Wednesday, October 30, 2019

The Time Warrior, by Terrance Dicks

The death of maestro Terrance Dicks earlier this year prompted me to revisit this novelisation which I so loved as a kid.

The TV story The Time Warrior (1973-74) was the first adventure in Jon Pertwee's final year as the Third Doctor. It introduced new companion Sarah Jane Smith and the monstrous Sontarans - though the Doctor recognises the species so has met them before off-screen. (I wrote an audio story about the Doctor's first encounter with Sontarans.)

Dicks's novelisation was first published in June 1978, by which time the Sontarans had faced the Doctor three times on screen. Dicks had been script editor on the TV version of the story: he commissioned it from Robert Holmes, oversaw the development of the storyline and rewrites on the scripts, and presumably did at least a polish. According to him, it was originally to be novelised by Holmes who only produced the 10-page prologue of the book. This presents a space battle that would have been tricky to realise on screen, and surely owe something to the opening scenes of Star Wars (1977).

The protagonist in this space battle is Jingo Linx, Commander in the Sontaran Space Corps. That first name was in the TV script but never used on screen. We learn a little of the Sontarans: their home planet is Sontara (not Sontar, as in 2008 TV episodes) and they have a "Sontaran Anthem" (which does match 2008). But Holmes tells us little about their perennial enemies the Rutans - though by the time he wrote this prologue they'd been seen on screen, in TV story Horror of Fang Rock (1977) which he had commissioned as script editor from Dicks as writer. It's surprising there's no mention here of jellyfish or shape-changing, or the eerie green glow, that neither Dicks nor Holmes sought to join up those dots.

During the space battle, Linx manages a "fly-pass through the constellation of Sagittarius." As I now know from my GCSE astronomy, a constellation only looks like a group of stars as seen from Earth, and are usually not close to one another at all. Holmes is similarly rough on history: both TV and book versions have peasants peeling potatoes - famously from the New World - in England of the Middle Ages ("the thirteenth century" according to Sarah in 1975's The Sontaran Experiment).

After the prologue, Dicks follows the TV story pretty closely. Linx crashes on Earth and makes an uneasy alliance with local warlord Irongron. When Irongron can't supply suitable nerds to help Linx fix his spaceship, the Sontaran kidnaps them from the 20th century - which gets the attention of the Doctor. Holmes' dialogue is rich and witty, perfectly establishing the characters and their worldview. Dicks' prose is straight-forward, pithily getting on with the story.

Chapter four introduces Sir Edward, Lady Eleanor and their archer Hal earlier than the TV version. Hal and Sir Edward are back from the Crusades, the implication being that Irongron and his men have not and so are sort of draft-dodgers. Lady Eleanor is a stronger character here than on screen, taking a more active role in combatting the wicked Irongron - there's a little of Lady Macbeth when she orders Hal to kill him. That neatly links to the thread of Sarah as the independent, liberated woman out of her time in a man's world.

Sir Edward's page is given a name - Eric - and we see the moment he's captured by Irongron's men, rather than just being told about it. This is Dicks the novelist adding in big action moments he would have cut as script editor. It makes me wonder how much of the screen version was his anyway - he would give writers two or three drafts before taking over their scripts.

The TV version does not give us what now seems like a glaring omission - Sarah's first impression of the TARDIS interior. It's fleeting here, but present all the same on page 53. Dicks says Sarah doesn't have time to "fully take in the wonder of her surroundings", and is more concerned about correcting another issue: how she stows away in the TARDIS without the Doctor seeing her. The simple solution is to have her hide in "a kind of cupboard" - the "kind of" suggesting something a bit more sci-fi than MFI.

Another simple intervention is the explanation of context.
"This was an age in which explosives in any form were still unknown. Bangs and flashes and clouds of stinking smoke could have only one explanation. 'Devil's work,' screamed one of the soldiers." (p. 103)
But really, there's little embellishment of events as seen on TV - though at one point there's this incongruous image:
"High on the battlements Sarah was doing a celebratory dance." (p. 104)
I liked the joke that when the Doctor and Sarah disguise themselves in cassocks, his is too short and hers too long. Dicks also feels the need to provide a four-and-a-half line section explaining where those robes came from, with Sir Edward having given a "handsome donation" to two monks.

Reading the book again made me aware of something I was less aware of in the TV version: how much back and forth there is between the two castles. The Doctor bests Linx or Irongron, then returns to Sir Edward's castle, only to say he must go back to face Linx and Irongron - several times. In the book, the Doctor also pops back to the TARDIS for supplies before making his stink bombs, and in popping back again to the TARDIS for the silver "umbrella" that he uses in his final battle against Linx, we're told in the book that he changes his shirt and jacket. This all makes the pacing more leisurely, less urgent. On TV, getting the "umbrella" from the TARDIS is just about excusable but making several trips into the ship feels like cheating.

And something else: Linx mocks humanity's "primary and secondary reproductive cycle" and says the Sontaran method is more efficient. But there's no mention of clones, no suggestion that there are millions more of his kind out there, just like him. This is a chance encounter, Linx visiting Earth by mistake because he's so far from his own people.

So many Doctor Who monsters are conceived as potential rivals to the Daleks, ideal for merchandising and sequels. The irony of Linx, the first we see of a multitude of clones, is that he's the perfect one-off. 

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Shirley Jackson in Lancet Psychiatry

The new issue of medical journal Lancet Psychiatry features my essay, "There's someone in my head but it's not me," on Shirley Jackson's 1954 novel The Bird's Nest. You need to pay to read the full article but here's the opening paragraph:
"When we first meet Elizabeth Richmond in the opening pages of Shirley Jackson's 1954 novel The Bird's Nest, she is 23 and, to her colleagues at the local museum, 'not even interesting enough to distinguish with a nickname'. She has worked for 2 years answering letters from the public, a job that requires 'no very sparkling personality'. She ably, punctually completes the tasks assigned to her but does not seem the kind of protagonist whose ambitions will power a plot. Rather, Elizabeth is someone to whom things happen: and things quickly start to go wrong..." (Simon Guerrier, "There's someone in my head but it's not me," Lancet Psychiatry vol. 6, iss. 11 (1 November 2019), pp. 899-901 - DOI:
I read a bunch of Shirley Jackson's books last year, and posted some thoughts here:

Monday, October 28, 2019

Radio Free Skaro 712

Steven Schapansky of Doctor Who podcast Radio Free Skaro interviewed me for episode #712, "Stay on Target". I think that makes me Biggs.

We talk about my contribution to the newly published Doctor Who: The Target Storybook, and about maestro Terrance Dicks, who died in August and whose final contribution to Doctor Who in included in the book. As I say, both I and the Dr rather owe our careers to Terrance.

I think you can probably tell that I'd been at home alone for a few days, the Dr off on half-term excursions with the apes. The bit with me starts at 30:08.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Other Minds, by Peter Godfrey-Smith

Subtitled "The Octopus and the evolution of intelligent life," this is an absorbing mix of marine biology and philosophy, delving into the worldview of the octopus and our sense of what intelligence even is.
"Cephalopods are an island of mental complexity in the sea of invertebrate animals. Because our most recent common ancestor was so simple and lies so far back, cephalopods are an independent experiment in the evolution of large brains and complex behavior. If we can make contact with cephalopods as sentient beings, it is not because of a shared history, not because of kinship, but because evolution built minds twice over. This is probably the closet we will come to meeting an intelligent alien." (p. 9)
I've waded through some of this stuff before - see my published work on the octopus. Godfrey-Smith also uses studies of other species to shed light on octopus intelligence and our assumptions. He discusses the findings of Baboon Metaphysics, which made me wonder how applicable quotations from Jane Austen would be to the octopus.

This all helps place the octopus in context but the most arresting bits of the book are when Godfrey-Smith is in the water with them, reporting directly, and in his logical analysis of how different their biology and therefore their worldview is to ours.
"Some features show a mixture of similarity and difference, convergence and divergence. We have hearts, and so do octopuses. But an octopus has three hearts, not one. Their hearts pump blood that is blue-green, using copper as the oxygen-carrying molecule instead of the iron which makes our blood red. Then, of course, there is the nervous system - large like ours, but built on a different design, with a different set of relationships between body and brain." (p. 74)
That nervous system extends into the limbs, effectively meaning that octopuses "see" with their arms to a limited extent, as well as with their eyes. Godfrey-Smith discusses (on p. 80) tactile vision substitution systems (TVSS), where a video camera attached to a blind person converts optical images into vibration or electrical stimulation the person can feel. When a dog walks past, the blind person doesn't feel a vibration so much as sense an object in motion, relative to themselves. Key to this is that the TVSS works in real time, so the person's own position and movement is part of the sensation: you move, and sense how that affects the relative position of objects around you.

We then return to the octopus:
"What could it be like to see with your skin? There could be no focusing of an image. Only general changes and washes of light could be detected. We don't yet know whether the skin's sensing is communicated to the brain, or whether then information remains local. Both possibilities stretch the imagination. If the skin's sensing is carried to the brain, then the animal's visual sensitivity would extend in all directions, beyond where the eyes can reach. If the skin's sensing does not reach the brain, then each arm might see for itself, and keep what it sees to itself." (p. 121)
Some of the science is a little hard-going, and (as always) I would prefer footnotes to endnotes, and numbers in the body text to indicate when to check a note. But it's an appealingly short book - 204 pages before the endnotes - stuffed with utterly boggling ideas. It's also an emotional story: the tentative contact with these creatures, the dangers all around them, their shockingly short lives. And then, just when we think we grasp how strange these things are, he undercuts some of what he's said and makes the point that they're not so very distant.
"The mind evolved in the sea. Water made it possible ... When animals did crawl onto dry land, they took the sea with them. All there basic activities of life occur in water-filled cells bounded by membranes, tiny containers whose insides are remnants of the sea. I said in chapter I that meeting an octopus is, in many ways, the closest we're likely to get to meeting an intelligent alien. Yet it's not really an alien; the Earth and its oceans made us both." (p. 200)

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Doctor Who Magazine 544

Doctor Who Magazine 544
It's 40 years - and six days - since the first issue of Doctor Who Weekly, which is now Doctor Who Magazine. Issue 544 celebrates this ridiculous milestone with all sorts of goodies, including - hooray! - and index of features and interviews that is really useful for a job I'm doing today.

Also in the issue is a short interview with me about my forthcoming Doctor Who audio story, The Home Guard.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Crooked Heart, by Lissa Evans

Old Baggage, which I loved, is a prequel to this brilliant, comic novel about bad behaviour during the Second World War.

We begin a little after Old Baggage left off, with eccentric ex-Suffragette Mattie Simpkin living just off Hampstead Heath with the small boy, Noel Bostock, she's sort of not-quite adopted. But Mattie's memory and wits are fast escaping her, and when war breaks out Noel is sent to St Albans with other evacuees. There, he's taken on by Vera Sedge, who thinks he might help earn some money in the latest of her ill-fated scams. But nerdy, lonely, grieving Noel has ideas about how to improve their takings...

Evans conjures a dirty, drab and distinctly criminal Blitz, where even the wardens are on the take - I think the most distressing, haunting moment is a woman being led off to an asylum while her house is robbed by the men ostensibly helping her. Life is hard even before the bombs start falling, full of tragedy and meanness and indifference. But as we weave our way through Noel and Vee's adventures, and those of Vee's own mother and son, there's the promise of something to light up the dark - hope of connection, perhaps even a little joy.

That's the gift here: so much of what happens is miserable, so much of what's described is viscerally horrible. And yet the character, the humour, the compassion shine through and make every page a delight.

Friday, October 11, 2019

The Calculating Stars, by Mary Robinette Kowal

This smart, thrilling, brilliant new novel is about the women who are part of the astronaut programme in an alternate 1950s. History diverges from ours on 2 November 1948 when Thomas E Dewey beats Harry S Truman in the US presidential election. By 3 March 1952, the US has put its third satellite into orbit. That morning, a meteorite crashes into Earth with devastating effect.  Washington DC is obliterated.

So, despite the devastation the space programme is well ahead. In our universe, the space race began years after this, on 30 August 1955, when lead engineer Sergei Korolev got the Soviet Academy of Sciences to agree a programme to beat the Americans into orbit. The result was Sputnik (4 October 1957), followed by the first person - Gagarin - sent into space, on 12 April 1961. A month later, President Kennedy announced plans to land people on the Moon by the end of the decade.

Part of the joy of The Calculating Stars is how much of "our" history is woven into the alternate timeline: our heroine, Dr Elma York meets Wernher von Braun, while among her fellow trainee astronauts listed on page 426 are "Collins, Aldrin and Armstrong".  Her husband reads science-fiction by Ray Bradbury, his visions of settlements on Mars apparently coloured by the events in this timeline.

Also great is the technical detail. We encouter this world through Elma's perspective as a former WASP, a qualified pilot and extremely competent mathematician. She works as a human computer, outperforming the nascent IBM machines - at one extremely tense moment in the story, her speed and accuracy with complex numbers are vital. Robinette Kowal's acknowledgements include real astronauts and other experts: she admits she doesn't understand the maths herself. As a nerd for the early days of space travel, there was lots I recognised - and lots that came as new.
"There is something about having your legs over your head that makes you need to pee. This makes it into none of the press releases, but every single astronaut talks about it." (p. 493)
But the book is also excellent on the social detail: the drama of this post-meteorite world is overshadowed by inherent sexism and racism, our Jewish heroine not immune to her own prejudice.  Elma also suffers from anxiety and there's lots on the shame and secrecy surrounding mental illness. Characters are well drawn, and Elma must learn to work alongside people she doesn't necessarily like, managing rivalries and her own privilege, for all she is discriminated against. Each chapter opens with a quote from a newspaper filling in more of the background detail of this world, and full of telling turns of phrase. It all makes for a rich and real version of history, a compelling world in which this adventure takes place.

It is an adventure, full of twists and turns. Robinette Kowal nicely manages the personal stakes with the technical and global. I zipped through the almost 500 pages and am keen for the next instalment.

Thursday, October 03, 2019

Becoming, by Michelle Obama

When Michelle Obama was supporting her husband's bid to be president of the USA, she used to tell her own story. Growing up in a "cramped apartment on the South Side of Chicago", as the blurb on her autobiography puts it, she could never have dreamed of where she'd end up. But her story and that of her husband, she argues, is proof that we can achieve anything with hard work and hope.

In that aspirational message, Becoming reminded me of Chris Hadfield's An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth, a life story just as inspiring and daunting. Except that Obama is writing as her husband's successor attempts to expunge all trace of what was achieved in those years in office. Obama does not mince her words about Trump: her horror directed not just at him but at the part of America that embraced him. Other adversaries go unnamed or she reconciles with later. Her hostility to Trump is in notable contrast to the friendships made across the political divide, such as with the Bush family, or across national and social boundaries such as with the Queen.

She doesn't make a link but I did to the one other person to whom she gives no quarter. Taking us through the night that her husband had Osama Bin Laden killed, she details the delight and excitement she shared with others in the White House and beyond, the vindication she felt for the wounded soldiers and their families she'd encountered up to that point.
"I'm not sure anyone's death is a reason to celebrate. But what America got that night was a moment of release, a chance to feel its own resilience." (p. 364) 
For all Obama says she's "not sure" about celebrating his death, she has no doubts about the killing itself. Elsewhere, she is open about her uncertainties - whether Barack should stand in the first place, what being in office has done to their children's lives. I was struck by her frankness about fertility treatment, the grim practicalities of Clomid and IVF. There's the slips in her speeches, seized upon by her critics. There's the time when she can't face the grieving community after yet another shooting. And then there's this extraordinary, awful acknowledgement - guilt - that the rise of the right in America is in some ways directly personal.
"For more than six years now, Barack and I had lived with an awareness that we ourselves were a provocation ... Our presence in the White House had been celebrated by millions of Americans, but it also contributed to a reactionary sense of fear and resentment among others. The hatred was old and deep and as dangerous as ever." (p. 397)
Yet she remains optimistic, even to the end. Becoming challenges the reader to step up and make a difference, and offers fascinating insight into the practicalities of public office. We learn how she managed her image and needed lessons in smiling, how she decided what she and her children would wear on stage, how she created her own role as First Lady. There's the difficulty of having a date night when your husband is president, or the strange feeling of addressing a huge crowd from behind a shield of bullet-proof glass.

In fact, the security involved is the most telling detail of life in the White House. Obama is daunted by her first sight of the presidential motorcade. Obama explains how difficult all that fanfare is for doing simple things like looking at potential schools for her children, or letting them go for ice cream with friends. She tells us about the challenge of finding a way out of the White House one particular night, the usual door locked even to her. On another occasion, she shares details of a nightmare in which animals roam the grounds of the building and attack her daughters.

One detail stuck with me. The White House is so heavily defended, its walls and windows so secure, that she couldn't hear the Marine One helicopter when it landed right outside.
"I usually figured out that Barack had arrived home from a trip not by the sound of his helicopter but rather by the smell of its fuel, which somehow manage to permeate." (p. 398)