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.... :)