purplecat: Hand Drawn picture of a Toy Cat (doctor who)
A Writer's Tale by Benjamin Cook and Russell T. Davies is a (just about) year long email interview come conversation between Benjamin Cook (a Doctor Who Magazine writer) and Russell T. Davies about the writing process. It encompasses the writing of the 2007 Christmas Special (the one with Kylie in) and then Season 4. And it's a pretty fascinating read.

Details under the cut )
purplecat: Hand Drawn picture of a Toy Cat (books)
I first met* Richard Salter when he tried to organise an Internet coordinated Dr Who short story collection for the emerging Decalog series published by Virgin. There's been a lot of water under the bridge since then and the idea of using Internet coordination to put together a short story collection no longer seems remotely radical. Richard has been writing and editing Doctor Who short fiction ever since and has had several stories published in other Short Trips collections. This is the first time he's got to edit professionally though. Fortunately, it's a good'un, probably the most successful of the Short Trips collections that I own.

I mentioned in my review of Short Trips: The Quality of Leadership the way I felt the theme there had unfortunately managed to ambush the collection. In this case it's possibly the choice of a nicely abstract theme, "Transmissions", loosely tied to the idea of modes of communication, that has encouraged the writers to rise above the normal Short Trips level of trying to write a mini episode of the parent show. In fact I'd go so far as to say every single piece in this collection is a genuine short story rather than a long story told short.

spoiler free story by story break down under the cut )

*in the Internet sense of "exchanged emails with". I've never actually met Richard. He was called the Happy Halibut back then, a moniker he seems to have subsequently abandoned in preference to his own name. Thus flying in face of all Internet trends.
purplecat: Hand Drawn picture of a Toy Cat (books)
On the face of it "the Quality of Leadership" seems like a good idea for a Doctor Who short story collection. After all "Rebels vs. Dictators" is a fairly standard Dr Who theme so there should be plenty of scope. However two fundamental shortcomings rapidly become obvious in Short Trips: The Quality of Leadership edited by Keith R. A. Candido and both basically boil down to the fact that you shouldn't really attempt to write "The Doctor meets a great leader" as a short story (or possibly at all). The lives of great leaders tend firstly to be epic (not easy to convey in a short story) and secondly said great leader tends to be the key protagonist (leaving the Doctor kicking his heals on the sidelines). The first four stories in the collection all suffer badly from these problems and some well respected Star Trek tie-in authors* fall foul of them. One Fateful Knight by Peter David is "The Doctor meets King Arthur", The Slave War by Una McCormack is "the Doctor('s companions) meet Spartacus", Goths and Robbers by Diane Duane is "the Doctor meets Theodoric" and Good Queen, Bad Queen, I Queen, You Queen by Terri Osborne is "the Doctor meets Boudicca". Of these Diane Duane's is probably the best since she choses to focus on two points in Theodoric's life, one of them formative and, although the Doctor is largely reactive at least he appears to have a central role in the story. Osborne's is easily the worst and left me wondering if (s)he'd watched Doctor Who since she grew up or was just working from hazy memory. As well as displaying the (rather bizarre) belief that the average Iceni wouldn't be able to tell the difference between Boudicca and Romana in a wig (they're the same height, don't you know!) I just found it very hard to believe that any Doctor, let alone the fourth, would consider the only option out of any situation was encouraging his companion to start an ultimately futile war and lead hundreds of people to their death, especially when there was no evidence that anyone was interfering to pervert the natural course of history in the first place.

After this inauspicious start the collection picks up somewhat. In The Price of Conviction ("the Doctor meets Luther") Richard C. White at least manages to hinge the drama around Luther's ideals and have the Doctor and Susan involved in averting a plot to bring about Luther's early assassination. God Send Me Well to Keep by Linnea Dodson (AKA [livejournal.com profile] neadods) is the first to really break the mold. It's still a "Doctor meets..." formula ("the Doctor meets Henry VIII") but Dodson's under no illusions about Henry's exemplary character and focuses the drama around a small piece of court politics. The Doctor and Nyssa are still, sadly, largely reactive, but at least she isn't trying to cram an epic drama into 20 pages and the didactism which has, so far, been rather heavily on display is here focused on conveying a sense of period detail and politics rather than a 1066 and All That Good King/Bad King simplicity.

We then (finally) get off Earth for two stories Peaceable Kingdom by Steven Savile and Rock Star by Robert T. Jeschonek. The first of which is really rather good and really focuses on the issue of Leadership for the first time as well as the way in which cultures can trap leaders into particular thought processes. On a Pedestal ("the Doctor meets William Wallace") by Kathleen O. David briefly dips back to the format of the earlier stories though, as with all the better ones, David focuses on a single formative incident rather than trying to encompass the sweep of Wallace's life. Clean-up on Aisle Two by James Swallow is probably the most ambitious story in the collection, tackling the issue of leadership from the point-of-view of a supermarket manager but it is marred by a rather pat ending. The collection closes with The Spindle of Necessity by Allyn Gibson ("the Doctor meets Plato") which gains marks for an inventive format and big SF-nal ideas but ultimately failed to really grab me.

There's a throwaway framing story by De Candido and John S. Drew but it doesn't really mesh well with the stories in between and seems, ultimately, a little pointless since too few of them actually focus on the qualities of leadership as opposed to meeting great leaders.

Ultimately this collection seems like a wasted opportunity with a potentially interesting theme too often sacrificed to didactism and an attempt to teach you all about X in twenty pages. There are some nice stories in there but none that got me really excited.

* I say "well-respected" on the grounds that I've heard of them even though I've never read a Trek tie-in novel.


Sep. 6th, 2008 08:54 pm
purplecat: Hand Drawn picture of a Toy Cat (books)
The story behind Campaign is an odd one. It was commissioned from Jim Mortimore by BBC Books based on a synopsis he submitted but, when he turned in the final manuscript it was so different from the synopsis it was rejected. It's the only original Who novel to be officially commissioned, fully written but never published. There's more to the story but I was never sufficiently enamoured of Jim Mortimore's writing that I could be bothered to learn what it was. However now Campaign is available online for free I thought it couldn't hurt to read it. It comes with extensive author's notes at the end in which, it is implied, the full sorry story of its non-publication is explained. I'm still not sufficiently interested to read them.

So, the universe has vanished, there is only the TARDIS (or possibly the Tardis) and its four (possibly five) inhabitants left. Desperately the TARDIS (or Tardis) crew try to recall the events that led them into this predicament, events that concern meeting Alexander the Great on his epic campaign towards and eventually into India (the Ancient Historians among my readers will notice a problem here - took me a bit longer to see it). So far so good but at about that point the plot stalls for 175 pages while the characters iterate through different versions of the past and present told generally as first person narratives most often by Ian (who is sometimes called Cliff). Each of these segments is beautifully written and crammed with ideas but the thought gradually dawns that the book isn't actually going anywhere. It's just show-casing what amounts to a series of mood pieces about shifting time-lines, worlds within worlds within Tardis's and the possible interactions of the principle characters and, a serious failing, all four of them have exactly the same voice, presumably Jim Mortimore's. You could dip into any of these segments at random and then have to spend the first couple of paragraphs trying to work out from the context who the narrator was. There is no real sense of distinct personalities among the crew, let alone among the many shifting versions of each crew member. The extensive chapter-by-chapter notes which I have skimmed briefly seem to suggest that the intention was that there is a progression here but mostly I'd say the book is marking time while Mortimore indulges in stylistic flourishes. There's a lovely little story within a story, though, about a Glammering.

A criticism I have of Mortimore's other books is that they have a habit of descending into incoherence at the end. Campaign wins out here. The ending at least makes sense but ultimately seems a bit trivial, as if a parlour trick has been played on you, and heightens the feeling that the majority of the book is an exercise in stylistic short prose writing. It also has precious little to do with Alexander the Great, at the end of the day, which was a disappointment too. I was quite interested in the hinted at story of the TARDIS crew's involvement in Alexander's life.

At the end of the day Campaign is an interesting oddity. There's plenty of good writing and lots of startling and interesting moments but it feels self-indulgent and the whole is distinctly less than the sum of it's parts.

WHO DAILY HTML: <lj user=louisedennis> reviews the novel <a href=http://louisedennis.livejournal.com/87147.html>Campaign</a>
purplecat: Hand Drawn picture of a Toy Cat (doctor who)
So, errr, about sixth months ago the JadePagoda decided all to read and review The Many Hands by Paul Dale Smith. I am more than a little late, both in reading it and then in writing this review.

Anyway, consensus of opinion on JP (if I remember back that far accurately) was that it was quite a dull run-around up until page 100 and picked up thereafter. At the risk of sounding shallow, I actually rather enjoyed all the running around and certainly didn't feel that I noticed any sudden shift in quality or tone at the 100 page mark. I'm not sure the running around is entirely pointless either, in particular a fair amount of character work is going on, building up the antagonistic English Captain McAllister and developing his relationship with the Doctor. Certainly it's around page 100 that the more horrific aspects begin to turn up - but this is horror for intelligent eight-year olds so it's not exactly a dramatic shift in tone.

This is a tale of 18th Century Edinburgh, complete with Enlightenment scientists, surgeons, buried streets and body-snatching. There are also zombies which aren't, it has to be said, a particularly Edinburgh thing but this is Doctor Who and obviously, if you're going to have body-snatching, you might as well have zombies too.

Of all the new series Doctor Who books I've read, this is the one I've enjoyed most. I'm not quite sure why. Possibly its because I'm so fond of Edinburgh, and the book is very Edinburgh. Possibly it's because it is the first new series adventure I've actively chosen to read, rather than reading it because I read all Doctor Who novels, and it benefits from being approached on its own terms. Possibly it was the lack of any kidults. I don't think it particularly rises above (what I presume was) its brief as a historical action-adventure runaround but it does what it does very well.
purplecat: Hand Drawn picture of a Toy Cat (doctor who)
The last segment of Time and Relative Dissertations in Space was the part that contained the most essays that read like articles out of DWM. This kind of journalistic article is very well but, as I've got older, I've become more aware of the way these things really are just opinion with no real theoretical framework to back them up and so they felt out of place to me in this volume which was otherwise working quite hard to present its material academically.

The Talons of Robert Holmes )

Why is 'City of Death' the best Doctor Who story? )

Canonicity matters: defining the Doctor Who canon )

Broader and deeper: the lineage of and impact of the Timewyrm series )

Televisuality without television? The Big Finish audios and discourses of 'tele-centric' Doctor Who )

So, all in all, I found lots to interest me in Time and Relative Dissertations in Space. But, as I said when I started these reviews, I think it suffers from an uneven tone - veering wildly from very jargon heavy academic discourse to much fluffier, more journalistic pieces and the lasts quarter, in particular, didn't appear to me to have a great deal to offer beyond the articles you can (or at least used to, pre-2005) find regularly in Doctor Who Magazine.

WHO DAILY HTML: <lj user=louisedennis> <a href="http://louisedennis.livejournal.com/81978.html">reviews part four of time and relative disserations in space</a>
purplecat: Hand Drawn picture of a Toy Cat (doctor who)
This is an oddly schizophrenic book and its clear that the authors had rather different conceptions about its primary audience. Jonathan Bignell and Alec Charles, for instance, are clearly writing essays targetted at an academic audience with a strong background in the theory and jargon of media studies and/or social science (since I'm not an academic in these areas it is difficult to tell which, precisely). Most of the authors settle for writing in an academic style but with an eye to being readily comprehensible by the lay man and a few, particularly in the final section, write pieces that wouldn't be out of place in DWM; light on academic theory and sprinkled with fannish in-jokes.

It also suffers from the accident of timing. It is a collection of essays studying Doctor Who with a particular emphasis on its evolution and its cross-media forms. Sadly, although published in 2007, its essays are all based on presentations given in 2004 so its contents are forced to largely ignore the developments of the new series. This renders most of the essays instantly out-of-date which is a shame because every single one of them (even those that are jargon heavy and difficult to follow) have something interesting to say but you wish that the new series perspective could also have been brought into play.

The other interesting observation I made across all the essays in the book was a more personal one. When I did my PGCHE (Postgraduate Certificate in Higher Education) much was made about discipline context and assumptions. So I was struck by two "discipline assumptions" here. Firstly, and this is peculiar to Computer Science, we write predominantly to page counts. Unlike most disciplines which publish in journals we publish predominantly in conferences generally with a 15 page limit. This causes problems (B. often complains about the lack of necessary detail in CS papers), but it also forces you to ruthlessly prune out, for instance, additional interesting examples which are, perhaps, not central to your point. So I found several of the essays "unnecessarily verbose". In particular I felt that they marshalled more examples to make their point than was strictly necessary, almost to the point of mindless listing in some cases. Secondly it seemed very problematic, to me, to try and make a point about the body of work that is Doctor Who as a whole based on selected examples. In something as diverse and multi-authored as Doctor Who (a fact stressed by several of the essays) I couldn't work out what the criteria could be for choosing representative examples since a counter-example was almost bound to come along within a couple of years, if not sooner. How do you distinguish the trend from the one-offs? I suspect this is something obvious to someone within the discipline (or at least, the accepted processes are obvious though they presumably also have their within discipline critiques).

It's too daunting to try and cover all the individual essays in one post and there are things I want to say about several of them. So I'm going to group them together into a number of subsequent posts.

I wouldn't recommend this to a general reader, but anyone interested in a theoretical take on the development and impact of Doctor Who or with a more general interest in the nature of popular culture and television programs in particular, will find lots to sink their teeth into here.
purplecat: Hand Drawn picture of a Toy Cat (books)
Sick Building by Paul Magrs, has been very well received, at least in my neck of the woods, but I can't for the life of me see why. This book has much in common with his short story in the Doctor Who Storybook 2007 in that there is nothing actually wrong with it in any way, but compared to talking poodles, men transforming into lizards just because, a literally two-dimensional Mike Yates, and a Doctor who is half-human on his mother's side because his mother is a mermaid and so her top half is human this was pretty tame stuff. I wasn't necessarily a huge fan of Paul Magrs other Dr Who books but I was a fan of the fact that this sort of bizarre stuff was being written under the Dr Who banner. It now appears that, stripped of the permission to let his imagination run riot, Magrs is a competent but otherwise uninspiring author.

Sick building is, unsurprisngly, an evil building novel. Our heroes spend much time being menaced (or assisted) by vacuum cleaners, sunbeds and vending machines which, when put that way, makes it seem not so far from talking poodles after all but somehow this feels bereft of the sort of verve and excitement I picked up from Magrs' other works. Certainly the vacuum cleaners etc. don't seem particularly representative, or illustrative, or to be having conceptual fun with or of anything in particular. There is an (almost) obligatory kidult and another mention of the Doctor's apparent preference for Rose over Martha. As an interesting side issue the book was originally entitled The Wicked Bungalow, this being vetoed, by all accounts including his own, by RTD. Since I am at a loss to understand why "Sick Building" is preferable to "The Wicked Bungalow" I can only assume that this must be one of those reasons why I'm not in charge of a vastly successful television brand.


Jan. 9th, 2008 07:26 pm
purplecat: Hand Drawn picture of a Toy Cat (books)
Just as I'd pretty much decided to cut my losses and give up the new series books along comes Wetworld by Mark Michalowski challenging me to revise my assumptions. It's about as old school (as in Virgin-Books-a-like) as its possible to be within the confines of the new series, throwing around mentions of adjudicators and world-building the details of the first expansion of humans into space*, even the obligatory kidult is sixteen years old, sensible, independent and could just as easily have been twenty. It is set on the planet Sunday, a swampy world inhabited by what turn out to be suprisingly intelligent otters (though the book is a little inconsistent in its treatment of their intelligence) and a small bunch of colonists all of whom are muddling along more or less happily when a meteor strike brings a strange tentacled monster to the world, followed shortly by the Doctor and Martha. So far so generic Doctor Who, in fact classic series fans will be picturing the Power of Kroll at this point. Be reassured though we are spared anything remotely approximating the swampies from that story, not to mention the attempts of the 1970s BBC special effects department to produce a giant squid.

While the book avoids many of the irritations of its stable-mates, length, if nothing else, prevents it having the level of detail I associate with the old new adventures (though on the plus side since many of them were a good 100 pages longer than their plot or prose could carry, this isn't necessarily a bad thing) and it is forced to be fairly to the point with little time to spare for description or added depth. On the plus sides it has a coherent plot, with interesting ideas and a monster with a sensible agenda and a interesting modus operandum. There was one character who I feared was about to turn into the kind of irritating bureaucrat Dr Who is so often fond of, closed-minded and inclined to respond to crises by locking the Doctor up, but fortunately despite the fact it looked like the story was heading this way he never did get round to arresting the Doctor, or impeding him with unecessary red tape. It's a good Martha book too, she gets to be resourceful and independent without it appearing forced but, on the downside, it also introduces a proto-companion, Ty Benson, who appears to steal some moments that should more appropriately gone to the Martha. This is made more obvious by Martha's clear jealously.

So, all in all, a bit of a mixed bag. Wetworld has flaws, but it is much closer to the kind of Dr Who book I'm interested in reading than almost anything else the new series books have produced. It's good, but not good enough, I don't think, to dissuade me from buying these books more circumspectly in future based on author pedigree and recommendations.

*by this I mean it's set on a colony planet during the first wave. The Virgin New Adventures fleshed out this milieau in a number of books. Wetworld doesn't add anything much to the previous world-building but is clearly singing from the same hymn sheet.
purplecat: Hand Drawn picture of a Toy Cat (books)
Another day, another new who book, another viewpoint kidult. Once again this one was mostly just a bit bland. It is set in a small sleepy American town the better, I suppose, to capitalise on its Halloween setting, but it really felt just like a sleepy English village with the numbers filed off. This is clearly written as a child friendly horror novel (not unsurprising given that Mark Morris' day job is a horror writer). There is plenty of vivid imagery as various Halloween decorations come to life, but after a fairly creepy start its mostly just generic "mild" peril. Doctor Who, after all, has strong roots in child-friendly horror so its really quite hard to make this sort of fare stand out.

An interesting side-note (for anyone who's been following the "was Martha ill-treated" debate) is a passage where Martha reflects that all conversations with the Doctor inevitably find their way back to Rose. Proof that, whatever the text of the transmitted episodes, the sub-text that so many complained of was definitely intentional. As I understand matters, these books are far too carefully vetted to let something like that slip through unless it was in a briefing document somewhere.
purplecat: Hand Drawn picture of a Toy Cat (books)
This particular new series Dr Who adventure had a reasonably good reputation so I was looking forward to it and you know, there's nothing actually wrong with it but I was kind of bored until about page 174 when things suddenly got more interesting thanks to something that is, in fact, so completely obvious it shouldn't count as a twist. I have a feeling Stephen Cole must have had a fanboy conversation at some point in his life where they wondered why the Zygons didn't do X, and here they are doing it.

Anyway, it has Edwardians, and the Lake District, and Zygons and another bl**dy viewpoint bl**dy kidult and the passage "Martha had encountered several alien creatures in her time, and was no stranger to their evil agendas. Yet the Zygons were the first monsters she'd met who forced their prisoners into playing cards." So, you know, it has good points and bad points. But overall these books are rather bland and my completist enthusiasm is taking something of a battering. I already own the next three, and people tell me the quality picks up, but I won't be buying more if doesn't.
purplecat: Hand Drawn picture of a Toy Cat (books)
I really want to like Jacqueline Rayner's work. Not simply because she is one of the few women writing Dr Who novels but because she has a distinctive voice and a bittersweet lightness of touch that should make a refreshing change from the more serious-minded and action-oriented output that typifies the range. But somehow her work never really gells for me and I'm left feeling that the comedic aspects have misfired letting down the whole. In the case of the Last Dodo the parts that really grated were those written in the first person from Martha's point of view in a kind of gushing I'm-talking-to-an-eight-year-old fashion. Not only did I simply not find these particular amusing and a little patronising there didn't seem to be any reason why half the story should be told in this fashion and half in the third person, sometimes switching between the two mid-scene. I mean why? why not write it all in the first person from Martha's point of view, or at least write every scene she was in from Martha's point-of-view, or if you must switch then at least provide the framing device of a diary, or writing a letter to a young cousin, or something.

The rest of the book was OK, the characters were pretty one-dimensional (even when they weren't supposed to be), the plot was a fairly straightforward sequence of run-arounds but it was all competent. I can see that its brief descriptions of extinct and endangered species would appeal to much of the target audience. I like the fact that Rayner experiments with story-telling styles, in this case switching points of view. I like the fact she writes about topics she is passionate about. I like the fact that she appreciates that Who story-telling can be both light-hearted and serious at one and the same time. But in the end, as with so many of her books, the parts just never fell together into a satsifying whole for me and I finished with feelings largely of disinterest in the plot and characters and vague irritation at the execution.
purplecat: Hand Drawn picture of a Toy Cat (books)
Its sort of customary to start reviews of the Dr Who storybooks by mentioning the totally bonkers Dr Who annuals of the 1970s but I figure most people reading here either know all about them or aren't terribly interested. Suffice it to say the storybooks are their successors both in content and, in some cases, bonkersness although the storybooks are bonkers (when they are bonkers) in a canonical way while the 70s Who annuals were mostly just bonkers.

a discussion of the stories and pictures with some digressions: Noel Coward, talking poodles and criticisms of the Isle of Wight all feature )
purplecat: Hand Drawn picture of a Toy Cat (books)
This was more like it. Like all the recent Dr Who books Wooden Heart made a very quick read and like many it suffered from a belief that "Kiduldt"s need books with Kidult viewpoint characters but apart from those quibbles this one was well-written and thought-provoking. Genuniely Kiduldt in fact, demonstrating that you can handle complex issues both philosophical and inter-personal within the confines of a Dr Who adventure.

More under cut, but I'll avoid spoilers )
purplecat: Hand Drawn picture of a Toy Cat (books)
The Quick Reads books are designed to appeal to adults who, for one reason or another, are anxious about reading. As such they are intended to be short with a limited vocabulary. I can't quite decide whether Terrance Dicks was an inspired choice to author one of these or a result of a misguided identification of "short with a simple vocabulary" with "suitable for children".

Review of Made of Steel )
purplecat: Hand Drawn picture of a Toy Cat (books)
The Jadepagoda mailing list had a long and agonised debate a few years back, before new Who came along and changed everything. The debate went something along the lines of "Who fans will buy any old tat with the logo on, therefore BBC books publish any old tat. If we, as Who fans, only bought the books by the authors we actually like then possibly the quality might improve and even if it didn't we wouldn't have wasted money on books we knew in advance that we wouldn't like." While I recognised the validity of this argument I couldn't quite bear the idea of not being able to say "I have every Doctor Who novel and novelisation on my bookshelf". However, I eventually, with much indecision, decided I didn't need every officially published Doctor Who Short Story on my bookshelves, especially since the "Short Trips" collections by which these were primarily published were generally rather dull and inispiring. So, with much pride, I heroically cancelled my subscription. But then I began to hear rumblings, also on Jadepagoda, that "Short Trips: Time Signature" was actually rather good. And, mostly, it is.

More including mild spoilers, though nothing I hadn't guessed after the end of the third story, under the cut )
purplecat: Hand Drawn picture of a Toy Cat (books)
The About Time series are reference works providing a story-by-story guide to Dr Who. Where these differ from the half dozen or so other story-by-story guides I have on my bookshelves, is that they seek explicitly to analyse the Dr Who stories in the wider context of the culture, specifically the media culture, of the time. They started out with the later Doctors (3, 4 and 5, IIRC) and then skipped back. This is the first of the "sixties" books I have read and the first which I have found more irritating than enjoyable.

More on About Time 2 )

An alternative explanation for my dissatisfaction lies outside of the book itself. When I read the books about later Dr Who I remembered watching the episodes at the time, and I remember the surrounding Basil Brush, Star Wars, Buck Rogers milieu. I wasn't watching between 1966 and 1969 and I read this book without nostalgia tinged glasses.


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