Monday, August 31, 2009

They are not children, they are monsters

I remember when working bank holidays meant time and a half. Not any more.

On Thursday and Friday I was ensconced in a recording studio watching my Blake's 7 audio plays come together. The fantastic cast (which will get announced shortly) battled with a script full of physics and Lagrangian points, and I couldn't be more delighted.

Having done a fair bit of audio stuff for rival company Big Finish, it's odd seeing how another company does it. There were more of us in the room behind the mixing desk, and there were generally more takes per scene. Both days we were pushing the six p.m. deadline.

Also, at one point I read in a few lines and saw how it felt from the other side of the glass. You play the scene, try not to stumble over the words, and then wait in weird silence while the masters deliberate. There's a particular skill in a director being able to articulate clearly how they want the scene done differently next time.

After finishing on Friday, there was a party to go to, where I saw a whole bunch of chums I'd not seen in ages and the Dr was delighted to be chatted up by someone who thought she could only be 28. Hooray!

Saturday and Sunday I was working at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, as a resident "Doctor Who expert" (their words) getting kids to invent scary monsters. The Observatory had plenty of information on weird planets, moons and space stuff, so the kids chose a place, then tried to think what sort of creature would live there. On an ice planet the monsters might be covered in fur, or have to eat lots just to keep warm...

It was good fun if a little exhausting. And I think generally the girls came up with the bloodier, grislier monsters. I hope their parents don't have nightmares.

Today I have been catching up on the writing - I've got a couple of pressing deadlines at the moment so scribbled lots in my notebook while in the studio. Now trying to make sense of my terrible handwriting, Frank telling the journalists to let him grieve in peace. And I've also got the washing up to do.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

1 in 100

Had my picture taken yesterday morning by George Bamford, as part of his “Young Guns” project. The wheeze is he'll snap 100 “young, influential people” for an exhibition and book – more on that when it happens. Of course, my job is to throw their youth and influence into sharp relief. One of these kids is not like the others...

I'm not exactly brilliant at having my picture taken. When we got our wedding photos back all those years ago, the Dr complained I was pulling daft faces. I, um, wasn't. So now I tend to. But I've also been snapped by a few professionals – ones who make you close your eyes tight and scrunch up your face the moment before they snap you, and one nice lady who made me sit in a hedge.

George, though, just asked me about Doctor Who – how do the books work, what did I know about next year, have I visited the set... As I answered he snapped away, and then we looked at what he'd got. All very easy, really. Apparently I've got an animated face with good cheekbones, which is nice to know. And he must be a professional because I don't look like an orang-utan.

Scary, but not an orang-utan.

Me, yesterday morning. Portrait by George Bamford.

Monday, August 24, 2009


I don't usually write about music. The whole point of music is that it's different from writing. Like a joke, the moment you start explaining it the thing doesn't work. And yet...

Some songs are very like other songs. Famously, the Hammond organ bit of Procul Harum's “A Whiter Shader of Pale” was inspired by J.S. Bach (see this archived page for much learned discussion on what and to what extent).

“La Bamba” by Richie Valens is pretty much the same tune as “Twist and Shout”, while there's more than a little of “My Way” in Bowie's “Life on Mars” – as this superb version shows. (See The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain website for more splendiditude.)

I also keep hearing TV themes in pop tunes. The NME has spotted that Muse's “Uprising” is a lot like Doctor Who. But S Club 7's “Reach for the Sky” is the theme tune to Duck Tales and Alexander O'Neal's “Criticize” is the theme tune to Duckula.

And then there are the lyrics. Ronan Keating's “When You Say Nothing At All” has the same message for the ladies as Joe Dolce's “Shaddap You Face”.

Any more?

The Wire

Watched episode 5.10 of The Wire earlier, and so have finished the series. It's a justly lauded, extraordinary show 'pon which many finer minds have commented. I have some non-spoiler thoughts for those who haven't seen it, and then will leave a gap before blowing the surprises.

It took a while to go into. Episode 1.1 just felt like an okay, adequate cop show. Some cops trying to stop some drug dealers, who eventually set up a wire-tap to listen in on their phone calls. They drink and swear and are caught up in the bureaucracy. And often they're not very bright. Murders happen less because of motives than from accident, stupidity or bitter pragmatism.

At first that means it can seem more cynical than smart. Scott's not got to the end of it because he really doesn't like one particular sweary scene - and it doesn't exactly make the "good guys" look good. Other mates have suggested watching it with subtitles to pick up the slang and detail. But stick with it. Pay attention. And it will reward you.

In fact, it's a lot like In The Night Garden - a kids' show from them that did Teletubbies and narrated by Sir Derek Jacobi (I'm appearing on the same bill as him next month). Like In The Night Garden, you're first reaction might well be "meh". But once you've seen a few episodes you get how it works, and then you are monstrously hooked.

For me it was a scene in about episode four or five, with two cops discussing a murder. And we - the audience - saw other characters discuss the same events in an earlier episode. There's no acknowledgment of that - no flashback, no "previously", no concession to having missed an episode or detail. But just knowing what those other guys said a couple of weeks back changes this later scene, and the episode and the whole of the case.

And The Wire is full of such details. It's got a huge cast, with intricate connections between them. There are good and bad cops, there are good and bad drug dealers, there are those caught up in between. A few people have said that it's more like a novel than a TV show - and I don't think that's being dismissive of TV. Rather The Wire takes its time laying down the plot and building character, and trusts us to keep up with it all (and flick back if we need to).

It's rich and dense and detailed. Though there are exciting bits, it's generally rather gently paced, teasing us with false leads and scenes that go nowhere, in amongst them the crucial clues.

But I've also some specific thoughts for those who have seen it.













There's a fair bit I don't think works. The end of Bubble's apprentice at the end of Season 4 is too melodramatic - like something out of a soap opera. And the Bad Thing McNulty does in Series 5 didn't ring true, either.

Yet on the whole it is brilliant. There's the way each series focuses on some next aspect of the city - the docks, the roped-off area, the schools and the papers. There's the brilliant characters, lovable and exasperating and real. My favourite is Bunk Moreland, the cigar-chomping dour crusader played by the superb Wendell Pierce. And Idris Elba would still make an awesome Doctor Who.

On top of that, there's the rich character development - the clash between Avon and Stringer Bell, the maturing of Prezbo, McNulty trying not to crash. I love that characters keep coming back with no explanation who they are - the dockers, the lawyers, the guy trying to get Bubble clean.

I love how much it depends on smart, professional people with insight born from experience. I love that they've then got the balls to show these people being very smart in a long scene where the only word spoken is "fuck". I love how it teases us with almost-revelations: us knowing the connection between two characters but the watching cop missing it because of a pee break.

I also love the ruthlessness of it; the sudden, unexpected deaths of major characters which completely change the focus of the series. The scattering of random, mad incident within the tightly plotted stuff. No one is safe, anything can happen...

Baltimore is a brutal place with little mercy. But what makes the struggles of this vast dramatis personae so compelling is the promise of some small hope. The hoodlum might escape the cycle of violence, the addict the addiction, the cop might succeed in getting his man despite the paperwork and politics - or at least not lose his home-life in the process. It's not the acts of crassnass, stupidity and cruelty that make the show work, but the constant, exhausting battle to defeat them.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Nights out

For one reason and another, I've not really been out much over the last few months. But I've been making up for lost time.

On Tuesday, I was a guest at the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, where you can choose from 300 different anonymous drams, based only on location of distillery and some sumptuous descriptions. I've a particular love for Islay malts from when I worked in the wine trade, so tried three splendid samples of those - including one listed as an "explosion of coal-dust and flying saucers". (My phone's predictive text favoured "anal" and "cock" before "coal", the electric scamp.)Whisky display on the clubOn Wednesday, I was in Bristol for work - although it felt more like play. I love Bristol - it's pretty and busy and vibrant, with all kinds of cool stuff happening there. You might like to know that I based the Starship Brilliant in The Pirate Loop on a trip to the SS Great Britain.

After the "work" there was drinking, first in the Watershed, then Brown's, then some gay club with very bad karaoke and a kid offering us coffee beans (no, not a euphemism), and finally till 3 in the morning at our hotel. Ow. And on a school night.Clifton, in suspenseWretched the next day, we toured Clifton's cafes and bookshops and bridge, where I hooked up with O. for a few glasses of soda before making the long journey home. Think Nick Park walked past us at one point, but the glorious, surprise sunshine was kicking well into my hangover so I might have been dreaming.

Took the Dr to the Dolphin for fish and wine, while out in the garden they had a live performance of what seemed to be Sherlock Holmes versus the Nazis.

Spent the day writing up, catching up and up to mischief. And off to the pub again tonight.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

pp. 50-51

The Inside Story of Benny is beginning to push its way through people's letterboxes - hooray! And the fellows at Kasterborous have an exclusive PDF of pages 50 and 51.

The excerpt covers Human Nature, a 1995 novel by Paul Cornell featuring the seventh Doctor and Benny - adapted into two TV episodes in 2007 featuring the tenth Doctor and Martha Jones.

Friday, August 14, 2009

It lives!

To my amazement, and some four years after I started work on it, The Inside Story of Bernice Summerfield exists. For those who've not been paying attention, it's a 320-page, 300,000 word history of the character created by Paul Cornell in 1991 as a friend for Doctor Who in some books, who's been having adventures in novels, audio plays, short stories and comic strips ever since.

Benny herself - Lisa Bowerman - and I spent the day in a top secret location in darkest Maidenhead signing hundreds of pre-ordered copies, which people ought to receive next week.

It's just so thrilling to actually see the thing real, after all the false starts and delays. It looks absolutely gorgeous - thanks to the amazing work of designer Alex Mallinson, whom every one of you reading this should buy some Lego. It's huge, it's heavy and the writing is sort of okay.

I'd not been to the Big Finish warehouse before, and it's sort of like the one at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, only with cardboard boxes not crates. They're stacked tight and to the ceiling, crammed into every nook, every available inch filled with books and CDs. My face ached from gleeful grinning. Just so much lovely *stuff*. I wanted to build a nest and live there.

Guardian of this treasure trove was Gary Atterton, who showed us round, gave us our contributor copies and generally looked after us, while also running round fulfilling orders, answering queries and making it all work. The team have been run off his feet recently 'cos of the various offers and deals, and we watched the system working in awe. Though the only coffee they had was de-caff.

To celebrate the launch of the book, I bribed the astoundingly clever Red Scharlach with CDs and pancake, and she's created a world of Benny icons.

Hmm... Now having thoughts of badges...

Monday, August 10, 2009

Loved you not

The spanking new issue (#260) of Vector magazine includes my review of Bob Fischer's Wiffle Lever to Full. Which reminds me I meant to post an earlier review, from back in #257 last year:

Dalek I Loved You
Nick Griffiths, Orion Books 2008

Nick Griffiths writes about Doctor Who for the Radio Times. As well as covering the current series, he wrote features marking the show’s 40th birthday back in 2003 and interviewed former Doctors to coincide with the TV movie in 1996. But he’s been a fan of the show since early 1970. Dalek I Loved You is his memoir.

There’s a lot of this about. Toby Hadoke’s one-man show Moths Ate My Doctor Who Scarf got nominated for a Sony Award. In a regular column for Doctor Who Magazine, Neil Harris describes what it used to be like as fan – back when you apologised for rather than celebrated.

There’s little in Griffiths’ book a Doctor Who fan won’t already know, yet part of nostalgia’s appeal is that it’s so familiar. And this book is less for Doctor Who fans as those who lived through the 1970s. It’s a fun, lively account of that decade and of then being a grown-up. But, like a Channel 4 clips show, it’s often a sequence of “Do you remember X? They were rubbish!” followed by “And what about Y? Weren’t they brilliant?!?”

It’s told in broadly chronological order it. Griffiths himself has not had the most exciting of lives. He quotes from diaries in which nothing very exciting occurs. He goes to a poshish school where some of the teachers have nicknames. We learn he was an unexceptional student who’s then unexceptional with girls and work. There’s a divorce, a job he both likes and despises, and then a girl who might just understand him…

But he’s certainly a fan. He can describe the plots of old stories without having to look them up – well, most of them. The book is peppered with lists – things he remembers, likes or dislikes. He even times himself compiling his Doctor Who top ten. He’s got an encyclopaedic knowledge of top facts, a hunger for obscure details and a paralysing sense of embarrassment. This all suggests he has what Doctor Who Magazine once described as the “fan gene”.

Even his vocabulary is infused with fannishness. “Garb” and “arrant” are rarely used outside the Target Doctor Who books of the 1970s, and “see it in my mind’s eye” is how Mary Whitehouse decried a particular Tom Baker cliffhanger. (The book also features a lot of the script of Withnail & I.)

So what kind of fan is he? For all his nervousness, Griffiths has fiercely held opinions. He either loves something – an episode, a Doctor, a moment in his life – or he really hates it. He heckles bands and celebrities with delicious glee, and says himself that this attitude serves him well as a TV critic. Of course it’s okay for him to be less than excellent and have rubbish hair. He sees the world in black and white – either “brilliant!” or “rubbish!” – yet extremists are in his list of things that give him “the fear”.

As well as not being very self aware, many of his jokes feel too easy – received wisdom rather than thoughts he’s had himself. He swipes, for example, at Mary Whitehouse and Colin Baker. But now Griffiths is himself a father, does he not think Whitehouse could have had a point that the Doctor being drowned isn’t ideal teatime viewing? And Baker had no say in his scripts or costume or the direction the series was taking. He was just the visible one and so the obvious scapegoat.

This is the problem with what is otherwise a fun book: there are few original insights. Griffiths admits he’s not the most incisive reporter – Richard Dawkins even hung up on him in the midst of an interview. Rather this is about what Griffiths already remembers – and what he can google on the way. Even then, there are easily googlable errors: The author of Dalek is Rob Shearman, not Colin; it’s Arnold T Blumberg not Blomberg; the Doctor’s home constellation is Kasterborous, with a K not a C. As a result the book feels a little dashed off; just as Griffiths himself dashes off mid-paragraph to search a cupboard or rewatch a particular video.

It reminds me a lot of the kind of article in old fanzines about what the writer was doing when he (almost always a he) watched a particular episode. So a review of Terror of the Zygons will be as much about a family holiday in Cornwall that coincided with part three, where it rained too hard to go to the beach. Why do we need to know about the beach? Griffiths frets about his parents and son reading his shyly recounted sexual experiences – without ever explaining why he’s telling us about them in the first place.

Perhaps this grown-up stuff helps explain why he distanced himself from the series – The Five Doctors special in 1983 was, he says, like saying goodbye. For a long period – more than a third of the book – Doctor Who doesn’t even warrant a mention. Or perhaps the show hasn’t been quite as important to him as he makes out.

Until the very end, there’s little on why the show appealed to him, or has won him over anew. As a child, he says, it was just so unlike anything else – he lists the other shows he’d seen. He likes, he says, Doctor Who’s imagination, the Daleks, the escapism, the humour, the quarries. But his 12 year-old son Dylan describes something far more involved and emotional than this list suggests:
“I feel a bit embarrassed watching the New Doctor Who with my Dad because he’s more childish than I am, shouting at the TV to not look around or don’t look there and being scared when something jumps out at the Doctor. But it’s always a good laugh watching him because he is the best Dad in the world.”

Nick Griffiths, Dalek I Loved You, p. 279.

A friend also reminds him of a trip to a Doctor Who exhibition in the early 1990s. Griffiths had to wait until there was no one else around before gleefully trying the Dalek voice-changer. It’s telling that he doesn’t remember this himself.

The book ends oddly, with Griffiths conducting an interview he’s not very interested in and then knocking off early for a beer. You’re left wondering what he’s learnt from writing the book. Has Doctor Who shaped who he is? Has the book changed his view of himself or the show? Has it helped his parents finally understand their awkward, dorky son? Do his original props and David Tennant’s email address give him a sense of ownership of a show now so popular with everyone?

Griffiths skimps on this awkward, embarrassing stuff. Sadly that means that for all this is fun, it feels like he spent his life doing his own thing, with Doctor Who on in the background.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Internet Guerrier database

Codename Moose points out that he's now on the IMDB, and straight in to the Guerrier Top 29 at # 7. The sister is at #3, the uncle at #20. And, because Hollywood clearly disrespects the writers, man, I'm at #29.

Thursday, August 06, 2009


There's a new interview with me at the Gallifrey Vortex, discussing Dr Who books. Also, I made the Dr watch Star Trek II last night.

I'd remembered it as a fast and all-action thriller. But that's not the film at all. It takes a long, long time for there to be any fighting. And then it's two rooms (or the same room redressed) of people watching a TV screen with bad reception. There's a lot of that thing I hate with Star Trek; people walking down corridors or sitting in their rooms discussing portentous morality.

Besides the large regular cast (for whom it's always a struggle to find things to do), there's a relatively small number of speaking roles and sets. Though the model shots and mattes and nascent computer graphics are all rather breathtaking, it struck me as quite a cheap movie.

So why did I remember it as so big and exciting? Because it's brilliantly written and directed, using its limited resources to best advantage. Rather than zippy dogfights in space like Star Wars (whose shadow it's clearly trying to escape), this is more old-skool naval warfare, like Master and Commander. The first engagement between the Enterprise and Reliant is all to do with the protocols of signaling not being observed - they might as well be using flags.

There's lots of manoeuvres and fleet regulations, and the ending sees the wounded Enterprise sailing into the fog to even things up with the less-wounded enemy. The tension comes from anticipation, and the Enterprise being outgunned. Kirk's enemy is better than he is. While Kirk is feeling old and needs glasses and a command, Khan is looking good for his 200 years, and showing off his pecs.

The multi-racial Federation fights Khan's Aryan gang who are all into eugenics (a modern nod; in the original TV episode Khan had black hair). While the only aliens I spotted where Vulcans and them things in people's ears, there's evidence of Star Fleet being an equal opportunities employer. There's a black starship captain and the young female lieutenant Saavik also gets command of the Enterprise. But when McCoy mutters about Spock's green blood, his colleagues just roll their eyes indulgently. He also gets away with smuggling illegal booze.

Also, this is the first time I've heard Star Fleet referred to as "the military", and David's angry reaction to Star Fleet interference suggests they already have a reputation for muscling in on science. Star Trek is not brilliant at engaging in arguments against its shiny utopia, but the weaponised potential of the Genesis torpedo made us think of debates over the Star Wars programme, though President Reagan only announced the strategic defence initiative a year after Khan was released.

There are a lot of "gosh wow" moments, but they're not at the awe of space. Kirk's mouth drops open when he sees the Enterprise again and when he sees the Genesis cave. The amazement is at man-made achievement, not at the vast, empty and dangerous frontier. The nebula, the moon and the planet we visit are all inimical to life - which makes the creation of the Genesis planet all the more of an achievement.

Space is difficult enough without a madman hell-bent on killing you. The wounds on the casualties - the burnt flesh and blood - are the most visceral I can think of in Star Trek. This continually reinforces how hard this adventure is, upping the stakes and engaging us. And then, to win victory, Star Fleet expects every man to do his duty...

Spock's logic that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one nicely sets up his death. It's also the logic of service - of a navy in space. And it's a little bit fascist (when they're fighting Aryan supremacists).

The Dr, though, was left cold by Spock's death - assuming he'd get better using his alien powers. Which is odd; I think I saw Star Trek III first and still get itchy-eyed as Spock says he has been and ever shall be Kirk's friend.

It's still, I think, the best of the Trek movies, followed by VI and XI. Which the Dr admitted she'd like to see.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Soon you'll grow so take a chance

TV's James Moran is evangelising that you - YOU! - should go and see Moon. But the Dr and I were going anyway, and have just returned. Screen 3 at the Ritzy in Brixton was full, if not very big in the first place (and the dimming lights weren't working so we watched trailers in the gaudy glare of the "cleaning lights").

Anyhow, what a splendid film. It's difficult to speak of without spoiling it's many delights - you really should go see it. The plot is old-skool sci-fi clever but with an emotional wossname that got the Dr hooked. She feared tedious physics for too long (what she wearily refers to as "moon porn"), but I caught her snuffling at the end. Hah. Tomorrow, she's being made to watch The Wrath of Khan on Blue-Ray as part of my ongoing Professor Higginsing.

I loved the tactile weight of the old-skool model shots and the sly setting-up of the revelations. I loved the warm logic of the small role played by Kevin Spacey, and the familiarity / claustrophobia of the small set. It had jokes and intelligence and awe in the face of the vast, dead grey rock. And, my cleverer colleagues inform me, the physics is pretty good, too if you can forgive the central conceit.

All that, and this review doesn't mention the director's kook parents. Think that must be a first.

Monday, August 03, 2009

No cheese cauldron

The Dr took me to see Harry Potter VI last night - the second time she'd seen it. What a lifetime it's been since I read the book. The film boils the plot down to the bare necessities, dumping all the stuff set in the Ministry and focusing in on the teen snogging. While the last film, I thought, was better than the book, this one is good but not as good.

Jonny's right about the over-grading. Changing the colour and tone of each frame also makes the film grainy. As Cathode Blue Ray and Mos-Def television give way to ever more pin-sharp home cinema, I wonder how the evolved beings of tomorrow will look back on the murky gravel of our age.

I also think they got the tone wrong. Those memories of freak-boy Young Voldemort are all in graded blue-grey to suggest coldness and evil. But the whole blimmin' point is that no one saw he was a wrong 'un until it was too late. In the book, Dumbledore - and so we - sympathise with the bullied kid who magics things from his tormentors, just as Harry did with Dudley Dursley in book one. Dumbledore chides Tom Riddle for stealing but still takes him under his wing.

Likewise, Riddle charms Professor Slughorn, showing interest in his lessons and buying his favourite sweets. Before he went Obviously Bad, Tom Riddle was liked, the teachers almost indulging his breaking of rules and small magic revenges on those bullies who deserved it.

Young Riddle is all too like young Harry Potter. As Harry grows up, and the 'parental' adults around him take a step back, his future is down to the choices he makes.

Harry could still yet do terrible things. So could any of us.