Monday, February 18, 2008

1066 and all that!

I'm a weak, weak man, it's true.

Having started a vague Dalek marathon the other week and then watched Destiny and Death in the past fortnight, I was all set to start on Planet this week. Then the DVD of The Time Meddler arrived in the post.

The Time Meddler
- even the name's great, a proper science fictiony sounding title. It was also the very last Target paperbacks I bought for about ten years. Admittedly, I was 18 by then and I no longer went into a frenzy of excitement at adding a Hartnell story to my book collection (had I been 12 when it came out then it would have been a far different matter, possibly involving joyous hand-clapping), but it does remain a bit of personal landmark.

Interestingly, the novelisation adds a prologue in which Steven makes his way through the jungles of Mechanus and into the TARDIS, which otherwise unseen incident allows me to segue neatly into...

...Vicki and the Doctor in the TARDIS, as yet unaware of their stowaway, discussing whether they will ever return to see Ian and Barbara ('Perhaps', says the Doctor).

Writer Dennis Spooner does this type of character-based vignette very well and this brief scene is no exception. Both the Doctor expressing his surprise and disappointment that the two Earthlings have left the TARDIS to go home and the plaintive fishing for compliments inherent in his asking Vicki whether she is staying merely 'for the sake of an old man' flesh out his character unobtrusively while also suggesting that at this point (the end of season 2), the powers that be were willing to leave the door open for a return of the popular duo of Hill and Russell if they were needed.

Also evident from this first scene is the fact that Maureen O'Brien is a much better actress than either Carole Ann Ford before her or Jackie Lane after. Peter Purves is excellent as Steven Taylor, space pilot, as well and almost immediately hits it off with O'Brien. Blow though it must have been to lose William Russell and Jacqueline Hill, for a short period of time at least their two replacements were more than adequate.

Once Steven officially arrives, the story starts moving along apace and it's soon made plain that this is a historical with a twist - the first pseudo-historical, to use fandom's clunky phrase. It's hard at this remove to get a real feel for the unexpectedness of the discovery of the Monk's wrist-watch in 11th century Northumbria. Even if you're one of the twelve genre tv fans who haven't seen Star Trek's 'City of the Edge of Forever', there's barely a series which hasn't done a variation of the theme (the most recent being the season one finale of Primeval). But in 1965 it was all new and the revelation that the monk on the hill was not all he seemed must have been wholly unexpected. The later reveal at the end of episode 3 that 'The Monk's got a TARDIS!' would have topped even that and must be in the running for best cliffhanger in the history of the show.

But even allowing for the fact that we can't really comprehend the novelty of the concepts on display to the contemporary viewer, we can at least admire the tidiness of the plotting and the logical nature of the puzzle at its core. It's not wilfully experimental in the manner of The Web Planet or played largely for laughs like Spooner's other scripts, for The Gunfighters or The Romans. It does share an interest in character building, but the humour is altogether more subtle and the plot more intelligent and less reliant on famous names from history.

For once in Who, in fact, the plot actually makes reasonable sense, so long as you accept that the Monk wants to help Britain achieve fourteenth century airplanes for some reason. He claims altruism but a simple desire to meddle seems more likely. Either way, everything follows on logically from that point with the Monk and his comedy checklist setting up an atomic cannon, attempting to lure the Vikings to their deaths and then preparing the ground for a victory for King Harold at Hastings. It's not overly complicated but the history is accurate so far as it goes, and the movement of the Doctor on the one hand and Steven and Vicki on the other, as they make their way from the monastery to the Saxon settlement and back again, is sufficiently involved to hold the interest without difficulty. In passing, Peter Butterworth as the Monk is excellent and makes the most of even those scenes in which he has no lines. It's no surprise they had him back in the following year, although it's more surprising that he never appeared again after that.

No review of The Time Meddler would be complete, naturally, without a lengthy section on time lords, TARDISes and the plethora of brand new information in the story about the Doctor's until then wholly mysterious past. So let's quickly skim through what we learn here.

1. Although Vicki exclaims that the Monk has 'a TARDIS', he never refers to it as such, but calls it his 'time machine'. The Doctor does admit that they come from the same place, however.

2. The Monk's time machine looks exactly the same as the Doctor's except that the central console is on a kind of dais. The Monk's TARDIS is a Mark 4 apparently* and, although the Doctor never answers Vicki's question, is seemingly more modern than the Doctor's TARDIS (which we later find out is a Type 40).

3. The Doctor is from 50 years earlier than the Monk - the Discontinuity Guide tries to claim that this merely means that the Doctor left Gallifrey 50 years before the Monk, but a far more reasonable reading of the line is that the Doctor is 50 years older than the Monk.

Not a lot really, but enough to shoot down Gary Russell's utterly dreadful Deca (from Divided Loyalties) which claims the Doctor and the Monk were contemporaries, and to establish that the Doctor was not the only wanderer in the fourth dimension in the Whoniverse.

One incredibly minor and nitpicky complaint to end with. The bedding at the end of episode 2 is different to that seen in the recap section at the start of episode 3. Not a problem when watched weekly, it's a little bit jarring when the scenes are viewed straight after one another.

Oh, and I'd pay good money to own the minituarised version of the Monk's TARDIS which he peers into Michael Bentine style after the Doctor removes a vital circuit.

* Which makes the Monk's ship a Mark 4 Travel Machine, and hence one better than a Dalek :)

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Friday, February 15, 2008

Of Detectives, Elves and Neo Fascists

For anyone wanting to listen to the type of Sherlock Homes radio plays I mentioned the other day, you can do so for nothing at this excellent site.

On the subject of freebies (and thanks to Simon for pointing this out) Tor books is giving away pdf versions of twelve of its sf novel catalogue, if you sign up at

Within a day of entering your details, you get links to the books. The first one is Mistborn by Branden Sanderson (available here and if the cover is anything to go by probably rotten and featuring elves). And the second is Old Man's War by John Scalzi, a novel once described by t'other Simon as "unpleasant right-wing polemic" and 'neo-fascistic drivel', so perhaps best to stick with the Sherlock Holmes.

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Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Forgotten Novels: Last of the Just

It's a beautiful legend:

According to this teaching, at any given time there are at least 36 holy Jews in the world who are Tzadikim. These holy people are hidden, i.e., nobody knows who they are. According to some versions of the story, they themselves may not know who they are. For the sake of these 36 hidden saints, God preserves the world even if the rest of humanity has degenerated to the level of total barbarism. 1
The Jewish French author of Last of the Just, Andre Schwarz-Bart, had joined the Resistance in 1941 after the deportation of his parents to Auschwitz by the Nazis. Having survived the war and seen the brutality of the Nazis up close, it's hardly surprising that in 1959 he chose to write a novel about a single humble Jew, one of the Just Men of the legend, and his life during the German occupation.

What is more surprising, and what gives the novel so much of its undoubted power, is that the Just Man - Ernie Levy - is far more of a sacrificial victim than a saviour, and that in the end he sacrifices himself not for religion or history, but for the very human reason that he cannot bear to simply stand and watch suffering.

The novel opens with a section of pseudo-history relating the tale of the Levy family since a massacre of Jews in York in 1185, through periods of persecution in the Spanish Inquisition, banishment form one country after another, until the family finally leaves Poland and settles in Germany in the early part of the twentieth century.

Three generations of the Levy family are alive as the book opens. Mordecai is head of the family, representing the eldest generation, and seemingly accepts that suffering is part of God's will and that active resistance is both futile and, in some barely understood way, actually wrong.

Mordecai's son Benjamin is more modern and less Jewish, and believes that assimilation into German society is the only way to survive.

But Mordecai refuses to listen to Benjamin and passes on the story of the Just Men to Ernie, his grandson. With the arrival of the Nazis in 1933, the overly imaginative child is convinced by his grandfather's words that he is destined to be a Just Man (a belief that Mordecai shares) and prepares joyfully to 'embrace his martyrdom' as only an overly imaginative and romantic child could.

Had the novel continued as expected from this point, then it would be an interesting addition to the library of Jewish Holocaust fiction, but little more.

But instead Schwarz-Bart mixes scenes of the almost banal cruelty of the Nazis alongside others of extraordinary lyricism. Ernie and his family escape to France, where Ernie attempts to take a positive role as a Just Man and joins the French army as a stretcher bearer, not fighting directly but not neither merely passively resisting.

The French Army, however, are defeated and Ernie ends up in Vichy France, attempting to lose himself amongst the mass of people, shucking off his Jewishness, attending Catholic Mass and indulging himself sexually. Having tried his own approach in the Army, Ernie now follows his father's advice and tries to embrace the Gentile lifestyle.

As with his spell in the Army though, this ends in failure and recognised as a Jew, Ernie returns to what he knows. Going back to the Jewish section of Paris, Ernie discovers four devout jews from his Polish village, who proclaim him to be a Just Man - an accusation that Ernie, running and hiding no longer, is forced to accept is true.

The triumph of the novel though - the thing which raises it above any school essay style criticism, which trumps any admiration we might have for the narrative structure or the clever way in which Ernie tries to survive in a time when Judaism can be fatal - is not that Ernie sacrifices himself because he is a Just Man, but that he does so for a far less mystical reason.

As the novel comes to an end, Ernie follows his lover Golda into the French transit camp at Drancy, unable to live without her. Once there, he agrees to go with Golda to face certain death in Auschwitz, rather than allow a group of 1500 orphaned children go alone to die there.

In the final few pages of the book, Ernie does all he can to look after the children - first telling them as they travel in a cattle-truck that they will soon be in Heaven, a place where "an eternal joy will crown your heads", and then in the same scene telling an old woman that there is "no room for truth" in Auschwitz - if a lie can provide comfort, then a lie is required. Finally, as he waits with Golda and the children for the deadly gas to come on in the showers, he tells them to breathe quickly and deeply, the more swiftly and easily to die.

It's an incredibly emotive passage to read but the pain felt in reading it is assuaged to an extent by a return to the mythical at the very, very end, as the author repeats over and over again the phrase 'And Praised be the Lord' with each sentence broken in three parts by the names of concentrations camps. That sounds like nothing much, admittedly, but this final stunted and malformed prayer seems, in retrospect, to be the only way to end the story.
And Praised. Auschwitz. Be. Maidenek. The Lord. Treblinka. And Praised. Buchenwald. Be. Mauthausen. The Lord. Belzec. And Praised. Sobibor.
Everyone should read this book but be warned - it'll have you in tears.


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Sunday, February 03, 2008

Sherlock Holmes and the Mysterious Case of the Centenarian Detectives

Anyone who likes Sherlock Holmes will be aware of the series of movies made by Universal in the late 30s and early 40s, starring Basil Rathbone as Holmes and Nigel Bruce as his chronicler and side-kick Dr Watson.

I can only say with certainty that they'll be aware of them, since for many Holmesians these films are the thin end of the wedge, the point at which presentation of the Holmes stories went horribly awry and many undesirable elements were introduced (Holmes taking part in non-canonical mysteries and Watson being a bumbling half-wit, specifically).

For those of us with a love of the slightly askew though, these films are a Godsend. Starting off in 1939 with the traditional Hound of the Baskervilles and running via another 13 films to 1946 and The Secret Code the series soon left behind Victorian England and became a propoganda tool for the allies as Holmes foiled one sinister Nazi plan after another in a modern day setting.

Even better though, the two actors starred at the same time in the radio series, The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes - and that's mad as two hungry weasels in a sack.

The series ran in full from 1939 until 1947, though Rathbone jumped ship in '46, and the ones I've heard (courtesy of Paul) are from Rathbone's final season.

So what's so peculiar about them, I ask both of my readers ask at once?

Might as well start with the big one. The series as a whole at this point was sponsored by a company called Petri Wine and, as was the custom of the day, this involves a spokesman for the company doing a little speech at the beginning and end extolling the virtues of the sponsor's product*.

So far so good.

What marks these stories out though is that once the spokesman finishes his spiel he then starts chatting to Nigel Bruce in character as Watson, asking after his health, his latest case and his fondness for Petri Dry Sherry! Even better, Watson gets obviously peeved by this and makes occasional comments sotto voce along the lines of 'Oh good, talking about that damn wine again".

All of which has a knock-on effect on the series' timeline. You might expect that the writers simply wouldn't mention the fact that every story is set some sixty years after the original stories? But no, the series revels in the fact that Watson is well over a hundred - in the 'April Fool's Adventure' Watson even specifically dates a story to 1881.

Then there's the incidental music, which is completely mental. It's like the most outre of outsider music or the results of the Elephant Man randomly smashing the keys of an organ with his face. Just loud, discordant parping noises basically: the output of a man who learned his trade doing sound effects for James Whale horror movies.

All of which somewhat tongue in cheek comment should not be taken as genuine scoffing. The acting is first rate, the scripts inventive and intelligent and the series as a whole both highly professional and extremely entertaining. The little oddities of the day add to the pleasure to be had in listening, rather than taking anything away.

You can download free, legitimate copies of some of these shows here. Go on, give one a try while enjoying a cool, refreshing glass of Petri Sherry, perfect as a before dinner drink or as a light, summer wine with dinner.

* I did think it was a nice touch having the widow of the writer Robert Green topping and tailing some of the episodes with reminisces about Nigel Bruce.

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Friday, February 01, 2008

Not even a good runaround

I can remember a time when the Pertwee years were considered beyond the pale by fickle fandom, and other times when they were seen as the very essence of good Doctor Who.

They've been rewritten and deconstructed in New Adventures by Jim Mortimore and Lawrence Miles, the Third Doctor himself has appeared as a ghostly voice in Big Finish's execrable Zagreus, and the biggest name from the good ol' days to turn up in Russell Davies' Shiny New Escapades of Rose, Martha and their friend the Doctor made her debut in the Pertwee story, The Time Warrior.

In short, the Pertwee era is an important one in the success of the series as whole, and a personal favourite of mine. So when deranged fools say things like "It's just 'runaround - get captured - escape -runaround - get captured - escape' until six episodes are used up' I simply shake my wise old head and ask considerately if they've forgotten to take their pills that morning.

Death to the Daleks, though...Death to the Daleks might well be the sort of thing they mean. It's poor, thin stuff, without a shadow of a doubt and the poorest Dalek story until Daleks in Manhatten came along and proved that expensive special effects cannot entirely cover paucity of authorial ability. It's not entirely runaround-capture-escape but the bits that aren't are actually even less interesting than that.

It's actually so stultifyingly bad that it's not even fun, which is about as bad as Doctor Who ever gets for me. So bad in fact that I'm not going to do a proper review, just highlight ten of the odder things that go on in Nation's Money for Nothing of a script.

1. It's an unusual title, in that it doesn't work in the usual 'Doctor Who and the...' format
2. The Daleks switching to machine guns is a good idea but one which could have been far better utilised (where the visceral impact of bullets rather than disintegration should have been flagged up, for instance)
3. In episode two, Sarah-Jane takes part in a ritual sacrifice ceremony which seems to be in something considerably longer than real time.
4. The cliffhanger to episode one is appallingly badly shot.
5. But episode three may in fact contain the weakest cliffhanger ever- a close up of a small red pattern on the floor.
6. At one point an Exxilon calls one of the Daleks 'he' rather than 'it'
7. Hey, let's not even try to disguise the fact that the city is made out of polystyrene as it collapses at the end (is that unfair? Was polystyrene - like the infamous bubble-wrap in Ark in Space - a novel substance in the early 70s?)
8. If the Exxilon slaves are meant to be mining for a rare mineral which is found underground, why are the majority of them shown panning a big puddle of dirty water on the surface?
9. The puzzles are ridiculously simple - were the earlier explorers of the City in some way mentally retarded?
1o. And finally, the Dalek suicide - 'I have failed, I have failed, I have failed' - sorry, what on Earth was that all about?

Death to the Daleks might actually be my least favourite Doctor Who story pre-1989.

And I've seen both Time and the Rani and The Moonbase, so it's not like there's no competition...

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