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Doctor Who: On audio, no-one can see the sets buckle

There’s been a recent flurry of online rumours regarding the discovery of a cache of lost Doctor Who episodes from the 1960s.

I wrote about these ‘missing’ episodes at some length for Civilian recently, but the potted version of the story is this: during the 60s and 70s, as the volume of transmitted material held in archive at the BBC increased, concerns over storage — and over the necessity of keeping hold of these old TV shows — prompted the corporation to have various reels of film “withdrawn, de-accessioned and junked”: thrown in the skip, to you and me. The logic was, with colour television becoming widespread, these old black-and-white shows — among them episodes of Steptoe and Son, Dad’s Army and Doctor Who — had little re-screening value, or chance of being sold overseas; as for what we now think of as “merchandising”, the advent of home video was still several years off.  Doctor Who, broadcast in black-and-white from its inception in 1963 until the end of the 1969 season, was among the many shows to be treated in this way, and although several episodes were retained, and others recovered from overseas broadcasters’ archives or occasionally discovered in private collections, there are still, at time of writing, 106 25-minute 1960s episodes missing, presumed wiped (out of a total of 253 broadcast). Some multi-part stories remain complete; some have only a couple of episodes missing; others are represented by a single ‘orphan’ episode, a few seconds of footage, or nothing at all.

Audio recordings of all the missing episodes do exist, however; while home video recorders were a way off, some avid Who fans used to push their tape recorders close to their TV sets to record the episodes as they were broadcast. These recordings have all been commercially released, and in some cases have been used as the soundtrack to animated versions of episodes whose visuals are missing, thus “completing” stories for DVD release. (Results vary, but are, it’s generally agreed, better than nothing.)

Among the missing episodes are some of 1960s Who‘s most highly-regarded stories (though this is something of a chicken-and-egg situation; their scarcity makes these stories grow in stature). This makes rumours about the rediscovery of some of the missing material fairly commonplace; in fact, on average, one episode is rediscovered about every five years, and the last “major” haul was the discovery, in Hong Kong, of an entire four-part adventure, ‘The Tomb of the Cybermen’, 22 years ago. With 2013 being Doctor Who‘s fiftieth anniversary, though, the rumour mill seems to have gone into overdrive. There are rumours, counter-rumours, denials, fans examining the denials for any weasel wording that could mean the denial is actually a corroboration, murmurs of up to 60 episodes “found”, and stories about an “eccentric engineer” who worked at, and smuggled vintage recordings out of, numerous TV stations in Africa. On the one hand, this is desperately romantic — we’re presented with an anonymous figure who goes around saving things in far-flung places, itself rather Doctorish behaviour — and on the other, the product of a naivety which could be charming if it weren’t, you know, borderline colonialist: Africa, you say? That generic country which changes scale to be at once so big that 60 or so missing episodes could be concealed there, and so small that one man could cycle around the place snaffling them up? (In a famous scene in ‘The Robots of Death’, the Doctor explains to his bewildered companion that the TARDIS’s vast interior exists in a different dimension from its ostensibly small exterior. You feel some people believe continents operate in the same way.) My feeling is that the current rumours are just that; the “critical mass” they’ve currently reached is derived partly from wishful thinking, partly from deliberate hoaxes designed by unscrupulous types who want to look like they’re superior to other fans, or even to exploit other fans. I’m with fan and writer Jonathan Morris on this.

To business, then: tempting fate, I recently acquired a bunch of soundtracks from missing stories — some Doctor Who I’d never experienced in this as-near-to-transmitted-form-as-possible format (I’ve read the books, though more than 20 years ago in most cases). As is often the way, the sets grow grander as you conjure these stories up in the mind’s eye; the effects dazzle; there are no peculiar costumes or dodgily constructed shots to distract from the story being told. In a way, these are the purest versions of these ten Doctor Who adventures as stories. So: how do they hold up?


The Daleks’ Masterplan

A twelve-part story broadcast between November 1965 and January 1966, ‘The Daleks’ Masterplan’ isn’t quite the longest Doctor Who story ever, but comes pretty close. It’s also remarkable for featuring a one-part “trailer” episode, ‘Mission to the Unknown’, which went out several weeks before this story’s first episode, and doesn’t feature any of the regular cast. The Daleks were a pretty big deal in 1965 — “Dalekmania” had gripped the nation with broadcast of the second Dalek story, ‘The Dalek Invasion of Earth’, the previous year — so making this epic was a fairly inevitable decision. As epics do, it drifts along a bit, with some longeurs, but several straight runs of high drama: the Daleks’ plan to destroy the galaxy involves using an incredibly rare and valuable mineral which, in an early episode, the Doctor simply wanders in and steals, whereupon a chase across the universe ensues. (Like ‘The Celestial Toymaker’, there’s slightly the sense this chase could go on visiting random alien worlds almost indefinitely, or else be wound up instantly at any arbitrary point.) Its low points, now as fifty years ago, are episodes in which the Daleks fail to appear; Episode 7, broadcast on Christmas Day 1965, is a “light” episode in which our heroes are embroiled in some dismal pastiches (cop-movie capers, a silent movie set) which have long since lost what currency they once had. Peter Purves, who provides linking narration on these CDs when moments are too visual to be conveyed by the soundtrack alone, sounds weary when narrating the story, and, five decades ago, when he’s appearing in it.

Fortunately, the story picks up pace, and a properly epic twelfth episode sees the Daleks’ time destructor device activated, with terrible consequences. Two major characters have already been killed off over the course of the serial, and a third, short-lived companion Sara Kingdom (Jean Marsh, of Upstairs, Downstairs) perishes in horrible form in this final instalment, aged to death in front of her helpless allies. Unlike modern-day Who, death tends to be permanent in old Who, and the characters are properly horrified by their friend’s fate. Doctor Who stories frequently fall apart towards the end, as careful plotting has to be wound up in a single twenty-five minute episode (see ‘The Daemons’, ‘The Macra Terror’); this is a rare example of a story whose conclusion is so strong it almost overwhelms what’s come before.


The Celestial Toymaker

The final episode of this once highly regarded adventure is one of the ‘orphan’ episodes, the only remaining instalment of a four-part adventure set in the surreal world of the Toymaker, an extra-dimensional immortal who delights in ensnaring unwary travellers and making them play games for his entertainment. If they win, they regain their freedom; if they lose, they’re turned into toys and become part of his Celestial Toyroom forever. The problem here is not just the premise, which is very Star Trek (godlike being makes mortals fight one another for his amusement), but the way in which the characters gamely (sorry) go along with the Toymaker’s ploys. Companions Steven (Peter Purves) and Dodo (Jackie Lane) are put through a series of challenges against competitors who gleefully cheat their way through the deadly games; this serves to remove any tension whatsoever (it turns out fictional characters’ cheating is as annoying as real-life players’ would be), and forces Dodo, never a very well-served character, to be a total moron, constantly trusting that their slippery competitors won’t really cheat this time. You ache for a horrible fate to befall her; in this story, she’s less interesting than a talking playing card she shares some scenes with. Elsewhere, Doctor Who (William Hartnell) faces the titular character, played by a suave Michael Gough, over a board game. Some of the time the Doctor is invisible and/or mute (Hartnell is on holiday); as Hartnell was coming to the end of his contract — and behaving rather badly behind the scenes — there were discussions behind the scenes that when he reappears, he might be played by an entirely different actor. Thankfully, sense prevailed, and this slight story goes unburdened by any great importance to the series as it would go on.

This is a story which cheats on itself: the Trilogic game the Doctor plays must be completed in exactly 1,023 moves, which imposes a certain time-length on this story, until the Toymaker speeds it on — essentially, to hasten the end of the story. Maybe, apart from apparently being a racist caricature, the Toymaker isn’t actually all that bad. ‘The Time Monster’ is the worst Doctor Who story I’ve ever seen. ‘The Celestial Toymaker’ is the worst I’ve ever heard.


The Savages

Another almost dry-run at recasting the Doctor come here, where chief baddy Jano (Frederick Jaeger) attempts to drain “the traveller from beyond time” of his life force and instead gets something of a personality transplant, a process which leaves the Doctor himself seems close to death. It’s strange and magical listening to these stories (even ‘The Celestial Toymaker’), knowing with hindsight that the Doctor’s first ever regeneration (i.e. change of lead actor) is only a few stories away; it’s enticing to imagine viewers knowing the part was to be recast and wondering each story whether this would be the last time they’d see Hartnell. (In the event, I imagine, it must have been even more shocking to have had no idea what was going to come.)

The story is otherwise a fairly straightforward morality tale. Originally entitled ‘The White Savages’, the story was adjusted (thankfully!) before broadcast to pull it somewhat away from being an overtly appalling racist allegory where black characters are sophisticated, technologically advanced and benevolent, and the white characters the ‘savages’ — the show having just about got away with this sort of inversion in ‘Galaxy 4’ with the hackneyed sci-fi conceit of a race of emotionless, man-hating females. Doctor Who‘s track record around race isn’t great (there’s a documentary about it on the DVD of ‘The Mutants’ (1972)), and the period around 1965 is arguably the worst. Photographs from this story show Jago somewhat… well, bronzed up more than blacked up, which isn’t much better. Audio suits ‘The Savages’ very well, therefore. The scenes of the Doctor’s near-death experience, intercut with the eerie scenes of Jago realising his personality is not his own, are this story’s redeeming feature.


The Smugglers

Adventures in history, originally meant to be as numerous as science-fiction stories, would grow scarcer in Doctor Who as the series went on; this story is one of the last, and unlike its predecessors isn’t set in a specific, resonant historical context (such as the Crusades or the French Revolution). Instead it’s a seafaring spy story in which all the characters undercut and double-cross one another in their attempt to find the treasure of a legendary pirate, Avery. It’s the first full story for companions Ben (Michael Craze) and Polly (Anneke Wills, who also narrates the audio version), and as they’re among my favourite pairs of companions, they really sell this story for me. Otherwise, it’s so full of betrayals and counterplots that it grows hard to follow. No-one’s up to much good in this story, so there’s a nice sense that one of the villains is going unpunished largely because even the characters can’t follow the plot they’re in.


The Power of the Daleks

If this rumour — which has grown, in the few days I’ve been composing this posting, from a few scraps of film being found to a staggering 90 of the 106 missing episodes, hidden in tons upon tons of hoarded film reels — were to be true, ‘The Power of the Daleks’ would be near the top of my most wanted list. The newly regenerated Doctor (Patrick Troughton), accompanied by Ben and Polly, faces up against his oldest enemies, in what is perhaps surprisingly the only time the Daleks have featured in any Doctor’s first story (oh, all right, except the TV Movie, but that doesn’t really count in this context). It’s a genius idea to ‘sell’ the new incarnation of the lead character: while his companions struggle to work out whether this really is the same man in a new body, mirroring the audience’s no doubt startled reaction, the Daleks move straight in there, identifying their old enemy straight away. It’s a clever trick that exploits ‘Dalekmania’ and the fact that, for a large part of the casual audience, this show is thought of as Doctor Who and the Daleks; who cares what the companions who’ve only been around a few weeks think, when the aliens which represent and summarise the show itself have the answer?

In David Whitaker’s suspenseful, demoniacally plotted script, they are weak, down to only three units, and forced to be as cunning and manipulative as they’ve ever been seen. The humans on the colony on Vulcan, engaged in power struggles of their own, are blind to the Doctor’s warnings, until of course it’s far too late. Episode 2, in which the human scientists believe they’re reactivating a Dalek of their own volition, is the ultimate in making you shout at the screen/your headphones, ‘Don’t do it!’ And Troughton’s mercurial Doctor — himself seemingly unsure of his identity at times — leaves enough ambiguity for the audience to wonder almost throughout who this new man is, and whether he can defeat his nemeses. Of course, he does; with a brilliant new leading man, and featuring some of the series’ most iconic and resonant set pieces (the Dalek production line; the Daleks feigning subservience to their human dupes) this is, even on audio only, a masterpiece of Doctor Who.


The Highlanders

And now for something completely different. The last ‘pure’ historical in many years is, like ‘The Smugglers’, set in a Boy’s Own adventure story, with pirates (again), redcoats versus Jacobites, and wily Englishmen defeated by even more wily proletariat (represented by 60s chick Polly, and her new friend Kirsty, played by television’s Hannah Gordon). This is only Patrick Troughton’s second story; writer Gerry Davis doesn’t know what to do with him other than make him as un-Hartnellish as possible, and so we have the new Doctor dressing up as an elderly wench or an unorthodox European medical doctor (Doctor von Wer), each disguise necessitating putting on a silly voice. He’s also very violent, though it’s sold as farcical comedy rather than anything brutal. By this stage, you’d listen to Troughton reading the phonebook, strange accent or none; that none of these characteristics really persisted after this story — beyond an enduring liking for hats, which would resurface in the Eleventh Doctor’s fondness for a fez — makes it a weird side-step into a Who where this sort of thing would have happened week in, week out.

What saves the story from total curio status is that it introduces Jamie McCrimmon (Frazer Hines), a new companion, a Highlander from 1746 who would stay at the Doctor’s side throughout the rest of his second incarnation. Unswervingly loyal, mostly completely bewildered by what’s going on around him, Jamie is an entirely charming companion — even if, in this debut adventure, he doesn’t do anything terribly distinguished to earn him companion status. At the end, he more or less just wanders aboard the TARDIS to be whisked off to destinations unknown.


The Macra Terror

Set in a futuristic holiday camp, ‘The Macra Terror’ was notorious for featuring the series’ biggest and most expensive prop so far: the titular Macra, a vast crab from outer space, which cost the same as a small car. I’d wanted to hear this story for quite some time, but found myself disappointed. It’s a great conceit for a story: the parasitic Macra are secret overseers of the colony, whose denizens are brainwashed into mining the gas the Macra need to survive. But the set-up isn’t well described; at some stage we shade from its being a slightly OTT Butlins-in-space to it being a labour camp, without there being much of a sense of who among the staff or colonists knows what. Do people come to the camp expecting a holiday and end up working there? Why are the entertainments still laid on: to ensnare new visitors? The story also suffers from having the same cliffhanger at the end of each episode (a Macra attacks!), and a very rushed resolution in which everything is just blown up when the Doctor, effectively, presses a button or two. On the plus side, there’s some nice interaction between companions Ben and James, which really sells them as time-travelling mates fond of one another despite their very different backgrounds (this is the only time, until ‘Boom Town’ forty years later we have two male companions among the regular TARDIS team). It’s clear that audio favours the Macra in a way that moving images mightn’t — it was so static a prop that characters “attacked” by it would likely have to throw themselves into its claws — but it doesn’t do this story many other favours. Worst of all, it highlights the most appalling incidental music I’ve ever heard in Doctor Who, an atonal jingling that adheres to no known time signature (or key) and made me wish very much I too could be brainwashed into not hearing it.


The Enemy of the World

A total gem, this — a six-part story I remembered (from the book) almost nothing about, except that it’s The One Where Patrick Troughton Also Plays the Villain. Salamander, a Mexican despot in a near-future world of continental zones and streamlined political blocs, is played with great relish by Troughton: I think he’s using the relish to flavour the scenery he’s chewing on. It’s an irresistible performance, and a subtle one; when the Doctor is forced to mimic his doppelganger, Troughton gives this ersatz Salamander a distinctly different air from the ‘real’ one. The plot, which starts off like a gritty James Bond story, goes off the rails towards the end, as six-parters often do; writer David Whitaker would later recycle elements of it for his 1974 story ‘Invasion of the Dinosaurs’, and what you feel the lack of here are the dinosaurs, or some other monster. Salamander, who seems to want to hold the world to ransom and/or destroy it, has found a way of causing volcanoes to spontaneously erupt or earthquakes to strike out of nowhere. It makes for a bombastic, high-stakes plot against which a spy story plays out — but it’s so cartoony that even dinosaurs would be more plausible. That aside, Whitaker was one of 60s Who‘s best writers, and this is a knockout story, one I went into with no great expectations and emerged totally won over.

The Wheel in Space

More even than the Daleks, the Cybermen are the Patrick Troughton monster (although their first appearance is in the final adventure of the William Hartnell Doctor). The third of their four stories during his era, ‘The Wheel in Space’ is a slowish and rather oddly plotted story in which the monsters attempt to take over the eponymous space station, to an end which is never really satisfactorily explained. The Cybermen are never really that great with a plan; here they come equipped with a boss known variously as the Cyber Planner or the Cyber Co-ordinator, whose voice, a largely unintelligible buzzle, may go some way to explaining that. The budget stretches to only two Cybermen here, though this isn’t such a problem on audio; a wonderfully eerie electronic pulsing fills your speakers whenever the Cybermen turn up in a scene, distracting from their relative uselessness as a threat. (It takes them two episodes to arrive in the story, then an additional forever to actually invade the Wheel.) An odd highlight is the first episode, which is largely a two-hander for the Doctor and Jamie (Frazer Hines), only the second time the Doctor has a lone companion for a while — the last instance, at the opening of ‘The Evil of the Daleks’, was also scripted by David Whitaker. It’s an old-fashioned, enthralling opener as the pair land on a mysterious spacecraft and set about exploring at much the same pace as the audience does, though it has the sense somewhat of killing time before the story proper actually begins. That’s ‘The Wheel in Space’: rich on atmosphere, thin on plot.


The Space Pirates

A six-episode  story, with one ‘orphan’ episode known to exist, ‘The Space Pirates’ has long had a pretty bad reputation. It’s certainly too long — there’s a lot of toing and froing between locations at great length, with talk of ‘maximum boost’ speed only drawing attention to the slow pace of this space opera. Writer Robert Holmes would go on to craft many classic Who stories, and there are glimmers of that here, though the story’s most distinctive character, a space buccaneer improbably named Milo Clancy, is so for all the wrong reasons; an accent part George W Bush, partly methamphetamine-addicted lobotomy patient, strained this listener’s patience. It’s a great relief when he doesn’t appear. Elsewhere, the titular pirates have a stupid plan, their duped colleague is conveniently stupid enough to trust them and/or turn on them at all the appropriate moments, and 196-s cult TV fans have a treat when the very distinctive boom of Adam Adamant Lives!‘s Jack May overenunciates his way through the episodes as General Hermack. One plus point: a brilliant bit of Doctorish business made me laugh out loud here. Having fallen down a trench, the Doctor initially appears worse-injured than the companions who tumbled down with him. It transpires he has been carrying a packet of drawing pins in his pocket.

Dear Life – Alice Munro


I’ve reviewed Dear Life, Alice Munro’s 14th collection of short fiction, over at Civilian. Here’s an extract from the review:

An intriguing insight into Munro’s working methods is gained by comparing a story which appears here, “In Sight of the Lake”, with an earlier iteration of the same story which appeared, some nine months before Dear Life’s publication, in the British literary magazine Granta (Issue 118). It’s instructive to read the two drafts in parallel: for the most part – despite the central character undergoing a name change from the terse Jean to the more resonant Nancy – the story unfolds more or less unchanged in both versions, right up to its final twist. We follow Jean/Nancy wandering an unfamiliar town in search of the doctor’s office where she has an appointment for tests of her mental acuity, the terrible irony being that she can’t remember the name or address of her doctor. Finally she becomes trapped in a surreal reception hall whose every doorway – including the one by which she’s entered – is locked. Here we have the change. In the Granta version, the final section, as Jean is rescued by a nurse named Sandy, we realise that she has all along been in a home of some sort, and has dreamed, hallucinated or fantasised all that’s come before. This version runs to an economical 200 words, in which we learn a little about Sandy which might be conjecture or facts Jean knows but her dementia makes her believe is conjecture. It ends with Jean’s lengthy, frantic attempt to explain herself, and a gut-punch of a final line from Sandy:

“… You see, I have an appointment to see a doctor whose name I can’t seem to get straight but I was supposed to find him here and I have followed some directions as well as I could but no luck. I felt that I’d got into some ridiculous sort of trap and I must have a tendency to be claustrophobic, it was alarming –”

“Oh, Jean, hurry up,” said Sandy. “I’m behind already and I have to get you into your nightie and all. That’s the same thing you tell me every time.”

By the time of Dear Life, more than 100 words have been cut from this final section; we don’t need to know anything more of Sandy than her name and that she’s a nurse, and that killer last line is oddly softened and muted by the revisions. “What did you dream about now?” she asks Nancy, and when placid Nancy’s able to recall the type of car she used to drive at the time she was dreaming of, the nurse replies: “See? You’re sharp as a tack,” says Sandy, and it’s ironic enough, capturing a sort of absent-minded bare minimum of care and kindness – but somehow not mean enough for Munro. In some ways, reading these two drafts in parallel is a kind of instructional masterclass, showing the kind of material a ruthless “compressor” will cut out of a story. On the other hand, to my mind the Granta version is unquestionably superior which, subjective though that assessment is, makes me wonder what prompted the revisions, the slackening of that final scene, and whether Munro’s famous gift for “compression” has sometimes made her stories suffer.

Previously in Books on The Fire Show:
‘How does Alice do it?’: A review of Too Much Happiness, Munro’s 13th book of stories, and an attempted investigation into how her best stories operate.
Two new books on alternative music: Richard King’s history of indie music record labels How Soon is Now and a magisterial oral history of grunge music in Mark Yarm’s Everybody Loves Our Town.
Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child: “The problem is that in the work of an author who really does not write comedy, this biscuit-tray portentousness, intended maybe as a bit of a lark, just looks foolish.”
David Mitchell’s first foray into historical fiction, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet: “It’s no insult to say I treated it as a (very superior) beach read – of the sort one simultaneously wants to guzzle in a few long sittings, and to prolong as long as possible its many pleasures.”

Doctor Who: Dinosaurs on a Spaceship

Yeah, all right, it’s an attention-grabbing title, and no worse (in the sense that it’s mildly descriptive yet opaque) than ‘Planet of Evil’ or ‘The Deadly Assassin’, but it’s just kind of… pushy, isn’t it? Roll up, roll up: dinosaurs on a spaceship. On the other hand, if this’d been on TV when I was nine (instead of Season 24 — oh, there’s another stupid title: ‘Time and the Rani’) my eyes would have been out my head on stalks to see that title flash up. Likewise, the scene on the beach where pterodactyls are divebombing the Doctor and co — hell, I was thrilled by that at the age of 33. Some things you never grow out of.

Some things, though… Writer Chris Chibnall seems not to have grown out of adolescent sex jokes, for instance: there’s a testicles joke, a line about a man with “a big weapon”, and Queen Nefertiti offers someone a spanking. Meanwhile there’s a scene in which the particularly nasty villain of this story, space pirate Solomon, talks about “breaking in” Nefertiti, which seems to me to be a line being crossed: the balls Brian’s referring to are golf balls, and game hunter Riddell actually does have “a big weapon”, a stun-rifle, so these constitute a crude but forgivable innuendo; Solomon’s threat is really only readable as one of sexual violence, however, and that’s an uncomfortable fit for any Who, let alone one that is otherwise a big, fun, hyper-colourful, fast-paced — you know I’m adding adjectives to delay this inevitable four-letter word — romp. Doctor Who, aimed at what used to be called ‘the intelligent 14-year old’, is being written, in one way, exactly right here. You wouldn’t want it to be like this every week, but the fun runaround (the type of story Russell T Davies used to employ as the ‘hook’ to draw unsuspecting casual viewers into a new season) is at least as Whoish as something more serious or sinister.

And the story isn’t all chirpiness: the Doctor, our moral centre, responds to the situation in a fairly brutal way: Solomon is not just left to his fate but deliberately sent to his doom by our hero. The Doctor as executioner is something we haven’t seen in a while — but David Bradley’s Solomon, though not a scene-chewing villain, is one of the nastier pieces of work we’ve seen in a while: an unashamedly malevolent mass-murderer and blackmailer. Both the villain and his means of despatch come from a somewhat different story than this one.

Guest-wise, Rupert Graves brings a great deal of conviction to a rather one-note character, the gung-ho game hunter (and shouldn’t the Doctor rather disapprove of that?) John Riddell, but Rian Steele doesn’t manage to invest Nefertiti — the Queen of Egypt, after all! — with much life. The flirting between these two doesn’t quite work, for that reason. Filling a spaceship with dinosaurs and failing to include a proper tyrannosaurus is something like a contravention of the trade descriptions act — one sleeping junior and a couple of shadows on a wall is a great big cheat. And it’s ever so convenient that Rory’s dad happens to come along for a story set on a ship which needs two genetically related people to fly it — a problem solved almost before it’s posed. Once again, convenient plotting means that Amy, Rory and Brian can without much hassle operate unfamiliar computer systems and fly a vastly complicated alien spaceship (and that Brian carries a seemingly endless supply of golf balls with him).

On the other hand, this is a capable script, even despite these loopholes. The dinosaurs are used to just the right degree, and ably realised with CGI (though the way their feet hit the floor didn’t quite convince me they were ‘there’) and, astoundingly, an actual full-sized model triceratops; christening this beast ‘Tricey’, though, brings us dangerously close to ‘The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe’s horrific ‘humany-wumany’ line. There are two wonderfully designed and amusingly argumentative robots, very recognisably voiced by comedians Mitchell and Webb: and why not? I even liked Amy this week: after one intensely obnoxious line near the start (offering to high five Queen Nefertiti), she reverts to that early universal-wonder of ‘The Beast Below’, with a little bit of Doctor-like command of the situation too. She enjoys having companions — even gets annoyed, very Doctorishly, when they flirt — and see how nice it is when she smiles genuinely as she gets the spaceship’s systems working? And I smiled just as genuinely when Nefe asks, ‘Are you a queen?’ and Amy responds that yes… yes, she is. I did start to wonder about generic companion dialogue, though: that line that made me wince — “Oh my god —  Queen Nefertiti?! I learned all about you at school, you’re awesome, big fan — high five?” — is there any hope that the next companion won’t talk in exactly this wisecracking way? Probably not: when Amy says, in response to a line of Riddell’s, that she’s the equal of two men herself, it’s a line almost any female companion of the last 40 years might have been given (exceptions: Nyssa wouldn’t be so pushy; Romana wouldn’t lower herself to respond in the first place). And it’s not Gillan at fault: that little curtsey she does on the “big fan” is sublime.

As well as two surrogate companions in Nefe and Ridell, we get two Rorys this week, with Mark (Fast Show) Williams as Brian, his dad, and the best parts of the episode deal with these two and their very realistic, well-observed relationship, trying to fix things around the house — or around a giant spaceship — rather than actually speak to one another about anything meaningful. Chibnall’s script is well-paced to allow little ‘moments’ between these two amid the dinosaurian chaos, and because they’re not at loggerheads, there’s nothing so heavy-handed as a big scene in which father and son two realise how much they mean to one another or anything.

Overall, this is a satisfying bit of fast-paced modern Who, with a bunch of very funny, quotable lines, some great performances, neat concepts just thrown away (I particularly liked the Silurian ark, a spaceship so vast it can contain seas, powering itself by hydroelectricity — a neat bit of the writer thinking like a Silurian), a satisfying denouement, and just the right balance of peril and fun. Chris Chibnall is a hate figure for lots of Who fans — and I agree that his script for ‘Cold Blood’ in 2010 is one of the new series’ worst clunkers — but I think this is largely due to the fact there is video footage available of a very young, very bumptious Chibnall ‘calling out’ the then production team in the mid-80s for making Who too silly and embarrassing. Yet here he is — this whippersnapper — writing actual Doctor Who!

Doctor Who: Asylum of the Daleks

Well, it wasn’t every Dalek ever. In fact, between the odd characterisation of the monsters and their gloomy, dust-beshrouded appearance, there were barely any recognisable Daleks, despite their prominence in promo pictures. Kidnapped and brought to a Dalek Parliament, through somewhat protracted means, the Doctor and now estranged husband-and-wife companions Rory and Amy are sent on a mission to the eponymous Asylum — a repository for Daleks deemed too mad to be of use to the race (but too beautiful to be destroyed). Down there, a girl is trapped — a girl who’s managed to survive for a year in a planet full of insane Daleks. A girl with a secret…

A TV show with a secret too: I’d managed to remain unspoilered, and was as surprised as anyone to see Jenna-Louise Coleman’s debut in Doctor Who, some four months before schedule. Here — though maybe not when she returns — she’s playing someone apparently named Oswald Oswin (wanna bet that overtly improbable name is some sort of clue as to how she escapes her apparent inevitable destiny, Dalekification?), a mile-a-minute talker who guides the Doctor through the asylum, flirts with Rory (who seems, for a man pledged to undying — literally — love for his wife, oddly at ease with being flirted with) and, without having to do much, makes Amy seem even less attractive a character than before. Will Coleman be back before Christmas? And is Moffat — who does like to run the same sorts of stories and characters over and over — really in danger of repeating himself by making a significant character’s first appearance spell out her final fate, just as he did with River Song, ‘killed off’ in ‘The Forest of the Dead’?

Coleman is the highlight of an episode which promises a little more than it delivers. Odd pacing means that the set-up to get the Doctor and co into the Asylum takes what seems like an age. Before that we have an elaborate series of captures involving some bit-part characters (and our first glimpse at the surface of the Dalek planet Skaro since 1979 season-opener ‘Destiny of the Daleks’) and the Dalek Parliament itself. In Russell T Davies’s hands — the Parliament was originally intended to appear in his ‘The End of Time’ (2009-10) — there would, one feels, be satire to spare, even through the fourth wall: the Dalek Prime Minister, for instance, is very obviously a puppet. Oddly, though, there’s no attempt other than the suggestion of democratic rule (!) to differentiate this set-up from the Emperor-centric one of ‘The Parting of the Ways’, despite the immediate, ingenious fan theories that sprang up once the series was aired (my favourite: humans always defeat Daleks; humans aspire to democracy; therefore Daleks should copy that parliamentary system to see if it gives them a military advantage).

Then again, an Asylum for unusually deranged Daleks isn’t a very Daleky concept either, but one with great potential, and no-one (or no-one who counts) protested innovations like the introduction of an Emperor, the glass Daleks of ‘Revelation’ or the Time War Daleks’ ability to emergency-temporal-shift away from trouble. The Asylum itself is nicely creepy, as are the scenes where Rory inadvertently reactivates the dormant creatures. I’d have liked the old-style Daleks to be a little more prominent — the list of planets on which the Doctor defeated his foes in the past is briefly exciting, but there’s really only a couple of moments where ‘individual’ Daleks (the black-topped Emperor’s guard, the Special Weapons Dalek) are prominent enough to make their presence even remarkable, never mind a pre-series selling point. (Nerds of course will ask: didn’t all the Daleks who escaped Exxilon perish when their ship exploded? Didn’t all those on Vulcan get wiped out by the Doctor?)

And now I think of it: insane, malfunctioning or defeated Daleks have tended, in the past, to blow themselves up (‘Remembrance’, ‘Death’) or be obliterated by their superiors (‘Planet’), so the notion that the new Dalek breed can’t bring themselves to be so mean rather lessens, more than strengthens, the impression they are implacable, merciless conquerors. And the Daleks here aren’t that much madder than the normal ones, so much as a bit creakier. When ‘Dalek’ (and ‘Power of the Daleks’ before it) have shown that one Dalek is capable of wiping out an entire space colony or whatever, then to simply think you’re ramping up the stakes by showing vast armies of the monsters, sane or otherwise, is almost beside the point.

Elsewhere, as the new companion isn’t quite with us yet, we’re lumbered with Amy and Rory. Amy’s characterisation is consistent anyway — feeling vulnerable, she acts vilely — and Rory is as likeable as always (even if his raising-a-finger-and-saying-“Er…”-schtick is getting to the point where you’re surprised when he doesn’t boggle at the camera after some outlandish statement); but they’re old hat now. There might be some mileage in characters who leave the TARDIS but who the show doesn’t leave behind — they’ve appeared in four episodes out of four following their ‘departure’ last year — but when the new girl has not only been announced but seen on-screen, it makes it seem like they are bigger than the programme. As to whether their marriage does work out or not, Amy’s been so unlikeable for so much of the time that you can only cheer Rory giving her the divorce papers. They’re reconciled by the end of the story, of course — the Doctor puts them in mortal peril, then twits his bow-tie proudly as they kiss and make up amid mad Daleks and zombies — but the sad news is they still won’t go for four episodes yet.

Scale-wise, the show moves from vast location to vast location — ruined Skaro to Dalek mothership to planet-sized madhouse — but it doesn’t feel as epic as all that. (The most significant scenes of the story play out on two very small sets, containing human Oswin and Dalek Oswin respectively.) This stuff about the new Who series being a movie every week is only the production team setting themselves up for a fall: it’s not that Who can’t (or shouldn’t) be a blockbuster movie, just as it’s variously tried being Hammer Horror, hard-hitting eco-drama and a pantomime (sorry, ‘Dragonfire’, but really) in the past — but really, what blockbuster movies do you come away from thinking ‘My goodness — wasn’t that script spectacular?’

David Bowie Is

To the V&A, for the press launch of next year’s David Bowie Is retrospective. Given access to Bowie’s full archive of costumes, memorabilia, drawings, diaries and artefacts of his five-decade-long career, curators Victoria Broakes and Geoffrey Marsh have collated more than 300 items for display in an exhibition which will open on March 2013.

Following a recent statement from Bowie, the V&A is keen to stress that Bowie himself was not involved in the selection of items; this is the museum’s take on Bowie. They’re keen, too, with the present-tense title, to show that Bowie has a continuing influence on art, fashion, film, music, and even architecture – a new apartment block in Melbourne (where else?) is finished with a five-storey-tall rendering of the iconic cover illustration from Aladdin Sane.

On show at the launch were a handful of items which will appear in the show: handwritten lyrics, in a bobbly childish hand, for ‘Five Years’ and ‘Fame’ (co-written with John Lennon); the mock-up of a proposed booklet for 1975’s Young Americans album, and most excitingly, three of the most distinctive Bowie outfits, from three decades: the McQueen-designed Union Flag coat seen on the cover of Earthling (1997), the Pierrot costume Bowie wears in the hugely influential ‘Ashes to Ashes’ video of 1982 and on the cover of the parent album Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps), and perhaps most excitingly, the colourful knit outfit inspired by Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange that Bowie wore on Top of the Pops in 1972 when he performed ‘Starman’ and changed the face of popular music. ‘I had to phone someone,’ he sings in the clip, dandling his hand until the outstretched index finger is aimed directly at the viewer, ‘so I picked on you.’ Countless bolts of Aladdin Sane-esque lightning transfixed the astonished viewers: ‘We could have done a show based entirely around people whose lives were changed by that moment,’ says Broackes.

A mock-up of one of the exhibition rooms was shown: expect something similar, design-wise, to last year’s V&A Postmodernism show. Costumes are encased in a series of boxes from floor to ceiling (suggesting some may not be terribly easy to view), while Fifty Nine Productions, responsible for some of the cutting-edge projections seen during the London Olympics’ opening ceremony, have devised an elaborate means by which video footage both familiar and rare will be seen.

Alternative Histories: Two New Books on Music

Richard King How Soon Is Now?: The Madmen and Mavericks Who Made Independent Music 1975–2005 (Faber, 2012)

Mark Yarm Everybody Loves Our Town: A History of Grunge (Faber, 2011)

Two monumental music history tomes from Faber. Everyone Loves Our Town collates interviews with hundreds of musicians, writers, producers and hangers-on associated with the history of grunge music, the 1990s Seattle-born movement which brought Soundgarden, L7, Nirvana, Mudhoney and dozens of other bands to prominence worldwide. In their own words, the luminaries of the movement describe its formation, its leap to worldwide prominence, and the gradual disintegration of the scene as — a progression which How Soon Is Now shows us is almost inevitable — the cutting edge loses territory to watered-down copycat bands, the mainstream imposed certain tropes on an ‘alternative’ movement in order to appropriate these signifiers (those flannel checked shirts!), and the inevitable point of no return when the bands themselves dissolve in interpersonal acrimony (Dinosuar Jr.), ill-health, or tragedy (Nirvana, most obviously, but several other cases too).

In How Soon Is Now?, Richard King sets out purports to tell the history of so-called ‘indie’ music, mostly from a British perspective but of course bringing in several of the bands mentioned in Everyone Loves Our Town, with particular emphasis on the huge knock-on effect caused by Nirvana’s mainstream success with Nevermind, the point at which the traditional ‘independent’ and ‘mainstream’ distinction lost much of its meaning, as the big labels sought to cash in on the unexpectedly vast popularity of these ‘alternative’ acts. While Mark Yarm’s book is an oral history with no overt authorial contribution, King’s strikes a more uneven tone, pausing to praise or pillory several of the records mentioned — Nevermind is treated cursorily, but he inserts an authorial “rightly” when describing Loveless‘s  reception as “an extraordinary and groundbreaking achievement”. Everyone has their favourites — I’m not going to disagree with that assessment of Loveless — but why slip in that personal view while remaining aloof from giving an opinion on, say, Definitely Maybe? Likewise, some bands’ formation or history is covered (this is important with regards to 4AD chief Ivo Watts-Russell’s beyond-professional involvement with the Cocteau Twins, for instance; less so when it comes to The Smiths, whose formation and early years must surely have been covered extensively elsewhere) while others, and I think this is appropriate for a book which can’t really give page-space to every band’s history, just sort of… turn up. Interested readers can find out all they care to about Nirvana’s formation from Everyone Loves Our Town, for instance.

It would be impossible, however, for any editorialising to detract from, or indeed improve upon, the chapter on Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty, whose shenanigans under their own names and a variety of recording names, most famously the KLF, make every other band mentioned in this book look po-faced and underachieving. (Though it hangs over their chapter, we don’t even get to the bit where Cauty and Drummond make good their promise to burn a million pounds in cash in front of a live audience.) While other chapters describe more vital, resonant or disastrous episodes in the thirty-year history of indie music (somewhat arbitrarily truncated at 2005’s success for Arctic Monkeys), none is quite as entertaining as this one.

As always, one reads a book like How Soon Is Now? with one  eye on the omissions, or what one would have liked the book to be. I was saddened that there’s only the briefest mention of Royal Trux, whose misadventures with major-label fame (they were signed up by Virgin in the mid-1990s in what seemed that label’s attempt to replicate the major-gains-indie-credibility success Geffen had earlier enjoyed by signing Sonic Youth) are pretty instructive: the Trux made Thank You, perhaps their most accessible record, for Virgin, but the uncompromising follow-up Sweet Sixteen (which sounds like music made by two people who have melted the Rolling Stones down to a bituminous tar and then smoked them) put an end to the whole relationship, whereupon Trux slunk back to their original home, the US indie/alternative giant Drag City (which, oddly, isn’t mentioned, even in conjunction with Domino Records which seemed, at the latter’s outset, very much like the UK arm of the former). Likewise, the lack of any mention whatsoever of Belle & Sebastian’s Jeepster Records label, which took a lot of its cues from the 1980s Glasgow label Postcard and seemed at times almost a co-operative involving the band’s fans, seems odd. Readers lamenting this oversight are directed to Scott Plagenhoef’s book on their Tigermilk LP for the 33 1/3 series of books on individual records (Mike McGonigal’s book-length essay on My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless is another valuable entry in that series).

Other omissions are more problematic. I hadn’t been aware that M/A/R/R/S’s ‘Pump Up the Volume’ had been made by members of two indie groups, Colourbox and A.R. Kane (whose Sixty-Nine album I disinterred from the place it’d lain undisturbed in my record collection after my two attempts to listen to it upon purchase 15 years ago), which casts an interesting perspective on all concerned. When I mentioned this to the Monkey, he surprised me by telling me the song was the work of DJs CJ Mackintosh and Dave Dorrell. King and the Monkey are both right, but King’s book entirely skips the salient fact that all the samples on (the UK version of) the single were put together by Mackintosh and Dorrell — and after all, no-one has ever listened to ‘Pump Up the Volume’ for the beat track and sampled guitar noise. Since ‘Pump Up’ is, as well as a deathlessly exciting track quarter of a century after it first hit No.1, one of the earliest examples of indie music crossing over with dance/DJ/hip-hop culture, this makes King look a bit — to use a topical phrase — wilfully blind.

Maybe he’s been literally blinded, too, since if this was my book I’d be round to my publisher asking for the copy-editor’s head on a pike. On p.203, a bad decision is attributed to “the fact the Rob had been in the pub since 3 p.m.” (that’s an error: “the Rob” is not some indie-rock giant you’ve never heard of). Over the page, someone fails to take “a cursory look a [sic] the Factory finances”. On p.344, Alan McGhee declares “‘I want to a start dance label’.”  Apostrophes introduce themselves where they’re not wanted, and there’s a general attitude to punctuation that suggests the writer feared he’d be docked part of his advance for every comma he used. The index, too, is littered with irritating little errors: a Mazzy Star record is wrongly attributed to Galaxie 500 (when you look back at the reference, it’s a line describing “a purple patch of critical approval and strong sales as Galaxie 500’s Today and She Hangs Brightly, Mazzy Star’s debut, were both rapturously received” and therefore the index error is very obviously the work of sloppy reading). The entry on PJ Harvey suggests she’s mentioned on p.96, which she isn’t: Mick Harvey is, however, suggesting a strange parallel universe in which Polly and Mick are one and the same entity. Mick Harvey, incidentally, receives no index entry of his own. Fair’s fair, this is a big book, and it’s understandable that errors might creep in, but this has the feel of a rush-job that’s been skimmingly copy-edited by someone with no interest in or knowledge of the subject matter, which is galling as Faber is engaged in an ongoing project of overhauling its line of music books, putting out books angling to be definitive:  sloppinesses like this really hamstring a reference book. (I’m happy to offer my services to re-do the index for the paperback, if anyone’s interested.) And one shouldn’t lay all the blame at the door of the copy-editor, of course: Mr. King’s writing is often inelegant, as evidenced by the very first sentence of his book, which begins: “Today the word ‘indie’ has a myriad of meanings…” As any Britpop ‘Sleeperbloke’ would attest, you’re only as good as your front(wo)man.

Better by far is Everybody Loves Our Town. Foreword aside, author Mark Yarm absents himself from the text, letting the movers and shakers of grunge (is there a less grunge phrase than “movers or shakers”? Sorry) tell their own stories. Admission: I’m by no means a huge fan of grunge, owning records by all of about four of the bands mentioned. That notwithstanding, I found Yarm’s book fascinating, perhaps because a large number of the names who appear don’t have those tribalish nostalgic associations for me that, from King’s book, such figures as Alan McGee or Bill Drummond do. It’s not King’s fault that I’m more familiar with the characters in his book than in Yarm’s, but the way the grunge cast is allowed to present itself directly to the reader makes for a fresher, more engaging read. (The fact we don’t learn Yarm’s opinion of the records referred to is no bad thing either.)

What interested me was how moving I found the deaths in this book. The sad tale of Kurt Cobain’s suicide, of course, has been written and overwritten many times already; by contrast, the sorrow that surrounds the deaths of Stefanie Sargent of 7 Year Bitch, Mia Zapata from The Gits and Andy Wood of Mother Love Bone retains a rawness, in their respective bandmates’ telling, that hasn’t dimmed two decades on. Since (as an ingenue who’d never consciously heard a Mother Love Bone track, for instance) I’d followed the band’s formation, triumphs and tragedies in these interviews’ chronological order, her death came as a genuinely moving and saddening blow.

Inevitably, Courtney Love’s contributions are among those that stick in the mind (I shan’t spoil her version of what sort of music Cobain and co were playing before she set them straight, but it’s classic Courtney); other highlights include a somewhat unexpected appearance by fashion designer Marc Jacobs, defending fashion’s co-option of that grunge ‘outline’ for Perry Ellis,  andthe occasional irruption into the text of such seemingly antithetical-to-grunge acts as Lou Barlow, Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore, and, perhaps strangest of all, Heart. These sidesteps serve to anchor grunge in a wider context of ‘alternative’ or ‘indie’ music (Sebadoh, Sonic Youth, producer Steve Albini, and of course Nirvana all appear in How Soon is Now?), which could otherwise seem a sort of insular closed shop of North West-area bands, production personnel and venues.

The oral biography gets, as Yarm remarks at the outset, a bit of stick — by what rubric does he call himself the author of this book, as opposed to its editor or (even lower down the chain) compiler? Everyone Loves Our Town is an instant rebuttal of that criticism, though, and one of the most engrossing music books I’ve read. While I was immersed in one chapter, Mudhoney’s ‘Touch Me I’m Sick’ came on Radio 6 and just for a moment I felt transported to the ferocious excitement of the scene Yarm describes. Weirdly, though I was (ahem) an indie kid throughout the nineties and early 200s,  How Soon Is Now?, though it fills in a lot of the backstory I didn’t pick up (Primal Scream’s XTRMNTR as the final Creation Records release, the rollercoastering rise, fall, rise again of Rough Trade as a shop, label and distributor), it didn’t inspire me quite as much as Yarm’s book to go and (re)listen to the records it describes.

Films I Didn’t Sit Through #1

An occasional series

#1: Ultrasuede: In Search of Halston (dir. Whitney Smith)

It’s not often that one feels moved to offer the praise, ‘Nicely underplayed, Liza Minnelli.’ Yet such is the reaction when watching  the first scene of Ultrasuede, a film purporting to be the story of singular 1970s fashion designer Halston but which, it swiftly transpires, is a 89-minute mirror held up by filmmaker Whitney Smith to himself. He kicks off by interviewing Minnelli, Halston’s closest friend, in a manner which — because of Smith’s amateurishness, his peculiar Jason Bateman-esque hairpiece and the presence of Ms Minnelli — has the air of a spoof cut from Arrested Development. “What did you sing at [Halston’s] funeral?” he asks Minnelli, who is immediately outraged: “No, I didn’t sing! It wasn’t about me, it was about Halston.” “It was very moving,” Smith mumblingly affirms, which confuses things further. If he knew enough to know the funeral was “moving” why did he believe Liza sang? Did he do any research?

We cut then to a handicammed scene in which Whitney — whose whole appearance has changed, such that he now resembles a pound-store employee desperately trying to convince himself he’s the spitting image of Ryan Gosling — interviews his mother about his own obsession with Halston. This was where the Monkey and I lunged for the remote control, understanding we’d learn little to nothing about an iconic fashion designer and far more than anyone needs to about our bargain-basement auteur. I love the idea of Smith watching back a rough cut of his film and failing to see that by opening with Minelli’s tacit warning to him — ‘Don’t make it all about you’ — would ensure that his project would, from the outset, look as egotistical and damned as possible.

#2: Unhappy Birthday (dir. Mike Matthews & Mark Harriott)

Fascinating fact: I once attended a dinner party where David Paisley, star of… um, indie horror film Unhappy Birthday was also a guest. This doesn’t have any bearing on the film in question, which is some sort of ghost-story/road-trip/horrible family revelations/soft porn mishmash, except that on the evidence of Paisley’s receiving top billing, I was lucky to escape said party without being dragooned into participating. Alongside Paisley — who, like anyone who has lived in Glasgow for more than five years, has appeared in Weegie soap River City — we find a hapless actress made up, for no apparent reason, as Marmalade Atkins; a male human being — let’s not devalue the word ‘actor’ — who, called upon to deliver the deathless porn-classic line “It’s getting hot in here” (followed by his removing his t-shirt), inexplicably did not storm off-set; and various bit-parts clearly played by friends (former friends, perhaps) of the duo co-wrote and co-directed this… thing. One of these bit-part actors, “Suspicious landlady”, manages to do something one might hitherto have thought  impossible: opening a door without making it convincing.

Not to be total slaves cliché, but the Monkey and I did fast-forward to the so-called titillating bit of the film, which unsurprisingly follows on from the shirt-removing scene above, and which intercuts, to numbing effect, a reasonably explicit gay sex scene and Marmalade Atkins’s own, um, self-exploration. Much of these two scenes focus on the nipples of those involved, which had the unfortunate, if unanticipated, effect of putting me off the midget gems I was eating at the time. In its favour, Unhappy Birthday does have some atmospheric establishing shots of the Scottish landscape, which it’s pretty difficult to get wrong, and its own website sensibly discloses the fact it was made for less than the price of my packet of sweets.

52 Books #34: A Single Man

Reissued as a Vintage Classic complete with new jacket artwork by someone who clearly hates Christopher Isherwood comes his 1964 short novel A Single Man. I’ve been reading (wading through) Isherwood’s Sixties diaries, in which he makes some — not terribly many — remarks about the genesis, composition and publication of this novel, and, it having been some time since I’d read any of his fiction, I went for this one.

I’d remembered Isherwood as a fairly stately, reserved kind of a writer. Not so, going by A Single Man. This is an overwrought daydream of a novel — or novelette, to use his preferred term, though it does suggest something absorbent in a bad way — in which recently bereaved English professor George Falconer tries to get over the death of his lover Jim, partly by seeking to get under one of his students, Kenny. This is a flippant summary, but something about this book demands hoots of laughter from the reader, so po-faced is it. Suddenly the 2009 film adaptation — directed by fashion’s Tom Ford and starring, as you will recall, a pair of glasses, an angora sweater and Julianne Moore on full scenery-chewing overdrive — seems to be almost restrained compared to the straining metaphor and overweening symbolism that afflicts the book.

This is a shame, because there are a couple of points where this book really hits the mark. I found the way George goes along with Jim’s parents efforts to cut him out of their late son’s life a moving and cleverly layered bit of psychological insight, and the relationship between George and his lush friend Charlotte is well-drawn, even if she does seem another iteration of Isherwood’s beloved Jean Ross/Sally Bowles from Christopher and His Kind and Goodbye to Berlin. (It’s hardly the book’s fault, too, that I found myself feeling the absence of Julianne Moore — by far the best thing about the Ford film — staggering around, beehived hair in a constant state of collapse.)

But the subtlety and acuteness Isherwood brings to these elements are overwhelmed by his inability to let a spade be a spade. George spends much of the book trying not to dwell on Kenny, understanding that a relationship with a student is not in his best interests, until towards the end he gives in somewhat to the boy’s advances. After they meet one night in what seems to be a cruising bar, Kenny dares Geore to join him for a spot of skinny dipping, and is delighted when his professor agrees: we see, therefore, the spark of spontaneity and fun returning to the mourning George: “I thought you were bluffing,” Kenny says in surprise, “about being silly.” There follows a scene in which your reviewer felt like cowering from the hammer-blows of Symbolism besetting him: there’s a railing they have to jump over to get onto the beach, and while Kenny easily vaults it, George is “clambering over the rail, rather stiffly”. Off they scamper into the vast “barely visible” black waves, and just in case you hadn’t picked up on the nuances, “Their relationship, whatever it now is,” Isherwood intones solemnly, “is no longer symbolic.” All these quotes are from p.132; p.133 is given over to George’s “rite of purification” in the black waves, which of course seem overwhelming and terrifying but soon wash him clean of “thought, speech, mood, desire”, and we see him and his student disporting themselves in this wonderful darkness, their mutual attraction never overtly expressed, while a couple of hundred yards away are the lights of cars and “dry homes”, going about their business entirely unawares of this delihtful jiggery-pokery in the waves: “George and Kenny are refugees from dryness; they have escaped across the border into the water-world” (p.134).

Well, quite.

Isherwood was sixty when he published this book, reasonably happily partnered, an author of note. What this book reminded me of was that other peculiar short novel by a senior man of letters, Philip Roth’s The Humbling (which I reviewed a couple of years ago): like Roth’s misstep, A Single Man reads like an overt fantasy rather than a fully worked-throuh novel. Unlike the Roth, however, Isherwood seems here to be aiming for a fable-like profundity that really doesn’t sit well with the fairly slight plot. We lose sight of the emotional centre of the book — and while that isn’t something I always feel the lack of, this book is overtly set up to be the story of what we’d call these days, horribly, the “emotional journey” of George Falconer. Instead of profundity, we get a self-parodically portentous brand of unrelenting symbolism. I hope I haven’t misremembered, but it seems to me that Isherwood is a much better author than this.


Other reading in Week #34:

Thierry Jonquet Tarantula (Serpent’s Tail)

Progress Report: Doctor Who Series 6 (Part 2)

This year’s ‘split’ run of Doctor Who was very arc-heavy in its first half. With some of the series’ ongoing mysteries resolved with great brio in ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’, the opener of this second half, the episodes that followed have sometimes felt rather like elements of a different season altogether. Sometimes that has worked rather well, sometimes it hasn’t.

For instance, there’s ‘Closing Time’. Gareth Roberts’s sequel to last year’s hugely entertaining ‘The Lodger’ capers along quite winningly for most of its duration, replaying its antecedent’s laughs and scrapes with, this time, added baby, added pathos, and added Cybermen. As is common in their new series appearances, the Cybermen are a bit rubbish here, though their guest spot is aided by their more beaten-up appearance and their by now seriously addled priorities. Picking affable, loyal, stay-at-home James Corden — reprising his role as Craig Owens, the only person Doctor Who has ever addressed as ‘mate’ — to be their new Cyberleader is a new low for the race even the Doctor notes are “metal morons” — itself continuing  a long line of putdowns from their enemy: as early as 1975’s ‘Revenge of the Cybermen’ they were being taunted as “a pathetic bunch of tin soldiers skulking around the galaxy in an ancient spaceship” (sad fan admission: googling afterwards confirmed I can quote this line verbatim from memory). In the end, of course, Craig breaks free from the Cybermen’s bonds, saved from having his emotions scrubbed by the sound of his baby Alfie’s crying. It’s no sillier than the resolution of many other stories, and while schmaltzy in the extreme is at least at home in a very charming episode, full of lovely lines and details, and a ‘gay agenda’ subplot which will, I’m sure, have Daily Mail readers frothing while their children are roaring with delighted laughter. Making its own return to the show is one lone Cybermat, a sort of diminutive Cyber-pet last seen in ‘Revenge’, and here gnashing its way around a department store for no terribly good reason. (The Doctor stifling his whoop of joy when he catches the little silver fellow in a net is my favourite Matt Smith gag of the episode — try to imagine any of the other Doctors doing that.) In some of the spin-off media, Cybermats are revealed as Cyber-converted stray pets or even (did I imagine this?) babies, which would have lent ‘Closing Time’ more horror than its scenario could really have borne, especially as Craig puffs about with his own baby son in a papoose throughout the episode.

Of course, this is called ‘Closing Time’, and sees the Doctor visiting an old friend just before his own impending death. It’s a lot more fun than when his predecessor stood around in the snow for forty minutes looking sadly at Rose, and Matt Smith shows how good he is as he confides his fears to the baby. Off he goes for “one last trip” at the end — and suddenly we’re jolted to where newly-qualified Dr River Song is hoisted into a spacesuit by villainous Mme Kovarian and two slimy, rattling Silence henchmen. Frances Barber has evidently watched some old Blake’s 7 episodes and is trying to outdo SF’s last great eyepatch-wearing villainess Servalan — if she doesn’t shout ‘Maximum power!’ at some point in Episode 13, I’ll be terribly disappointed. This scene, which brings so many Who threads together to set up the finale, should come as a terrible shock, but instead makes what’s gone before look far more frivolous than it deserves.

Likewise, Toby Whithouse’s thougtful, clever ‘The God Complex’ is banjaxxed somewhat by its own coda, in which the Doctor drops Amy and Rory off, having decided it’s simply too dangerous for them to travel with him any more. Amy, the trollop, is distracted by the nice new house and car the Time Lord has given them (“How’re they going to pay the insurance on that on a nurse’s and a stripper’s income?” wondered a friend), while in a recent interview Arthur Darvill shows he understands his character of Rory far better than anyone actually writing him, saying that his Rory would never come pottering out with champagne glasses but instead watch his wife’s final goodbye to her best friend through the window, staying out of it one last time. Of course, no-one who’s been watching Who the last few years will be conned into thinking this is Amy and Rory’s actual final goodbye; their cameo in ‘Closing Time’ seemed an unnecessarily prompt reminder they’ll be back.

What precedes all this is, as they say, a story you won’t find any other television show doing (okay, maybe Whithouse’s own Being Human), a meditation on faith and fear, set in a chintzy, muzaky haunted hotel with worst nightmares lurking behind every door. This promised a lot in trails — the ventriloquists’ dolls, the mysterious silent clown — and in execution worked thrillingly until, I felt, Star Trek-like explanations started to materialise for the hotel’s surreal horrors. The Doctor also supplies answers without really showing his working: he correctly, through no obvious deductions whatsoever, realises that the hotel feeds on faith rather than, as we have expected, on fear; a clearer alignment with the revelation that mole-like alien Gibbis’s people have survived so long through cowardice might have helped this dozy audience member follow the otherwise improbable leap. As they did by casting James Corden as Craig, the production team still picks its higher-profile guest stars well; David Walliams, virtually unrecognisable as Gibbis, is perfect casting. There’s also an even more latex-covered creature around, a minotaur pacing the labyrinthine corridors of the hotel. Doctor Who has never had great luck with minotaurs (‘The Time Monster’, ‘The Mind Robber’) and this one doesn’t buck that trend terribly: it’s far better partially glimpsed or in distorted close-up than when it lumbers, blue-eyed and mouth agape, into full view. Like the Ood, this chap has to have the potential to be sympathetic as well as monstrous, and maybe errs a little on the side of the former. But then, ‘The God Complex’ is a story about monsters and, in some ways, the suspension of disbelief, so maybe it’s apt that it looks that way.

No such monsters in the preceding story, Tom McRae’s ‘The Girl Who Waited’: the blank corridors of the Two Streams medical facility are patrolled instead by the handbots, featureless white droids whose hidden guns and white void surroundings occasioned great nerd-forum excitement: were we in for a sequel to ‘The Mind Robber’? (For those unfamiliar with that 1968 Patrick Troughton oddball classic, in which the Doctor becomes trapped in a world of fiction, the unsurpassable Adventures with the Wife in Space blog is currently hosting a hilarious ‘commentary’ on the story.) Instead we got a story only New Who could tell, focusing on the companions while the Doctor was written out the script on a McGuffin technicality. Arthur Darvill always quietly impresses; here, Karen Gillen, playing two versions of Amy, demonstrated at last there’s more to her than an ability to quip and pout. I didn’t completely buy the gravelly older Amy, though visually well-realised with some subtle makeup, since the keystone attitude that she would come to hate the Doctor when he failed to rescue her didn’t, for me, really ring true, and seemed to be called upon to stand in place of the more nuanced exploration of what she’d been up to all these decades. (In forty-odd minutes, this isn’t practical, of course.) And while the denouement, giving Rory an impossible choice between two versions of his wife, was well-played and emotionally engaging, I didn’t find it moving, exactly. This is a story which seems to have been reverse-engineered from the final act. It has an intriguing beginning, but the wait for the pieces to be slotted into place to allow that ending is more than a little boring, not helped by the generic white-void backdrop where much of it takes place. (I also didn’t quite believe Amy would find a garden, of all things, so exciting she’d decide she was happy staying indefinitely there with only handbots and Imelda Staunton’s disembodied voice for company.)

And so to ‘Night Terrors’, Mark Gatiss’s fourth script for Doctor Who, and a sight better than his last, ‘Victory of the Daleks’. It’s strangely retro, the council-block setting being something we used to see fairly regularly in Russell T. Davies-era Who, but with a Moffat-era child-centric plot bolted onto that. Moved from the first half of Series 6, it perhaps suffers from proximity to ‘Closing Time’, which again would feature a dad’s love for his son saving the day. In ‘Night Terrors’ there’s a fairly overt gay subtext I found rather touching: when troubled dad Alex clutches his not-quite-son to him and declares he’ll love him no matter his real nature, it releases all from the confines of the wardrobe or, if you will, the closet. As well as being the most gorgeous-looking episode of this batch — stunningly coloured, creepy and filmic — ‘Night Terrors’ also boasts the best monsters we’ve seen in a while, a clutch of blundering, giant ‘peg dolls’ (was I really the only person never to have heard of peg dolls before?) with tiny features crushed into the centres of their bobbing, oversized heads, ratty ropey hair trailing lankly down their soiled costumes. Amy’s transformation into one of these, too, was a great body-horror moment.

Emotion saves the day in all these stories, and it runs the risk of becoming just as predictable an outcome as reversing the polarity of the neutron flow, or ending the story with a big explosion. I appreciate that Doctor Who has got where it is today by appealing to the hearts of its audience and not just dazzling them with monsters and effects — a worthy and forward-thinking thing to do in an era of vanishing BBC budgets. But there must be other ways to solve problems than by emoting at them, and there is still a place for spectacle. Memorable new monsters have been thin on the ground this year, the Silents aside; returning baddies the Cybermen aren’t terribly well-served by ‘Closing Time’ (I’d have loved it if the Cybermats had been the chief monsters, desperate to find a suitable human to convert into a proper Cyberman to give them some sort of direction, like the Dalek in ‘Dalek’ who doesn’t know how to behave without a superior giving him orders.)

These four episodes have a problem. They’re standalone stories of the sort Doctor Who has always been about, a variety of new adventures (even if their respective conclusions are strangely repetitive). But sandwiched between the insane ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’ and the slightly more restrained but very arc-heavy ‘The Wedding of River Song’ (which hadn’t aired when I started writing this post, but had by the time I reached this conclusion), they seem like they’re treading water while we wait to get to the Big Events again. This is a failing, I suppose, of lots of series which have arcs or mythology: it’s what led to people giving up on The X-Files. If you remind viewers regularly that the ongoing storyline is the ‘important’ bit, it inevitably diminishes those stories which don’t contribute to that strand. That’s why the coda to ‘Closing Time’ is annoying (and now, having seen Episode 13, since this is a show which fastidiously over explains some points while totally neglecting others, I wonder if we did really need to see Kovarian, River and the Silents at the end of Episode 12), and it’s why I feel irked to have felt these episodes were lesser Doctor Who — when in fact it’s the now baffling and overlong ‘River Song arc’ that’s really the least Whoish material we’ve seen this year.

52 Books #32: Open City

Arriving garlanded with praise, Teju Cole’s novel Open City (Faber) tells the story of Julius, a psychologist who grew up in Nigeria and now lives in Manhattan. Julius walks a trail blazed by Leopold Bloom and other literary flaneurs, seeking to alleviate the pressures of his personal and professional life by walking his home city, observing, cataloguing, thinking.

Open City is structured as a novel, and there are some recurring characters and low-key revelations to be found in the last fifty or so pages; up until then, the book’s 21 chapters seem so self-contained and meditative that they could almost be read in random order — their sometimes oddly abrupt conclusions are matched in the final chapter, which ends with what I suspect is a very deeply considered and densely allusive final scene describing the numbers of birds which used to die flying into the flaming torch held in the Statue of Liberty’s hand. A wonderful metaphoric image anyway, it comes at the end of a book which is about identity and belonging, and is given to us by a character among whose many interests is birdwatching: so why is it that it doesn’t seem like a beautiful end to the book?

Partly it’s because the book is both very densely written and loosely structured. Julius’s nighttime walks round Manhattan are enlivened by no special events; when there is incident — as in a mugging which seems to stem partly from our narrator’s own naivety, his smiling greeting seeming to turn two passersby into assailants — it’s rendered in the same daydreamy way as his musings and meditations on art and his own past. It’s difficult to maintain this tone for a whole book, but Open City‘s great success is that the reader never fails to believe in this unworldly, wide-eyed, intriguing and frustrating character. Unlike some reviewers, I took Julius’s pronouncements more or less at face value — they can be fatuous and rather po-faced, but Cole didn’t seem to me to be inviting us to mock Julius.

It’s a strange, beguiling, sometimes frustrating novel, reminiscent both in its good and bad aspects of Saul Bellow, whose work I sometimes enjoy but never really love. Likewise Open City, a little too open, is easy to admire, hard to take fully to heart.


Other reading in Week #32:

Francis Spufford Red Plenty (Faber)