20 April 2013

Beyond History’s End | 50th Anniversary Doctor Who Review 2 of 12 | The Wheel of Ice by Stephen Baxter

With sales dwindling to near-breadline levels, in December 2005 BBC Books quietly decided to give classic Doctor Who novels a “rest” – words that, quite rightly, sent a chill down the spine of every savvy Who reader. Fortunately, through their countless series of audio dramas and, later, audio books, the inexhaustible Big Finish Productions were able to keep the classic series’ flame burning hot during this literary hiatus, but if you were hard of hearing or just a lover of good old-fashioned words and paper, your access to new old Who fiction had been blocked. In August last year though, BBC Books began its ‘Past Doctor’ reboot, and I’m very happy to report that, despite its break being less than half as long as that the television series had to endure, the range has returned every bit as renewed, and I dare say every bit as vendible, as the show itself did in 2005. 

A hardback tome clad in the handsome dust jacket of a certain bestseller, The Wheel of Ice is a completely different animal to Andrew Cartmel’s half-hearted paperback, Atom Bomb Blues – the last Doctor Who book to follow the exploits of a pre-2005 Doctor. In the mould of Michael Moorcock’s convention-busting eleventh Doctor novel, The Coming of the Terraphiles, author Stephen Baxter’s name takes up as much room on the pale and icy cover as the ashen Doctor Who logo does – and rightly so, for it is every bit as at home amongst its illustrious author’s esteemed canon of works as it is between The Seeds of Death and The War Games. But unlike Moorcock, who very deliberately had his own private universe literally open up and swallow the TARDIS, Baxter firmly grounds his tale in the monochrome world of the late Patrick Troughton era. From its almost-farcically metropolitan cast of characters all the way up to its redolent title, The Wheel of Ice is as Who as Who can ever be; at times, it feels like Baxter’s a lone Li H’sen Chang or Black Orchid reference away from descending into the realms of pure fanwank. But after seven years in the wilderness, this is exactly what I was looking for from this title – and I’d wager that I’m not the only one.

What impresses the most about this book though is that Baxter doesn’t let his evident ardour for the series limit his scope. Whilst it’s evocative of a second Doctor serial almost to a fault, the story feels contemporary and complex; eminent, even. It may be peppered with moments of horror that evoke Auton-like terror through prose that Stephen King would envy, but at heart it’s a personal and political soap opera that calls to mind J K Rowling’s Casual Vacancy, which was published just six weeks after it. Both use a young heroine as a window into a world of human folly; a world of “hard work and regulations” where, behind closed doors, the overburdened youths are every bit as powerful as their parents, and perhaps even more capable. This isn’t a tale carried by the sleeping alien Arkive and its flesh-metamorphosing Blue Doll creations – it’s carried by a daughter whose transmat-inventing father’s disgrace has driven her to greed and aggression; an affable robot “fae Glasgae” who grew up dreaming that he’d play for Celtic, only to hit puberty and be told that he hasn’t got any feet; a mayor and a mother whose uneasy relationship with her son captures absolutely the war that’s raging within the colony in microcosm. Such carefully-considered and delectably-delivered character flourishes are the perfect complement to the author’s Power of the Daleks-league world-building, the two combining to refashion the archetypal Troughton “base under siege” story into perhaps its most enthralling form to date.

I must also applaud Baxter’s magnificent structure, which sees a 368-page hardback divided into dozens of bite-size chapters and interludes, imbuing it with a sense of pace that a television four-parter would struggle to match, let alone a near-ten-hour epic (roughly the length of the novel when read by David Troughton). The (mostly) flashback interludes are a particular treat as each is presented almost as a stand-alone piece of short fiction – a couple of them completely so. MMAC’s life story is as compelling as any one-off that you’ll find in a science fiction anthology, and the story of Mayor Laws’ family’s “allohistorical lure” is dripping with such vivid detail that when its narrative (which begins in the 19th century) overtook the present day and fact became fiction, I scarcely noticed. Baxter doesn’t drop prosaic bombs like “She got into her flying car…”, for instance – he refers to that car by its manufacturer’s name, as we might a BMW or a Volvo. It’s only once it takes off that the penny drops and the reader is left trying to work out when then segued into the day after tomorrow.

Even where The Wheel of Ice couldn’t expect to compete with a second Doctor television story, it acquits itself commensurately. Baxter’s dialogue captures Troughton’s rambling rhythm flawlessly, and his prose paints the perfect picture of an outward ‘cosmic hobo’ with a steely darkness sleeping in his soul. His Jamie is, in many respects, even more remarkable – Baxter is one of the few Doctor Who scribes who’s had the gall to dispense with any semblance of the English language and simply set out the Highlander’s dialect exactly as it sounds, in a flurry of missing consonant-apostrophes and extraneous Scots vowels (as opposed to simply throwing in the occasional “Och aye”, as is the temptation for many writers). It’s like reading Irvine Welsh without the profanity – unless, of course, you count “cudgie”. Even hard-to-write-for brainbox Zoe is taken somewhere new as Baxter mischievously inverts convention, sending Jamie out to build the Doctor’s neutrino device (which he does, believe it or not!), while Zoe has to put her genius-level IQ to work babysitting for the mayor’s daughter and playing makeshift peacemaker.

The story concludes exactly as it should, with a cliffhanger befitting the era that inspired it, and that I hope will, one day, lead into another hardbound adventure for this TARDIS team with Stephen Baxter’s emblazoned on its dust jacket. After seven years without an original classic Doctor Who novel, The Wheel of Ice seamlessly fuses old with new and niche with mainstream to create a ‘Past Doctor’ adventure that has set a new standard for Who fiction, and will hopefully serve as a launching pad for a whole new range of books with a welcome focus on quality, not quantity.

The Wheel of Ice is currently available in hardback (best price online today: £10.86 at The Book Depository) and digital formats (£9.49 from Amazon’s Kindle Store or £9.99 from iTunes), and is due to be released in paperback on 1st August 2013.

The Doctor, his companion Jo Grant and the Brigadier face their strangest case yet – a Saturday night TV show that has been invaded by aliens that look like puppets!

The Scorchies want to take over the world. They want to kill the Doctor. And they want to perform some outstanding showtunes. Though not necessarily in that order…

With Jo caught inside The Scorchies Show, can she save the day before the planet Earth falls victim to the dark side of light entertainment?

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11 April 2013

The Guardian | Thursday 11th April 2013

My Uncle Mick goes boldly where no Wolverson has ever gone before, making The Guardian’s letters page with his (more dignified than “Ding Dong!”) Maggie Thatcher indictment.

Well said R Mick.

09 April 2013

Beyond History’s End | 50th Anniversary Doctor Who Review 1 of 12 | The First Wave by Simon Guerrier

Whilst Big Finish’s Companion Chronicles range was originally conceived with a view to telling traditional stories from the perspective of the first four Doctors’ companions, over its six seasons it has evolved to encompass adventures that are every bit as reminiscent of the current television series as they are the old black-and-white Hartnells that spawned it, which from my standpoint makes them compulsively appealing. And just like The Perpetual Bond and The Cold Equations before it, The First Wave is a case in point.

Now ‘linear’ isn’t a word that you’ll see often thrown about when discussing the plot of a Doctor Who story, but if you study the series’ earliest episodes, they customarily followed a linear narrative; hell, they were even shot that way in the beginning. In direct defiance of this, Simon Guerrier’s script opens with a cliffhanging pre-title sequence that Steven Moffat would be proud of, sucking the listener into what feels very much like a typical second episode – at least, for a while. Like a Whovian Tarantino shooting in a darkened room, Guerrier dramatically segues between two-hand audio drama and descriptive rewinds. Those who favour listening to their Big Finish productions whilst serenely lying down can forget about it; The First Wave’s ceaseless suspense will have you fidgeting at the very least.

The preceding adventure for this TARDIS crew did a lovely job of setting up the predestination paradox that Guerrier’s plot centres around, and this one does an even better job of bringing it to the boil without rehearsing too much of The Space Museum and other stories of the same ilk. Furthermore, as with his last Companion Chronicles trilogy, Guerrier resurrects an antagonist from the television series to lend his final instalment a little extra lustre – this time around, it’s the Vardans of The Invasion of Time fame (or, perhaps more aptly, infamy). A loose prequel to the 1970s Tom Baker serial, The First Wave presents the Vardans perhaps as they should have been seen on television – as terrifying, omnipresent creatures that can travel along any form of wave – even a brainwave – and thus from whom there can be no escape. Divorced from the appallingly banal visuals of The Invasion of Time and embellished by the mid-GCSE writer’s foundation level science, the Vardans have at last found their perfect home amongst this production’s soundwaves.

As with its two predecessors, I found the most enthralling segments of this story to be those that simply see Peter Purves play Steven and Tom Allen play Oliver. To say that this is Oliver’s final turn, Guerrier’s script is exceedingly kind to his space pilot cohort, building upon the six-dimensional groundwork laid in The Cold Equations by having him step up the plate in the Doctor’s absence, drawing upon his wartime experiences to help guide his judgement and steel his stomach. The former Blue Peter man and I’m Alan Partridge joke-butt gives a duly stirring performance as his character deals with his mentor’s apparent demise as well as his and his remaining friend’s apparently-inexorable fate (and indeed the pending subjugation of all time and space by the Vardans), and once more he makes for a credible first Doctor to boot. In my reviews of previous Purves-led Companion Chronicles for The History of the Doctor, I wore out my lexicon trying to describe just how evocative his portrayal of Hartnell’s Doctor is, so this time around I’ll just quote the man himself: “I do a mean Doctor,” says he. And so he does.

Oliver is again engrossing too, this story (and particularly its dénouement) ably demonstrating how much the character has matured since we first met him fleeing arrest in his native 1960s. I won’t spoil his fate for those yet to  hear it, save for to say that I was very impressed with how both Guerrier’s writing and Allen’s portrayal brought out the emotional logic in Oliver’s psychology. For those that thought The Cold Equations had blown the lid on why Oliver was so keen to flee Earth with the Doctor and Steven at the end of The Perpetual Bond, you might be aware of the facts, but the real heartbreak lies in Oliver’s interpretation of them; in the stain of criminality that his vanity can’t abide, no matter how unjust the laws that would condemn him. It’s his desperate evasion of this stigma that drives him to join the Doctor and Steven aboard the TARDIS, and eventually leads him to the (beautifully-named) planetoid Grace Alone, where his already-written fate awaits him.

Like a lot of listeners, I doubted that Guerrier would ever surpass his Sara Kingdom stories, but with the trilogy that The First Wave crowns, I think that he just might have. Bringing a character back from the dead as a house suddenly doesn’t seem quite so inventive when it’s measured against teaming up the ascetic first Doctor with a bowler hat-doffing gay banker who’s more afraid of a criminal record than he is alien monsters and outer space.

The First Wave is available to download from Big Finish for just £7.99. The CD version (which also comes with a free download) is just a pound extra.

The Wheel. A ring of ice and steel turning around a moon of Saturn, and home to a mining colony supplying a resource-hungry Earth. It's a bad place to grow up.

The colony has been plagued by problems. Maybe it’s just gremlins, just bad luck. But the equipment failures and thefts of resources have been increasing, and there have been stories among the children of mysterious creatures glimpsed aboard the Wheel.

Many of the younger workers refuse to go down the warren-like mines anymore. And then sixteen-year-old Phee Laws, surfing Saturn’s rings, saves an enigmatic blue box from destruction.

Aboard the Wheel, the Doctor, Jamie and Zoe find a critical situation - and they are suspected by some as the source of the sabotage. They soon find themselves caught in a mystery that goes right back to the creation of the solar system. A mystery that could kill them all.

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04 April 2013

Book Review | Star Trek: Typhon Pact - Seize the Fire by Michael A Martin

The Typhon Pact miniseries’ second instalment is a Titan novel in all but name. Cut of the same cloth as the preceding six stand-alone Titan books and penned by one of its creators, Michael A Martin, this volume picks up right where Synthesis left off. The fact that its antagonists, the Gorn, are members of the Typhon Pact is the book’s only tie to what is starting to look very much like the loosest of story arcs.

Particularly when measured against the much more dynamic Zero Sum Game, Seize the Fire is a bloated, dawdling affair. Whereas David Mack’s Breen thriller borrowed elements from the James Bond series and repackaged them for the Star Trek universe, Martin’s Gorn gambit simply borrows elements from a few Star Trek movies (even the Titan crew have to point out that the ecosculptor co-opted by the Gorn is exactly like the Genesis Device, and that the fate of the Gorn warrior caste’s crècheworld is the same as that which befell the Klingon moon Praxis) and raises the stakes a little, as the Gorn plan to terraform an already-inhabited (but pre-first contact, “hands-off”) planet to use as a new hatchery for their moribund warriors. The plot is therefore carried as much by extensive deliberations on the interpretation of Starfleet’s Prime Directive as it is action or incident, which isn’t automatically a problem; the problem comes when the book is stretched to almost 500 pages. Even a neat plot twist around the half-way point wasn’t quite enough to keep me engaged.

What Martin does do very effectively though is provide an intriguing view of the Gorn Hegemony from the ground up; or, rather, the outside-in. Seize the Fire introduces us to the multi-caste society through its pirates and extremists lurking on the edge of their territory; even through one of its number who has been thrown overboard for showing conscience. Through this character, S’syrixx, Martin is able to convey just how similar to us the Gorn actually are, without losing sight of the innate, mutual fear and revulsion that both species struggle to overcome. Martin’s description of the terror and disgust inspired by the mammal Rry’kurr’s “fur” is almost worth the purchase price in itself. Almost.

Overall though, I think that most will find Seize the Fire too much work for too little reward. Unless you’re determined to follow every chapter of the Federrazsh’n vs Typhon Pact saga, no matter how remote or recycled, this is definitely one to skip over.

03 April 2013

Andrew Exley (1981-2013)

We liked to drink with Andy, ’cos Andy was our mate

We liked to drink with Andy, ’cos Andy was so great

Now the Old Boys will always be one short

And our old drinking song doesn’t rhyme anymore

01 April 2013

Blu-ray Review | WWE: The Attitude Era

For those who never experienced it, it’s hard to convey the significance of what’s come to be termed the “Attitude Era” of professional wrestling. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, pro wrestling was colourful, cartoon entertainment aimed squarely at kids and the relatives that they’d drag along to the arenas. The then-World Wrestling Federation’s family-friendly show would see virtuous superheroes the likes of Hulk Hogan and Bret “Hitman” Hart battling overblown villains either torn from the pages of a comic book or hastily contrived for a nation at war in the Gulf to rally against. Like a lot of lads born around the time that I was, I would sit rapt in front of the television for hours as these simple morality pantomimes played out before me, only for them to quickly lose their appeal as puberty hit. But then one night in 1999, something happened...

Arriving home in the early hours of the morning after a night of drunken debauchery, a mate of mine and I were channel-hopping when we came across a spectacle on Sky Sports 1 that kept us up long past 4am. The black-clad Big Boss Man, whom we had known only as a blue and yellow-sporting corrections officer caricature, had been hanged from a colossal steel structure that surrounded a wrestling ring in what looked very much like an impromptu execution. Gothic figures wearing baggy white shirts, fangs and sunglasses ascended to the rafters, clearly the perpetrators of the crime, and below stood the portentous figure of the Undertaker – once a haunting, quasi-supernatural mortician who said nothing but “Rest in peace”; by then a pointy-bearded, heavily-tattooed cult leader, who habitually rolled his eyes into the back of his head and talked in tongues as he presided over the atrocities wrought by his ‘Ministry of Darkness’. Times had certainly changed. This ‘Hell in a Cell Match’ quickly gave way to a contest for the WWF Championship between a bald-headed, beer-swilling redneck whom we quickly realised was the modern equivalent of the Hulkster – but somehow his very antithesis too. Vitamins had become cans of lager; saying one’s prayers had become flipping the bird. The WWF had gone and found itself an attitude, just as the children that had grown up glued to it in the ’80s had started to develop their own.

From there, RAW become a weekly fixture for us on a Friday night / Saturday morning, pushing every late-teen button. With the company locked in a bitter ratings war with its (in the USA) Monday night rival, the now-renegade Hogan-led WCW, every segment of the show was designed to be as appealing to the 18-34 male demographic as possible, abounding with everything from bloodbaths to breasts. Whereas in my childhood days, a wrestler’s gimmick would be something as clear-cut as being rich and ruthless (the Million Dollar Man); arrogant and affected (Ric Flair); perfect and proud of it (Curt “Mr Perfect” Hennig); or even just running to the ring really fast and spouting utter bollocks with terrifying conviction (the Ultimate Warrior), in this Attitude Era, a perfectly-acceptable gimmick would be, say, being an adult film star (Val Venis); a pimp (the Godfather); an almost-preposterously lewd degenerate (D-Generation X); or even having a predilection for arses (Billy Gunn, also known as ‘Mr Ass’, later of ‘Billy and Chuck’ fame). Back in the day, a special match would be something like a Casket Match, which could be won by shoving the other guy in a coffin; in this era, you’d have to set that coffin alight for anyone to blink an eye. Ladder Matches suddenly weren’t fantastic enough; Tables, Ladders and (Steel) Chairs Matches set a new standard. Count-outs become unfashionable, and more often than not main events would have their disqualification stipulation removed too, making them “Street Fights”; “No-Holds-Barred”; or just plain old “No DQ Matches”. Don’t ask me what the difference is, they were all just as bloody – not to mention just as bloody brilliant.

This collection was charged with the unenviable job of serving as a digest of this unforgettable epoch of sports entertainment – something that I was pleasantly surprised to see it do admirably, if not definitively (they’d have needed half a dozen discs at least for that). There are almost as many promos and skits to be enjoyed here as there are full-length matches, which certainly fits with my recollection of the programming, and the matches that have been chosen have mainly been lifted from RAW (and in a few cases later on, SmackDown!), which, whilst not really a fair representation of the quality of the matches, will please most of those who buy the Blu-ray as the pay-per-view matches have all seen commercial release at least once (and are still readily available in the UK without any post-lawsuit censorship, at least for now, as part of Silver Vision’s Tagged Classics range).

Amongst dead-cert segments such as Mike Tyson joining D-Generation X; the Corporation’s pre-WrestleMania XV beer bath; the arrival of Y2J; and, of course, the ill-fated Stephanie McMahon / Test wedding, I was particularly pleased to find little gems such as Steve Austin’s fourth WWF Championship victory (the night after King of the Ring ’99 on RAW); Triple H’s now-infamous “I am The Game!” interview with Jim Ross (from an early episode of Sunday Night Heat); and some really powerful Ministry of Darkness stuff, including the Undertaker’s late ’98 mock-crucifixion of Austin and his ‘unholy union’ with Stephanie (the night after Backlash ’99 on RAW). Even more interesting to me though was the stuff that I’d never seen, or had only caught the punchline of in a clip somewhere long after the event – material from RAW through ’97 and ’98, and segments from early episodes of SmackDown! that either weren’t broadcast in the UK at all, or were shown heavily-censored in an early morning slot on Sky 1.

For instance, there’s a brilliant teaser trailer (entitled “Soldier of Love”) for Val Venis’s impending arrival that sees him appear naked (save for a combat helmet) in a bush with none other than Jenna Jameson, one of the most popular pornstars in the world at that time, and a Buried Alive Match from SmackDown! that, for me, encapsulates the era entirely. It may be billed as the Rock and Mankind defending their World Tag Team Championships against the Undertaker and the Big Show, but inevitably Triple H sticks his sledgehammer in, and so Austin commandeers an ambulance... Ditto the full-blown Survivor Series-style elimination match that sees Austin, the Rock, Kane and Shane McMahon take on all four members of the recently-reformed D-Generation X. And happily none of the material is spoiled by censorship – save for on the cover art, where the ‘F’ in the WWF scratch logo is mischievously obscured by a blob of DX-green paint, none of the material has had the ‘F’ pixelated and the soundtrack is free from those incongruous silences that used to arise on post-2002 releases wherever the soundbite “WWF” had had to be excised.

The documentary that adorns the first disc is almost as impressive, though admittedly I was a little disappointed with its 57-minute running time – after all, there was easily enough fodder here for WWE to have produced a three-hour programme in The Rise and Fall of ECW mould, recounting all the most significant angles and off-screen developments. The practical upshot of this is that there is very little depth to the enquiry; the programme provides an overview of the era, and a level one at that. The exploits of Shawn Michaels; “Stone Cold” Steve Austin; the Rock; Mankind; Triple H; and the Undertaker are not examined in any more detail than those of the Oddities; “Head Cheese”; or Kaientai. However, the feature still complements the material presented well, affording it context and allowing it to be appraised from a modern perspective. Those looking for something more exhaustive will have to invest in the various Superstar-specific titles from this era to boot, such as The Bottom Line on the Most Popular Superstar of All Time and The Epic Story of Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson.

Ultimately there is a reason that this anthology comes clad in a Sergeant Pepper-style sleeve. Like the Beatles’ seminal work, the Attitude Era remains pro wrestling’s magnum opus, and like the fab 1967 LP, it truly broke the mould. Its long-running angles broke new ground in storytelling; its contentious tone and subject matter offended as many as it impressed despite the programmes’ clear ‘PG-13’ warnings. From the generally-accepted birth of Attitude in late 1997 all the way up to WWF owner Vince McMahon’s purchase of rival WCW in 2001, and I dare say a little beyond (in my view there was still plenty of Attitude left in the product even as late as the company “getting the ‘F’ out” and splitting the engorged roster in 2002), these Superstars set a new standard. Would I let my daughter watch this stuff? Hell no! But that it is, after all, its appeal.