Tuesday, October 24, 2023

The Victorian Chaise-Longue, by Marghanita Laski

On Sunday, 23 July 1963, BBC staff director Waris Hussein met for the first time with Verity Lambert, the newly appointed producer of a series to be called Doctor Who. “So far we have one writer and no scripts,” Hussein wrote in his diary. “I put forward Marghanita Laski’s name as a possible.” 

“I’ve no idea now why I suggested her," Hussein said earlier this year. Laski was best known at the time as a critic and panelist on TV shows such as What's My Line? But she was also a novelist and of her various novels my bet is that, 60 years ago, Hussein had in mind her odd, 100-page The Victorian Chaise-Longue (1953). He might even have had in mind the TV version: adapted and directed by James MacTaggart, it was screened on BBC Television on 19 March 1962.

The story is told from the perspective of Melanie or Melly Langdon (who has the same initials as Laski), a young woman who has recently given birth to a healthy son but is herself ill with TB. In an attempt to aid her recovery by exposing her to more sunlight, she's allowed out of the confinement of one room in her  Islington home and can spend afternoons in the drawing room. There, she lies propped up on an old chaise-longue.

We cut back to her visit to an antique shop (also called a junk shop), seeking a cradle for the then forthcoming baby. There's some fun stuff as she projects an air of idle fancy rather than of being after something specific, to prevent the staff trying to foist something on her for an unreasonable price. This done, she then forms a bond with the young man serving her and they locate the shop's sole cradle - a "hopelessly unfashionable" Jacobean model in dark-carved oak.

“‘I can't say I fancy it myself,’ admitted the young man. ‘It will probably go to America. There's quite a demand for them there, for keeping logs in, you know.’

My cradle will have a baby in it,’ said Melanie proudly, and they enjoyed a moment of sympathetic superiority, the poor yet well-adjusted English who hadn't lost sight of true purposes.” (p. 18)

In short, she's a demonstrably intelligent, driven young woman with agency and attitude. When she then spots an old chaise-longue that takes her fancy, she buys it on the spot.

We return to the present - but briefly because soon after the recuperating Melanie/Melly is seated in this antique piece of furniture, she finds herself somewhere else amid people other than her husband. To begin with, Melanie thinks she's been kidnapped but we come to realise that she's been transported back in time 90 years to 22 April 1864 (p. 37), and into the body of another young woman, Milly, who is trapped on the same chaise-tongue while also suffering from TB. At times, Melanie can access Milly's thoughts and memories, and is even swamped by them. She struggles to make her predicament understood and to find a means of escape. As she fails to escape or get through to those around her, she uncovers Milly's awful story.

One issue is that Melanie's knowledge of the 1860s is imperfect and she can't think what to say to convince anyone. Then, when she settles on an idea, there is a further obstacle:

“If I speak of Cardinal Newman and he's happened already, it proves nothing at all. If I could say that the Government will fall and the Prince Consort will die, there's no proof it's going to happen. Discoveries and inventions, she thought then, that's what I'll talk about, that must prove it to him. We have aeroplanes, she said tentatively in her mind, and then she tried to repeat the phrase soundlessly with her mouth, but the exact words would not come. What did I say, she asked herself when the effort had been made, something about machines that fly or was it aeronautic machines? Wireless, she screamed in her mind, television, penicillin, gramophone-records and vacuum-cleaners, but none of these words could be framed by her lips.” (p. 58)

In short, some powerful force prevents her from saying anything aloud that Milly would not understand, which effectively prevents her from altering future history. This is similar to the strictures in the early background notes on Doctor Who revised in July 1963 - soon after Waris Hussein recommended this book - about not being able to change or affect established events. 

However, I think I've identified another source for the conception of the mechanics of time travel seen in early Doctor Who, which I get into in my imminent book, David Whitaker in an Exciting Adventure with Television (plus details of when Whitaker worked on something with Laski). Instead, I think Hussein was probably thinking of the tone and feel of this short story. The website of Persephone Books, which published the edition of Laski's novel I read, comes with an endorsement by novelist Penelope Lively

“Disturbing and compulsive ... This is time travel fiction, but with a difference… instead of making it into a form of adventure, what Marghanita Laski has done is to propose that such an experience would be the ultimate terror…” 

The first broadcast episodes of Doctor Who are scary, the events an ordeal for the crew. So I wonder if that's what Hussein brought to the series, via Laski...

Oh, and one last excellent fact about Laski, from the introduction by PD James to my edition of the novel:

“In one of her obituaries, Laurence Marks described how she gave evidence in the 1960s for the defence in the prosecution of the publisher of John Cleland's bawdy comic novel, Fanny Hill. Miss Laski told the court that this book was important because it illustrated the first use in English Literature of certain unusual words. The judge asked for an example, to which Miss Laski replied 'chaise-longue'.” (pp. viii-ix)

See also: me on The Inheritors by William Golding (1955) and its influence on the first Doctor Who story 

Friday, October 20, 2023

Carrying the Fire, by Michael Collins

I couldn't resist this memoir of the first moon landing by the man who stayed in orbit while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin descended to the surface. For one thing, Adam at the marvellous Withnail Books in Penrith pencilled on the first page,




For another, I've long admired Mike Collins's insightful, wry and funny perspective on that extraordinary mission, having first seen him interviewed in the great Shadow of the Moon, about which I blogged at the time

Carrying the Fire really is an extraordinary book, written by a then 43 year-old Collins just four years after the Apollo 11 landing took place. He covers flight school, life as a test pilot, then work as an astronaut leading up to Gemini 10 and Apollo 11, and details those flights in depth. We finish with a chapter ruminating on what it all means and, given the extraordinary achievement that nothing can hope to eclipse, what he might now do with his life. 

The book is packed with compelling bits of information, such as the first alcoholic drink the Apollo 11 crew had on returning to Earth. There's even a recipe for the martini in question:

"A short glass of ice, a guzzle-guzzle of gin, a splash of vermouth. God, it's nice to be back!" (p. 445)

For me, the first big surprise was a personal one. My late grandfather (d. 2007) was born William and known to his mother and siblings as Bill but to everyone else as "Roscoe", a monicker that has been passed on as a middle name to various of his descendants. According to legend, Grandpa got this nickname on the day he arrived as a gunner in India in the mid-1930s, on the same day that headlines in the local paper declared that, "Roscoe Turner flies in!"

My family had always assumed that this Roscoe Turner was some military bigwig of the time. It was a delight to learn the truth from an astronaut, when Collins explains why he doesn't like to give public speeches.

"In truth, the only graduation speaker to make any lasting impression on me was Roscoe Turner, who in 1953 had come to the graduation of our primary pilot school class at Columbus, Mississippi. The most colourful racing pilot from the Golden Age of Aviation between the world wars, Roscoe had had us sitting goggle-eyed as he matter-of-factly described that wild world of aviation which we all knew was gone forever. ... Roscoe had flown with a waxed mustache and a pet lion named Gilmore, we flew with a rule book, a slide rule, and a computer." (p. 16)

The next surprise related to my research into the life of David Whitaker, whose final Doctor Who story The Ambassadors of Death (1970) involves the missing crew of Mars Probe 7. We're told in the story that this is just the latest in a series of missions to Mars - General Carrington, we're told, flew on Mars Probe 6. - just as the Apollo flights were numbered sequentially. But I think the particular digit was chosen by David Whitaker because of an earlier space programme, as described by Collins.

"The Mercury spacecraft had all been given names, followed by the number 7 to indicate they belonged to the Original Seven [astronauts taken on by NASA]: Freedom (Shepard), Liberty Bell (Grissom), Friendship (Glenn), Aurora (Carpenter), Sigma (Schirra), and Faith (Cooper)." (p. 138n)

(The seventh of the Seven, Deke Slayton, was grounded because of having an erratic heart rhythm.) 

That idea of The Ambassadors of Death mashing up elements of Mercury and Apollo has led me to think of some other ways the story mixes up different elements of real spaceflight... which I'll return to somewhere else. On another occasion, Collins uses a phrase that makes me wonder if David Whitaker also drew on technical, NASA-related sources in naming a particular switch in his 1964 story The Edge of Destruction:

"Other situations could develop [in going to the moon] where one had a choice of a fast return at great fuel cost or a slow economical trip home depending on whether one was running short of life-support systems or of propellants." (p. 303 - but my italics)

Collins certainly has a characteristic turn of phrase, such as when he tells us that, "we are busier than two one-legged men in a kicking contest" (p. 219). This makes for engaging, fun commentary yet - ever the test pilot - he's matter of fact about the practicalities of getting bodies to the Moon and back. For example, there's this, at the end of a lengthy description of the interior of the command module Columbia that he took to the moon:

"The right-hand side of the lower equipment bay is where we urinate (we defecate wherever we and our little plastic bags end up), and the left-hand side is where we store our food and prepare it, with either hot or cold water from a little spout." (p. 362)

This kind of stuff is revealing but I knew a lot of it already from my other reading and watching documentaries. What's more of a surprise, coming at this backwards having read later accounts, is the terminology Collins uses. Flights to the moon are "manned" rather than "crewed", and are undertaken with the noblest of intentions for the benefit of all "mankind" - notable now because the language of space travel tends to be much more inclusive. Then there's how he describes one effect of weightlessness: 

"I finally realise why Neil and Buzz have been looking strange to me. It's their eyes! With no gravity pulling down on the loose fatty tissue beneath their eye, they look squinty and decidedly Oriental. It makes Buzz look like a swollen-eyed allergic Oriental, and Neil like a very wily, sly one." (p. 387)

It's a shock to read this - and see it reproduced without comment in this 2009 reprint - not least because Collins is acutely aware of the issue of the Apollo astronauts solely comprising middle-aged white men. Elsewhere, he remarks on his own and the programme's unwitting prejudice in the recruitment of further astronauts. In detailing the rigorous selection criteria, he adds:

"I harked back to my own traumatic days as an applicant, or supplicant, and vowed to do as conscientious a job as possible to screen these men, to cull any phonies, to pick the very best. There were no blacks* and no women in the group." (p. 178)

The asterisk leads to a footnote with something I didn't know:

"The closest this country has come to having a black astronaut was the selection of Major Robert H Lawrence, Jr., on June 30, 1967, as a member of the Air Force Manned Orbiting Laboratory astronaut group. A PhD chemist in addition to being a qualified test pilot, Lawrence was killed on December 8, 1967, in the crash of an F.104 at Edwards AFB. In mid-1969, the Manned Orbiting Laboratory program was cancelled." (p. 178n)

But Collins goes on, in the main text, that the lack of women on the programme was a relief.

"I think our selection board breathed a sigh of relief that there were no women, because women made problems, no doubt about it. It was bad enough to have to unzip your pressure suit, stick a plastic bag on your bottom, and defecate - with ugly old John Young sitting six inches away. How about it was a woman? Besides, penisless, she couldn't even use a CUVMS [chemical urine volume measuring system condom receiver], so that system would have to be completely redesigned. No, it was better to stick to men. The absence of blacks was a different matter. NASA should have had them, our group would have welcomed them, and I don't know why none showed up." (p. 178)

Collins is not alone in this view of women in space: as I wrote in my review, Moondust by Andrew Smith goes into much more detail about the problems of plumbing in weightless environments, and the author concludes:

“Even I find it hard to imagine men and women of his generation sharing these experiences.” (Moondust, p. 247)

But that acknowledges the cultural context of these particular men. The lack of women in the space programme is more than an unfortunate technical necessity; it's part of a broader attitude. Collins enthuses about pin-up pictures of young women in his digs during training and on the Gemini capsule, and tells us bemusedly about a hastily curtailed effort to have the young women in question come in for a photo op. It's all a bit puerile, even naive, of this husband and father. 

On another occasion, a double entendre shared with Buzz Aldrin leads to a flight of fancy:

"Still... the possibilities of weightlessness are there for the ingenious to exploit. No need to carry bras into space, that's for sure. Imagine a spacecraft of the future, with a crew of a thousand ladies, off for Alpha Centauri, with two thousand breasts bobbing beautifully and quivering delightfully in response to their every weightless movement..." (Collins, pp. 392-3)

I've seen some of this sort of thing in science-fiction of the period. It's all a bit sniggering schoolboy, and lacks the kind of practical approach to problem-solving that makes up most of the rest of the book. How different the space programme might have been if these dorky men had been told about sports bras.

Later, back on earth, Collins shares his misgivings about taking a job as Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs where he was tasked with increasing youth involvement in foreign affairs. He glosses over the conflict here, of talking to "hairies" - as he calls them - on university campuses in the midst of the conflict in Vietnam. One gets the sense that this was a more technically complicated endeavour than his flight to the moon, and less of a success. It's extraordinary to think of this man so linked to such an advanced, technological project and representative of the future put so quickly in a situation where he seems so out of step with the times.

Collins is more insightful as observer of his colleagues' difficulties in returning to earth: Neil Armstrong rather hiding away in a university job, Buzz Aldrin battling demons in LA. In fact, I found this final chapter in many ways the most interesting part of the book, Collins full of disquiet about what the extraordinary venture to the moon might mean, and uncertain of his own future. He died in 2021 aged 90, so lived more than half his life after going to the moon and after writing this book. By the time he wrote it, the Apollo programme had already been cancelled and space travel was being restricted to the relatively parochial orbit of earth.

"As the argument ebbs and flows, I think a couple of points are worth making. First, Apollo 11 was perceived by most Americans as being an end, rather than a beginning, and I think that is a dreadful mistake. Frequently, NASA's PR department is blamed for this, but I don't think NASA could have prevented it." (p. 464)

Collins thinks the American people viewed landing on the moon like any other TV spectacular, akin to the Super Bowl, and so they couldn't then understand the need to repeat it. I'm not sure that's the best analogy given that the Super Bowl is an annual event, but it's intriguing to think of the moon landing as circus. Then again, does that explain the similar loss of interest in the space programme from those outside the US? 

I'm more and more interested in the way Apollo was explained and framed for the public at the time... 

TV Times listings magazine 19-25 July 1969
"Man on the Moon - ITN takes you all the way"

Thursday, October 12, 2023

Venomous Lumpsucker, by Ned Beauman

Biologist Karin Resaint has just completed a comprehensive study of a strange, rare fish; she thinks the Venomous Lumpsucker might be intelligent enough to hold a grudge. Mark Halyard, meanwhile, is a mining executive trying to profit from extinctions. He's not the only one: extinction is big business in this bleak near future.

"Every year, a certain number of extinction credits were allocated at no charge by the WCSE [World Commission on Species Extinction], while others were auctioned off, and afterwards they could be bought and sold on the open market. The idea was that the supply of credits would be gradually ratcheted down, so the price would creep up until they were pretty much unaffordable, and people would simply have to use their ingenuity to avoid driving species to extinction.

"Unfortunately for the endangered species of the world, on the night of the Mosvatia Bioinformatics dinner the price of an extinction credit stood at just €38,432." - p. 22.

When someone sabotages the system, these two unlikely characters end up on a quest to find the last surviving examples of Resaint's unusual fish...

Smart, funny and brutal as hell, this brilliant book is packed with big ideas. A lot of them follow from the basic wheeze of extinction credits - with attempts to exploit or cheat the system or, for example, the impact of extinctions in making food taste blander. But there are also other big ideas thrown into the mix, such as the fungal infection that changes people's appearance so much that computer systems don't recognise them as human. Again, we see multiple impacts of this and explore ways it can be exploited. Every few pages there's some new, smart idea. It's a rollicking, intelligent read.

I can easily see why this won this year's Clarke Award (for the best science-fiction novel) and is a Sunday Times Book of the Year. Top marks also to John Hastings, reading the audiobook version and making the different characters distinct. I've just bought a copy of the paperback to give as a gift.

Wednesday, October 11, 2023

Doctor Who Magazine #596

The super new issue of Doctor Who and the Star Beast Magazine is out tomorrow and is largely devoted to the imminent new episodes of TV Doctor Who, which is all jolly exciting.

I've a handful of things in the new issue. As well as featuring (for the third time) as one of the beauties on page 3 (see below), there's also a news item about my forthcoming book David Whitaker in an Exciting Adventure with Television and the launch for it to be held at the Portico Library on 9 November.

On pages 38 and 39, there's "Effective Management", my interview with VFX editor Matt Nathan - the latest of a regular series in which I pester members of the crew. On page 48, there's the first of a new regular feature by me, "Stasis Cube", devoted to a frozen instant in time (in old money, a "photograph") which is bigger on the inside. It's inspired by the series of blog posts I did 10 years ago, starting with an arresting image from the first episode of Doctor Who.

Finally, on page 82, there's the latest "Sufficient Data" infographic, illustrated by Roger Langridge and this time devoted to the number of original instalments of comic strip per incarnation of the Doctor published in DWM over the past 44 years. My post on how I worked out the last "Sufficient Data" seemed to go down well, so here's some more faff about this one.

Deputy editor Peter Ware suggested something related to DWM comic strips to tie in with coverage of The Star Beast. After a bit of thinking, I shared a picture of the "tree maps" we'd used as chapter title pages in our infographics book Whographica, with boxes of different sizes corresponding to the relative number of pages each chapter had.

My idea was to lay a framework of boxes-of-relative-size over a single, full-page illustration of all the Doctors, so that each Doctor appeared in their respective box. I had in mind something like the cover to the first Secret Wars - see my attempt to explain this, right - with lots of characters in one image, and perspective making some bigger than others. 

This seemed a big ask of the poor artist, so I also suggested that some of the less well represented Doctors might be in silhouette, or in some cases we could use pre-existing artwork from respective eras, blown up in a Pop Art / Roy Lichtenstein way - a David Gibbons Fourth Doctor, a John Ridgway Seventh Doctor, etc. The decision was made to produce one big bit of artwork crowded with 15 Doctors.

With that basic idea approved, I then had to decide exactly what I was measuring.

Editor Marcus Hearn asked for the focus to be on strips from DWM. That was a relief given the volume of comic strips produced by other people. But even this "simple" data set included complications. For example, the first instalment of Ninth Doctor strip Monstrous Beauty wasn't published in a regular issue of DWM but an accompanying supplement. I thought we should include it because it came as part of the package that came with issue #556, so was part of the whole. Marcus went further and asked me to include associated publications. I dug through boxes of old issues working out what this would comprise, and made a list of original comic strips featured in DWM Special Editions, Yearbooks, Storybooks and the 2006 Annual.

DWM has sometimes reprinted comic strips and it didn't seem fair to include the same strip more than once. I initially suggested that they had to be "new to DWM", which meant including in our count some strips first published in Incredible Hulk Presents (Hunger from the Ends of Time! in DWM #157 and #158) and TV Comic (Flower Power in #307). But that surely meant we also had to include all the strips reprinted in Doctor Who Classic Comics, which would have sizeably skewed the figures. We decided to exclude all reprints.

I initially thought I'd count pages of comic strip per Doctor. This proved something of a headache. The very first issue of DWM, then called Doctor Who Weekly, is a good case in point:

  • The first episode of main comic strip The Iron Legion comprises five pages
  • The Doctor doesn't appear on the first page, so should we count this as four or five pages?
  • Do we count the single-panel comic-strip appearances of the Doctor to introduce back-up strips War of the Worlds and The Return of the Doctor? In deciding this, does it matter that these are "new" pieces of artwork rather than reprinted from the main strip?
  • Do we include the inside front and back cover, with its full-colour illustrations in comic-strip format, complete with panel boxes, to which readers were invited to add their transfers, creating their own strips? The Doctor features in artwork on both pages. 
  • Do we include the comic-strip illustration accompanying the letter from the Doctor?

Depending on the answers to the above questions, the Fourth Doctor appears in four, five, six, seven, eight, nine or ten pages of comic strip in this single issue. (Plus there's a photograph of him with a comic-strip style speech bubble.)

If we count pages in which the Doctor appears, things are also complicated by some plot lines where what looks like the Doctor turns out not to be - for example, with the "Nick Briggs" incarnation in Wormwood (DWM #262-#265). There are also strips where events depicted are a dream, such as in The Land of Happy Endings (DWM #337).

Comics material in back issues of DWM also included Lee Sullivan's half-page comic strips advertising Big Finish releases, produced in the same style as his work for the regular DWM strip. If we included those, then why not the comic-style illustrations of text stories or  reviews? Given the DWW/DWM regular comic strip can be funny and satirical, was there also a case for including the Quinn and Howett / Nix View / Jamie Lenman / Lew Stringer joke strips? Should I also include pages of comic strip published by DWM/Panini as extra material in collected editions - such as artwork showing the newly regenerated Ninth Doctor featured in the book version of The Flood?

The thing is, there's a useful precedent here. There's a canon of Doctor Who TV episodes, though they can considerably vary in length, and we know which mini-episodes and sketches don't count, however much they might feature the right actors in character tied into the lore. The Five Doctors is an episode and Time Crash isn't. On the same basis as producing infographics on episode numbers, I focused on numbers of instalments of DWM strip.

Even then, I puzzled over how to include Evening's Empire. The first instalment of this was published in DWM #180, then the rest of it failed to appear until published in compendium form some years later. The compendium version used the same artwork from the first instalment but amended some captions and dialogue - so did that make them "original" rather than reprints, meaning they should be counted twice?

Do the collected editions of Evening's Empire and of The Age of Chaos count as one instalment each, or do I count them by the number of episodes/chapters they comprise? Dividing them up was surely counting the format for publication as originally intended rather than how these stories were actually published. 

Since we were including Yearbooks and Storybooks published by DWM/Panini, should I also have included the comic strip from Doctor Who Adventures - but only during the period it was published by Panini?

We haggled over this to come up with a discrete set of data from which we could produce a set of different-sized boxes without requiring too many footnotes, which are always a problem to squeeze in to a single-page infographic. We handed this all to Roger Langridge, and he's made it look amazing.

Monday, October 09, 2023

WHO Corner to Corner | Peter Anghelides & Simon Guerrier

M'colleague Peter Anghelides and I were the guests of the WHO Corner to Corner podcast, hosts Geoff and Paul grilling us on our recent book Doctor Who - The Daily Doctor and everything else we've been up to. It includes stuff on the Blake's 7 range of audio plays that Peter produces (and I've worked on), my forthcoming books Whotopia, David Whitaker in an Exciting Adventure with Television and my deep dive into 1964 Doctor Who story The Edge of Destruction for the Black Archive.