27 October 2013

History Boy Turns Pro

Former History of the Doctor contributor and prolific Doctor Whoniverse fan fictioneer, Daniel Tessier, has been commissioned to pen a short story in Obverse Books’ upcoming Iris Wildthyme anthology, Iris Wildthyme of Mars. Daniel has previously been published in the Factor Fiction charity anthology, Shelf Life, but this is the first time that he will be paid for his efforts.

Daniel explains that his story is “…a sequel to Edwin Lester Linden’s 1905 novel Lieut: Gullivar Jones: His Vacation, better known as Gullivar of Mars, which was something of a milestone in science fiction and fantasy. It comes across as very dated now, and is ripe for the Wildthyme treatment.” Tentatively entitled “Lieut: Gullivar Jones: His Bad Weekend”, Daniel’s gin-fuelled homage is sure to be the perfect fit for the transtemporal adventuress.

The Immaterial blogger’s only regret is that licensing issues prevent the use of any Doctor Who characters in his tale. “I’d love to have Sil the Mentor turn up, just so that he can sneer “Gullivuuurrgh...”, he quips.

Iris Wildthyme of Mars, edited by veteran of Obverse Books and Big Finish Productions, Philip Purser-Hallard, will be available next summer from Obverse Books.

Is Mars a dead and sterile desert, or teeming with life? Are the Martians long gone, or waiting still? Will we become the Martians? Will humanity settle Mars in gleaming antiseptic domes, or terraform it into a lush new paradise? Will invaders from Earth come from the skies, raining down death on the innocent canal-dwellers? Are the Martians beautiful humanoids or tentacular monstrosities? Unfallen angels, devils welcoming us in order to corrupt us – or worse? Will humanity’s Mars colonies be utopian or hellish? How many different colours can you put in front of ‘Mars’ to make a clever title?

These Marses are, of course, mutually incompatible, contradictory and in many cases quite impossible. And Iris Wildthyme has visited them

26 October 2013

Book Review | Star Trek: Typhon Pact – The Struggle Within by Christopher L Bennett

The United Federation of Planets’ expansion of the Khitomer Accords is, in many respects, significantly less surprising than Pocket Books’ extension of its Star Trek: Typhon Pact saga beyond its initial four-book run. Whilst I thoroughly enjoyed two of them, and quite liked another, general reaction was considerably more mixed, with many readers lamenting the arc’s languorous pace and failure to capitalise upon the potential of the Pact’s hitherto-uncharted societies, such as the Holy Order of the Kinshaya and the Tzenkethi Coalition. It’s ironic, then, that an almost afterthought of an e-book not only sets the storyline off on its finish push towards climax, but also sates much of the hunger that the initial run left unsatisfied.

In part an unlikely sequel to the 1990 TNG episode “Suddenly Human”, Christopher L Bennett’s novella sees the Enterprise visit Talar, where Jono – the young man raised by the Talarians following the death of his human parents – has grown into a diplomat of some note, and is now assisting his adoptive father, Endar, to negotiate an alliance with the Federation that it is hoped will strengthen both in the face of mounting Typhon Pact antagonism. However, through they mirror the traditional veiling customs of the Middle East more closely than they do, say, calculatedly oppressive Ferengi practices, Talarian attitudes towards females don’t sit well with Federation ideology. A group of militant freedom fighters decide to take advantage of this, as well as the Federation’s famous championing of freedom of expression, by using the Enterprise’s visit to mount an attack Talar’s patriarchy under the cover of a peaceful demonstration, kidnapping Dr Crusher in the process and leaving her husband and captain in the conflicted position of having to weigh the mother of his son’s life and the Federation’s desperate need of an ally against not only his strong views on Starfleet’s deep-rooted non-interference doctrine, but also his personal sympathy for the women of Talar’s cause, if not their methods. Meanwhile, T’Ryssa Chen and Jasminder Choudhury, the next generation of Next Generation bridge officers, are recruited by Starfleet Intelligence to go undercover on Kinshaya. There they are to pose as Romulan members of Spock’s Unification movement who are visiting the world to show their support for the under-heel Kinshayan masses, with a view to helping them to foment rebellion, and perhaps even bring about a regime change that could tip the delicate balance of power within the Pact in favour of those less aggressive towards the Federation.

The Enterprise half of the story is an impressive and intricate tapestry of both welcome fan service and clever, careful storytelling. Its “Suddenly Human” heritage is something of a red herring for readers as, save for Jono’s unique pedigree playing a hand in the conclusive events of the story, the events on Talar could easily have unfolded on any non-aligned planet. The real meat of its drama turns upon how Picard balances his duties as captain – essentially his duty to his conscience – against his personal responsibilities as a husband and father. Ever the remote bachelor on television, Captain Picard’s never had to struggle against his feelings in the way that he does here, and he can’t even rely upon his first officer’s counsel to help shape his decision as the otherwise-redoubtable Commander Worf has a solitary black mark on his own service record, earned through his deliberate dereliction of duty when trying to save his own wife’s life whilst posted to Deep Space Nine during the Dominion War. It’s an enthralling read in every respect, and, like Paths of Disharmony before it, both bold and surprising in its resolution.

Bennett also uses the Talar storyline to finally take a more detailed look at the elusive Tzenkethi, further fleshing out the basics of their form and examining the history of their species as it is understood by other races. A species of matchless ethereal beauty, the once-fragile Tzenkethi were long exploited as “novelties and slaves”, eventually driving them to turn inwards, closing their borders and even going so far as to edit their own genomes to instil an innate loathing of offworlders – their newfound Typhon Pact friends included, towards whom they feel little but paranoia and a fanatical need to control. Unfortunately the nature of the Tzenkethi involvement in the plot and the brevity of the piece conspire to keep them in the wings here, but it’s nonetheless a testament to Bennett’s skill that he’s able to convey more through one well-written character appearing in just a few fleeting chapters than had been done across the whole media spectrum previously. The Kinshaya, conversely, are explored in immense detail by the author, who seems to share T’Ryssa’s enthusiasm for the race. As the Enterprise’s unconventional contact officer so succinctly sums up, “They’re basically griffins… xenophobic, isolationist religious fanatics, but still, griffins!”

“I know, I know. It’s like they teach us in Prime Directive 101: A cultural change doesn’t really take hold unless it comes from within.”
            Jasminder smiled. “Nor does a personal one.”

In his acknowledgements, Bennett tellingly dedicates The Struggle Within to “the courageous resistance movement in Egypt, whose members provided that nonviolent action can achieve what violence cannot,” and these sentiments are keenly felt in the Kinshayan limb of his narrative, which serves as inspiring counterbalance to the women of Talar’s violent deeds. But the mission to Kinshaya is as much a sabbatical for Jasminder as it is an intelligence operation, as the once-serene Denevan looks to put the destruction of her world and the comfort that she’s since found in aggression – and, by extension, the arms of Worf – behind her. But shaving her head and adorning it with Romulan mourning tattoos, รก la Eric Bana’s Nero, isn’t nearly enough to help her bury the past and find her centre again – for that, she needs the company of the Enterprise-E’s loveable and exuberant half-human, half-Vulcan Spock antithesis, who has to suffer like she has never done before her commanding officer and friend can find herself anew.

But the most wonderful thing about this book isn’t its deft handling of action, intrigue, or even character. It’s most outstanding quality is that it feels exactly like an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation – or, at least, an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Next Generation. The limited word count of the piece instils the sort of pace that the television series used to deliver on a weekly basis, even mirroring the two-thread narrative structure invariably found in most stories. The only things that set The Struggle Within apart from a bona fide TV episode are its heavily-featured non-humanoid contingent (that even TNG’s budget probably wouldn’t have convincingly stretched to realising on screen), and its heavy grounding in post-Nemesis arcs, both of which I feel add to rather than detract from the piece in any event. If you’ve a TNG itch that needs scratching, but find that time or funds are in short supply, then you could do a hell of a lot worse than throw a few pounds at The Struggle Within – without a doubt Star Trek: Typhon Pact’s finest hour.

The Struggle Within is currently available only as an e-book (£4.41 from Amazon’s KindleStore or £4.49 from iTunes).

01 October 2013

Beyond History's End | 50th Anniversary Doctor Who Review 8 of 12 | Dark Eyes written by Nicholas Briggs

There have been a lot of Big Finish specials over the years – so many, in fact, that they’ve retrospectively been carved up by the company, with ex-subscriber-exclusive ‘bonus releases’ now occupying their own corner of the site, and commercial specials another. But of them all, Dark Eyes feels like the most special. Like UNIT: Dominion before it, it takes the form of four linked, yet individually-packaged, episodes held together by a stylish cardboard slipcase, but Dark Eyes’ specialness extends far beyond its shelf appeal.

Since he first morphed to life part-way through the ill-fated Fox attempt at a Stateside Doctor Who pilot, Paul McGann’s Doctor has enjoyed more adventures across the media than any of his cohorts, and every single one of them that has bore his visage on its artwork has plucked his likeness from one the few images produced to promote that Fox movie, bar one: Dark Eyes. This box set’s artwork shows McGann’s once-Byronic embodiment of the Time Lord looking more like the incarnation that will eventually take his place at the TARDIS console. Brandishing a two-year old sonic screwdriver fashioned by the Weta Workshop and sporting a shorter hairstyle and a heavy leather jacket that scream ‘mariner’, if not ‘time warrior’, the images of the weathered eighth Doctor found adorning this special production make a bold statement about how the character has changed over the years, and indeed the changes soon to come.

More radically still, Dark Eyes subversively plays with listeners’ hopes and expectations through its subject matter, which sees the Time Lord Straxus (Human Resources, The Vengeance of Morbius) enlist the Doctor’s help to thwart an “insane plot to destroy the universe” – a plot that, it turns out, the Daleks are behind. Following soon in the wake of To the Death, in which the personal war between the Doctor and the Daleks plumbed agonising new depths, Dark Eyes enflames the feeling of inexorability already building, bringing Gallifrey right into the heart of the conflict and setting the stall for the inter-series showdown to come.  Of course, in Martin Montague’s accompanying documentary, this story’s writer and BBC licensee Nicholas Briggs is quick to make it plain that Big Finish are not scouting the foothills to the Last Great Time War here, even going so far as to throw a cruel joke into his third episode to hammer his point home, but that is not how things sound to the listener. Every aspect of this production, from the Doctor’s intensifying grief and despair to the mounting temporal power of the Daleks and their time controller, points obviously towards the inevitable. Big Finish’s licence might not presently allow them to encroach upon ‘new’ Doctor Who or any of its formative angles, but they seem to have finally realised that there’s nothing stopping them from taking us far as Hitler invading Poland. In such context, Dark Eyes is just more hyperinflation.

The most special thing about Dark Eyes, though, is a little more subtle than a new hairdo or an old war don’t – it’s a question of form. Whereas UNIT: Dominion was consciously cinematic, but still retained the spirit of a traditional Doctor Who adventure, Dark Eyes is another “concept album” from Briggs, closer in structure and tone to one of his grim Dalek Empire epics than anything that Big Finish have previously put out under a Doctor Who banner. It is defined by incident, but carried by character. It is about hope, but abounding with despair. It’s a story that focuses on just two – perhaps three, if you’re prepared to stretch a point – people, and uses the explosions erupting all around them to dissect their souls.

Of its four episodes, “The Great War” is the one most redolent of traditional Doctor Who, as it has to throw our wounded hero into a situation in which he can meet his new companion, whose life he’s evidently vowed to save. Even this is presented in a highly-stylised manner, though, as the narrative flits between the Doctor’s suicidal collision course with the end of time, which Straxus interrupts by dangling the carrot of hope and purpose, and the Doctor’s exploits in Great War France. From there, the adventure adopts the relatively rare (for Who) form of a hunt across space and time, as the Doctor and his new charge Molly are pursued by the Dalek Time Controller and his sinister agents. It’s like an inspiring inversion of The Chase, where the terror is all-pervading and real, and the only humour of the sort you’d generally find in the vicinity of gallows.

Dark Eyes’ narrative is carried as much by the new companion as it is the grieving, straw-clutching Doctor – she is, in fact, the eponymous ‘Dark Eyes’. Molly’s forceful Irish brogue that serves as an aural contrast to the eighth Doctor’s velvet RP speaks to the differences in the character’s attitudes on this adventure, which often casts the companion in the steadying role, as opposed to vice-versa, at times showing up the Doctor’s emotional intemperance – something that Paul McGann and Primeval star Ruth Bradley each play to beautifully. It’s a fresh and exhilarating dynamic, which is all the more remarkable as this is becoming increasingly hard to achieve the more travelling companions that the itinerant Gallifreyan accrues. One of the most moving moments in the story – and one of the key moments, I think, from the Doctor’s standpoint – sees Molly calmly mention some of the hardships and losses that she’s had to suffer through in her lifetime, the total sum of which hasn’t driven her to the level of indulgent despair that the Doctor is currently wallowing in. She’s the hope that the Doctor is so desperately seeking – it’s right there, embodied in her brave, truculent spirit. The Doctor might think that he’s been sent to save Molly O’Sullivan, but Dark Eyes is more the story of how she saves him.

Briggs’ treatment of the Daleks is similarly pioneering at times – another feat that’s noteworthy given the great strides made by both Big Finish and BBC Wales in recent years. The third instalment explores the interesting notion of post-Time War (and thus, presumably, considerably post-Asylum of the Daleks) redemption for the Dalek race, and what form this might take. The writer toys cruelly with the Doctor’s passions and prejudices here, entwining them with his search for hope and the credulity that goes along with it. The idea of “a life outside the shell”, and retro-engineered Kaled children laughing at play, are such far-fetched conceits that in any other story the listener would dismiss them out of hand as the products of evil Dalek manoeuvrings, but here the Doctor is grudgingly accepting of them, imbuing the whole episode with a thrilling sense of plausibility that even Helen Raynor’s Evolution of the Daleks television two-parter never seriously engendered.

Whilst Briggs was keen to make what he calls “The Molly Era” of the eighth Doctor’s life as intense as possible for the pair, resulting in four scripts that stick with them almost exclusively, the sole competing thread revolves around Straxus and his peculiar role in both defending against and advancing the Dalek Time Controller’s master plan. Presumably as the incomparable Nickolas Grace was unavailable to reprise the role, Protect and Survive’s Peter Reagan was cast to step into the next incarnation of the Time Lord’s shoes, moving the part away from the sort of bureaucratic mystification that had defined the character in stories past and into more exhorting territory. Reagan’s voice has an imperious, authoritarian tone that fits the character’s circuitous journey in Dark Eyes perfectly, leading us to an unforeseen and prescient development that, listening to the production again recently for the purpose of this article, put me very much in mind of The Name of the Doctor’s climactic reveal, albeit in a clear-cut black and white as opposed to a dark and muddy greyscale.

Indeed, Dark Eyes has far more in common with the Doctor Who of television today than it does either the classic series or even McGann’s American one-off. Its intelligence, tone and careful character development all reflect the high standards to which fans have become accustomed, on occasion even satisfying desires that the television series can’t hope to, thanks to both the vast visual scope of the audio medium and its narrower target audience. Briggs may have conceived Dark Eyes as his second “concept album”, but in its development it’s surpassed even that. It’s a digest of despair and a hatful of hope, charged with all the energy of an older and edgier eighth Doctor and his feisty Irish charge. These four expansive episodes have all the weight and consequence of several seasons’ worth of stories, precision-engineered into one fast-flying box set. That’s not bad going for forty quid.

Dark Eyes is currently available to download from Big Finish Productions for just £35.00, though due to its popularity the company often reduce the price as part of a short-lived promotion, most recently as one of Paul McGann’s personal picks. Keep an eye out for future promotions if you’re hard-up. The CD box set version (which also comes with a free download) is currently just five pounds more than the download-only version.

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