...a blog by Richard Flowers

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Day 2337: DOCTOR WHO: Human Nature


Okay, after FOOLING everyone with Mr Olaf the other day, here is Daddy's REAL review of this week's Doctor Who.
Everyone, it seems, loves "Human Nature". Alex loved it; the viewers gave it an Audience Appreciation Index of 86%, classed as "excellent"; the notoriously fickle Outpost Gallifrey has 79% of voters giving it 5 out of 5, rising to 96% giving it 4 or 5; the reviewer in the Tuesday Metro was moved to call it "a return to form" (with a backhand slap to last week's "42" as well); even arch-sceptic and master of the splenetic dissection Lawrence Miles thought it was 80% "exceptional".

So there must be something wrong with me.

It's not that I thought it was in any way "bad", it's just I didn't find myself moved or thrilled or engaged in the way that an "Empty Child" or a "Love & Monsters" or a "Gridlock" did. For that matter, I think I was more excited by the derided Dalek double bill earlier in the year.

It's almost certainly down to defeated expectations: where "42" might get away with being derivative fluff because I expect it to be pointlessly derivative fluff and it turns out to be competent derivative fluff, "Human Nature" sets a higher standard for itself both because of its heritage and because its author, Paul Cornell, has a deserved reputation.

There are, I think, two actual flaws in the episode and they are linked.

The first is the opening: exciting as it may be to see the Doctor and Martha rushing into the console room under laser fire, it spells out exactly what is going on and why – the Doctor is going into hiding, and we can guess it's as a human. This undercuts the "what the hell is going on?" factor of the rest of the pre-title sequence where Mr John Smith wakes up and chats with Martha the maid.

In the utterly depressing sixth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, there is a story called "Normal Again" where we see an alternative perspective that has Buffy in a sanatorium suffering from catatonia, and under the delusion that her dreamworld of "Sunnydale" exists and that she is a super-hero there. The particular horror of the episode is that it treats this possibility as totally plausible – in fact I think that it goes too far, because it plays it's final scene in the "Buffy is mad and dreaming it all" world, suggesting that that is the world that is "real".

The thrust of the "Human Nature" pre-title is playing with a similar idea: is it possible that the whole of Doctor Who is just a dream in the mind of Mr Smith? Except that the opening has already explained that it is not.

Nothing wrong with a fast paced opening scene, but I'd have just saved the explanatory exposition for later on, when Martha goes to the TARDIS halfway though. Expensive, perhaps, to shoot extra footage, but a bit of mini-adventure with the Daleks... then cut to Mr Smith finishing the last sentence in his journal as he reads it out to Martha the maid.

(Since I prefer "it's a story in his head" to "it’s a dream" in the cliché stakes.)

Now, in a sense, it doesn't matter because the story of "Human Nature" is not really going to be about "is Doctor Who only a dream?" It merely seemed to take away any serious shock factor to Mr Smith's line as we punch into the titles.

Oh and "that's me; completely human": no one in the history of time speaks like that!

(Unless, as Alex suggests helpfully, they are artificially put together by the Doctor and the TARDIS out of the way they think that humans talk.)

The other problem, linked as I say, is the amount of the episode that appears to dwell on Smith's dreams and his journal. It seems to me to be a concentration on the Doctor leaking through into Smith at the expense of exploring who Smith is himself. The reason for this problem would seem to be – forgive me – that the story is too broad and too deep for the small screen.

Now, I should admit, that the New Adventure "Human Nature" never blew me away either, so it's just possible that it's the "what if the Doctor turned human" vibe that produces a "yeah yeah" response in me. Nevertheless, the novel does have the time to pace its development as Smith as a separate person. He has some aspects that are Doctor-ish and some that are altogether human, but with more room to explore both it never seems that this isn't about him as a human being.

All of this recounting of dream adventures is just very like the tenth Doctor in his "isn't this larks" mood, and coupled with Smith sharing the Doctor's habit of gabbling sentences it is sometimes difficult to remember that the Doctor is actually gone.

Saving a baby from a falling piano with a cricket ball, such a Doctor-ish way to save someone, only adds to the over-egging. (Actually, Alex says that as a preposterously complicated sequence of cause and effects it is really a very seventh Doctor-ish way to save someone – most normal people would shout "look out!")

It's lovely to see all the previous Doctor's faces there in the journal (Alex particularly pleased that the "books' Doctors", Sylv and Paul, are foregrounded), or to hear Mr Smith name his parents as Sydney and Verity – and his father was a watchmaker: see Mad Larry's head explode again this week. But all of this ticking my fanboy boxes gets in the way of me seeing who is this Mr John Smith.

To be fair to Tennant, he does play Smith in a slightly posher, slightly lighter, slightly higher pitched English accent, and tries to imbue him with a sense of nervousness, particularly about the fair sex, that is absent from the Doctor. Matron Joan's gentle banter with him on the stairs plays well to this – I'd have like to see more scenes like this to develop their relationship.

The other scene that plays to Smith as human was obviously the machine gun practice drill, where he permits older Class Captain Hutchinson to give younger boy Latimer a beating without batting an eyelid. This plays better in the book, where we gain insight into Smith's thinking – his more dreamlike and detached nature is emphasised and he is much more "going along" with the mores that say it is right for Latimer to be abused. Although Smith's subsequent conversation with Joan tries to touch on that it seems much flatter and foreshortened in the television version.

Time seems to be a little out of joint for Tim Latimer's story too, with him being a bit precognitive/weird even before he has opened Mr Smith's magic watch. Personally, I'd have rather seen him save the pram with the cricket ball while Smith dithers – after all, the implication is that Tim has picked up some of the Doctor from the watch, while Smith is missing same. This would have strengthened the sense of Smith as not the Doctor and foreshadowed him dithering at the end of the episode when confronted by the Family of Blood. But equally, it would undermine the dramatic integrity of our hero. Still, Tim's very good in the "An Unearthly Child" role, with his big eyes and slightly too knowing stares.

In fact the cast generally are excellent. Harry Lloyd, severely shaved of his Will Scarlet bum-fluff beard gives an excellent and deeply creepy turn as the odious Baines, objectionable even before he is turned into an alien-possessed zombie. And yet he also manages to be a little bit clever and a little bit brave when he thinks that there might be an aircraft in trouble and goes to help. Rebekah Staton admirably performs a harder transformation, from lovely bubbly Jenny to hard-faced Mother-of-Mine, clearly the Ma Baker of the Family of Blood. Jessica Hynes (née Stevenson of "Spaced") gives a perfect performance as Joan – her forwardness being not so much anachronistic as a touching mix of being a little ahead of her time and a little desperate, as a widow, not to be left behind. Making her the experienced one compared with Smith's otherworldly naïveté is rather charming.

Freema remains on absolutely top form, doing more to sell the episode than anyone. Playing along as Martha the Maid; taking charge when she sees the falling star that is the invisible spaceship coming down; almost knuckling under when she thinks she's lost the Doctor that she loves, and to another woman of all things. The fact that she has to put up with Joan's condescending behaviour towards her – and the way that she makes almost no attempt to hide Martha's contempt for the school nurse who is so obviously her inferior. And the way that she keeps bursting into Smith's room is priceless.

In the novel, the seventh Doctor's companion Bernice was placed nearby as an educated lady of means, occasionally visiting her "uncle John". Even though the change to place Martha as a maid in the school means losing the book's overtly gay subplot, this is actually an improvement. Not only is Martha closer to the action, it allows them to develop an alternative viewpoint of the school, i.e. from the servant's point of view. The light touch handling of racism is also a nice addition, colouring our picture of a time easily painted in nostalgia, as well as quickly saying "nasty pieces of work" about Baines and Hutchinson. And seeing Martha and Jenny having to take their drinks outside the pub adds a similar touch for gender equality.

(And in such a potentially male-dominated setting as a boys' school, isn't it good to see that three of the leads, and carrying much of the plot, are women.)

The special effects are kept remarkably simple, limited to one rather well done invisible spaceship (a loving, almost move-by-move recreation of the invisible spaceship scene performed by Tom Baker in the never-broadcast "Shada"), a few laser blasts and the magic watch. The watch in fact is more captured by some excellent sound design. Like Sauron's ring, which also possessed a part of its master, the watch has its own voice – in fact three voices, one of which is David Tennant – with a haunting, susurrating whisper.

The other effect – if you can call them an effect – is the marvellously malevolent scarecrows. With their ungainly boneless walk and their hideous mis-stitched faces you can bet they'll be this year's "monster of choice".

Their masters, the alien hunters – now are they aliens who are hunters or hunters of aliens? – the Family of Blood look suspiciously like the alien gas creature from Torchwood's "Day One" repainted in green. (Like that's never been done before in Doctor Who… cough cough Axons cough cough Krynoids.) Having said that, the fact that the inside of their invisible spacecraft looks like a redress of the TARDIS console room, down to the grating on the floor, is actually rather a nice nod to the stolen time-technology they are supposed to be using.

As characters, however, they do appear a little undeveloped and their motivation is unclear. We know that they are after the Doctor – or at least a Time Lord but that amounts to the same thing these days, doesn't it? But why? Do they want him as a trophy or for revenge or for something that he can do for them or just to eat him as a delicacy? And it seems odd that they'll all be dead if the Doctor can just hides for three months. Three months? That hardly suggests a lifespan long enough to have acquired the necessary technology to hunt him down in the first place, does it?

Reaching for the book again, the Family of Blood replace the Aubertides a family of humanoid-ish aliens who reproduce by budding up to a limit of seven. They want the Doctor to try and incorporate his Time Lord DNA into their reproductive cycle so that they can grow their family twelve times larger and turn their clan into an army. Annoying characters and with a silly name, but at least there was an interesting thing going on behind why they wanted the Doctor, and one that tied into the rest of the plot about his Time Lord nature.

At the moment it seems as though the Family of Blood are after the Doctor because that's what villains do.

Still, it was a packed episode so maybe they're holding the explanation back for next week.

In the end, "Human Nature" isn't science-fiction at all. Being Paul Cornell, obviously this is a great big Christian allegory, but the scarecrows are the real clue – evil twins of the one from "The Wizard of Oz". This is a fairy story: the mighty wizard has laid aside his wand, hidden his magic cabinet and – watched over by his faithful apprentice – turned himself into a mortal, only to have to fall in love and face evil zombies at the same time.

Because the Universe needs its Doctor, there's nowhere he can go without that intruding: even if the Family of Blood didn't find him, the shadow of the First World War hangs large over this invented idyll, and if that isn't about accepting duty over love I don't know what is.

For me, the central line to this story should not be how "magical" it would be if his "imaginings" were real, but that he likes his small and mortal life better. It's almost there in the scene where he talks to Joan about not needing war to prove your courage, until that piano intrudes. Love is the price that the Doctor must pay for great power; he can have one or the other. We need to believe that Smith would rather have love.

That's what the choice at the cliff-hanger is about, after all: chose Joan or Martha, Matron or Maid, Love or Duty, to be human or to be the Doctor.

Next time… "He burns at the centre of time and can see the turn of the Universe." Time's up for John Smith in "The Family of Blood".

Monday, May 28, 2007

Day 2336: Collision in Welsh Assembly


This idea for a RAINBOW collision coalition is increasingly looking more ZIPPY AND BUNGLE than DAVID BOWIE’s rainbow show, isn’t it?

Day 2335: Innocent Until Proven Guilty


The parents of little lost Maddy McCann have spoken up for the first time and said that the suspect should be treated as innocent until proved otherwise. Good for them!

The poor police in Portugal have faced a lot of very unfair criticism from the silly British Press because they are simply not allowed to give out information. Then as soon as they talk to some unlucky schmuck, the Press are all over him and printing his name and photo and the address of his mother’s house all over the place. And that’s just the BBC!

But ruining some bloke’s life can only be a distraction from the REAL issue. Perhaps the media need reminding, but the IMPORTANT thing is to find Maddy, and hopefully find her alive. Suspects and stories are secondary.

There are times when Daddy Richard has got quite sick of this story being on the news all of the time, but you cannot fault Maddy’s parents, Gerry and Kate, from doing everything that they can to try and keep the search – and their hopes – alive. No one should have to live in a world where it isn’t safe to leave children in bed, but since we do you would not be surprised to hear the parents lashing out at anyone at whom the finger is pointed. To refrain from doing so, indeed to go further and insist on the proper protection of the law for the suspect, shows a special kind of strength.

I only wish that they get some good news soon.

Day 2334: Out of Control; Out of Order


So, these three blokes have gone missing

It is not that the Home Office wants to introduce a police state by the back door… no, actually it IS that the Home Office wants to introduce a police state by the back door, but ALSO that they are totally incompetent to administer even this cack-handed, half-witted, numbskull way of getting around the whole inconvenient “innocent until proven guilty” thing.

There ARE only 17 people on Control Orders anyway – does MI5 not have 170-odd people (or 170 odd-people) to keep them under surveillance? If they ARE supposed to be SOOOOOO dangerous, wouldn’t KEEPING AN EYE ON THEM be a fairly OBVIOUS precaution? And if they AREN’T that dangerous, why are we tipping them off that we might be on to them by giving them a Control Order? Or rather a “We think you’re EEEEEEVIL but we can’t prove it, you just looked at us funny” Order.

If you WANT to be a police state and you don’t want them to leave the country, just MAKE UP AN ASBO and take their passports away.

Oh, I forgot, even an ASBO needs you to TELL THEM WHAT YOU THINK THEY’VE DONE.

You would think that this relatively basic human right would not be that difficult to live up to, but for some BONKERS IN THE NUT reason it is TOO DANGEROUS to let these people know what they are suspected of. Like they won’t figure out that it’s TERRORISM!

Meanwhile, the independent milk-monitor for the workings of the terrorism act, Lord Alex Carcrash, has said that there is “solid intelligence” that these people are “oooh scary”, sorry, I mean a genuine threat. But that’s just the problem – we haven’t got “solid intelligence” or we would be able to BANG THEM UP.

“Acts Preparatory to Terrorism” is now a crime; “Conspiracy” is a crime. Unfortunately for Lord Carcrash, “Maybe Thinking About Preparing to Conspire to Possibly Commit Acts That Might End Up Being Called Terrorism” is not YET carved into the statue books. We can’t just lock up EVERY aggrieved young idiot who mouths off.

Do not get me wrong: if these are very bad people like the Home Secretary says they are, then I would like them locked up for all of our safety. But in order to do that we need to watch them and see if they actually do any very bad things. Just telling them to please keep us informed of their whereabouts and any DASTARDLY PLOTS that they are planning on getting involved with does not seem to me to be likely to work.

And golly gosh it hasn’t.

Day 2333: Freedom from Flip-Flops


Guess what! It turns out that MP’s voting for the Secrecy of Information Bill last week was about as popular as a BUCKET OF COLD SICK, and much is the OPPROBRIUM that has been heaped upon them for doing so.

Well, being like a bucket of cold sick is NOT what Mr Balloon wants. Well, not since his Bullingdon daze days anyway. So he’s decided he wants to be against changing the Freedom of Information Act after all.

As it happens, the author of this pathetically SELF-SERVING bit of legislation, Mr David MacLean’s-Toothpaste, has found himself in the SLIGHTLY EMBARRASSING position of having to explain why he wants to make MP’s expenses secret at the same time as buying himself a £3,300 quad bike on, er, his MP’s expenses.

Of course, the Daily Hate Mail were rather less, er, kind in their breaking of the story.

Still, that sort of thing is surely not going to influence Mr Balloon – or “Shameless Dave”, as they now appear to be calling him over at Hate Mail Towers.

Mr Balloon is USED to that sort of thing by now. In fact, sending the Conservatory Right into a tizzy is one of his best ways of pretending that he isn’t one of them! Mind you, this week he is posing as “Mr EGALITARIAN ANTI-ELITIST EDUCATIONALIST… FROM ETON” rather than “Mr I’VE GOT SOMETHING TO HIDE ANTI-DEMOCRATIC EEJIT… FROM ETON”.

So apparently, rather than doing anything useful like telling Mr Toothpaste to stop mucking about or even turning up in the House of Commons to vote on the issue, Mr Balloon is going to ask very nicely if the House of Lords Club will please pull his ballots out of the fire save democracy for him.

Well, roll my button eyes!

But you know what I say? Get the Flip-Flopper while he’s on OUR side!

Meanwhile, Mr Frown has now ALSO jumped on the bandwagon promised that this tiny slip up over Freedom of Information will be “corrected”.

Look out Mr Toothpaste, SECRET STALIN Mr Frown is on the case – you’ll be off to the House of Commons “correctional institute” before you know it. What a pity someone EXEMPTED the House of Commons from Freedom of Information – no one will EVER find you!

Day 2332: Cutty Spark


I had better get Daddy to do a rush through the week’s news to bring my diary up to date again. These are the stories that I WOULD have written about, if Daddy had not been chained to his new workstation-cum-treadmill for a week.

We woke up on Monday to discover that a boat near where we live has burnt down.

This made us SAD!

My Daddies used to go to work in Greenwich and every day they would walk past the big boat on their way. We all went down to the river to look across at Island Gardens, next to the foot tunnel, to see if we could see anything but by then it was all over bar the great big clean up bill.

The GOOD NEWS was that half the boat had NOT been burned up because it had already been taken to bits and taken away for some spit and polish, or what professional people call a £25 million restoration.

You might think that £25 million is a lot of money to spend on a boat that no one is going to use again, but think of all the people who are working on this restoration project. They have to earn a living and this way they can do it while doing something fun and creative at the same time. It is a lot better than being chained to a workstation-cum-treadmill anyway!

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Day 2331: Human Nature?


Daddy Richard has had rather a trying week, and that is why my diary has fallen behind again. Sorry!

Anyway, to make up, here is an ENORMOUS essay about some science fiction of the early twentieth century. If you are disappointed to learn that it is NOT this week's Doctor Who, though, you should read on. Doctor Who's (arguably) greatest Script Editor Mr Robert Holmes insisted that everyone who wanted to write Doctor Who for him should become literate in the greats of Science Fiction. This is the good stuff.

Scary scarecrows will just have to come later.
There is a chance that you have heard of W. Olaf Stapledon. You probably haven't but you should have done. He was a writer mainly of the 1930's, only a generation after H.G. Wells practically invented the "Scientific Romance" with The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds, and yet he is almost forgotten.

But he shouldn't be. His two great works, Last and First Men and its sort of sequel Star Maker, are the most astonishing description of imagination it is possible to come across, as far beyond Wells in scope and realisation as Wells himself is beyond the domestic concerns of an Austen or a Brontë.

Stapledon himself didn't even think of his work as "science fiction", would probably have been faintly offended by the term. And to be fair, this is only "science fiction" in so much as Professor Tolkein's epic study of language and search for and English mythology is "fantasy". Stapledon was writing a philosophical treatise, a discussion on the nature of man, evolution, the Universe and god. That he would do so by describing a future history of mankind was so obvious as to be no more than incidental.

So, in spite of the SF on the label, don't judge these books by their covers.

If there are two key factors to Stapledon's work then they are "scale" and "tragedy".

The scale is simply breathtaking: by the end of Star Maker he has encompassed literally all of time and space, forever and ever and in a very real sense, amen. The tragedy is in the repeated motif of failure, death unlooked for, too soon, too unfair, of striving and achievement coming ever and again to nothing, falling eternally short of the might have been.

Where Tolkien and all who followed him have "the map", that much-referred-to diagram in the endpages which lays out the geographical separation of the events of the story, Stapledon instead has a series of timescales, each a line centred on 2000 AD stretching backwards and forwards and showing the relative placing of the incidents of his future history.

While the first, from -2000 to +2000 years, showing the period from the time of Christ to the future Americanised World State, seems a familiar kind of history, as soon as you move to the second, -200,000 to +200,000 you understand more of Stapledon's perspective, for it shows the period of Palaeolithic Culture lasting from -200,000 until almost today, and – apart from two brief flowerings, one now and one in Patagonia in about 100,000 years time – all of the next 200,000 years has we, the first men, in barbaric eclipse.

Worse, his third scale, -20,000,000 to +20,000,000 or from the earliest mammals to the distant future, shows the whole history of "first men" as a blip around the present day, and the whole history of our evolutionary successors the "second men" as another blip around the year 10,000,000.

Not very Russell T Davies, is it?

With an eye to the realities of the Universe, Stapledon constructs a history that is both vast and mostly empty.

The fourth scale, -2,000,000,000 to +2,000,000,000 starts with the formation of the Earth and concludes with the extinction of the final human species, the "Last Men".

The timescale of Star Maker goes even further, starting with a range from 20 billion years in the past to 80 billion years in the future, with the entire story of "Last and First Men" a blink-and-you'll-miss-it footnote in the middle.

His next time line cover the complete life span of our cosmos, from its moment of creation 200 billion years ago to final entropy three hundred billion years in the future.

And his final scale shows the lives of every Universe from the first to the last.

The device of these timescales perfectly illustrates the design of Stapledon's works, starting with the nearby history of the familiar and describing it in a certain degree of detail over several chapters – the first four chapters of "Last and First Men", for example, are all encompassed in the very first timescale. But then as he ranges further and further into the future, he compresses the amount that he writes to describe these future words just as the gap between events foreshortens as the scale of his time lines increases, thus by the end of "Star Maker" it is necessary for him to describe whole Universes in a paragraph, or even many Universes in a passing sentence.

Last and First Men

In his foreword to the first complete American edition, Gregory Benford advises the reader to skip over the first four chapters, ostensibly because they are the bit that Stapledon got demonstrably wrong. I think that that would be a disservice to the book and the reader. You will gain far more insight into Stapledon's thinking by comparing his future vision with what we know did happen next. Additionally, it will gather you up into the accelerating pace of the future history as he covers it, starting with small steps to cover the years of the now past Twentieth Century before he begins to step up to higher and higher gears.

Perhaps most obviously, Last and First Men is the work of a man who has seen the First World War, seen it and been convinced that it was the ending of things.

So his vision of the world's future – our world's future, the world of we the First Men – is one of inevitable decline, brought about by our own follies. Europe is laid waste first by a war between England and France, then between Russia and Germany as client states of the mighty powers of America and China, finally when she dares to rise up against America, Europe is exterminated with poison gas.

Well, obviously that didn't happen… yet it is interesting the things that Stapledon did get right: Germany breeds a generation of pacifists in guilt at the European War – right response, wrong war – Russia is belligerent through her forced subservience to American finance; China rises to become the opposing pole to America…

It is true to say that Stapledon is not subtle with his racial stereotyping. But nor is he particularly biased, ascribing failings and foibles to almost everyone. The English are too cowardly, the French too vain, the Germans too passionate… even if his ascribing physical prowess as the talent of Negroid races makes us wince these days. His message though is not so much that everyone is rubbish but that only if we work together can we achieve our better nature. American dynamism needs to be tempered with European cynicism or it gets carried away; European intellectualism needs to be tempered with Indian spiritualism or it becomes cold and soulless and so on.

But it's not really about the details. Essentially, the history of the First Men concerns two big ideas: progress versus stability, and Stapledon chooses to represent these as America and China.

The Americans, perhaps driven a little mad with grief after the patricidal war against Europe, become obsessed with perpetual motion, that activity itself is sacred, ending with them fusing Fundamentalist Christianity with totemic scientific ideas in the worship of the source of all movement the "Gordelpus".

(The satirical naming of the object of veneration coming in fact from the oath uttered by one of the last English scientists on discovering the secret of atomic power – a secret immediately covered up, so these Americans always desire but never discover it.)

The extra irony added is that the Americans are stupendously sexually repressed, that enormous energy being diverted unnaturally into their ever busier, if futile, lives lived acquiring astronomical personal wealth.

The Chinese, in contrast, venerate the state of rest. They toil tirelessly in order to achieve the means to be idle. And with an open and decadent sexuality, they reproduce without restraint thus providing themselves with limitless manpower. No one achieves great personal wealth, but no one is oppressed by excessive labour either.

Obviously neither side can abide the other… but on the brink of war to the death, the community of businessmen on both sides decide that staying in business is more important than who wins and so assassinate all the world leaders and put the Church of Gordelpus in charge. Under their own board of managers, of course. They even manage to persuade the Chinese that – just as matter is merely another form of energy – rest is just another form of movement.

The first World State lasts for a thousand years, powered by petrol from Antarctic Coal deposits. Everyone has personal aeroplanes and these become integral to their religion. Since I first read Stapledon years ago, the image has always stayed with me of the Americanised World, all dancing on the wings of aeroplanes until the fuel runs out and they fall out of the sky.

Obviously this hasn't happened either. We've got there a whole lot faster.

Of the survivors of this great fall, only the Patagonian people of Latin America struggle to rebuild a civilisation. Here Stapledon turns his satirical eye to the practise of paternalism. These future Patagonians come to worship youth and childhood, because in their crippled world they are too soon forced into the burdens of maturity, and become prematurely aged.

Here Stapledon pauses to discuss the life of their main religious prophet, the Divine Boy – first its actuality, a young man who unlike the rest of his kind retains the vigour and mischief of youth into his middle years, and then the distorted "perfect child" image of a perfectly spoken, modest and obedient eternal child. As Olaf puts it: an image of a child only an old person could conceive. The real wisdom of the real man becomes buried under a weight of sentiment and tradition. I'm sure there was some allusion I meant to draw from this…

The Patagonians’ downfall comes from their paternalistic desire to look after all their people as though they are children. Wise enough to realise that the World State had abandoned the pursuit of intellect in favour of their religion of movement (thinking being far too sedentary to be considered an "activity"), the Patagonians try to nurture intelligence. The brightest among them are taken for special education to become leaders and governors. But unfortunately, the governors over time come to look upon the governed more and more as children to be cherished and nurtured, but also children who should obey without question just as the religious [i.e. unreal] version of the Divine Boy would have done.

Unfortunately, this coincides with the rediscovery of the long lost secret of drawing power from the atom. So, when workers are chastised for not working hard in the new uranium mines they riot – or rather throw a great big tantrum – smashing one of the new atomic mining machines. The resultant explosion starts a chain reaction, and detonates all the uranium in the Earth's crust. A string of titanic explosions and volcanic eruptions run up the spine of America under the Bering Straits back down the Himalayas across to Europe, down to Africa… within a day every human on the planet is dead. Well, except for a tiny group of Arctic explorers.

It all goes very quiet for quite some time…

Eventually, from some of the descendents of these survivors – or rather the descendents of the descendents of their descendents – evolution develops a second human species, more robust than the first and yet more gentle, more inclined to sympathy and understanding, natural community makers. They discover other descendents of the human line, devolved into beast men, ironically in thrall to tiny monkeys that have developed a crude intelligence where the once humans have lost theirs.

These noble but unworldly Second Men fall victim to the invasion of an alien intelligence from Mars. Crudely put it sounds like pulp fiction, but Stapledon's development of the Martian form – a cloud or dust of microscopic particles that hold together and communicate by electromagnetism – is itself fascinating and also propels a critique of single-mindedness. The Martian host are literally of a single mind, having long since eliminated all other opposing dust clouds or subsumed them into one great form. Invasion after invasion comes from Mars, catching a foothold on Earth and being driven back, eventually colonising the southern hemisphere. As the Second Men try to come to an accommodation, the Martian invaders gradually realise that the humans might be intelligent… only for their parent/greater body on Mars to reject the idea and ruthlessly eliminate the colonist body before sending a new invasion. Earth and Mars are both worn away. Finally, the broken spirited Second Men can no longer maintain their characteristic sympathy and go a bit crazy, developing a genocidal weapon that destroys the Martian utterly, but at great cost, the poisonous dust of the dead Martians micro organisms wiping out almost all humans, in a bittersweet reversal of the War of the Worlds.

And this is Stapledon's pattern: over and again a new species of Men will arise, fall into obsession and meet with calamity.

The Third Men are the authors of their own downfall, obsessed as they are with perfection of nature, using their skills as breeders and then discovering the secret of the germ plasm (remember this was written before Watson and Crick discovered DNA) to make better and more diverse forms of all flora and fauna. Ultimately they turn to redesigning themselves, genetically engineering a species of gigantic human brains that supersedes them.

These great brains, the Fourth Men, are obsessed with pure intellect, as after all brains is all that they have. When they reach the limits of what they can learn, they find all their knowledge insufficient, so they design and make a Fifth Men with the sole intention of having them explain what they the Fourth Men are missing (a clue: it's bodies). The Fifth Men overthrow the tyrannical brains and exterminate them.

The Fifth Men are obsessed with art and beauty, discovering a way to re-enter history and see all its tragedies… until the Moon, displaced from orbit, starts to fall upon them and they must flee to Venus.

In spite of their best efforts to terraform their new world, Venus is in no way suited to humans of the Fifth Race and they evolve again into a Sixth species who live a miserable existence on the planet's few islands.

Eventually, they give themselves wings and become the Seventh Men. The Flying Men live short lives, but ecstatic ones when they are on the wing, and their civilisation lasts for millions of years – one of the few great successes, though they achieve no greatness in art or science or religion, except only the achievement of dance in the air. Their tragedy is that they are dependent on a rare salt for their power of flight, which in time they deplete. A groundling race of Eighth Men are bred, and they, jealous of the Seventh Men's freedom of flight, hound their predecessors to oblivion.

And so it goes on – when a solar collision causes the Sun to swell, dooming Mercury, Venus and Earth to fiery destruction – mankind emigrates once more, this time colonising the vast planet Neptune. Here man is reduced utterly to the animal and, just as all mammals today evolved from some small shrew-like creature that survived the Mexico impact at the end of the Age of Dinosaurs, so man evolves again into all the many and varied forms of life that the environment on Neptune will allow. Just as mankind once evolved from the beasts, so in Stapledon's future all the beasts thus evolve from man.

Three hundred million years pass. Not even the mighty Frank Herbert can manage sentences like that one. Page 256 of my SF Masterworks edition: "Now in the fullness of time, about three-hundred million terrestrial years after…" evolution again throws up the conditions for an intelligent hominid.

Humanity goes though several more manifestations before finally achieving his ultimate, or at least final, incarnation in the Eighteenth or Last Men.

In the end, this Mankind achieves something new, a telepathic community that encompasses their whole civilisation. Unlike the earlier Martian mind, that was just one mind grown really big, these Men achieve a true Unity, where all contribute equally and all experience the collective wisdom.

(Incidentally, readers of Julian May's "Saga of the Pliocene Exiles" and "Galactic Milieu" series may recognise this idea of telepathic Unity.)

Truly, it is greater than the sum of all its million million parts. And, again with the tragedy, it is just in time to realise that the Sun is about to undergo an unnatural and premature Supernova. Mankind is about to become extinct forever.

This story of the fall of civilisation after civilisation is not so much a whiz-bang future history, but a spiritual quest, a journey away from our petty and individualistic concerns to something that is better than all of us. With his future, Stapledon tells cautionary tales against devoting all our energies into one course; not science, nor art nor music nor physicality is ever enough on their own. With his dispassionate observation, he advises us to temper our passions with cynicism, to govern ourselves not harshly nor unwisely. Given his urge for moderation but with spirituality, you will not be surprised to learn he was a Quaker; given his ending of grand Unity you will not be surprised to learn that he was a lifelong communist, but not above a critique of collectivism either, as his interlude with the Martian overmind shows.

Much of the science we now know to be nonsense – a Venus with oceans, Neptune a solid rocky planet beneath its think atmosphere – and those all-important time scales date from an era when we thought the Universe much, much older than we now believe, but that's beside the point when he has grasped so readily the sheer vast emptiness of space and how little we are on our precious blue dot, and the enormity of evolution and the way that it throws up change after change after change.

The only thing that really jars is that Stapledon's future Men never leave the solar system. A journey of hundreds of years to the nearest star system may be impossible for us to consider, but when future races have developed lifespans of thousands or even tens of thousands of years, such journeys become easily achievable, particularly once the secret of drawing power from "atomic disintegration" is discovered, essentially you can have as much E for your mc2 as you like if you can do that.

But then, that would be to give us a get-out, an escape from the inevitable; it would abolish the tragedy. Again we must come back to the First World War and the sense of a man struggling to come to terms with the ultimate in futility. The answer that Stapledon seems to grasp – perhaps the straw in his ocean – is that life, existence, the Universe, all of it is beautiful… from some perspective. Even if we cannot see that perspective, are not equipped biologically or spiritually to understand. Or perhaps he does in the end reject this as insufficient. Although the book closes with the Last Men having made their spiritual peace through their unified world mind, the epilogue twists the knife as, with their world collapsing, they can no longer achieve that height of "spiritual excellence". Worse, they begin to doubt whether they really achieved that unity, or was it just delusion?

Perhaps it sounds depressing, but instead it should be inspirational – this future is not inevitable. Yes, obviously, but those first four chapters prove that. Some decisions somewhere we got right. We can live in hope, and we can avoid extinction. But we have to go to the stars.

Two billion years covering the entire future of humanity. You would think you couldn't top that, wouldn't you…

Star Maker

If Last and First Men is the cri de coeur of a man who has seen World War One, then Star Maker is the rejoinder of a man who is desperate for his faith to be strong enough. Where the first rails against a cruel Universe: "is there no god?!", the second is a heartfelt "there MUST be!"

In Last and First Men, Stapledon took on the persona of one of those Last Men using their powers and understanding of the nature of time to convey his message back to the mind of a simple member of the First Human species.

For Star Maker he adopts a different tactic, describing instead the account as though he had experienced his strange travels as a vision, as a part of a greater collective of consciousnesses, a higher mind if you like, and now – reduced once more to his humble human condition – he recalls this in fragmentary and imperfect form. Slightly strangely he alludes once or twice to his earlier account of the fate of man, clearly Last and First Men, but never directly admits to being the same author or the same First Man who was earlier "possessed" or "visited" by one of the Last Men and so inspired to write that book.

Equally, there are some small differences in what you might call the "continuity". Last and First Men states that the Last Men have scoured the cosmos and find that they almost alone – unless it is in some of the more distant galaxies – have achieve the heights of consciousness and spirituality. But come Star Maker, there are many worlds in our galaxy of at least this stature if not higher – "awakened worlds" Stapledon calls them, where the entire populace have achieved that state of telepathic unity where all participate as equal parts of one being.

You could slightly wave your hands and say it is down to the vast gulfs of time. Mankind live in their little Universe of the Solar System about a hundred billion years before the beginnings of interstellar travel (by the unintentionally hilarious "Space 1999" method of strapping atom bombs to the side of your planet and blasting it out of orbit). The other "higher" civilisations may all exist in a later time. But it won't do: the very first other world our author and traveller visits is many billions of years in the past; worse, the greatest of civilisations evolves hundreds of billions of years before we do.

But never mind that. Again, Stapledon is merely using these worlds and times as illustrations for the ideas that he wants to discuss.

Where Last and First Men is so clearly influenced by the First World War, Star Maker is foreshadowed of the Second. In his mental or astral travel, the author is drawn again and again to worlds that are experiencing what he keeps describing as "that crisis that we ourselves currently face on our little Earth". Actually, it almost becomes frustrating, as the "crisis" is so obvious to Stapledon that he never spells out exactly what he means: is it the imminent mid Twentieth Century clash of nationalism against globalism; or is this simply too obvious? Does he extend this to spiritualism versus materialism, or militarism verses pacifism, or even individualism versus collectivism? (Remembering again that Stapledon is a communist and Quaker.)

It certainly doesn't seem to have occurred to him that there might be another way, muddling along without having to choose between the Fascists and the Communists.

Still, with this in mind we see him exploring a Universe of alternative evolutions. Not confined to what can be achieved by "Star Trek's" prosthetics department, he devises world after world in which new and more and more bizarre ways exist for life to have evolved. Cleverly linking it to the author's "spiritual growth", he explains that initially he is drawn through space and – it turns out – time to those civilisations most like our own, in biological form as in mental development.

Thus he first finds himself on a very Earth-like world where hominid, but vaguely amphibian, inhabitants live very human lives, threatened by global war and their own declining strength of spirit. Stapledon also takes a side-swipe at television in passing, with the Other Men falling into an addiction to their own version. Many abandon the world, retiring to beds and artificially fed and medicated in order to receive all their input from television. Yes, Olaf invented the Internet nerd.

Following the pattern of Last and First Men, the early chapters are slow and take time to discuss the history and tragedy of this Other Earth. There he meets a like-minded individual and is eventually able to learn to communicate with him, and then further teach him the power to travel and explore mentally. Together they explore the Other Earth and eventually leave together to explore further and find new worlds and new companions.

As their experience together grows and their thinking becomes broader, they become able to visit worlds of greater and greater difference, far beyond the range of vertebrate-type civilisations they begin with. Stapledon really lets his mind go, exploring ideas as varied as nautiloids – great living ships – and echinoderms – sentient starfish; intelligent plant-men, dwelling on planets with abundant sunlight; and symbiotic species, including the paring of species of huge thoughtful fish with tiny but dextrous spiders to be found in one of the satellite galaxies.

I should briefly add a moment of warm praise for the inclusive way in which Stapledon uses the term "human", to include all beings capable of intellectual and spiritual understanding. Of course it's an allegory about difference not dividing us, but nevertheless it manages to be more I.D.I.C. than "Star Trek". All of these worlds, in Stapledon's terms then are "human".

For all these worlds, the group of travellers learn to follow their histories from the point where sentience emerges up to the "spiritual crisis", after which they either fail and fall into self extermination, or the travellers lose contact with them.

It becomes apparent to them that in fact they lose contact because the worlds have advanced to a higher spiritual level. In fact, they have evolved in the way that the Last Men achieved at the end of Last and First Men, and become a unified or "awakened world". In time, the travellers learn to follow this path themselves, as indeed their travelling collective is clearly an imperfect foreshadowing, and they learn of the developing community of worlds.

Here Stapledon changes tack, no longer concerned with life in its diversity but in its hierarchy.

As the worlds come awake, they colonise their systems and – as indicated before – learn to travel to new systems and spread their state of consciousness further. Each world becomes essentially a being, a being composed of millions if not billions of individuals, just as in Stapledon's analogy, your body is composed of trillions of cells, all acting as a part of the whole.

Individuals unify to become equal parts of an awakened world; worlds unify into systems; the whole galaxy gradually comes awake, as vastly greater a mind than the living worlds as they were then their component individuals; ultimately the galactic minds try to reach out to one another to join in an awakened literal cosmic consciousness.

Will this supreme consciousness in fact be god, ponders the author? Or rather the "Star Maker", the oh so obviously responsible for the Universe creator? And will such a being have the perspective to understand the place and purpose of all the suffering and all the worlds that fail and die?

Along the way, the living worlds inevitably come into conflict with one another. Empires arise, all vying to impose their own particular philosophy by telepathic propaganda if possible, by force if required. Stapledon describes these Empires as materialistic utopias. Ironically, he has invented "Star Trek's" Federation 30 years early. The galaxy seems poised to fall under their sway, and Stapledon makes it clear that this would be a dead end for the spirit, but there comes an intervention from the great symbiotic race of the satellite galaxy, and the worlds are set back on the path to unity.

Later still, the living worlds come into conflict with living stars.

The stars, vastly larger than planets, have long since passed through a similar evolution of mind to those of the awakened worlds, but even more bizarre and alien, and hence remaining unrevealed to the travellers. Now, in Stapledon's cosmology, they perform an intricate dance, a dance that merely perfectly resembles the motions that they would perform under gravity. Okay, I'm a bit sceptical about something whose presence is indistinguishable from its absence. However, the efforts of the living worlds to engineer their own solar systems interfere with the perfect motion of the stars' dance. The result is disaster – moral shame for violating their own near religious observance leads the stars to take violent retribution, prematurely going supernova to rid themselves of the planets that they identify as the cause of their shame.

This could be – obscurely – and unlooked for explanation of the mysterious death that afflicts Mankind at the conclusion of Last and First Men. Our race may be innocent victims of the war of worlds and stars, collateral damage if you like in a war of which we know nothing. Or perhaps not. It's certainly never made clear.

In time, differences are resolved and peace is restored. But the time is ill spent, because the Universe has a finite life span, and already it is most used up. In that far distant future when the cosmos does indeed awaken, and the travellers find themselves joining in the supreme moment, the nascent universal mind perceives almost at once its own imminent dissolution and the passing of the Universe into entropy, dust and silence.

But in that one moment – or eon, when you’re the whole Universe these things pass in a blink – the author reveals a glimpse of the perspective both down, seeing the fullness and richness and rightness of every part of every life that has ever lived that carved the face of the Universe to achieve this final unity, and also up, seeing truly how the Universe is a tiny child, a newborn gazing up at the true face of the Star Maker.

And god looks down on his creation with infinite disdain and, in the instant before turning to begin again, dismisses the Universe as not good enough yet.

In his final chapters, Stapledon expounds his mythology of the Star Maker. The being creates as naturally as existing: in his immature phase creating Universes with simple rules, trying out basic rules of physics or different balances of good and evil; simplistic life/heaven/hell paradigms or building blocks of free will. The Star Maker's mature phase begins with the creation of a Universe, maybe our Universe, that puts these rules together in a coherent pattern, a pattern that from the Star Maker's perspective begins with the universal cosmic mind, and then works backwards to the events that must proceed in order to arrive at his endpoint.

And this Universe is not the last, not nearly the last, as the Star Maker creates again and again in endless variety seeking evermore to create the pattern aright. Seeking to create, as indeed he does in the end, the ultimate cosmos, a Universe fully alive and intimately connected to each and every person and world and galaxy that it comprises. A Universe that will give birth to the Star Maker, and start the cycle anew.

Stapledon does have a perhaps worrying habit of willingness to worship, a surrendering to unproven higher powers. For him, the Star Maker is deserving of worship almost merely because he exists. Worshipping divinities is what little things like us are supposed to do. During the war of living worlds, he repeatedly condemned the materialist Empires as "insane". That the Star Maker – within the context of the story – is awesome is undeniable, but does this truly make him worthy?

Even in the ultimate Universe there is suffering and failure and death, and that is a Universe where the suffering of even one individual is felt as keenly and as terribly as the all the suffering of our own Universe. Why is this? Stapledon does not have a satisfactory answer: it is down to perspective, he says. Do we worry for the suffering of individual cells in our bodies? Still less for the cells of the pre-human creatures from which we evolved. No more, then, should the minds of worlds or Universes feel for the lives of those who live and struggle and fight and die in the history that makes them possible. From a certain point of view, it is noble and necessary and tragedy is beautiful.

God, you might say, moves in mysterious ways – and who are we, mere mortals, to judge?

Well, in one of the finest quotes from a (really rubbish) Doctor Who story: who do we have to be?

For his Universe-spanning achievement of imagination, I salute Olaf Stapledon, but for his conclusion that we should all merge into one giant hymn-singing overmind… well, forgive me if I ask you to count me out.

But as the man himself says: it is a matter of perspective. So I would urge you to read for yourselves and make up your minds – expanded, unified, or awakened – all for yourselves.

In his epilogue, the author returns to Earth, to England it seems, and it is sufficient. To me, that seems good.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Day 2330: DOCTOR WHO: 42


Did you know that 42 is NOT a Happy Number? No? Well, daddy and I used the Wibbly Wobbly Web to look Happy Numbers up after tonight’s Doctor Who and discovered that EVERY number will either turn into a “1” or a “4” when you do the “take the sum of the squares of their integers and repeat thing”. Once you get to a “4” you get stuck in a LOOP so you never get to “1”.

42 goes 4x4 plus 2x2 equals 16 plus 4 equals 20; 20 goes 2x2 plus 0x0 equals 4 plus 0 equals 4.

So 42 is NOT happy.

Fortunately, this episode was! Not quite everyone DIES!

Here is what Daddy Richard thought about it:
I recently heard a particularly excellent definition of what Doctor Who should be. It was Phil Collinson on “Doctor Who Confidential” following “Daleks in Manhattan”, and clearly shows why he’s producer and I’m not. He said: “Doctor Who should be about showing us different worlds.”

So if “42” has a weakness, it is that it’s not showing us worlds that are particularly new, at least not in the context of the series. CGI space vehicle threatened with roasting by the sun? Check out “The End of the World”. Grimy, industrial-looking future with working-class heroes struggling to get by? See “The Impossible Planet”. Possessed monster with nifty line in catch phrase? “Are you my mummy?”

In fact there’s really quite a lot of “The End of the World” in here, not just the (very excellent) computer models, but the new and darker riff on the phone call to mum at home, which I shall return to in a moment, and the Tomb Raider-esque tasks needed to reach the “save the day” button. Not so much the pub quiz against time – which was rather lovely and very Doctor Who with its mix of pop culture and recreational mathematics (yes, Millennium and I learned something) – but who on Earth sticks the “emergency re-magnetise” lever in a box on the outside of the airlock? Actually, Alex very nicely post-factor-justified it by suggesting that it is a part of the escape pod mechanism and you might need to manually turn it off.

That’s not to say that “42” doesn’t do those things again very well. And the race against time, the ticking down of the timer, is a new element that does subtly raise it.

Yes all right, it’s lifted straight from “24” but Doctor Who is always borrowing/homaging other stories, series and genres.

You don’t need to know that it’s “The Mummy” to enjoy “Tomb of the Cybermen”; you don’t need to be familiar with Fu Manchu or Sherlock Holmes to find “The Talons of Weng-Chiang” a ripping yarn; you don’t need to know the conventions of Agatha Christie mysteries to appreciate the fine manners of “Black Orchid”. Doctor Who is often at its best when beg, borrow or stealing from other popular sources. The basic ideas of how these stories work, their memes if you like, infiltrate our understanding of the world, particularly the fictional world, and enrich it. A literate writer will take popular new ideas, or reimagined old ideas, and work them into his story to bring out something altogether better. When Russell T Davies speaks of starting this story with a spaceship falling towards a sun and thinking that it needed something just a little bit more, you have to wonder if the ticking clock wasn’t his contribution.

And for Doctor Who, a series that is so much about time, it only seems surprising that they haven’t essayed a story in real time before.

The physical realisation of the SS Pentallion (and that, in passing, is a nod to “Revenge of the Cybermen”) was really good. Fantastically good – both inside and out, with plaudits due to Ed Thomas and his design team as well as to the good folk of The Mill and their computers. The use of the colour palette, all of those crimsons and scarlets, paints the ship with fire inside as well as out. People will certainly remember this one as the one that was “red”.

The use of a genuine industrial location – a former paper mill – to give a sense of scale and depth to the ship’s long corridors is inspired. It certainly makes a set like – say – the freighter from “Earthshock” look like something shot in a studio. (Even if the Stasis Tube was rather obviously a repaint of the MRI scanner from “Smith and Jones”.)

The monsters too were actually pretty good. Conceptually anyway. Goodness knows how that’s supposed to work in a world where real physics applies – the body’s oxygen turning to hydrogen? I don’t think so! You could at least have said it was the water content separating into hydrogen and oxygen. But even then, they can’t really be containing super-heated plasma inside them: the ship might have magic heat shields but their human bodies don’t.

On the other hand, as a concept at least, they were really rather creepy, and it touches on the third season’s ongoing theme of human DNA and bodily transformation. And, okay, the thing with the welders’ masks and shooting fire from the eyes is a steal from the X-Men.

Actually, Alex and I both thought straight off that the aliens’ motivation was going to be only to get back to the sun where they lived and it would be all a very “Star Trek”-like comedy of misunderstandings. So, it was rather refreshing that actually the aliens were on a crazy revenge kick. That’s a much more dark and dirty story, but its also much more Doctor Who than the “can’t we all just get along” shtick that Star Trek does when it’s at its most preachy, trying to be all “I.D.I.C”.

Of course there’s a great big debt to the “Alien” as well: not just the cobbled together space ship, with the monster picking off the small crew one by one, but also strong female lead who takes the fight to the enemy and finishes by blasting it out of an airlock (“Aliens”) / sacrificing herself (“Alien3”). There was much talk on Confidential of her doing this out of love for what was left of her husband, but to me it spoke of atonement and revenge: atoning for her own mistake and revenge on the thing that had killed her husband. And in that way it, for me, it made the story more successful as it reflected the aliens’ own motivation.

The episode however is built around two towering tour-de-force performances from David Tennant and Freema Agyeman, as the Doctor and Martha’s relationship deepens – he fixes her phone, she gets the key to his home – and both of them have to confront new levels of fear.

For Martha, this concerns family, the realisation – which she has not had before – that she could die and her family would never know. This prompts her to reach out to her mother, to make that phone call, and – in a brave piece of story telling – it doesn’t work: she can’t make the connection she wants, make her mum understand because it’s too much to explain in a call. How real is that, when we all find it hard to tell our families how much we love them because of all the mundane and everyday stuff that gets in the way. And how badly wrong this has gone we are shown when we see that mum Francine has betrayed daughter Martha to Mr Saxon’s agent, another one with a delightfully X-Files credit: the Sinister Woman.

And the Doctor too is shown to be vulnerable and scared, probably for the first time since Christopher Eccleston stepped down, and here David Tennant takes the chance to show that he is a worthy successor. Also interesting was the way he clearly trampled it down into his unconscious at the end. Way to go into denial, Doctor; at least your ninth self was getting over his damage.

The nature of the Doctor’s fear seems less to be that he might shortly die and more that he might himself turn into a monster. As it happens, I once wrote a story for the eighth Doctor (people with flaming eyes and set in deep space, no less, Alex insists on pointing out) focussing on the idea that his greatest fear might be that he could have ended up possessed by the Master had the events of New Year’s Eve 1999 gone another way. It’s a very Nietzschean idea: stare too long into the Abyss and it stares into you; he who would fight with monsters risks becoming one. And it ties into the Christmas story “The Runaway Bride” where Donna warned the Doctor that he needed someone to stop him going too far.

“What if the Doctor turned evil” is certainly a question worth thinking about this season.

The appearance of Sinister Woman and her phone-tapping goons, unexpectedly in what we thought would be a stand-alone episode, continues to evolve the series story arc. There’s going to be a payoff for these events; and Martha’s family, Francine most likely, are going to end up paying. Mrs Jones betrayal of her daughter – even though she has Martha’s interests at heart – looks like making her doomed. She’s betrayed Martha and the Doctor in a way that Jackie Tyler never would: she’s allowed someone to get to them through her.

And we learn that where Francine Jones is, it is Election Day. This leaves us questioning even further what exactly is the time frame of events on Earth. How much time has passed since the day of “Smith and Jones” and the day after of “The Lazarus Experiment”? For that matter, since Sinister Woman seems to appear between one phone call and the next, how much time passes for Francine between those calls? Or is Sinister Woman camped out in her sitting room all the time? And is “The Runaway Bride” in the past or the future relative to this election? My guess would be the future – since the tank commander in “The Runaway Bride” reported orders from Mr Saxon, surely he must be Prime Minister at that time, yet if we haven’t had the election yet… well, I begin to worry about just who might be the winner at the end of this season.

Finally, I’m going to mention the writer: it was Torchwood’s Chris Chibnall. Given how I’ve criticised his Torchwood efforts, obviously I was particularly nervous that this was going to be, er, a bit dire. But it isn’t. Like his episodes of “Life on Mars”, in fact it’s quite good. I suspect that he’s just a lot better when there’s someone there to check his workings, make him raise his game or frankly just stand over him with a big stick and say “It’s lovely… now do it again and this time do it right!”

It’s actually quite a – dare I say it – grown-up script. The idea of being possessed by a monster that burns you up from the inside out is likely to be more scary to older children compared with the previous episode’s big CGI monster. And the themes that are developed are more mature ideas about love of family; it’s not just Martha but also Captain McDonnell who loves her husband even if he’s now a killer zombie, and Crewman Riley who has always been alone. I’m sure you can guess where I’m going with this: this is the sort of thing that Torchwood ought to be doing. I think this shows just how far ahead of the game Doctor Who really is.

Mind you, traditional Doctor Who fans will probably just be pleased to see a return of the limited cast in a base under siege and Hinchcliffe era body horror.

Next time… we return to classic New Adventures territory so they’d better not get this one wrong. Scary scarecrows and the Family of Blood are after the Doctor’s “Human Nature”.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Day 2329: Freedom From Freedom Redux!


Day TWO in the job and Mr Frown is RAPIDLY developing a reputation as the GREAT PRETENDER! PRETENDING to be in favour of something in public while PULLING SECRET STRINGS behind our backs to make sure that they are blocked, undermined and STOMPED ON!

Challenged by Sir Mr the Merciless to put a stop to the SINISTER Conservatory moves to UNDERMINE Freedom, Mr Frown has REFUSED, saying… no, I'm wrong, HAVING A SPOKESPERSON SAY FOR HIM(!):

"If MPs have voted this measure through then that is a matter for them."

Are you not an MP then, Mr Frown? Has power gone to your head so VERY quickly?!

First it was the leadership election!

Public Pretender Mr Frown: "Oh, I… uhh… would be perfectly happy… uhh… to face a contest."

SECRET STALIN Mr Frown: "Trevor, I want that… uhh… backbencher… uhh… eliminated!"

Now it is the Freedom of Information Act!

Public Pretender Mr Frown: "I want to see… uhh… more openness and… uhh… restore trust to… uhh… our democracy."

SECRET STALIN Mr Frown: "Okay, let's… uhh… round up the boys and… uhh… put a stop to all this… uhh… 'freedom' nonsense!"

The Bill was proposed by Conservatory backbencher Mr David Maclean’s-Toothpaste. His THIN VENEER of an excuse for hanging this monstrous bill around the neck of Parliament was the idea that somehow the Freedom of Information Act might be used to obtain an MP’s confidential correspondence. And not just his EXPENSES BILL.

And yet time and again Liberal Democrat superhero Mr Norman the Baker, with the help of interventions from Mr Power Cable and several other Liberal Democrats, demonstrated that such a risk does not exist! Not only are there EXTENSIVE exemptions in the ALREADY week and watery Act itself, but further protection is provided by the Data Protection Act from 1998. And if that isn’t enough for you, then you can have the belt and braces of the Data Protection (Processing of Sensitive Personal Data) (Elected Representatives) Order 2002.

The CRUX of Mr Toothpaste’s argument was that even with all these protections, some ignorant official might “inadvertently, by accident or design” release some confidence to the public.

Mr the Baker and Mr Hugs and many others pointed out how LUDICROUS this was! If they might release it BY MISTAKE today, how is passing ANOTHER bit of legislation going to stop them doing it BY MISTAKE tomorrow? Add to this the observation of Mr David Heath that IF this is such a problem, WHY have no cases been referred to the Information Commissioner?

Which reminds me, apparently Mr Frown’s chief scarecrow, Mr Man O’Straw had to apologise to the Information Commissioner in the House for, er, slightly fibbing about him having caused this whole problem by ALLOWING such a letter to be released under Freedom of Information. No such thing has ever happened!

And speaking of things that never happen: apparently the story that the Labour were putting around went like this: suppose that an MP in Scotland gets a letter from a constituent; they write to the local council that is (shocked mittens) no longer controlled by the Labour! Then someone on the council tips off a Scots Nasty MSP! Then the MSP uses Freedom of Information legislation to get hold of the original letter so that they can reply to the constituent before the Labour MP can!

Quite WHY anyone would engage in such a POTTY conspiracy ESCAPES ME – but besides, SCOTTISH MSPs have their OWN Freedom of Information Act and it is much better than the one the rest of us are lumbered with!

This was also the point of Ms Jo Swinson who pointed out how completely BONKERS it will be for her correspondence with Scottish public bodies will be covered by Freedom of Information, but writing to – say – the Department of Worthless Pensions (Whitehall Branch) will be exempt.

It is a recipe for CHAOS! In the muddle MORE things are likely to get released “inadvertently, by accident or design”!

Mr Toothpaste himself only spoke the once, and only took interventions from his friends, pointedly turning down Liberal Democrats but taking every opportunity to cast aspersions.

This exchange…

Ms Jo Swinson: “Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr David Toothpaste: “No, the hon. Lady has been HARPING ON a little too much this morning.

…is merely one of the more EGREGIOUS!

He finally goes completely into one:

Mr David Toothpaste: “The Liberal Democrats clearly intend to talk at length today. I intend to sit down in a moment and give them more opportunity to justify their position. If the whole Liberal Democrat party is opposed to this Bill, as its new leader is, it is a little late in the day making its opposition known…

Oh well why even BOTHER having Parliament DEBATE things? Having slyly slipped it under the radar with a bit of a nod-and-a-wink from the government whips, did he REALLY just expect his Bill to go through on the nod?

You would almost think that no one else was AGAINST this nasty little measure, the way he was ignoring the fact that he was ALSO facing senior opposition from HIS OWN party and from the Labour too. He was clearly on a CRUSADE against Liberalism!

If you do not believe that he had an ULTERIOR MOTIVE, ask yourself the question that MP for VULCAN Mr John Deadwood asked: if Mr Toothpaste was concerned about maintaining the privacy of MPs’ correspondence… why then did he vote AGAINST the amendment that would have limited the scope of his bill to MPs’ correspondence?

The government spent much of the day and several of their speeches in the House protesting that they remained NEUTRAL. I have poured SCORN on the logic of this position before, but the MOST PERTINENT question came from Liberal Democrat Mr David Howarth MP - daddy and I heard it on the PM programme: I think it was a clip from the debate…

"If the government is as they claim neutral, why is it that the majority of members voting in the Aye lobby were government ministers, government whips or opposition whips?!"

Yes, that's right: OPPOSITION WHIPS too. Mr Balloon has been quick to renew his traditional UNHOLY ALLIANCE with the Labour and seal his NEW FRIENDSHIP with Mr Frown… with a SECRET KISS, no doubt!!!

But it is CLEAR where the REAL BLAME for this lies!

A total of seventy-eight Labour MPs supported the Conservatories' bill today. Seventy-eight! When Mr Toothpaste cold only gather EIGHTEEN of his own Conservatories to support his bill! SEVENTY-EIGHT! Including our own MP, the SHAMEFUL Mr Jim Fitzpatrick, aka ROBOT JIM! We were hardly surprised to see Mr Stephen "I'll Do Anything for a Pound" Pound in the Aye lobby, but the MP that daddy Alex stood against in Leyton and Wanstead, Mr Harry Cohen SHOULD KNOW BETTER! SEVENTY-BLEEPING-EIGHT! That is ONE in FIVE of the PLP – almost enough to nominate TWO DWEEBS to be Deputy Stalin!

Voting against the bill and FOR FREEDOM where nine Liberal Democrats, nine from the Labour, five Conservatories, Mr Hywel of the Welsh Nasty Party and Mr Gorgeous Pussycat Leotard.

The Liberal Democrats to be CONGRATULATED are:

Mr Norman the Baker,
Ms Lovely Burt,
Mr Tim Farron,
Ms Sandra Giddy,
Ms Julia Worth-her-weight-in-Goldsworthy
Dr Evan Elp Us Harris,
Mr David Howarth,
Mr Simon Hugs,
Ms Susan Kramer vs Kramer

Also, Ms Jo Swinson and Mr Alan Reid who were doing the counting up.

Honourable mentions too to Mr Lemming Icepick and Dr Power Cable who were present during at least some of the debate.

We managed to field a whole 20% of our Parliamentarians there, but at least every one of them voted the right way!

(And the REST of you can go and HANG YOUR HEADS!)

"This is a DAY OF SHAME!" said the Liberal Democrat’s Mr David Heath.

And he is RIGHT!

Day 2328: Good Golly Gosh it's Gordon!


You have to hand it to Mr Frown… and that is exactly what the Labour have done!

Still he put on a JOLLY GOOD SHOW of being keen on there being an election, debating against his opponents, putting out his policy announcements day by day: eco-towns, special tuition for mathematics. And all the while his little band of STALINIST ENFORCERS were twisting the arms of all the MPs to make sure the opposition got shut out.

Or as Daddy Alex put it: who would have thought that there were 308 MPs who STILL want to be ministers?

There was on course no chance at all that Mr John McDoomed might actually WIN in a ballot of all the members, so you have to ask yourself why Mr Frown would be so keen to get hold of seven-eighths of the Labour MPs and thus make it mathematically – even with special maths tuition – impossible for anyone else to get on the ballot.

Does this, in any sense, actually MATTER? After all, 318 out of 354 is a better result than 185 out of 379 that saw Mr John Minor elected Prime Monster in 1990.

The unwritten letter of the unwritten law in our unwritten constitution (what Mr Frown now want to write) is that if he can command a majority of members in the House of Commons (which with 318 of the Labour under his big clunking thumb he almost certainly can) then he is Prime Monster. End. Of.

And as Mr Jonny among others have pointed out – and this is COMPLETELY TRUE – we do not NEED to have a general election. We elect our MPs and THEY choose who is FIRST AMONG EQUALS, as they say.

I have heard the Labour ministers describing their parliamentary party as a very "sophisticated" electorate. Just like the Conservatories used to say THEIR MPs were the most sophisticated electorate in the world.

Although, I suspect that they are using the word "sophisticated" to mean "small"!

(After all these are two bunches of people who you can watch in Parliament on the telly, being as "sophisticated" as a two cages of CRAZED BABOONS, and whose most complicated decision is usually whether to throw their bananas at the other lot or at each other!)

But this is POLITICS and there are more complicated things than RULES and TRUTH going on.

Both Mr Balloon and Sir Mr the Merciless were elected by a ballot of all the members of their particular parties (with perhaps a little help from Fluffy Mr Frank Luntz on one party's part!) This gives them a (possibly dubious) CACHET in comparison with Mr Frown. Somehow they seem more "legit", while Mr Frown seems like he has fixed it for himself to be Prime Monster without anyone getting a say in it.

That may not REALLY be true – the good electors of Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, at the every least, have had a say in him being in Parliament (and, incidentally, can I just say that being an MP for a constituency in Great Britain Mr Frown is ENTIRELY ENTITLED to be Prime Monster for Great Britain, whatever the Conservatories in their guise as the ENGLISH NASTY PARTY might try to imply about which BIT of Great Britain that constituency happens to be IN!) – but as I say, this isn't about TRUTH, it is about POLITICS.

The APPEARANCE of things, the way those appearances make people FEEL, these oftentimes matter more than what is really going on. Which is SAD.

It is down to the media too, of course. They have been deprived of a good old old-fashioned knock-down drag-out fight between Mr Frown and Mr McDoomed. So there is a lingering sense of "wahh!" about their reporting of this coronation.

But it also adds to the current MALAISE of politics: people feel that they are not being listened to.

This goes back to the march against the War, when the biggest ever demonstration in Britain was pretty much ignored because the government really, really wanted to invade a Middle Eastern country. But it goes back further than that too – all the way to 1997 when Lord Blairimort promised that "Things Can Only Get Better" and though people voted for change… things kind of stayed the same but more so.

Pundits and politicians talk about the "Westminster Bubble" as though the MPs and government live in their own little SPACE CAPSULE separate from the rest of us.

People feel shut out of the big decisions that affect their lives.

People feel – rightly or wrongly – that the Political Parties are all the same.

Mr Balloon has reinforced this idea, even encouraged it, with his APING of Lord Blairimort. He has done this because (a) the difference used to be that the Conservatories were the ones who were EVIL and now that isn't the case. At least now they're not the ONLY ones who are evil(!) and (b) it breeds apathy and that means fewer people vote and that means that the Conservatories have an advantage because their voters turn out more often and more reliably than anybody else's.

But we Liberal Democrats have to shoulder some of the blame too! We like to think that we are so very different from the others, plucky little fighters for freedom we, against the authoritarian government and the autocratic Old Etonians. But all too often we end up SOUNDING just like the others. A bit GREY!

This is why Liberal Democrat Mr Clogg is calling for us to develop a NARRATIVE. That is management speak for "the story of us"; I have seen "The Apprentice"! The idea, pretty simply, is to have a pretty simple idea that everyone will think of when they think of us. They might not remember our POLICES but they will remember the sort of thing that our policies might be.

Mr Balloon has been VERY SUCCESSFUL in developing his own narrative: his narrative is "We are NICE now!" So it does not matter that people cannot think of a single policy that Mr Balloon might have – whatever it might be it just MUST turn out to be "nice"; that is what the narrative says, right?

(Though remember: "he's got no policies" is ALSO a narrative, and one that is in danger of sticking! Remember how Lord Blairimort's narrative of "I'm tough" has MUTATED into "I'm COMPLETELY INSANE!")

We need our own "narrative". It needs to be something like "we're the one's who are on YOUR side" or "we're the ones who'll make a DIFFERENCE!"

That is NOT to say that we should have CRAZY policies just to BE different. But we need to find issues where we can make ourselves heard with consistent liberal statements. We should for example be more against BANNING THINGS (even when it's for people's own good)

Mr Frown's narrative, reinforced by this week's carryings on, is: "I don't trust anyone!"

And that's not the BEST way to start a new job.

Meanwhile, there is to be a genuine contest in the race to be Mr Frown's deputy, as the requisite number of nominations has been received by all six candidates, representing the FULL SPECTRUM of Labour opinion all the way from AVOCADO to GUACAMOLE.

Those candidates in full:

Tweedlebrownite – vote for me, I'm a woman!

Tweedleblairite – vote for me, I'm a headless chicken!

Tweedleboring – vote for me, I'm a postman!

Tweedlebackbencher – vote for me, I'm a radical (just ignore that I used to work for Number Ten)!

Tweedlbenny – vote for me because although I am my father's son, although politically speaking I'm not my father's son, but having worked as a political researcher for a union and then as an MP and never having held down a proper job in my life, and as a scion of a political family and nearly the inheritor of a vicountsy (thanks dad), I think I can say without a shadow of a doubt that I'm properly the authentic voice of the common working man in the street… (continued p94)

And peach painted preener, Mr Peter Vain – mmm, he's lovin' it.

Isn't CHOICE marvellous!

Friday, May 18, 2007

Day 2327: Do the Harry Cokey


You put the Young Prince in
You pull the Young Prince out
You send him back to barracks and you mess us all about…
You do the Harry Cokey and get egg upon your face…
That's what it's all ahh…bout!

Be FAIR: it's DANGEROUS out there!

Day 2326: Conservatories drop Grammar


Mr Balloon has decided that he no longer supports the idea of rich kids getting a head start by being sent to Grammar Schools. Eton and Harrow are quite sufficient, thank you.

Day 2325: Wolfie Whistles


So, Daddy and I were SLIGHTLY STARTLED to hear some bloke called Mr David Rifkin on the The Today Programme decrying an attempted European COUP against America.

Had we missed something rather URGENT in the headlines? Should we be considering taking to the SHELTERS?

But then it turned out that he was in fact talking about whether his FRIEND Mr Woof Paulowitz would get FIRED.

Daddy told me to look up the word HYPERBOLE!

That is right: Mr Rifkin is an American who is overpaid, over here and WAY WAY OVER THE TOP!

As you may remember, Mr Woof faces facing the music at the World Bankbecause he has had his fingers in the honey pot on behalf of his girlfriend. That is what a panel of executives from the World Bank say, anyway.

It would seem that Mr Rifkin believes that BEING AMERICAN is enough to excuse lying and corruption. If ONLY Al Capone had REALISED!

"This is an attack on the Monkey-in-Chief's Administration," he insisted, "and you cannot separate the Administration from America!"

Actually, you CAN do that, and indeed the American people have ALREADY done that, when they rejected the Monkey-in-Chief at the polls last year. That is why Mr Monkey has had to veto his own budget and in turn that is why he is shortly going to run out of money. Perhaps he could do with a BANK LOAN – I wonder if he has any friends in the Banking Industry… ah!

Blaming your allies when your slimy friends get caught bang-to-rights really is a case of burning your bridges WHILE YOU ARE CROSSING THEM! It is never going to save Mr Woof, and you might just need the co-operation of those Europeans if you want to get another President of the World Bank installed. Ever.

Clearly, though, Mr Rifkin believes that the best form of defence is an offence… and the best form of offence is to strap yourself to an ATOM BOMB and kiss your BOTTOM goodbye!



Wolfie Whistles Off!

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Day 2324: Pif Paf Pof


"Pif paf pof, my heart goes pif paf pof!"

Those were the TEAR-JERKING words of the Eurovision entry that never was from the Camp Cabin Crew of Air Scotia, aka "The High Life".

And yet how strangely SIMILAR was the dirgeful ditty that we really did enter this year.

Is it JUST POSSIBLE that singing "We're flying the flag all over the world" with a GREAT BIG Union Flag flapping behind you, at a time when we are still flying the flag all over that Middle Eastern country that we invaded, MAY have been taken the WRONG WAY?

Still we should take cheer from this year's winner; proof if you need it that you can still go from MOST REVILED NATION ON EARTH to EUROVISION SUCCESS!

There do, however, seem to have been a few complaints that there was some GEOGRAPHICAL bias to the way that nations cast their votes.

And now, I am sorry to say, numb nut Liberal Democrat MP Richard Down-with-the-Youngsters Ross is calling for the voting system to be changed.

Yes I know we're ALWAYS calling for the voting system to be changed, but HONESTLY it is normally to get more power INTO the hands of ordinary people, NOT to take it AWAY from them because they would rather vote for their neighbours than a frankly dreadful caterwaul from the far end of the continent!

But you know what: actually it's OK that the East Europeans all voted for each other.

They've only been doing this for a few years now; they do not yet understand that a "good" Eurovision Song is supposed to be a piece of colourful kitsch theatre; they have this QUAINT notion that it ought to be a GOOD SONG! Honestly, they even send their proper pop stars and everything! Give them a few years to settle down and they will soon realise that they are JUST NOT BEING TRASHY ENOUGH!

Personally, I thought that the FRENCH were the best, mainly because they were very PINK and ran around the stage like that bit from the Rocky Horror Show… this got me some VERY funny looks from my daddies. Which I think is a BIT RICH!

THEY wanted one of the Kate Bush-a-likes to win: SCARY EXPLODING WITCH Kate from Finland; ILLUMINATED OPERA Kate from Slovenia; TECHNO TRANCE Kate from Georgia; or BONKERS BONGO Kate from Bulgaria. And her drums.

Fortunately, we were able to resist the black-and-white HYPNO-SPIRAL of the Swedish Marc Bolan!

More seriously, ANYONE who thinks that it is important how the WINNER is decided has really missed the ENTIRE POINT. Complaining that we came LAST (nearly) is like complaining that silly old Labrador, Mr Alan Davies always comes last on Q.I. Or that Jimmy-Summerville lookie-likey Mr Hislop never wins at "Have I Got News for You".

Eurovision more than any other contest ever is about the taking part!

It is not like there are PRIZES! In fact, the winner is usually PUNISHED by having to HOST the following year's contest!

(Hence Ireland's entry this year being – almost LITERALLY – "My Lovely Horse"!)
Eurovision is about bringing people together, and BOY did this bring them together!

And isn't it better that people are singing songs to each other when only a decade ago they were trying to explode one another all the time?

So it's fine that Greece and Cyprus have an annual love-in; we should not mind that the Baltic states send an annual tribute to Russia; and it's really not a problem that the only way to get any votes from Scandinavia is to be a close neighbour of Father Christmas!

What other show FROM Europe and ABOUT Europe gets so many people IN Europe ACTUALLY watching?

And Malta gave us doozze pwon so we didn't come last anyway!

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Day 2323: DOCTOR WHO: Made of Steel


Ooh, it is no good trying to put my daddies off for a week, no matter how brilliant your trailer is!

Fortunately, they are able to call on the GRAND-DADDY of all Doctor Who writers, Mr Terrance Discs, who has written a Quick Read book. This is cool, and I have read it because I am very grown up and can read!

But now I am VERY CROSS! Those wicked Cybermen have… have… have… well I splutter with fluffy fury at the location of their secret base! It is worse than Mr Simon’s book!

Just for once, Daddy Alex has beaten Daddy Richard to the punch on this one, and here is what he thought:

At last, a new series book by Terrance Dicks, and you know what? It really works. I thought "Only Human" and "The Stealers of Dreams" from the new BBC Books were very good, too, but this book has one huge advantage: it isn’t huge. From the £1.99 Quick Reads series like last year’s rather good "I Am a Dalek", aimed at getting people reading who usually don’t, this reads as if it was effortless to write. After reading so many other people trying to pull off the same sort of thing, it patently isn’t! Now, I like my Who novels long and deep, or short and crisp, and Terrance doesn’t do ‘deep’. Straightforward, undemanding and entertaining, at 99 pages instead of 250 this is the perfect length to capture the feel of a TV episode, while the others are too long for what they’re trying to do but too unambitious to deliver anything ‘bigger’ and just plod on.

I’m hoping Richard will come along with a full-length review, as he’s done with a lot of the new novels – so I won’t nick his brilliant observations about the title or why the Cybermen bicker – but here’s a whistle-stop tour. The Doctor brings Martha back to her own place and time, only to find survivors of Cybermen from the battle of Canary Wharf in last year’s TV season finale "Doomsday". Guess the London landmark where they’re hiding out (I hooted)?

Much of it recalls old Doctor Who as much as new, but there are simple but elegant lampoons of both versions of the series, as well as amusing dismissals of "Primeval" and "Torchwood" (while the whole thing shows up "Cyberwoman" terribly. But then, so do most things). It’s not a great part for Martha, though she’s good when she’s in it and her history with the Cybermen adds to the story, but Terrance surprised me by absolutely nailing David Tennant’s speech and persona as the Doctor. The way he deals with a bullying military policeman had me punching the air, though describing them as “gorillas” is back to Terrance’s ’70s novels, along with the stock ‘ambitious woman’ characterisation. On the whole, though, it’s enormously refreshing, perhaps the most entertaining Who novel Terrance has written for about a decade and a half, and certainly the best of the new series novels so far. With the new series moving along at a hell of a lick on TV, perhaps the novels all need the discipline – hark at me! – of being much shorter.

One of my biggest disappointments with Doctor Who publishing last year, incidentally, was that – unlike the 2005 series – there was no script book. I like televised Who stories on my bookshelf, as well as on the telly. If they’re not publishing the scripts any more, they could hardly do better than get Terrance to briskly novelise them. After all, it’s worked before.

Ha ha! That surprised you, didn't it!

This is my CONDENSED version. I am MUCH better at CONDENSING than that Pink Dog – I have realised that the minimum possible number of words to do Daddy Alex justice is EXACTLY THE SAME NUMBER OF WORDS AS HE USED!

Here is what Daddy Richard thought, too:
A "Cyberwoman" is of course "Maid of Steel", but I don't think we need to dwell on that, other than briefly mentioning that Uncle Tel clears up the lingering snag about Cyber-Lisa not being dragged into the void with the rest of the Cybermen: the ones being "emergency upgraded" in Torchwood Tower were being made using local materials and so were not affected by the void.

(Logically, this means there's a Cyber-Yvonne Hartman around somewhere too, ready to act as a metal avenger, oh the spin off opportunities are endless…)

And, of course, locals upgraded to Lumic-form Cybermen are the villains here. No chance of bringing back our own Universe's Cybermen it would seem, at least not until the next redesign anyway.

Though for Cybermen they all appear to have rather more personality than usual; they seem almost chatty at times, argumentative even, as the Cyber-Engineer and the Cyber-Leader berate each other for their various "logical" failings. It would seem that – like Yvonne and Lisa – these emergency upgrades have some of their human personality still leaking through. Of course, given their ultra-competitive exchanges, their dissing of each other's attempts to complete the task set and the fact that Torchwood Tower is seen in the title sequence of another famous current TV show, it is clear that the Cybermen have actually converted Sir Alan Sugar's candidates to be the next Apprentice.

All this interaction actually makes this group a hell of a lot more interesting than the Cybermen have been in quite some time, certainly since their black and white heyday and maybe even since the "Tenth Planet". Usually they are used as stock monsters, faceless menaces who are, most importantly, all identical. At least until David Banks arrives in the eighties to give one of them a voice and sort of personality:

Tegan: "That's sadistic!"

Cyberleader: "No, sarcastic!"

Okay, maybe he's not quite that blatant about it. But the fact that he gets killed each time and still comes back suggests that all the Cyberleaders have the same personality. The new series goes even further, suggesting that the Cyberleader just downloads into the next available body.

All of which seems to miss the point of the original Cybermen which is that they were trying to be immortal and ended up as living dead. True, they operated on themselves to get rid of emotions, but they should still be different people. The idea that only our emotions make us different is profoundly depressing.

The Cybermen almost from The Moonbase onwards are actually much more like modern day Cylons – a limited number of personalities with a limitless army of basically robotic bodies. Usually with one key weakness that allows the Doctor to beat them this week.

They ought to be tortured Vampires, paying a horrible price for life eternal, but instead they are just another army of Zombies.

Terrance Dicks, of course, has long found the Cybermen to be deeply dull. They never appeared in the TV show when he was Script Editor (one blob in a snowstorm aside), though a face-off against the Daleks was proposed only to be nixed by Terry Nation – good thing too; sounds like a daft idea. Ahem. Uncle Tel's commentary for the Region 1 release of the Five Doctors is definitely worth a listen to anyway, but does include him expounding at length how he wished that his latter-day successor as Script Editor, Eric Saward, hadn't kept insisting on putting in more and more Cybermen.

So on the whole it's quite nice to encounter some Cybermen with differing agenda, and conflicting ideas about the logical way to fulfil their plan.

The story – the format makes it necessarily short, but it feels as full and fleshed out as a new series episode – revolves around a very small group of survivors from the War on Earth in "Doomsday". Clearly only intended to be low level grunts, they have escaped from Torchwood and set up base in, as Millennium implies, the Greenwich Big Tent. They've got hold of a short-range teleport from somewhere too (I blame the Torchwood lost property office) and are using it to steal random bits of technology.

The opening chapters of a sinister metallic form breaking into top secret establishments or classified research projects should be pleasingly familiar to, well, anyone who buys next month's DVD release of Tom Baker's first story: "Robot".

The Doctor and Martha arrive in the present day – just post a quick trip to the Upper Cretaceous… or possibly the Jurassic, since Terrance seems to have slightly not realised that apatosaurus and tyrannosaurus were separated by some 75 million years. Oh dear. Maybe it isn't the distant past but a dinosaur theme park. More on this story later – to allow Martha to return to the Royal Hope Hospital, and immediately the Cybermen detect the Doctor and move to seize him.

As this is her first trip back, we can probably assume that this is not long after "The Lazarus Experiment": Terrance refers to her "just one trip", saying it "somehow turned into many", but seems more likely that she's joined the TARDIS crew properly as the Doctor is not making excuses for not having returned her home yet.

Timing for the rest of the world remains as messed up as ever, with repeated references to the "recent" events of "Doomsday". This cannot take place before "Smith and Jones" (or by extension "The Lazarus Experiment" which takes place the following night) since Martha's work colleagues remember seeing the Doctor, and think she might have gone off with the "mystery man" in the trainers and suit.

So if we stick to the earlier guess that "Smith and Jones" takes place in late summer/early autumn 2007, then we can settle on this being about say October this year.

The question of why the Cybermen do not detect the Doctor’s presence in either "Smith and Jones" or "The Lazarus Experiment" can easily be explained by their only recently having completed their scanner.

The writing style is crisp and sharp, economical, the very shortness of the chapters having a chocolate box “just one more” feel that keeps the pages turning. And the style is refreshingly simple, with a seven-year-old pleasing body count, but also a biting hint of satire whether it’s the night watchman who doesn’t patrol the computer shop because technology should make things easier or someone finally finding a use for the Dome.

Most of the incidental characters do turn out to be from the “Terrance Dicks big book of stock characters” but as Alex remarks, he really does nail David Tennant’s Doctor, in a way that many of the other writers for BBC Books just don’t. And similarly, Terrance has grasped the idea of pace that the new series embodies in a way that the longer and more languid books haven’t managed.

The conclusion is nicely symmetrical too, harking back to that James Bond pre-title sequence adventure in Jurassic Park. Alex thinks this is a reference to Primeval, but I can only imagine the preposterous play-dough monster from “Invasion of the Dinosaurs” attacking the new series Cybermen. Which is very funny.

The only real disappointment – what with every other cliché under the sun present and correct – was the failure to have the stock twist ending reveal of another casket containing one last Cyberman that just twitches into motion…

Not just a “Quick Read” then, but also a cracking one. Recommended.

Next time… It may be the Answer to Life, the Universe and Everything, but this looks more like a straightforward Jack Bauer backwards than Douglas Adams. Sabotage, mortal peril and a race against time: the clock is ticking down from "42".