Sunday, 14 February 2010

The Shadow in the Glass

Every now and then you get a story in a SF series that is far better than it has any right to be. The Shadow in the Glass follows in the tradition of City of Death or Yesterday's enterprise in being a hastily written fill in by a "staff writers" which ends up being a classic story.

This one takes the generic stock SF/Conspiracy idea of "what if Hitler survived the war" and treats us to a cracking story which twists and turns right up to the very last pages. It reads as part historical, part speculative fiction and part conspiracy thriller.

Featuring a rare combination of the 6th Doctor and the Brigadier together with stand-in companion Claire Aldwich, this is a story which stands head and shoulders above most, if not all, of the 6th Doctor's TV stories. The characterisation of the regulars is spot on and Claire Aldwich is a better companion than we ever got in the JNT era of the show, albeit somewhat reminiscent of House of Card's Mattie Storrin. The Brig gets a decent amount of stuff to do and shows himself to be a cunning old fox (this is a post Battlefield, pre-Shadows of Avalon/Sarah Jane Adventures Brig).

The novel would not feel out of place as a modern Who historical satisfying the "celebrity historical" tag by featuring both Churchill and Hitler and also having a pace more akin to a Modern Who historical that the historicals of the classic series. The use of Hitler as a "historical celebrity" results in some of the best moments in the book with Hitler viewing the Doctor as a trusted ally, much to the Doctor's understandable discomfort.

Top notch stuff!

Saturday, 13 February 2010


The first thing to say is that I love the exclamation mark in the title. Its like an exclamation an Asterisk character would make ("By Zantium!").

Anyway, this is a frustrating read. The plot is fine; your basic Hartnell pure historical. The regulars get split up and the story then has four plot strands following their respective attempts to survive in ancient Rome. Nothing wrong with that, you can't beat a Hartnell historical. The setting also works, with enough jeopardy and unfamiliarity to keep things interesting. As a basic story this would easily have worked in the 60s as a 6 partner, no question.

Unfortunately the use of this template only serves to highlight the features of the book that simply do not work. The Hartnell era is now itself largely historical being over 40 years old. Its a measure of how brilliant the show was in those years that most of it holds up as excellent television to this day whilst most other television from the early 60s has been forgotten entirely. Hell even looking solely at Doctor Who, a story like The Aztecs feels less dated than Black Orchid.

But for all that there are still things the show wouldn't have done back in the 60s. It would not have had the Doctor observing/influencing the early days of the Christian religion. Indeed, you probably wouldn't have found many literary SF authors who would've done a story along those lines. Now it could be argued that the very function of the Past Doctor Adventures is to tell stories that could not have been done on the TV and that would be a valid point. The problem is that the situation isn't developed into a story. The Doctor clearly can't be seen as being a driving force in the creation of Christianity, partly because at this stage the Doctor "can't re-write history" partly because it would still be offensive to a great deal of the readership, but mainly because the idea is terribly crass. He can't be seen to openly dismissive of it for the same reason. So what we get is the Doctor fussing over some translations and making achingly bland PC speeches that say very little at every given opportunity. Seriously, its like Topping thought that the 1st Doctor's only words were the "wanderers in the fourth dimension", "citizen of the universe" and "one day I shall come back" speeches.

Ian and Vicki fare better in terms of their storylines. Ian is actually quite an interesting little political thriller. But both suffer with terrible characterisation. Ian and Barbara are, in reality, basically characters of the 50s. The "swinging 60s" hadn't really happened when they were in the show. It is therefore incredibly jarring to read and Ian who frequently reads like an Alfie/Parklife/Carry On film style of cockney geezer. To be fair its not like he is always out of character, but for at least half of the book he is. So the moments when he isn't out of character only serve to further highlight the many moments when Topping gets it frequently wrong!

Vicki gets an adequate plot, but is characterised like she has spent a couple of years living in Sunnydale rooming with Dawn Summers!

Barbara gets the best of the book. Her story is the strongest and the characterisation is the most authentic, albeit there are the occasional wobbles here and there.

So there you have it; a good story ruined by a hopelessly inaccurate depiction of the regulars.

Saturday, 6 February 2010

Your hopeless late Doctor Who reviews

Hornets Nest to follow as I have yet to listen to the final disc. Plenty of stuff to get through in the meantime though.

First up a quick reflection on the RTD Era now that it has ended. Fantastic. Well I did say quick!

More seriously, the Waters of Mars was almost flawless. With the possible exception of the fate of humankind as depicted at the end of season 3, this was one of the grimest stories the TV series has done. Not since the Hartnell era has the show gone to the lengths of showing the cost and pain of the Doctor being unable to interfere in history. The only faults I can find are "Gadget Gadget", WHY would you build in a character to be irritating; it doesn't make it any less irritating that the "character" was obviously intended to be irritating. Anyhow, that was pretty minor, the bigger flaw was that this episode should have taken the place of Planet of the Dead so that we had an episode to deal with the fall-out of the Time Lord victorious, rather than the somewhat glib conclusion we got here. I didn't mind the suicide as such, it was a pretty balsy move for a "family" show to have the hero basically cause the death of the heroine. But something like that was worthy of an episode itself. Still if I was a fellow to give scores it would get at least a 4 out of 5.

Next up we have Dreamland. I wasn't expecting much from this, but its really quite good. It's obviously hugely derivative, even to the point or recycling Murry Gold's music from previous episodes in lieu of a proper score. But its got spectacle and rattles along at a great pace. The animation is a big step up from the Infinite Quest too. The jokes were great too. Basically this is Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks done much better, with more focus (albeit lacking Daleks and Dobbsters).

Then we come to the finale and to be fair things hit the skids a little. The problem is that RTD appears to want to basically redux season 3 in a mere 2 episodes. Season 3 is the absolute peak of the RTD era and probably the strongest TV season in the history of the show so that was always going to be over-ambitious. The other problem is that RTD is, like most of us fanboys, clearly still scarred by the problems of the show in the 80s and 90s. This has been beneficial for the most part because he kept on trying to increase the quality and audience of the show. Despite what some fans would have you believe this is not a bad thing! However it has resulted in RTD constantly trying to employ "bigger" season finales. This worked up to and including season 3. However, you can't really get much bigger than the utopia arc, so season 4 ends with an everything but the Kitchen sink finale and just about gets away with it. That left the problem that there was nowhere left to go for the final end, but RTD was clearly still determined to top season 4 anyway. So what we got was a finale with no real story, but lots of great moments and some terrific performances too and everything from Wilf 4 taps onwards is utterly wonderful.

Anyway Byzantium, Shadow in the Glass and Hornets Nest together with some other stuff will follow shortly.