Friday, October 31, 2014

Review: The Book of the Still

(Originally posted to the Doctor Who Ratings Guide on March 20, 03.)

The Book of the Still reminds me of no other debut novel in the history of the various ranges so much as Lawrence Miles' Christmas on a Rational Planet. Like Miles, Paul Ebbs brings so much energy, zest, and sheer swaggering charisma to the book that it feels like something new and ground-breaking, even though it's "just" a first novel. Both of them are flawed, as first-time authors tend to be, but both of them have a prose style that doesn't let even a single passage go by without trying to make it something special, something exciting, something that's never been done in Who before. It's that energy that lifts the book up to one of the better first novels I've read, and that makes me proud to be a fan of Doctor Who.

Right from the beginning, which Ebbs entitles the "Obligatory Spectacular Opening", we get a sense of amazing energy. The Doctor attempts to steal the eponymous Book through a plan that involves free-falling from orbit, a scene of dazzling excitement that sets the pace for the book to follow. We get lots of fun -- Anji stuck in a Bollywood movie, the Doctor trying to learn how to dance on a doomed planet, and Fitz... well, OK, Fitz does spend much of his time acting like a brainwashed idiot, which doesn't do wonders for him, but it's still a good book. The whole thing clips along with sparkling dialogue and a fascinating plot.

It's not flawless by any means -- the trio of villains who dog the Doctor throughout the book outstay their welcome by chapter two, and Carmodi is phenomenally irritating (although perhaps intentionally so). And I still couldn't tell you what Carmodi lost because of the Doctor, and why she believes the Doctor's responsible for it. But this was one of those rare times when I didn't care about the "whats" of a book because I was having so much fun with the "hows". I just had a blast reading this, and I can't wait for Paul Ebbs' next novel. If Lawrence Miles proves to be an accurate model, it'll be even better.

Friday, October 24, 2014

The Keys of Marinus

And then there are the times when the budget really hurts.

The episode starts well enough; Kala makes a convincing villain, and the scene where she plays the grieving widow contains some good acting on the part of Fiona Walker. It'd be tempting to overplay the sobs and telegraph the twist to the audience, but she delivers her grief very convincingly. She also does a good job of not over-emphasizing her inadvertent slip regarding Susan's whereabouts in order to clue in the audience, although Nation includes a scene that probably wasn't necessary where Barbara and company discuss the slip at length in order to make everything clear to the very tiny children watching the show.

That's not terrible in and of itself, but it does foreshadow a problem Nation has. He can't just have people figure things out and do something about them, he has to put in a scene where they hash out the logic behind their realization at great length for the slow of brain. Which, again, is not such a bad thing when you're explaining how Kala accidentally mentioned a tiny piece of information that she had no way of knowing about if she wasn't implicated in the theft/murder/kidnap plot, but...

...well, there's no getting around it. It is a lot more of a problem when your characters are discussing that something seemed a little bit off about Arbitan. Something suspicious. Perhaps it's that he acted like he didn't know Altos when the two of them had supposedly met? Yes, maybe that's it. It's the kind of subtle mistake that any master villain might make, the kind of slip-up that could ruin even the perfect plan of covering your ridiculously elaborate headgear with a hood that you can barely even fit over it, not bothering to disguise your voice even a little tiny bit or take off your heavy black gloves, and sit two feet away from the people you're trying to fool at an angle that doesn't really hide your features concocting a story on the fly about how you're radioactive and can't get up or come any closer.

Yeeeeee-ahhhhhh. The problem isn't just that this scene is terrible. It isn't even just that it's unbelievably, ludicrously terrible and it's the climax of the story. It's that if anyone had put even a tiny bit of thought into the sequence, it would have worked just fine. A line or two explaining that Yartek (who was otherwise a fine specimen of megalomaniac villain) couldn't take the suit off for some reason. A line explaining that he knew Ian would only give the key to the real Arbitan, and some sort of line about, "We can't take it by force--the key is too delicate, he'd break it." And instead of Ian's labored and idiotic-sounding discussion of whether or not there was something fishy about Arbitan's sudden foot-long head extension, an explanation on Ian's part that he knew all along that "Arbitan" was Yartek and gave him the fake key on purpose. (Which as it stands is even more unforgivably stupid, as the scene involves Ian being fooled but giving him a fake key anyway, apparently just for the lulz.)

That's the lesson to take away from this episode, and this story. Doctor Who can survive being cheap. It can survive being weird. It can survive random genre-hopping at every opportunity. It can even survive being a Flash Gordon pastiche with a railroad plot. But it absolutely cannot survive being this rock stupid.

A Long-Winded, Discursive, and Possibly Educational Review of 'Shada'

(This review has been cross-posted to

It occurred to me that the novelization of 'Shada' might be something that readers here would be interested in, if they knew about it, and that it might also be something that readers here might not know about. So this is both a review, and an explanation of what exactly 'Shada' was, and how there came to be a novelization of it by Gareth Roberts from Douglas Adams' original script.

In addition to being tremendously famous for his 'Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy' series, Douglas Adams also spent a bit of time as a writer and script editor for Doctor Who. This was just before 'Guide' hit it big, when he was mainly known for contributing a few bits to the final series of "Monty Python's Flying Circus". (The one without John Cleese.) His big breaks came in a sudden burst, which is why he wasn't on Doctor Who for very long. But he did do three scripts--the modestly successful "Pirate Planet", the incredibly well-regarded "City of Death", and "Shada"...which never actually completed filming due to a strike at the BBC, and which wasn't remounted for the ensuing season because incoming producer John Nathan-Turner had no interest in doing anything his predecessor Graham Williams thought was a good idea.

"Shada", in other words, is that rare beast - an unproduced screenplay by a now-deceased legend of science fiction at the absolute height of his skill, which can't be filmed at this point due to a simply insurmountable number of practical hurdles. But this is where a peculiar tradition of Doctor Who comes in, a legacy of one of the few sci-fi/fantasy series out there to predate video recording in any of its media. Virtually every single episode of the classic series of Doctor Who was adapted as a novel, in order to allow fans to experience episodes that had been broadcast before their time and which (due to the BBC's policies at the time on repeats and the previously noted lack of home media) they would probably never have the chance to see again. These novels were occasionally done by the original author, but frequently they were adapted by other hands.

While he was alive, Douglas Adams' stories were among the few that had not been adapted into novels; Adams preferred to adapt his own stories, and the company with the rights to the Doctor Who books simply couldn't afford his page rate. (According to Adams, every time a new editor took over the line, they had the exact same conversation with him about the chances of adapting his books, and he politely gave them the exact same responses each time.) But tragically, Adams died far younger than anyone that brilliant has a right to, which meant that even the adaptations seemed like a longshot.

Enter Gareth Roberts. Those of you who are fans of the new series might recognize him as the screenwriter of "The Lodger" and "The Shakespeare Code", among others, but he made his reputation on Doctor Who as an author of several pastiches of the Graham Williams era of the show. His novel 'The English Way of Death' (now sadly out of print) is considered to be one of the finest encapsulations of that period's whimsy, effortless humor, and penchant for borderline fantasy, and he's always been an outspoken fan of Williams and Adams. As such, when the rights issues were finally sorted out with the Adams estate, Roberts was the first choice to adapt Adams' unfilmed script into a novel. (For the pedants in the crowd, yes I am aware that the script was also adapted for audio by Big Finish Productions with Paul McGann reprising Tom Baker's part, and that there is an unofficial animated adaptation done by Ian Levine using Paul Jones as a Tom Baker impersonator. This is the first mass-market adaptation.)

(Yes, I'm also aware that the sequences that were shot were released on video and DVD, with Baker providing linking narration. That's not a proper adaptation. Sheesh.)

So now that you know what the novelization of 'Shada' is, the question that undoubtedly follows is, "Is it actually any good?" And the answer is, "Yes. Not as good as you'd expect a lost Douglas Adams masterpiece to be, but it's definitely a fun read." Roberts doesn't quite have Adams' deft touch for comic prose, but singling him out for that is almost entirely unfair. He's not trying to be Douglas Adams. He's trying to write Gareth Roberts' very good adaptation of a Douglas Adams story, and he succeeds magnificently at that. His opening line alone is one of the better starts to a novel that I've read lately: "At the age of five, Skagra decided emphatically that God did not exist. This revelation tends to make most people in the universe who have it react in one of two ways - with relief or with despair. Only Skagra responded to it by thinking, 'Wait a second. That means there's a situation vacant.'"

The plot is a fairly classic Doctor Who concept - a megalomaniac (in about as literal a sense as you can get this time) plans to take over the universe using forbidden Time Lord secrets that have been concealed at Cambridge, and the Doctor (accompanied by Time Lady Romana and robot dog K-9) have to stop him. But there are a number of clever twists and elegant misdirections between Cambridge and the lost Time Lord prison of Shada, and I really don't want to give any of them away for the benefit of those of you who haven't had the whole thing summarized multiple times in old Doctor Who episode guides. Suffice to say that this is a perfect example of doing something new and clever with an old idea, and the story hangs together very well.

The only issue I had with the book, and this may be my reaction as a long-time Doctor Who fan who had heard about this one for years as a "lost classic", was that I couldn't help spending my time wondering which bits were taken directly from Adams' original script and which were added by Roberts with the benefit of thirty-odd years of hindsight. (The joke about "edible ball bearings", for example, I'm reasonably sure belonged to Roberts.) I wound up wishing they'd also simply published the shooting script, so that I could see what had been done and when and by whom. It was a bit of a distraction, but one that a less obsessive person might not have to deal with.

On the whole, though, I thought it was a great story well-told, and I think that any fans of Douglas Adams will enjoy it. Pastiches of classic authors have a shaky track record, especially of Douglas Adams (I don't think, for example, that I'll ever recommend Eoin Colfer's 'And Another Thing...') but this one stands out as a fun read in its own right.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Sentence of Death know when I said that Doctor Who's greatest strength was its ability to slip effortlessly from genre to genre? I have to say, I didn't expect them to test it quite so hard so fast. 'Sentence of Death' essentially jumps from 'Wolf Creek' to 'Murder She Wrote' in the span of a single episode-opening recap, as Ian arrives in the city of Millennius only to be instantly framed for murder. (I'm not entirely clear on what Aydan's plan would have been if someone hadn't conveniently teleported into the room facing away from him. Maybe he'd have tried to claim that Eprim was an unusually enthusiastic suicide?)

Luckily, this is also the episode where the Doctor returns from his two-week vacation just in time to solve the murder. It's a clear homage to Sherlock Holmes, but it's amazing how well it works--not only because William Hartnell is clearly relishing the chance to strut around and act intellectually superior to everyone around him, but also because Sherlock Holmes' memetic DNA has always been part of the underpinning of the character. The Doctor is built, in no small part, out of the concept of the genius who instantly grasps the import of tiny clues, but holds his revelations behind a screen of smug contempt until the point of maximum dramatic impact. Despite the fact that it's clearly insane to jump directly into an Agatha Christie mystery, the return of the Doctor papers over the join perfectly.

And the mystery itself isn't bad--it's a bit obvious, with the Doctor fingering Aydan over the course of a single scene and revealing his identity to the court with a single Perry Mason-esque stunt, but they spin it out a little bit longer with a conspiracy theory. (Which would perhaps be a bit more suspenseful if they hadn't included a scene where Aydan called up his co-conspirator and they clearly showed his face, but c'est la vie.) As a result, we get what may be the best cliffhanger in the story so far, with Barbara forced to choose between sacrificing Susan and allowing Ian to be sentenced to death.

But the actual mystery isn't as important as the atmosphere created by the trial. The entire episode takes place in the pressure-cooker of Millennius' unjust and irrational judicial system; from the moment he arrives, Ian is fitted for the role of thief and murderer simply because it makes everyone's lives easier to have a ready-made villain. The moments before the Doctor's arrival are a perfect pastiche of Kafka-esque paranoia, as Ian confronts the fact that he is a stranger in Millennius with no-one to vouch for his character and no-one sympathetic to his situation. Even after Ian's friends and companions arrive, the justice system is clearly anything but just in Millennius. (Which makes a certain degree of sense, if they've had to reconstruct the entire concept of a legal system relatively recently after centuries of Conscience-enforced peace.)

On the whole, despite the utter strangeness of the transition, 'Sentence of Death' really does act as definitive proof that there's nothing Doctor Who does better than hijack another genre's stories and make them its own. And that William Hartnell does "smug genius" better than anyone.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Snows of Terror

One of the greatest strengths of Doctor Who, and the biggest reason it has endured so long apart from its ability to recast the lead actor, is its ability to slip effortlessly from genre to genre. This may be one of the reasons that the series has become more popular after its relaunch; in many ways, the show presaged genre-bending classics like 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer'. Changing from horror to comedy to action/adventure within a single episode or even a single scene was once considered to be a symptom of lack of focus--now it's the televisual equivalent of walking and chewing gum at the same time.

'The Snows of Terror' highlights the series' skill in an episode that is almost undoubtedly the high point of the story to date. Vasor the trapper is in many ways far more terrifying than the Voord, the Brains of Morphoton or the moving jungle ever could be, because the terror on display here is all too believable. When Ian leaves the hut and Barbara is alone with a man who introduced himself with, "I can break a wolf's back with my hands," it takes no great leap of imagination to picture this as a potentially terrifying situation. Barbara is locked in a room with a potential rapist and murderer, with nothing outside but endless icy wastes and the howling wolves. This is a nightmare made flesh, and the episode pulls no punches in showing it.

The first half, as a result, plays out like a slasher movie in miniature, 'Wolf Creek' in the mountains instead of the Outback, and even the polystyrene snow and film-insert wolves can't materially damage the creepy atmosphere. It's all too easy to imagine Ian's death as the wolves close in, and the much deeper and inescapable torment of Barbara as Vasor's captive. It is brutally effective, and the audience's relief when Ian rescues Altos and returns is palpable.

The tone shifts palpably after that, with Ian getting a great turn as action hero (again, it helps that this is an era when the show is obviously an ensemble piece rather than "The Doctor and Friends") and Vasor shifting from a wolf-breaking murderer to a shifty, sleazy, treacherous ally as we go to an Indiana Jones-style treasure hunt with more traps and mystical knights whose natures are never fully explained. There's a quick tour through the tropes of the sub-genre; rope bridges over bottomless gorges that break at the worst moment, relentless pursuit, collapsing tunnels, crawls over makeshift bridges, and "puzzles" that would perhaps take a bright child five minutes to solve. (The high point, to me, is Susan's reaction when the lashed-together ice bridge partially collapses. It's not the panic she's been displaying up to that point--it's a wonderfully put-upon expression that can be best summed up as, "Of course it breaks. Because what else would it do right now?")

If there's a single complaint, it's that Ian, Altos and Barbara grabbed hold of the Idiot Ball just long enough to not grab their micro-keys and travel dials before they went after Susan and Sabetha, necessitating a trip back across the gorge and back to Vasor's cabin. On the other hand, the episode wouldn't have felt complete without Vasor getting his comeuppance at the hand of the ice knights. No matter what tropes and what genres Doctor Who borrows, the series ultimately returns to the Manichean morality of the pulp adventure, and that means that even the minor villain has to be punished. It's the anchor that grounds the series, and allows it to effortlessly move between tones so easily.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Screaming Jungle

Believe it or not, the biggest problem about 'The Screaming Jungle' isn't the production values.

No, seriously. I mean, yes, Terry Nation was asking Ray Cusick to do stuff that most series wouldn't really be able to do effectively until the era of CGI, and certainly no series would be able to do effectively on the kind of budget Cusick was working with. So we get limp fake plants dangled from just off-screen on Ian and Barbara's heads, and even though they do their best to respond to this as an urgent and credible threat, it's still hard not to feel as though they're barely repressing giggles. But that's not the problem with 'The Whispering Jungle'. Other episodes have looked just as cheap, if not cheaper.

No, the problem with 'The Whispering Jungle' is that there's not much there once you get past the production values. The previous two episodes have both had interesting hooks to grab viewers--the initial episode had the creepy, silent Voord assault, and the second episode had the surreal and paranoiac brainwashing sequences of the Brains of Morphoton. Once the audience's memory did its usual job of replacing the weak special effects with a bit of budget-stretching imagination, they were interesting uses of the science-fiction tropes they embodied.

But 'The Whispering Jungle' is the point where the imagination, as well as the money, runs out. This isn't Nation's fault, really; again, this is a story written on incredibly short notice to fill a gap left by a script that fell through. Everyone is doing their best under incredibly trying conditions. It's just that here, everyone's best isn't quite good enough.

Again, as with the previous two episodes, the concepts aren't bad; a creepy jungle where the plants have turned aggressive and malevolent, and are eroding the planet to death with hateful overgrowth is an idea that will be used to great effect later in the series. A temple filled with deathtraps, and a paranoid old man hiding in the center of them unable to let go of his fear long enough to realize that these are the people he's been waiting for all this time? That's some gripping stuff. But in practical terms, all that winds up coming into play only in the last few minutes. There's a tiny bit at the beginning where someone drags a creeper across Susan's legs, and the bit at the end shows some of the promise that could have been, but the whole thing lacks pace. The plants should have been a menace from the beginning, a relentless pursuer that drives Ian and Barbara headlong into the deathtraps. The traps themselves should have been more menacing--a bit of a change in the direction here would have gone a long way. It's understandable that Cusick didn't have much to work with, but better pacing and a few changes in lighting and camera angles might have mitigated the flaws.

This isn't to say that the episode doesn't have its charms...there's a fascinating moment near the beginning where Susan explains that she decided to go on ahead of the others because she didn't like saying goodbye to her grandfather. Given that Nation also wrote 'The Dalek Invasion of Earth', Susan's departure story that ends with the Doctor going on without her, it's interesting to think of this as a little piece of foreshadowing. It's also a good example of a character point noted by Wood and Miles in 'About Time' a product of a technophiliac society, Susan tends to get unnerved far quicker in natural environments than she does in alien spaceships and space stations. Carole Ann Ford has gone on the record about her frustrations with the hysteria she was forced to depict on multiple occasions, but they did seem to do their best in making it a character trait beyond simply "damsel in distress".

The moments like this are a bit few and far between in this episode, which is a shame given the potential that was wasted. But they are there. The money may run out, the time may run out, but Doctor Who always has at its core a concept that can sustain even the most exhausted of writers. And this episode, that describes Terry Nation perfectly.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Velvet Web

Once again, I feel like repeating that Doctor Who never really learned the lessons it was supposed to learn as a science fiction series. The production team should have figured out that their budgets were suited to small-scale psychological dramas set in various periods of Earth's history. They had a great cast suited to psychological drama, and they had set designers and costumers all over the place who had plenty of experience in making historical dramas on the cheap. Sure, Doctor Who was nominally science fiction, but making true science fiction of the scope that they envisioned was a ludicrous dream. 'The Daleks' showed it, especially in the final battle sequence...and yet, they never did learn to stop being ambitious. And thank goodness for that.

'The Velvet Web' is a perfect example. Terry Nation writes an episode that a) requires a number of sumptuous sets and costumes, b) cunning perspective shifts as Barbara resists the Morphos' brainwashing and sees the real world while her friends continue to see the illusion, and then c) the inner sanctum of the hideous brain-creatures, which gets destroyed in a spectacular action sequence as Barbara smashes it to pieces and the brain-creatures melt and die. The budget they have allowed for approximately three-fourths of a, one-third of c, and b would have been apocalyptically difficult even with a vast budget, thanks to the limits of film editing techniques in those days.

And did that stop them? No It Did Not. Ray Cusick, the BBC staff designer, threw himself gamely into the impossible task of realizing everything in Nation's script, and the regular cast swallowed their dignity and pretended that a dirty coffee mug was a cyclotron with the greatest of enthusiasm. And they made something that at least approximated the vision Terry Nation had when he sat down at his typewriter, albeit one that was never intended to be seen again at all, let alone watched on pristine DVD with all its faults revealed to the world.

And once the memory has glossed over the a's and the b's and the c's and Ray Cusick's desperation and the cast's embarrassment and time has turned what was actually on the screen into a potent blend of imagination and reality, you can see it for what it was intended to be rather than what it was. You can see the weird, paranoiac horror Barbara experiences as she tries to convince her friends of the shabby, dingy reality all around them while they caress rags and drink filthy water. You can sympathize with her plight, alone among an entire city that hunts her with a single-minded purpose for unknown reasons. You can shiver at the way that Ian almost absentmindedly tries to strangle Barbara, vividly and convincingly portrayed by William Russell. You can even be impressed when you remember that this is all just one city on the planet of Marinus, a science-fiction planet that's astonishingly enough not shown as a monoculture or a Manichean struggle between the oppressed and the oppressors, which is quite nice for a change. You can actually be quite impressed by this one...when you're not actually, you know, watching it.