Thursday, April 30, 2020

Doctor Who Magazine 551

The super new issue of the official Doctor Who Magazine is out now, and features former show runners Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat interviewing one another, and my wise mate Mark Wright interviewing the series current composer Segun Akinola.

There's also "Contact Has Been Made", in which I spoke to editorial assistant Emily Cook and Strax actor Dan Starkey about all the exciting Who-related stuff going on during lockdown. In fact, there's so much going on it was a struggle to fit it all in - and then no sooner had I delivered the feature than there was more stuff being announced.

Also in this issue, Jamie Lenman reviews Susan's War, delighted by the Robogrons in my The Uncertain Shore. He says the excellent sound design - by Howard Carter - makes the play like "Saving Private Susan", and concludes that it's, "A glorious, if faintly bewildering, runaround." Hooray!

Sunday, April 26, 2020

ST:TNG 1.13 Datalore

I enjoyed the recent first series of Star Trek: Picard but was very aware of missing the references as I've not seen all of Star Trek: The Next Generation - and most of that when it was first on. Helpfully, @GDgeek and @ScottKAndrews came up with a list of 12 essential episodes:

1.13 Datalore
2.9 The Measure of a Man
3.16 The Offspring
3.26 The Best of Both Worlds
4.1 The Best of Both Worlds part 2
4.2 Family
4.3 Brothers
5.23 I, Borg
6.26 Descent part 1
7.1 Descent part 2
7.25-26 All Good Things…

So, to begin with…

1.13 Datalore
"But... but... but..."
How achingly young everyone is - and how new the whole enterprise. It’s all so new that the Captain’s log at the beginning has to explain to us that Data is an android.

Wesley Crusher, doing work experience on the bridge of the Enterprise while everyone else is in uniform, seems to be dressed as the Thirteenth Doctor Who.

Colds have been eradicated from this utopian future but there’s some silliness about sneezing. The tone is odd; the silliness stilted - less laugh-out-loud as somewhat amusing. I know from other episodes that these actors are good with comedy, so it’s just the material here not being very funny.

I’m horrified to hear the Enterprise whoosh past the screen in the opening titles, despite the silent vacuum of space. This is Star Trek as fantasy, as lacking in scientific credentials as Star Wars. But Star Wars makes no claim to get the science right.

Another shock as our heroes beam down to an alien planet realised entirely in studio, the forced perspective background looking especially cheap. I remember this "new" iteration of Star Trek when it first arrived as sumptuously rich and extravagant. Here it looks like Time-Flight.

On this alien world we learn about Data’s origins: he was discovered here 26 years ago, he says. Geordi is able to see clues no one else has - which is really odd. Given how strange and precious Data is, did no one think to conduct a proper survey?

Having found a secret base, they recognise the name of a famous Earth scientist - Dr Noonien Soong. But they don’t immediately connect him to Data, or the fact they look so alike. Has no one really never noticed?

Soong, they all know, was Earth’s foremost robotic scientist, “Until he tried to make Asimov’s dream of a positronic brain come true.” Isaac Asimov was still alive when this episode was broadcast, but also admitted that the positronic brain he devised in stories written 50 years earlier weren’t exactly a practical idea. So it’s Star Trek linking itself to a lineage of science-fiction rather than of science. (Daleks have positronic brains in The Power of the Daleks (1966) and The Evil of the Daleks (1967), suggesting they and Data are related.)

Then our heroes find the dismembered parts of an android body just like Data, including his bare bum. It’s an incongruous detail, depersonalising him and his dismantled brother. But perhaps that’s the point.

It’s also odd to have Data then observe but not help in the assembly of his brother. Does he not want to be involved? Is he not allowed? It seems to be a question of etiquette. Despite the 26 years since Data was discovered, people are still awkward around him. There’s some fun in the discomfort

But I like the awkwardness of the crew in asking Data questions about all of this - the social niceties, the strangeness, of a friend and colleague you can make. But the scene in which Data confides in Beverely that he has a secret off-switch is really odd. Would the medical officer on the Enterprise not have full access to his schematics? If not, the suggestion is that’s he’s seen as a piece of engineering rather than a person with medical needs.

Data’s brother Lore says that he was made to supersede - to replace - the imperfect Data, and given the etiquette and awkwardness we’ve just witnessed, this seems cruel. We’re immediately put on our guard about Lore because he’s been mean to Data, though no one else has noticed.

There’s more awkwardness from the human crew, but Picard apologises to Data for his misuse of pronouns in referring to androids as “it”. My suspicion is that when they made this episode they weren’t thinking of trans rights, but that’s surely the association we make watching it now.

Now Data is suspicious of Lore, and Lore uses the word “brother” to make a connection. He is, unlike Data, programmed to please humans, he says - but it’s all very manipulative. My thought was of the algorithms of social media that seek to keep us hooked by playing to our (worst) emotions.

But I really like the walk-and-talk scene in the corridor of Data and Lore together. Just like Jeremy Irons in Dead Ringers, Brent Spiner makes the two characters distinct individuals, so it doesn’t immediately register that this is a trick shot. Again, Lore is manipulative - suggesting that the emotionless Data is envious or jealous. It’s nicely played, and this early into the series we don’t know Data well enough to be sure about him.

Data tells Lore how he got his Star Fleet uniform: “four years at the Academy, another three as ensign, ten or twelve on varied space duty in the lieutenant grades”, taking up at least 17 of the 26 years since he was discovered. What happened in the years before he joined the Academy? And also - as we will see - it is appalling that after 17 years of service in Star Fleet, the organisation still isn’t sure about Data’s status, rights or personhood.

I’m also unconvinced by the sci-fi cliche that Data can’t use contractions or crack jokes. Word processing software and predictive text can deploy contractions - the rules are simple enough. A child can grasp jokes. It plays, I think, into an insidious myth about autistic people that they don’t understand jokes and are taciturn, unfeeling, somehow lesser than neurotypical people. I don’t know if the production team meant to link Data to these supposed traits of autism, but now I’ve made that connection it makes me very uneasy to see how they’re deployed.

After their conversation, Data leaves and Lore is left alone, reading a computer screen. It’s innocuous enough, but sinister music tells us he is up to something - though we’ve not seen him be naughty yet. We are being manipulated.

On the bridge of the Enterprise, security chief Tasha Yar asks Picard how much he really trusts Data. The crew are shocked, and Picard’s response is really interesting:
“I trust him completely. But everyone should also realise that that was a necessary and legitimate security question.”
As when he apologised to Data about a misuse of pronouns, this is Picard’s compassionate management style, in sharp contrast to the ruthless, selfish Gordon Gekko kind of businessman in Wall Street, from the year before this was broadcast. It’s there, too, in the corporate culture of the Enterprise - with a ship’s counsellor so respected she has a seat on the bridge (if not a uniform), and (as well see in later episodes) organised entertainments that mix up different ranks socially.

Lore opens a bottle of Champagne, which begs the question whether androids can get drunk. In fact, it’s been poisoned and Lore finally shows his true colours. Suddenly the episode kicks into gear, and what follows is tense and involving.

Even so, there’s a very odd scene on the bridge, where Lore pretends to be Data and no one notices except Wesley. The telling detail is that Lore doesn’t understand Picard’s order to “Make it so” - a catchphrase already, just a handful of episodes into the series. When Lore has gone, Welsey tries to share his concern but first Picard and then Wesley’s own mother tell him to shut up. Well ha ha, Wesley is a bit precocious and annoying - but this is the captain of the flagship of Star Fleet snapping at a child in front of everyone on the bridge. A child, I might add, whose dad is dead and whose mum seems to have history with the captain. Where is the sensitive management style now? It’s particularly galling because Welsey is right!

Lore then uses Wesley, who still doesn’t fall for the trick. He helps the real Data, and there’s a fight. When Picard and Dr Crusher arrive, Lore threatens to kill Wesley - again, manipulating them through his understanding ofd emotions. But luckily our heroes are able to teleport him away. We’re not told where he goes: the implication is, I think, that he’s been beamed out into space where he won’t survive. Wouldn’t they check?

Picard doesn’t apologise to Wesley - who was completely right about Lore - but expects to see him back on the bridge. Again, ha ha, how funny that Picard won’t back down and its at Wesley’s expense. It’s a really odd, unsatisfying ending to an episode that’s otherwise about respect for other people’s feelings. If I were Wesley, I’d be going straight to the ship’s counsellor to discuss workplace harassment.

But blimey, on the subject of abuse of staff by Star Fleet, next up is 2.9 The Measure of a Man

Saturday, April 25, 2020

The Fated Sky, by Mary Robinette Kowal

After the smart, brilliant, thrilling The Calculating Stars, this second novel in the Lady Astronaut series is just as good - thrilling, compelling and compassionate as our heroine is part of the first crewed mission to Mars in an alternative 1960s.

There are all kinds of hazards along the way, including diarrhoea in space - a hundred times more horrible than it sounds - and Earthbound conspiracists attacking their own technological infrastructure in ways that echo recent attacks on 5G. In fact, this tale of people cooped up together for long stretches really resonates just now, the astronauts missing loved ones and unable to do anything about the medical emergencies affected their loved ones back home...

Yet for all the big events and hard science, this is a novel about the little stuff - the interpersonal relationships, the struggle not to be That Arsehole.
"Space always sounds glamorous when I talk about it on television or the radio, but the truth is that we spend most of our time cleaning and doing maintenance." (p. 425).
I'm keen for the next instalment, The Relentless Moon, due out later this year, but the author's website includes links to some short stories in the meantime:
Here's the list in internal chronological order:
"We Interrupt This Broadcast"The Calculating Stars"Articulated Restraint"The Fated SkyThe Relentless Moon - coming 2020
The Derivative Base - coming 2022
"The Phobos Experience" - in Fantasy & Science Fiction July 2018"Amara's Giraffe""Rockets Red""The Lady Astronaut of Mars" 

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Corridors - Passages of Modernity, by Roger Luckhurst

I've submitted a review of this for publication elsewhere, but Professor Roger Luckhurst (who I know) has produced a fascinating history of corridors in architecture and imagination.

His argument is that the corridor is a modern conception, the name deriving from the Italian verb "currere" meaning to run - the same root as our word "courier." The architectural sense came in the fourteenth century: a "corridoro" was the path kept clear behind defences along which messengers could run. It was then used in large buildings - the swift bypass meaning you didn't have to go through in room in turn. In a royal palace, where status could be defined by proximity to the monarch, that bypass had political implications. Without the need for interconnecting doors, rooms could be isolated - changing our sense of private space.

Roger covers a great deal of ground here - a long corridor like the ones he describes in the pavilion hospitals brought in by Florence Nightingale. He covers hospitals, prisons, asylums, universities, private homes, corridors in films, and the way the modern idea of a corridor is projected back on history - such as Arthur Evans reconstructing modern-style corridors at the ancient Minoan site of Knossos. I'm fascinated by the below-ground labyrinth of Wellbeck Abbey, and the revelation that until the 1810s schools were structured in "barn style" buildings, all the children in one room, perhaps a thousand of them taught by one teacher.  Segregation by age, gender, ability and corridor could dramatically change the effectiveness of education.

In discussing corridors in films, Roger argues that we're still haunted by - indeed, still live and work within - Victorian institutions and their architecture. A corridor crowded with zombies therefore resonates with us. But corridors can also be cheap to fashion and fill with fewer extras, making the most of limited studio space, and so easy to redress that a single T-section can represent a whole vast complex.

"All these corridors look the same," sighs Seth in the 1979-80 Doctor Who story The Horns of Nimon - in which the corridors really do turn out to be moved round and reused. Indeed, a lot of Doctor Who is people running through corridors. But then that should be a surprise as that's what they're for...

Tuesday, April 07, 2020

Doctor Who: Wicked Sisters

Out in November, Wicked Sisters is a trilogy of Doctor Who stories in which the Fifth Doctor and Leela must destroy two powerful beings who threaten all of space and time. Their names are Abby and Zara...

It's been a thrill to reunite the Doctor with the leads from my sci-fi series Graceless, and I couldn't be happier with the result. The series stars Peter Davison, Louise Jameson, Ciara Janson and Laura Doddington - plus some amazing guest actors who will be announced in due course.

Full press release as follows:

The Fifth Doctor (Peter Davison) is on course for a reunion with some old friends when he crosses paths with sisters Abby and Zara.
Created by pan-dimensional beings the Grace to assist – and sometimes hinder – the Doctor in Big Finish’s Key 2 Time trilogy, Abby (Ciara Janson) and Zara (Laura Doddington) went on to their own time-spanning adventures in the acclaimed spin-off series, Graceless. After centuries of their own wanderings through time and space, Abby and Zara are about to meet the Time Lord again...
Doctor Who: The Fifth Doctor Adventures – Wicked Sisters is now available for pre-order, from just £16.99, and is due for release in November 2020.
The Doctor is recruited by Leela for a vital mission on behalf of the Time Lords. Together, they must track down and destroy two god-like beings whose extraordinary powers now threaten all of space and time. Their names are Abby and Zara...
This new full-cast Doctor Who audio drama box set features three linked adventures by Graceless’ creator and writer, Simon Guerrier, who wrote the very first appearance of Abby and Zara in Doctor Who: The Judgment of Iskaar.
  1. The Garden of Storms
  2. The Moonrakers
  3. The People Made of Smoke

Producer Mark Wright said: “It’s been ten years since we first took Abby and Zara off on their own adventures, and it’s fun to get the team that’s worked on every episode of Graceless together every couple of years.
Simon Guerrier’s scripts always take us into unexpected territory, and Ciara Janson and Laura Doddington bring something new to their performances each time Abby and Zara are back together. As it’s been a decade since the first series of Graceless, we thought it was time to bring things full circle and take the sisters back to where it all began – with the Fifth Doctor.” 
Writer Simon Guerrier added: “It’s been a thrill to write for the Fifth Doctor and Leela, and put them up against Abby and Zara. You don’t need to know anything about Graceless - that was part of the brief from my masters - but they’re sisters with extraordinary powers that threaten all of time and space.”
“They’re very different from the women the Doctor first met all those years ago when we did the Key 2 Time series. Back then, he wasn't required to kill them...
“The three days we had in studio just before Christmas were the highlight of my working year. A dream cast, a lot of laughter, and Lisa Bowerman ably marshalling everyone as we faced the collapse of the universe.”
Doctor Who: The Fifth Doctor Adventures – Wicked Sisters is now available for pre-order, exclusively at the Big Finish website from just £16.99. 

Wednesday, April 01, 2020

Doctor Who Magazine 550

Issue 550 of the official Doctor Who Magazine is out tomorrow and comes with posters, a cardboard TARDIS control room to make and plenty of other treats. That includes my in-depth interview with director Michael E Briant about The Robots of Death. That story is part of the Season 14 box-set to be released on Blu-ray as soon as the global crisis allows...

What with all that hullabaloo, magazines are facing a thin time so now would be the perfect opportunity to subscribe to this noblest of all titles. Please and thank you.

Also, this afternoon I took part in the Stay-at-Home! Literary Festival, on a panel about writing Doctor Who books alongside esteemed colleagues Una McCormack, Jonathan Morris and Jacqueline Rayner. Jac commissioned me for the very first bit of fiction I ever got paid for, and it was nice to be able to remind and thank her.