Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Star Trek: The Next Generation, Season 2

Welcome, gentle reader, to the second of a projected series of 7 blog posts about Star Trek: The Next Generation.

For convenience, I'll be using the standard fan abbreviations to refer to Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) and the original series (TOS).  Also, probably best to assume that a Spoiler Alert remains in effect at all times, just on general principle.  I'm not precious about giving away details of a TV series broadcast 25 years ago.


A surprising number of things have changed in the interval between seasons - this year's opening episode almost amounts to a "soft reboot".  Riker's grown his familiar beard at last.  Troi's got a better hairdo.  Geordi's been relocated from the bridge to the engine room.  Miles O'Brien is a semi-regular character and actually has a name now (having appeared as "Battle Bridge Conn" in the pilot).  Worf's original sash, which looked as if it was fashioned out of wicker, has been replaced with a chunky metal one.  Dr Crusher is ignominiously written out, although tragically she didn't take Wesley with her.  In comes the new Medical Officer Dr Pulaski, who doesn't really have the same chemistry with the rest of the crew but who does at least get a small amount of interesting development in her attitude towards Data.  The opening theme is now the slightly longer version I was expecting.  The effects team have put together a new "warp speed" effect for use in Ten Forward which is just lovely.

And of course, Whoopi Goldberg starts turning up as Guinan, possibly the TNG character I remember liking the most.  She arguably treads on Troi's toes somewhat as a counsellor-figure for the main crew, but she's a lot more fun.

"The Child"
The first occasion on which Deanna Troi is supernaturally raped - but not, sadly, the last.  (Yes, I've seen Star Trek: Nemesis and wish I could unsee it.)  That this is presented as a wonderful, magical form of alien contact that Troi should embrace by having her rape baby only makes it worse.  A bad episode, but still - strictly in terms of its production - better than a lot of Season 1.
"Where Silence Has Lease"
A bit like "Skin of Evil", with a capricious blob killing a bridge officer and threatening to kill off other crewmembers for its own amusement.  (I'll bet poor old Ensign Haskell didn't get a nice funeral in the holodeck, either!)  Car crash stuff.
"Elementary, Dear Data"
A nice bait-and-switch, as a story about Data proving he's sentient becomes a story about Professor Moriarty, Data's holodeck plaything, proving that he's sentient, too.  Anticipates the "equal rights for holograms" material that I recall Voyager playing with at length.
"The Outrageous Okona"
Heavens preserve us from "lovable rogue" stories.  A middling example of the type.  Also notable as the episode in which Data attempts stand-up comedy.  Like "The Child", it just about skims over the surface of Lake Car Crash.
"Loud as a Whisper"
A great episode about communication.  The deaf mediator's telepathic "Chorus" is a brilliant idea, and unusually inventive for a series that typically ignores the whole notion of alternative forms of communication.  (Yes, I'm looking at you, universal translator!)  Finally, an essential TNG episode.
"The Schizoid Man"
The one where an unpleasant old git cheats death by invading Data's body.  Cue scenes of Creepy Data stalking the man's female lab assistant.  Grist to Brent Spiner's mill, of course, but not great viewing.  Most notable for the apparently unrelated opening scene in which Data wears a beard - now what the hell's going on there?
"Unnatural Selection"
The one in which Dr Pulaski rapidly ages, but it's all right because that can be undone by science-magic.  A mildly interesting cautionary tale against second-guessing nature, but more obviously a showcase for Diana Muldaur's acting skills.
"A Matter of Honor"
The one where Riker gets a work placement on a Klingon ship.  An excellent window on Klingon culture, building on last season's "Heart of Glory".  I remembered this one pretty clearly, and no wonder.
"The Measure of a Man"
Perhaps this should have been a flashback episode - the whole question of Data's right to determine his own fate surely should have been cleared up when he first became a Starfleet officer.  But then we wouldn't have had the great scene of Guinan playing devil's advocate to Picard in a quiet bar, which really opens up the episode thematically and elevates this story to the level of top-tier TV SF.
"The Dauphin"
Wesley Crusher in love, yikes.  Cue a lot of awkward nonsense from various characters about What Women Are Like And How To Win Them, although the fact a lot of it is played for laughs does at least demonstrate how ridiculous it is.
"Contagion"
The one where the Enterprise contracts a computer virus.  Captain Picard really should have scanned the Yamato's log before he opened it, tsk tsk.  Notably, the first instance of "tea, Earl Grey, hot", although only as a pretext for showing the replicator malfunctioning.  Overall, a pretty good episode.
"The Royale"
As Quentin Tarantino might say, a Royale with cheese.  Some interesting surreal potential early on gives way to what is, by the script's own admission, the plot of a crappy novel.  Tra la.
"Time Squared"
The one where time becomes a loop.  Where time becomes a loop.  Where time becomes a loop.  And yet not really a story about time travel or second chances or any of that stuff.  Alt-Picard is really an externalisation of Picard's own doubts, which in itself makes Picard more interesting as too many other episodes present him as the perfect decisive hero.  An interesting way of fleshing out a character.
"The Icarus Factor"
The one about Riker's daddy issues.  Not helped by a scene of Pulaski and Troi spouting a lot of toot about how Generalised Women Just Gotta Love Generalised Manchildren.  A bit of a '60s throwback, this one.
"Pen Pals"
The one in which the Prime Directive supposedly forbids the Enterprise crew from talking to the inhabitants of an alien world, but doesn't prevent them from saving those aliens by forcibly halting all tectonic activity on the planet.  Blimey.  Pleasant but forgettable.
"Q Who"
The first appearance of the greatest threat the Federation has ever faced - Ensign Gomez, who spends her first day in Engineering spilling hot chocolate over Captain Picard.  I mean, look, it's bad enough to see TNG falling back on the "ditzy woman" stereotype for comic relief, but she's supposed to be a qualified Federation engineer.  The undermining of a new character's potential is strong in this one.  Oh yeah, and Q and Guinan and the Borg and all that good stuff.  It's a bit of a non-plot, but a solid middling episode.
"Samaritan Snare"
Unpleasant in its depiction of an entire alien species as "a bit slow".  I really can't think of anything else to say about this one.
"Up the Long Ladder"
The one with the comedy Oirish.  Another '60s throwback episode, and a rotten one.  And yet, tacked on the front and completely unrelated to the rest of the episode is the fantastic business of Worf apparently romancing Dr Pulaski with his tea ceremony after she agrees to keep quiet about his measles.
You know, I think if we could just snip out some of the high quality unrelated opening scenes from some of the low quality episodes of TNG, we'd be able to stitch together an entire new episode.  It wouldn't make a lot of sense, but it'd be very entertaining.
"Manhunt"
Basically a replay of "Haven", with Troi's mother doing her "embarrassing predatory older woman" schtick and chasing after Picard.  Now with added bigotry towards piscine aliens, yaaaaay.
"The Emissary"
And suddenly the quality bounces back!  This episode does a sturdy job of examining Worf's situation of being stuck between two cultures, first by pairing him with a similarly conflicted character and second by having him pose as the captain of a Klingon/Federation fusion Enterprise when dealing with the captain of the time-slipped Klingon ship.
"Peak Performance"
A good ensemble episode, and even though the guest alien is being played for comedy, he manages not to be irritating.  When even Wesley Crusher gets some good character work and it's not even an episode specifically about him, I think we can call the episode a success.
"Shades of Grey"
Really, TNG, you're making your season finale a clips show?  I'd be against a clips show anyway just on the grounds that it shows the writers have run out of ideas, but more than that, it's not as if this has been earned after just two seasons, and doing it as the finale is just begging for a kicking.  And what is the title supposed to mean here anyway?

Rankings, from favourite to least favourite:
"The Measure of a Man"
"Loud as a Whisper"
"The Emissary"
"A Matter of Honor"
"Peak Performance"
"Time Squared"
"Elementary, Dear Data"
"Contagion"
"Q Who"
"Unnatural Selection"
"Pen Pals"
"The Dauphin"
"The Schizoid Man"
"The Royale"
"The Outrageous Okona"
"The Icarus Factor"
"Manhunt"
"Samaritan Snare"
"The Child"
"Where Silence Has Lease"
"Up the Long Ladder"
"Shades of Grey"

Episodes that I remembered seeing before: 3 ("A Matter of Honor", "Time Squared", "Q Who")

Episodes that I would make a point of watching again: Certainly "The Measure of a Man" and "Loud as a Whisper", probably also "The Emissary".  And it'd be no hardship to watch "A Matter of Honor", "Peak Performance" or "Time Squared" again.  The overall quality of this season is a clear improvement on Season 1.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Star Trek: The Next Generation, Season 1

Welcome, gentle reader, to the first of a projected series of 7 blog posts about Star Trek: The Next Generation.

For convenience, I'll be using the standard fan abbreviations to refer to Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) and the original series (TOS).  Also, probably best to assume that a Spoiler Alert remains in effect at all times, just on general principle.  I'm not precious about giving away details of a TV series broadcast 25 years ago.


With some time on my hands, I've decided to undertake a marathon viewing of TNG in order to fill a gap in my fannish awareness.  I've never seen this series all the way through - or any of the various Star Trek series, for that matter - having only ever caught individual episodes here and there depending on what the BBC was showing on a given idle evening.  My best guess, based on what visual moments and plot elements I can remember (and allowing that any number of other episodes may have slipped my memory in the intervening years), is that I've probably seen less than a sixth of TNG, not counting the films - roughly two dozen stories I can confidently recall out of 168 (178 episodes, including 10 two-part or double-length stories).  The figures are probably similar for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager, but it seemed sensible to start with this series rather than with either of those.

(Marathoning TOS isn't a priority, as I think I'm more familiar with more of that series already, and while I know there are some good episodes in there, I know there's a lot of outdated gunk too.)

The plan is to write up my thoughts on TNG one season at a time, partly to keep my hand in at blogging and partly as an aide-memoire for myself if I should decide to come back to this series again at a later date.  Posts are likely to appear weekly, but if I suddenly land a day job, that'll change.  On, then, with Season 1.


First impressions: the Enterprise interior feels a lot more softly lit and more homely than in TOS.  Obviously I'm going to prefer the characters overall, simply because TNG is 20 years closer to my own social attitudes today than TOS.  In narrative terms, it's nice to see TNG fall back on space battles and fight scenes far less than TOS, and try to resolve its plots in a way one might actually expect from a utopian interstellar Federation.  Still, the stories are patchy as hell in this first year - more detail on that below.

It seems trivial to mention that the Enterprise's female crewmembers are not routinely put in skirts as was the case in TOS (although some do wear skirts), but I can't help but notice that a few crowd scenes in the earlier episodes of Season 1 include a male crewmember in a skirt.  An interesting and subtle hint that the utopian future of 1987 defines gender more broadly than the utopian future of 1966.  Non-binary behaviour is even hinted at in some of the regular characters, most notably Tasha Yar.  My memory of the later episodes I can recall suggests that TNG will become a lot more precious and openly didactic about gender issues - it'll be interesting to see if the covert non-binary elements are confined to Season 1 or pop up again in later seasons.

Musically, Season 1 is a lot more interesting than I remember TNG and its successor series being.  According to the little research I've done since watching this season, it's Rick Berman's fault that Star Trek's incidental music became so dull later on.  Composers in Season 1 were encouraged to produce melodic and thematic incidental music - which is the kind I like - but Berman was more of a "sonic wallpaper" man, and when he took over as the executive producer of all things Star Trek he started to clamp down on the kind of music that might stand out and get itself noticed.  The chief casualty of this decision was Ron Jones, who eventually got the boot during Season 4, and naturally it's his work that I've enjoyed the most while watching Season 1.  Every time I've felt the need to check the end credits to see who composed that rich, creamy music, blow me if it hasn't been Ron Jones again.

Anyway, on with the episode-by-episode breakdown.

"Encounter at Farpoint"
I could have sworn this one started with Riker being introduced to the ship and crew.  More likely, I've probably only seen the second part of a two-part re-edit before.  Interesting to see how the character of Data hasn't been nailed down yet, while Wesley Crusher is already the infuriating gimboid he will be remembered as.
"The Naked Now"
Car crash!  And compounding the problem, it's a blatant half-arsed rip-off of a TOS episode that even I can spot - not a good look for the shiny new series.
"Code of Honor"
Car crash!  That is all, except to note what a damn shame it is that the first two episodes after the pilot are such howlers.
"The Last Outpost"
The one that introduces the Ferengi.  More or less as I'd remembered, which is to say, shrugworthy.
"Where No One Has Gone Before"
Hooray, a better-than-average episode!  Lovely visuals.  Admittedly the story is a coatstand on which to hang the visuals, as well as providing the excuse for shoehorning Wesley Fricking Crusher into the bridge crew.  Still, like a stream of bat's piss, it shines out like a shaft of gold when all around is dark.
"Lonely Among Us"
The first one to do alien possession of the crew.  The alien diplomat plot, which might have seemed important to the casual viewer, is completely dropped at the end despite the fact that one of the mutually antagonistic ambassadorial parties hoping to join the Federation has just eaten a member of the other party.  Like it won't be awkward for Picard to explain that when the Enterprise arrives at the space summit.  Ah well, turn it into a throwaway joke for Riker, no one will care.  A mediocre episode with some nice alien make-up.
"Justice"
The one where the crew get shore leave on a planet where people dress skimpily and have sex a lot.  Must have sounded like yuk-a-minute gold to the writing team!  Oh, wait, we'd better have a plot... um... Wesley Crusher gets sentenced to death for trampling some flowers.  Yeah, that'll do.  Oh, wait, we'd better resolve the plot...  So Captain Picard shrugs and ignores the Prime Directive, and the problem magically vanishes.  Shit by anyone's standards, surely.
"The Battle"
Already an improvement in the portrayal of the Ferengi.  If only the Enterprise crew had included a Fictional Tropes Officer, they'd have noticed what was going on somewhere around ten minutes in.  Still, an upturn in quality.
"Hide and Q"
The one where Q gives Riker godlike powers.  Surprisingly superficial, given the potential of the premise.  Heigh-ho.
"Haven"
The one that introduces Troi's mother.  Oh, and Troi is expected to give it all up for an arranged marriage, except that the other party goes off instead with an alien he's never met on the strength of some handwavily explained dream-visions.  Better than it has any right to be, but still not actually good.
"The Big Goodbye"
In which Picard has apparently never been on a holodeck before, despite the fact it's been seen and referenced several times already.  But a welcome first stab at playing across genres, with the bridge crew crashing a noir detective story.  Passably fun, with the promise of more where that came from.
"Datalore"
The one that infodumps Data's backstory and introduces his evil twin.  Clunky as hell in several places.  Brent Spiner's good, though.  Odd to see the Crystalline Entity, which I definitely remember from another episode, but had no idea it wasn't just a one-off thing.
"Angel One"
Car crash!  Honestly, didn't Gene Roddenberry write this in the '70s?  I'll swear this was one of his misbegotten Genesis II pilots.
"11001001"
A little peculiar, but highly enjoyable.  Lovely visuals again.  The Binars' excuse for the entire plot is daft, yet makes a kind of sense for binary thinkers.  (It's tempting for me to make another comment about TNG being non-binary here, but to be honest I don't think there's enough material in this episode to support an analysis on that front.)
"Too Short a Season"
A high watermark of the series to date.  Good drama, good characters (acceptable acting).  With a dodgy gun-running Admiral using Captain Pike's old wheelchair, this episode's wide open to interpretation as a critique of TOS, which is no bad thing.
"When the Bough Breaks"
This one certainly has a TOS feel to it.  The build-up paints the writers into a corner, and consequently the resolution feels pat.  For all that, it's a passable episode.
"Home Soil"
A solid bit of old-style SF detective work on an isolated base.  I could imagine this being rewritten as a Doctor Who script circa 1968 without much difficulty.  The terraforming stuff all adds nicely to the series' depiction of the Federation.  Not bad.
"Coming of Age"
Interesting as a sort of mid-season evaluation of everything that's gone before, as an unpleasant "political officer" type character quizzes everyone on decisions made in previous episodes.  Probably more interesting in hindsight as a prelude to the next-but-five episode, "Conspiracy".  Also notable for focussing heavily on Wesley Fricking Crusher and not making him insufferable.
"Heart of Glory"
The one that openly contrasts and replaces the old "blood and thunder" variety of Klingon honour with the new "inner struggle" variety.  It's a good week to be Michael Dorn.  The Geordi POV material is lovely too.  Nice episode.
"The Arsenal of Freedom"
Relatively light (and light-hearted) anti-militarist stuff.  The plot is dropped pretty quickly once the away team manage to switch off the automated sales machine.  Forgettable, but some nice individual lines of dialogue - "Peace, through superior firepower!"
"Symbiosis"
The one with the heavy handed drug addiction message.  In spite of which, it's a pretty good episode.  The ending, in which the Prime Directive forces Picard to not resolve the problem, is questionable, odd, but also at least complex and realistic.
"Skin of Evil"
In which a cartoonishly evil tar creature kills Tasha Yar very, very abruptly.  It's not a great character exit - no real plot, no real meaning.  The funeral scene at the end of the episode is kind of nice but also kind of schmaltzy, and certainly can't carry the rest of the episode.  The last of the Season 1 car crashes.
"We'll Always Have Paris"
Casts its prominent female guest star in a very '60s role and treats her in a very '60s way.  I'm not sure whether the time experiment shenanigans are good enough to smooth over this and carry the episode.  I'm fairly sure this episode will be more interesting as a footnote to the Time War episodes I know are coming in later franchise series than it is in its own right.
"Conspiracy"
Possibly the least exciting political thriller ever.  Attempts some bold visual effects, but the technology and/or the budget just isn't there to do them justice.  And with the gruesome death of just one character, the entire threat of the Federation being infiltrated is handwaved away, tra la.
"The Neutral Zone"
Possibly the least exciting space opera ever.  One scene of Picard and some Romulans nodding at each other is cushioned within a whole episode of 21st century castaways gently adjusting to the 24th century.  The mystery of who's been destroying everyone's starbases is left hanging, but there's no effort made to suggest that it'll be picked up again or to ensure that the viewer will remember about it after the credits roll.  Hum-ho stuff.

Rankings, from favourite to least favourite:
"Heart of Glory"
"Too Short a Season"
"Home Soil"
"Coming of Age"
"Encounter at Farpoint"
"The Battle"
"The Arsenal of Freedom"
"Symbiosis"
"11001001"
"The Big Goodbye"
"Where No One Has Gone Before"
"Lonely Among Us"
"The Last Outpost"
"Hide and Q"
"Haven"
"Datalore"
"When the Bough Breaks"
"We'll Always Have Paris"
"The Neutral Zone"
"Conspiracy"
"The Naked Now"
"Justice"
"Code of Honor"
"Skin of Evil"
"Angel One"

Episodes that I remembered seeing before: 2 ("Encounter at Farpoint" and "The Last Outpost".)

Episodes that I would make a point of watching again: in this season, probably none of them.  It's early days, and with the benefit of hindsight I know TNG will improve, but quite honestly I don't think I'd have bothered to tune in for Season 2 if I'd watched Season 1 when it was first transmitted.  Still, some moments of interest here and there.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

"I Need My Friend Back!" - Doctor Who, Series 8 (2014 season)

And here's step two in my latest attempt to get this blog back up to date in the hope that I might start using it again more regularly.  At least I've managed to write up my thoughts on last year's season of DW before this year's has started to air!


A new year, a new tweak to the theme and the titles.  I'm quite keen on the new theme arrangement, with its bells and its twiddly theremin noises.  Less sold on the new title sequence - and when we'd only just arrived at a title sequence I really liked, too!  It does at least have the zooming eyebrows in its favour.  Meanwhile, Murray Gold's putting more synth into his music, and it's exactly what I wanted to hear, so yay for that.

As far as the stories are concerned, stripe me pink, but it's another year of improvement.  I mean, I'm still waiting for JB Hi-Fi to drop the price below $30 (I'm not proud...), but this is the first year of Moffat Who I absolutely swear shall find its place on my DVD shelves.  Peter Capaldi is of course brilliant as the Doctor, but this would mean nothing if the finest scripts weren't there to support him, and some of this year's output is fine indeed.

I think it helps tremendously that Steven Moffat took more of a hand in controlling the tone of the season, co-writing several stories in the first half as well as penning his own episodes.  Series 8 had exactly the tonal consistency that I found lacking during Matt Smith's tenure.  And when the brief for this season seems to have been "do properly what they tried to do during Colin Baker's tenure" - another era of DW that was tonally all over the place - keeping a firm hold on things is vitally important.  Totally paid off, as far as I'm concerned.  This season finally gives me hope that Moffat's vision for DW is something that can fit with the broader ethos of the show, and something that I might be able to get behind.


Deep Breath

The new Doctor pretty much had me at the point where he describes the destruction of the T-rex as a murder.  This season may play heavily on his less likeable alien qualities, but it's clear in that moment that underneath his harsh pragmatism, the Capaldi Doctor is acting from a deeply rooted sense of morality.  See also his speech at the end to Clara in which he suggests it's time he "did something" about the mistakes he's made - this may not chime entirely with his behaviour in later episodes, but on a metatextual level it suggests that Moffat is keeping an eye on the Doctor's morality this year, and plans to actually develop and address it over the course of the season.

On which note, yes, the Doctor leaving Clara on her own while he infiltrates the clockwork crew in his own way.  We're obviously expected to ask, with Clara, just how far we can trust him now (and given that he pops up exactly when she invites him to, the answer appears to be that we can trust him just fine), but we may as well ask, how far does he expect to be trusted?  Perhaps a little too far?  Given the way in which later episodes show the Doctor falling afoul of his own assumptions about how he can or ought to treat Clara, we might expect the season to build to a revelatory moment of self-assessment, with optional apology.  (In fact we get that in Flatline - the self-assessment, if not the apology - and he does seem to have figured himself out by the time the finale rolls round.)

Lots of interesting and broadly signposted stuff about the question of where the Doctor gets his faces from - which, surprisingly and a bit disappointingly, hasn't been picked up at all in subsequent episodes.  Presumably Moffat is leaving this thread hanging in case he can think of something to do with it in a later season.  It did, however, make for some enjoyable thematic/visual business in this episode.

Nice to see Madame Vastra and Jenny being developed a bit more as characters rather than just presented as the comedy action lesbians again.  Strax is increasingly being lumbered with the farcical/slapstick business, which may become wearing in due course, but so far I'm OK with it.  Fandom wanted more of these characters, and fandom is getting more of these characters, and by and large it's working out peachily.  They're starting to take on the cosy feel of the UNIT family, with Vastra's in-context quote of the Brigadier's line "Here we go again" providing a further wink and a nod in that direction.

Overall a very confident season opener.  It may echo and reference earlier eras of DW, most obviously the Pertwee (Brigadier quote as mentioned, dinosaur in central London) and Tennant years (rehash of the clockwork droid concept from The Girl in the Fireplace, hot air balloon ride over Victorian London), but it doesn't rely on these moments to cushion the impact of the new Doctor.  Peter Capaldi's already quite comfortable in the part he's clearly always wanted to play, aping Tom Baker here and there but finding his own way too.  The "veil" scene between Madame Vastra and Clara is a direct challenge to any viewers who might be struggling to adjust - he is the Doctor, whether you like it or not.  (And in stark contrast to the end of the 1984 season, after one story with the new Doctor, I do like.)


Into the Dalek

This looks a lot like a "new recipe" version of 2005's Dalek - lone Dalek, moral compare-and-contrast between the Doctor and the Daleks, even down to the almost-quote of calling the Doctor "a good Dalek".  But where Dalek simply juxtaposed the actions and behaviour of the Doctor and the lone Dalek, here we take a close look at the inside of the protagonists' heads - not just into the Dalek, but into the Doctor as well.

The picture we get is painted in broad strokes - perhaps necessarily, after all this is only 45 minutes of family entertainment - but it's a bold picture all the same.  The idea that it actually would be possible for the Doctor to (literally) change the Daleks' minds is something DW has only ever touched on once (The Evil of the Daleks, 1967); the idea that the one obstacle to this is his own hatred of the Daleks is revolutionary.  The Doctor could actually reform his deadliest enemies, if he could only get over his own past experience of them and his preconceived ideas of them.  This is a highly provocative statement for the show to make - I would say timely, but it's not as if there's ever been a time when DW couldn't have made this statement and had it appear relevant.

As if to emphasise the Doctor's role as part of the problem, we get some standout moments of callousness from the Doctor, first towards the pilot he saves at the start of the episode, but more memorably in his sacrifice of the trigger-happy soldier and his "Top layer if you want to say a few words" later on.  It'll take the Doctor a few more episodes to file off the rough edges of his pragmatism (see also Mummy on the Orient Express); at least in this particular episode, and at this early stage of this particular season, it's not out of place.

There's not a lot more to say about this story.  I grant that it's light on plot, but I do like it very much - hot contender for best post-2005 Dalek story, for what the competition's worth - and thematically it's one of the stronger links in this season.  And ideologically, it's very much my DW.


Robot of Sherwood

Mark Gatiss, a lightweight historical story - this review could pretty much write itself.  And yet it's still a pretty good episode - with about half the season tied for first place, it's still going to rank fairly low in the season for me, but I'd put it ahead of other episodes to be discussed in due course.  The Sheriff's amusingly low-stakes villain rant was a high point.


Listen

Not at all suprising to see this episode made it onto the Hugo Award shortlist.  I think this is the moment when Moffat's experiments with the fairytale nature of DW finally come together, in a weird examination of the Doctor's relationship with the whole concept of monsters.  The creature in little Danny Pink's room and the creatures outside the base at the end of the universe clearly exist, but they're never explained.  They may not even be the same creatures, and as it turns out they're certainly not the same creature that the child Doctor feared was hiding under his bed.  They're less important than the Doctor's own fear of the unknown, says the episode; if he can overcome that, he may find that what he thought were monsters can in fact be friends.  A worthy theme for DW, and one that carries over into the next episode.

(In light of the series finale, it's worth wondering where Orson Pink comes from, assuming he still exists at all.  Perhaps events in the finale (and follow-on in the Christmas special) weren't that final after all...)


Time Heist

What appears to be a morally questionable heist story turns out to be a thoroughly compassionate rescue story.  It's all a question of what the characters know and what they assume.  Another episode that does a great job of overturning some stale story structures and viewer assumptions, while still looking good and providing surface entertainment.  DW has definitely found its groove again.


The Caretaker

Strange that the Doctor should take such exception to Danny being an ex-military maths teacher - after all, cut back to Mawdryn Undead and you find his old pal the Brigadier in the exact same position.  (What's that you say - a foreshadowing reference to the Brigadier?)

So, a low-key character episode with laughs and a largely incidental generic alien menace.  Gareth Roberts is evidently the go-to writer for this variety of story.  Underneath the comedy, the character work is surprisingly sharp and fits nicely in retrospect with later developments.  Perhaps not one of the keystone episodes of this season, but what it does, it does well.


Kill the Moon

Yes, the science on this one is laughable.  It's not as if DW has troubled itself greatly in the past to get science right, but certainly this episode is an extreme example.  And yet...

There is an argument, which has spread through fandom like wildfire, that this episode can be read as a commentary on issues relating to abortion; I think this is quite plausible.  The argument further runs that this episode is making a pro-life (or, if you prefer, anti-choice) statement, on the grounds that Clara makes a unilateral decision not to abort the moon-dragon, and that she's proven right; I think that that's a misreading of the episode.  The real substance of the episode, and of the subtext, is the Doctor's refusal to make the choice for Clara, to the point that he disappears for much of the episode in order to force her to make the choice herself.  It has to be, can only be, the woman's decision (and note also the Doctor's lampshady remark about "womankind") - and moreover, the individual woman's decision, hence the business of having Clara ignore what the rest of humanity is telling her to do, which doesn't make a lot of sense in a pro-life interpretation of this subtext.  Clara's anger towards the Doctor later on seems to stem not so much from the fact that he presented her with this choice at all as from the fact that he didn't stick around to help; the issue seems to be not that he didn't tell her what to do but that she couldn't use him as a sounding-board while she made her decision.  So if we're going to read an abortion subtext into this episode, I think the message we should take away from it is that it has to be the woman's choice, but that she shouldn't be denied moral support in making her choice.

As far as the actual textual decision to have her not kill the moon-dragon is concerned - well, look, it's DW, a show that celebrates diversity and not solving problems by killing.  Given a straight choice, there was little chance the scriptwriter would opt to resolve the episode any other way.  This is simply in keeping with the Doctor's little pep speech at the end about humanity reaching out to the stars, and with the show's history in general.

So is it a problem that this story presents the familiar old Moon as an eggshell for a growing (presumably transdimensional, how else to fudge away explain the change in mass/gravity) space creature?  There are all sorts of real-world science problems in having the moon-dragon lay a replacement Moon of identical size and appearance, or having the tidal waters just in front of where the Doctor and co stand at the episode's end be completely unaffected by it all.  It's bollocks, yes.  But, eh...  I'm inclined to claim that it's magic realism and simply belongs at a strange angle to the normal run of DW.  As ridiculous as this episode seems on a surface viewing, thematically it works, somehow, or at least I believe it does.  Which is more than can be said for episode 10 of this season.


Mummy on the Orient Express

Back in the groove again, with an episode that plays like something straight out of the Hinchcliffe-era Tom Baker songbook (and note also Capaldi's dead-on Tom voice when he's talking to himself, and some unmistakeable homage to Dudley Simpson's style in Murray Gold's soundtrack).  Welcome, welcome, welcome Jamie Mathieson, who turns out two excellent episodes in succession, very different from each other yet both very Whoish, and here's hoping he'll be back next year.

Presumably the whole matter of Call-Me-Gus and his puppetmasters has been left hanging for a reason.  Something to look at again after the 2015 season has aired.  I thought the scene on the beach at the end of this episode was a tremendous comment on the Capaldi Doctor's morality - possibly a little overdue two thirds of the way through the season.  And Jo loved the lounge jazz version of "Don't Stop Me Now".  I haven't told her about the Series 8 soundtrack CD yet.  Let's see how long it takes her to notice this blog post.


Flatline

This one's my personal favourite of the season - as I may have mentioned before, I'm a sucker for stories that play around with the TARDIS.  All the dimensional shenanigans in this episode are brilliantly realised and a great science fictional idea for DW to play with.  Also notable for being set in a parallel universe Bristol that has underground trains - eh wot?  Best Bristol accent on display, tragically, was the first guy in the community service group to be killed.  Still, we don't watch this show for its convincing portrayal of the West Country, and at least it wasn't plain old London.

The one bit of the episode I would have happily left on the cutting room floor was the scene of the Doctor pointlessly giving the 2D creatures a monster name, presumably just so that the merchandisers have got something to work with.  Otherwise, perfick.


In the Forest of the Night

DW ventures into the realms of magic realism again, but this time the thematic material is lacking - what, "trees are good"? - and the episode ends up being a dribbling mess.  I've tried to compose a more detailed response to this story, but I just can't seem to avoid using the words "or some shit".  Probably best to drop it.  It's just... gah.


Dark Water

An episode which gets its title from a substance that has been created for the sole purpose of hiding the Cybermen in plain sight of the viewer, and for no other meaningful purpose.  I don't have much to add to that.  Some very nice work from Michelle Gomez as Missy - let's face it, she's carrying this episode.


Death in Heaven

So let's talk about the transgender Master.  This subject could sustain several academic essays, and I look forward to seeing them in fanthologies to come.

My first thought is that this does interesting things to the long-standing slash fiction interpretation of the relationship between the Doctor and the Master.  RTD already did interesting things with that in Last of the Time Lords when he pretty much implied that it was the Doctor, not the Master, who was wrestling with an unrequited Time Lord love.  Moffat seems to reject that take - the Master can't have failed to notice that the Doctor, particularly the version she last met, is strongly attracted to human women, so having her turn up now in a female body looks like a deliberate ploy for the Doctor's attention and affection.  Note also the aggressive kiss in the previous episode.

But that gets in the way of the more simple but equally interesting fact of just having the Master turn up in a female body.  Previous throwaway references to the gender fluidity of the Time Lords are finally embodied on screen.  And of course, fans who've been asking why the Doctor can't be played by a woman are given a sop, and a strong piece of fresh ammunition.  Or are they?

On the one hand, yes, having the Master change gender does look like a dry run for the possibility of casting a woman as the Doctor.  On the other hand, Moffat has previously been dismissive - almost to the point of outright insult - of the idea that the Doctor might change gender.  And then, note how, through the character of Missy, Moffat symbolically attacks the younger generation of fandom twice in this episode: first when she vaporises Seb for squeeing, casting a pitying look directly at the camera as she does so; then when she kills Osgood, who once again is seen cosplaying as the Doctor.  Is Moffat pandering to the fans, or cruelly mocking them?

It's a tough one to call, especially when you have the beloved character of the Brigadier resurrected as a jet-propelled flying version of Kroton the Friendly Cyberman.  Is that thumbing the nose at older, more conservative fans and their sacred cows?  An invitation to them to dismiss the episode and everything in it?  A way for Moffat to show that he's sympathetic to the idea of transgender Time Lords by contrasting it with something really outrageous?  A way for him to double down on his previous dismissal of the idea - "well, if you're going to have that, you might as well have this"?  Just another zany, punk-rockin', DW-can-do-what-it-likes idea thrown into the mix?  Am I reading too much into all of this?

The last scene is a lovely one, with the Doctor and Clara both lying about having got what they wanted.  Clara's relationship with the Doctor - in 2014, at least - has practically been defined by lying, usually to Danny.  It'll be interesting to see how that pans out in 2015 in Danny's absence.

Overall, a finale that just about sticks the landing, and one of those rare occasions when the second part is at least as good as the first.  The unsurprising return of Missy has already been confirmed, hooray; knowing Mr Moffat's general approach to character deaths, I wouldn't be too surprised if we haven't seen the last of Danny Pink or the Cyber-Brigadier either.


Last Christmas

Not much to say about this one.  It's a Christmas episode, so my expectations are lowered; it's actually better than many previous Christmas episodes, probably the best Moffat Who has provided thus far.  It makes a modest amount of sense, it doesn't rely on "the tears of a family at Christmas", and it actually moves the characters forward.  Love the cheeky banter with Santa and his elves at the start.  I kind of hoped Moffat might actually stick with the old version of Clara at the end, but hey.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The very, very long-delayed book post

Why, look at this - someone's left a blog lying around unattended.  I'm sure it won't be missed.  Ahem.

At this point, attempting to catch up with all my unblogged reading is not even worth considering.  Here, however, are a few notable items to bring things up to date.

The last month or so has been pretty much taken up with Hugo Award nominees, but I think I'll hold off on writing any of those up until after voting closes at the end of July.  Readers may or may not be aware of The Shit That Has Befallen The Hugo Awards This Year, and if not, it's a rant best left for another time, but let's just say reading the nominees has been more of a chore than a pleasure this year.  Sneak preview: *ech*.

Assorted crime novels, Gladys Mitchell
Back in the midst of the so-called Golden Age of detective fiction (the '30s, more or less), Gladys Mitchell was considered one of the Queens of Crime alongside Sayers and Christie.  Today, she's all but forgotten.  A little while back, however, there was a TV series based around Mitchell's detective, Mrs Bradley, which starred Diana Rigg; according to reviews that mentioned the books at all, the resemblance was close to non-existent.  I determined to track down those books and see for myself, which proved to be no easy task - most of Mitchell's novels have spent decades out of print.  Fortunately, a lot of them are now available as ebooks (some of them legitimately!).
Mrs Bradley is a wizened crone - generally described as resembling a crocodile, occasionally a vulture - as well as a qualified psychologist and never, ever an entrant in Diana Rigg Lookalike contests.  She makes her debut in Speedy Death (also adapted as the first episode of the TV series), which must have been a hell of a racy book at the time it was published - young buck discovered, dead in the bath, as a female cross-dresser, and her frustrated suitor overcome with a murderous rage that is explicitly described as sexually motivated.  No particular secret is made of the killer's identity, with the bulk of the plot taken up in trying to contain her and explain her actions.  I've seen it suggested, quite believably, that this and others of Mitchell's works were intended as spoofs of the cosy detective novel.
The blatantly obvious murderer, with emphasis on motive rather than mystery, crops up again as a feature in subsequent books - Mitchell herself was a psychologist, and I imagine the pseudish shenanigans of Hercule Poirot and his "little grey cells" in Christie's novels must have driven her to take this approach by way of rebuttal.  Even if she doesn't come right out and name the murderer early on, Mitchell does often telegraph them pretty clearly; more rarely, she plays with the reader's expectations and provides a last-minute twist.  The Mystery of a Butcher's Shop (blatant genre parody throughout) and The Saltmarsh Murders are good examples of the former category, while Death at the Opera is a stand-out example of the latter.
Having read 8 of these in succession, I thought it best to take a break - finally got Mitchell fatigue a couple of chapters into The Rising of the Moon, which is widely recommended and probably deserves my more focussed attention.

SFFANZ review books:
Bird Box, Josh Malerman
It's OK.
The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains, Neil Gaiman
It's good, but probably overpriced.
The Chimes, Anna Smaill
Good but difficult.  Suited my tastes, but probably more artsy than most readers would like.

Ack-Ack Macaque, Gareth L Powell
Hive Monkey, Gareth L Powell
First two volumes in a series of cyberpunkish adventures starring a technologically uplifted monkey who was created to provide the brain of the chief non-player character in an online game set in a parallel WWII, but who breaks out of captivity and goes on the warpath against the corporation that made him.  Let's face it, given this set-up, Ack-Ack Macaque is clearly and absolutely the correct name for the protagonist.  Well played, Gareth L Powell, well played indeed.  Come for the wacky knockabout concept, stay for the surprisingly well handled characters and action adventure.

Doctor Who and Race, ed Lindy Orthia
A collection of essays concerning racial issues in DW.  We all know those issues are there, and sometimes it does us good to stare them in the eye.  Uniformly well-written and thought-provoking.

Special Sound: The Creation and Legacy of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, Louis Niebur
An extremely thorough biography of the BBC department that, for some four decades, was tasked with coaxing SF soundtracks out of junk and cheap electronics.  At some point I'll go back through the DW music blog and add in details from this damn fine book.  (Just... not right now.)

Dial H, vol 2: Exchange, China Mieville, Alberto Ponticelli & Dan Green
Alas, this series was cancelled after a scant 16 issues - this bumper volume completes the set.  At least Mieville was given warning and was able to wrap up his story in the few issues that remained.  (Actually, it might even have been a blessing - things start to drag around the middle issues, with a definite picking up of pace in the last few.)
Here the concept of the H-dials becomes an allegory for copyright infringement, with the creators of the dials essentially exposed as entertainment pirates.  There's a suggestion that our heroes are morally in the clear since the original templates for most of their stolen superhero identities are either dead or freely available generic types, although it's not absolutely clear cut.  Conceptually a very rich series.

Chew, vols 1 thru 9, John Layman & Rob Guillory
Image Comics are my new favourite comics publisher.  They're bringing out a lot of quirky non-superhero titles right now, and this one was the first of the current batch to catch my eye.  It's set in the near future after a food scare has led to the outlawing of chicken as a foodstuff; the human population has clearly taken a hit of some sort, but there's a strong suggestion that the food scare was a cover-up and that something else is going on with the chickens.  In any event, the Food and Drug Administration is now America's most powerful law enforcement agency, and investigating crimes relating to food and/or poultry is their top priority.
Oh, and several of the characters have weird food-related abilities.  Just thought I'd mention that as casually as possible.
The protagonist is Detective Tony Chu, who has the ability to psychometrically "read" the history of any object, provided that object a) is, or has been, living matter, and b) is in his mouth.  He works on homicide cases and has a boss who hates him, so of course cannibalistic shenanigans ensue.  It's all played for laughs, folks - it's macabre, but it's a good kind of macabre.
Story arcs still unresolved at the end of book 9 include: Tony's cat-and-mouse pursuit of a serial killer with the same freaky ability as himself; the appearance in the sky of fiery alien glyphs, how this ties in with the booming trade in "gallsaberries" and whether it means the world is going to end; and just what that chicken ban was really all about.
The art style is cartoonish and Guillory loves to pepper the pages with tiny comedic details (and big comedic details!) so even in a low-incident issue there's plenty to enjoy.  The runaway star of the series, though, is a bionic luchador rooster called Poyo, who has gone from being a plot detail to making surprise return appearances to having his own spin-off one-shots; it's got to the point now where the main action in every issue will pause while someone speculates on what Poyo might be doing, just so that we can indulge in a double-page splash of Poyo's latest outlandish adventure.  He's one bad-ass *-*ing bird.

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 trans woman 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 the transgendered in some vaguely suggested way.  It's not as good as 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.