Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Wet and Sick (but happy)

Time to face the unpalatable truth. Doctor Who books in 2007 no longer have the slightly overweight, slightly balding late thirties man with an encyclopedic knowledge of the Jon Pertwee years as their chosen demographic.

Cards on the table - they're not writing for me anymore. The great swine.

Where once (admittedly amongst some horribly earnest wastes of perfectly good paper) we had talking poodles, human Doctors, psycho companions and a cartoon world, now we have Justin Richards' or Trevor Baxendale's latest routine potboiler or whichever Raynor (Rayner?) it is that writes novels dribbling on in dull, uninspired monotony.

In truth, it doesn't matter that the books aren't aimed at speccy fanboys at the moment (well, it doesn't matter
much) but it does matter that the only speck of originality or thought in the first dozen New Series Adventures came from Gareth Roberts Only Human, while every other novel gave the impression of having been written by a committee of earnest young Christian music teachers, each carrying a clipboard and checklist. Worthy, competent and devoid of all thrill, this succession of books contrasted horribly with the sheer quality of many of the Target novelisations I grew up reading.

But it's been getting better recently. First off Steven Cole proved that his woeful first NSA was a glitch only. Sting of the Zygons was a big improvement and introduced some much needed humour back into the range, even if it remained a bit of a runaround (not that there's anythig wrong with that).

Then Mark Michalowski stuck the two best jokes since Who came back in his Wetworld, and managed to turn out a fun, exciting book at the same time. The long trip back from Las Vegas in the company of American Walmart retirees would have seemed even longer without the solace of Mr Michalowski's latest opus, but I don't think that's the only reason I enjoyed it.

I had heard it described as a rip-off of/homage to the Power of Kroll, but that's only true if you accept that The Daemons was a rip-off of Quatermass - i.e. not true at all. It is set on a swamp planet and does feature a Very Big Bad, but the similarities end there. This is a book with actual science in it, for a start.

Kroll, the story hangs together very well, with a decent central idea, consistent characterisation and an interestingly realised baddie. The colony and colonists could be seen as a bit generic, I suppose (crooked, self-serving administrator, kooky young female rebel, hard faced scientist with unexpected adventurous side), but I suspect that's entirely true to (what) life (will be) in space colonial times and it certainly didn't strike me as at all off when I was reading the book.

Perhaps the biggest compliment I can pay the book is this - when asked to list three negatives about it the best I could come up with was an odd tense shift on pages 128-130 where a character starts off thinking in the past perfect that a group were easy to manipulate and finishes in the simple past tense as he talks to them in real time. It jarred a bit, but it's a pretty minor complaint and one you'd expect the editor rather than the author to have caught in any case.

The follow up to Michalowski's alien planet in the future is Mark Morris' American town in the past, Forever Autumn, which I haven't gotten round to finishing yet, but which starts in suitably creepy manner. More on that when I get the time to finish it off.

Best of all, though, very very best of all - they've let Paul Magrs do another Who book.*

Fair enough (to link things back up to the beginning in a vaguely competent reviewerly manner) even a Magrsian NSA was never going to have the depth of The Blue Angel or the playfulness of Verdigris, but Paul's mainstream books for young adults have always been worth reading. Unlike some YA books, they never talk down to the reader, have unsuitable bits in them and have even been known to have the supposed Reader Identification Figure (copyright the first dozen BBC NSAs) turn out not to be perfect after all. My eleven year old daughter loves them.

In Sick Building, the Doctor and Martha come to Tiermann's World to tell the inhabitants that the Voracious Craw**, a much bigger version of the sandworms from Dune with an appetite to match, is on its way to destroy their planet. To their surprise, the only people on the planet are a family of settlers, living in their sentient Dreamhome, designed and built by the erratic genius father of the family, Professor Ernest Tiermann.

Sick Building (not as good a title as the original Wicked Bungalow, but blame Cardiff for that) is actually pitched a little bit younger than Magrs' Young Adult books like Exchange, being more on a par with something like Hands Up or the recent Twin Freaks. The human characters are slightly less complex, the situation a bit less subtle and the interaction less nuanced. But it's still a fantastically imaginative story, a fast-paced fairground ride of a book in which the Magrs' equivalents of Mrs Potts and Lumiere from Disney's Beauty and the Beast rebel against a genuinely unfeeling and wholly selfish creator. Magrs imbues the two main Servo Furnishings - Barbara and Toaster - with genuinely heroic personalities and if there's occasionally a little too much of the Mad Scientist about Tiermann, it is only occasional. Magrs even finds time, like Michalowski before him,to slip one or two tiny meta-textual jokes into the book.

Finally, the ending is brilliant - the kind of thing which in the hands of the TV series would be rubbish (see the Slitheen, for instance) but which in Sick Building seems like the
only way in which the Craw could be seen off.

As ever, this is highly recommended - and the same goes for
Wetworld and, I hope, Forever Autumn. And one of the next lot of novels to be announced is by Paul Dale Smith, who wrote the second best Who short story ever, and is set in Edinburgh, the world's most beautiful city.

Maybe the book range is less sick than it seems?

* While Justin Richards appears to be commissioning my wish list, can we have Phil Purser-Hallard next please, followed by anyone called Simon and Ian Potter** *.
** Although the cover artist obviously never bothered reading the book since the Craw has no teeth in the book and demonstrably has loads on the cover.
*** If he's decided he could do a whole book. Bet he could.

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Monday, October 22, 2007

Little Lost Reviews

[or some short reviews of Who-related things, snipped from their various draft versions on my Blogger Posts page]

Reading Between Designs - Piers Britton and Simon Barker

Not a subject I'm familiar with or had ever given much thought to prior to reading this book, the Who section of Reading Between Designs (it also covers "The Avengers" and "The Prisoner") turns out to be considerably more interesting than a more mainstream guide to the show is ever likely to be. Covering the impact that design work has on a television show may in fact be the sole remaining new angle to take in an analysis of Doctor Who, so it's fortunate that it's both so well done and so accessible even to those who have never considered the subject before.

The book covers the entirety of the pre-RTD show and rarely flags in spite of the lengthy timeline thus contained. I didn't agree with everything the authors said, but there's some fascinating stuff on June Hudson's costumes for Romana in Season 17 that had me dragging out the City of Death dvd, while the section on Ace reminded me of something I'd entirely forgotten - that Aldred is authentically dressed like a teenager in the late 1980s, even if she talks like a middle-aged man's idea of how teenagers talk and is clearly in her mid twenties. Britton and Barker even managed to have me rethinking my stance on Tom Baker's season 18 'costume', which I'd always vaguely disliked as a concept, but which makes far more sense when placed into the appropriate context.

The subject matter may not be for everyone, but for those looking for something other than yet another programme guide, RBD is well worth a read.

TARDIS Model making Kit

This, on the other hand, is the most abysmal rubbish. Unclear instructions and flimsy card make for a disappointing and frustrating time, particularly as the kit is presumably aimed at children. It comes in a very nice folder which can be used for other things, so it's not a complete loss, but otherwise avoid at all costs.

Supermag Cyberman

The boys quite liked this though. Satisfyingly chunky, the construction is pretty simple and even quite small kids should have little difficulty in slotting the various balls and limbs together. Plus it actually stands up without problem, which is rare enough for any toy, I've always found.

Damaged Cyberman

Whereas this is a joke, surely? I know it was a Comic Con exclusive, but isn't that effect just as easily achieved by buying a complete cyberman and giving it to any five year old for ten minutes?

Doctor Who and the Daleks Audio Book

This audio book, read beautifully by William Russell is - to employ an over-used description - simply fantastic. For a start, this is David Whittaker's alternative opening to the series, with scientist Ian Chesterton stopping on Barnes Common to aid private tutor, Barbara, following a car crash, as she searches for her mysterious lost pupil, Susan English. More broadly, though, this is Doctor Who as turn of the century scientific romance, complete with gorgeous blond haired goodies and evil and physically repellant alien baddies, bookended by a burgeoning romance between the two human leads.

The sound work on this cd is equal to Russell's superb reading and in many ways the audio book is smoother and more enjoyable an experience than actually watching the television episodes.

Russell also reads the other two original novelisations, The Crusades and The Zarbi, both of which I'm looking forward to immensely.
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Tuesday, October 16, 2007


From Hell: the movie is to From Hell: The Graphic Novel as a partially digested acorn stuck in squirrel crap is to an entire forest of majestic oaks. If you didn't know in advance that there was a link between them you wouldn't believe that the two objects had anything in common at all.


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Saturday, October 06, 2007

Don't Dare - Failed Pilots of the Future

Deaf and Dumb Borstal - the screenplay of Scum told entirely in the medium of the ever humorous speech patterns of the profoundly deaf. Includes strong language, but you'd never know unless you were really concentrating.

Reply from BBC: Thank you for your submission. You may well be correct that this would be funny for the first five minutes, but we have certain reservations that it may prove offensive to the aurally challenged.

Seven Brides for Seven Sisters - the Howard Keel musical, using the music of the Smiths. Main scene: Howard on the edge of a cliff singing 'I Know it's Over' in a powder blue shirt and very tight trousers.

Reply from BBC: Many thanks for your interesting proposal. We swithered over this one for quite some time, with a good deal of interest from BBC2 in particular, but will have to pass as, sadly, it turns out that Mr Keel is in fact dead.

Joey's Joey - Joey Deacon, iconic seventies mentalist, in a series of wacky adventures with his kangaroo chum.

Scrawled post-it from BBC: You are kidding presumably? All we can suggest is killing the kangaroo and having its spirit talk to Mr Deacon, then try sending it to LivingTV.


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Monday, October 01, 2007

Tell Laura I'm Dead (now with added tomatoes)

When I was walking the dog last night (part of the new get fit regime, doncha know), the shuffle function on my mp3 player threw up these four songs in a row:

Bonnie and Clyde - Mick Harvey
1952 Vincent Black Lightning - Richard Thompson
Sweet William's Ghost - Alasdair Roberts
Signed DC - Love

Three 'Tell Laura I love Her' romantic ballads with the twist of a dead person singing, and one stoned death blues.

So I have to ask, can an mp3 player be depressed?


Thankfully I also had episode 1 of the BBC7 debut of Ian Potter - one of the many, many media stars I know through the media of never having spoken to or met, but having typed emails to one another.

It's called No Tomatoes and as it's in 15 minute slices it would give too much away to go into detail, but it was very good and enters my recommended listening charts at a healthy number 3. That's behind Just a Minute (obviously) and That Mitchell and Webb Sound (although it was a close run thing there) but well ahead of things like Space Hacks.

Best line in the show: "Swans...unpopularly believed to give TB to badgers"

Best sketch: The Sooty sketch (even if I'd never heard of Scampi, Sooty's nephew - and now I'm not sure if Ian made him up for the sketch or not. I am clearly not down with the kids*.)

Actually, what it reminded me of most was that Paul Merton show from a few years back in that it was slightly surreal at times, didn't bother putting punchlines on every sketch for the sake of it and made me snort with laughter more than the norm.

A promising start then, and should you wish to catch up on the one you missed this Monday, it's available on Listen Again here **

* No, classickidstv.co.uk confirms that yes, Scampi does exist.
** Just don't listen to The Goldfish Bowl which comes right afterwards because it's rubbish. Seriously. I could write funnier stuff in my sleep.
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