation to actually USE all or most of these 24 available layers of sound seems to have been impossible for him to resist, which is why Keff’s music is so ‘busy’ -  and why they are so constantly full of extra little ‘bits’ of noise. This means that where most composers would be content with a melody of some sort, Keff starts with a melody (trust me, they’re in there somewhere) then layers it with... well, let’s tick off his particular obsessions shall we?... rigid drum-beats, the handclap machine, synth tom toms, orchestral stabs, spangly effects, notes from the Who theme tune itself (should Ron Grainer have got half his royalties?) and the type of synth noises which, nowadays, sound far cheaper and more obviously synthetic than they did in 1987.

All a bit of a mess whilst watching a Sylvester McCoy story. But on their own...

Take ‘Gavrok’s Search’. Ethereal and haunting synth notes are suddenly pitch-bended, leading into a martial drum-machine beat, with jolts of fake strings over the top and extra beep-beep noises for effect (on TV, an echo of the Bannermen’s tracking devices). Add a Latina vocal and you’d have something that could have warmed up the crowd at the Danceataria. Add drugs and you’d have a cut-price Hacienda act. Or how about the fantastic ‘Future Pleasure’ from his first story ‘Time and the Rani’? Keff has exaggeratedly said it was made solely through manipulations of his own voice, but nonetheless at least three separate layers of sound on this ultra-chirpy, quasi- chillout piece are recognisably built from vocal samples. Indeed, all Keff’s scores are now music-historically resonant, choc full of the early drum machines, samplers and sequencers now so beloved of electro enthusiasts. Other tracks feature samples of his snoring (!) and even synth-banjo. You gotta love it.

When he appeared on ‘Corners’ to demonstrate (to Sophie Aldred!) how he made his version of the Who theme he said of his beloved Prophet 5 synthesiser “I can make it sound like anything.” This was over-optimistic and manifestly untrue. But Keff’s music doesn’t sound like anything (else), only itself. It’s probably too upbeat and cheerfully populist to ever be reclaimed as visionary by the same people who wet themselves over anything Malcolm Clarke ever made, but I think that’s what it is... the evident product of a person who had his own musical vision of what Dr Who music should be like, regardless of how wonky or unfashionable it may sound to some, and who made it weirdly listenable to boot. Keff, I salute you.

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

The Chase is on!

I frequently have cause to complain about people deciding to do absolutely nothing other than sit in of an afternoon and watch apparently endless repeat episodes of The Chase, the ITV quiz show. This afternoon, I decided to do absolutely nothing other than sit in and watch my DVD of The Chase, the William Hartnell/Dalek story.

Can I claim moral superiority? Well yes but only just.

The interesting thing about The Chase as a television programme is that it’s hard at times to make out which parts are intentionally weird and which parts are just weird by accident (or, if you want to single out the infamously ‘it’ll do’ director Richard Martin, sheer laziness). The story is littered with obvious examples known and cherished by fandom but I want to focus on this story’s odd approach to the sound.

I’ve been researching and listening to old Radiophonic Workshop output recently, but hadn’t expected much in the way of this in The Chase. Remembering that it had an early Dudley Simpson score I was perfectly ready to sit back and watch the story on its own visual and scripted merits. But I’d forgotten several weird aspects of the story’s soundtrack which now stood out as curiously, and at times abrasively, as anything from The Sea Devils.

Let’s take the conventional music score first. It comprises of a couple of cheerful  rinkety-tink ditties played on piano. These mainly accompany shots of (a cardboard cut-out of) the Tardis being hotly (well slowly) pursued through the time vortex by the Dalek Ship (buggered if I’m going to call it the Dardis). For these linking shots a sense of urgency if not terror would be expected, so why on earth this jolly little piano tune? Dudley’s piano also dee-diddly-dees along with some ostensible ‘action’ scenes such as the Haunted House fight between the Daleks and the Universal Monsters, totally undercutting any suspense or danger that hasn’t already been ruined by the ham-fisted editing, or more accurately by the awkward positioning of the cameras. In fact the disjunction between the music and the visuals almost come across as if the director has raided the stock music library and grabbed a few tracks at random. If that had been the case (say for budget reasons) you could almost (almost!) forgive Richard Martin, but this was a specially composed score.

Also rubbing up against these sounds are some captivating, and completely electronic, sounds and noises provided by the Radiophonic Workshop. The Daleks’ time machine has its own materialisation sound-effect, a sort of reversed hypnotic pulse, and its interior has some extra sound effects on top of the familiar Control Room ‘throb’. Due to the repetition involved in this story, with the Daleks constantly appearing and disappearing one step behind the Tardis, these sound effects soon take on a pleasing familiarity, and more to the point they don’t intrude on the visuals the way the ‘proper’ music is.

Sound is also treated oddly in this story in terms of dialogue and the spoken word. On the ‘intentionally weird’ side of things we have the Mechanoids, whose utterly baffling computerised speech can only be fully comprehended with the benefit of the DVD subtitles but which at least sounds pleasingly strange and ‘alien’. On the ‘laziness’ side of things we have some dire dubbing-on of pre-recorded dialogue whenever the naff ‘duplicate Doctor’ (“completely indistinguishable from the original” my arse!) appears. This is further compounded by the director’s inability to decide when to show Edmund Warwick or Hartnell in close-ups.

But as I say the effect as a whole is interesting. If the sound, to say nothing of the visuals, comes across as a weird patchwork, it could perhaps be seen as intentional. It would reflect well, after all, on a story that is partly all ‘about’ zipping between completely different story environments (alien world, New York City, the Marie Celeste, a haunted house, etc). Any single soundscape might work for one of those environments but not all of them. But as we’re talking about a Richard Martin-directed story here we can only posit this as a ‘perhaps’. The chances are it’s just a hodge-podge because the man in charge couldn’t be arsed about cohesion.

And I haven’t even mentioned the ‘thick Dalek’, who “um”s and “er”s in ring-modulated idiocy. What were they thinking.....??

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

Sunday, 22 January 2017

rude in Risa

I had a gander at the official Star Trek website just now, just to see if they actually had any news snippets about Star Trek: Discovery (it doesn't), and saw this poll:-

Now, correct me if I'm wrong, but Risa has long been established as the famous 'pleasure planet'. A planet where all the attendants wear very little clothes. Where sexual abandon is positively encouraged. Where even stuffy old Jean Luc Picard was able to get his end away (and have an Indiana Jones-style adventure to boot).

And they ask the users of the Trek website if they want to climbing the cliffs or walking on the beach???!??!?

(unless 'Cliff Galartha' is like the name of the head waiter or something and 'relax' was meant to be in inverted commas)

Saturday, 21 January 2017

not a Meek 'un

Round about the middle of last year I dipped into the waters of Nostalgia (they have a warning sign and everything!) and picked up the two Dan Dare publications that Fleetway out out in 1990/1, the Holiday Special and the Annual. I also then ordered the first volume of the facsimile series of books, the ones reprinting the original Eagle run from the 50s-60s.

But then I took the subsequent volumes off my wish list as the series becomes increasingly expensive as it progresses, with some volumes going for a couple of hundred of your Earth pound on Amazon and eBay. No point in getting hooked on a series I'd have to get a bank loan to collect in its entirety, I thought.

Well, I should think again! Volume 9, 'The Trilogy', turned up in a local secondhand bookshop this morning. Cheapest price online? £140 (eBay, Buy it Now). Asking price in the shop? £3.50.


Truly today is a blessed day! Get the Anastasia ready for lift off, Digby, we're off to the Southern Hemisphere of Venus!

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Danger at Westways

I've finished reading the Sexton Blake novel DANGER AT WESTWAYS.

Apparently it's a straight reprint from one of the many gazillion Blake stories that ran over the decades in the various boys' story papers such as the Union Jack, Detective Weekly, etc. And you can tell somehow. Some chapters seem to stretch on with absolutely no plot advancement, and then others suddenly change location and tone in order to suddenly speed the story up, as happens when a writer's clearly being paid by the word.

The basic plot is that Sexton Blake is called in by Scotland Yard to track down The Cipher (a cut-price Charles Auguston Milverton from a Sherlock Holmes story). He ends up in a mansion, along with half of Scotland Yard, some red herrings, oh and The Cipher himself, who is stealthily creeping about murdering anyone who says "I know who the Cipher really is! He's --" 

But the strange thing is, Sexton Blake himself is hardly in it! Two policemen deduce the Cipher's identity way before him (and are killed for their trouble) and all he does is walk about the mansion, occasionally darting quick questions at people in a commanding tone of voice... but not really making any deductions (although naturally after the Cipher is captured we find out that he knew more or less all along... yeah, right!).

It was an entertaining read but evidently from a lower point in the famously up-and-then-down-then-up-again Blake canon. Give me Sexton Blake, Tinker, their loyal hound Pedro and some crazed super-criminal any day of the week.

Rating: 5/10

(incidentally, I bought the hardback for a few quid; the paperback is going on Amazon for £48. It's really really not worth that much...)

Saturday, 14 January 2017

Who's there?

Vis a vis my previous post, I'm trying to think what other one-volume Who books are out there.

There are a good few that survey the 'whole' story of Who's 'fiction' ('whole' either meaning the first 26-years as a whole, or the whole series up to the time of its original publication)
  • Lance Parkin's 'A History of the Universe' (various editions)
  • L'officer's 'Terrestrial Index' and 'Universal Databank' (from what I recall, somewhat patchy forerunners to Parkin's book)
  • 'The Discontinuity Guide'
  • 'The Programme Guide' (obviously)
  • 'The New Who Programme Guide' (if I must include the New Series *lol)
  • 'The Making of Doctor Who' (strictly speaking a factual book, but whose first edition includes an episode guide in the form of the Time Lord trial from 'The War Games'!)
  • 'Doctor Who' by Kim Newman (BFI) includes production narrative but is largely concerned with what we see on the screen
  • 'The Dalek Handbook', like the Making Of also includes a hefty slice of factual information but mainly concerns the on-screen history/chronology of the Dalek adventures
  • 'Timeframe' (the illustrated history by David J Howe)
  • 'Cybermen' (which does what it says on the tin, up to 'Silver Nemesis')
  • 'Who's next?' - apparently a kind of Programme Guide, written immediately pre-New Who
  • 'The Handbook' - David Howe's factual tome collecting together all the individual Doctor handbooks from Virgin Books)
  • 'The Television Companion' by David Howe (that man again!)
  • 'The Doctor' (BBC Books 'in-universe' biography up to 'Day Of the Doctor'; also contains snippets of behind the scenes interviews)
Production-wise we have:

  • 'Inside the Tardis' by the aforementioned James Chapman, who is good on the 'social history' side of things
  • 'The Unfolding Text' surveys Who academically up to Season 19, with a strong slant towards the Producers and auteurship
  • The DWM Yearbook (1996) by Pixley, a season-by-season account replete with facts, figures, ratings etc.
  • anything and everything by Peter Haining (I've a soft spot for 'A Celebration' as it was the first book I think I ever read about the history of Who)
  • 'The Doctors' by Adrian Riglesford
I'm sure there are more but that's all I can remember at the moment. Let me know if I've left out your favourite! (i'm tempted to include 'Love and Monsters' but that's more of an account of Who fandom I think. In any case the date on the cover says it starts at 1979!)

Thursday, 12 January 2017

information overload

There's a bit of a hoo-ha at the moment because the makers of the DOCTOR WHO - THE COMPLETE HISTORY partwork are offering back issues at half price, including some issues which some subscribers (who of course have bought all the issues at full whack) haven't even received yet.

I had, in a moment of madness, put an order for this series when it started, but cancelled after about four issues. 

It's not that I've anything against behind-the-scenes information. But for me this kind of series is just TOO DETAILED. I realise that complaining about having TOO MUCH information goes against the traditional Who-fan grain! But it's an endless Alice-like labyrynth. I don't believe for one minute that the people subscribing to this publication will stop there. There will always be MORE information, more details round the corner, waiting to be dug up, analysed, researched, brought to light. But it's very much the trend in recent years for ultra-detailed 'completness' in the area of TV production journalism. Star Trek has the weighty Mark Cushman books (effectively he's Trek fandom's Andrew Pixley), Dr Who has the Complete History as well as a number of 'Doctor by Doctor' analytical book series', and even the humble Lost In Space is now receiving the "what were the film crew doing at 3pm on the afternoon of April 2nd when they should have been filming shot one, scene one" treatment (again, by Mark Cushman).

For me, it's all too much. I enjoy the 'single volume' treatment. Depending on the angle of the writer, you can get a workable guide to an entire series painted in broad strokes but which can still have a captivating narrative. (James Chapman's book 'Inside the Tardis' is a cracking production history of Who, stopping circa Eccles/Tennant... Pixley's DWM Yearbook 1996 is a top-hole account of the making of what we now call Classic Who... well, some of us call it that!....But I would love to see Matthew Sweet write a Dr Who volume. His Who journalism is second to none and his overview of Victorian leisure pursuits, 'Inventing the Victorians' is one of my favourite slices of cultural history. And of course he did that fab 50th anniversary documentary. I'd love to read his take on the history of Who.)

And aside from anything else, they're quicker to read!

Friday, 6 January 2017

One of Our Planet 14's is Missing!

I've given up on my attempt at the Dr Who 'marathon' and am back to watching whatever story I want to watch in whatever order I jolly well please, and this week I've been watching The Invasion.

The Invasion has.... classic Cybermen-in-sewers action, the first proper appearance of UNIT, the debut of the remarkable John Levene, amazing sound effects, Kevin Stoney, aaaaaand one of my all-time favourite bits of Who lore - Planet 14.

But what exactly is 'Planet 14'? Well, that's what I'd like to know!

It is mentioned when the Cyber Planner (a disembodied intelligence representing the Cybermen that communicates with Tobias Vaughn via a sort of electronic thingamybob and thus helps co-ordinate their planned invasion of Earth) tells Vaughn that they know the Doctor and Jamie:

"...they have been recognised on Planet Fourteen. They are dangerous and must be destroyed."

The 'Aliens and Monsters' book remarks Planet 14 is "presumably Telos." But note they are specifically referring to the 2nd Dr and Jamie, and the closest thing they've come to anything that could be possibly called 'Planet 14' is Telos, but in the far future (in Tomb), long after the 1960s/1970s timeframe during which The Invasion takes place.

So there are only two possibilities: it refers to an unseen adventure, or the Cybermen have time travel.

If it's an unseen adventure, that's fairly nice and easy to sort out. It would have helped if the Cyber Planner had given us more details, and when the Dr and Jamie first see a Cyberman they merely react in shock with a gasped "Cybermen!!"... Zoe too merely adds to Isobel that "we've encountered the Cybermen before, we know what they're capable of". So it's entirely possible for Planet 14 to have occurred at any point really between Wheel In Space and The Invasion (or even before it, if the Cyber Planner literally ONLY encountered the 2nd Dr and Jamie, without Zoe.... maybe Victoria was even travelling with them at the time!).

If Planet 14 is Telos, it complicates things.... the Cybermen only 'officially' had time travel from Attack onwards (and it has been theorised that the Earthshock Cybes are in fact time travellers from the Attack era come back in time, hence their computer somehow being able to turn into a time machine that deposits Adric slap bang in the dinosaurs era..... blimey that's complicated).

Grant Morrison has a massively complex theory and relates in The World Shapers (DWM comic strip) that the Cybes actually meet the 6th Dr and (an aged) Jamie on MARINUS and that's actually Planet 14 and that the Voord evolve into Cybermen...!!

If the Invasion-era Cybes have time travel, why are they piddling about with a planned 'physical' invasion of Earth? Why not try and prevent Mondas' destruction again, at the very least? Maybe only one Attack-era Cyberman survived their exploratory time trips and he was only able to bring information (about the future and about the Dr/Jamie) with him rather than a massive Cyber-army?

Who knows??!? (there was an essay about this very subject in the 2nd 'About Time' book, but annoyingly I no longer have a copy)

But in a funny way I don't want to know. Is Planet 14 Telos, the moon, Marinus, Earth in another era, or some other far flung planet we just never got to see? Not knowing gives me that excited little fan-tingle.... :)