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


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!