Friday, September 17, 2021

Doctor Who Magazine #569

The new issue of Doctor Who Magazine includes two things by me.

First, the ingenious Gavin Rymill and Rhys Williams have reconstructed in CGI another studio floor plan from a missing episode of the series, this time the first part of The Macra Terror (1967). Rhys and I have written the accompanying words, trying to make sense of exactly how the story was realised with so little money, time and space.

Then, the latest instalment of Sufficient Data tackles the important subject of what, exactly, the Second Doctor keeps in his capacious pockets and when we first see each item. As always, the infographic is by Ben Morris but this time I shared the exhaustive research with Andrew Ledger, who undertook the extraordinary feat of rewatching every extant Troughton episode to be sure we hadn't missed anything.

Friday, September 10, 2021

I’m Just the Guy Who Says Action, by Alvin Rakoff

At the end of this fascinating, moving memoir, the TV and film director Alvin Rakoff recalls a final conversation with his dying wife, the actress Jacqueline Hill. She wanted him to tell her about the holidays they’d enjoyed, such as exploring Spain and Portugal in a dilapidated old car.

“The past, as I said, is a sunshine memory. I ranted on. Embellishing certain characters, exaggerating minor problems, emphasising funny moments, trying hard to remain focused on storytelling.” (p. 170)

The implication, surely, is that much of the rest of the book has been gilded. And yet the thing that strikes me is how packed it is with telling, honest detail. It’s largely about the production of a live TV drama, Requiem For A Heavyweight, in 1957, and Rakoff giving Sean Connery his first leading role (with a small role for Michael Caine, too). The play, he says, is now lost to the ether: a scratchy audio recording of most of it survives, as well as some photographs and the camera script full of Rakoff’s notes on how it should be staged and framed. YouTube also has the original, US version - directed by Ralph Nelson and with Jack Palance in the lead role.  

But the book is less an effort to recreate the lost production as to share a vivid sense of the thrill and terror of making it, what it cost Rakoff and his leading lady and then-girlfriend Hill emotionally, and - for all its success - the uncertain time that followed. How extraordinary the commissioning process seems today. Roughly every eight weeks, Rakoff would be summoned to see Michael Barry, “HDTel” or Head of Drama for the BBC’s sole TV station. Even the description of Barry’s office is striking:

“Curtains forever drawn. One dim bulb from a desk lamp, the only source of light. Presumably so he could more readily monitor the output from the nearby studios, relayed through the dark-wooded set in the corner. He himself wore his customary alpaca jacket over armband-hitched shirt sleeves. Complete, of course, with a tie.” (p. 151)

“He would give me a broadcast date. Nothing more. And as I would leave his office he always added, ‘A comedy would be good. A comedy would fit well into the schedule. See if you can find a comedy.’ Neither I nor any of his other subordinates managed to find many comedies. I would go away. Find a play. Buy it. Print it. Cast it. Involve a designer. Consult make-up, hair, wardrobe. Rehearse. Work out a camera script. … Then into the studios for broadcast. Live. Collapse with crew and cast for a few drinks after the show. The next day I would be back in Michael’s office and he would praise what I had done - usually - or tell me - a rarity - if he hadn’t liked it. … The meeting would again end with him telling me the date of my next commitment. And as I got to the door, the inevitable phrase came, ‘See if you can find a comedy.’ The routine was cyclical.” (p. 34)

Then, after Requiem, when Rakoff is too exhausted to commit immediately to the next production, Barry treats it as betrayal and pretty much casts him adrift - at least, for a time. Rakoff picks up with the noted film producer Michael Balcon, who seems to wield just as extraordinary power and hold just as powerful grudges.

There are plenty of insights into the mechanics of making TV at the time - the cameras, the politics, the personalities to be juggled, the impact of that work. For example, he notes how Look Back in Anger revolutionised British theatre when it was first staged by the Royal Court in 1956.

“A revolution, incidentally, started by television writers who were the first to show more interest in ‘the man on the Clapham bus’ than the ladies’ tea party at the vicarage.” (p. 111)

We follow the production of Requiem through casting and rehearsals, into Studio D at Lime Grove Studios, where there was so little space that one set had to be constructed around the moving actors as the play was broadcast live. Tension mounts as rehearsal after rehearsal fails to get this trick shot right, just one of a hundred stresses to contend with - the account of the live performance makes exhilarating reading. But it’s the details that make it so vivid: the etiquette of getting rounds in for the crew in the British Prince pub down the road, or of Connery bringing his then girlfriend to sit in on rehearsals, of Rakoff and Hill keeping emotionally distant while working together, of the crisis in their relationship.

It’s often very honest - about their sex life and about other people’s bad behaviour - and there’s an edge to some of the humour, Rakoff and Hill finding a couple of incidents comic that I felt more disturbing. But then perhaps that’s the gilding. When Rakoff is comforting his very ill wife with tales of that perfect 11-week holiday in 1960, she makes a typically insightful remark.

“Only poor people can afford [such] long holidays … Nobody wanted us back here.” (p. 170.)

See also:

Thursday, September 09, 2021

The Old Drift, by Namwali Serpell

The winner of the 2020 Clarke Award for best science-fiction novel of the year is a sprawling epic, charting the lives of multiple generations in Kalingalinga, Zambia, from the arrival of British coloniser Percy M Clark on 8 May 1903.
"I set out for the drift five miles above the [Victoria] Falls, the port of entry into North-western Rhodesia. The Zambesi is at its deepest and narrowest here for hundreds of miles, so it's the handiest spot for 'drifting' a body across. At first it was called Sekute's Drift after a chief of the Leya. Then it was Clarke's Drift, after the first white settler, whom I soon met. No one knows when it became The Old Drift." (p. 4)
We follow the course of this settlement to some time in our own future, the world transformed by technology, the [HIV] Virus and [climate] Change.

For much of its 563 pages I was wondering how it qualified as science-fiction. There's an element of fantasy in the life of Sibilla (born 1939), the Italian girl-woman-grandmother who's entire body and face are covered in thick, fast-growing hair; Agnes (born 1943) plays tennis despite being blind; Matha (born 1948) weeps without stopping for decades, her eyelashes knitting together. Before that stage of her life, there's something delightful about the period in the mid-60s where Matha is an afronaut in the Zambia National Academy of Science, Space Research and Philosophy, whose revolutionary aim is to beat the super-powers to the Moon.
"The ten-foot copper cylinder was propped on its end in the grass, listing peaceably, its bottom quarter singed black from pre-launch testing. The take-off had been disappointing from the point of view of spectacle - Cyclops I had only risen six feet before it crashed to the ground. The mukwa wood catapult he had been considering would not be powerful enough; the mulolo system, while ideal for training cadets to withstand weightlessness, would never swing far enough. Turbulent propulsion was the only way forward!" (p. 162)
It's an often very funny book, full of rascal characters dodging their way through life. In many cases they have little choice if they are to survive. Existence here is often brutal, with sudden, shocking moments of violence and loss and betrayal. Each chapter focuses on a different character's perspective, and we know from the family tree at the start that they - or their descendants - are to intertwine. There's a lot of mixture: of race and culture, of research and technology into people's everyday lives, of history seeping into present such as the effect that an old recording can have on succeeding generations.

In the last section of the book, we veer into more hard sf territory, with the populace encouraged to have "Beads" implanted in their hands, which give them access to the internet and an in-built torchlight, but also puts them at the mercy of their government and foreign pharmaceutical powers, and have racial / colonial undertones. Threads that have woven through much of the story come together: racism, technology, revolutionary politics, the ways we mark and amend our bodies with haircuts, tattoos, implants...

An earlier winner of the Clarke Award, Bold as Love by Gwyneth Jones, annoyed me because its benign political future was, I felt, so lacking in detail - as if all that is required to create a utopia is well-meaning people in charge. The Old Drift offers a more complex, nuanced view full of unintended consequences and a sense of greater context - the lives of the people of Zambia affected by its history with Europe, present dealings with America and China, and an uncertain global future given dramatic changes in climate. The last pages, where a revolution kind of happens by accident, is exciting and scary and sci-fi, yet credible - I think because it embraces that chaos, the complexity of the mix, the uncertainty of outcome.

A brief coda then drops some bombshells. The voice who has spoken between each chapter is not what they seemed but - fittingly - something more complex and mixed-up. They tell us, abruptly, of the sudden death of one of the main characters, and of a son born into a new, uncertain world very different from all we've witnessed so far, we hope but not necessarily better. There's no sense of what his life might entail, just that life will, somehow, continue, all of this part of a far bigger picture, as we all slowly drift among the stars.

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Small Change for Stuart, by Lissa Evans

Our holiday in north Wales has been enlivened by this brilliant book, written (and, on Audible, read) by Lissa Evans. Stuart is a small-for-his-age 10 year-old who moves house against his will, back to the town where his dad grew up - where there's an age-old family mystery waiting to be solved, if he's the right sort of boy to solve it.

The characters are great - the nosy triplets, the dad who only speaks in long words, the henchman identifiable from some distance by his dove - and the plot is full of twists and jokes and cliffhangers. Every so often we'd work out part of the puzzle just a step ahead of Stuart, making us active participants in the adventure. 

An age ago, the great Justin Richards advised me that in constructing a mystery plot, the reader should feel it's all twisty and zig-zag, so they have no idea where it is going; but at the end, when they look back on the route they have come, it should be a dead-straight line. I could see exactly what he meant when I read Dashiell Hammett, and here it is for kids. Exciting, funny, rich - and immensely satisfying.

Monday, August 23, 2021

Doctor Who Magazine #568

The new issue of Doctor Who Magazine is mainly concerned with the departures of current Doctor, Jodie Whitaker, and her head writer, Chris Chibnall. Plus there's lots of very interesting stuff from people who remember the now-missing adventures of the First Doctor.

But there's a couple of me bits, too: news that I am producing Doctor Who - the Lost Stories for Big Finish, and the latest Sufficient Data written by me with the infographic by Ben Morris. This one covers the wealth of animated versions of Doctor Who since 2001. I've just delivered the next one, which is even more spectacularly nerdy...

Sunday, August 15, 2021

Started Early, Took My Dog, by Kate Atkinson

The fourth Jackson Brodie novel is another melancholy tale exploring the long shadows cast by murder, grief and loss. There are several interlinking plots: the small child found locked in a flat with his murdered mum in 1975; a former policewoman who was involved in that case now trying to help another child; an elderly actress in the early stages of dementia; Jackson's own investigation on behalf of a client in New Zealand. 

As in previous books, these plots all turn out to be at least partly connected, or echo one another. In fact, there's quite a lot of doubling: Jackson is dogged by a fellow private investigator with a similar name, and his rescue of a poor, abused dog dovetails with Tracy Waterhouse intervening in the life of a child. As readers, I think we're encouraged to anticipate those connections - and there's a great moment where the gender of a character is revealed, meaning the connection we've made must be wrong.

That makes it sound like this is all densely plotted, but a lot of the book is made up of extended perambulations from one or other character's point of view, picking over their feelings, anxieties and the bits of the past that still haunt them. The result all feels rather loose - at times even a little self-indulgent. Jackson revisits events of previous books, haunted by the murder of his sister when he was very young and by the train crash in the last book, but also going over past relationships from those books - and catching up with at least one of the women in question. James Bond never looks up his exes, but Jackson's past is still a big part of his life.

Among the characters whose eyes we look through is a sexist, racist policeman, complete with his favoured choice of words. Tilly is anxious about unwittingly seeming to be racist. There's a point to this, and I'm sure the author means well yet it struck me that the perspectives that make up the story are all white. Padma (no surname) is a nice, helpful runner on the set of a TV show and John (no surname) is a nice man at the Nigerian embassy, but we only see them from Tilly's point of view, as something other. It's also true of her nice, dead-from-AIDS friend Douglas, the only gay character in the story.

And I'd have liked more from the perspective of the children in the story, not least because they're the real victims of the terrible things that occur. What do they make of the adults interceding on their behalf, the choices made, the results that follow? How do they make sense of what has befallen them? I found some of what happens really upsetting - brutalised, traumatised kids offered help that is at best unconventional. The book ends with the mysteries solved, the questions answered - but surely we know it's not as simple as that. So many grown-ups in the story are haunted by things in the past, why should these kids be any different?

Me on Jackson Brodie:

1. Case Histories

2. One Good Turn

3. When Will There Be Good News?

And on Kate Atkinson's Transcription

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Akira, by Katsuhiro Otomo

Akira, in six volumes, by Katsuhiro Otomo
It's 30-odd years since I first read Akira, borrowing each instalment of the beautiful, full-colour run produced by Epic Comics that a schoolfriend's dad was collecting. The six-volume set now available is mostly in black and white (with a few colour pages at the start of each) which, though I know is more authentic, left me a little sad. Yet what a wondrous thing to return to.

The story is set in Neo-Tokyo in the year 2030, the city rebuilt after World War III. Young, rebellious Kaneda leads a pill-popping biker gang charging through the streets, until his impetuous friend Tetsuo has an accident - crashing his bike rather than colliding with a strange, ancient child who appears from nowhere. The child is Takashi, and he's just one of a number of strange not-quite kids with awesome psychic abilities. When Tetsuo starts to exhibit his own terrifying power, it seems he has a connection to the most powerful not-child of them all, a quiet little boy called Akira...

As well as Kaneda and members of his gang, we follow the stories of various rebels, soldiers, scientists and gurus. There are a lot of characters, and it's a mark of Otomo's skill that they're each so distinct. We can easily recognise characters we last saw more than a hundred pages previously. Oh yes, because this is quite the epic, spanning more than 2,000 pages. It starts big - with the devastation of the war - and then builds and builds and builds. 

What struck me reading it again after such a long interval is how much the startling visuals had imbedded in my head - the huge elevator system that descends to the cryogenic storage facility, the ruin of the Olympic stadium, the destruction of the city where skyscrapers rain down from above, and then the ruins emerging from the sea. I've seen the Akira movie several times - recently on Netflix, which prompted this reread. The film is visually amazing and yet it's the comic version that has lodged, for all I only read it once.

I wonder if that's as much to do with the way the images are conveyed as well as what they are. The storytelling is often very visual. Individual panels are full of speed lines and dynamism, but whole spreads can also pass with barely a word spoken, sometimes even no sound effects. What's more, it's all told in dialogue - there is no narration, as in many other comics. Yes, there are some long sequences where information is dumped on us, but on the whole it's concise and immediate. The effect is to no so much read it but soak it in through the eyeballs. 

Otomo's clean lines, with slightly cartoony characters in realistic settings, reminds me a lot of Tintin (the look of which was inspired by Japanese comics), and there's a similar mix of serious world politics as setting and daft antics from the lead characters. But this is much more adult - or at least adolescent - stuff. It even steps up in volume 4, with heads exploding, boobs and a willy on show, and a fair amount of swearing. Some of the violence still shocked this world-weary old reader, and the nudity is telling of the way the story is framed. For all Kei is a forthright and able leading character in her own right, we linger on a bathing scene just before she goes to what might be her death, an oddly inappropriate moment for titillation, yet when there's a provident moment to have sex with someone she's really into, there's only a coy kiss. By contrast, the exposed willies are blink-and-you'll-miss-them streaking by random street riff-raff - a willy is for waggling rather than anything else.

Teens reading now will be more struck by the absence of mobile phones and the clunkiness of technology: here, linking to a satellite in orbit takes an amount of time, and the satellite then needs a few moments to track someone's position on Earth. The psychic kids would be astounded by our satnav. But we can hardly blame Otomo for not predicting such things. What's stranger is the technology of his own time not putting in appearance - the street gang apparently have no interest in TV or music, their lives devoid of screens or headphones. I think that's because of the emphasis on them constantly moving

At the heart of the story are too strong emotions. First, there's the punky defiance of the street gang, battling authority as well as one another. Part of the story is the way that defiance is shaped and focused, to become a force of virtue - and it's quite a feat that we completely get why Kei ends up falling for Kaneda despite him being such a prick. (I don't think we ever learn the fate of the poor girl in volume one who Kaneda has got pregnant and then abandons...)

Second, Akira packs an emotional punch because we understand the strong bonds between the myriad characters. Kei is in love with someone else when she meets Kaneda. Tetsuo battles with Kaneda but craves his friendship. The psychic kids share a strange connection that might just save the world - or end it. When a number of minor characters appear in the closing pages, we understand their allegiances and prospects without having to be told. And then the remaining members of the bike gang mount what remains of their bikes and streak away into the night. I felt a pang at that. How strange, after all the years, to still feel such a connection.