Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Foundation, by Isaac Asimov

A chum tweeted about Foundation this summer, prompting me finally to read it.

It's a short, breezy book covering events over a hundred years. In the first section, 'psychohistorian' Hari Seldon is arrested for predicting the future - and the inevitable ruin of the Empire of which he's a subject. We gloss over the exact process by which he comes by this prediction, or how it's shown to be chillingly accurate. But the authorities are convinced he's right - so place him under house arrest.

Obviously, there are parallels here to the fate of Galileo, but it also made me think of the Drake equation - a clever attempt to quantify the unquanitifiable, marshalling the known unknowns involved to best estimate the number of live, chatty alien civilisations in our galaxy. I wondered if the equation had influenced Asimov, but it turns out the equation was conjured a decade after the book.

In fact, Asimov is ahead of the game quite a lot. On page 8, there's an ingenious device that sounds almost contemporary: a ticket that glows when you're heading in the right direction. Then, as a result of Seldon's predictions, a project is established to gather the Empire's knowledge in the hope it will survive. Sections are book-ended by excerpts from the book this results in, the Encyclopedia Galactica - mocked in The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy in the 1970s, and a precursor of the internet.

It's influence on science-fiction is also evident. Back in my academic days last millennia, I wrote for the journal Foundation. I assume Han Solo being Corellian is a nod to the Korellians here, and Hardin in Doctor Who story The Leisure Hive a nod to the character in the book. Maybe the Doctor Who story Terminus owes a debt to this as well.

Then there are things that seem so much of an ancient past: the smoking of cigars (I initially read "a long cigar of Vegan tobacco" (p. 47) as meaning it was free of animal producrs), the news printed on paper, the merchant who offers tech-fashions to women but tech-weapons to men. A key element in the story is different groups' access and understanding of nuclear energy - "atomic power can be conquered only by more atomic power" (p. 164) - which feels very 1951,  when such energy was a pretty neat idea.

If we're not told how psychohistory actually works, Asimov at least places limits on the super-science to keep things dramatically interesting. Seldon predicts a series of crises, and those that follow him are left to guess how to meet such challenges without making the impending Dark Ages worse.
"I quite understand that psychohistory is a statistical science and cannot predict the future of a single man with any accuracy." (p. 21)
"Because even Seldon's advanced psychology was limited. It could not handle too many independent variables. He couldn't work with individuals over any length of time; any more than you could apply the kinetic theory of gases to single molecule. He worked with mobs, populations of whole planets, and only blind mobs who do not possess foreknowledge of the results of their own actions." (p. 97)
It's also all told in short, punchy chapters and sections - one chapter is barely three paragraphs long. We often jump forward years, and having to catch up on the monumental events we just skipped. There's an awesome scale and a sense of playing an active part in making sense of the bigger picture behind all these fragments.

Asimov occasionally makes sly comment on the politics presented:
"Korrell is that frequent phenomenon in history: the republic whose ruler has every attribute of the absolute monarch but the name. It therefore enjoyed the usual despotism unrestrained even by those two moderating influences in the legitimate monarchies: regal 'honour' and court etiquette." (p. 172)
But in large part the pleasure comes from smart, compassionate men (they're all men) who use that intelligence and compassion to avoid conflict and stick to Seldon's plan. It's an alluring idea, but I can't help feeling that it would be a more rewarding read if it didn't all go as predicted. It's a book that couldn't have been written after the Bay of Pigs or Watergate.

In fact, in 2002 David Langford spelled out a rather fine conjecture about Foundation influencing a real movement that has shaped so much of the 21st century.

I'm now keen to read Alex Nevala-Lee's new book Astounding: John W Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A Heinlein, L Ron Hubbard and the Golden Age of Science-Fiction (Dey Street Books, 2018).

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Doctor Who Magazine #532

The super new issue of Doctor Who Magazine is out tomorrow - but reaching subscribers already. Among the treats inside, I've interviewed costume designer Ray Holman about the current "TARDIS team", with tips for cosplaying the Doctor, Ryan, Yaz and Graham.

As Ray and I were talking on the phone about the practicalties of the Doctor's new costume, Lady Vader (or "Pting" as her brother now calls her) took it all to heart. Soon she was insisting I zip up her favourite princess outfit which she wore with owl backpack and wellington boots. The interview over, I then had to take her out for adventures, splashing in puddles while looking 100%.
Time for an adventure...

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

The Sky at Night Book of the Moon, by Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock

BBC Books (who, I should declare, publish stuff by me) sent me this fun new volume from TV's Dr Maggie, which she herself describes as, "a voyage that has explored the physical, mental and emotional impact of the Moon on all of us."

Much of the collected material is familiar from her BBC Two documentary, Do We Really Need the Moon?, detailing the history of our relationship with the Moon and how it benefits us. For example, its relatively large size stabilises Earth's orbit; it has slowed the spin of the Earth to the 24-hour cycle we're used to; the tides it creates may have played an essential role in the development of the very first life.

There's a lot more science, too - including updates on the latest efforts to return humans to the Moon - but also a selection of favourite Moon-related poetry, art and stories, and an exploration of the oldest Moon-related artefacts. I was captivated by the entry on "En-hedu-ana: Astronomer Princess of the Moon Goodess (c. 2354), who is,
"the first female name recorded in history and the first poet known by name too." (p. 65) 
On the next page, we're told that at least one of the numerous depictions labelled as En-hedu-ana shows her with a "substantial beard."

I read the book as research for a potential project, and now I have another one...

Wednesday, November 07, 2018

Worthing Wormhole and Gallifrey

I will be a guest at Worthing Wormhole this Saturday, signing copies of Doctor Who: The Women Who Lived with co-author Christel Dee.

Christel and I have also been announced as guests at Gallifrey One in Los Angeles in February. (By exciting coincidence, I first met Christel the last time I was at Gallifrey, in 2016.)

And here's a picture of my tired old head this morning at the BBC... 

Tuesday, November 06, 2018

Searching for the Lost Tombs of Egypt, by Chris Naunton

I first met Egyptologist Chris Naunton around the time he was working on his BBC Four documentary, The Man Who Discovered Egypt, which included the Dr as a shrewd talking head. Chris then advised me on the Egypt bits in the first chapter of The Science of Doctor Who and a timeline in Whographica - he wrote his own account of working out when exactly the Daleks invaded Egypt.

When the esteemed published Thames & Hudson approached Chris about writing a book on Tutankhamun, he argued instead for a book answering the question he and fellow egyptologists get asked all the time - what is there still to find?

The result is a fascinating, comprehensive and carefully weighed assessment of the chances of tracking down some of the most coveted tombs in history, those of: the great architect Imhotep (the one whose name was co-opted by the horror movies); Amenhotep I; Nefertiti and the other Amarna royals related to Tutankhamun; Herihor whose tomb, it has been claimed, would make "Tutankhamun look like Woolworths"; the pharaohs of the much disputed Third Intermediate Period; Alexander the Great; and Cleopatra.

It's a little like Richard Molesworth's book, Wiped!, which details the loss and recovery of episodes of Doctor Who - at times tantalising, fascinating and utterly frustrating. Along the way, Chris supplies plenty of fascinating history - of ancient Egypt and of modern archaeologists, not all of whom come out of it very well. He is good at putting the claims of some enthusiasts and attempting to weight them against evidence fairly. 

There's plenty that I didn't know - Alexander the Great had a sister called Cleopatra - and I particularly like a quotation from Howard Carter's 1917 report, "A tomb prepared for Queen Hatshepsut and other recent discoveries in Thebes", in which he feels the need to accent and italicise the exotic, foreign word "d├ębris".

Monday, November 05, 2018

Antimatter in buckets

Radio Times spoke to me and science writer Giles Sparrow about antimatter and its potential use in powering spaceships as seen in last night's episode of Doctor Who, The Tsuranga Conundrum.

I really enjoyed the episode, not least because the monster causing all the havoc could well have been based on my two year-old Lady Vader causing havoc. She's not watching the series, but the Lord of Chaos is. He found last night's one very frightening, but not nearly as terrifying as the spiders last week - which he's attempted to watch twice and given up on both times.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

The Bird's Nest, by Shirley Jackson

Shirley Jackson's 1954 novel The Bird's Nest is extraordinary. Elizabeth Richmond works in a museum, the wall beside her desk removed during renovation, so that she sits beside an open chasm. If that were not sufficiently unsettling, she's getting anonymous hate mail. And then there are her Aunt Morgen's accusations of her wanderings in the night...

The basis for the malady suffered by Elizabeth - Lizzie, Beth, Betsy and Bess - is spelt out on pp. 57-8, when Jackson quotes directly from Morton Prince's The Dissociation of a Personality (1905):
"Cases of this kind are commonly known as 'double' or 'multiple personality', according to the number of persons represented, but a more correct term is disintegrated personality, for each secondary personality is a part of a normal whole self. No one secondary personality preserves the whole physical life of the individual. The synthesis of the original consciousness known as as the personal ego is broken up, so to speak, and shorn of some of its memories, perceptions, acquisitions, or modes of reaction to the environment. The conscious states that still persist, synthesized among themselves, form a new personality capable of independent activity. This second personality may alternate with the original undisintegrated personality from time to time. By a breaking up of the original undisintegrated personality at different moments along different lines of cleavage, there may be formed several different secondary personalities, which may take turns with one another."
I'm writing an article about the book, and Jackson, and the psychoanalyses of her time. More to follow...

Saturday, October 06, 2018

The Story of Doctor Who

The nice people at Doctor Who Magazine have published The Story of Doctor Who, a shiny, comprehensive guide to the 55-year history of the series. It's perfect for those joining or returning to Doctor Who with Jodie Whittaker's Doctor - and has plenty to delight those of us who think they know it all backwards.

I've written the pieces on the Second, Fourth, Sixth and Twelfth Doctors, and dug out all sorts of stuff that was new to me. In fact, quite a lot of my work right now is looking for new things to say about Doctor Who, with a lot of dogged detective work to make sense of conflicting accounts of how particular bits of the series were made.

My knowing-it-backwards has also informed my watching of Jonathan Creek, which I never really saw when it was on in the 1990s but we're enjoying now on Netflix. The major revelation is how much it owes to Sherlock Holmes, which I'll write something about another time. But the Sixth Doctor is the first person killed in the series; in the first episode of the second series (produced by Verity Lambert), the Fifth Doctor walks under a broken-off piece off the TARDIS. Then, in episode 2.5, when the police arrest Alistair Petrie they also confiscate his VHS of Doctor Who and the Two Doctors.

(That Doctor Who story saw Patrick Troughton return as the Second Doctor, accompanied by Frazer Hines as his companion Jamie McCrimmon. A couple of years ago, I wrote an audio Doctor Who story, The Outliers in which Frazer played Jamie and also recreated Troughton's Doctor, both of them battling a smooth management consultant in space, played by Alistair Petrie.)

Anyway. I am giddy with excitement about new Doctor Who tomorrow. Amid all the flurry of promotion going on, I recommend catching up with this morning's Saturday Live, in which Richard Cole quizzed m'colleague Christel Dee. She talks candidly about growing up in care, how Doctor Who helped her to come out as gay, and her obsession with Ace. I'm a big fan of Saturday Live and a bit thrilled to have got a mention.

Have I mentioned that we wrote a book?

Thursday, October 04, 2018

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson

Straight on from her Dark Tales, I've ploughed through Shirley Jackson's final (and greatest, says the back cover) novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962).

It's told by 18 year-old Mary Kate Blackwood, known to everyone as "Merricat", a strange, scared girl with much to be afraid of. To begin, we follow her on an essential, regular trip into town to shop for food, where she must endure the mostly passive tyranny of ordinary people. It's incredibly effective, a threat that feels horribly real. Only once we've experienced and felt it does Jackson reveal why: almost all of Merricat's family died six years ago, poisoned by arsenic intentionally put in the sugar bowl.

Merricat now lives in the old family house with her agarophobic elder sister Constance - acquitted of the murder but still generally thought guilty - and her uncle Julian, who survived the poisoning at some cost. Wheelchair-bound and mentally disturbed, he's determined to uncover what really happened that night... Merricat is the only one to ever leave the family home, and her head is full of strange thoughts about magic ways to protect the house and also journeys to the Moon.

Into this unsettling space comes cousin Charles, who soon casts a spell over Constance and threatens the whole household. But he's just one of many tensions: the townspeople are never far away, and Merricat is herself bound by all kinds of rules - things she seems innately to know she is not allowed to do. The immaculate, ordered domestic space is a place beset with danger.

As in the Dark Tales, Jackson makes this strange situation so credible. In her afterword to the Penguin Classics edition, Joyce Carol Oates speaks of Jackson's own agoraphobia and says:
"Jackson's difficulties with her fellow citizens in North Bennington, Vermont are well documented in Judy Oppenheimer's harrowing biography, Private Demons (1988): the suggestion is that Jackson and her husband, the flamboyant 'Jewish-intellectual' cultural critic Stanley Edgar Hyman aroused resentment, if not outright anti-Semitism, in their more convention neighbours." 
Joyce Carol Oates, afterword to We Have Always Lived in the Castle, p. 152.
I think Jackson drawns on more than her own experience of real horror, too. There's repeated mention of a figurine, an object that survives a fire in the house. It's surely significant that it's always described as the "Dresden figurine", conjuring images of another conflagration.

The fire involves the most chilling moment of the whole novel. We know the townspeople are antagonistic to the Blackwoods, but in a moment of crisis the local men rush to help put out the fire. Only then, emerging from the house to the expectant crowd, the head of the men picks up a stone and throws it back at the building to smash a window. It gives licence to the mob, who stampede on the house...

Whatever the strange and murderous qualities of the household, it's the ordinary people outside who are most to be feared. 

Friday, September 28, 2018

Dark Tales, by Shirley Jackson

I've read loads since completing Space Odyssey - chapters of various mates' works in progress and all sorts of material for work, including a sizeable chunk of Amelia Edwards' 1878 travelogue, A Thousand Miles Up The Nile. Then there's Shirley Jackson.

Dark Tales is a collection of seventeen short stories by a writer who really ought to be a household name. One is a ghost story, one involves psychic abilities, one involves a painting that's like something out of MR James. But the rest are unsettling stories of very human monsters, the tyranny of ordinary snobbery, pettiness and meaness, of social conventions and small communities. They all take place in the modern day, in settings busy with people getting on with everyday life. The best of them are at their most disturbing because they're psychologically real. Women are usually central.

"The Good Wife" is about a jealous husband who incarcerates his wife. The twist ending reveals that the husband is more monstrous than first supposed, but what lingers is the awful detail of the wife's gradual acquiesence - having clearly tried to resist him to no effect, she now presents nothing but sweetness in the vain hope he will relent. In "The Honeymoon of Mrs Smith", a young bride accepts her imminent murder rather than make a fuss. In "Home", a woman learns better than to speak of the ghostly experience that almost killed her. The horror is not only of passivity, but of the ways these women are rendered passive.

In the brilliant "The Possibility of Evil", a respectable old lady notes the strains affecting her neighbours, before we discover that she's been sending them all anonymous, poisonous letters. Yet there's real tension when this malicious creature unwittingly risks being exposed. Jackson has deftly make us sympathise with the monster.

I'm keen to know more about Jackson and what shaped her extraordinary vision. It's surely no coincidence that her first story, "The Lottery" (not included in this anthology) was first published in 1948, in a post-war world lacking moral certainties - though some readers felt strongly otherwise, and she received death threats in response. I feel something noirish, something Hitchcock, in her stories, something haunted by the Holocaust and the Bomb, something deeply ill at ease with "ordinary" life.

It all feels so very contemporary, but not overtly political. In the final story in the collection, "The Summer People", there's mention of degeneration and inbreeding (p. 183), but the story is about the growing anxiety of an old couple when the local shops are out of groceries and oil. It's so relatable, the horror is horribly real.

I'm keen to see the new film version of We Have Always Lived in the Castle once I've reread Jackson's novel and adore the 1963 film The Haunting (based on The Haunting of Hill House), which first got me reading her stuff in my teens. I've also got a biography of Jackson - so more of this to come.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Big Issue #1326

Out today, issue 1326 of the Big Issue features an exclusive interview with Jodie Whittaker about being the new Doctor Who. Lurking alongside that is a small piece by me and Christel Dee about our new book, Doctor Who - The Women Who Lived.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Doctor Who Magazine #530

Doctor Who Magazine #530 is now available in shops and online. It includes my interview with musician Christian Erickson about how 1984 Doctor Who story The Caves of Androzani inspired his new album, The Caves - which I've been listening to a lot over the past few months.

The issue also includes a preview of The Women Who Lived, my new Doctor Who book which is out this week, and a nice review of The Eleventh Doctor Chronicles, which includes my latest Doctor Who audio play.

This issue of Doctor Who Magazine is also available as a deluxe edition exclusive to WHSmith, the goodies including a Doctor Who audio adventure from Big Finish (I'm afraid there's a risk you'll end up with one of mine) and a postcard of Lee Binding's cover art for The Women Who Lived.

I'll be signing the book later this week - at Forbidden Planet in London on Friday evening from 6 pm and at Forbidden Planet in Bristol on Saturday afternoon from 1 pm - along with my co-author Christel Dee and some of the artists involved.

And you can win a copy of the book by paying careful attention to this interview with me and Christel conducted by Phil Hawkins:

Thursday, September 06, 2018

John Ruskin's Eurythmic Girls, reprise

At 9.15 pm tonight, Radio 3 are repeating a documentary presented by Samira Ahmed and which I produced, John Ruskin's Eurythmic Girls, which will then be iPlayer thereafter.

Listen out for the scene-stealing role played by my then baby daughter. As we set up to record that, the conversation round the table led to an idea that's become our next documentary, which ought to be broadcast in February. More on that anon.

The blurb for tonight's one goes like this:
Perhaps you did music and movement at school. There was a time girls across the country learnt to dance as if they were flowers. At the start of the 20th century, Jacques-Dalcroze developed Eurhythmics to teach the rhythm and structure of music through physical activity. But the idea had earlier roots, including an unlikely champion of women's liberation. 
John Ruskin - now derided by feminist critics as a woman-fearing medievalist - was at the centre of a 19th-century education movement that challenged the conventional female role in society. Amid concerns about the health of the British Empire he looked back to the muscular figures in medieval painting and the sculpture of the ancient Greeks, in their loose-fitting clothes. Perhaps the Victorians needed to shed their corsets and free their minds for learning. In Of Queens' Gardens he set out a radical, influential model for girls' education. 
Samira Ahmed argues that Ruskin was an accidental feminist. To understand where his ideas came from, how they were enacted and what survives in the way girls are taught today, she ventures into one of the schools set up on Ruskinian principles, tries on the corsetry that restricted Victorian women's lives, and gets the insight of Victorian scholars. 
Contributors: Matthew Sweet (author of Inventing the Victorians); Dr Debbie Challis (Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, UCL); Louise Scholz-Conway (Angels Costumes); Dr Fern Riddell (author of A Victorian Guide to Sex); Dr Amara Thornton (Institute of Archaeology, UCL) and Isobel Beynon, Dr Wendy Bird, Annette Haynes, Dr Jean Horton, Diane Maclean, Aoife Morgan Jones and Natasha Rajan at Queenswood School. Readings by Toby Hadoke. 
Presenter Samira Ahmed
Producers Simon and Thomas Guerrier
A Whistledown Production for BBC Radio 3.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Two Eleventh Doctor things

Michael Pickwoad
I was very sad to hear of the death of Michael Pickwoad, Doctor Who's brilliant production designer between 2010 and 2017. I've posted my interview with Pickwoad for Doctor Who Magazine in 2014, and hope it conveys his intelligence, warmth and eagerness to help.

I'd been a fan of his for years, and pestered then editor Tom Spilsbury to run a feature on him, whether or not I got to do it. Pickwoad readily accepted, and invited me to the studio at Roath Lock in Cardiff where the series was busy being made - insisting I close my eyes as he led me through a room full of designs for the forthcoming Series 8.

Also, Hero Collector have published a timeline of companion Amy Pond, which I wrote to accompany my feature on her costumes for the first of the Companion Sets from Doctor Who Figurines Collection.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Space Odyssey, by Michael Benson

A couple of years ago, I praised a jaw-dropping exhibition of images of the Solar System which were on temporary display at the Natural History Museum. I said Otherworlds was, “brilliantly curated by Michael Benson,” so I eagerly anticipated his new book on the making of the film 2001 to mark its  50th anniversary.

Space Odyssey is excellent, detailing the minutiae of each stage in the creative process, from director Stanley Kubrick first making contact with writer Arthur C Clarke to the film’s premiere four years later, its immediate aftermath and the fates of these two men. It is fascinating, insightful and profound – just like the film.

It’s a thrill to follow, step by step, the development of iconic moments – who suggested what and when, and how Kubrick marshalled, encouraged and ran ragged the team around him. Most surprising is how late some of the decisions were made – even deep into cutting, the film almost had a narration and a specially composed score (rather than using pre-existing tracks). On p. 394, we’re told Kubrick even considered getting the Beatles to provide the music. Indeed, the film we know now and I have on Blu-ray is a cut-down, improved version of the one that premiered in New York in April 1968 to such a negative response – effectively, Kubrick was still revising the film after it was finished.

Several of the many, many people Benson interviewed refer to Kubrick as a genius, but the overall impression is of a brilliant, difficult and rather cowardly man. When a real leopard was filmed for the Dawn of Man sequence, Kubrick was the only member of the cast and crew to be inside a protective cage. Worse, we watch in horror as Kubrick insists that stunt performer Bill Weston do longer and longer takes in a spacesuit that Kubrick has also insisted have no holes to prevent the build up of CO2. Weston is rendered unconscious, as has been only too inevitable, and though he recovers Kubrick then avoids him.

There are other things: that Clarke was treated unfairly in contract negotiations, which led to him not getting royalties on the film, and suffered delays in getting the book version approved that didn’t help the delicate state of his finances; the special effects team done out of an Academy Award by Kubrick taking credit for their work.  And yet it’s difficult not to admire this difficult, selfish man for his dedication. His approach, his care, his achievement are remarkable.

I found a lot of it funny, such as when (p.91) Kubrick, unsure how to realise the apes in the Dawn of Man sequence, wrote to noted actor Robert Shaw about playing play the lead, unspeaking ape – because he felt Shaw already had simian features. No response is recorded.

Likewise, in the papers drawn up to greenlight the movie, there’s a list of contingency directors. David Lean seems an obvious choice (he hadn’t directed science-fiction before, but then neither had Kubrick), but others are more surprising:
“Try to imagine 2001 – A Space Odyssey directed by [Billy] Wilder, the man who made Some Like it Hot.”
Michael Benson, Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C Clarke and the Making of a Masterpiece (2018), p. 90.
The same page also picks out a detail in the contract referring to jurisdictions – the rights to the movie covering not just different countries but extending into space.
“The boilerplate had coincided with the destination.”
Benson is an expert guide, though I kept wanting to add prepositions to his wry, dry US journalese. He also feels the need to explain the abbreviation “NB” (p. 66) and that “George the second” was “the eighteenth-century monarch” (p. 224). But then that’s me assuming these things are readily understood, and Benson’s perspective as an outsider gives him a telling insight into the British film industry of the time:
“The British class system was as quietly rigid and unquestioningly enforced at Borehamwood as elsewhere. Offspring of the lower classes were expected to aspire to union cards from the trades; they might become sparks (electricians), chippies (carpenters), plasterers, grips, drivers, and the like. Upper-class kids, on the other hand, could jostle for positions in management and leading creative positions: assistant directors, camera assistants, producers in training.”
Ibid., p. 225.
This is exemplified in the role of posh boy Andrew Birkin – brother of Jane – who starts out as the production’s tea boy and is soon in charge second-unit shooting in Scotland for the Star Gate sequence, taking command of the camera from operator Jack Atcheler, who found the low-flying aerial photography too perilous. (And not without reason; Birkin tells Benson that their helicopter pilot was killed on his next movie (p. 245).)

There are odd omissions, too: for all Benson details the relationship between Kubrick and young effects pioneer Douglas Trumbull, there’s no mention of Silent Running (1972), mentioned recently by critic Mark Kermode in his series Secrets of Cinema:
“Trumbull said that he made the unashamedly sentimental Silent Running as a response to the inhuman sterility of 2001 – a film in which the most sympathetic character is a homicidal computer. In Silent Running, Trumbull set his hero [Freeman] alone in space with only three worker drones for company. The drones are robots who, during the course of the movie, come to exhibit strangely human characteristics, or perhaps to reflect the human characteristics which Freeman projects on to them.”
Mark Kermode’s Secrets of Cinema (BBC Four, 2018) 1.4: Science Fiction
And although Benson talks about the influence of 2001 on subsequent science-fiction films, there’s little on the wider cultural impact. I was struck by a small comment when referring to the success of Clarke’s novel of the film.
“His other work benefitted as well, with three new printings of Childhood’s End in 1969 alone.”
Benson, p. 435.
It’s in this context that Childhood’s End influenced David Bowie’s 1971 song “Oh! You Pretty Things”, which in turn part-inspired the TV series The Tomorrow People. There’s no mention, either, of the conspiracy theory spun out of the technical excellence of 2001’s visual effects: that Kubrick then helped to fake the Moon landings.

One thing Benson does mention is of great interest to something I’m writing at the moment. Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975) won an Academy Award for its cinematography, which included interior scenes,
“illuminated almost entirely by candlelight. The result was the first accurate representation of what eighteenth century interiors looked like before the advent of electricity, giving the film the remarkable aspect of a period oil painting come to life.”
Ibid., p. 438.
This, says Benson, was achieved through the use of fast Leiss lenses with extremely wide apertures, developed for the Apollo programme to photograph the far side of the Moon.

It’s this sort of connection that makes the book such an absorbing, astonishing read. But I think the detail that most lingers is a quotation from Clarke’s 1960 essay, “Rocket to the Renaissance”, in which he draws a parallel between space travel and something from history – not the Wild West or even Homer’s Odyssey, but life emerging out of the oceans.
“We seldom stop to think we’re still creatures of the sea, able to leave it only because from birth to death we wear the water-filled space suits of our skins.”
Ibid, p. 51.
See also: Me on the death and legacy of Arthur C Clarke

Doctor Who post script
I’m intrigued by the one reference in the book to Doctor Who. Benson tells us that in the autumn of 1965, in the weeks leading up to the start of filming on 30 December, the spacesuit backpacks, front manoeuvring controllers, button panels for the arms and the space helmets were produced either inhouse at the studios in Borehamwood,
“or by AGM, the London company also busy manufacturing ‘Daleks’: the cylindrical alien cyborgs seen in Doctor Who, the cult BBC-TV series.”
Ibid., p. 123.
Pre-production and the start of filming on 2001 overlapped with the recording of the 12-part The Daleks’ Master Plan on television. We know the team on 2001 contacted director Douglas Camfield a few days after the broadcast of episode 5, Counter Plot, on 11 December 1965 to find out how he’d achieved the space-travelling and molecular dissemination effects.

Yet I’d never heard of AGM, so checked with Dalek expert Gav Rymill. “Autumn of ‘65 would have been just before the enormous batch of props made for Daleks Invasion Earth 2150 AD,” says Gav. The Dalek props – for the TV series and the two films – were supplied by Shawcraft, but it’s possible AGM supplied some of the sets or other props used in both TV and films. We shall do more digging...

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Dickens and the dinosaurs

The online new issue of medical journal The Lancet Psychiatry (vol 5, iss 8, August 2018) features "Dickens and the dinosaurs", a review of  the exhibition Charles Dickens: Man of Science, running at the Dickens Museum in London until 11 November.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Doctor Who Figurine Collection

I've been working for a while on the partwork Doctor Who Figurine Collection, my job to write 1,200 words on the costumes of particular characters from the whole history of Doctor Who, as assigned to me by editor Neil Corry.

It's fun and fiddly, involving lots of research and the tracking down of people to interview, as always in the hope of unearthing new detail or insight. For my own record, here are the issues I've done. (I'll try and keep this list updated as we go...)

100 - The Master
Specifically, the significance of the Nehru suit worn by actor Roger Delgado for the Master's first appearance in the opening scenes of Terror of the Autons (1971).

113 - Robot Santas The modified design from The Runaway Bride (2006), rather than the originals from The Christmas Invasion (2005).

114 - Ice Queen Iraxxa From The Empress of Mars (2017), including interview with writer Mark Gatiss. I also spoke to Gary Russell and Lee Sullivan about the design of the female Ice Warrior, Shssur Luass, seen in the Doctor Who comic strip published in Radio Times in 1996.

115 - Auton
In blue overalls, from Spearhead in Space (1970).

117 - Omega
From Arc of Infinity (1983); I try to uncover why he looks nothing like he did in his previous story, The Three Doctors (1972-3).

118 - Spacesuit Zombie
From Oxygen (2017), including interview with actor Tim Dane Reid.

119 - Emojibot
From Smile (2017), including interview with writer Frank Cottrell-Boyce and SFX producer Kate Walshe.

120 - The First Doctor
From The Doctor Falls and Twice Upon a Time (2017), including interview with costume designer Hayley Nebauer.

121 - Truth MonkFrom Extremis, The Pyramid at the End of the World and The Lie of the Land (2017), including interviews with actor Tim Dane Reid, SFX producer Kate Walshe and costume designer Hayley Nebauer.

122 - Eliza
From Knock Knock (2017), including interview with sculptor Gary Pollard and SFX producer Kate Walshe.

125 - Silurian
From Warriors of the Deep (1984), including excerpts from correspondence from writer Johnny Byrne to fan Sarah Groenewegen in 1983.

126 - The Second Doctor
Specifically, the costume from his first story, The Power of the Daleks (1966).

127 - Winder
From The Beast Below (2010), examining an earlier version of the script.

132 - The Fourth Doctor
Specifically, June Hudson's redesign of the costume for The Leisure Hive (1980). I spoke to Hudson, and also to Ron Davies from Angel's Costumiers, who cut the coat.

135 - Pig Slave
From Daleks in Manhattan and Evolution of the Daleks (2007).

136 - Koquillion
From The Rescue (1965). I'm especially pleased about this as Koquillion is a favourite monster - so much so that I named another of my blogs after him.

Companion set 1 - Amy Pond and The Eleventh Doctor
Covering their costumes between The Eleventh Hour (2010) and The Angels Take Manhattan (2012).

Thursday, August 09, 2018

Journey up the Nile, the Egyptian Diary of Marianne Brocklehurst

Last week, I visited the West Park Museum in Macclesfield as research for my forthcoming Radio 3 documentary, “Victorian Queens of Ancient Egypt”, to be broadcast early next year.

The museum was the idea of Marianne Brocklehurst (1832-98), the well-off daughter of silk manufacturer, banker and Liberal MP John Brocklehurst (1788-1870), and I’m investigating Marianne’s own politics and why she, and the industrial north more generally, might have felt an affinity for the Pharaohs.

Marianne apparently made five trips to Egypt, and the museum has many of the artefacts she acquired along with her drawings and paintings. In 2017, the museum published “Journey Up the Nile”, a transcript of Marianne’s diary from her first trip. It’s a nice, hardback edition on glossy paper, including many illustrations and photographs, and an introduction by honorary curator Alan Hayward that helps set the scene. (The only thing lacking is a map, so I referred to the one in Alan’s 2013 pamphlet, “The Story of the Collection – How West Park Museum Got Its Ancient Egyptian Objects.”)

The diary begins on 11 November 1873, as Marianne sets off from Macclesfield with her travelling companion Mary Booth (1830-1912), Marianne’s young nephew Alfred and manservant George Lewis. The entries are mostly short, single paragraphs, the detail in the accompanying sketches. But there’s a sense of fun and adventure, Marianne seeming to relish the small hardships.

They pass through France and Italy, losing some of Alfred’s luggage along the way, recovering it, then losing track of time – presumably because of so much travelling by night - to arrive at Brindisi a day early for their boat across the Mediterranean. There are comic sketches of people falling over themselves during the very rough crossing, which leads to their boat ending up a hundred miles off course.

Although they reach Alexandria on 28 November, it’s another day before they’re cleared to land – 18 days after setting off from home. Stuck on board for that last evening, Marianne and Mary – the MBs, as they were known – meet other tourists, including novelist Amelia Edwards (1831-92), who will follow much of their course down and up the Nile on another, grander boat.

Edwards would later establish the Egyptian Exploration Fund (now Society) and provide a legacy for the first professorship of Egyptian Archaeology – awarded to Flinders Petrie – so she’s a significant figure in the discipline. This is from before all that, but she’s hardly a young girl. She’s a well-established professional writer, and in her early 40s – as are the two MBs.

In 2016, Historic England Grade II listed the grave Edwards shares with her long-term companion Ellen Drew Brayshaw, noting its importance in LGBT history. The MBs were also long-term companions who would be buried together. What can we read into that?

“We should not take a modern attitude to two women living together,” says Alan Hayward in his 2013 pamphlet, “for in those days, when a woman’s role was to raise a family and run the home, it was the only way for independently minded wealthy women to ‘do their own thing’.”

I scoured the diary looking for anything that might hint at something more. At no point does she tell us what their relationship is – but then she also doesn’t spell out her relationship to Alfred (her nephew) or George (her servant). The assumption is that her readers will know, because this diary was likely passed between friends and not intended for publication.

She is candid about certain things, describing at some length and with much excitement how she and Mary smuggled a mummy case out of the country, bribing officials along the way, and noting the very serious punishments those involved risked by helping her. Yet she is coy about exactly how much she paid – something less than a £100 but a “good round number in sovereigns” (p. 91).

So we’re left to interpret what is left unsaid. Can we read anything into the moment that Mary “smokes a pipe over the oil can” (p. 36) with the sailors, which seems rather unladylike, or the delight the MBs take in “paying our baksheesh like a man” (p. 69)?

Other details are more sure. The four-month trek down and up the Nile is a well-established journey, the river busy with other tourists, some of them friendly and respectable, others – such as Cooks’ excursionists and some American Christians – behaving badly, carving their names in the monuments and leaving their rubbish behind them. Some things have not changed in a century and a half - just like the MBs, the Dr and I struggled to find the carving of Cleopatra on the wall of the temple at Dandara.

In other ways it's another world. There's the pith helmets and formal wear of the tourists in the pictures. There’s the risk of crocodiles, and thieves, and Marianne’s compassionate response when a trusted sailor turns out to have stolen from them.
“Let us not be hard on his memory considering that, like the rest of the sailors, his pay was only thirty shillings a month for three or four months at the most and then nothing to do or to get until the next season began.” (pp. 86-7)
There is a great deal more, but I won’t share all my notes here as they’re for the documentary...

Wednesday, August 08, 2018

The World of Doctor Who

In shops now, The World of Doctor Who is the latest - and 50th - special edition of Doctor Who Magazine, and examines the past, present and future of fandom.

I've written three features:

'Calling all Doctor Who fans...' The Doctor Who Appreciation Society was launched in 1976. Paul Winter, the current Co-ordinator, explains how its role has changed over the years.

From humble beginnings in the early 70s, fan productions have grown increasingly sophisticated, nurturing careers and featuring numerous stars from television Doctor Who.
(I spoke to animator Lucy Crewe from Creative Cat FX, director Kevin Jon Davies, Den Valdron who wrote The Great Unauthorized Doctor Stories, producer Keith Barnfather, puppeteer Alisa Stern and the team behind Devious - Ashley Nealfuller, David Clarke, Stephen Cranford and Mark Jones.)

What began in a church in London in 1977 has now become a crucial part of many fans' social calendars. This is the essential guide to Doctor Who conventions.
(I spoke to Dexter O'Neill at Fantom, Oni Hartstein of (Re)Generation Who, and fans Prakash Bakrani, Jennifer and Ed Comstock, Yashoda Sampath, Jenny Shirt and Andrea @TARDISParrot.) 

Saturday, August 04, 2018

The Princess Diarist, by Carrie Fisher

The friend I borrowed this from got it for Christmas in 2016, and was 33 pages in when news arrived that Carrie Fisher had died. My friend had not been able to read any further.

Even while Fishe was alive, this would have been an uncomfortable read. It's based on diaries she kept in 1976 and subsequently forgot about, detailing her thoughts while filming the first Star Wars film in London, and having an affair with her married co-star, Harrison Ford. The "diaries" - they're more a series of thoughts and poems - make up the middle third of the book.

The first third sets the scene, detailing how she got to be in Star Wars, her background and expernece of show business, and her lack of self-esteem, and then how the affair began. She's withering, witty and honest, with a brilliant, sometimes filthy turn of phrase (describing Ford at one point as "the snake in my grass"). The effect is that she's addressing us, the reader directly, and challenging us to question her actions and motives.
"But though I do admittedly lay bear far more than the average bear, before disclosing anything that is possibly someone else's secret to tell, I make it a practice to first let that person know about my intention. (Aren't I ethical? I thought you'd think so.)"
Carrie Fisher, The Princess Diariest, p. 51.
That would seem to mean she consulted Ford prior to publication, though it's never stated as such and he's not mentioned in her acknowledgements.

The account of how she and Ford got together is funny, revealing much about them both, and she picks out details in retrospect that better explain how things happened. I'd read some of this before in a newspaper, and it's heartfelt, sweet and desperately sad, grief for a life and love long since past.

The last third is more about the love affair that followed the release of Star Wars, the affect her character had on the public. In a long chapter, she details the experience of being a guest at Comic Con, the doubts she has about this kind of "lap-dancing" for cash.
"It's certainly a higher form of prostitution: the exchange of a signature for money, as opposed to a dance or a grind. Instead of stripping off clothes, the celebrity removes the distance created by film or stage. Both traffic in intimacy."
Ibid., p. 211.
"I need you to know I'm not cynical about fans ... I'm moved by them," she assures us (p. 223), "For the most part they're kind and courteous" (p. 224). She's shrewd, too, about the appeal of Princess Leia, and why Star Wars can mean so much to people, which they want to share with her. Even so, it's daunting, exhausting, just to read about having so much significance projected on to you - not you, someone who looks like you used to.
"I wish I'd understood the kind of contract I signed by wearing something like that [metal bikini], insinuating I would and will always remain somewhere in the erotic ballpark appearance-wise, enabling fans to remain connected to their younger, yearning selves - longing to be with me without having to realize that we're both long past all of this in any urgent sense, and accepting it as a memory rather than an ongoing reality."
Ibid., pp. 228.
That's really struck me: the desperate futility of holding on to past love. The sadness of the book, and of the loss of Carrie Fisher, is a grieving for ourselves.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Illuminae, by Amie Kaufmann & Jay Kristoff

This brilliant novel had me hooked from its first pages - in which a school is attacked by a huge spaceship. In the heart of the maelstrom are Katy and Ezra, a couple of teenagers who just broke up. We follow their desperate efforts to survive...

From its thrilling opening, Illuminae builds and builds, with twist after shocking twist. The teenagers are smart and funny and brave, so we're totally with them every step, and share every agony they go through. And there's a lot of that - more than once I muttered, "No!" as I was reading. It's hard not to say more without spoiling the delights.

As well as the exceptional plotting and characterisation, it's an epistolary novel, made up from a stash of emails, analysis of CCTV and other recordings. That's done really well and sustained throughout - no mean achievement in itself - which adds to the intimacy and realism as we look over Katy and Ezra's shoulders.

There are two further books in the same series - Gemina and Obsidio - and the authors are working on a new series, beginning with Aurora Rising next year. They are all added to the reading pile. Illuminae is hugely recommended.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Doctor Who: The Women Who Lived

BBC Books have announced an exciting new volume, Doctor Who: The Women Who Lived, to be published in September.

Written by Christel Dee and me (as her plucky assistant), it features profiles of more than 75 women from the whole history of Doctor Who, including friends who've travelled in the TARDIS, recurring characters and some one-off people we particularly like... There's an extended entry on the new, Thirteenth Doctor, and details about her new friend, Yasmin.

The cover is by the amazing Lee Binding, and the illustrations inside are by a team of brilliant women: Jo Bee; Gwen Burns; Sophie Cowdrey; Lydia Futral; Kate Holden; Bev Johnson; Dani Jones; Sonia Leong; Cliodhna Lyons; Mogamoka; Valentina Mozzo; Naniiebim; Lara Pickle; Emma Price; Katy Shuttleworth; Natalie Smillie; Rachael Smith; Raine Szramski; Tammy Taylor; Emma Vieceli; Caz Zhu

Friday, July 20, 2018

Comics bought from South London Comic & Zine Fair

As well as handing out copies of our new Bibbly-Bob comic, I bought a bunch of things from the stalls at last weekend's South London Comic & Zine Fair. There was a wealth of exciting stuff on offer, but herding a seven year-old meant I had to actively steer past anything that looked too adult. Things browsed and bought were dictated by what appealed - and wouldn't terrify - him.

Plastic by Nick Soucek is a small, square 48pp comic with one panel per page, telling the history of the oil that becomes the plastic that becomes a bottle of water, from the age of the dinosaurs on. It's a brilliantly simple, and quite caught his Lordship's imagination - and mine.

The Boy & the Owl is a rectangular comic the same height as Plastic, with art by Sabba Khan illustrating a poem by Paul Jacob Naylor. It's a sort of goth fairy-tale, and we bought it because when his Lordship picked up Sabba's Bob the Goldfish - which seemed so much just his thing - I was quickly, discreetly warned that he might not like the ending...

Lord Chaos ran to Gary Northfield's stall, having loved Gary's Garden which we bought from him last year. This time, his Lordship went for Teenytinysaurs, even if it ate up all his pre-agreed budget in one go. I've not had a chance to look through it much as his Lordship keeps it close.

The Great North Wood by Tim Bird immediately caught my eye - a handsome graphic novel in blue and orange and pink telling the history of the part of south London in which I live. It covers a lot of ground, and includes some marvellous details - such as the story that Honor Oak Park owes its name from Elizabeth I getting drunk at a picnic - while showing the traces of woodland still evident in the streets I walk every day. 

In exchange for a copy of Bibbly-Bob, Tim also gifted us his Rock & Pop, a simpler, more traditional zine, with each single page devoted to a particular song of significance to him. The result is an intimate autobiography, full of warmth and wit.

Lord Chaos, meanwhile, was chatting to Andy Poyiadgi, delighted by the simple silliness of A Cup of Tea Will Sort You Out (which we bought) and the various origami and other intriguingly folded creations (which we didn't). 

I also picked up an anthology of work by Dalston Comic Collective - a group of adults who meet once a month to make comics - and was delighted to find it included work by my old mate Dave Turbitt, and then sad to discover we'd missed him at the fair.

Finally, there was Ocular Anecdotes number 3 by Peter Cline, a visually striking comic the size and heft of a newspaper, described on Cline's website at "pictographic literature". It looks amazing, and I've puzzled over it again and again - but am still not quite sure what it is or what it's about.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Bibbly-Bob returns

After its exclusive media launch at the South London Comic & Zine Fair this afternoon, here is the new Bibbly-Bob the Seal comic - in which (oh no!) there is litter on the beach. Story and art by Lord of Chaos, with inking and lettering by his humble servant.

(The original Bibbly-Bob comic, created for last year's event, can be found at www.tinyurl.com/BibblyBob.)

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Binti, by Nnedi Okorafor

I really enjoyed this 90-page science-fiction novella about a girl who runs away from home to go to space university, when her ship is attacked by murderous aliens...

The novella won both Hugo and Nebula awards, and if the word of mouth wasn't already good, the cover boasts a too-die-for endorsement:
"There's more vivid imagination in a page of Nnedi Okoroafor's work than in whole volumes of ordinary fantasy epics." - Ursula K. Le Guin
A lot of science-fiction is about encounters between white Earth people and "the other" out in space. Binti, the narrator of this story, is the first of the Himba people of northern Namibia to be offered a place at Oomza University, and other humans (even darker skinned ones) treat her as exotic and strange.

The otjize paste with which she daubs her hair and skin is made from the clay back home, a physical link to her culture and history that plays a key part in the story. The texture and smell of it are part of what makes the telling so sensuous and rich.

A lot of science-fiction is also about war and conquest, the future all jostling colonial powers. Binti feels like it's going to be some typical invasion, but is more about what it takes to bridge the gap between different groups, whether human or otherwise. In doing so, Binti becomes someone, something, else. That willingness to reach out, to leave home and migrate, to embrace the strange, is a defiant, heroic act.

Her story continues in Binti: Home (2017) and Binti: The Night Masquerade (2018), which I hope to get to shortly.

Thursday, July 05, 2018

Eleventh Doctor Chronicles cover

Our next month is Doctor Who - The Eleventh Doctor Chronicles, with this tremendous cover by Tom Webster:

I've written one of the four stories: The Top of the Tree, starring Jacob Dudman and Danny Horn, and directed by Helen Goldwyn.
On one of their annual jaunts, young Kazran Sardick and the Doctor find themselves in trouble when the TARDIS is tangled in the branches of a very strange, very large tree.
They emerge into a habitat where myriad species fight for survival: an ecosystem of deadly flora and fauna, along with a tribe of primitive humans.
This is a mystery which can only be solved by climbing. But what will they find at the top of the tree?

Wednesday, July 04, 2018

The Good Immigrant, edited by Nikesh Shukla

This book of 21 essays is, in the words of the editor's note, "a document of what it means to be a person of colour now."

While "the universal experence is white", we're presented with "21 universal experiences: feelings of anger, displacement, defensiveness, curiousity, absurdity - we look at death, class, microaggression, popular culture, free movement, stake in society, lingual fracas, masculinity and more." It's insightful, funny, surprising and harrowing, and has got me thinking about my own assumptions and behaviour, that of the industry in which I work and society around me.

It's an excellent, wide-ranging book and I recommend it to anyone.

Tediously, I read it on the recommendation that it included something about the 1977 Doctor Who story The Talons of Weng-Chiang. What follows is some thoughts about that, though I'm still mulling it all over. (And you might like to watch my 2011 documentary related to this subject: "Race Against Time", included on the DVD of the 1972 story, The Mutants.)

Daniel York Loh's essay, "Kendo Nagasaki and Me", is about his response as a child to a particular wrestler on ITV's World of Sport, and the rare sight on mainstream TV in the 1970s of a "fellow 'oriental'" - as he puts it on p. 46. It's a heartfelt account, and he admits at the end that he may have muddled some of the historical details, but the point is not about the accuracy of his memory so much as what the relationship meant and still means to him.

Doctor Who - "my favourite TV programme in the world" (p. 52) - gets four and a bit paragraphs, an extended aside. Compared to today's version, the Doctor Who he grew up with "was populated almost entirely by white people ... For a remit with the whole of time and space as a pallette this is a bit crap frankly." He describes The Talons of Weng-Chiang as a,
"handsomely mounted Victorian Sax Rohmer homage", but with "one of the very worst examples of yellowface as a gang of silent, sinister and inscrutable (it's amazing how easily and often those words flow together) goons (the only appropriate description) appeared, led by an English actor called John Bennett sporting ridiculous false eyelids that looked like you could sit on them, skin made up yellow than a lump of cheese and speaking in a hopelessly mishmashed Chinese/Japanese hybrid accent that would had had Henry Higgins completely stumped. Not nearly so much as the fact that the BBC still carries a website page somewhere that heaps lavish praise on Mr Bennett's staggeringly silly turn, opining that, unless they knew, the viewer might be hard-pressed to tell that the English thesp wasn't in fact Chinese. Not unless they were under the impression that Chinese people had eyelids made from recycled skateboards and talked like Yoda in Star Wars when he's been on the ketamine, I think." (p. 53)
My immediate response to this is to want to defend the story - which I enjoy and admire in many respects - and Doctor Who more generally, and even the BBC. For one thing, that praise for Bennett, on an old part of the BBC website, is clearly labelled as a quotation from a book. And yet, on checking, it still says:
"John Bennett is faultless as the inscrutable Li H'sen Chang, and his performance and make-up are so convincing that it is difficult to believe that he is not actually Chinese."
Doctor Who - The Talons of Weng-Chiang: in detail
That it is quoted from a book is no excuse. The quotation is from Doctor Who - The Television Companion, first published in 1998 by BBC Books, the cover proclaiming in large letters that it was, "the official BBC guide to every TV story." That is pretty authoritative, and the website repeats the book's assessment of the story in full, without comment. The book was republished as recently as 2013, and though that wasn't by BBC Books and without the authority of being an "official" publication, it still shows that this isn't merely something from the distant past.

I don't mean to criticise the authors of the book or the editors of the website; I might well have written or quoted something similar without thought. That's the point: The Good Immigrant challenges bias and prejudice we might not even be aware of in ourselves, whatever our intentions and however much we want to believe that racism is something other, bad people do. It chimes with my recent reading of The Blunders of Our Governments. How do we address a white blindness we're not even aware of?

Criticism of The Talons of Weng-Chiang is not new, nor the defensive response. It's been argued that Doctor Who was better than other programmes made at the same time - but surely not all of them. And that doesn't negate the issues there anyway.

Or it is said the story itself critiques racist attitudes. Yes, this isn't simply Doctor Who trotting out the stereotypes of Sax Rohmer. For all Bennett's performance owes something to the version of Fu Manchu played by (the also white) Christopher Lee in the five films made in the 1960s, Chang is, ultimately, a rather sympathetic character, his motivation clear - the opposite of the "inscrutable". At the same time, the Doctor counters some of the prejudice shown by the Victorian Londoners in the story. But it's still bound up in racial and class-based assumptions, and the Doctor is visiting London anyway to educate his "savage" companion - an adjective with racist associations.

Or there's the argument that the BBC were required to only use actors who were members of Equity, which limited the number of Chinese or Chinese-descended actors who might have taken this particular role. That didn't mean there weren't any; I find myself imagining the story with Burt Kwuok playing Chang. But the casting of Bennett is also surely part of a - no doubt unconcious - tendency to have Chinese and East Asian characters played by actors of Jewish origin. Think also of Martin Miller as Kublai Khan in the 1964 Doctor Who story Marco Polo, or, more notably, Joseph Wiseman as Dr. No. Then recall the criticism above of villains who are,
"silent, sinister and inscrutable (it's amazing how easily and often those words flow together)".
There's also the cumulative effect when actors of particular ethnic backgrounds do not get the same opportunties as their white counterparts. They don't develop their skills, so they're seen as less able than their white counterparts, so they miss out on further work, so they don't develop their skills...

It remains an issue, as described by young actor Paul Courtney Hyu, interviewed by Wei Ming Kam for "Beyond 'Good' Immigrants", another of the essays in the book. Hyu says that with so few opportunities for "East Asians" in film and TV in the UK, another actor, Elain Tan, has gone to America where she is "working her arse off."

But then Hyu addes "in a satisfied tone" an example of a UK show doing better than the rest:
"And she is the main person in our episode of Doctor Who [2015's Sleep No More]. So there are two Chinese in it, and she's got a Geordie accent, and pretty good too, I have to say. And I do my Yorkshire accent." (p.93)
As a Doctor Who fan, I take some pride in that - but also know it's a rare example.

Himesh Patel mentions, on p. 64, watching Doctor Who while a teenager - one of the things he followed closely with his (white) peers so as to fit in, while they showed no interest in Bollywood music or films.

Anyway, all this has got me thinking - informing my perspective on old episodes as I watch them on Twitch and research them for the various magazines I write for, and challenging some assumptions in the script I'm late on at the moment. An aspect of a character has just been revised because this book made me realise an aspect of my own blindess, and pointed the way to do better.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Revisiting Sunnydale: a Buffy podcast

I was the guest / breakfast of Kahmeela and Marcella on episode 77 of the Revisiting Sunnydale podcast, for a lively natter about my book Slayer Stats - The Complete Infographic Guide to All Things Buffy (co-written with Steve O'Brien and illustrated by Illaria Vescovo).

Among the topics covered are where I am wrong, the representation of minorities (ie British people) in the series and what I think about the new Doctor Who.

My bit starts at 34:32 - before then, Kahmeela and Marcella review season 4.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Apollo, by Fitch, Baker and Collins

This new graphic novel about the Apollo 11 Moon landing is illustrated by Mike Collins who a) shares his name with the Command Module pilot of that mission and b) I know through Doctor Who things, so I declare my interest in what follows.

The comic begins in the moments before launch, and concludes with the Command Module on its way back to Earth. It seems largely told from the freely available NASA transcripts of the flight, and a number of books - including those written by Aldrin and Collins (the astronaut) about their own experiences. We also hear from witnesses at various levels of remove - Armstrong's wife, Aldrin's dad, soldiers out in Vietnam - and skip back in time to formative moments in childhood and the catastrope of Apollo 1.

In addition, there are the astronauts' dreams and nightmares, and I wondered if these were based on things the astronauts themselves reported, or are the invention of the writers. Really, what I'd like are exhaustive endnotes detailing every source, in the manner of Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell in From Hell.

The halftone colour, provided by Kris Carter and Jason Candy, suggests the feel of comics from the period, too. Pulpier, less glossy paper and design might have better suggested an authentic artefact of the Apollo age. But this is a sumptuous physical object - which is hardly a criticism, is it?

The comic is good at underlining the dangers involved at each stage of the mission, and reveals plenty of telling detail as the story unfolds - Aldrin's efforts to be the first on the Moon's surface, Nixon's realisation that he'd be remembered as president if the mission failed, Kennedy if it succeeded. There are maybe some things that might have helped with that: Nixon actually recorded the speech mentioned here, to be broadcast in the event that a failure left Armstrong and Aldrin to die, stranded on the Moon's surface (it's included in the amazing documentary, In the Shadow of the Moon). That message may - I've not been able to find enough hard evidence - have been recorded just as Nixon was preparing to make a live phone call to the two astronauts as they bounced around in the moondust. No wonder Nixon was sweating during that call...

That's a minor quibble; this is an absorbing, detailed and arresting account that manages to bring something new to the so thoroughly picked over story. I shall be sure to pick over it again during the coming 12 months, in the lead up to the 50th anniversary of that first Moon landing.