Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Other viddies viddied in 2013

In a prolonged lull between jobs, I've had plenty of opportunity to watch TV.  There's been a mix of DVDs and electronic copies of stuff handed to us by friends, and far be it from me to say which is which on this blog.  In between marathon viewings of the old Twilight Zone, the old Outer Limits and the Ray Bradbury Theater, I've taken in these items of note.

Doctor Who: The Enemy of the World
Doctor Who: The Web of Fear
Well, let's not get off the subject of DW just yet.  The rediscovery of a complete Patrick Troughton story and another almost complete one was pretty exciting news in DW's jubilee year.  One episode of each already existed in the BBC archives and had been made available, and I'd seen those, but otherwise I came to these stories completely fresh since I don't have the patience for slideshow reconstructions of otherwise missing stories.  We've now seen a friend's copies of these, and bought our own copy of The Enemy of the World.
Enemy has a lot going for it.  It doesn't have any "missing episode" gaps, for one thing.  It takes the show in an unusual direction at a time when almost every story revolved around monsters laying siege to an isolated human community - there are no monsters here, and the whole world is this story's stage.  It makes fuller than normal use of its sensational leading man, with the Mighty Trout gamely mugging and accenting his way through a side role as Mexican villain Salamander.  It twists and turns, with a reveal in episode 4 that upends the whole story.  A flawless split-screen shot of the two Troughtons facing off in the final episode is the cherry on the cake.  It's a lot of fun.
Web has none of these points in its favour.  Episode 1 was and is brilliant, but the rest of the story doesn't live up to its promise - most of the middle four episodes is spent running up and down replica London Underground tunnels, with occasional eruptions from the BBC's foam machine.  The replica tunnels are, of course, beautiful, but we already knew that from episode 1.  Two or three episodes could have been cut from this story at the scripting stage and no one would have lost any sleep over it (apart from the producer, I suppose).  The standard critical line on this story is that we cannot appreciate the introduction of Colonel (later Brigadier) Lethbridge-Stewart as viewers at the time were meant to, since we know he's going to be a mainstay of the show in decades to come and they only knew he was a potential Great Intelligence zombie; as far as I can see, though, he's already being played and filmed here as if he were the biggest thing to happen to the show all year.  Even with the visuals, the denouement is a bit of a mess.  It's nice to have it back and be able to watch it, but I'm not itching to buy a copy.

Takin' Over the Asylum
A blast from the past, this.  Ken Stott stars as a failing salesman and wannabe DJ who starts up a life-changing patient-run radio station at his local mental institution.  Notable for featuring some young fellow by the name of David Tennant as Stott's number one loony protege - we'll have to watch out for that lad, I'm sure he's destined for great things.  Certainly not a comedy, although it has its light-hearted moments.  Its downfall is that it tends to treat its characters as puzzles to be solved, which I suppose is true of a lot of shows about the mentally ill; but for all that, it's respectful of its institutionalised characters, and never hesitant to show aberrant behaviour in its supposedly sane characters.  Good viewing.

Sherlock, series 3
Great stuff.  Seems like Sherlock allows Steven Moffat even more opportunity than Doctor Who to experiment with scenes that exteriorise the characters' thoughts, which have gone from supertitles showing Sherlock's deductions to entire non-literal environments standing in for the inside of a character's head.  In Series 3 this is taken to such an extreme that it actually sets up the big denouement of the final episode.  Meanwhile "I Married a Psychopath" becomes the theme of yet another Moffat TV show, following in the footsteps of Jekyll ("Love is a psychopath") and DW (River Bloody Song, of course) - I'm not sure what we should all be reading into this, but it looks worrying.  Season highlight must be the scene of Sherlock deducing while drunk in episode 2, although the "What to do when you've been shot in the chest" sequence in episode 3 is also pretty spectacular.  It's hard to fault this series.

Fringe, series 1
Silly.  I already know second hand that later seasons focus largely (perhaps even exclusively) on the parallel universe, but barring some material in the last couple or three episodes that sets that up, the first season is pretty much an X-Files knock-off.  And I was prepared to allow the series plenty of latitude on that basis, but what broke my suspended disbelief wasn't any of the weird phenomena but the behaviour of the characters, particularly in the pilot episode.  The whole series is being carried by John Noble's performance as Dr Walter Bishop, literally mad scientist, but there's just no believable way the other characters would have brought him in in the first place.  I might watch season 2, but it's not a priority.

Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries, series 1
Australian detective series, based on a popular string of books, set in the ever-popular Roaring Twenties.  This is moderately entertaining fluff, but Phryne Fisher is such an extreme wish fulfilment figure that it pretty much breaks the show.  She's decades ahead of her time, an independently wealthy liberal (and libertine) polyamorous feminist, dead shot with a gun, speaks a dozen more languages than are required in any given episode, shelters and benefacts the worthy poor, has the Detective Inspector eating out of her hand (and his one and only constable - except where the episode requires the inclusion of a second, corrupt copper - eating out of her maid's hand), knits her own Faberge eggs, and you get the general picture.  Not enough interest or novelty in the mysteries themselves to distract from the all-consuming Miss Fisher herself.  Passes an idle hour, but not what I'd consider a must-see.

Gravity
Oblivion
Elysium
The three Big Serious SF films of last year, as far as I can tell.  Gravity is pretty good, very artfully executed but essentially just Sandra Bullock in a room surrounded by visual effects.  Oblivion was better than I was expecting given the prominent Tom Cruise content - probably the prettiest Big Serious SF film of 2013.  Elysium is a story I feel I probably would have enjoyed reading, but watching it was a bit trying, not least thanks to scenes of Sharlto Copley with the front of his head missing.  Notably, Gravity is the only one of these that's made it onto the Hugo Award shortlist alongside several not-so-serious films.

Pacific Rim
Also on the Hugo shortlist, not at all serious.  This was a must-see simply because it was very obviously made as a tribute to - and with real knowledge and love of - Japanese monster movies.  It thus puts the 1998 Godzilla film firmly in its place.  Highly conventional adventure fare, but look, it's got giant mecha and big weird animals all over it.  I may not know much about art, but I know what I like.

23/04/14: And almost immediately, I was reminded of other things I'd watched that deserve a mention but that completely slipped my mind.  Proof again that it's important for me to actually write stuff down.  Oz the Great and Powerful can be dealt with quickly enough - it's a lovely film, a nice modern take and yet also a good fit for the old Judy Garland film.  Sundry superhero films and the ongoing TV series Agents of SHIELD might be better handled in a separate post.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Doctor Who 2013

The worst of it is behind us now.  2011 still beats out 1985 as my least favourite year of Doctor Who, but 2012 saw a definite upturn, and I'm pretty happy with how 2013 turned out.  The decision to tone down the multi-episode arcs in favour of single episode stories was entirely the right one as far as I'm concerned - Series 7 had the variety of style and subject and a lot more of the bounce that I associate with DW.

Of course, with each story pressed into 50 minutes, there's been something of a reduction in complexity - apparently Steven Moffat wanted "compressed storytelling", but the only episodes where I think that really came across and worked were Asylum of the Daleks back in the 2012 half of the season and last year's Hide.  Some episodes just happened to fit the 50-minute length quite well - A Town Called Mercy, The Angels Take Manhattan, The Bells of Saint John, The Crimson Horror.  Some were a little light on content, but carried by strong character material or spectacular visuals - Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS, Nightmare in Silver.  Arguably The Rings of Akhaten, but I'm more inclined to point to that and Cold War as examples of episodes that were just plain flimsy.  And the season finale is the only episode I can think of where "compressed storytelling" was clearly intended but doesn't quite work.  Of the specials, more anon.

The big benefit of less complexity, as far as I'm concerned, is that there's less to go wrong.  The horrifying ethical gaffes of Series 6 seemed to have crept past the production crew because they were trying very hard to do something clever and their attention was distracted by that.  (The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood just seems to have coiled itself out straight onto the screen without anyone noticing; we may never know quite what happened there.)  It's an even bet whether a DW story that tries to do something smart will achieve the giddy heights or plunge into the abyssal depths, and this production team seems to have worse luck than any other on that front.  If DW isn't aspiring to be more than entertaining, well, at least it's entertaining.  Give it a coherent plot and let Matt Smith and the visuals carry it, and you can't go too far wrong.

There were two notable and pleasing innovations in 2013, and the first of these was the new title sequence.  (All right, first seen in the 2012 Christmas special, but that's close enough - it was probably 2013 before we saw it...)  The billowing endoscopy-scape is replaced with a title sequence of wonder and beauty, and - hooray! - the Doctor's face briefly glimpsed just to top everything off.  And having the TARDIS doors close on the pre-creds and open on the episode is a little touch of genius.  This might, just might be the bestest ever title sequence of them all.

The second item of note is the inversion of Moffat's use of significant female characters as plot puzzles rather than as actual characters.  Clara is presented as a puzzle, but this turns out to be a sort of semi-bluff - it's all cleared up by the finale, and the important take-home message that Moffat himself seems to be striving to put across in the episodes is that Clara isn't just a plot engine, she's a person in her own right.  Having spent 2013 bluffing the matter out, the production team now needs to put in some work backing that up, and the late introduction of some of Clara's family members in the 2013 Christmas special is a step in that direction, but there's more to be done.  Still 'n' all, I'm feeling positive about it.

All things considered, then, this is the first entire season of Moffat Who that I could conceivably be persuaded into buying on DVD.  I like it, I really do.



Further thoughts on specific episodes:

The Snowmen
So, having laid out my stall of optimism, let's start by striking a downbeat note.  It's probably damning enough that I couldn't be arsed to blog about this one even when I was keeping the blog updated during the first half of last year.  This one's an improvement on the previous Christmas special (not difficult), but it's not exactly a heart-breaking work of staggering genius.  A malignant disembodied intelligence is defeated by the tears of a family at Christmas, you wot?  Also, at this early stage I find Clara more than a little annoying.  It doesn't help that none of her character background has been provided yet, and at this point it looks as if she's just going to be another whirlwind of quickfire quips and tics.  The Great Intelligence is an interesting choice of monster/villain; turning it into a child's imaginary friend is kind-of interesting but also kind-of craps on its earlier appearances.  There's a fleeting nod to the chronologically later The Web of Fear (did Moffat know then that the tapes had been rediscovered?), but bugger all effort to tie things back to The Abominable Snowmen in which the Intelligence has supposedly been lurking in Tibet for centuries.
The image of the TARDIS on a cloud at the top of a fog-shrouded spiral staircase is downright peculiar, but possibly the clearest visual statement yet of Moffat's fairytale vision of DW.  Best element of the episode must surely be the reappearance of Madame Vastra, the Silurian Victorian detective, and her partner Jenny, and comedy Sontaran Strax in a somewhat surprising (and much more heavily comedic) new role as third member of the Paternoster Gang.  Fandom was clearly clamouring for it, and fandom has got it - you can't say Moffat hasn't done us some favours.  They may not have their own spin-off series, but they're building up a strong body of work as supporting characters.
5 out of 10?

The Bells of Saint John
Unsurprising returning villain alert!  The reveal at the end of the sequence of the Doctor riding a bike up the Shard is a punch-the-air moment (and the sequence itself is pretty good, too).  By and large a good episode; certainly one of the strongest to introduce a new companion.
8 out of 10?

The Rings of Akhaten
Very strong visually, but it is just spectacle.  Building visual motifs and using imagery to tell the story is undoubtedly Moffat Who's strong suit, but that's not exactly what we've got here.  It's just a big weird alien environment.  And that's great, there aren't nearly enough of those in DW - DW needs more big weird alien environments.  But the story is lacking, and the resolution is on a par with The Snowmen for sheer meaningless schmaltz.  Beautiful to look at, but not much more than that.
6 out of 10?

Cold War
Another very thin story - monster appears, bit of a runaround, monster leaves.  Some effort made to present Skaldak as a character rather than just a monster, but I don't think it quite succeeds.  Also not great to have the Doctor essentially stare down Skaldak with an overt parallel of Mutually Assured Destruction.  Still, a competent bit of adventure fluff, and always nice to see genre favourite David Warner.  (My own preference would have been to have him confound Skaldak in some way - it's lovable freaks like his character, and certainly not nuclear stalemate, that got us through the real Cold War.)
Another 6 out of 10?  Perhaps a 5.

Hide
Notable for having two significant female characters go off and sit down together, only to talk about the men in their lives.  But if failing the Bechdel Test is the worst an episode of DW can do, we don't have all that much to worry about.  Probably the best example of "compressed storytelling" in action - there's a whole extra act hidden in the last thirty seconds of the episode, but it's crystal clear what's going to happen, so there's no need to do more than nod at it.  Sadly the compression means we learn nothing at all about the non-humans (can't really call them non-human "characters").  But for all that, a good episode.
7 out of 10?

Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS
I'm a sucker for stories that examine the TARDIS interior (provided it's allowed to remain at least a bit enigmatic - Logopolis and Castrovalva welcome here, The Doctor's Wife less so) so this episode's in for an easy ride.  Not to mention that Murray Gold's music is suddenly more interesting than it's been for quite some time now (heavy musical element of Akhaten notwithstanding).  Notable for having the first all-black guest cast in an episode of DW; regrettable for casting them as dishonest wideboys.  Eh, well.  There's not a hell of a lot going on here, but what little there is, is going on in an incredibly stylish way.
8 out of 10?

The Crimson Horror
Either I'm going soft or Mark Gatiss is improving.  Not without its problems, but a competent trad runaround with a central premise I can actually get behind - Gatiss thinks there's something creepy about those characterless corporate villages that rich benefactors were fond of setting up around the turn of the 20th century, and so do I.  Some successful use of "compressed storytelling" at the start, then we're into a story that pretty much runs the length it needs to.  Another welcome outing for the Paternoster Gang.  The "Thomas Thomas" scene provoked an outbreak of groans and tuts.
8 out of 10?

Nightmare in Silver
Lightweight, but then Cybermen stories often are.  This episode is carried entirely on the shoulders of Matt Smith, who delivers a bravura performance as the Doctor and the Cyberplanner trying to take over his mind.  Juuuust about gets away with it.  Throw in some quirky Gaiman supporting characters and you're doing OK.
6 out of 10?

The Name of the Doctor
A bit of a mess, all told.  Then again, its purpose is pretty much a) to set up John Hurt's appearance in the anniversary special, and b) to explain why Clara appeared before her introductory episode.  To have a story on top of that would be nice, but alas...  Above all, this episode is riding on the opening sequence of Clara interacting with archive footage of the classic series Doctors, which is of course absolutely mind-blowing, but just not enough to carry the episode on its own.  I also feel Moffat threw away the idea of the Doctor jumping into his own timestream - surely, something more should have been made of that?  And the Intelligence's plan - to disperse himself across the Doctor's timestream for the sake of mere revenge - looks a bit rubbish too.
4 out of 10?

The Day of the Doctor
We went to see this in 3D at the cinema, and I'd say it was money well spent.  Couldn't have asked for a better celebration of Doctor Who.  (Although The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot runs it a close second...)  Something for everyone - Smith and Tennant representing the new series, John Hurt offering snarky comments to satisfy any grumpy old fans like m'self, and just when you think it can't get any better, Tom Bloody Baker shows up.  The Time War is finally finessed away - the vagaries of multi-Doctor stories mean that the guilt of the Eccleston and Tennant Doctors isn't cheapened, but the series at last finds the third way that we ought to expect this of all series to find.  (Given the ever-present subtext of the Time War as the show's catastrophic hiatus from 1989 to 2005, it's only fitting that on DW's triumphant 50th anniversary we should finally lay it to rest.)  All this paralleled by the defused struggle between UNIT and the Zygons - yet more reference candy for old fans, of course, gratuitous in the normal run of things but underplayed by the standards of an anniversary story.  They even found a way to work in Billie Piper's obligatory cameo without breaking the show!
One small lingering question - what the hell is that publicity shot of Kamelion doing on UNIT's big wall of Doctor sightings?  (There'll be fan fiction, mark my words.)
A perfect 10?

The Time of the Doctor
From the sublime to the ridiculous.  This is what happens when you spend three years setting up plot arcs with little promise of resolution - you end up having to burn up an entire episode on answers.  And I think the answers we got give the lie to any claim that Moffat had this whole thing mapped out three years ago.  The Series 5 Crack of Plot Convenience reappears to do a bunch of stuff that bears no relation to any of the other stuff it's ever done.  Madame Eyepatch is sort-of explained, although her actions don't make any more sense in context than they did before.  The explanation we get of the Silence - that they're specially engineered confessor-priests - is fascinating, but doesn't tally at all with anything they did in Series 6.
Still, here we are tidying up all of these loose ends, and I like to think that this tidying up constitutes a promise from Mr Moffat that the Peter Capaldi era of the show won't rely on this type of cumbersome arc material.  A foolish hope, perhaps.  At any rate, at least Capaldi's starting with a clean slate.  While he's in the mood for tying up loose ends, Moffat even throws in the question of the Doctor's regeneration limit - his Christmas gift to fandom.
Positive stuff includes the long-awaited scenes of Clara's family, the idea of the Doctor dedicating his twilight centuries to protecting one planet from an apocalyptic new Time War, Matt Smith's "old geezer" acting, and that freaky wooden Cyberman.  Not sold on the "air guitar" Regeneration Part One, blowing up yet another Dalek fleet with sparkly pixie dust.  Much more sold on Regeneration Part Two, a nice and surprising change from the previous two regenerations.  Capaldi's first lines as the Doctor are far too similar to Tennant's and Smith's - ooh, new body part, woops, we're going to crash - but his performance is pure goggle-eyed Tom.  We'll see what 2014 brings.
5 out of 10?



As Steven Moffat ushers in an aggressive Scots Doctor, I'm strangely reminded of John Nathan-Turner casting Colin Baker as a Doctor with a bubble perm and crap taste in clothes.  (Talk about putting yourself into your work...)  It'll certainly be interesting to see what Moffat and Capaldi plan to do with the character, and indeed with the show.  This'll be Moffat's fourth season on DW - his fifth year, in fact, thanks to the split of Series 7 across two years - and I'm sure he'll be just as conscious as I am that the time to name his successor is drawing nigh.  (Unless he plans to beat JNT's record of nine years - no, let's not even go there.)  I think we could have an interesting year ahead.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Normal service will be resumed

It was tempting to leave it until a full year had elapsed since the last blog post, but darn it, I cracked.  Clearly the weekly requirements of the Doctor Who music blog did take their toll after all, and between that and a rotten slump in the job market post-Christmas, I haven't felt much inclined to come back on here and catch up.  But I will!

The broad plan at this point is to put together three big ol' posts to bring the motherblog back up to date.  Post #1 will cover the foregoing year's worth of Doctor Who, comprising the back half of Series 7, two Christmas episodes and the Grand Jubilee Celebrataganza (brief overview: I like it again now).  Post #2 will touch on other telly programmes and (possibly) fillums of note.  Post #3 will be the massive book round-up, although I haven't been keeping a detailed list of items read, so in fact this will just be anything I can remember and believe might be worth wittering about.

When?  Soon, real soon!

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Books for May/June

The NZ national SF convention has been and gone, the Sir Julius Vogel Awards have been presented.  Despite my best efforts, I didn't manage to get all the nominated works read ahead of time, although that's more down to not being able to lay my hands on them quickly enough than to lack of time on my part.  Readers can clearly see below that I managed to read plenty of other books during May and June.

So basically the key learning for future years is that I needn't expect to be able to read the entire shortlist before voting, and I may as well allow myself to be led by other people's recommendations, by what's available to me at the time, and by my own desire to read other stuff.

To my continuing surprise, the Best Novel award went to what I'd pegged as the worst of the six nominees.  On the other hand, just look at who they gave the Best Fan Writing award to - honestly, they'll let anyone in these days.  Here endeth the self-promotion.

For reasons of brevity, the list below doesn't include SJV nominees that I started but gave up on, of which there were at least three.  For reasons of simplicity, I've just lumped both months' books in together, more or less in order of reading, and then split the SJV books out and put them all up front.

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Growing Disenchantments, KD Berry
Comic fantasy, off-the-shelf material but competently used.  Various familiar character types try to get their hands on a painting of a powerful old wizard; the painting, of course, has its own plans.  Unusual inclusion of a time-travelling character, although it's explained in context.  Of the Best Novel shortlistees, I would have said this ought to rank somewhere in the middle.

Don't Be a Hero, Chris Strange
Superhero story set in a world where Auckland was devastated by a nuclear bomb during the tail end of superpowered World War II.  The wealthy live in shiny, futuristic Neo-Auckland, while NZ's superheroes, aggressively regulated by international accords, inhabit the decrepit slums of the old city.  Two of the good 'uns struggle in spite of this to save NZ from the machinations of a mysterious new villain.  This was a fantastic story, great characters, author quite willing to kill off favourites if the story required it, good writing.  One tiny niggling problematic area if I really wanted to be picky, around the use of a transvestite villain character, but it's arguable.  Moreover, this was the only Best Novel nominee that actually related to NZ in any way at all - granted, that's not a requirement for the SJVs, but it's just nice to see.  I really thought this one was head and shoulders above the other nominees, but the voting public at large disagreed.

The Enchanted Flute, James Norcliffe
Nominated in the Best Youth Novel category.  Nominally set in NZ, but could as easily have been written/set in the UK.  Talented girl from not very wealthy family finds a cheap flute in a pawn shop, only to discover that it magically possesses her fingers and will only allow her to play one tune - Debussy's "Syrinx".  (A clue, a clue!)  Despite lack of real connection between turn-of-the-20th-century French composer and ancient Graeco-Roman myth, the heroine soon finds herself transported to Fantasyland and reliving the story of Pan and Syrinx, herself cast in the role that doesn't come with horns or goat feet.  Good modern youth fantasy, with some surprises.






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Celestial Battle, Book One: Dark Serpent, Kylie Chan
Review book, and here's the review.  I'm not entirely sure why I asked for this book - it looked kind of interesting in synopsis, but I really should have clocked the warning signs.  This is absolutely, positively the last time I put myself in the position of reviewing a genre-flavoured romantic doorstop written by/for excitable middle-aged women.

The Spiral Labyrinth, Matthew Hughes
Hespira, Matthew Hughes
Books 2 and 3 in the series that began with Majestrum.  Henghis Hapthorn, rational science detective in a universe tilting towards the resurgence of magic, finds himself (and his other self) dealing with megalomaniacal super-sorcerous fungus and a mysterious amnesiac woman.  Once again, tip-top stuff.

Dial H, vol 1: Into You, China Mieville & Mateus Santolouco
So DC have streamlined their monthly output to a sleek dozen or so different flavours of Superman, ditto Batman, half as much Justice League and a handful of other titles.  As part of this spring clean, they've got China Mieville in to write (and Mateus Santolouco to draw) a relaunch of freaky '60s title Dial H for Hero.  This is probably the smartest thing they've done in years; it's kind of a shame they couldn't have taken a punt on a few other unusual writer/title combos while they were about it.  I suppose the world needs its multiple monthly Superman titles, tsk.  Being the politically minded chap he is, Mieville isn't content merely to play with the surreal trappings of the premise - magic dial allows its bearer to temporarily become a superhero, but with no foreknowledge of what the hero's identity/powers will be - but wants to explore the possibilities and ask probing questions.  Does the male protagonist actually need the dial to be a hero?  Is it a big deal if he dials up a female super-identity?  Can he, should he go out and save the day if his super-identity is offensive (example used: grotesquely stereotyped Red Indian hero that actually appeared in the '60s comic)?  Just where do those identities come from?  New favourite comic book title.

Scud the Disposable Assassin: The Whole Shebang, Rob Schrab
Finally, I get to read the rest of the Scud story!  Surreal, fast-paced ("hyperkinetic" is the word usually used) indie comic about a vending machine robot assassin that spots the "will explode after killing target" disclaimer on his back in a mirror and decides to only maim his target, survive and go freelance.  Ran for many, many years with long gaps in publication, and for various reasons I only ever managed to get hold of collected vols 2 and 3 - roughly the middle part of the story.  For that reason I'd previously only been exposed to the wonderful surrealism of Scud, and not the highly problematic gender attitudes that emerge in later issues.  (Schrab went through two breakups during the course of working on the series, which undoubtedly fed through into the story.)  The back end of the book collects four more recent issues that wrap everything up, perhaps a bit too neatly.  I'm glad to have read it all at last, but I'm not sure if I'm better off than I was before.

Diversifications, James Lovegrove
Shelve this alongside Jeff Noon's latest.  Lovegrove is another author whose earlier books I loved - he's got a good eye for wit and wordplay - but where Noon went underground for a decade between books, Lovegrove diverted his efforts to writing serial genre fantasies for younger readers.  Here, for older readers, is a collection of short stories that spans pretty much his entire career - there ought to be more stuff in here that I like, and yet I'm underwhelmed.  It's possible that all the best stories went into Imagined Slights, leaving the second best for this volume.  Or I could just be getting prematurely old and grumpy.

The String Diaries, Stephen Lloyd Jones
Review book.  Short version: I liked it.  A well-crafted character-driven horror story.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Books for March/April

Time for another bi-monthly book round-up.  Since the last update, the shortlist for the Sir Julius Vogel Awards has been released; reading as much of the shortlisted work as possible before the convention in mid-July now becomes a priority, or at least, it did as of mid-April.


The Secret Files of the Diogenes Club, Kim Newman
Characters familiar from The Man from the Diogenes Club and from Newman's Anno Dracula books pop up in this collection of loosely-linked stories that start in the Victorian era and run through to the 1970s setting familiar from the previous volume.  As usual with Newman, much entertainment ensues.

The Mammoth Book of Steampunk, ed Sean Wallace
Now available in a conveniently un-mammoth pocket paperback format.  A large, varied and extremely good collection of reprinted short stories that could arguably be called steampunk.  A couple I'd seen before, a pleasing and surprisingly large number written by authors I hadn't tried before and whose work I ought to investigate further.  Sadly, not many of those have had books published, which would make it easier to follow them up.  Catherynne M Valente is one I probably should have checked out before now.  Aliette de Bodard's Aztec detective novels were an obvious purchase, and they're first on the to-read list as soon as I get past review books, SJV nominees and borrowed items.  Margo Lanagan has had several anthologies published, but it looks as though further research is needed before I can decide which of them to start with.

Majestrum, Matthew Hughes
Borrowed on recommendation.  Hard to sum up briefly: it's set in the very far future, at a time when the universe is about to make one of its many cyclical transitions from physical laws to magical laws; the protagonist, Henghis Hapthorn, is the known cosmos' most famous detective, but he's had an early and life-complicating taste of the magical age to come thanks to a previous case that involved him being pulled through a dimensional portal, as a result of which his intuitive side has become a distinct persona inside his head and his personal organiser has been transformed from a machine to an ape-cat-hybrid familiar creature with an addiction to expensive fruits; he's hired by the Archon, the ultimate ruler of all humanity, to investigate the theft of several museum pieces that date from an earlier age of magic and whose disappearance may signal the return of a powerful tyrant.  It's very, very good, and two follow-up novels have been borrowed and are in the stack.

So hooray, an entire month of really good books!

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Warrior: The Amazing Story of a Real War Horse, General Jack Seely
Birthday present.  An interesting item - actually a recent reprint of a book originally published in the 1930s, all about a horse that survived four years of action in the First World War, went on to win races and generally lived a life other horses can only envy.  The title should probably have been Spawny Get: The Jammy Story of the Luckiest Horse Ever; Warrior charges to glory in some of the thickest battles of WWI, storming German machine-gun emplacements and receiving nary a scratch, yet with uncanny foresight he manages to get sent back to HQ with a turned ankle the day before anything really unavoidable goes wrong.  "Gosh," thinks Gen Seely as another horse is blown up underneath him, "what a lucky thing dear old Warrior stumbled over that flint yesterday."  The book is littered with such instances.  Overall a good read, and although the writer of the foreword to the current edition felt the need to apologise in advance for outdated material, no such apology was really needed.

Empire State, Adam Christopher
SJV nominee.  A tale of detectives and superheroes in a strange parallel version of Prohibition-era New York.  This one was serviceable but not spectacular, a passable first novel.  Certainly the front runner of the Best Novel nominees I've read so far.

Tropic of Skorpeo, Michael Morrissey
SJV nominee.  Gonzo pulp stuff.  I got 80 pages in, just over a third of the way through, and had to give up.  The first few chapters were kind of enjoyable, then it all got bogged down in prurient scenes of fantasy erotica that just got too damn wearing.  Was this written by a schoolboy or what?  And yet I'd still probably rate it above Queen of Iron Years.

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Books for Jan/Feb 2013

Who is the Doctor, Graeme Burk & Robert Smith?
Reference/critical book that covers the 21st century series of Doctor Who, from the 2005 relaunch all the way up to the end of the 2011 series.  I'd say these guys have got the drop on Mad Norwegian Press' About Time series (tardy, Mad Norwegian, very tardy), but in truth the analysis here isn't nearly as deep as I'm hoping it will be in the very long-awaited AT volume 7.  No thought-provoking side essays, for a start.  Certainly enjoyable and well-argued - I even found myself agreeing with a lot of it.

The Quantum Thief, Hannu Rajaniemi
Highly acclaimed SF debut that I completely failed to get along with.  Several write-ups have pointed out that the book doesn't compromise on info-dumping and expects the reader to work out for themselves much of what's going on - this is true, and it's not at all the problem I have with the book.  It's purely a character thing.  Bluntly, I like novels to have them.  Got 100 pages in, didn't feel that I knew or cared who anyone was or why they were carrying out their post-human space-opera heist, gave up.

The Aviator, Gareth Renowden
NZ publication, apparently self-published, borrowed and read because it was SJV Award nominable.  Damnedest thing, I got 100 pages in and gave up again.  The protagonist is a zeppelin chauffeur and housekeeper for a multinational capitalist; in the wake of global eco-collapse and his boss' disappearance, he's also heir apparent to the zeppelin, the NZ bolthole, and the rest of the whizzy AI-governed empire.  He globe-trots in search of his master before giving him up as lost and taking up a new job running trade between isolated pockets of civilisation.  There were some ideas in here, some of them interesting, but no sense of any kind of peril.  Stuff would happen, stuff would un-happen, the protagonist would continue on his way, tra-la-la.  The author seemed more interested in presenting a travelogue of his post-crisis world than in telling a story within it.  Life's too short to finish reading books like this.

Channel Sk1n, Jeff Noon
New and extremely long-awaited novel from one of my favourite authors.  I love Noon's zingy, poetic prose and his quirky ideas, which made reading this book a really disheartening experience.  Forced myself not to give up on a third book in succession, especially with it being a Jeff Noon and all.  Gone is the poetry, and I saw near enough the same ideas handled better ten years ago in a Doctor Who spin-off novel.  It's basically a sceptical examination of celebrity culture; that's far too basic a premise for a novel by the author of Vurt and Automated Alice.  I don't know what's happened to the mighty Jeff.  All the va-va-voom seems to have gone out of him.

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Future Lovecraft, ed Silvia Moreno-Garcia & Paula R Stiles
Collection of short stories and poems that combine Lovecraftian horror with contemporary and SF sensibilities.  A mixed bag of course, but several very good pieces here.

Anno Dracula: The Bloody Red Baron, Kim Newman
Literary team-up novel with vampires and set in World War I.  Dracula, in exile from what was recently his British Empire following the events of the original Anno Dracula, has hooked up with Kaiser Bill and established a new base of operations on the European mainland; Biggles and chums, the secret agents of the Diogenes Club and sundry others must uncover and defeat Dracula's pet project, a cadre of super-vampires based at Schloss Adler and led by Baron von Richthoven.  These aces need no aircraft - they simply transform into flying monsters that you can hang machine guns on.  A highly entertaining adventure ensues.

Queen of Iron Years, Lyn McConchie & Sharman Horwood
Another novel borrowed and read because of its SJV nominability.  A pre-op transsexual travels back in time to Celtic Britain in order to help the Iceni chieftainess Boudicca defeat the Romans in battle, a change to the timelines that will apparently cause the premature collapse of the Roman Empire and make the modern world a better place for transsexuals in some vaguely suggested way.  It's worse than I'm making it sound.
There are two sets of chapters, one near-future and one in the early 60s AD; I'm assuming that each writer was responsible for one of these sets, and I'm further assuming that McConchie was responsible for the latter set because a) that was the readable set, and she has a good reputation as an author, and b) the Celtic past setting isn't far removed from the kind of rustic fantasy setting in which she has past form.  But even there, it's not good news: the protagonist is an outrageous Mary-Sue, a computer programmer who somehow has learned to speak fluent Britonnic Celtic, a language for which there is no extant source text, as well as a passable Roman Latin; knows enough medicine to become understudy to the Iceni's tribal healer in no time; and is able to give Boudicca the lessons in military strategy that she needs to trounce the Roman governor's army.
The misconceptions and factual errors about Imperial Roman society don't help, although they're a relatively small part of the book.  One item repeated several times is the claim that Roman women were barred from inheriting or owning property, which certainly wasn't true in 60 AD and hadn't been for a few centuries - I can't help wondering if one or both authors had some sort of agenda that required them to dress Rome up in misogynist clothing.  It's difficult to talk about errors in the portrayal of the Iceni and their campaign of destruction and indiscriminate slaughter across Roman Britain, since we only have one source for that - Tacitus' Annals, and naturally he had an agenda - but I'm extremely sceptical of the version given here.  In brief, this is a bad book.
Edit: I'm baffled to announce that it's now been shortlisted for the SJVs in the Best Novel category.  Another of life's little mysteries.

The Man from the Diogenes Club, Kim Newman
Short stories based around the activities of the Diogenes Club, mentioned in a couple of Sherlock Holmes stories and presumed to be a branch of British Intelligence, but here transplanted to the 1970s.  It's a lot like The Avengers (Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg, not Captain America and co).  A mixture of supernatural, comedic and horror stories - highly enjoyable.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

Announcement, and books for Nov/Dec

I've started a new blog - what the hell was I thinking?!  It isn't a replacement for this blog, it's a 52-week side project that I thought might be fun, and also of practical use in improving my writing habits.  But anyway, there it is - please go and have a look if you like Doctor Who, or if you like electronic music, or if you like me (flutters eyelashes), or... well, see if you like it.

Updates here will continue, although they might be a little more rough 'n' ready than usual.  Case in point: the book write-ups for the last two months...

November

The Clockwork Angel, Cassandra Clare
Supernatural romance by the author of the Lord of the Rings "Very Secret Diaries".  Well, actually a Victorian era prequel to supernatural romance etc etc.  Not exactly steampunk, although doubtless many would disagree.  Bought for $3 because, well, why not at that price?  Much better than I was expecting, and even has some of the flavour of a period romantic novel.  Fantasy elements are satisfactory and there's no "vampire porn" - at least, not yet, although I can't speak for later volumes in the series.

Whispers Underground, Ben Aaronovitch
Third in series of fantasy police procedurals, following Rivers of London and Moon Over Soho.  Completely excellent, as expected.  Looks like we're about due for an arc-heavy fourth volume now.

Aristoi, Walter Jon Williams
Read mainly because the author was going to be in town for a booze-up, and I wanted to be able to look him in the eye.  Space opera with profound moral elements - the future nobility (Aristoi) are each responsible for the development of worlds under their care as well as the overall welfare of the galaxy; protagonist Aristos discovers that a fellow Aristos is secretly raising worlds in barbaric, primitive conditions.  Does either side have the right?  Fascinating read, not least for the parallel columns that allow for internal and external character dialogues to unfold at the same time.

Professor Moriarty: The Hound of the d'Urbervilles, Kim Newman
Borrowed from a friend.  Brilliant, brilliant parody of Conan Doyle and other contemporary writers.  Colonel Sebastian Moran becomes the narrator for a series of lewder and nastier versions of famous stories including Riders of the Purple Sage, The War of the Worlds, Tess of the d'Urbervilles (obviously) and of course, The Final Problem.


December

Raffles, the Amateur Cracksman, EW Hornung
Read as a follow-up to Moriarty because I had it lying around and felt that this was a good time for it.  Turns out I hate Raffles.  He's a smug, unprincipled shit and a bit of a prat, and no amount of lovestruck fawning by the narrator can redeem him.

Strange Itineraries, Tim Powers
Short stories by an excellent novelist.  Nuff said?

The Deep of the Dark, Stephen Hunt
More steampunky adventure mash-up.  This week: submarines!  I enjoyed it, as usual - better than the previous volume - but can't help wondering when Hunt is going to try something else.

Jack Glass, Adam Roberts
Library book.  Incredibly, after my last couple of experiences with him, a really great book by Adam Roberts.  Just when I was about to give up hope!  This one doesn't even lose a wheel in the final act, but sees it through right to the end.  Title character is a peerless murderer in a totalitarian future Solar System; the reasons for his murders turn out to affect all humanity.  This book's surely a keeper - now I just have to get hold of a copy that I can keep.

These things happen to other people - they don't happen at all, in fact

When you're following an angel, does it mean you have to throw your body off a building?  And so on.  They Might Be Giants, meet Doctor Who.  Many people over the past seven years have described New Who as "emo", and Amy and Rory defeating the Weeping Angels by jumping hand-in-hand off a tower block must surely be the extreme point (zenith? nadir?) of "emo" in DW.  And yet, just get a couple of American loons to play a jolly tune with a guitar and an accordion over it and you're back over the borderline into "whimsical".

There was a bit of a hush in the Toon household after we watched The Angels Take Manhattan (Then They Take Berlin), I don't mind admitting.  Yes, Amy Pond has left the series for the foreseeable future, and I won't give a stuff if she never comes back.  Rory's gone with her, which is more of a shame since he was more of an interesting (or even watchable) character, but still, change is at the heart of DW's success, and the show must move on.  It was quite nicely done, though.

Until you stop to think about it thirty seconds later and realise that, even if 1938 New York is out of bounds for the Doctor, he just has to turn up in 1939 to get the Ponds back.  (Best not tell him though, eh?)  It wouldn't even mean creating another paradox, just cheating a bit - plant a fake gravestone where Rory will conveniently see it in 2012, and you're away.  All the tragedy that's been built up around this departure, and which carries over into the Christmas special, depends on everybody agreeing to overlook some very obvious workarounds.  See also the business with River Song's book - reading ahead in it and feeling obliged to do what it says wouldn't be a problem if the Doctor realised he could do something else and then tell River to type up the false details later.  Timey-wimey is only binding if we all agree that it is.  So there's hope for the series yet.

The Lovely Jo felt that it was a bit unnecessary to have a Weeping Angel pop up at the end just for the purpose of writing the Ponds out, but I dunno.  Given the episode's noir detective tendencies, I think it's in keeping to have one of the villain's hitmen escape and turn up in the epilogue to kill off somebody the hero cares about.  Or in this case, send them back in time to live long and happy lives - eh, noir ain't what it used to be.

All in all, not without its problems, but a pretty good episode and a fitting farewell to the Ponds.  The concept of the Weeping Angels creating a battery farm of looped human lives in an apartment block is a great one, and turning the investigation into a '30s style thriller was a canny choice.  I think I'd rate this a 7 out of 10.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Dice Irae

The blog title would have been "Pond Life", except that - startlingly - the DW production office already used that joke for a string of promotional scenes leading into the series.  Paging Mr Moffat, message from Fred for a Mr Moffat...
* * * * *

The winning streak couldn't last.  We've opened the series with a straight run of three good episodes, which is surprising and pleasing, but here the cheer runs out and we break our shins on a plain old duffer of an episode.  It's not that The Power of Three is abhorrent, it's just bland and forgettable.  Many a Who fan will tell you that being bland and forgettable is the worst thing DW can do, and while I strongly disagree with that, clearly this episode isn't going to get high marks.

I've seen a lot of critics and commentators say that this episode is really all about the Ponds and their imminent departure, that the issue of their relationship with the Doctor and the conflict between "Doctor life" and "real life" is the main attraction here.  Well, great, that's about three minutes of dialogue accounted for.  I suspect the real reason people have focused on the Pond Question is just that there's bugger all else to work with here.  The idea of an adventure that requires the Doctor to spend a year living the quiet life on Earth is a good one, and sure, it's a natural springboard for a consideration of the place of the Doctor and the Ponds in each others' lives now that the Ponds have a settled home life.  Whereas what we get is a few minutes of that playing second fiddle to the sprawling non-story of the cubes.  The Pond Question needed either to be the story (or be reflected more clearly in the story), or to have a better story supporting it.

I mean, the episode starts off well enough, building up mystery around what the cubes are and where they've come from, then after rather too much dragging around we find out the villain is Steven Berkoff with a nasty skin condition, and he's planning to kill off humanity because he's a bit of a git, and dull dull dull-diddly-dullsville.  It's beyond perfunctory.  Ohhhh, I don't know... sinister character actor in a black cape and some make-up, will that do?  Why's he doing villainous things?  Eh, just is.

Chris Chibnall's taken a very simple approach to both his episodes this series, and that paid off with Dinosaurs on a Spaceship for a variety of reasons: it suited the pulp adventure flavour of the story; the mystery of dinosaurs being on a spaceship, and its explanation, wasn't a significant part of the plot, which was in itself robust enough to carry 45 minutes of TV; the characters' motivations, though simplistic, were sufficiently clear and plausible to support the story.  It fails to pay off with The Power of Three for similar reasons: it doesn't suit a mystery-heavy, character-focused story; the mystery is the central pillar of the plot, and a crappy payoff undermines that; the Shakri's motivation is hackneyed but also sufficiently unclear by the end of the episode as to leave the whole shebang floating in the fog.

There's some other stuff drifting around in here, none of which adds up to very much.  The girl with the blue-glowing face and the two cube-mouthed hospital orderlies seem to have been thrown in just to meet the weirdness quota for the week - I don't recall there being any explanation of them, and they just seem to vanish from the story once they've had their close-up.  The scenes between the Doctor and Kate Lethbridge-Stewart, and their "absent friends" nod to the late Brigadier, could be considered a foreshadowing of the Ponds' departure, but her inclusion in the story also looks a bit too much like a sop to the kind of continuity-obsessed fans who would want the Brigadier's daughter to take over as UNIT's figurehead.  Nice to see Mark Williams making another appearance as Rory's dad, although most of his time seems to be taken up with commenting on the fact that nothing's happening.  And sure enough, it is.

So this might be a 4, might be a 5.  It's tempting to give it a (Power of) 3 out of 10, but it's not that bad.  It's just lacking any kind of flavour or character.  And on that note, we prepare to say goodbye to Amy Pond.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Happiness is a Warm Pun

And so, after a brief delay, to A Town Called Mercy.  Folks, it's going to be another positive review.  Here at last is a Moffat-era episode of DW that tackles a difficult ethical question head on and doesn't completely bugger it up.  It doesn't completely redeem the sins of earlier episodes, mind you, but at least when it puts the Doctor in a room with a vivisectionist, it doesn't have him bump fists with him.  It's a very far cry from the abominable Hungry Earth/Cold Blood.  On reflection, this episode doesn't seem to have been part of a developing critique of the Doctor's morality after all, more of an upward blip.  It's a welcome blip for all that.

The keystone scene for me is the bit where the Doctor avoids an armed stand-off with that young townsman.  Here the Doctor is faced with the reality of people willing to use guns, even good people willing to use guns for arguably good reasons, and he finds another way.  This scene is pretty much exactly what I wanted to see from DW, and a triumphantly Whoish moment at a time when the series seems increasingly (and for me, disappointingly) comfortable with gun use, even among the Doctor's coterie.  The big showdown at the end, pretty shamelessly borrowing from Three Amigos, also shows the Doctor thinking his way out of a fight.  It all adds up to a pleasing rejection of the simple cowboy violence that the setting invites, and that other episodes of New New Who have lapsed into.  See also the scene where Amy makes a complete fool of herself with a handgun, which is nothing new, except that here it's actually played as foolish instead of heroic.

Contrast this with The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon, the previous Pond adventure in America, in which the standard response of every character to every problem is to point a gun at it.  Compare it with The Gunfighters, DW's only other excursion to the Wild West, in which the Doctor's response to guns is to refuse them or to engage in hair-raising slapstick buffoonery with them, thus undermining the heroic iconography of the gun with his own frailer but more genuine heroism.  A Town Called Mercy is clearly nearer to The Gunfighters than to Astronaut/Moon (so tempting, so tempting... can I argue for a second consecutive episode implicitly taking Steven Moffat to task?).  When it does show the Doctor threatening someone with a gun, it's an anomalous moment - it's acknowledged as wrong within the story, it isn't one of those unfortunate eye-off-the-ball moments that sometimes happens in New New Who.  We can see that the Doctor's gone past his normal moral boundaries, which in turn helps to define what those boundaries are.

We're invited to think about the Doctor's ethical history as well - is it his anger at Jex's war crimes that has pushed him over the line, or discomfort at his own actions in the Time War?  Obviously the two characters aren't quite alike - Jex is shown to have conducted macabre experiments on others of his kind, surgically converting them into weapons in order to end a war quickly in favour of his own people, while the Doctor is known to have wiped out both sides in his people's war in order to protect the rest of the universe from being destroyed collaterally.  And while the Doctor has spent much of the past seven seasons dealing with his guilt, and apparently still feels guilty, Jex denies regretting his actions, although this seems to be bravado and he eventually shows remorse.  The real similarity between the two is their desire for redemption: do they deserve it?  Is their guilt or their attempted atonement equal, or in some way comparable?  What real justice can there be for either of them, Jex being hunted down by a vigilante, nobody left to hold the Doctor accountable?  There's no easy answer to these questions, and thumbs up to Toby Whithouse for raising them, especially in the traditionally simplistic context of the cowboy film.

And then we have the Gunslinger, who is essentially a great big gun with a personality.  Crucially, being armed wasn't his choice and isn't something he's happy about - the fact that he carries (or rather, is) a gun is a reason to pity him.  And yet, being given a gun, he's chosen to use it to enact vigilante justice against the people who gave it to him.  This clearly isn't a good thing - it's what turns the Gunslinger from victim to villain within the structure of the story - although the alternative is that the war criminal Jex escapes (or rather, conveniently commits suicide).  We're left with the awkward question of just how bad vigilantism is in this context.  The Gunslinger is still a vigilante at the end of the episode, albeit a "good" one because he wears the sheriff's badge - authority, or the semblance of it, legitimises his behaviour.  It's worth remembering too that vigilantism - generally unarmed - is basically what the Doctor does for a living.

I should probably also mention that Amy and Rory are pushed very much into the background and feel somewhat superfluous to the story.  Feh.

So this is a mature and thought-provoking slice of DW, and offers a timely reconsideration of the show's ethics.  The handling of Jex's fate is questionable - all right, the Doctor's honouring the late sheriff by protecting Jex's life, but letting him escape altogether isn't a great solution, and the fact that he resolves the plot by blowing himself up is just too neat for this story.  But still, here comes another 8.5 out of 10.  (Previous episode re-evaluated back to a 7.5.)