Saturday, July 20, 2024

Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow, by Gabrielle Zevin

Various people recommended this captivating novel in which I’ve been completely immersed. That’s fitting, because it’s all about the solace of losing ourselves in something greater than ourselves — computer games chiefly but also fiction, imagination and friendship.

Sadie Green meets Sam Masur (later Mazur) in hospital when they’re both children. They’re each going through some horrible, serious stuff at the time but bond while playing computer games. But Sadie has also not been entirely honest with Sam. Despite a falling out, they reconnect during college and collaborate on a game of their own… 

We follow them for two decades through the highs and lows of their lives, the loves and losses and games.

It’s beautifully written and wryly observed, noting changes to games and the surrounding culture over the period. It’s also full of nuance: we can see Sadie’s tutor is a manipulative predator; she learns to see that, too, but remains his friend. For all he’s a monster, he’s a person, too.

At the heart of the novel is Sam and Sadie’s sparky relationship. At best, they are funny and supportive; at worst, they are jealous or brood on perceived slights. There are several recurring jokes, such as one — based on an old computer game — that Sadie has died of dysentery , which is part of their childhood banter and then gets dropped to blinding effect again on page 440.

In fact, it is constantly smart and witty, the wit all from the perspective of particular characters so also revealing about them and their understanding of the world. For example, there’s Sam in a particular crisis wishing he could reprogram his brain in the way he might fix a game.

“Unfortunately, the human brain is every bit as closed a system as a Mac.” (p. 228)

There’s lots of telling details, too, on the games these characters play — real and imaginary — and on their respective, mixed heritage: Sam’s Korean grandparents run a pizza place in K-Town, a district Sadie has never heard of when she first meets him, though she lives in a nearby part of LA. Later, they make a game out of separate but intersecting worlds.

The novel isn’t quite in chronological order, which allows it to tease the reader with key revelations to come. We jump ahead to interviews with Sam and Sadie looking back on their life and work. Or there’s the moment on page 190 when, in a scene set in the pizza place run by Sam’s grandparents, there’s the briefest mention of a poster on the wall: a 1980s advert showing a woman drinking a Korean beer. Twelve pages later, we learn the significance of this photograph - a gut punch of a revelation.

For a book about something as apparently unserious as playing games — a viewpoint it addresses several times — it is richly profound. More than once, we see the way games help people in real-life crisis. Sometimes, games have other impacts on real life, which I won’t spoil here. But it’s all utterly compelling; I read the last 100 pages on a plane yesterday, my heart in my mouth.

On that point, I can understand why the blurb and publicity don’t make a thing about this all being about games. That might put off readers who aren’t into games (I’m not, especially) — but can still be enthralled by the story being told.

One last idle thought. In her notes and acknowledgements at the end, author Gabrielle Zevin says that in referencing life-life computer games throughout the novel,

“I chose the games that made the most sense for the story, even when the dates were slightly wrong.” (p. 481)

That may illuminate an early reference that caught my eye. We’re told that Sam’s possessions in 1995 include, 

“an aging desktop computer with a Doctor Who sticker on one side and a Dungeons and Dragons sticker on the other” (p. 67)

I wonder when Sam, aged 21 at this point, got into Doctor Who — a year before the TV movie kindled a new fandom and brought many lapsed fans back from the fray. I assume he was watching late-night on PBS. Did he find other like-minded fans, in real life or online, in the way he played Dungeons and Dragons with others? And when did his interest wane, as Doctor Who never gets mentioned again.

Thursday, July 18, 2024

Doctor Who Magazine #606

The new issue of Doctor Who Magazine is out today and boasts lots of exclusive, behind-the-scenes stuff about the recent TV series.

I've written an article featured on the cover, "What If...?" exploring the near misses and never-were of the Fourth Doctor's era. It dovetails with the piece I wrote for the 50 Years of the Fourth Doctor special published in May, and was in part prompted by the panel about alternative history I was on at the Gallifrey convention earlier this year, which led to be revisiting the classic If It Had Happened Otherwise...

The new DWM also has news of something I've been involved in: six boxes of papers belonging to the late David Whitaker - first story editor of and prolific writer for Doctor Who - have been donated by his niece Melanie to the Borthwick Institute for Archives at the University of York. The Borthwick Institute website boasts more details and a catalogue of the David Whitaker archive. I've also written a piece on the papers in this collection relating to Doctor Who for DWM's Print the Legend special, currently in shops.

The Borthwick Institute is a very good fit for these papers because it already holds similar collections, including an archive relating to David's great friend producer Ernest Maxin. I visited the archive while researching my biography of David, as Maxin had kept two of his unproduced screenplays (see Maxin, box 14). I'm grateful to Gary Brannan at the institute for all his help.

Thursday, July 11, 2024

Doctor Who: Ruby Red, by Georgia Cook

Responding to an alien distress call, the Doctor and Ruby arrive in Estonia a few days before the Battle of the Ice on 5 April 1242

"'Big one,' the Doctor nodded. 'Well, small in scale, but big in everything else. The final bust-up between the invading Duchy of Estonia and the republic of Novgorod. Marks the end of the Northern Crusades in this region, and cements Prince Alexander Nevsky as a national hero.'

'I've never heard of it,' said Ruby.

'Your planet's had too many wars for anyone to know them all,' said the Doctor sadly. 'Still, here we are.'" (p. 30)

The distress signal has been sent by Ranavere, a 16 year-old girl from an alien culture of warriors, who has been sent to the battle as part of a coming-of-age ritual. Ranavere doesn't to fight - but it soon turns she may not have a choice. There are other aliens on the ice, some of them more of Ranavere's warmongering people and then there's something more monstrous as well...

I really enjoyed this fast-moving, lively adventure by first-time novelist Georgia Cook (who I know a bit). It deftly captures the pace and verve of the recent TV series. In fact, it's packed with set-piece moments that would be great to be able to see. This is a book that would really suit illustration - which should come as no surprise given that the author is also a designer and artist

Ruby and the Doctor are captured well, and Ranavere is a character we can relate to; she and her family are well drawn. Like Ruby, I'd never heard of this moment in history but it makes for a rich, arresting backdrop. It's all great fun, not least towards the end when, after all the ice and cold, the Doctor emerges from the TARDIS with a pile of big, fluffy towels for the surviving burly warriors. Their resistance to such comfort quickly melts, in a moment that's perfectly daft, funny and true to character.

Wednesday, July 10, 2024

Doctor Who: The Time-Travelling Almanac

The official Doctor Who website has announced my new book, The Time-Travelling Almanac, to be published on 3 October. It is illustrated by Emma Price.

Blurb as follows:

Experience a year from the Doctor's perspective with an exciting new release from BBC Books.

“The ground beneath our feet is spinning at a thousand miles an hour and the entire planet is hurtling round the sun at 67,000 miles an hour, and I can feel it.”

– The Doctor

Doctor Who: The Time-Travelling Almanac is your essential companion to a Time Lord’s ‘Year’. You’ll learn how to feel the turn of the Earth under your feet (hurtling round the sun at 67,000 miles an hour), the times each day that Sea Devil attacks are most likely (depending on the tides), how to avoid disturbing dangerous faeries (distances measured in yards), and why, despite all the invasions and Goblins, Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year. 

Releasing later this year, The Time-Travelling Almanac is a must-have guide with useful tips and information provided by the Doctor and friends – and occasionally his enemies.

Doctor Who: The Time-Travelling Almanac is out in hardback on October 3rd 2024. You can pre-order here.

Monday, July 08, 2024

Wrights and Chestertons in Kensington

I was in London for a bit on Saturday to attend the live recording of the final Eggpod, where I caught up with several good friends. Having allowed a bit of extra time for the usual snafu of trains, I had half an hour to retread a couple of streets relating to David Whitaker and the early days of Doctor Who.

Doctor Who is generally seen as the creation of BBC head of drama Sydney Newman and his head of serials, Donald Wilson. As detailed in the production diary, having agreed a format for the new series in May 1963, on 4 June Wilson sent Newman an outline for the first four-part serial, The Giants, written by staff writer CE Webber. The Doctor's companions in this were school pupil Sue and her teachers Lola [McGovern] and Cliff.

Newman objected to this storyline and another staff writer was brought in to write the first story. In Coburn's first draft script (reworking CE Webber's original), Lola became Miss McGovern and Cliff became CE Chesterton, with Sue now "Susan Forman" and established as the Doctor's granddaughter. 

In Coburn's next draft, Miss McGovern became Miss Canning and Susan became Susanne Forman, though it was also revealed that she was in fact an alien princess called Findooclare. Story editor David Whitaker wasn't sure about this last element, as he explained in an undated note to producer Verity Lambert. But he added that Coburn "agrees to the change of any names we wish." 

By the time the episode was recorded in September, the characters were established as Susan Foreman (granddaughter of the Doctor but her origins left a mystery), Barbara Wright and Ian Chesterton. 

A detailed analysis of these different drafts was published in Doctor Who Magazine in 2013, written by my friend Graham Kibble-White (who I sat with at Eggpod on Saturday). This included an interview with the son of the late Anthony Coburn, in which Stef Coburn claimed that his (Catholic) father had based the character of the Doctor on his "cultural hero St Paul" and had named one school teacher after another of his heroes, the flamboyant writer GK Chesterton. The feature went on to speculate that GK Chesterton's The Ballad of Saint Barbara (1922) was an influence on the name of Ian's colleague.

I'm not so sure about this, not least because the characters in Doctor Who aren't really anything like St Barbara, GK Chesterton or St Paul. In researching my book on David Whitaker, I walked the streets of Kensington where he'd lived for much of his life, and spotted an alternative. I contend that this fits with Whitaker's note to Lambert, which implies that they - not Coburn - changed the characters' names.

On 8 June 1963, Whitaker married actress June Barry, who lived with her mum in Cheniston Gardens, W8 - the doorway in the extreme right of this picture I took on Saturday. 

Cheniston Gardens, London W8, looking towards Wrights Lane

But what’s that straight ahead?

Street sign for Wrights Lane, W8, in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea

Turn left up Wrights Lane and you’re heading north, just a hundred yards or so to Kensington High Street. That's in the direction David lived at the time (with his parents, on nearby De Vere Gardens), and also in the direction of Peel Street, home to David’s brother Robert and his wife Barbara…

In making the shortish walk to Peel Street, you cross Kensington High Street and on to Hornton Street, home to this well-established estate agent. 

Chestertons estate agent, Hornton Street, W8

In 1963, it was based at 116 Kensington High Street, so would have been even more prominent. David Whitaker and his bride may well have used Chestertons, their local estate agent, to find a place of their own to live - after their wedding, they moved to Russell Gardens Mews and lived there until 1970.

Keep going up Hornton Street and you get to a road running parallel to Peel Street; there's a plaque at no. 32 Sheffield Terrace marking the fact that GK Chesterton was born there on 29 May 1874. So Chesterton in Doctor Who may well have been named after the writer, but through this local connection.

All of this is a stone's throw from St Mary Abbots Church

View of flower stall outside St Mary Abbots Church, Kensington

This is where David and June married, James Beck and Trevor Bannister among their ushers, Alethea Charlton their bridesmaid - as seen in the film clip included in our Looking for David documentary on the Doctor Who Season 2 collection. Charlton, of course, played Hur the cavewoman in Coburn's opening serial for Doctor Who.

Robert Whitaker, David Whitaker, June Barry, Alethea Charlton, Trevor Bannister and James Beck at St Mary Abbots Church, 8 June 1963

I'd not been inside the church before Saturday (it was closed when I was last there as Covid restrictions still applied), which also isn't featured in the wedding film. It is pretty fancy. Information displayed there says Richard Attenborough was once one of the parishioners.

Interior of St Mary Abbots Church, Kensington

That church is opposite a department store with the same name that Doctor Who producer John Nathan Turner later used to describe hyper obsessive fans. Hello.

Writer Simon Guerrier outside the department store Barkers in Kensington

Thursday, July 04, 2024

Whotopia #43

Cover of issue 43 of fanzine Whotopia showing William Russell as Ian Chesterton
Issue 43
The new issue of free online Doctor Who fanzine Whotopia* is now available, and includes a tribute to the late actor William Russell plus "Exciting Adventures" - an interview with me by Reecy Pontiff.

* Not to be confused with the book Whotopia for which I did some of the writing.
First page of interview feature with Simon Guerrier in Doctor Who fanzine Whotopia

Wednesday, July 03, 2024

Swan Song, by Edmund Crispin

"There could be no doubt, thought Adam, that the death of Edwin Shorthouse was not much regretted by Peacock or anyone else connected with the production. Adam said as much to Fen.

'I know,' said Fen. 'It seems positively indelicate to be trying to discover his murderer.'" (p. 113)

After the events of The Moving Toyshop - or, chronologically, after the events of Holy Disorders since we're told on page 20 of this book that "the business about a toyshop" was "before the war" - the fourth Gervase Fen is another fast-moving, breezily witty adventure. This time, the mystery centres round a new performance of Wagner's Die Meistersinger, the first since the war and with a disquiet about staging work so beloved of the Nazis. We meet the various operatic characters involved in the opera. Then, just as in The Case of the Gilded Fly (where it was the company in a theatre), one of the most odious of this cast ends up dead.

This time, the death looks like suicide but Fen is not so sure, and the attempted rape of one woman, the attempted murder of another and the sudden death of a man are all tangled up in the case. I think it's all a lot better structured than previous instalments, not least in that Fen takes his time to puzzle out what's gone on rather than sussing it early and then declining to share his deductions. 

There's some confounded cheating - on page 189, Fen causes quite a stir (for the characters and this reader) when he announces that one person killed both the dead men. That person doesn't immediately deny it and we're led to believe they are guilty, only for Fen to then unravel what really happened and how this person is in fact innocent.

There's also something uncomfortable in the treatment of young Judith Haynes, the victim of the attempted rape, both in the immediate aftermath of that and what happens later. I don't think it's very well handled, and it also doesn't sit well in what's otherwise a light, comic novel centred on an ingenious double-puzzle.

The adventure and comedy otherwise work very well. Wilkes the old rogue from The Moving Toyshop making a welcome return to further confound Fen's deductions just for the fun of it. And I loved the unnamed burglar who turns up at an opportune moment to help the sleuth break into a smart house.

"'Doesn't look to me,' said the little man disapprovingly, 'as if there's anything worth pinchin' 'ere. What we want is socialism, so as everyone'll 'ave somethink worth pinchin'." (p. 182)