Monday, April 30, 2007

DiM: The Perfect Acronym

If you've spent any time in the last two years in the festering cesspool that is 'Doctor Who' fandom, then you'll know there have been two distinct reactions to Russell T Davies' reinvention. One faction believes he's ignored everything that made the series great in the first place - intelligent plotting, a proactive hero who uses his brains and not his fists, science winning the day over ignorance - and replaced it with lazily written stories, populated by soap opera characters in a world in which science is just something to nod at in passing, so long as it all looks terribly shiny and there's lots of bright colours. The other faction doesn't care and forgives anything too dreadful by saying 'that doesn't matter', 'no, neither does that' and 'or that.'

The latter group are, of course, wrong. But if you're one of them, give out a mighty cheer: you'll love the Dalek two parter. It's silly. It doesn't make sense. The monsters are laughable, and the Doctor doesn't do something clever to defeat them.

It's true that the plot is almost ludicrously stupid. The Doctor takes Martha to New York, where it turns out that Depression-era civilization is nearly entirely trapped in poverty. People spend their lives living in a slum camp in the park, working for achingly small amounts of money to feed themselves and apparently never noticing that the massive city around them exists. Occasionally one of them will relieve the monotony by getting captured by some Dalek-created pigmen. With the aid of everyone's favourite form of lighning, Gamma Radiation, the Doctor does some DNA rewiring, opens the human Daleks hearts to 'lurve', and saves the day. That's it.

But to complain about the lack of plot in New Who is akin to complaining that 'Hamlet' ....right, stop there. This is getting too silly. Someone has compared Russell T Davies to Shakespeare. Even in passing and partly tongue in cheek, this is far, far too silly.

So now for something completely different.

The Dalek two-parter is rotten. The acting is frequently sub-standard (the girl playing Tallulah escapes some criticism purely because she was surely told to play the part as an exaggerated carciature - 'top of the woild' and all that). The direction is dreadful (the choreography of Martha's dash across stage, the way that Lazlo is quite clearly the mysterious shadowy pigman but Tallulah can't spot it). The writing is amongst the worst in all of Doctor Who ('' may be the worst line in the series ever). The design is abominable (why does the Dalek Human hybrid look like Scaroth wearing a penis wig?). The music is bad even by Murray Gold's standards (a Dalek Sec choral?). The plot is non-existent, even according to those who don't think plot matters so long as the show looks nice and sparkly. The science is - as someone remarked - almost a new artform, it's so obviously uncaring bollocks.

Put it this way - if the Dalek two parter (and last week's Gridlock) had been a Big Finish audio would anyone genuinely notice the difference in quality between those stories and {random examples} The Apocalypse Element or Catch-1782? Would anyone other than the maddoes on the OG Forum bother trying to staple and glue this hideous monster of a story into something which you didn't have to keep in a locked airing cupboard and feed on scraps of raw meat?

Daft question.

If you love RTD's 'vision' of Who, you're going to copnvince yourself that you like this. You have no choice. And never mind: it looks like a great big exciting story full of bangs and flashes next week - I'm sure you'll love that even more.

* with apologies to Jonn who wrote the original version of the first half of this review.

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Wednesday, April 18, 2007

(Loosely) Collected Works

To mix metaphors madly, Collected Works boasts a Premier League line-up, with all the old-time heavyweights represented, plus a smattering of promising new new kids on the block and a goodly handful of the current stars of the show.

There are half a dozen authors in here who, in my opinion, should long since have left the tie-in ghetto behind and who have it in them to write great mainstream fiction, sf or otherwise.

There are in fact two authors in here who are, I think, better writers than 99% of all authors currently writing science fiction anywhere.

The editor wrote the last really excellent Doctor Who novel and all the linking work is done by a writer who is inarguably the best currently writing creator of post-human civilisations in popular fiction.

Some of the stories in Collected Works are superb and the majority of the prose in general is fantastic.

Even Ian Mond's story is really good.

It's a Doctor Who book you can actually quote from.

But (and you knew there was going to be a 'but') it still doesn't entirely work for me.

Ironically, Collected Works suffers from the reverse of a problem which dogged the early Short Trips collections. In those, an absolutely rigid linking theme often dragged good writers down as they desperately tried to make their stories fit the half-arsed and pointless theme of the day.

In Collected Works, the problem is that there isn't really a theme at all. There's obviously meant to be several - the Quire (the posthumans who are visiting the Collection) are one strand, whilst the Collection itself in the absence of Brax is another, and the need for increased security is a related third. Unfortunately, the stories flit from one theme to another (or ignore them altogether) and there's consequently a feeling that - in psite of the quality fo the actual writing - Phil Purser-Hallard's Interlude sections are really struggling to bind the entire collection together. Personally, I think of the three strands the security element would have been the most likely to succeed, but perhaps the feeling was that it would be a bit too similar to Life During Wartime.

Added to all that, the fact that several stories refer to or rely for their full effect on information from the audio range is a big mistake, but presumably one outwith the control of the editor.

It doesn't really detract from the individual stories, but given that the book is called Collected Works, it's a shame.

Hey ho - onto the stories which, for all I've said up to now, are more than worth the price of admission.

In no particular order (and missing out - with apologies to the writers concerned - those which I can't remember a month after reading them):

'Let There be Stars' - Mark Michalowski

'Let There be Stars' represents Mark Michalowski's best short story by miles. In the past, his shorter work has been far weaker than his full-length writing, and has relied more on gimmickry (Poe pastiche, minor continuity tricks) than playing to the strengths evident in his novels - primarily the ability get under the emotional skin of his characters, but also a lyrical quality to his prose and satisfyingly intricate plotting.

Obviously there's little room for intricate plotting in these few pages, but the pocket Universe in LtbS is wonderful, providing as it does a sense of the large-scale otherwise missing in stories based on the asteroid. The character of Hass is an interesting one and his joy in 'flying' is effectively and movingly portrayed as are his emotions when it seems as though everything has gone tragically wrong.

Beautifully written ending too.

'The Tree that was' - Steven Kitson

One of the most intriguing elements of this collection for anyone conversant with the Jade Pagoda mailing list was the appearance of the name Steven Kitson on the list of authors. A long-time contributor there, with (ahem) firmly-held views on writing and writers, it was an interesting proposition to see if he could walk the walk, as well as talk the talk.

Pleasingly, he can, although in truth TTtW is something of an odd man out in this book. Rather than the lyricism of Michalowski, the arch cleverness of Bucher-Jones or the imagination of Purser-Hallard, Kitson's story has a curiously old-fashioned feel to it, as though Benny had wandered inadvertently into one of Asimov's Elijah Bailey mysteries. It's none the worse for that and for all that it lacks the pyrotechnics of some other stories, it's a well-crafted piece of writing and more than deserving of its place in Collected Works.

Grey's Anatomy - Simon A Forward

I like the Galiari a lot and consider them one of the more interesting alien races to have been created by the Big Finish stable, so I was delighted to see Mordecan from Forward's earlier audio, The Sandman, make a return here, in the company of the mysterious Mr Grey. It's a solid rather than sensational story, but in filling in Bev's character it make a valuable contribution to the anthology as a whole while being one of the stories which makes most effective use of the Collection as a setting.

False Security - Nick Walters

Walters' story is a return to the bad old days of Big Finish anthologies. It's a dull story, uninterestingly told and, worst of all, appears to have no real need to be set on the asteroid or to have featured anyone from the regular cast. Truth be told this wafer thin tale of a sentient security net could have appeared anywhere and featured anyone, excepting the fact that without the rider of a Who author name I can't imagine any fiction collection anywhere outside of a school yearbook would ever think of commissioning it.

The Two-Level Effect - Eddie Robson

Robson is the Bright Young Thing of Who fiction right now, with writer credits for a major chunk of the high profile McGann season on BBC7 . The only other of his prose I've read was a short story in ST: Companions which was the best thing in that book, and his story in this one is equally high quality. Robson uses an intriguing idea to trap Jason, all the while leaving the solution in very obvious sight. An enjoyable twist on the security theme and and superior in every possible way to Walters' pedestrian effort.

The Painting on the Stair - Simon Bucher-Jones

Bucher-Jones can write and write well, but he does require a bit more thought than the average Who author. This is a typically intelligent piece of writing, with a nice line in visualisation of future painting and a solution to a puzzle which makes perfect sense, even if I did have to read it twice to realise that.

Lock - Kate Orman

I'm starting to think it's just me, but as with every Orman short story I've ever read, this was utterly uninvolving and dull, a one dimensional vignette with little plot which ends up going nowhere and doing nothing of consequence on the way. In many ways, it reminds me of Simon Guerrier's short stories in earlier Benny anthologies, only less interesting and not nearly so well written.

- Jon Blum

Nearly forgot about this which, like the Sin Deniz Adrian-centred story which precedes it, tells its tale through the eyes of one of the less used regulars, in this case Peter. It's a mark of the quality of everything else I've ever read of Blum's that I was mildly disappointed in what was, after all, an enjoyable character piece.

Anightintheninthage - Lance Parkin

An odd one this, almost like and extra Interlude rather than a story in its own right. It serves its purpose well, setting a couple of things up for later stories, but it does seem a bit of a waste of Parkin's undoubted talents, making him the guy who takes a hit for the writing team by doing this kind of administrative story.

The Cost for a Collection - Ian Mond

Clever and gross in equal measures, this is Mond's best work yet for Big Finish. Whereas in the past I've thought that authors have made Bev and Benny almost interchangeable at times, Mond neatly demonstrates the streak of coldness in Bev which is largely missing in the more sentimental Benny and in doing so creates the only story in the collection which is likely to make the reader go 'yuck'. Surprisingly not rubbish given Mond's appalling general taste*.

Cabinet of Curiosities - Mags L Halliday

It's nice to see another writer remembering that this isn't just a collection of random sf stories, but actually set on a massive museum where, you know, there's stuff related to museuming going on. Like Simon Forward's story, this doesn't sparkle like the very best of the author's work, but it's an interesting idea and well told, which sheds further light on the ladies who rule the Collection (actually that's something which is done rather well when CW is taken as a whole - Benny and Bev are allowed to be different without ending up diametrically opposed caricatures).

Mother's Ruin - Dale Smith

The "writer most likely" in my opinion, author of one of the very best PDAs and a series of the best Who short stories ever (including 'Blossom' which comes behind only 'In the Sixties' in my affections). No disappointments here, I'm happy to report. This is the story where you can quote lines to people and where the writing absolutely sparkles. Someone give this man a book deal now, please.

Future Relations - Philip Purser-Hallard & Nick Wallace

Both excellent writers, but the Quire just aren't interesting enough for the end story in the collection to stick in my memory for long. There's a decent climax and everything is tied neatly up but beyond that it felt a little flat. I suspect this is inevitable, since I was never wildly enamoured of the Quire and never really engaged with the over-arching theme, but it's a shame nonetheless.

Collected Works didn't in the end entirely live up to my (admittedly sky-high) expectations, but it's still one of the better Big Finish anthologies, and for all that it falls a little behind Life During Wartime it's well worth buying and remains head and shoulders above the vast majority of the main Who line of Big Finish fiction.

* Kidding.

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Tuesday, April 17, 2007

That nonsense with the cats in a traffic jam

Rather like supporters of a certain football team dear to my heart who find themselves loathe to criticise the arrogant idiot who saved them from oblivion, it seems that Doctor Who fans can't bring themselves to criticise Russell T Davies, the writer behind the revival of the show.

But really - could the man be disappearing up his own arse any faster?

His latest script is the weakest yet seen since the return of the good Doctor two years ago. On a plot so wafer thin as to be see-through, Davies stretches a sequence of illogicalities and stupidities linked loosely together by his own obsessions and the BBC's desire to sell as many toys (sorry, 'character figures') as possible.

I've seen Davies described as smug quite a lot recently and I've no idea if that's true or not (although his insistence on describing everything he touches as fantastic - even the frankly Muppetesque Dalek Hybrid adorning this week's Radio Times - can be a little wearing) but I do think that he has a degree of contempt for his audience.

How else to explain his willingness to throw out 'Gridlock' at prime time on a Saturday? Briefly described (and there is no way to describe it other than briefly) what story there is involves the Doctor looking for Martha in the middle of a big traffic jam, where people travel a few metres a day and any journey takes years of living in a small car from which you can never emerge for long as the poisonous atmosphere will kill you. At the bottom of the motorway is the fast lane - a relatively empty lane of the motorway only accessible to people driving three to car where speeds of as much as 30mph can be achieved. Unfortunately, the fast lane is also host to a colony of devolved Macra, who will eat you if you go down there.

Never mind, though - the Doctor figures out what those who have been driving for 20 odd years have never thought of: there are no rules because there has never been anyone to enforce them*. It's all a trick, you see, because up above the sealed off motorway are the virus destroyed ruins of New Earth, and the Face of Boe is using up his life-force keeping things running until the Doctor comes and...flicks a big switch.

Huzzah! Three cheers for the Big Giant Head!

What a load of lazy drivel.

There are so many holes in the 'plot'* that it's quicker to list the sensible and less patronising things in 'Gridlock':

1. The make-up on Ardal O'Hanlon is good.
2. The characterisation of the Doctor as a moral whirlwind full of a sense of his own essential rightness is well done.

And that'll be that. Otherwise, it was poor quality, lazy writing from a writer whose seeming pre-eminence in UK TV is more a sign of the paucity of talent in the British television writing pool than any actual talent. But the laziness presumably doesn't matter because viewers aren't as clever as producers or they'd be working in telly too, so any old crap will do - and the devoted fans, terrified of another cancellation, will lap it up anyway and claim that plot doesn't matter, that Davies' writing is all about glorious character beats and sparkling dialogue.

I asked on a couple of Who mailing lists, comprised of intelligent people who know how to dissect a text, for someone to give me an example of these wonderful character moments and brilliant dialogue. Sadly, no-one actually could point to a line and say 'That's it there. That's why RTD is so good'. A couple of people mentioned the hymn**, which made me personally cringe with embarassment as Davies scraped the very, very bottom of the emotional manipulation barrel and still came up empty, but beyond that - nothing.

New Doctor Who seems, in fact, to exist for two main reasons - to sell any number of brightly coloured, cheaply made toys and for Russell T Davies to be oh-so-pleased with himself. There has been some lovely writing in the past few series, but it's no surprise to discover that pretty much all of it has come from writers other than Davies.

Finally (and this ia little thing compared to the non-existent plots and that fact that it can only be a matter of time before we get our first Doctor/companion shag in Doctor Who), we all know that being gay is fine and that a bit of positive discrimination is probably needed to redress the homophobia which is still pretty rife in Britain - but do we need to have specifically identified gay characters in every second episode? It's getting like an unhealthy obsession or something.

* For those who care, and purely off the top of my head: why do the parents of the girl buying the 'forget' drugs join the motorway if everyone knows it's quicker to walk; if the air is fine in the undercity why does no-one get out at a layby and walk; why do cars which were locked into the motorway as an emergency have self-replicating fuel and food; why does no-one going down to the fast lane shoot straight back up and report there's loads of big killer crabs down there; how did the crabs manage to colonise the entire fast lane in 24 years; where did the Macra even come from; how come Martha's car doesn't just crash to the ground when they turn all the power off; why doesn't the Face of Boe just say 'The Master is alive' if he's only got four words, instead of coming over all mystical and obscure; where does the rain come from in the closed system which is the Undercity; why were the drug sellers shut down within ten minutes of the Doctor opening the doors; and so on and so on and so on...

** to be fair, one person at least gave a good (if individual) reason for finding it moving.

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Sunday, April 08, 2007

Shakespeare? In love.

Well, that was pretty much exactly how Doctor Who should be.

By turns, funny, clever, full of good ideas and well-written, the Shakespeare Code was up there with the likes of School Reunion and the Empty Doctor/Doctor Dances double bill at the very peak of the New Who tree.

It wasn't perfect or anything and I've seen perfectly legitimate complaints that attempts to show 'proper' Elizabethan England were cursory at best (there were distinct shade of Blackadder in the Gardiloo scene for instance) and that Shakespeare was more of a cartoon than Messrs Russell and Barnes Totally Doctor Who disaster. But I don't care asbout that kind of minor niggle since, away from Rusty Davies' utter fascination with shagging, The Shakespeare Code was genuine family entertainment, with jokes and references to Old Who and the Doctor being clever and heroic and everything.

Plus we saw exactly how any Doctor/Companion romance should be shown in Who - i.e. nothing happened, what with the Doctor being 900 or so and having seen the entire Universe and his companion being 20 or so and having seen Bermondsey. There's a word for people who have it off with other people 880 years younger than them , although not a common word, for obvious reasons.

The ending could have been better - having set up the idea of a science based on words, I was hoping for something of the depth of Phil Pascoe's '...ish' but instead we got a reference to the woefully over-rated JK Rowling and her crappy wizard. Even here though the CGI aliens looked good (as did the Elizabethan backgrounds in general) and the coda with Queen Elizabeth I just capped things off.



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