Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Off to the windy city

A frantic few days getting everything ticked off in time for jetting to Chicago. I've freelanced for two days, invoiced them, rewritten Slitheen, pitched for something, pitched again, got rejected for two things I really wanted to do, proofed "Pass It On", chased up a few things, borrowed soundtracks and sourced images for a thing we cannot speak of yet, collated all the bits of paper that I need for my travels and even bought some jumpers (the "Muppet-skin" ones that the Dr likes). The packing is almost there - it is bothering the cat - and then I can eat something.

Hell's teeth I am tired. And seem to have pulled one of the muscles in my neck. But tomorrow I fly off across the pond. I'm told Illinois is even colder than London, but I don't think I'll see much outside of the hotel.

For my own convenience as much as anyone else's, here's my schedule for the weekend:

  • Noon Benny Summerfield's Fifteenth Anniversary Grand Ballroom E-F
  • 1 p.m. Roundtable Lilac A/C
  • 2 p.m. Big Finish Q/A Session Grand Ballroom E-F
  • 3 p.m. Big Finish From Both Sides Lilac A/C
  • 6 p.m. Opening Ceremonies Grand Ballroom E-F
  • 6:30 p.m. All-Access Photos Lilac B/D
  • 10 a.m. Journey's End Grand Ballroom E-F
  • 11 a.m. Writing for Different Media Grand Ballroom E-F
  • 3 p.m. Big Finish Panel Grand Ballroom E-F
  • 4 p.m. Autographs Lilac B/D
  • 5 p.m. How to Write Better Fan Fiction (I'm moderating this one, eek) Lilac A/C
  • 2 p.m. Autographs Grand Ballroom A-D
  • 3 p.m. Big Finish Then and Now Grand Ballroom E/F
  • 4 p.m. State of the Whoniverse 2008 Grand Ballroom E/F
  • 5 p.m. Closing Ceremonies Grand Ballroom E/F
I fly back Monday, arriving Tuesday, in some kind of state again Wednesday. Might check email while I'm out there, depending on the hotel. If you're there, say hello and buy me beer. I don't bite very hard.

A few other things:
Rob is also foxed by the setting of the framing bit:
"And although it seems like the story's supposed to be set in the early 19th century, the story is supposed to have been set thousands of years before that yet clearly couldn't have been, so I've no idea what was going on there. Some sort of weird retro colony planet?"

Rob Buckley, Review: The Companion Chronicles 3x5 - Home Truths, 26 November 2008.

No, it's not a retro colony planet, and no it's not set in the early 19th century. And Sara does explain...

Monday, November 24, 2008

How does a cat learn to love melon?

Leslie has produced The Terrible Zodin, a free fanzine to celebrate Doctor Who's 45th birthday. It includes a short story I wrote about 10 years ago but nobody else ever wanted. There's also a revealing interview with Ben Aaronovitch and an even more revealing dressable paper-doll Leela. Hooray for freezines. Everyone should make them.

Simon Holub's cover for Doctor Who and the Prisoners' Dilemma
Big Finish have revealed the cover for one of my two Doctor Who audio plays out in January - the Prisoners' Dilemma. I'm off to Chicago on Thursday for ChicagoTARDIS to pre-flog the thing, along with stars Ciara Janson and Laura Doddington and a heap of Big Finish's finest.

Just got to get all my chores done before I go. Sent Davy some quotes from the Judgment of Isskar for using the preview in Doctor Who's Magazine. Racing through the last of the rewrites of Slitheen, plus gather materials for an exciting new venture that has yet to be announced... So back unto the grindstone.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Guttenberg, Bromley

Surely I dreamt the adverts for the panto in Bromley starring Police Academy's Steve Guttenberg. But no, the "Hollywood idol" (as it says on the flyers) is flogging it on YouTube.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

False Starts

I’ve been avidly following Lance Parkin’s Eyeless blog, in which he unpicks how he goes about writing a Doctor Who book. Some things I concur with wholeheartedly, on other stuff he’s Entirely Insane. And that’s why it’s so fun.

Lance has got past the stage of the synopsis being approved and is on to what happens next. In an interview at the start of the year, I said:
“The first chapter is usually the hardest, because you have to rewrite and rewrite until you get the ‘voice’ of the book right. There were maybe five or six completely different openings to The Pirate Loop before I got it working. Once you get that tone and style, the rest follows much more easily.”

Julio Angel Ortiz, The Ten With… Simon Guerrier, 8 January 2008.

You want the book to start with a bang, to hook the audience from the first sentence. So what were those different openings?

On 28 June 2007, I scribbled in my notebook. I came up with some questions to ask Stephen Fewell for the Inside Story of Benny and I made a note to “send Lisa [Bowerman] script for Final Amendment”. And then there’s the first attempt at a prologue to The Pirate Loop. It needed to begin with the Doctor telling Martha about the Starship Brilliant and how it disappeared.

(Italics is stuff I went back and squeezed into the gaps; asterisks are a note to myself to insert the extra bit further down the page. And I work on the basis that it’ll all be polished anyway when I type it up.)
‘But you know everything!’
Martha [?] Jones was [age] running for her life pursued by android per hover sheep*. The sheep, it turned out, were programmed to protect the lush pink pasture of the planet Valley of Welp.

* The sheep firinge lasers from their eyes.

‘Unauthorised personnel,’ bleated the sheep in identical weary tone, ‘are to be eliminated.’
‘Not everything,’ said the Doctor, helping Martha across the over meta the paddock gate & back to where the into the next muddy field. He was a tall, skinny brightly smiling bloke and Martha had something of a crush on him. ‘You see?’ he said, arms outstretched. ‘Perfect countryside & a twinge of helium in the air. That’s why your voice is a bit squeaky. Bit of your H.E. ‘on ‘em, Human vocal chords go all stretchy.’
‘You were telling me about this spaceship,’ said Martha.
Martha made a concerted effort to sound less like a mouse.
‘Meeeh,’ said the sheep burbumping up against the far side of the gate, ‘we’ll get you next time, intruders.’
‘Well,’ said the Doctor. ‘The Starship Brilliant just disappeared There’s a perfectly rational explanation. Somewhere.’
‘Right,’ said
And that just wasn’t working. So, after a line break, I thought I’d start instead with the Brilliant disappearing:
Cap Captain Window was a short, square man with a brisk moustache & temper. He was perfectly at home on the flight deck of any starship, but he had little en delight in his passengers.
‘Teddy bears,’ he muttered
‘Her brother is in the space chancery,’ he said irritably as he inspected the hyper-geometer’s post.
‘Sir?’ said the geometer, who was a new posting & hadn’t yet learnt.
‘The space chancery!’ roared Captain Window, who loved any excuse to shout. ‘One of these lawyers who agrees the boundaries of the empire. The sort leading us all to war.’
‘Yes sir,’ said the geometer.
And that wasn’t working either, so I left it for a few days. And came up with the wheeze that the Doctor and Martha were in mortal peril, or about to be killed. What if, to take her mind off that the Doctor told her about the Brilliant? (Back when I thought I might produce Benny Series 9, I came up with a wheeze for a cheap two-hander, where Benny and Peter are in a cell waiting to face a firing squad, and Benny keeps Peter's mind off it by chatting and telling stories.) On 7 July, I wrote:
‘You’re kidding me,’ laughed Martha Jones, the day before she died. ‘I thought you knew everything.’
Beside her in the prison cell, the Doctor
She and the Doctor were in a prison cell, under sentence of death. The It was the usual thing;
And that wasn’t working, so I left a line break and started again.
Martha Jones wasn’t really worried, so long as she was still with the Doctor. He lounged beside her in the prison cell, long skinny legs stretched out in front of him, his feet in mismatching, stripey socks. The robot guards had taken his shoes, his coat & sonic screwdriver.
And then another line break.
‘You say it all the time!’ laughed Martha Jones. For someone under who was going to be executed at dawn, she was in good spirits. Beside her, in the prison cell, the Doctor stretched his long & skinny limbs.
‘I do not,’ he said.
And then another line break.
A crowd turned out to see them die.
And then another line break.
You take your time,’ said the Doctor amiably.
‘We’re not in any hurry, are we?’
‘No,’ said Martha. ‘And you want to make sure you get it right, don’t you? With all these people watching.’
And then another line break.
Martha Jones first heard of the Starship Brilliant while waiting on her way to be executed. She and the Doctor The robot people of the planet Soft had never ‘unplugged’ humans before, & while they debated twittered & bleeped about the best & most efficient method, the
And then another break for a few days. On 13 July I jotted some notes about Martha’s relationship with her family having chatted to Monster Maker. On 15 July, Millennium’s daddies hosted a marathon watch of Martha’s TV adventures and I scribbled more stuff down. And at some point around that time, Codename Moose updated his Facebook page saying he was sick of hearing Mika’s Grace Kelly everywhere he went. All this lodged in my brain, and on 20 July I wrote:
Sixty million robots danced through the streets of Milky-Pink City. They had never been program taken any dance lessons and they’d never been programmed with any styles. But they all flaunted & twisted & cavorted their metal limbs with abandon in time to the rhythm in their heads. There were tall robots doing what was sort of a rumba, & wide, heavy-lifting robots doing potat what were almost potatoes and squares.* And on all their blank expressionless faces was something like machine joy.
‘It’s funny,’ said Martha Jones watching them as the Doctor stuffed his. ‘My brother hates that song.’
‘Yeah?’ said the Doctor beside her as he rummaged through his deep pockets for the TARDIS key. ‘I like the line about [Grace Kelly by Mika].’

* They had been built to serve and pamper holiday 1000s of human holiday makers, who had then never showed up. The robots had waited patiently, but intergalactic tourism is a harsh & cruel business. The tourists never came. Until two travellers just happened to stop by.
The robots had fallen over themselves to oblige these two. They’d fought each other to make their drinks. They’d had a war over who got to help take the Doctor’s coat. Eventually They’d turned on the visitors…
Much better, and the rest of the book went from there. (And all that stuff about being stuck in a prison cell got turned into "The Great Escapes" in Short Trips: Defining Patterns.)

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

"What claptrap!"

My clever uncle Bob has updated his website with details of his latest musical choons. We've swapped notes on our current activities, and in doing so he fondly recalls old-skool, old-man Doctor Who made with cardboard and copydex.

My chums at the BBC Archive are celebrating Doctor Who's 45th birthday with a clear-out of old bits of paper. Learned fellows at the BBC wonder if science fiction might work on the telly and slowly tease out the basis of what might just work as a show...

Here, in 1963, is CE Webber nailing the magic of Doctor Who back before they'd even come up with the TARDIS (except for it's “light-resistant paint”).
“Evidently, Dr. Who's "machine" fulfils mary of the functions of conventional Science Fiction gimmicks. But we are not writing Science Fiction. We shall provide scientific explanations too, sometimes, but we shall not bend over backwards to do so, if we decide to achieve credibility by other means. Neither are we writing fantasy: the events have got to be credible to the three ordinary people who are our main characters, and they are sharp-witted enough to spot a phoney. I think the writer's safeguard here will be, if he remembers that he is writing for an audience aged fourteen... the most difficult, critical, even sophisticated, audience there is, for TV. In brief, avoid the limitations of any label and use the best in any style or category, as it suits us, so long as it works in our medium.”

CE Webber, “Dr. Who” - General Notes on Background and Approach, 1963.

Clever old Red Scharlach notes wryly, of the Audience Research Report for the very first episode, that fans have not changed a great deal in 45 years. The BBC have made a lively, exciting and fun TV show with astounding, broad appeal? What in the name in jibbering flip were they thinking?

These documents are well-known to us fans who stuck it out in the Dark Times; they were picked over in the First Doctor Handbook and the pages of DWM, and then used in the excellent Beginnings DVD documentary. But how fab to see the original bits of paper, tatty and scribbled on and real.

Monday, November 17, 2008

James Bond = FAIL

After the not-so-great Moonraker and Diamonds Are Forever, Bond Book 5 is a bit fab.

Bond himself doesn't appear until page 78 of From Russia, With Love – more than a third of the way through. In that time, a huge conspiracy is set in motion, the full apparatus of Smersh (the Soviet Union’s spy-killing squad) focused on ruining one man.

In the film, the scheme – by SPECTRE not Smersh – is revenge for Bond killing Doctor No. But here it’s not personal; the real target is to embarrass the British Secret Service, and by extension to fray the Special Relationship for sharing secrets with the US. Bond himself is not important and certainly not a hero. One top Russian says of him:
“The English are not interested in heroes unless they are footballers or cricketers or jockeys. If a man climbs a mountain or runs very fast he also is a hero to some people, but not to the masses. The Queen of England is also a hero, and Churchill. But the English are not greatly interested in military heroes. This man Bond is unknown to the public. If he was known, he would still not be a hero. In England, neither open war nor secret war is a heroic matter. They do not like to think about war, and after a war the names of their war heroes are forgotten as quickly as possible.”

Ian Fleming, From Russia, With Love, p. 43.

Their wheeze is to get Bond caught up and killed in a sex scandal, preferably in France where the press is most salacious. The honey trap includes a beautiful girl defector and a code-breaking machine. Bond knows it sounds dodgy but the prize is too much to resist; he heads off on the next flight to Istanbul.

The book is full of fecund exoticism – Istanbul itself, the Orient Express, Bond eating a kebab. As always, this is in sharp contrast to contemporary privations. The world is still deeply scarred by the recent world war.
“The clouds broke up and a distant blue haze, far away to their left, was Paris. For an hour they flow high over the burned-up fields of France until, after Dijon, the land turned from a pale to a darker green as it sloped up into the Juras.”

Ibid., p. 93.

That battered landscape reminds Bond of how much he himself has been ravaged by the last few years. He remembers his teenage self,
“bracing himself against the top of a rock-chimney on the Aigulles Rouges as his two companions from the University of Geneva inclined up the smooth rock towards him [...] If that young James Bond came up to him in the street and talked to him, would he recognize the clean, eager youth that had been him at seventeen? And what would that youth think of him, the secret agent, the older James Bond? Would he recognize himself beneath the surface of this man who was tarnished with years of treachery and ruthlessness and fear – this man with the cold arrogant eyes and the scar down his cheek and the flat bulge beneath his left armpit?”


I point this out chiefly because it implies Bond gets his scar after the age of 17, while SilverFin has Bond scarred during his first year at Eton. Pedantic sod that I am.

Fleming’s prose is often functional, brutal, yet littered with concise observations and occasional glimpses of poetry. The following, for example, seems to thieve from the famous quote by Viscount Grey of Falloden, watching streetlights being lit just before World War One:
“The great trains are going out all over Europe, one by one, but still, three times a week, the Orient Express thunders superbly over the 1400 miles of glittering steel track between Istanbul and Paris.”

Ibid., p. 150.

Likewise, the Bond girl Tatiana is a surprisingly well-drawn character, with conflicted and developing motives. The film nicely makes her chose between Bond and her country at the end; in the book Bond seems to assume that he’s won her over but we never know quite for sure. She’s a graceful, good looking girl and Fleming makes a point of her classy, royal heritage. But he also likes women to have some kind of flaw. Tatiana’s might be evidence for those who think Bond is a secret gaybo.
“Her arms and breasts were faultless. A purist would have disapproved of her behind. Its muscles were so hardened with exercise that it had lost the smooth downward feminine sweep, and now, round at the back and flat and hard at the sides, it jutted like a man's.”

Ibid., p. 59.

Bond’s sex life is worth a post all of its own. He apparently considered marriage to Tiffany Case (from the last book) but agrees with M that it’s for the best it didn’t work out. But more importantly, his “normal”, “healthy” appetites serve to contrast with villainous extremes.

Fleming apparently found villains difficult to write, but in this he’s created two corkers. Rosa Klebb is a toad-faced, predatory bisexual – one of the cliff-hangers is that she’s a woman, another that she tries to seduce Tatiana. In stark contrast, Red Grant is a handsome if ginger-haired sadist with no interest in sex. You can tell he’s helluva tough because when Klebb punches him with a knuckle-duster he doesn’t even flinch.

Importantly, the villains seem better than Bond. Grant is taller than the six-foot Bond (p. 101), more powerful, more ruthless. Note that unlike the 007 of the films,
“Bond had never killed in cold blood, and he hadn't liked watching, and helping, someone else do it.”

Ibid., p. 141.

The Russians are also better equipped. Bond can’t see any trace of forgery in Grant’s faked documents.
“Bond knew most of the signs to look for in forged passports, the blurred writing, the too exact imprints of the rubber stamps, the trace of old gum round the edges of the photograph, the slight transparencies on the page where the fibres of the paper had been tampered with to alter a letter or a number...”

Ibid, p. 176.

Grant has a copy of War and Peace that shoots people, Klebb has poisoned knitting needles and shoes. Bond might have knives and gold sovereigns hidden in his brief case, but nothing quite so crafty.
“He puffed away at his cigarette. If only it had been a trick one – magnesium flare, or anything he could throw in the man's face! If only his Service went in for those explosive toys!”

Ibid., p. 195.

Spy stories are at their best when pitting one individual against huge odds. What makes this one so exciting is that the hero is so clearly out-matched. In some ways it’s like the creation of Moriarty to destroy Sherlock Holmes: it’s the extraordinary stakes that make this one memorable. There’s incident aplenty – naked wrestling gypsies, explosions and stuff – but even several chapters of train journey, eating meals and looking out the window, feels exciting because we know the jaws of the trap are straining at their springs.

The film version wisely stays faithful to the book. The documentary on the DVD explains where they reordered scenes in the editing to make more sense of the building conspiracy. Richard Maibaum's last minute rewrites – made when filming had already begun – also make more of Grant, brilliantly having him one step ahead of Bond at every turn. Again, this emphasises that Bond is out of his depth. The shooting War and Peace is also replaced with a less silly garrotte-wire hidden in a watch. It tightens up the structure, making more of the book…

And yet the book pulls off a singular coup which the film series never could. Bond seems to have dodged the claws of the conspiracy, but there’s one last brilliant twist in the tale. No film Bond would ever dare go so far as the killing of Bond…

You wouldn’t know it from the book, but James Bond will return in Doctor No.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Monkey see, monkey do

This goes on a bit: it’s a book review but also the janglings of my brain in my sparer moments of man flu. Sorry.

After the invasion of 1066, England was pretty much divided between lords and peasants. The lords swanked around in trendy new castles, feasting and speaking French. The peasants either starved or ate root vegetables and spoke Anglo-Saxon. And these two factions saw the same objects and stuff in completely different ways.

To the Anglo-Saxons, a four-legged, mooing animal was something you herded and tended, not something you got to eat. They used the Germanic word, “cow”. When the cow was served up as dinner to the lords, they called it by the French word for the mooing animal, “beef”. Uniquely (I think) English still differentiates between an animal in its state of being alive and one in its state of lunch. By having two words for the same thing, the same thing becomes two distinct entities.

This may, of course, have something to do with how weird we are generally compared to them foreign-speaking fellows about eating things that run and jump. But I shall evangelise St Hugh’s Philosophy of Meat another time.

The point is that our use of language defines our perception and behaviour – what’s called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, even though its more of an axiom. Speaking a different language, or using the same language differently, means living in a different world.

Cow/beef is an example of a physical, tangible creature being perceived differently. In general, nouns are easy to translate – languages just have a different word for the same object. But idioms and more metaphysical concepts are trickier. There’s often something uncomfortable about a literal translation (a “calque”); it doesn’t quite fit. (English tends to dodge this problem by just adopting the foreign term.)

It might then, seem, that we can’t imagine something without having a word for it – that’s how Sapir-Whorf is sometimes explained. So which came first: the ability to name things or our conception of the world around us? Can we think without a language?

This metaphysical conundrum has foxed a good few clever fellows. Charles Darwin, for example, wrote in Notebook M on Thursday, 16 August 1838:
“Origin of man now proved.—Metaphysic must flourish.—He who understands baboon would do more towards metaphysics than Locke.”
This oddment of jotting has been pinched as the title for a very good book indeed, Baboon Metaphysics – the Evolution of a Social Mind by Dorothy L Cheney and Robert M Seyfarth. It compiles years of research and close observation of a group of baboons to make sense of what might be going through their minds.
“Roughly 30 million years ago, baboons, chimpanzees, and humans shared the same ancestor. The ancestral line leading to baboons and other Old World monkeys then diverged. For almost 20 million years thereafter, chimpanzees and humans shared a common ancestor, before separating roughly five to seven million years ago. In what ways have baboon and chimpanzee minds diverged since their separation? And what selective pressures might have resulted in the obvious differences between the chimpanzee and human minds?”

Dorothy L Cheney and Robert M Seyfarth, Baboon Metaphysics – the Evolution of a Social Mind, p. 278.

As the authors say, it’s hard enough to know what a human being is thinking, and they can answer direct questions. So the book details a series of clever experiments, each one revealing one more tiny piece of proof. They monitor stress levels by testing for adrenalin levels in the baboons’ poo. They record one baboon's grunts and wahoos and play them back in different situations to see how others react. Slowly an evidence base is built up.

This might sound pretty gruelling but it’s a remarkably easy read. The first hundred pages or so chart the history of man’s interactions with baboons, from the days the ancient Egyptians used them as police dogs and recognised their ability to learn. The evidence of experiments is compared to other animals and human children, but also – brilliantly – to the social observation of Jane Austen, Edith Wharton and Jonathan Swift.
“It is a truth universally acknowledged in baboon society that, while success in the male world is determined by sex, fighting and posturing, success in the female world depends on family, social networks and intrigue.”

Ibid, p. 62.

It’s a nicely packaged book, too, full of photos of the baboons in question – though it's not always self-evident that the photos really show us the behaviour that the captions claim. The baboons might just as well be sun-bathing.

(The look and feel of the thing as a physical object add to the ease of the reading. I’m intrigued by the note in the legal indicia, that:
“the paper used in this publication meets the minimum requirements of the American National Standard for Information Sciences – Permanence of Paper for Printed Materials ANSI Z39.48-1992.”
How splendid – a book that’s built to last.)

The authors are chiefly interested in giving evidence for the ways the baboons model the world around them than how they behave: the processes going through their heads. While we never get close to what or how they’re thinking, there’s clear evidence of social knowledge (i.e. keeping up with gossip), complex modelling and unconscious workings out. The authors admit to a wide range of gaps in their own knowledge, and the book lays out the areas for future research. But the complex stuff the baboons are doing is all without a language.

Language isn’t just how we talk to other people, it’s how we explain objects in relation to one another. It’s how we talk to ourselves. It is the mechanism for considering our position and our actions, and not just reacting. Because humans are capable of more than just reacting. It’s just we don’t often show it.
“Words tell us what stuff is doing and where it is. The simplest proper sentence is a thing and what it’s doing … Pretty much everything else – adjectives, adverbs, conjunctions and prepositions – is just qualifying this construction, placing the thing and what it’s doing in the context of other things and actions. It’s all about making sense of where things are.”

Me, 2 April 2008.

Interestingly, the authors also conclude that baboons don't really have a sense of empathy. They don't seem to be able to see things from another individual's point of view, which leads to infanticide, abandonment and generally callous behaviour. They appear mean though they don't know any better – it's just that us humans do.

That said, a review by Frans de Waal in New Scientist says:
“Curiously, their book omits the work of half a dozen luminaries of earlier baboon fieldwork, including that of Barbara Smuts and Shirley Strum, who have given us a glimpse of a gentler baboon.”
But I wonder if language – as an abstract model of the world around us, a way of distancing ourselves from the immediate – is then the key to empathy. We can only imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling by having the language to model it.

There's a constant effort to stick to only what the evidence shows, a struggle not to anthropomorphise. But the book is less about how much the apes are like us, but how little different we are from them. We’re disturbingly similar – I kept reading the book thinking how true its conclusions were of humans, too. How much one particular baboon behaves like someone I used to work with, that sort of thing.

I made the links but not wholly kindly. Acting like an ape is still a pejorative term. “Humans,” said Douglas Adams, “are not proud of their ancestors, and rarely invite them round to dinner.” (In the TV version of the Hitch-Hikers’ Guide To The Galaxy, this pearly is accompanied by a tea party for humans and chimpanzees, with the caption “This never happens”.)

At our worst, at our most petty and mean and unthinking, we're very much like apes. We're only better than them when we judge the consequences of our actions, the affect on other people and from their perspective. When we squabble and fight and jockey for position, we're like the baboons; but manners really do make man. We’re no better than apes in our wars but better in our remembrance. And we can only do that because we have language.
“For millions of years, mankind lived just like the animals. Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination. We learned to talk and we learned to listen. Speech has allowed the communication of ideas, enabling human beings to work together to build the impossible. Mankind's greatest achievements have come about by talking, and its greatest failures by not talking. It doesn't have to be like this. Our greatest hopes could become reality in the future. With the technology at our disposal, the possibilities are unbounded. All we need to do is make sure we keep talking.”

Stephen Hawking, er, hawking British telephony in 1993.

Monday, November 10, 2008

More stuff you should fork out for, sorry

Doctor Who and Christmas Round the WorldAs Herr Arnopp reports, there are now copies out of Doctor Who: Christmas Round the World. My story, "Do you smell carrots?", is set in Reading and features the words "Jawa", "helicopter" and "lion".

Authors include my chums James Moran, Kate Orman, Eddie Robson, William Potter and some other people who don't seem to have websites. Or perhaps I just don't like them. The wretches. Especially that Joff Brown.

It's a weighty tome all told - at 304 pages I think it's the porkiest Short Trips yet. Exactly right for laddering a Christmas stocking.

Doctor Who & Home TruthsAnd the Big Finish website also features a cheeky new ad for Home Truths, performed by the marvellous Jean Marsh. As well as co-creating The House of Eliot and Upstairs, Downstairs, she was a Doctor Who Companion. (No sniping at the back, yes she was.) I've heard it and couldn't be happier.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Damaged goods

This blog has been a casualty of my chasing around on a number of projects, some of which are very exciting indeed. Announcements in due course...

Took the Dr to see Quantum of Solace on Friday, and generally agree with Millennium's glowing review. It's all played brilliantly, it looks absolutely gorgeous but I'm not quite convinced by the frenetic edit. Watching Nimbos' Blue-Ray Casino Royale earlier this week (cor!), Codename Moose noted how well told the action sequences are. They're fast and complex and intricate, but every shot is framed perfectly, and in any given instant you know exactly where you are.

Quantum of Solace continually loses you in the midst of action. There's an opening car chase where someone loses their driver-side door, and it took me a moment to realise who. There's a scene of Bond and a villain swinging from ropes where you're not sure which is which.

I'm a bit disappointed that we didn't learn the real name of Mr White – or “Ernst”, as he is to his mother. Nor do I really see the point of keeping the gun barrel to the end. But hooray for MK12's opening sequence: different but very pretty.

Also, ignore the fools who say this isn't really a Bond film. Or that it's the first direct sequel to the previous film. There are no gadgets in Doctor No - “Q” is in it but he's not called that and he only gives Bond a new gun. From Russia, With Love is a direct sequel to that first film, too – with the Doctor's buddies out for revenge. Quantum of Solace is, then, continuing a back to basics exercise, not just getting back to the Bond of Fleming's novels but the films as they began.

I've also read SilverFin, the first of Charlie Higson's Young Bond novels, which I enjoyed a great deal. The mad plot about eels and special serum is at the dafter end of Fleming (and more like the barking end of Sherlock Holmes). But it's a fun adventure.

A bit like River Phoenix in The Last Crusade, there's fun seeing Bong get his scar and learning to drive. In fact, Uncle Max explains to Bond for at least two pages exactly how a car engine works. I'd have loved this boy-stuff detail in my teens. It could almost have done with an Eagle cutaway.

Though we're never told the date in the book itself, the internet says this is set in 1933 – and Bond born in 1920. I think that's out by at least two years.
“[Moonraker] makes Bond 37 in a book first published in 1955, and possible set a bit earlier. He can't then be born any later than 1918.”

Me, 14 March 2008.

I'm now well into From Russia, With Love, and will report back as soon as possible. (I've also got notes on Baboon Metaphysics and a handful of other stuff. But you'll have to be patient.)

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Recent telly

A few pals speak of being at the “DVD boxset” stage in life. Some have kids, some can’t be fagged going out of an evening. I’m just a bit rubbish following telly as it airs. I either forget or something comes up in Real Life or I’m racing to meet a deadline.

The recent, needed lull in my writing commitments means I’m gulping down great swathes of the goggle box.

I've just got through the second series of The Wire – as leant by Codename and Mrs Moose. Having beaten the Barksdales last year, our gang of shades-of-grey cops are variously investigating the Baltimore docks, looking into murders and drugs and the union. The Barksdales are licking their wounds, either weathering prison or trying to restart their business. And slowly, very slowly, it’s all coming to a head…

As just about everyone on the planet has enthused, The Wire is a brilliant series. Funny and smart and rude and surprising, the serious, clever and violent adult stuff is nicely balanced with bits of slapstick and silliness, the stupid everyday things people say and do. If you’ve seen it you already know this; if you haven’t I don’t want to say more for fear of spoiling its wonders.

But I’d be quite happy were Idris Elba to be the next Doctor Who.

It’s not just box sets. I have also been watching telly LIVE. Little Dorrit is am impressively grimy, dirty adaptation – and the trailers keep suggesting a sapphic something involving Freema Agyeman. What is not to like?

Dickens is particularly good on the petty viciousness people heap on one another, the debilitating effect of gossip, the decades wasted on silly intrigues. The Dickensian world is a ruthless, brutal place, everyone on the brink of ruination. Yet because he populates his stories with such comic archetypes, it's very easy to over-play. Actors pull on frock coats and mad facial hair and prance about doing funny voices.

Far better is to play against the comedy, to pretend you're not comic characters at all. That way – as in the books – the comedy works to underline the awful things befalling the weakest characters. And that's why The Muppets' Christmas Carol is the best ever adaptation of Dickens.

Also, in Little Dorrit Andy Serkis plays another compelling grotesque. I'd like to see him play something heroic. In fact, I’d be quite happy were he the next Doctor Who.

The new series of Spooks unleashed two thrilling episodes this week, featuring Richard Armitage as a new character. The Dr was very pleased with the important plot point that he's got William Blake tattoos (and so had to take his top off).

For all it's good fun with lots of chasing, there were lots of silly things. If you're sneaking around someone's bedroom while they're asleep in bed, it's probably best to switch your mobile-phone-cloning machine to silent rather than letting it bing. And the Prime Minister would be committing political suicide if he cancelled Remembrance Sunday.

Armitage is looking pretty buff having spent eight years in a Russian prison. Also, his debrief seems to consist of being asked “Are you a double-agent?” - to which he answered “Yes”. He hangs round the office waiting for a cup of tea, and then is quickly part of the next mission. The writers should look at The Man With The Golden Gun (the book) for what happens when James Bond comes out of the cold...

Yes, I appreciate they sort of address some of that in episode two. But not really very much. Again they ask him if he's a double-agent, again he tells them yes. So they let him back on the mission again. Still, I wouldn't mind if Armitage was the next Doctor Who.

Incidentally, I also saw Mark Lawson talking to John le Carre with its top fact that the word le Carre invented for a “Russian asset” – mole – came from The Wind In The Willows.

And then there's Dead Set, in which zombies get into the Big-Brother. It's impressively violent and grisly, though the quick cutting means you're not always aware quite how grisly it is. The Dr missed one episode so I explained about Davina being stabbed through the back of the head, the lamp-pole bursting out of her eye... And realised it was far more horrid telling it than it had seemed on the screen.

It licked along quickly, never explaining how the zombies came to be or suggesting any solution. Horror can often be just a sequence of horrific events, bludgeoning against your eyeballs. But this managed to be smart and funny, keeping us guessing right up to the end.

Oh, and I’d be quite happy were Kevin Eldon the next Doctor Who.