Saturday, 27 March 2010

And So The End Is Near... - The Writers Tale: The Final Chapter by Russell T Davies and Benjamin Cook

Yeah, I've noticed a theme with the stuff I've been reviewing lately too. I have been reading other stuff, honest guv.

The original Writer's Tale rendered whole forest's worth of books redundant - there was now no need for any biography of Russell T Davies, because it gave you more of an insight into the man and his methods of work than any simple recounting of facts could. No need for any 'making of' Doctor Who books, it was everything you needed to know about how an episode journeyed from the inside of Russell T's head to several million TV screens (unless you want the dull technical ins and outs rather than the really interesting stuff). And it pretty much renders most books about scriptwriting redundant at a stroke, being a practical guide in producing quality television scripts under extreme pressure of time and budget. It wasn't 'this is how to write', it was 'this is how I write, learn what you may'. And it was utterly compelling, despite it being over 500 large format pages I finished it in around a day and a half. Food and sleep? There's another thing you could learn from the book, they aren't particularly important. Although coffee is.

Normally I wouldn't have countenanced buying the paperback edition, but as with most of the product relating to Doctor Who in the last five years there's an emphasis on making it essential. Sure, you might lose the script pages from the material in the original Writer's Tale, but it's a small sacrifice to pay (plus they're on the Writer's Tale website anyway). What you get in return is around three hundred extra pages about the making of the Last Days of Tennant, watching how the specials came together. It largely lacks the frantic charge of the first half, primarily because there's far less Doctor Who to produce (and yet Davies still misses a Kylie concert in Paris!), but Cook and Davies' conversation is still never less than fascinating. The highlight is probably Davies reminiscing about his parents and childhood in Swansea, and how they inspired a Booker Prize winning novel. It's sentimental, wistful and touching without being sepia tinted and, as ever with Davies' writing, there's beautiful and unexpected observations. And for those more obsessed with Doctor Who content there's Cook persuading Davies to go back to watch Rose after production's wrapped on The End of Time. Davies' views on his own work are often cutting but always positive.

As it is, this stands as a perfect epitaph to the Russell T Davies era of Doctor Who - a testament to the hard work he and the production team put in. It's almost a shame that there'll be no more Rusell T Davies Who, if only because it's we won't get another of these books to lay out the writing process on a modern TV show in intimate detail. The book finishes with the correspondents now separated by the width of an ocean and a continent, and an unknown (or at least undetailed) future for the writer. It's a reminder that while certain tales finish, real life doesn't stop and there's more of this particular tale to be written. Unfortunately it's not likely to be documented, which is a shame as the tale's got a lot more mileage in it yet. Or maybe Davies is wise enough to take advantage of the old showbiz adage to leave them wanting more.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

It's The Terror Of Knowing What This World's All About - The Diary of a Doctor Who Addict by Paul Magrs

I wish this book had been around when I was 13.

This isn't a book about growing up in the nostalgia show approved 80s, where everyone had at some point a Chopper, listened to the New Romantics and ate Spangles. This is the absolute opposite of that, exposing it as a communal illusion of grown-ups trying to refit their adolescence as cool. This is growing up as experienced by the kids who didn't quite fit in, who didn't grow up quite as quickly as everyone else (in every way), who didn't really want to put aside childish things. It understands how growing up can be the most difficult thing in the world, especially if you don't conform to society's conventions. And it adds verisimilitude by understanding how sometimes trivial things that don't matter can be the most important thing in the world at that age - liking the wrong, uncool songs and squirming discomfort with the randomly cruel actions of the friends you've grown up with, friends who're changing into someone you don't quite know or recognise.

Instead of relying on cheap nostalgia for the period feel, Magrs captures the era with the flavour of experiences - the frustration of being stuck on your own in a small town in the middle of nowhere, one the internet generation will never quite understand. There's the wonder of the first VCR, being able to watch your favourite programmes again and again, the wide-eyed wonders of the Doctor Who Exhibition, the huntsman's thrill of finding a Target novelisations you never had... it struck so many chords it wasn't just playing my tune, it was playing my symphony.

If I'd had this book at the equivalent age (that'd have been around 1987 for me) it'd have been an absolute godsend. It would've taught me, turning into a typically self-obsessed teenager, that there was someone else who'd gone through what I was going through. But it would've told me that in a wise, understanding and non-judgemental manner, the only sort of voice I'd have listened to, let alone understood at that age. You need to know you're not alone, but the hardest thing is understanding that.

Magrs flirts with breaking the narrator's heart for much of the novel before finding... not a happy ending but the right ending. The character Davey needs to reassure him you can survive adolescence with your love for Doctor Who intact may appear almost out of nowhere, but in the social hierarchy of teenagers it rings perfectly true. It's as wise and true as I've come to expect from Magrs' work.
The annus mirablis of books for and about Doctor Who fans continues.

Friday, 19 March 2010

Digging Your Scene - Chicks Dig Time Lords ed Lynne M Thomas and Tara O'Shea

Frankly Doctor Who publishing's been dominated by the fanboys for far too long. And I say that as one who's (admittedly only of late) been part of that. We grew up with it, stole it back and made our own stories up when the BBC stopped making it, researched it to within a millimetre of its existence (I wouldn't be surprised to find a fanboy had designed a time machine simply to be in on those early meetings), snarked, analysed, debated and, in the end, played a major part in the revival. One of us even got to live the dream and be the Doctor. We've said a hell of a lot down the years. And given the old show had - still has - an overwhelmingly male fandom (in the UK at least) we've said plenty.

And then, to paraphrase a related show, everything changed. Eccleston and Piper played out the first Doctor-companion relationship with an openly emotional charge (there are moments in the old series, most obviously The Green Death Episode 6, but they never get in the way of Exciting Adventures). And then we got the first overtly Sexy Doctor in David Tennant. All of a sudden there were a hell of a lot more women around, particularly at cons and online. It might be a temporary shift, but fandom changed. And naturally some of the old guard weren't happy, abhorring the cosplaying, slashing and squeeing and generally being like Monty Python's Four Yorkshiremen (which they could probably quote verbatim) about it all. They wanted fandom on their terms, the new breed of fans barely even recognised that those terms existed. Me? I love it, new blood and new, different ways of being a fan are essential if your fandom's going to survive. Vive la difference, baby. There is no right way to be a fan, you can love and celebrate the show however you want (well, within legal boundaries...). Chicks Dig Time Lords is a celebration of all that.

There's so much adorable about the book that it's difficult to know where to start. The broadness of subject matter and approach is breathtaking. You've got academic approaches jostling with reminiscences, interviews and even an original comic strip from the creators of Torchwood Babies (the penultimate panel on page 89 has the most sublime Rob Shearman gag). Contributors aren't always singing from the same hymn sheet (the best example being the two essays which largely deal with Martha), so unlike s lot of the Doctor Who literature of the 80s and 90s there's never a sense that these are rigidly proscribed views. And while there might be passionate disagreements, which there will be when you have intelligent people with emotional investiture in topics, you get the impression that these are people you could arrive at a consensus with. It's certainly not the usual entrenched close minded rock-throwing that passes for internet debate. And like Shooty Dog Thing it's broad minded about what constitutes Doctor Who. Quite wonderfully, there's no consideration of the ever anal (and mainly male driven) canon debate and space is devoted to books, audios and spin-offs. You may not be a fan in the way these women (and one man) are, but read with an open mind and you'll understand the way they enjoy the show (and fandom) better, whether it be cosplaying, socialising, slashing, making fan films, fanzine writing, fan fic-ing, squeeing, affectionately mocking or coming up with a genius comic strip that the production crew of the show love. Or any combination of the above.

This is a series of snapshots from the smarter, creative end of Doctor Who fandom. You might not love all of it, given the breadth of subject matter, it's unlikely. But, equally, it hugely unlikely that you won't find a lot here to interest you, and maybe even broaden your mind. Chicks is exuberant, refreshing, stimulating and never dull. There's a good reason for it being so popular at Gallifrey One that the entire stock Mad Norwegian brought sold out quickly. It celebrates all the things I love about fans and being a fan. And yeah, I'll cop to having at least socialised with a fair few of the contributors here (hell, I'm namechecked once), but that's mostly down to their sharing a similar mindset. These chicks are the sort of people who make it great to be a fan. And this book will let you in on the reasons why, which is why it should be on every Who fan's required reading list. Or preferably beamed directly into their brains, thereby bringing miraculous world peace to fandom.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Do You Suffer From Long Term Memory Loss? I Can't Remember - Doctor Who: The Forgotten by Tony Lee, Pia Guerra and others

I've really no bloody idea how to review graphic novels - trying to disentangle who's responsible for what is largely nightmarish. You can probably say the writer's responsible for the speech and words and probably the story, but how much of the artwork's success lies in the script, and how much in the artist's interpretation? How much is in the inking and the colouring? If you know the author personally, or read chunkloads of their work you might have an idea, but it's tough. Which is primarily why I've been reading a load of them but not reviewing them, because I'm unsure of attribution and always end up giving up halfway through. Mind you, how do you know if an editor, writer, or even a mate of the writer suggested that moment you *really* like in a story (as demonstrated fairly often in the Ben Cook/Russell T Davies The Writer's Tale opus). Anyway, enough about that, plunge taking time...

I hadn't actually read any of IDW's Doctor Who comic up til last month. In the crowded world of Doctor Who publishing something had to go by the wayside, and the comic strips were the path of least resistance. Time constraints mean I'd even got way behind on the DWM strip, and that's an automatic monthly purchase (has been since 1983 with the exception of nine or ten months around 1987-88). But then at the recent Gallifrey One convention I wandered over to their table. I'd have bought their Iron Legion recolouring on the spot (it's stunning, the new colouring work's so beautiful, detailed and sympathetic to the original artwork I was a whisker away from purchasing it) but for owning it four times over already. As officer and gentlemanly type Tony Lee was a guest, and had been convivial company in the bar I went for his sort of ten Doctor epic instead. Obviously vindication that being pleasant company wins sales.

If it didn't sell this short I'd call this a fanwank dream. Over the series it has a mini-story for each of the nine previous Doctors, as well as a satisfying main story for the Tenth Doctor, no mean feat to squeeze into six issues worth of story. It looks intended as a crash course in Who history for newbie fans who might only have started following the series (and hence the comic) during the Russell T Davies era, maybe even those who only know the Tennant incarnation. It's a daunting challenge, but that Lee (and Guerra) succeed in wrangling a coherent tale out of it is a herculean storytelling feat in itself - even the most experienced Who writer of all, Terrance Dicks, had blown it with a mere eight. Where Lee follows Dicks is in largely confining the Doctors to their own tales, eminently sensible as ten main characters would be a headache in any story. The medium he's telling the story one in requires a degree of visual storytelling however, so at some point the reader of the comic's going to demand a panel with all ten Doctors in at some point. And it happens, and in an impressively uncontrived manner too. This does lead to the intra-Doctor banter you'd want, which does occasionally strain the limits of storytelling credibility, but the dialogue's witty enough for Lee to get away with it and walk off, if he chooses, grinning massively. It helps that he's got a good ear for the way the characters actually talk

I can't quite make my mind up about Pia Guera's artwork, without going for likenesses she manages to make the characters recognisable as who they're supposed to be (not always a given in the history of comic book Who!) but it's simply that her style doesn't appeal to me particularly - that's entirely a personal thing, and as I've never particularly analysed why certain artists are more pleasing to my eye than others I can't particularly tell you why. I did, however, adore Ben Templesmith's cover for the trade paperback, deceptively simple and stylish.

I should, before I forget, mention that I adored the central concept of the Doctor waking up in a museum dedicated to him, even if it's not quite what it seems. Actually I can forgive the mind parasite thing for the witty and self aware cliffhanger resolution at the beginning of what was issue six, which stretches the joke it's playing to the limit before tapdancing off laughing.

I rather suspect I'd have thoroughly enjoyed this as a Who newbie, but I've been hardcore for over thirty years now, so there was an element of 'seen this sort of thing before'. Even for a grizzled vet of the 'JNT MUST DIE!' years, it still had enough fun, wit and ideas to make it a fun ride. Not essential, but a fabulous place to start for anyone looking for a fast, fun crash course in Who history .

Saturday, 13 March 2010

I Had This Perfect Dream - Barca: A People's Passion by Jimmy Burns

I've been a Liverpool fan all my life; my mum's fault entirely. My father's side of the family are Villa fans, by rights I should probably have been one. But no, she chose a team and indoctrinated me. And I've been with them through thick and thin ever since. It's mostly been thick, certainly by most club's standards, and rarely been dull (well, maybe on the pitch at times...). I can't ever see anything sporting surpassing the love of Liverpool, something the media storm that's seemingly erupted after every Liverpool game this season's only confirmed. Still, there are clubs that hold a small place in my heart, family connections to Villa and Ipswich, local non-league heroes Newport County and, like so many round the world, Barcelona.

It's strange - I don't have a concrete or unique story as to why. They're one of the world's hugest clubs after all, a magnificent symbol of a proud region that's always set itself apart from the rest of Spain, particularly under the Franco regime. And although they're a massively rich club, they're not truffle-huntingly disgusting in their pursuit of money - it's drawn mainly from their members and until last season never had a sponsor's name sullying their shirt. And even when they took a name on their shirts it was the charity UNICEF. And they paid to have that name on there. Money lets you afford such gestures, but that's still pure class. They do things their own way, generally more attractively than their traditional desperately big spending rivals in all white. I even made a pilgrimage to the Camp Nou when I was on holiday in Calella in 1997, a suitably awe-inspiring experience to sit in an empty stadium and contemplate it, then take a trip round the club museum. Unfortunately Barca weren't at home whilst I was there, so I couldn't take in a game.

A People's Passion delays before recounting the history of the club, for the important reason of placing it in the context of what it means to the fans, the city and the Catalan region as a whole. This gives the book a flavour that simple dry history couldn't, and draws you into understanding the club and what makes it and those who follow it tick. It's engaging and arresting, and a cut above your usual club biography. That's not to say that the history itself is dull - far from it, it's a history of politics and passion, civil wars and coups, vaulting ambition and above all, a tradition of expressive, flowing football. It's particularly strong on Barca's modern era, ushered in by Johann Cruyff's playing spell and the infamous presidency of Josep Luis Nunez. Burns isn't afraid to cast a critical eye over any of those involved in the club, letting their actions speak for themselves whilst contrasting said actions with words. And those actions and words are exhaustively contextualised, to let the reader make up their minds. A story which involves the assassination of club presidents, suppression of supporters, Di Stefano, Cruyff, Maradona, Helenio Herrera, Cesar Menotti, Juan Antonio Samaranch and Terry Venables would take some cocking up, but enhanced as it is by the telling,

The danger about analysing a passion is that by exploring it thoroughly and understanding it you might kill it. That's not the case here, if anything Burns made my admiration of the club grow even more. It's just a shame that in eleven years this hasn't been updated at all, in many ways those years have been some of the most fascinating in a wonderful history. But then, given that flamboyant history you'd almost be wanting to update it every year.

Friday, 12 March 2010

Suckers In The Nighttime - Dracula by Bram Stoker

Dracula's been bastardised, parodied, pastiched, adapted, used, abused and stretched into so many fictional shapes that it's easy to think you know everything about him. For all that I've been exposed to Dracula via Hammer, Hollywood, the BBC, Kim Newman and innumerable other authors I'd never actually read the source material that inspired it all. A sale in the Local Capitalist Branch of Walmart's World Takeover (aka the local Asda supermarket)changed all that. A meaty classic I'd never read for a quid? Irresistible.

I'd expected the inevitable pacing issues that 113 years since publication might bring; I was right but they weren't anything like I'd expected. Part of Stoker's genius with the novel is telling it in short, epistolary bursts. Not only does this give the novel an immediacy an omniscient narrator lacks, it makes the novel feel pacy, even when there's little actually going on. Stoker's very good at finding individual voices for his characters too, having read no other Stoker I'm convinced the author's hidden himself very well - the downside there is he occasionally resorts to dialect, and it's usually as annoying as when Dickens resorts to Chas n Dave Cockernee. The other element that keeps the novel fascinating is Stoker's flair for the lurid, the feeling maintained throughout the novel that something shocking and dramatic could happen at any moment. Stoker also uses the length of the book expertly, using it to emphasise Dracula's cunning and capabilities, and build him into a terrible, formidable opponent for the book's heroes.

Actually that's not strictly true - the turning point comes around the three quarter mark when the heroes begin to fight back. It's an expertly executed strategy from Stoker - the more we learn about the Count, the less fearsome he becomes. As in the myths that have accreted about them, vampires crumble in sunlight, literally and metaphorically.

The trouble with Stoker having created such an alluring title character though is that of the heroes only Van Helsing is anywhere near as memorable, more energetic and vital than any of his male compadres, Harker, Seward, or Morris, despite being far older than any of them. Similarly, Mina seems to have more fibre than any of those others, being unafraid to face death if the late chase across Europe fails and frankly less wet than her husband, whatever Stoker has others say about his strength.

The ending's not particularly satisfying, but then if Dracula is to be vanquished it can't be - he's near invincible if he gets back to his lair or can change form, and therefore has to be taken at his weakest. Stoker attempts to introduce some jeopardy with a gypsy guard for the sleeping vampire, but it's still something of a fizzling out rather than a grand finale. It's still an enjoyable, powerful novel though, one that could almost pass for one of the holiday read blockbuster novels of today. Sadly for his chances with that market, Stoker made the mistake of having some depth and actual writing skill.

What Do You Want For Tea? I Want Crisps - Code of the Krillitanes by Justin Richards

It's strange that something as... fleeting as the annual Quick Reads book is the end of the Tenth Doctor's fictional reign.* You can almost get through it in less time than it takes the Doctor to say his interminable goodbyes in The End of Time Part 2. Really, there's not that much to say about these Quick Reads as they're reduced to a relatively basic prose style and have to get through a story quickly. It might sound insulting to Justin Richards to say that I think he's well suited to this sort of thing but it's not - getting an adventure like this over so quickly and in as simple language as possible is a tough skill, and Richards' experience writing for children clearly helps him here. He's also very good at telling stories simply, and while I've thought his work for the Ninth and Tenth Doctor ranges could've done with losing some padding, or telling part of the story more quickly, this format allows no room for any indulgence. As such, it's got the pace and fire of one of the television episodes, something the standard length of the novels means they often lack.

The plot itself is a touch derivative, drawing heavily on the Krillitane plan from School Reunion and crossbreeding with a Pertwee era style attempt to invade via a major industry (such as either original series Auton tale or even, if you prefer, the author's own Fourth Doctor Missing Adventure System Shock). The Waters of Mars proved that you can still do interesting things with classic Doctor Who story templates and, while Code isn't in that class, it does manage a nice plot surprise around halfway through and - mark of good Doctor Who - has the villains defeated by ingenuity and with the help of a human rather than relying on a technobabble solution.

It might be no more than the literary equivalent of a bag of crisps, but like a good bag of crisps, it's a tasty and satisfying snack.

* Yeah, I know DWM's strip The Crimson Hand has one more instalment left, but it's been underway for three months already so this is the last complete story to show up. And you can shut up about Doctor Who Adventures already...

Monday, 8 March 2010

I Know It's Gonna Happen Someday: The Book On The Edge of Forever by Christopher Priest

I'd been waiting to get hold of this one for years. I've had it on my Amazon Wishlist since I set it up way back in the mists of time. Might even be three years ago, which I believe counts as 'forever and a week or two' in internet time. Trouble is every copy of this was priced around £50. I'm not one who begrudges the slightness of a book when weighing up buying it, length is by no means a measure of quality (often quite the inverse). And then, out of nowhere, a copy came up for 45p plus p&p. Mispriced? Quick sale? Didn't care, thank you greatbuybooks_us and goodnight, done deal.

As the cover tells you, it's a book concerning Harlan Ellison so it can't fail to be fascinating. It's all about the proposed third and final voume in Ellison's Dangerous Visons series, a series that nobly aimed to anthologise the best SF writers tackling edgier subjects. The first two volumes were liberally festooned with awards from the SF community, and their line-ups still look impressive to anyone with a passing familiarity with the literary SF field - aside from Ellison himself there's Philip Jose Farmer, Robert Bloch, Brian Aldiss, Philip K Dick, Larry NIven, Fritz Leiber, Poul Anderson, Theodore Sturgeon, J G Ballard, Roger Zelazny and Samuel R Delany. And that's only in the first book. Start lisitng for Again, Dangerous Visions (or even the volume Priest's dealing with here) and I'll be here all day. You get the idea, it caught the SF zeitgeist and combined shock with substance. Which is very Harlan.

The first volume came out in 1967, the second in 1972. And The Last Dangerous Visions was announced for publication in 1973...

...we're still waiting a mere 37 years later.

I've no insight into the matter beyond this and the odd article I've seen elsewhere in the fan press. Priest's essay here actually originated in a fanzine, and became published in a professional medium due to one of Ellison's numerous ongoing spats with fans (this one with Fantagraphics' Gary Grohl). According to the famously reliable Wikipedia, the author's requested that the essay be withdrawn fomr the internet - I'm therefore not sure how much of the opinion within he stands by, if any. What this does - brilliantly and as forensically as possible - is trace the history of the delays in the book, how it's sprawled massively over the decades, at last count encompassing at least three volumes before Ellison's introductions were written, how Ellison was soliciting stories at least until the early 80s, and the promises he made to included authors. Promises, of course, as yet unfulfilled.

While the book has some malicious intent behind it (not necessarily on Priest's part, certainly on Grohl's) it's reasonably fair and the text itself largely sticks to chronicling and letting any damning words come from Ellison's own mouth (although there's a back cover quote which could easily be nastily out of context). And it reaches a very interesting conclusion, that the book is now more or less unpublishable for all sorts of reasons, even with length not really being a consideration in an age of ebooks. How dangerous are visions from 1973 and earlier really going to be 37 years on? Reality and time can defang even the most controversial material. Priest thinks only Ellison's pride means he can't admit we'll never see the book. And Ellison rarely backs down, so that admission may never be forthcoming.

You never know though, in fifty years time it might be The Last Dangerous Visions someone like me's got on whatever the futuristic equivalent of an Amazon wishlist is and sees going cheap. Nice thought, but from the looks of this, it's a reality beyone even the imagination of one of the world's greatest writers of the fantastic.