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...!)