Beginning The Space Pirates!

Just two more stories in the Troughton Era, and each of them is significant in a major way.  First will be The Space Pirates, significant as it is the final incomplete story.  Following this Robert Holmes-penned adventure, every story is complete (Shada aside, I’m ignoring it for now).  After The Space Pirates, we will have the Second Doctor’s ten-part finale The War Games.  As mentioned before, I often wish I didn’t have foreknowledge for Doctor Who.  I would love the end to be a surprise.  But enough lamenting on this for now; what do I have to share today?

I have wanted this blog to be a journey.  However, I feel that since I dropped the episodic format, the blog has become more review-based.  This isn’t a bad thing, just not what I had originally hoped for.  As such, I may be changing things up a slight bit and commenting on stories as I view them rather than after.  And it is The Space Pirates which has inspired this new direction.  I have listened to episode 1 one-and-a-half times thus far—the half was due to falling asleep mid-way through—and still find it a bit dull.  This story is written by Robert Holmes; it should be better than this!  But, like The Krotons, this story lacks his trademark humor and many of the other traits that mark his style.  Maybe if part one still existed and I could see some movement things would be different.  Thankfully, episode two exists.  I look forward to getting some visuals locked firmly in my mind before getting too far in the story.

Has anyone seen (well, listened to) The Space Pirates?  What do you think of it?

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Doctor Who Story Number 048 – The Seeds of Death

Written by Brian Hayles
Directed by Michael Ferguson

From the back: In the late 21st century, the human race has become totally dependent on T-Mat, a revolutionary form of instant travel. The Doctor, Jamie and Zoe arrive on Earth just as T-Mat is suffering a malfunction. Sinister Ice Warriors from Mars have seized the lunar T-Mat station to launch an invasion of Earth.

“Your leader will be angry if you kill me!  I’m a genius.”

Here we have our second meeting with The Ice Warriors, only this time the Martians are operating from a stronger position. Unfortunately, I didn’t find this story as engaging as The Ice Warriors, which, if you recall, I was conflicted over.  In the original story, the Earth was slowly being covered in glaciers and a band of scientists were attempting to find a way to push the ice back.  In The Seeds of Death, humanity is somewhat better off, merely having food supply issues–as if that is a minor problem in comparison. More so than previous Doctor Who stories, I had difficulty with the chronological placement of this conflict Ice Warrior history. Was this after The Ice Warriors? Before? If the former, has it been long enough that humanity has forgotten about the previous Ice Warrior encounter? These questions continually popped up as I watched this story, which means I wasn’t entirely engaged.  Following the tight pacing of The Invasion, this story drags quite a bit. It would have been interesting to see what Camfield would have done with it. Not that Michael Ferguson does a bad job. His camera-work is quite inventive in a number of scenes.

The performances, however, work quite well. I enjoyed the bickering between Radnor and Eldred. Many of the secondary characters were interesting in their own way, Fewsham being standout because he comes across as a fully-conflicted human.  He wants to do the right thing, but is afraid of death. It also helps that he looks a bit like Robert Carlyle. Even Slaar comes across as a chilling villain in this piece, the make-up being quite effective in particular. The only problems I had with characters, and this surprised me, is that Jamie is starting to feel a bit old and tired. It would be nice to see a bit of growth from him as the performance is becoming a bit rote. Gone is the character that challenged The Doctor with regard to rescuing Victoria from The Daleks. This Jamie almost comes across as an intellectual child in the presence of The Doctor and Zoe. He doesn’t connect as he once did.

In all, this is a good enough story. It is a straight-forward adventure without too much depth. It certainly isn’t one of my favorites, but it is still enjoyable.

The Day of The Triffids

A novel by John Wyndham

From the back: What were they–these hideous triffids roaming the ruins of the Earth?

Until a few short hours ago–before the sky exploded into a shower of flaming green hell–triffids had bee regarded as merely a curious and profitable form of plant life. Now these shadowy vegetable creatures became a crawling killing nightmare of pain and horror.

Madness hung in the air, fear lurked in every side street, death hovered in every doorway. Stripped of civilized veneer by terror and desperation, the handful of surviving humans began to turn on each other.

And all the while the triffids watched and waited.

First sentence: “When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts off by sounding like Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere.”

A story about walking killer plants?  Really?  Such phrases tend to appear in reviews around the internet.  It seems this is the disbelief that many have to suspend.  And yet, when you are reading the book, this is easy to do.  The triffids, whose origins are never fully explained, may have originated in the genetic laboratories of Soviet Russia.  They could be man-made.  Wyndham never explains this, however.  And as frustrating as this can be at times, it is oddly satisfying.  It completely fits with this sci-fi horror tale of humanity fighting to survive.

The novel follows Bill Masen, a man who has worked with triffids most of his life.  As mentioned above, no one knows for sure where the triffids originated, but they soon prove useful to humanity due to the oil which can be extracted from them.  The problem is that triffids have a sting that is poisonous enough to kill humans.  They also seem to have a rudimentary intelligence, one that allows them to learn and even hunt. Regardless, triffids are subdued and exploited by humanity until a world-wide light show appears in the Earth’s sky.  Speculation suggests this is due to comet debris.  The next day, everyone who watched the lights is blind.  Bill Masen escapes this fate as he was recovering in the hospital from a triffid sting; he never saw the lights.

And here begins the narrative which will feel familiar to anyone who has seen a zombie film: eerie silence and deserted streets. Civilization has fallen.  The majority of the novel deals, not with the triffids, but with Bill’s attempt to survive in this new world.  He encounters various groups with their own solution to survival: rebuild a new, better society with one group; build a society based on rigid religious structures and dogma with another; or maintain military discipline to ensure Britain will one day come out on top.  None of these groups seems assured of any particular success.  All the while the triffids must be dealt with as they continually seek out humans and kill them.  They become a constant background threat.

This is a brilliant novel.  I love how Wyndham fully thought out what would happen in the breakdown of civilization.  What responsibilities do those who can see have to those who cannot?  Which is better: city or country living?  How would different groups seek power?  Something that constantly surprised me was how many people in the novel chose to just “wait it out”, convinced that eventually the Americans would come and sort everything out.  It is startling to me just how influential my country has been throughout the decades.  And there is every reason to expect that America is dealing with the same problem of triffids and blindness.  This is Rome falling and the dark ages beginning.  One group actually adopts a feudal system for survival.  I cannot recommend this one highly enough.

The Americans: (in which Masen describes various groups he finds scattered around the countryside)

“As a rule they showed little wish to join up with other parties and were inclined rather to lay hands on what they could, building themselves into refuges as comfortably as possible while they waited for the arrival of the Americans, who were bound to find a way. There seemed to be a widespread and fixed idea about this. Our suggestions that any surviving Americans would be likely to have their hands more than full at home was received as so much wet-blanketry. The Americans, they assured us, would never have allowed such a thing to happen in their country.”

Final Verdict: This was the most fun I have had reading a book since either A Game of Thrones or The City and The City.  I would recommend it to anyone who likes thought-provoking fiction.  Again, this was a brilliant story and I would love to have had another hundred pages.

Doctor Who: Frayed (Telos Novella)

A review of the novella by Tara Samms

From the back (or blurb or whatever): On a blasted world, the Doctor and Susan find themselves in the middle of a war they cannot understand.  With Susan missing and the Doctor captured, who will save the people from the enemies both outside and within?

Opening Line: “I like to stare into the sun.”

I’m fairly certain that it is unrelated, but twenty minutes after finishing this book I was coughing up blood.  This probably had more to do with allergies than the quality of the story, but it still seems oddly fitting given some of the gore in the book.

Tara Samms is a nom de plume for Stephen Cole, and I’m certainly glad I didn’t know that going in to the novel.  I have yet to read any Doctor Who stories by Cole that I would classify as compelling.  For the first twenty-five pages or so, I genuinely thought this was going to be a fun story.  By page fifty, it became a drudgery as I realized the characters were not going to do anything interesting or be at all memorable.  Sure, they were all given motivations, but they pursued them with as much enthusiasm as some of my lazy co-workers.

Frayed is a pre-Unearthly Child-base-under siege-soporific masquerading as a novella.  The story takes place on the planet Iwa where a human-run base called The Forge is being assailed by foxes.  Naturally, these are not ordinary foxes; they are aliens that seem to fall to pieces every few minutes.  Their siege is rather inconsistent as a result.  Regardless, their attacks are quite brutal when they do manage to pull them off.  As near as I can tell, the foxes are symbolic of what humanity will eventually become should they not cease genetic manipulation.  Yes, The Forge is a base for the potential criminal.  Those who are deemed to have the correct genetic template are tossed in The Forge and experiments are conducted on them for good measure.  And did I mention that the prisoners are telepathic children?  Nothing like dumping a bunch of ingredients in the pot and seeing what congeals.  And this is one of my problems with the concepts in this novella: there are too many for the allotted space.  There is not enough room for any one of the ideas to breathe and grow into a compelling plot with some meaty moralizing.

Given the number of ideas here, combined with the Doctor Who formula of needing a mystery to slowly reveal, something has to give, and Cole has chosen the characters.  We have the base leader who has become a coward, the love-struck one, the insurrectionist, the lustful base chef, and a handful of characters that never even attempted to reach the heights of the aforementioned ones.  The best a reader can hope for in keeping the characters straight is to read the book in a single setting.  Otherwise, they will bleed into an unmemorable mass.

The Doctor and Susan are adequate.  Some reviews I’ve encountered say the duo are portrayed excellently, but I disagree.  Sometimes I can hear William Hartnell in The Doctor’s dialogue, but most times I can’t.  At best, I would say the leads are inconsistent.  Given that this story takes place before we officially meet The Doctor and Susan, perhaps a bit of grace is in order.  Cole does float the idea that The Doctor and Susan acquire their names in this adventure, an idea that I hope sinks and is forgotten.

Successful dialogue:  ‘You’re a romantic, my dear.’ He squeezed her hand. ‘Mostly these humans are thoughtless and savage, with outmoded ideas about practically everything.’ He chortled. ‘Yet, they may merit further study.  I marvel that they have survived as a species to reach into space.’
‘Because they dream,’ she said.

Final Verdict: If you are a fan of Stephen Cole, I’m sure you will like this one.  Otherwise, this is a book only for the completist.  At the current price of $20, I think it a good one to skip.

American Horror Story Season One

As I have been tying up some loose ends before returning to school, I have found less time to devote to this blog.  I’m hoping that my new schedule won’t take me away from here completely and I will make every attempt to update as regularly as possible.  But I’ve missed writing over the past couple of weeks.  Anyway, lots more to do, so let’s start with one of the loose ends that was not quite so important, but still necessary to my mind.

The week after New Years Day I gave in to a friend’s urging and started making my way through the debut season of American Horror Story on FX.  The horror genre is a guilty pleasure of mine for two reasons.  The first is that a strong horror story is surprisingly moral.  It doesn’t matter how depraved and disturbing the story gets, it still portrays a world in which sin and vice gets punished.  This juxtaposition of gruesome, voyeuristic hedonism and supernatural retribution is fascinating to me.  The second reason I like horror is because I find equal fascination in the experience of being frightened by fiction.  Fiction rarely frightens me.  The real world frightens me.  As a child I was more afraid of serial killers than monsters under the bed or in the closet.  Thus, I approach horror intellectually rather than viscerally, which just seems wrong on some level.  Horror is meant to elicit strong emotional reaction, in much the same way romantic comedies do, just on the opposite side of the scale of sentimentality.  American Horror Story is a study in both what works and what doesn’t in the contemporary horror genre.  When it portrays compelling, sympathetic characters in horrific, life-threatening situations, then it succeeds in spades.  When it gives in to sensationalism for the sake of piling on more American urban lore, it starts to drag and bore.

The season-long story follows Ben, Vivian, and Violet Harmon as they buy a house in Los Angeles.  The Harmons are attempting to heal familial wounds caused by Ben’s infidelity and Vivian’s bearing of a stillborn child.  Each member of the family is emotionally distant from the others.  Unfortunately, the house they have bought is known as “Murder House”, as it has been the location of a series of horrific murders throughout the decades, starting with the original owners, an laudanum-addicted scientist with a Frankenstein complex and his child-obsessed wife.  Throughout the season, the story weaves (with mixed levels of success) various urban legends into the history of the house and the new reality of the Harmon family.  But again, the strength of the show is the portrayal of the Harmon family (Connie Britton’s Vivian being exceptionally well-done as the core of the show) and the cast of characters surrounding them, both living and spectral.  When you begin to care for the characters who are already dead, then I think the cast and crew are doing something right.

The show isn’t perfect.  The pace is often uneven as some episodes find themselves needing to convey elements of the overall plot but not having enough additional material to fill out the 42 minutes.  Thus we have introductions of elements that seem to be padding out the season (The Black Dahlia being one such “filler” element).  But at 13 episodes, the story doesn’t drag too long, and the highest compliment I can pay the show is that three days after finishing the season finale, I find myself missing the characters.  Yes, their story is over, but I want to see them again.

One thing that has me intrigued is that this season was a stand-alone story.  Season two will follow a completely new story.  American Horror Story is trying a format that is not common in the American market, and I want it to succeed if only for that reason.  The format is more British, even if the subject matter is completely American. This show isn’t for the easily squeamish or the easily offended, but if you like a good horror story, it is sure to satisfy.

The Hunger Games (Spoilers)

Written by Suzanne Collins

From the Back:  In the ruins of a place once known as North America lies the nation of Panem, a shining Capitol surrounded by twelve outlying districts. Long ago the districts waged war on the Capitol and were defeated. As part of the surrender terms, each district agreed to send one boy and one girl to appear in an annual televised event called, “The Hunger Games,” a fight to the death on live TV. Sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen, who lives alone with her mother and younger sister, regards it as a death sentence when she is forced to represent her district in the Games. The terrain, rules, and level of audience participation may change but one thing is constant: kill or be killed.

My wife’s family had their Christmas get-together this past weekend and I was given the chance to continue reading The Hunger Games.  I had started it just before Christmas, but only had a handful of days to read it and those days were quite busy, so I was forced to return my borrowed copy.  This past weekend, however, was ideal and I tore through the book in a couple of days.  It is hard to dismiss the hype.  The book is fast-paced and the plot does not thematically wear out its welcome.

As far as youth fiction goes, the thematic material is surprising to me.  First of all, it involves children killing children.  Often we are hyper-sensitive to this subject in the U.S.  I remember about a decade ago when Warren Ellis wrote an issue of Hellblazer which dealt with a school shooting.  It was tastefully done as it dealt with the aftermath and John Constantine was brought in to discover what sort of evil would have caused this tragedy.  The answer came down to a superficial society and indifferent parenting.  The issue was cancelled due to concerns over sensitivity.  Curiously, this past television season saw the debut of American Horror Story on FX.  This show portrayed a school-shooting that was obviously referencing a Columbine-style shooting.  Has the climate in the U.S. changed so much that this subject is now digestible by the mainstream, able to be included in youth fiction without a public outcry?  It seems that the biggest controversy surrounding the novel is its similarity to the Japanese novel Battle Royale (a criticism which is largely ridiculous, in my opinion).

A second theme that caught me off-guard was the genetic manipulation of the children who were killed in the games.  Near the end of the game all those killed returned as mutated wolf creatures, a hybrid of wolves and humans.  While the book does little but portray the shock and action surrounding the revelation, I found this one of the more disturbing elements of the novel.  It doesn’t dwell on it, however.  In fact, this could be a perceived weakness of the story as Collins does little in the way of social commentary.  The reader can make links to the real world, but I don’t see attempts by the author to do so.  This isn’t a grievous crime, however.  The story is still entertaining.

Final Verdict: The Hunger Games is a great weekend read.  Suzanne Collins does some great world-building, creates a compelling scenario and characters, and keeps the novel moving along at a near-perfect pace.

The Day of the Triffids: An Introduction

Image Source: Wikipedia

The first book I will be reading for Vintage Sci-Fi Month is The Day of The Triffids by John Wyndham.  I have long wanted to read this book, so I’m happy for the prompting.  I looked for this book for a couple of years in the book shops around town, finally finding it in a going out of business sale.  As with most eagerly-sought books, I put it directly on the shelf, unread.  Better late than never.

Wyndham seems to be an author who has had quite a bit of influence on the British sci-fi psyche.  Many of his books have an apocalyptic flavor and as Triffids was published less than ten years after World War II ended, I’m not surprised.  The war with Nazi Germany had ended and the Cold War had begun.  These were not optimistic times.  Wyndham has been praised for his ability to take world-wide catastrophe and scale it down to the personal level, filtering events through the eyes of a few individuals, thus creating an intimate feel for the drama and conflict.

The Day of the Triffids has been adapted twice for BBC television, once in 1981 and again in 2009.  It has also influenced numerous works, not least of which is 28 Days Later.  As I started reading the book, the narrator says,

“The way I came to miss the end of the world–well, the end of the world I had known for close on thirty years–was sheer accident: like a lot of survival, when you come to think of it.  In the nature of thins a good many somebodies are always in hospital, and the law of averages had picked on me to be one of them a week or so before.”

28 Days Later did a direct homage to this when Cillian Murphy’s character Jim wakes up in the hospital after the rage virus has ravaged London.  And it is also hard to not see traces of this in Dalek Invasion of Earth.

While this will be my first time with Triffids (I haven’t even seen the BBC adaptations . . . some Anglophile I am), it will not be my first Wyndham story. I heard a radio adaptation of Chrysalids once and it was quite compelling and horrifying.  Yet, there was something oddly familiar about it.  Wyndham seems brilliant at filtering his visions through a human lens that makes them familiar and real.  I’m looking forward to this book.

So, what are the opinions out there about John Wyndham and Day of The Triffids?

Doctor Who Number 047 – The Krotons

Written by Robert Holmes
Directed by David Malone

Arriving on a wasteland planet, The Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe discover society held in check by creatures known as the Krotons.

“Zoe is something of a genius. It can be rather irritating at times.”

Given the influence that Robert Holmes would later exhibit over Doctor Who and its mythology, he gets a rather inauspicious beginning with The Krotons. Missing are the trademarks of Robert Holmes later scripts, the dark humor, the detailed world-building, the double-act. It is fun to see the development of writers and this is one reason I have wanted to watch these stories in broadcast order, to see how the show develops. By the time of his death, Robert Holmes will have written for every classic era Doctor except the first and the seventh. No other Doctor Who writer can claim this. I enjoy his stories for their characterization and imagination. Sadly, The Krotons was a bit boring in places. I found my mind wandering quite a bit.

The story takes place on an unnamed planet where the mysterious Krotons hold a race called The Gonds in a state of slavery and keep them technologically undeveloped. The Krotons regularly subject the Gonds to intelligence tests and those who pass become companions to the Krotons. We learn quite quickly that these “companions” are really drained of their mental energies and killed. The Krotons are a crystalline race and they need the mental energy to reconstitute themselves and repair their ship. The Gonds are kept under-developed to keep them from rebelling, but this also serves to slow The Krotons’ progress to a crawl. Unintended consequences there. It is the arrival of The Doctor and Zoe in particular that puts The Krotons’ goal within reach, but it also starts to spur the Gonds toward rebellion. You know how these things go. It’s Doctor Who, after all.

This isn’t a bad story, but it is a bit of a dull one. There are some great moments between The Doctor and Zoe. The scene with Beta and Jamie creating acid is fun due to contrasting Beta’s excitement at trying chemistry for the first time and Jamie’s apprehension with the exploding chemicals. Phillip Madoc brings great menace to the rebel leader Eelek. And of course, seeing Patrick Troughton act is always preferable to just listening to him. But overall the story is rather predictable and on par with many similar stories of the time. It isn’t bad, it just isn’t particularly memorable. There are, however, some good concepts floating in the background and these will later be fleshed out in the Lawrence Miles novel Alien Bodies.

2011 Book Review Part 4

And here it is, the final post on what I read this year.  I’m cheating just a bit because some of these I have reviewed more extensively, so why recreate my thoughts?  Just a word or two and a link will suffice.  I also hate to admit that I did not meet my goal of 28 books because I failed to finish Mr. Midshipman Hornblower prior to midnight.  You see, 2011 and I did NOT get along, and it saw fit to strike me will illness these last few days.  I’m glad to see the end of this year and am putting high hopes on 2012.  It will be different, at the very least.

The Cat Who Went to Heaven by Elizabeth Coatsworth was the shortest book I read this year.  It was the winner of the 1931 Newbery Medal and it deserved it.  Set in Japan, the story chronicles the work of an artist as he attempts to change his fortune by painting a work based on the life of the Buddha.  He attempts to put himself into the stories of the Buddha to understand how the Buddha related to the various animals.  And as he paints, his newly adopted cat grows more and more sad as cats are deemed to be evil for cats rejected the religious leader.  It is a beautiful story and has the feeling of a folk tale.

Another children’s book read this year was C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe.  This wasn’t the first time I read it.  I must admit that each time I read it, I enjoy it less.  This isn’t to imply I think it bad.  Quite the contrary.  But I’ve always been more of a fan of Middle Earth than Narnia.  That said, the BBC versions of The Chronicles of Narnia will always hold a special place in my heart as they were my introduction to Narnia.  And Tom Baker will always be Puddleglum to me.

I have reviewed The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan elsewhere.  I had hoped for more from this story, especially as Richard Hannay is part of the adventurer genre of Britain.  Unfortunately, very little of these stories grabbed me.  It improved with the introduction of a villain, but until then it was somewhat forgettable.

About Time Vol. 1 is an in-depth analysis of the first three seasons of Doctor Who.  It is written by Tat Wood and Lawrence Miles and it is mind-boggling in its detail.  It was so much fun to read as I made my way through the Hartnell era last year.  It gave connections between episodes and real-life events or cultural phenomena that may have inspired stories.  This is the kind of analysis I enjoy, taking pop culture and analyzing how it is indicative of the culture and times that spawned them.  A great deal of fun if you are a fan of the classic era of Doctor Who and television history.

And while we are on the subject of Doctor Who, I re-read Doctor Who and the Unearthly Child.  A full review can be found here.  It was a decent read, and quick.  Both are positives.

I have also reviewed A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin elsewhere.  I was drawn to this book because of the HBO series which quickly became unwatchable due to the pornographic nature of the series.  Not that Martin shies away from the adult content in the novel, but it is easier to skim over those parts in prose than to skip past them on TV.  The book is an amazing story and was possibly the most fun I had reading this year.  Certainly my favorite new find, edging out China Mieville by a slight margin.

This brings me to the final book read this year, Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut.  This was the story of Billy Pilgrim whose consciousness travels back and forth through time.  We learn of his experiences as a civilian before and after World War II as well as his time in an alien zoo.  It is certainly an interesting and thought-provoking novel with many amusing moments.  My main problem with Vonnegut is that I intellectually understand his humor, but find it depressing at the same time.  I love his narrative voice, I love his style, but I come away from all his books wanting to cry.  I’m not sure why I keep reading his books.  Maybe it is similar to what compelled me to watch footage of the Japan earthquake over and over earlier this year.  It was hard not to watch this force of nature completely lay to waste human progress, despite knowing the death toll was very high.  So it goes.

I think that about wraps it up.  Having missed my goal by just one book, I feel somewhat satisfied.  For 2012, I will shoot for completing another 27.  I’ll probably be too busy for anything more than that.  I’ll continue working on Mr. Midshipman Hornblower and Don Quixote, but also hope to participate in the January Vintage Science Fiction read.  Here’s to another good year of books.