Monday, July 26, 2021

The Tides of Time #47

The Trinity term issue of The Tides of Time, fanzine of the Oxford Doctor Who society features an interview with me conducted by editor James Ashworth, plus reviews of things I've written - Lesser Evils from last year and The Time Travellers from way back in 2005. There are plenty of other things in the whopping 104 pages, not all of them about me. But I am very magnanimous.

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Doctor Who Magazine #567

The new issue of Doctor Who Magazine contains, among its many treasures, another "Sufficient Data" infographic by me and illustrator Ben Morris. This one traces the connections between the members of the royal family encountered by various Doctors over the years. Thanks to Simon Belcher for looking over my working.

Friday, July 16, 2021

Influencing the Doctor #51 and #52

The latest episodes of the Influencing the Doctor podcast feature me being interrogated by host Ethan Gibson on my writing. We cover everything from how I got started and what my influences are, questions about The Time Travellers, Blake's 7 and Graceless, to the stuff I'm up to now - Scourge of the Cybermen, my forthcoming Sherlock Holmes novel The Great War and even some vague hints about what I've been doing this week...

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

False Value, by Ben Aaronovitch

What a delight to be back in the world of Rivers of London, two years after I read the novella October Man and little more than that since the last novel, Lies Sleeping. This new one starts with the dread prospect that our hero Peter Grant has left the police force and gone into IT - but inevitably things aren't quite what they seem.

The plot involves the threat posed by 3D printing when baddies can make their own guns, and the threat of drones. This is all about IT getting out of hand and taking us into uncharted waters. On top of that, it looks like Peter's new bosses are developing some kind of artificial intelligence...

As usual, what follows is a fast-paced, engaging thriller full of quick wit and telling detail. Peter is surrounded by an ever-growing coterie, as more and more people are brought in on the secret that there is magic in the world. It's a considerable skill to make so many characters distinct and memorable, and despite it being two years since I was last in this story, it's like picking up with good friends - as if no time has passed at all. 

Many of the previous books have been part of a larger story which reached something of a conclusion in the last one, so False Value feels refreshingly new and standalone - for all there are threads to be picked up down the line. And how satisfying to finally learn what happened to Nightingale and the other British wizards during the war. Yes, that's the very word right there. The book is exciting, smart and fun, perfectly executed to leave the reader sated.

Friday, June 25, 2021

Doctor Who Magazine #566

There is quite a lot of me in the new issue of Doctor Who Magazine:

FIRST BASE sees clever Gav Rymill recreate the studio sets of another missing episode, this time Episode 4 of The Tenth Planet (1966). Me and Rhys Williams write the accompanying text, detailing how the clever production team ensured that the departure of William Hartnell was not the death of Doctor Who...

BEAUTY AND HORROR is about the Radio 3 Afternoon Concert of TV music that included the first performance of cues from Richard Rodney Bennett's score for The Aztecs since 1964. I spoke to presented Matthew Sweet and percussionist Alasdair Malloy.

COMING SOON... includes a two-page feature on my forthcoming audiobook Scourge of the Cybermen, with producer David Richardson explaining how the range came about and me wittering on about what inspired my story.

SUFFICIENT DATA boasts another infographic by Ben Morris and written by me, this time on the theme of apples seen on mentioned in the whole history of Doctor Who. "That might be fun," I thought when I first suggested it. And then went slightly loopy researching it all...

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Scourge blurb

Doctor Who and the Scourge of the Cybermen, the six-hour audiobook written by me and read by Jon Culshaw, is out next month. Here's the blurb:

In the depths of the ocean on an alien world, there’s a city run by scientists. The Doctor is only too eager to help them find new ways to counter pollution and produce entirely clean energy - research that he says will benefit the whole galaxy. But others have recognised the value of the sea base, and their interest is not so benign…

Left to her own devices, Sarah Jane Smith conducts her own investigation. The lights on the base keep flickering, which back home on Earth was the first sign that her bathroom was leaking. Out here in the depths of the alien sea, it’s the first indication of a looming disaster.

Patiently, implacably, the Cybermen are determined to conquer the base and its resources. That includes all the men, women and children who live there.

As the Doctor once again battles his old enemies, Sarah rallies the trapped and terrified people. Then, to her horror, she realises that the Cybermen have used cold logic to predict exactly what the humans will do in order to survive...

This enhanced audiobook features specially composed music and sound effects. This adventure takes place between the TV stories Death to the Daleks and The Monster of Peladon.

Sunday, June 20, 2021

A Thousand Ships, by Natalie Haynes

"This was never the story of one woman, or two. It was the story of all of them. A war does not ignore half the people whose lives it touches. So why do we?" (p. 339)

I've taken my time over this excellent retelling of the Trojan War from the perspective of the women involved, not least because it's at times a gruelling read, full of cruelty and loss.  There's a sequence in which Andromache begs for the life of her baby son, Astyanax, who the Greeks fear will grow up wishing vengeance for the death of his father Hector. Andromache ventures one means after another by which to avoid her baby being hurled from the walls of the city - she will bring him up with no knowledge of his history, or to hate his late father, or she will kill him herself - all to no avail. Or there's Iphigenia. Or Cassandra. Or the dignity of Penelope when, even after the war is over, her husband fails to come home.

There are so many women and perspectives we cover a great deal of ground, piecing together the war, its causes and aftermath, as the Greek survivors stagger home to their various fates. Haynes says some of this is based on surviving ancient texts, some her own invention, and having enjoyed it as a novel I'd now like to reread it as historiography, with extensive footnotes on sources. 

It's also interesting to read this relatively soon after Pat Barker's The Silence of the Girls, which did something similar but largely from one female gaze. Here, we're in the heads of goddesses, royals and servants - in some cases royals who are then enslaved. It all adds to the richness of the story, and the overpowering sense of horror in what befalls these myriad people.

As Haynes says in her afterword, we tend to think of the Age of Heroes as referring to men, but the women are no less heroic. She makes a good argument against claims that heroes must fight, given that Achilles is no less a hero for spending most of the Trojan War in a sulk. It's got me thinking about the way stories are framed and told more widely. So often the domestic and the epic are treated as if they're opposites; Haynes ably demonstrates how they intertwine. 

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Vortex 148

Among the treats in the latest issue of Big Finish's free in-house magazine Vortex there is "Metal Strain", a feature on my forthcoming Doctor Who audiobook Scourge of the Cybermen - interviewing me, producer David Richardson and reader Jon Culshaw. I seem to have been quite enthused when I spoke to editor Kenny Smith:

"It was brilliant [ to write for the Cybermen]! I’ve written Daleks, Sontarans, Ogrons and even Vardans but was keen to do Cybermen because the TV episode Earthshock made such an impression on me as a kid. I watched The Invasion on DVD, as that was their last appearance before my story, and then listened to the audiobook of Ian Marter’s novelisation. I also re-read David Banks’s book Cybermen for a sense of the lore around them. But as I say, the main thing was that vivid description of them in [the prologue of] Doctor Who and the Cybermen. Knowing that Nick [Briggs] would be voicing them also helped, as I knew he’d make them authentic.”

Sunday, June 06, 2021

Boy in the Tower, by Polly Ho-Yen

My nine year-old son recommended this as an audiobook for a long drive, having been set it as a class reading book in both his school in south London last year and then his new school when we moved up north. He was amazed to discover that it's from 2015, so not written during - and about - lockdown, and I can see why. It also predates the Grenfell fire but feels like a comment on that, too.

It's told by schoolboy Ade, who does the shopping and chores for his agoraphobic mum, who just wants to sleep all day in their high-rise flat in south London. We follow Ade's struggles at school, his friends and enemies. It's all very well observed by Ho-Yen, a former teacher.

And then there's something else - a local building collapses, then another... and then more, sometimes with people inside. Bit by bit, the recognisable, identifiable world of school and shops is taken over by a crisis right out of John Wyndham. By midway, Ade is trapped in his high rise, which is itself under threat, and the rest of the book is taken up with his efforts to survive in the scary new normal that is now.

The prose style is straight forward but full of telling detail and strong emotion, with Ade having to navigate the traumatised but persevering grown-ups. There are some terrifying, vivid scenes such as when Ade ventures out beyond the safety of the block. I also liked the more subtle stuff: Ade sometimes doesn't quite understand what he has witnessed but we do - such as when, towards the end, we learn the cause of his mum's condition.

Really, what makes this so compelling is not the nightmare world conjured but the effort of people to look out for one another in the midst of awful crisis. The sort of book to linger in your thoughts and dreams long afterward, haunting a whole generation.

Thursday, May 27, 2021

Doctor Who Magazine #565

Out today, Doctor Who Magazine issue 565 is largely devoted to the series broadcast in 1987 and imminently due out on Blu-ray. Since that was the 24th season of Doctor Who, "24" is the theme of this issue's infographic Sufficient Data, written by me and designed by clever Ben Morris.

Also in the issue, editor Marcus Hearn responds to our recent mention on Countdown, and I've interviewed Margaret Toley, who was secretary to the first four story editors of Doctor Who in the 1960s: David Whitaker, Dennis Spooner, Donald Tosh and Gerry Davis. There's also word on what we're doing next issue, resurrecting the sets of the First Doctor's last story, Episode 4 of The Tenth Planet...

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Design for Doctor Who, by Piers D Britton

This academic study of costume and production design in Doctor Who has been a stimulating read, full of connections and insights that are new to me. 

The author is professor and director of media and visual culture studies at the University of Redland in the US, and his 2003 book, Reading Between Designs: Visual Imagery and the Generation of Meaning in The Avengers, The Prisoner and Doctor Who, continues to be of great use in the stuff I write for the Doctor Who Figurine Collection, not least because Piers and co-author Simon Barker spoke to many designers who have since died, such as Daphne Dare who oversaw almost all the costumes for the first two years of the series. In turn, it's a bit of a thrill to see some of my own work cited in this new volume, almost like some kind of authority.

The book is in three parts. Part One is a breezy history of design in Doctor Who from 1963 to 2020, placing things in context of other TV and film, and trends in design more widely. In Part Two, he traces different ways in which we might judge and evaluate design - basically, how do we tell the good stuff? In Part Three he explores 13 particular instances of design in more depth.

As he says at the start, "In almost every episode Doctor Who [there have been 862 to date] relies heavily on both visual and sound design to create an immediate and powerfully evocative effect" (p. 15), so it's all the more impressive how much he packs in. He's on to something when he says in the introduction that Doctor Who often juxtaposes its relatable, regular characters with the strange places they visit - even when the TARDIS visits the present-day, there's something weirdly, eerily wrong going on. I think there's something else going on, too: the effort of each Doctor Who story to be visually distinct, juxtaposing itself against its immediate predecessor and all those that have gone before. Piers charts some of this, the ways in which, through design, the series converses with itself.

He's right that, all too often in fan criticism, "writing [and performance] has long been explicitly privileged over the visual", with elements of design getting "none of the nuanced evaluation typically lavished on writing and characterisation (p. 119). He uses the 1982 story Kinda as an example of a story highly praised despite serious shortcomings in design: an alien forest realised with pot plants in an overlit TV studio, and the laughable giant snake at the end. As he says, such fan criticism,

"turns Doctor Who's alleged visual crudeness into a mark of distinction: the discerning fan recognises such matters as design as a superficial consideration" (p. 120).

I think there's a corollary to that: Kill the Moon (2014) is an example of a story with very good, realistic design, but it's at odds with a rather whimsical, even silly, plot involving a giant egg. I find myself wondering if critics of the story would not have minded so much had the design been less credible. 

Given my own current interest in the set design of 1960s episodes, I'm particularly struck by what Piers can reveal here. He starts with the 1961 book written by the BBC's Head of Design, Richard Levin, which sounds enormously like my sort of thing:

"A glance at Television by Design reveals a very different BBC from the image which has been cultivated abroad and to an extent also domestically over the last fifty years - the Masterpiece Theatre myth of a BBC whose output is built around period pieces and especially 'bonnet dramas' ... the visual content of his book tells a different story: it overwhelmingly presents a BBC steeped in modernism." (pp. 21-2).

Levin's department, and therefore the futuristic bits of Doctor Who, were, "permeated with the design sensibilities of Constructivism, Neoplasticism and the International Style in architecture" (p. 25). Piers is good not only on such context and influence, but also the practical side of design, especially on the TARDIS interior. The original set, designed by Peter Brachacki in 1963, is the first of Piers' thirteen designs deserving of special attention:  

"Brachacki's TARDIS control room is a specifically telegenic set - which is to say, it is friendly to the relatively low-definition, monochrome screen image of the 1960s and also to the talk-heavy television fiction which was to remain standard until the later 1980s. In many ways, the nearest cognates to the original TARDIS set in BBC programming were the austere, light-filled spaces which Natasha Kroll's Studio Design Unit made for current affairs and talk shows in the years around 1960. In these often exquisitely simple sets, minimal decor and semi-abstract forms focused attention on the presenters and interlocutors ... The control console's hexagonal design, with its rising and falling central column, provided both visual interest and an anchor for dialogue, creating the basis for shots in which three or more people could be groups naturally with their facial expressions clearly visible on camera."(p. 148)

From this, Piers then details how developments in television technology - higher resolution cameras, colour, single-camera shooting - ironically served to reduce the effectiveness of this so achingly modern and telegenic set. It had never occurred to me before to consider the practical reasons why the TARDIS interior needed to change, beyond set pieces having worn a bit thin.

This is just one example. There are plenty more insights, such as the way Barry Newbery designed for stories set in Earth history, "replete with visual detail which intimately evokes the day-to-day life of is protagonists" (p. 23), in contrast to the brutalist, bare visions of the future that Ray Cusick tended to base on a smallish set of recurring geometric shapes.

There are some very minor errors: he includes the Quarks in a list of monsters introduced under producer Innes Lloyd (who had left the programme before The Dominators was commissioned); he includes Donna Noble in a list of characters he says are "working class". But these are quibbles, nit-picking, and I'm sure the result of efforts to pack in detail and cover so much ground.

Personally (and selfishly, as it would be useful for my own work), I'd have liked more direct quotation from the designers themselves. There are also things I don't agree with. Piers has firm opinions on what does and doesn't work: the iconic Time Lord collars are, he says, "ostentatious and campy" (p. 173); the Eighth Doctor's costume in the 1996 television movie, "ill-fitting and ugly"; the Twelfth Doctor's era has, "the tinniest arrangement of the Doctor Who theme" (p. 209). I am actually amazed by the pages devoted to his thesis that the Sixth Doctor's multicoloured outfit, 

"does not represent the worst of Doctor Who's creative stagnation in the mid-eighties. That distinction belongs to the costume worn by Baker's successor, Sylvester McCoy" (p. 182).

He's insightful about the thinking behind and effect of the 13th Doctor's costume - something I've written about in some depth - though he cites a criticism that it might represent a "feminine absorption with style" (p. 215). This (which isn't Piers' view, just one he's quoting) really doesn't hold water - as he shows, having just gone into detail about how much the male Doctors are defined by their outfits. On this, I'm very much with Sophia McDougall re. capes and weddings dresses.

But that's rather the point - I want to argue back and I think Piers is inviting response in what he himself calls, "a first sortie into an immense territory" (p. 221). It's a book to grapple with, interrogate and battle. It has got me thinking anew about a whole load of aspects of Doctor Who. I am sure it will find its way into things I write to come...

Friday, May 14, 2021

Kindred, by Octavia E Butler

"'There's worse things than being dead,' I had said." (p. 283)

Prompted by a recent discussion on the radio of Octavia Butler's Kindred, I reread this book that has haunted me for decades. It's about Dana, a 27 year-old black woman living just outside Los Angeles in 1976, who keeps finding herself back in the early nineteenth century, on a plantation near Baltimore owned by her ancestors. One direct ancestor, Rufus, is the no-good, controlling and unpredictable son of the owner, and Dana realises that he will someday force himself on a slave called Alice, and have a child from which Dana is descended. Until that happens, she must do more than merely survive in this appallingly hostile environment - for all his faults and cruelty, she must keep Rufus from harm.

The title, then, is a pun on Dana's dread for this relative with whom she is somehow bound. As with A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, we're never told quite why she travels in time, nor how Rufus can summon her back from the future when his life is under threat. She can only return home, briefly, when her own life is in danger - which happens frequently enough. There's then what happens with her white husband Kevin while she's away, and whether she can transport things or even people with her that might help her survive. It's full of incident and shocking twists as Butler explores the territory: the practicalities against escaping; the state of medicine at the time; the way other black people of the time treat this trouser-wearing, educated black woman; the necessary pragmatism when you don't have any rights and live under constant threat of violence.

It's so brutal, and Dana and other characters under such unrelenting threat, that I stopped and started through it, sometimes only managing a few pages at a time - it's not exactly the right thing to go with lockdown-induced anxiety. Yet it's also a very timely read, exploring the legacy of slavery on us today. The 1976 "present" is no coincidence, where at one point Dana - back in her own time - is torn over celebrating the bicentennial. She refers to the "older people" of her own time who do double takes when they see her with her white husband. There's a sense, too, of how much easier life is for him - in the past and present - compared to what she endures.

I've read a fair number of time-travel stories, many of them addressing race to one degree or another, but this is direct and unflinching, and as much about the haunted now as it is then. Dana is left mutilated by her experience, physically scarred by the past as she lives in the present. We end with her revisiting the places where she was once trapped, looking for the house she once lived in, the grave of the man she was linked to, any trace of the slaves - the people - she knew. There are hauntingly few clues as to what became of them, which implies its own awful story. The implication is that she - and we - continue to live in their shadow.

A few years ago, I researched my own family history and learned that the Guerriers were among the first refugees, arriving in London in 1677, though the paucity of records means we can't be sure of the lineage until 1730. But other branches of my family include those descended from slaves and those descended from slavers. The database of Legacies of British Slavery holds a record for Mary Turner (née Trench), born 9 July 1815 and my great-great-great grandmother (or: her grandson was the father of my grandpa, who died in 2007). On 17 October 1836, Mary was granted £100 13s 8d as compensation for the emancipation of five slaves she owned in Clarendon, Jamaica. Her father received much more. That weighs heavily and I am keen to read Alex Renton's new book, Blood Legacy.

"'You probably needed to come for the same reason I did.' He shrugged. 'To try to understand. To touch the solid evidence that those people existed.'" (p.295)

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

On Countdown

Excitingly (and surreally), I was mentioned on today's edition of TV quiz show Countdown. Some 15 minutes in, host Nick Hewer asks Samira Ahmed - who is in Dictionary Corner this week - about being on the editorial review board of the official Doctor Who Magazine

You can watch the clip, but Samira replies:

"The magazine is for fans - and fans of all ages, including a lot of people who grew up watching the original run going back to the 60s. There haven't been that many new episodes over the last year or so, as you can imagine, so a lot of the magazine is doing features on the past. The idea is that you review it to make sure it's appropriate for BBC content and for its audience. What has been fascinating is that there's this whole archaeology of the old episodes. There are all these old episodes that were lost but the scripts survive or floor plans of TV Centre survive with where the cameras were. And there's been this whole thing of features by brilliant writers like Simon Guerrier where they have got together a panel of people who watched the original episode - once - when it was on TV, got them up to get their memories from when they were little children, and then worked out with the maps of the floor plan, surviving bits of scripts, and tele-snaps (which are photos people took off screen) what the plot was and what it looked like. It's like the archaeology of digging up old Anglo-Saxon hoards and reconstructing a ship, but you don't think of doing that with television. But the history of British TV is 70 years-old now or older and I just think it's been remarkable how much social history there is in reconstructing them that way. So it's been a real joy and the magazine has been such a comfort through lockdown for a lot of people. It's that escape into wild adventures in space and time."

As Samira says, I'm just one of an army of DWM archaeologists, many of them more distinguished and erudite. She's referring to the recent series of articles I've co-written with Rhys Williams, attempting to reconstruct the studio sets from a few of the 97 episodes of Doctor Who missing from the archive. The amazing CGI recreations of the are by Gavin Rymill, and so far we've covered:

And there is more to come...

Friday, April 30, 2021

Doctor Who Magazine 564

It's all rather in the shadow of horrifying revelations about Noel Clarke, but the new issue of Doctor Who Magazine features two things by me. First, I've interviewed the brilliant Millie McKenzie, who sculpts amazing clay figures of her favourite Doctor Who characters. Millie was really gracious in answering my questions and supplying us with loads of great images when we were a little pressed for time. I'm especially pleased with the title, "Tiny and Small and Made of Clay", which is a quotation from the Doctor in Aliens of London.

There's also another Insufficient Data, which I've written with Steve O'Brien and which Ben Morris has illustrated. This time, our focus is the number 8, and I got rather lost in a vortex of connections...

Thursday, April 29, 2021

Writing Doctor Who

The new Doctor Who Magazine Special Edition is out today, devoted to the topic of writing Doctor Who. It's full of thrillingly detailed analysis.

I've contributed two short profiles - first of original story editor David Whitaker (whose life I've researched in some depth), then of Gerry Davis and Kit Pedler who between them created the Cybermen. It's quite an exercise to distill the great range of their writing down to 800 words apiece!

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Stan Lee - How Marvel Changed the World, by Adrian Mackinder

"Somehow, Stan always managed to present himself as a modest egomaniac - an art in itself." (p. 168)

These words, from ex-Marvel writer John Tomlinson, come at the end of my friend Adrian Mackinder's fun, breezy and yet authoritative new biography of the great Stan Lee, writer and editor synonymous with Marvel superheroes in comics and more recently on screen.

It's an extraordinary story and there's a lot to pack in given Stan's long and busy life, but - like the best of the superhero movies - it never drags. Adrian's tone is friendly and direct, peppered with Stan-isms, addressing us as "True Believer" and concluding "Nuff Said", and there's a lot of direct quotation from Stan himself, even where his own accounts conflict.

We begin with the relatively humble early life of Stanley Martin Lieber, the son of Romanian Jewish immigrants in New York. A voracious reader, at 17 Stan got an entry-level job in the publishing company run by his cousin's husband Martin Goodman (Stan's uncle also worked there, and soon, too, would his own brother), which among its various titles had only recently begun publishing a superhero one, Marvel Comics. We're not sure exactly what lowly jobs he did, but within a year he'd published a first, text story in Captain America Comics (issue 3, cover date May 1941), and a year after that when Goodman fired star talents Joe Simon and Jack Kirby for skipping hours to work on other publishers' titles, Stan ended up as editor-in-chief, aged just 19. Yet, within months of that, he handed over responsibility to someone else and enlisted in the army.

Adrian's good on sifting the different accounts of how Kirby and Simon lost their jobs - their prior disagreements with Goodman over unpaid royalties, and the never-proven suspicion that Stan may have been involved in how they came to be fired. But it's the non-comics business that made my jaw drop: among the handful of writers Stan worked with in the USASC Army Pictorial Service during the war (Stan claimed there were "eight other men"), were director Frank Capra and artists Charles Addams - later to create The Addams Family - and Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr Seuss. Make a film out of that!

After the war, Stan returned to comics, doggedly working in the industry for more than a decade before hitting it big with the superheroes that made him famous. That success came when he was in his 40s, which I must admit is a comfort to this jaded old hack. Adrian's good at placing that success in the context of teenage baby boomers and the counterculture, so you understand why these costumed freaks caught on, and what made Marvel hold its own against or even outsell its competitors.

He's also good on the struggles to push Marvel beyond the printed page, the failed efforts to replicate the success of the Batman TV series of the 60s, Superman movie of the 70s and then Batman in the 80s. As all this was going on, Lee would go for dinner with his old schoolmate Bob Kane - a friendly rivalry between the creators of Batman and Spider-Man. The comics were making a lot of money, but the sense is one of frustration, creative spats, unfulfilled ambition. It's all very male-dominated and embittered, increasingly more so as the profits rise. Stan seems to have stayed largely out of it, or to have forced that steely grin.

I was never much of a Marvel Comics reader and much of the story is new to me, but I was surprised how much Stan and Marvel had a hand in things I did get into - the comic strip version of Star Wars, the TV series Dungeons and Dragons, even My Little Pony of which my daughter is now a devotee. There's a lot on the wider context of publishing and popular culture, even politics where it is relevant. Adrian nicely uses his own childhood experience of reading and collecting comics to explain the bursting bubble in the industry during the mid-90s - and in doing so made me understand why some of my older colleagues lost their jobs at that time. There's a warning here about saturating markets aimed solely at "collectors". It chimes, too, with the recent scandal in football, and the widening split between management and fans.

It all looks pretty gloomy at this point in the story but, like any superhero movie, there's then last-minute salvation with the success of some movies based on Marvel properties (Blade, X-men and Spider-Man) then leading to Marvel producing its own films - to extraordinary success in the last decade. I'm not sure I needed to know which ones Adrian does and doesn't like (he is wrong about Black Panther being "rather overrated"), but he's shrewd on what made the movies work when so many other superhero films didn't, what lessons might be learned from them, and also in not losing perspective.

"The truth is, only a handful of the MCU films are exceptional. Most of them are solid and a few are so-so. But none are objectively terrible." (p.163)

There's a final twist in the closing pages where Adrian addresses the scandals in Stan's closing years with those close to him accused of elder abuse and exploitation. Adrian then digs in to try and make more sense of the real Stanley Lieber rather than the "legend" Stan Lee. He cites a few examples where we get a sense of the man behind the showbiz mask - the "teeth" displayed in a contract negotiation, the sense he could sometimes be rude or have an off day. My clever old boss Ned Hartley is quoted, suggesting that "alienation" and "anxiety" evident in the comics "give a window into Stan's soul" (p. 167). 

All in all, it's an engrossing, insightful book, full of boggling detail and wise analysis. The feeling at the end, I think, is that for all Stan was in the limelight and for all he gave the world in terms of popular culture, he always held something back - and so remains a tantalising mystery.

Sunday, April 25, 2021

The Relentless Moon, by Mary Robinette Kowal

The third book in the Lady Astronaut series (after The Calculating Stars and The Fated Sky) is another triumph, and having struggled to read anything for months, I'm very pleased to complete such a whopper of a novel - it's 687 pages to the end of the epilogue, not including the acknowledgements, notes on real history and bibliography.

The Lady Astronaut series is set in a world where a meteor smashes into the US in the 1950s, with a dramatic effect on the climate which only looks to get worse. This accelerates the space programme, with the active involvement of women. The first two books in the series are led by Dr Elma York, "the" Lady Astronaut as far as the press are concerned. This new book is focused on one of her colleagues, Nicole Wargin - an accomplished astronaut in her own right but also the wife of the governor of Kansas. He's struggling with the fact that a lot of people object to the expense of the space programme, and many want to deny the existence of the global crisis. An "Earth First" movement is flexing its muscles with ever more menace.

It's a thrilling read, full of incident and twists - the end of Part II in particular made me gasp. The nerdy technical stuff is also threaded with raw emotion: Nicole's anorexia is as much of a wrench for those around her as it is to her. There's grief, too, and the PTSD of those surviving the meteor in the first place, and lots on race and sex (both gender politics and nookie). Lots of this is conveyed in telling detail: an argument where we glean that racial epithets have been used without being told exactly what was said; the mouthfeel of apple sauce or cottage cheese when Nicole is under stress; the chilling etiquette in not asking people where they're from in this world, since it may well have been destroyed.

In her "About the History" notes at the end, Kowal says that in her "LAU", the meteor prevented Jonas Salk working on his polio vaccine which is why the disease is such an issue in the novel. 

"The headline about Chicago refusing to vaccinate children? That is real. The vaccination program did work though and brought the polio epidemic to a standstill. The last case of wild polio in the United States was in 1979 ... When I wrote this book, COVID didn't exist. As we go to press ... the choices that I've made to be religious in my social distancing and mask-wearing are directly influenced by the research I did about polio. My father says that he remembers movie theatres being shut down, how no one would get into a public swimming pool, and that 'everyone was afraid of getting it.' Everyone knew someone who had gotten polio." (p. 698)

As well as the disease itself, Kowal deals with denialism, and in Part III there's the horrible, practical issue of a funeral attended over video link. It's a coincidence that it all feels so timely, but it's a testament to Kowal's skill that this stiff feels so credible having now lived such experience.

Other elements of the plot may have been borrowed from fiction. The front cover of my copy includes an endorsement from Andy Weir, author of The Martian, and I think that book might be the inspiration for Nicole making use of stuff left over from previous expeditions. Earlier, the crew of Nicole's moonbase are compromised using the same method deployed by the Cybermen in 1967 Doctor Who story The Moonbase - and I know Kowal has admitted sneaking the Doctor into other books.

But the success of The Relentless Moon is all down to Kowal as expert pilot. For all the thrills and danger, as readers we're in safe hands: the setting and characters grounded in reality, each of the myriad mysteries tied up by the end, the technical stuff balanced with plenty of humour and insight. It's a hugely satisfying read. The epilogue, set two years after the main events, took me completely by surprise but in retrospect seems inevitable, the ground skilfully prepared - so what felt at first like a giant leap is really a small step. And that, I think, is what makes this book so appealing: it's all about small steps forward in dealing with crises. We can work our problems.

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Piranesi, by Susanna Clarke

Piranesi chronicles his exploration of a "labyrinth" of halls full of statues-with-meaning, the place liable to epic floods and the occasional albatross. Only one other living human shares this space - aptly named The Other - but there are the remains of 13 bodies, suggesting a history of travellers through this peculiar realm. And then there's someone else among them - and the tantalising prospect that Piranesi's own detailed journal entries are not telling the full story...

Ironically enough, I was captivated by this strange, beguiling, beautiful tale of a man trapped in a fantasy domain. As with Clarke's brilliant Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, the magical fancy is fused with the entirely mundane, so that even the most outlandish elements feel credible.

One particular joy is that we're sometimes ahead of our narrator, who can be slow to make sense of the evidence presented. When he scoffs at such ridiculousness as "Manchester" and "police stations", we know he's missed something important - and true. I think that then prompts us to read his findings extra carefully, sifting for additional clues. We become active participants in the tale.

It's difficult to say more without giving away some of the mystery - and if you've not read the novel, then stop now. 

I think it's brilliant that the ending is not about some lost eden, forever out of grasp. Instead, Piranesi - if he is still Piranesi - is helped by an amazing character to take charge of all that has happened, and then he helps others do the same. Among the literary and scholarly references, on page 165 there's mention of "Timey-Wimey: Steven Moffat [and] Blink", and there's the same satisfying intricacy and resolution. As with Blink, there's violence and loss, but what could so easily be (effective, moving) tragedy is in fact a joyous liberation. It's beautifully, deftly done - this whole puzzlebox of a book deceptively simple, and perfect.

Sunday, April 11, 2021

The Emperor's Feast, by Jonathan Clements

About once a month from 1991 until I left home, my grandfather would treat my family to dinner at the Golden House, a Chinese restaurant a short walk from his house, on the far side of town from where I grew up. He'd usually order the same things for us all - wonton soup followed by crispy duck and pancakes - and I vividly remember the first time I was allowed a glass of beer as well, or when Grandpa made known his approval of my then girlfriend by inviting her to one of these meals.

I now think there was something else going on. Grandpa was born in Shanghai in 1914, his father a bank manager at HSBC. In a memoir he wrote for us, Grandpa remembered his parents entertaining guests there or in Hong Kong with "marrow bones wrapped in white napkins" (which he thought over-rated), and the time, "A party of officers from the 'Hawkins', then China flagship, called for tea one day with their pet honey-bear. It raised a tantrum at not being given enough cakes and swept about a dozen pots to destruction." I think taking his grandchildren for dinner recaptured some of that mayhem.

My friend Jonathan Clements begins his new book with his own childhood memories of a Chinese restaurant where his dad worked as a drummer in a band, and where impressionable young Clemmo "ate all the time." From this, he tells the history of China through its food, the impeccable research peppered with his own experience of living and working in China. It's fascinating, funny and full of great detail. The very idea is intoxicating: a nation marches on its stomach, as Napoleon didn't quite say.

A lot of the book is about authenticity - or the lack of it - in the staples we recognise: "Peking" duck really derives from Nanjing; Zuo Zongtang (1812-85),"is unlikely ever to have tasted anything like" (p. 167) the dish later named after him and known to us as "General Tso's Chicken"; "Sichuan Alligator" (p. 200) is just the most egregious example of dishes erroneously claiming links to Sichuan. In this quest for fidelity, there's plenty on the origin of names and problems of translations. For example, trying to order a Big Mac from the McDonalds at Yangyang International Plaza, Jonathan had to describe it sufficiently for his server to give him the Chinese name: "Immense Tyrant Without Compare (ju wu ba)" (p. 195).

"There was me thinking that writing a book about Chinese food would be an excuse for endless 'research' banquets. Instead, I found myself pursuing the strangest possible cul-de-sacs on menus all over the world, not least in Edinburgh, Scotland, where I felt obliged to order the Haggis Spring Rolls on the menu at Bertie's Restaurant. Much like the cheeseburger spring rolls of Detroit, they seem to me like a pointless gilding of the lily, a clickbaity tricking out of a local food purely for Instagram shares and talking points. That's the only explanation I can think of. I love haggis, and I certainly don't mind cheeseburgers, but by what perverse contrariness would you want to wrap them in pastry and deep-fry them?" Jonathan Clements, The Emperor's Feast (2021), p. 201.

Authenticity is at the heart of his compelling final chapter, charting a series of health scares and scandals involving milk powder and milk, and then food standards more generally. This leads into discussion of the supposed origins of COVID, in the "wet markets" of Wuhan, and a culture that silences whistle-blowers and complaints. That, and some thoughts on how COVID might change Chinese dining culture - and the shared plates of food - is fascinating, full of expert insight that I've not seen addressed elsewhere.

Ironically, COVID has meant Jonathan hasn't been able to dine out while writing, and his book ends with memories of his final meal in Soho just before lockdown and dreams of the Chinese restaurant from his childhood. Like him, I am haunted by thoughts of meals anywhere other than home. A particular joy of this book is that it's like dining out in his company. I'll have wonton soup to start.

Tuesday, April 06, 2021

Scourge of the Cybermen trailer

The trailer for Doctor Who: Scourge of the Cybermen is now online, with Jon Culshaw reading from the six-hour audio novel I've written and Steve Foxon providing the atmospheric score. When the full thing is released in July, you'll also get to hear Nicholas Briggs as the voice of the Cybermen.

You can order Doctor Who: Scourge of the Cybermen direct from Big Finish.

The amazing cover art is by Claudia Gironi. Cybermen and sunflowers - what's not to love?

Thursday, April 01, 2021

Doctor Who Magazine #563

The new issue of Doctor Who Magazine boasts an interview with Ninth Doctor actor Christopher Eccleston, and lots of other Ninth Doctor related goodies. That includes the second instalment of Sufficient Data, the back-page column I've written with Steve O'Brien, illustrated by Ben Morris.

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Cinema Limbo: Smoke (1995)

The latest episode of film podcast Cinema Limbo is about Smoke (1995), a favourite film that I inflicted on host Jeremy Philips. It's directed by Wayne Wang and written by Paul Auster, and stars Harvey Kietel, William Hurt and loads of other people.

Friday, March 05, 2021

Doctor Who Magazine #562

The thrilling new issue of the official Doctor Who Magazine features two things by me.

First, in "Moonbase 3" Rhys Williams and I have scrutinised recently discovered studio floor plans for 1967 story The Moonbase, focused on the ingenious way designer Colin Shaw maximised limited space. The CGI recreations of the studio set-up for episode 3 are by clever Gav Rymill. I also got some insight into the kind of person Colin Shaw was from his friend and colleague (and my old boss) John Ainsworth. Thanks to researcher Richard Bignell for alerting me to the discovery of the floor plans and helping my poor old brain make some kind of sense of them.

Secondly, "Sufficient Data" is a new regular column by me (and, from next issue, Steve O'Brien) illustrated by Ben Morris and exploring numbers and concepts in Doctor Who in what we hope will be a fun and surprising way. This issue we're all about the number 13. Steve, Ben and I previously worked together on the book Whographica, which is still available in bookshops.

Thursday, March 04, 2021

Tintin - The Complete Companion, by Michael Farr

After I read all* of Tintin last year, a kind friend sent me this excellent, comprehensive companion, full of details about the writing of the books, the development of the character and the stuff going on in creator Herge's life. I'm struggling to read much beyond work stuff during lockdown, my attention skidding off the page, but this had been an ideal volume to do in fits and starts.

A lot of it is about the differences between versions of the same story, the way Herge and his editors continued to redraw, edit and revise the books, and in doing so responded to criticism or the dictats of particular publishers. For example, there's The Crab With The Golden Claws, originally serialised 1940-41 and then redrawn for the 1943 book version, all while Herge was living in Nazi-occupied Belgium
"As the first Tintin adventure since Cigars of the Pharaoh [serialised 1932-34] to have kept unequivocally clear of politics, it posed no problem for the Nazi censor. However, years after the war when the question of its distribution in the United States arose, it fell foul of American censors who objected to Haddock's alcoholism and the presence of blacks--mixing races was deemed unsuitable in children's books." (p. 96)
In responding to this, as Farr says, Herge replaced a black gang member with one of "arab appearance" (sic), though the original dialogue remained, Haddock still referring to him as a "negro". Farr is good at detailing Herge's own developing consciousness and regret about the racism in his books, and provides some nuanced and fascinating context, but it doesn't really excuse things to say that other people were worse. My sense is there's a fan's instinctive response here, defending a text so cherished from childhood rather than acknowledging inherent problems. 

Farr is best when showing the influences woven into the stories. We are often treated to photographs from Herge's own archive next to panels of his artwork, and there's some great stuff on the real-life people and historical research then ended up in the stories - my favourite this gem about The Secret of the Unicorn worthy of a film of its own:
"The character of Red Rackham [the pirate] came to Herge from a page of Dimanche-Illustre of November 27, 1938, which told the steamy story of the English "femmes pirates" (women pirates) Marie Read (born 1680) and Anne Bonny, and their compatriot Jean Rackam (sic), pirate captain and scourge of the merchant marine and the high seas. Rackam flew a Jolly Roger depicting a skeleton brandishing a cutlass in one hand, a bottle of rum in the other, striking terror in the hearts of his victims.

"According to Maurice Keroul's torrid tales, Bonny, despite being Rackam's mistress, falls dangerously and hopelessly in love with Read who had joined the pirate band in the guise of a man. Read in turn is attracted to Rackam. Before the complicated triangular relationship resolves itself, the pirates are finally cornered, outnumbered, defeated and captured. They are all sentenced to hang. However, Marie Read has her sentence commuted to life imprisonment. On November 20, 1720, Rackam and Bonny are strung up on the yard-arm of their ship in Port Royal, Jamaica. A few days later Read commits suicide." (pp. 108-9)
If there's a criticism, often whole paragraphs are direct quotations from Tintin's adventures, telling us stuff we already know. That's odd because Farr's book is clearly intended to be read with the adventures close to hand: his examples often give page references rather than providing the relevant illustration himself.

It also ends rather abruptly, with a shorter-than-usual chapter on Tintin and Alph-Art suggesting where the unfinished story might have gone next. I'd have liked a bit more summing up, even some sense of Herge's legacy. As it is, the book is all about Herge and his creations as figures of their time but doesn't address Tintin's enduring appeal.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Doctor Who Chronicles: 1965

I've just received my copy of Doctor Who Chronicles: 1965 from the splendid lot that make Doctor Who Magazine. Among the delights to be found within its 114 pages is "Rembrandt of the Daleks", my feature on artist Richard E Jennings who produced 49 instalments of the Daleks comic strip in TV Century 21 and also worked on the three Dalek annuals of the 1960s.

I spoke to Jennings' daughter Celia, while Bob Corn of the Eagle Society was extremely generous in helping to dig out details of Jennings' life and work more generally. Thanks also to Colin Brockhurst of the fanzine Vworp Vworp! for sharing his research.

The sumptuous new collected edition of the TV Century 21 Daleks strip is still available. In DWM issues 558 and 559 last year, I argued that Jennings was an integral part of the sprawling, multimedia Dalek empire - his opulent artwork feeding into the movies, merchandise and back into the TV show.

Friday, February 19, 2021

Sherlock Holmes - The Great War

I'm currently in the midst of writing Sherlock Holmes - The Great War, an original novel for Titan Books. More details soon but here's the exciting cover...

Sherlock Holmes -
The Great War

Thursday, February 04, 2021

Doctor Who Magazine #561

Out today, the new issue of Doctor Who Magazine is devoted to the novelisations of TV Doctor Who stories published in the 1970s and 1980s by Target Books. There's a free, exclusive new book included with the issue, plus I've spoken to Robert Shearman, Mark Gatiss and Joy Wilkinson about their new novelisations of their 21st century episodes - Dalek, The Crimson Horror and The Witch Finders.

It's been a thrill to read advance copies of those three books, having grown up on Target. I'm also very much looking forward to next month's release of the 1971 series of Doctor Who on Blu-ray, which includes the documentary by Frank Skinner and my mate Chris Chapman about the great Terrance Dicks - author of more Target books than anyone else. Dicks helped created Doctor Who's best enemy, the Master; I'm increasingly of the opinion that Dicks was the Master all the time.

Saturday, January 30, 2021

Scourge of the Cybermen

Feast your eyeballs on this glorious cover by Claudia Gironi for Doctor Who and the Scourge of the Cybermen, a six-hour original audio novel I've written which will be out in July. Cybermen and sunflowers, what more could you want?


The novel is read by Jon Culshaw, with Cyber voices done by Nick Briggs. The script editor was Roland Moore and the director David Richardson.

I'm delighted that it's Jon Culshaw on this as his perfect reading of Death to The Daleks has been a big influence here - that novelisation (of a 1974 TV story) had always been one of my favourites, and I hope what I've typed has a similar feel.

Friday, January 29, 2021

Masterful and the Switching

Just received my copy of the Masterful box set - a sumptuous collection of eight CDs comprising the epic adventure starring 10 incarnations of Doctor Who's old school pal, the Master. The bonus material includes my short story The Switching read by Duncan Wisby.

"Yesterday there were two Time Lord prisoners on Earth - the Master in his cell, the Doctor in his exile. But today the Doctor's not quite feeling himself. Today he's seeing things from a different perspective. And today the Master's going to escape..."

I'm very fond of The Switching, which was my first professional gig as a writer of fiction, written in August and September 2002 and published in Short Trips - Zodiac at the end of that year. It was also one of the first jobs I picked up after going freelance, and I'm very grateful to editor Jacqueline Rayner for taking a punt on me, and to Jonathan Morris who read my first, clumsy draft and applied a lot of red pen.

Saturday, January 16, 2021

TARDIS 17.2

That splendid lot at the Doctor Who Appreciation Society are unleashing TARDIS magazine vol 17 issue 2, sold in aid of the mental health charity Mind. I'm particularly keen to see what editor Robbie Dunlop has unearthed about 1966 story The Celestial Toymaker...

Among the treats, there's me on the writing of my 2007 Doctor Who novel The Pirate Loop.