Friday, June 26, 2015

Chat: Decalog

John: Man, they call them “short” stories, but..the problem I always have with anthologies is that just when you’re getting interested in a story, it ends and you have to pick up a new one from scratch. There’s not enough narrative momentum, even with a framing sequence like this one has. Do you feel that way too, or is it just me?

Dee: I feel that way sometimes, and then sometimes it’s a relief. In one or two of the ones in here, it’s a relief. And I really have a couple of things to talk about with you, because I think we saw at least one story very differently and I wanted to explore that. In particular, “Fascination.” I didn’t like it for very different reasons than you, and I felt a little sick reading your review after I wrote mine and wondering how I missed those things.

John: Well, I think some of it may have been that I was around when that story first came out, and I was aware of a lot of conversation about it at the time. A lot of people felt that Howe was kind of crossing a line between “fanfiction” and “slash” that probably shouldn’t have been crossed in a canonical, authorized work, especially as a) it was about a lack of consent, and b) there was no place to really explore the consequences for Peri. She was very much the object of that story rather than the subject, and it was very “male gaze” for something that sat so near to a story like “Lackaday Express”. Especially as Howe has personal and professional connections to the editors.

Dee: Yes, and I want to clarify the reasons I said it had ingredients for me to like it. It has magic and that magic has rules, it had kindly elders who really turned out to be good guys instead of the Evil Ringleaders, and I do like a bit of mind control in my Doctor Who stories. It didn’t even occur to me as I was reading it that it was rapey, and I’m more than a bit ashamed that my near-total dislike of Peri may have blinded me to that. If it had been, say, Nyssa I think I would have noticed more.

John: Well, don’t sell yourself short--I think it was also the blithe obliviousness to consequences that played at least some part. They really do just sort of walk into the sunset with a, “Oh, tee-hee, my body and mind were violated by a stranger, but I got in a token retributive action and so now it’s alright, on to the next adventure!” tone to it all. I don’t think you can do that in a story that’s ostensibly a part of canonical Doctor Who, treating Peri like a real character. If it was a piece of erotica, I might feel differently, but this is at least claiming that Peri is the same Peri we see in ‘Caves of Androzani’, and it does something to her that would have consequences for a real character. But it doesn’t. The magic is good, the concept is good, but the sexual peril doesn’t belong here anymore.

Dee: That might be part of it. I think were it Ace I would have felt differently about the whole thing. But now I feel dirty, and glad I didn’t like the story in the first place. I just can’t help feeling like I disliked it for the wrong reasons. I also didn’t like “Prisoner of the Sun,” but you seemed to enjoy that one a lot. Can you explain to me what I’m missing there?

John: I don’t know for sure. I remember really disliking it the first time I read it, but this time it grew on me. It feels so weird and experimental, really just sort of setting itself along a whole different tack from the era it came from and the stories around it that I felt almost like I had to like it just for being so unashamedly itself. It was strange and uncomfortable, and I think maybe I was in the mood to be taken out of my comfort zone. Especially since the Pertwee era feels so “cozy” that it’s almost twee sometimes. Does that make any sense?

Dee: It sure didn’t feel that cozy in the stories in this book. I may just not have seen enough of that era to see what you’re saying. I felt like both stories with Three were really badly written. I didn’t care about the deaths in either, and I didn’t find the way they characterized Liz to be at all appealing.


John: Yeah, Liz gets short shrift for a long while. I think it’s because people cared about her for the wrong reasons. The people who wanted to write her the most were the continuity obsessives who wanted to “explain” her abrupt departure from the TV series, so they focused a lot on giving her reasons to leave without warning and hammering her personality to fit those reasons. It’s going to be a while before we get a good Liz Shaw story, I think.

Dee: Let’s move on to Four. I loved “Scarab of Death.” It felt just like it should, to me. I could see Tom Baker and Liz Sladen in every scene, and I’m not a visual person as a rule. But you thought it was fanwanky. At this point, I’m almost surprised we both liked “Duke of Dominoes!”

John: Well, it was fanwanky, but it wasn’t bad. It was one of those stories that didn’t have much to it beyond evoking the feel of its era, and I think we’re going to get enough of those that I want something a little more ambitious. It’s not that I disliked it, just that I felt like it could have done more than just say, “Hey look everybody! A sequel to ‘Pyramids of Mars’! Eh? Eh?” Which I thought ‘Duke of Dominoes’ really did well. It wasn’t just that the Master was well characterized and you could imagine Roger Delgado in every line, it was that it showed us the Master from a perspective we’ve never seen before and really made you think about the character in a new light while it evoked Delgado’s performance, and that was interesting. I like stories that get the past right and also show a new angle, and Marc Platt did a great job with that.

Dee: I fully agree with your thoughts on “Duke,” and I felt like it was a refreshing break from all of the Doctor-centered stories. The inter-story bit with the psychometrist freaking about about the evil of the Master was great too. And I didn’t see “Scarab” as just a sequel to “Pyramids,” I thought it was well-developed on its own. I loved the planet - it reminded me a lot in many ways of the planet in “Robots of Death” more than anything in “Pyramids,” and that was a good thing.

John: Fair enough. There was some worldbuilding in there, among the Osiran references. I’ll cautiously upgrade my initial impressions. Other than that, were there any stories you particularly wanted to get into? I think we both liked “Book of Shadows”, we both liked “Lackaday Express”...

Dee: If I talk about “Lackaday” too much, Paul Cornell might think he needs to avoid me at CONvergence next week. (He doesn’t, but I know how I sound when I fangirl.) I’ll reiterate what I said before: It started out as confusing as “Book,” but I felt like Paul pulled me out of the confusion faster, and I liked the characterization better. I liked “Book” as well, because I enjoyed the Barbara-centrism and her confusion but her equal determination. And “Fallen Angel” was fun. It anticipated the Christmas Angels from “Christmas Invasion” nicely, too. I wonder if that’s where Davies got the inspiration?

John: Good question. I know Davies and Moffat were reading during this era--heck, Moffat writes for a later Decalog. So anytime the question is asked, “Was this an influence on the new series?”, I think my answer is going to be, “Yes, it’s just a question of how much.” And this was mostly a positive thing--I think that on the whole, this was successful as an anthology, as a group of Doctor Who stories, and as science fiction in general. I can certainly see why Virgin commissioned a sequel. But we won’t read that for a while--for now, it’s back to the New Adventures with ‘Legacy’!

Monday, June 22, 2015

Decalog

OK, so I admit this took me a while. Depression, losing a job, getting a new job and intensive training, and all-around burnout will do that to a woman. But I did finally finish Decalog, and I have thoughts!

Because this is a collection of short stories, I'll break this down by author:

"Playback," Stephen James Walker
A solid introduction, this is doing what you expect a prologue to do: set the stage. It's a frame sequence that allows the others to do whatever they want, but provides a theme. In this case, it's that the Doctor has lost his memory and goes to a PI to help him figure out who he is. The PI, in turn, intuits something is weird about this guy and takes him to a psychometrist to try to figure things out.

Naturally, this being the Doctor, that means we have a ready excuse to use any of the Doctors at all, and naturally all of them are used, some more than once. And we start with the Second Doctor in...

"Fallen Angel, "Andy Lane
Plot: The Second Doctor teams up with a gentleman thief to stop alien robots from causing problems in the English countryside.

I liked this one. It took me a few minutes to figure out which Doctor we were on, and the character of Lucas Seyton isn't as deep as he thinks he is, but it hit all the right notes and it was an engaging read. I did like it better than Lucifer Rising, for what it's worth, and Lane proves he can characterize other Doctors than Seven without missing a beat.

"Duke of Dominos," Marc Platt
Plot: The Master is trying to take over the Universe, and he has found an important key! Will he be stopped in time?

This one is written from the Master's point of view, and I love that! I'm not sure it pulled it off, mind you, but at least it tried. Yes, the Master gets a few digs in at the Doctor, who in this case turns out to be the Fourth. The Doctor is more in the story in spirit than in actual body, and I didn't mind that much. Well done.

"The Straw That Broke the Camel's Back," Vanessa Bishop
Plot: Three detects an alien whose gaze kills people, while he has a fallout with the Brig.

I have to say this is my least favorite in the volume. As I write this, there is a big fooferaw going on in the fandom community about "message fiction," and while I like my stories to have an moral and ethical center, I think this one could be cited as one that delivers it with a club. It's almost toy-tie-in-cartoon levels of "Do you get it? DO YOU?" Three deserved better.

"Scarab Of Death," Mark Stammers
Plot: Four and Sarah Jane are up against a cult trying to resurrect one of the Osirans.

I loved this one. It's very cinematic and captures that era of Who beautifully. Evil cult leaders, dark and dusty city streets, "I suppose you're wondering why you're here" pontificating - perfect. It's not the strongest story, but it's close!

"The Book of Shadows," Jim Mortimore
Plot: In a Barbara-centric story that jumps back and forth through time, the First Doctor has to make a hard decision about changing history - more than one line.

This one starts out pretty confusing and then unknots itself nicely. I do like the characterization, and Mortimore is good at ending lines for each scene. I can see people dropping out because of the confusion early on, though, so my advice is to stick with it.

"Fascination," David J. Howe
Plot: Peri and Five arrive in a perfect village. So, of course, it isn't - and Peri is the target of dark magic.

This one has all of the ingredients for a story I should like, but the fact that I can't abide Peri makes it hard for me to care. I suppose that's a sign of good characterization, but for the life of me I can't see what the Doctor sees in her. It might not help that I've seen magic in Who done so well in City of the Dead with the Eighth Doctor. It's not a bad story, but it's solidly Eh.

"The Golden Door," David Auger
Plot: Dodo and Steven don't recognize the elderly First Doctor. Meanwhile, they DO recognize the Sixth and there's some mysterious guy trying to scare them!

Another solidly Eh story. Dodo can only cling to Steven so many times and deny knowing One before I roll my eyes, and I found myself skipping pages. Not good. The good side: Six and One are well-drawn. Meh.

"Prisoners of the Sun," Tim Robins
Plot: The Third Doctor is pitted against UNIT colleagues in a future he never expected. And who is to blame but Liz...and the Doctor's own knowledge!

Argh argh argh. This is a neat concept, but it's not so well-written. I want to see what someone like Andy Lane could do with this idea, because it's a good one. I like the idea of the Doctor's knowledge. given to someone else, and then used to derail time. But I don't like the idea that the Doctor himself can muck around with time with nothing more than his bare hands, and I felt like there was a lot of detail that could have been better-expressed. Again, Three deserves better!

"Lackaday Express," Paul Cornell
Plot: Five, Nyssa and Tegan must save a woman who is trapped in a time loop, doomed to live her own life over and over and over. But, of course, attempting to save her might destroy the Universe...

This story starts out as confusing as "The Book of Shadows," and Cornell is, as always, equal to the task of sorting it out. He doesn't disappoint on the one-liners, either: "Your refusal to come to terms with your personal life may quite possibly mean the end of the entire cosmos!" Hee. And the ending is, of course, perfect. Yes, this is the best in the book, and I am becoming a raving Paul Cornell fangirl. I'm OK with that.

"Playback (ending)," Stephen James Walker
Plot: Finishing up the frame story, the PI must solve the riddle of why the Doctor can't remember any of this.

It's passable, and it certainly does wrap things up well! I could have done without the villain being one from an earlier story, but it will do just fine.

Next up: Legacy!

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Decalog

It's really tempting to spend my time talking more about what 'Decalog' represents than what it is. I'll try to resist, but it is worth mentioning that this is the first real attempt to treat the series' past as anything beyond an adjunct to its present--past Doctors had appeared before, in anniversary specials and nostalgia pieces, but this is the first real time that anyone had gone back to the show's history in an attempt to add onto it. It's all a big retcon in one sense; this is adding something new while attempting to pretend that it's been there all along retroactively. But in a greater sense, it's an acknowledgement that the Doctor's story has always been somewhat fractal in nature, capable of hiding an infinite number of stories in between any two points. We've known for ages that the Doctor has adventures even when we're not watching him; this is just the point at which everyone wakes up and realizes how much potential there is to the idea. But how well was that potential realized?

Well, 'Playback', the book's framing sequence, eases us into the idea by portraying the whole thing as a series of experiments in psychometry carried out on the contents of the Doctor's pockets. In other words, it's setting this clearly and straightforwardly as a series of flashbacks from the Doctor's present rather than stories about the Doctor's past. It's a framing sequence that seems a little unnecessary in retrospect--certainly you'll never see it again in any of the later anthologies, and thankfully the idea isn't carried through to the Missing Adventures line. But for a first effort, it's probably a good idea, and it helps that it's a nice little mystery that even ties together one or two of the stories within the anthology (although they'd later take this to more ambitious heights).

That makes 'Fallen Angel', by Andy Lane, the first trip into the Doctor's past proper, and it's an appropriately cute story that does things both Lane and Doctor Who do well. Specifically, it's a style pastiche of another genre's standards that drops the Doctor into it in order to see how he bounces off the tropes of another story. I'm not sure whether Lucas Seyton is meant to be the Saint or Raffles, but he holds up surprisingly well against a very vivid portrayal of the Second Doctor and makes this story more than the sum of its admittedly slight parts.

Meanwhile, 'The Duke of Dominoes', by Marc Platt, shows that there can be more to these stories than simple pastiche. Platt's story is told almost entirely from the point of view of the Master, the Doctor's legendary arch-foe, and gives him a depth and majesty that wasn't often present in his appearances on television. Platt's story does a wonderful job of creating atmosphere and pulling you along with its plot, all the while fleshing out the Master and giving more narrative richness to the series' past. Oh, and the Doctor's in it too for a few paragraphs. (Okay, that's actually a really funny gag, to be honest--the Doctor foils the Master's evil scheme without even knowing he's there.)

Vanessa Bishop's 'The Straw That Broke the Camel's Back' also tries to expand upon the era it's set in, this time in the service of repair to some damaged subtexts; many fans have commented on the strange relationships between career military man Alastair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart, acerbic scientist Liz Shaw, and pompous alien "John Smith", and the way that the tensions between them were remarked upon at times but never really explored or made meaningful. Bishop tries to correct this with a story that genuinely gets at the problems inherent in the Doctor's relationship with the Brigadier, but she doesn't have time to do it fully over the course of one short story--the result is good, but still leaves something wanting. (Luckily, this is just the first of many such explorations.)

On the other hand, 'Scarab of Death', by Mark Stammers, is the first appearance in this volume of fanwank. Fanwank, in the context of "missing" stories, usually takes the form of a sequel to a classic story that really only exists because the classic story is so beloved that people want to get just a little bit more of it and don't care whether it's warranted. Here, we get a sequel to "Pyramids of Mars", complete with more Fourth Doctor and more Sarah Jane Smith and more Martian pyramids, in a story that's by no means bad but also by no means necessary. It's hard to match Robert Holmes at his prime, but unfortunately this is only the first time someone's going to try.

Weirdly, Jim Mortimore's 'The Book of Shadows' feels like a bizarre harbinger of the book that would one day end his career. Like 'Campaign', it takes place around the time of Alexander the Great (this time slightly after his death), and like 'Campaign' it features a bizarre and otherworldly set of timey-wimey circumstances that lead to Barbara being the wife of a great leader of that time and bearing him a child, and with this shocking twist portrayed through narrative circumstances and experimental prose that deliberately unsettles the reader and leaves them off-balance. Like 'Campaign', it's a beautifully poetic version of the First Doctor and his companions that shows just how dramatically sophisticated and intelligent this era of the program truly was, and how well it holds up today; unlike 'Campaign', it has an ending that makes sense and doesn't wear out its welcome. Really, this is one of the best in the collection.

And it's followed by...well, it'd probably be unfair to call David Howe's 'Fascination' the worst of the collection, but it's certainly got a layer of tangible squick all over it that makes it unpleasant to read and leaves you wanting a hot shower afterwards. That may have been the intention all along, of course, but it still feels like this story about the Doctor saving Peri from a mind-controlling rapist with magic powers is a little too sleazy to really fit into Doctor Who at all, and it's hard not to feel like there's a little too much enjoyment of Peri's sexual assault included in the narrative voice.

And then, hidden in among all the random stories from the Doctor's past, we get a multi-Doctor affair that also happens to be the key to the framing story's mystery. 'The Golden Door', by David Auger, is a nicely twisty mystery that relies on something the classic series could never do--have one incarnation of the Doctor mistaken for another. The subsequent convolutions of the plot are surprisingly easy to follow while still quite dense in their variety, and the final moral (it's okay to be different) is by no means a bad one even if it is a bit unsubtle. This was a good choice to connect to the final act of 'Playback'.

But before we get that far, we have Tim Robins' 'Prisoners of the Sun', which is experimental enough to almost not feel like a Doctor Who story at all. It's a brutal alternate reality story involving all of the Third Doctor's allies turning into sadistic soldiers in a bizarre civil war engineered by mysterious aliens we've never heard of who are nonetheless ancient enemies of the Time Lords, all wrapped up in a retconned explanation for Liz Shaw's departure, the Master's arrival, and oh by the way the whole thing is an intervention by the Doctor in a Time War that presages the later BBC books and the New Series. It's no surprise with all that going on, the prose is packed so tight with revelations as to be practically incoherent with breathlessness. Still, there's a good read buried under all that, and it may well be one of the hidden influences on a number of later writers.

And last but not least, we have Paul Cornell, warming up his Fifth Doctor impersonation with 'Lackaday Express'. It's a good story that trades well in Cornell's strengths--warm characterization, celebration of the small human moments that connect us, an acknowledgment of the pain of nostalgia while still understanding the desire to revisit the happier moments of our lives--all wrapped up in a nicely science-fiction-y premise that makes consistent sense. I'm glad this wasn't his only visit to this era in the series' past--Cornell didn't make many, which makes me appreciate the ones he did all the more--but it's definitely a good one.

And then, of course, we get the redux of 'Playback', where all the loose ends are wrapped up in satisfactory fashion and the current Doctor walks off into the sunset, his memories safely relegated to his past. But that's the thing about the Doctor's past as opposed to ours. His past is still alive, still growing, still worth talking about. It's no wonder it didn't stay relegated to memory for long.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Chat: Shadow of the Scourge, Parts Three and Four

Dee: Surprise! Happy Valentine’s Day!

John: I’ve actually been wanting to get back to this for a while, but before we can move on to anything else, we need to finish up our talk on ‘Shadow of the Scourge’. And the back half...it’s good, but it’s good in that weird sort of way that an author revisiting a past triumph is good but not quite as good as the original. It kind of invites comparisons to ‘Timewyrm: Revelation’, and I think it’s hard to win those comparisons even though this is also a good story. Is that me being unfair, or did you kind of feel that way as well?

Dee: I… didn’t see that,  but that’s partly  because I was having too much fun with Sophie Aldred. Whereas in “TW:R” Ace was slogging through the Doctor’s mind, here Benny is more at home and Ace is busy going “EH!? ALL RIGHT, BUT I HOPE YOU HAVE A PLAN!!” at the top of her lungs. Much more fun, less imagery-heavy. For obvious reasons, mind you, but still they felt different enough I didn’t run to that comparison. And good grief, was the cast having fun.

John: Okay, yes. You’re absolutely right, this is one of the biggest reasons why Big Finish slowly took over as “Doctor Who” in the hearts of fandom over the period between 1999 and 2003, because they had Sophie Aldred and Sylvester McCoy and Lisa Bowerman all sharing wonderful chemistry and bringing an indefinable magic to scenes that made them even better than on the printed page. Lisa Bowerman, in particular, deserves special mention simply because she makes Bernice seem like such a natural and organic part of the TARDIS crew. It feels like she’s known the Doctor and Ace for years (and yes, I know that’s technically true because she was one of the Cheetah people in ‘Survival’, but still…) You’re absolutely right, the cast is having a ball. I just kind of felt like when we went back into the Doctor’s mind again, and when he conquered his guilt again, and when we got a happy humanistic ending again...it was all good stuff, don’t get me wrong, but it just felt a bit over-familiar.

Dee: Eh. You’re allowed, obviously. I just don’t see it. I think that guilt and shame are things that creep back in, speaking as a person with depression, and that you really do have to beat them again and again. This time felt different to me, and that’s perhaps good enough. Or maybe I’m just easier to please as long as Ace isn’t being a total git. That’s also very possible. And again, we’re talking about a story that could have been written for my interests, so it had me a lot earlier and kept me better. And I loved “Revelation.” At least I remember loving it!

John: Well, it is pretty easy to please me as well, when it comes to Paul Cornell writing a 7/Ace/Benny book. For all that I gripe a bit about it being a lot like Cornell’s other work from this era, it’s worth noting that I consider Cornell’s other work from this era to be some of the best of Doctor Who, full stop, and a model for the New Series to the point where they had to just break down and adapt ‘Human Nature’ because it was the mission statement of Doctor Who from the moment it was released and they needed to make sure everyone knew about it. If it’s an imitation of Cornell’s other work, there are worse things to impersonate. And the message is good, too. It’s not just that you have to beat back guilt and shame, it’s that if you reach out to other people, they will support you and help you in that fight. They will forgive you if you ask forgiveness, they will care for you if you need care, and that as bad as it can seem sometimes, you’ve got more friends than you realize. It’s a little sappy, but it’s an important thing to hear.

Dee: I’m wondering if that message is more visceral to me because of my depression, too. It’d be really nice to think that instead of having broken circuitry in my brain, it’s aliens trying to use me to gain power when I feel like staying in bed for a week, you know? I don’t think I can hear the “reach out, you’re not alone” enough. Might have to mention that to Cornell at CONvergence this year. And that might also be something that influences my opinion of this story. Also cross-stitch. (Seriously, pointing that out will never get old to me.)

John: The cross-stitch convention is awesome. It’s a sign of Cornell’s creativity and cleverness, to me; I think the easy route would have been a sci-fi convention, complete with lazy jokes about con-goers that would get laughs out of familiarity. Instead, he gets to show the audience that everyone’s got things they’re passionate about, and even if we don’t share that passion we can understand what it’s like to care that much about a hobby. I also like the ending, where the Doctor tells Brian that he will find someone else not because he has some secret insight into the future, but because he believes in the healing power of time and understands that no matter how bad things seem when they’re at their worst, there’s always tomorrow. Those are good things. (Oh, yes, and Ace wandering around being smugly badass to monsters that don’t know how dangerous she is to them. That’s cool too.) There’s definitely a lot to like here, no question.

Dee: Honestly, I’ve liked Benny OK before, but I think this is the first time I’ve really loved-loved her, and her beautiful snarkiness made me giggle. I feel good about this story, and I hope everyone involved does as well.

John: I suspect they do. And now, back into official Virgin territory, and the first short story anthology we’re about to tackle! Join us next time for ‘Decalog’!

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Shadow of the Scourge

The main reason this fits as well as it does with the era it's set in is that Paul Cornell really doesn't like the Seventh Doctor that much.

Oh, don't get me wrong; he's a Doctor Who fan and always will be. But he's a fan because he admires certain qualities in the Doctor--his sense of whimsy and magic, his essentially romatic nature, his irrepressible joy at the human spirit. The "sweet" side of the Doctor. He's deeply conflicted when he has to write the Seventh Doctor, that sinister manipulator and player of games with the darkest of monsters. It's not that he doesn't understand that they're two sides of the same person, and that the whimsical Romantic sometimes gives away to the terrifying monster-to-monsters that the Doctor can be...but he's not comfortable with it. Virtually all of his Seventh Doctor stories exist within that tension, and explore it like a scab that just won't heal.

And 'The Shadow of the Scourge' is no exception. The front half is mainly about the Doctor coming up with what Cornell thinks of as one of his "typical" plans...although it's really only typical for a Cornell Seventh Doctor story. When other authors describe the Seventh Doctor as doing something that will eventually come to be known as "timey-wimey", it's usually presented in the form of a benevolent predestination paradox; the Doctor discovers that events have already been arranged in a particular way, and ruefully assents to being history's puppet just one more time. Whereas Cornell always describes it as weeks of tedious stage-managing in order to make sure the latest caper goes off without a hitch.

It doesn't work, of course, because it never works. The halfway point of the audio marks the end of the first act as all of the Doctor's manipulations are undone, forcing him to improvise desperately and to rue and regret his manipulative ways. The former happens in most of the Seventh Doctor's stories--after all, it'd be a pretty poor piece of drama if the Doctor solved everything in the first fifteen minutes. But the second part, the Doctor confronting his personal flaws, is unique to Cornell. In that respect, 'Shadow of the Scourge' is a close cousin to 'Timewyrm: Revelation', to 'Love and War', to 'No Future' and to 'Human Nature'. It's an analysis of the fundamental contradiction within the Seventh Doctor, the dynamic between his callous and cruel manipulations of his friends and of strangers and the ultimate rightness of his actions when all is said and done.

So the back half is mostly about the Doctor beating himself up over being such a jerk to his friends, and because he wants to explore that theme, Cornell uses the Scourge as a villain precisely because they're using his own conscience as a weakness. The Scourge point out everything Cornell's thinking--that his overplanning and arrogance were used as a weakness against him, that he was used as the Scourge's weapon against humanity precisely because of his conceited belief that he could stage-manage one of the oldest and most powerful races in the universe to death with just a few parlor tricks. It overreaches, perhaps, in suggesting that everyone can defeat their own private Scourge simply by remembering the small and simple pleasures in life...not only does it weave unsteadily across the line between sentiment and schmaltz in places, it's also unfair to people to suggest that they always have the power to defeat their own private demons if they'd only think happy thoughts.

But ultimately, the point of the story is that optimism and hope are stronger than despair, that friendship and unconditional love can defeat the worst things in the depths of our souls if we'd only reach out and ask for it, and that people have an enormous capacity to forgive, if we only extend our sincere repentance. Oh, and that cute babies and long parties with tea are pretty damn awesome. Those are messages worth having around, even if they do come with a bit of schmaltz on them. (It brushes off.)

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Shadow of the Scourge Part Two

I didn't care as much for the second half of this story, but when I say that it's because the first half was so very good. There are still so very many wonderful parts it feels a bit petty to complain.

For instance, Ace's sacrifice of her hearing was a lovely, inspired touch. Sophie Aldred plays that scene wonderfully, and while some of the jokes were predictable it would have been sad if they hadn't been made. She is violent when she needs to be, but it isn't her first choice of methods. (She does, however, still think confronting the enemy is the way to go. The minute she yells "Oi!" I start grinning.) Ace is back, and back to having faith. It's not the unreasoning faith of her youth, but the tested faith of someone who has made the choice to believe. 

Joining her in that faith we find Bennie, and she is fantastic. I particularly loved her comments about Eight, who doesn't play an active role but whose existence provides a plot point. Her partnership with Ace is beautiful and forms an important fulcrum on which the Doctor can move events. They have come to an understanding. Bennie is equally capable of snark, but she has an innate tenderness. Her intelligence gets them through multiple bad moments, and the aforementioned faith is pivotal in fixing the situation.

The Doctor is less a factor than normal as far as actions go. His primary role is to struggle with himself and the Scourge.  While this lets the humans play the most active part in events, it means we get a lot of what comes dangerously close to whining. On the plus side, McCoy gets some lovely lines and he does a great job when he's allowed to be reflective. The end, too, is well-acted.

Michael and Annie's story comes to a more-or-less satisfying end. So does the story as a whole. 

I would not advise listening to this story with a headache, by the way. The sound effects can get a bit harsh. 

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Chat: Shadow of the Scourge, Parts One and Two

John: So the plan to seamlessly flow this off of the back of ‘Tragedy Day’, and thus see ‘The Shadow of the Scourge’ in the context of its era, seems to have gone a bit off the rails. On the other hand, I’m not so sure this is a bad thing. I’ve seen a lot of posts where people do that, and they all seem to come down to, “Gee, it doesn’t fit in there all that well!” I hope that the delay means we can talk about more than just whether they recaptured the mid-90s feel.

Dee: I can’t say I felt like it was anything like ‘Tragedy Day,’ and if you hadn’t told me they were supposed to flow one from the other I wouldn’t have known it. On the other hand, the first two parts are a solid adventure and a fun one. Especially for me, as I said in my review post a few months back. Geeking plus mocking Newagers (which you should pronounce “newage” like “sewage”) plus cross-stitch. They had me at the concept.

John: The concept is great. But I have to say, as we sit at the halfway point, that it hasn’t really gotten going yet. It has a problem that was always one of the weaknesses of Paul Cornell’s Seventh Doctor material, which was that he never really liked the manipulative aspects of McCoy and so they tended to be a bit ham-fisted. The Seventh Doctor rarely did anything as clunky or blatant as nip back in time and stick a giant cylinder of sleeping gas in the ventilation ducts to foil the baddies’ plans, even during this era (which may be why it doesn’t feel like it fits in with ‘Tragedy Day’). He was always a subtle manipulator and a brilliant improviser and you could never tell where one ended and the other began. This part, where he’s just being really obvious about scamming the monsters, is the weakest bit of the story to me. Do you feel the same way?

Dee: It’s hard for me to say. Right now, having not heard the whole thing, my feeling is that he’s still playing them because Seven was never this, as you say, blatant. But there are lots of old Who episodes where the Doctor was, so I am inclined to give it a pass. Instead, I’m focusing on the lovely character grace notes and the humor, which is thrilling me no end. I don’t even want to specifically talk about the parts that made me laugh out loud in case I spoil it for someone else. Furthermore, with Cornell writing and Sophie Aldred reprising her part with clear joy and her usual talent, we’re back to an Ace I like. That goes a long way, in my heart, towards spackling over plot holes.

John: Oh, yes. Ace and Benny are the clear highlights of the first disc, what with her casually chatting about how she did her usual “storming off in shocked betrayal” bit, and Benny getting a rather terribly large number of good lines. I will avoid quoting most of them, for the reasons you mentioned, but I have to say that the exchange: “Are you pregnant?” “How did you know?” “I didn’t. I just ask that question to break the ice at parties,” is one of his better Benny moments, and this is the man who created the character. They were clearly having a ton of fun, and you totally forget that this is the first time that Sophie Aldred and Lisa Bowerman have acted together as Ace and Benny. Which is why I’m glad they didn’t do a story set earlier--with chemistry this good, why waste it by having them act all tense and angry at each other?

Dee: Precisely. The bigger negative, to me, than the plot being hamfisted is that I just can’t tell the baddies apart. It’s one thing when you can see actors facing each other on screen, but in this case it’s just distracting because you’re never sure which baddie you’re hearing. It’s still minor, though. And it doesn’t hurt my anticipation of the next installment. I do want to address the nice bait-and-switch that was almost set up, which is that we hear the possession of the medium before we have the body in the elevator. I wish we could have had the body first, so it looked more like a murder mystery. But then I suppose the fandom gatekeepers would have been upset we didn’t get the monster first, so there’s no way to win on that one.

John: I know what you mean about the monster voices. The actors in question have some really good voices, but they’re so heavily modulated that you can’t tell them apart in monster form. I agree that the body would have been a better cold open in some ways...actually, I was going to say “but” when I realized there’s no “but” there. The body would have been a better open, it would have foregrounded the Doctor, and it’s not like they couldn’t have gotten to the other stuff later. Have you noticed, by the way, that we haven’t been talking much about themes? This feels so much like a nostalgia piece to me that it seems more concerned with being of this era than being about something. Or am I being too hard on it?

Dee: I don’t see that at all. I see it as being more of a throwback to a Hinchcliffe era, if you want to talk nostalgia, but that’s OK with me. To me, the themes are more about people needing something to believe in. Mary needs to believe in Brian and the medium. Michael needs to believe in Brian, then in these people who are (hopefully) saving his life. Ace and Benny need to believe in the Doctor and are almost desperately doing so.

John: I can see something of that, but it does feel sort of secondary at this point to the Doctor being smug about fooling aliens and the aliens being smug about fooling the Doctor. I do recall some people at the time being put out a bit about the Scourge, by the way. In terms of themes, there were people at the time who felt like putting clinical depression down to “evil aliens making you feel that way” was trivializing a very real thing. Speaking personally, I sometimes feel it’s helpful to externalize depression, to remind myself that it’s a brain chemistry thing affecting me and not an aspect of my feelings, but I can see how this might be taking it too far.

Dee: As someone who’s mentally ill myself, and sensitive to this, I didn’t hear the Doctor mention “clinical depression,” which can be seen as different from colloquial “depression,” so unless on a relisten I hear him use the word “clinical” I’m giving it a pass. I welcome others to feel differently, though, and there is a bit of ableism in there. I don’t think at the time this was made that was even a word, though, so again, giving Cornell slack. He always tries hard to be openminded and caring, and he’s a definite ally to many communities. Now, the smugness thing… yes, but holy cow, how many times did Baker do that schtick? It’s not new to the series, that’s for sure.

John: No, it’s not new at all. But I just feel like McCoy doesn’t quite know how to play it. He’s good at enigmatic, he’s good at knowing, but he always played that off in the past as distant and mysterious. I don’t think he likes having to be the one to explain all his own plans here. But as I said, he’s much better when he gets to be clever instead of smug and improvisational instead of all-knowing, so the next disc should be much more entertaining. Join us then!