Noah review (a link).

On my religion and media blog Sacred Pop!, I recently reviewed the 2014 movie Noah. Check it out if you are interested.

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Timewyrm: Genesys (Doctor Who: The New Adventures) post 1

cover for timewyrm: genesys
Written by

John Peel

Chapters 1 – 4

I can’t imagine this would be a fun novel to write. Oh, I’m sure crafting the story was fun, but the pressure of having the first post-series, original would be intimidating to me. Without a doubt the demand was there. Doctor Who had been off the air for about a year and a half. The show was moving in an interesting direction, making the Doctor more mysterious, giving us a manipulative Doctor who had thing planned out far in advance, someone who took on gods and monsters and won. There were more stories to tell. So many more stories to tell.

Virgin Publishing stepped in to this gap and chose to continue where the series left off. Doctor Who had been in print before, so that was nothing new. What was new, however, was both the original stories aspect, not just a novelization of an episode, and the audience. The New Adventures were not written for the family audience as the show typically was. They were written for the fans who had grown up with the show. Presumably, these fans had money. But what, exactly, constitutes Doctor Who for adults? Complex stories and themes? Darker stories with difficult ideas? Sex?

In practice, all of the above, it would seem. Within these first four chapters, Timewyrm: Genesys gives us naked Ace, adultery, misogyny, groping, sexual assault, and Mesopotamian temple prostitution. These elements aside, what I’ve read so far is somewhat typical territory for Doctor Who: an alien crashes on Earth and sets herself up as a goddess. But that doesn’t mean the story isn’t interesting.

Peel sets this original Doctor Who adventure at the time of Gilgamesh, who is typically considered one of the earliest epic heroes. Gilgamesh was probably a historical figure during the Bronze Age, a king of the ancient city of Uruk. Timewyrm: Genesys, then, in Doctor Who fashion is telling us the “real” story behind the Epic of Gilgamesh. I can get behind that. I enjoy ancient Near East studies. Based on the fragments of the epic that we have, Gilgamesh doesn’t come off as a noble figure. His best friend Enkidu was created by the gods to distract the king who takes any woman he wants. Gilgamesh is a bully and more than a little rapist. This aspect of his personality is present in Peel’s novel, so I think we can put a dark check in the adult box here. The early conflict in the novel comes when Gilgamesh spurns the alien, who eventually takes on the guise of the goddess Ishtar (this is also drawn from the epic tale). And so we have an unlikeable king whose downfall is being planned by jealous nobles and an evil alien who takes control of people’s minds. Where adaptation is concerned, this is interesting. Where likable characters are concerned . . . nil.

Doctor Who – Earth Aid (The Lost Stories) or, more accurately, a look back at the faux-season 27

The cover for Doctor Who: Earth Aid
Find It At

Big Finish

Written By

Ben Aaronovitch and Andrew Cartmel

Directed By

Ken Bentley

Big Finish Says

Welcome aboard the space vessel Vancouver. Its mission: to guard a vast shipment of grain from Earth to the planet Safenesthome. Its Captain is called Ace. She seems a little unsure of herself. In fact, some might almost think she was new to the job…

Its medical officer is called simply ‘The Doctor’, and he’s perhaps not all he seems either. When mysterious ships target the Vancouver, Ace and the Doctor are pushed to the limit. Meanwhile, there’s something nasty in the grain containers. And it’s not very happy…

Make it so

When all is said and done, these faux-season 27 stories have been a hit . . . but a qualified one.

The enigma of season 27 and of the Cartmel Master Plan hung around these stories. The potential of what might have been was ever present. As a result, my expectations were unfairly high. Everything I saw in the televised McCoy era didn’t quite translate to these audio stories. And why should they? Nearly thirty years have passed, and the energy of the show in 1989 cannot realistically exist in 2014. (Well, 2011.) The passion and anger of Cartmel and his writers, passion and anger directed at British politics in the late 80s, is muted. The anxiety of being responsible for the very future of Doctor Who is gone. What is left are 25 year old ideas, brushed off for scripting and presentation.

Earth Aid, as an end to these lost stories, works wonderfully. It wraps up a loose Metatraxi story-arc in a largely satisfying way. In Cartmel fashion, it gets a few digs with some social commentary. And the pastiche of Star Trek style science fiction was a lot of fun. Earth Aid was a nice, light end to an interesting but somewhat inconsistent run of stories. It fits quite well at the end of this pseudo-season. It has some holes and unanswered questions. (How, exactly, did Ace become a captain of a starship?) It would have been nice to have more character development where Raine is concerned. (What was up with her staying on Earth to grieve her father, but turns up again here with just a passing reference to her grief?)

But what is missing from this season is the maybe-god/maybe-not Doctor manipulating time and space against gods, monsters, and himself. There is nothing on the scale of Ragnarok or Fenric here. The closest we get is a sentient planet. I think Andrew Cartmel, in producing these stories, was more interested in making interesting stories from half-remembered script ideas. He wasn’t interested in reproducing how fans have read his era. And he didn’t seem interested in putting the “who” back in Doctor Who as he was in the 80s. He didn’t need to. That was done in the New Adventures novels.

And so, season 27 essentially becomes a divergent possibility. It is a divergent possibility that slips quite well into Big Finish continuity. This wasn’t such a bad move. I would like to see what this TARDIS team does free from the restrictions, the pressure, of season 27. (In fact, Big Finish’s UNIT Dominion features the Doctor and Raine.) But when it comes to lines of continuity, I am far more interested in seeing what happened in the novels. They picked up on the narrative threads. They picked up on the urgency and passion of the stories. And that is where I go next on my journey through Doctor Who.

Next stop: Timewyrm: Genesis.

Doctor Who – Animal (The Lost Stories)

Cover for Animal
Find It At

Big Finish

Written By

Andrew Cartmel

Directed By

Ken Bentley

Big Finish Says

Margrave University in 2001, and Raine Creevy is enjoying her first trip into the future. For the Doctor, there are mysteries to solve: what are the alien creatures imprisoned in the science labs? And what are the true motives of the student Scobie and his followers? With enemies on all sides, the Doctor teams up with his old friend Brigadier Bambera and the forces of UNIT in a battle for the future of the whole world.

Communication Breakdown

There are many stories I enjoy in Matt Smith’s first series as the Doctor, but I have a particular interest in “Amy’s Choice.” I enjoy the way that story works in layers, how Amy’s inability to make a decision about Rory becomes manifest in a nightmare world where her fears become monsters. Amy, the Doctor, and Rory are stalked by monsters wearing human shells; they look like pleasant people but house something frightening inside, the normal life become horrifyingly destructive. The monster becomes the metaphor.

While “Animal” isn’t as layered, the monsters match the theme: animal rights gone horribly wrong. Just as the Rage virus was unleased in 28 Days Later by people setting animals free from a research lab, there is something monstrous in the Margrave University science lab, something which is best left alone. But that isn’t the only monster in this story. The wonderfully creepy aliens in this story are a nice counterpart to the animal rights group, allowing Cartmel to explore animal rights themes while also exploring the dangers of groups who will go to Machiavellian lengths to ensure animal safety.

As with “Crime of the Century” before it, “Animal” dips in and out of different genres, although I think it was more successful than its predecessor. It also helps that the Doctor and Ace are reunited with Brigadier Bambera and UNIT. Brigadier Bambera is a character I wanted to see more of, and I’m happy this story brought the character back. I admit that I would like to see her character fleshed out a bit more, making her more than just a female Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, but classic Doctor Who typically emphasized plot over character. Things are no different here. Regardless, it was wonderful to see this character again.

I particularly enjoy that this story sits in the middle of a loosely connected trilogy. While each story is self-contained, the Doctor’s dealings with the Metatraxi from “Crime of the Century” are exacerbated here, and they look to be resolved in the final story of these season 27 Lost Stories. I look forward to seeing how things turn out.

Doctor Who – Crime of the Century (The Lost Stories)

Cover for Crime of the Century
Find It At

Big Finish

Written By

Andrew Cartmel

Directed By

Ken Bentley

Big Finish Says

The year is 1989. In London, safe cracker Raine Creevy breaks into a house – and finds more than the family jewels. In the Middle East, the kingdom of Sayf Udeen is being terrorised by Soviet invaders and alien monsters. And on the Scottish border, a highly guarded facility contains an advanced alien weapon.

These are all part of the Doctor’s masterplan. But masterplans can go awry…

We Could Have Been So Good Together

The image is iconic, has been for over 20 years. A safe cracker works her way through a party, finds the safe, opens it, and the Doctor is stuffed inside. And for 20 years, this is all that has been known about the story that became “Crime of the Century.” And for 20 years, that was all that existed of it. There was no script. There was no story, just the image of a shocked young woman and a relieved, knows-too-much-as-always Doctor.

Raine Creevy, daughter of Markus Creevy from “Thin Ice” has grown up into the aristocratic safe cracker from Doctor Who season 27 legend. She is one more piece in the Doctor’s constant manipulation of events. The goal is a long game designed to remove an alien weapon from British possession. “Crime of the Century” is a caper, only we are not privy to the typical planning sessions in most film capers. We arrive as the plan is unfolding. Honestly, all the planning happened just off camera, in the Doctor’s mind. This is typical of the Seventh Doctor, but what is more explicit in this story than in the televised stories is the level of detail to the plan. The Doctor has been moving quite a few pieces around, some from “Thin Ice,” some new to this story (such as Sayf Udeen and the Metatraxi). It has been a long game indeed, and with this many pieces, it is probably inevitable that something will go wrong, a key moment can fall apart. This is where the story shines for me, the moment when the disparate threads of the story start coming together. But since we are not given this long-term view, the details of the Doctor’s master plan, many of the scenes seem disconnected. It was thrilling to see the connections in the end.

But that was in the end. The journey to the reveal left me disengaged. I enjoy caper stories, but this one didn’t have the clear statement of goals that many capers have. I never felt sure why these pieces were connected to one another until the end of part three. In a story where the pieces don’t initially make sense, I need to connect to the characters. Sadly, apart from Prince Udeen, I never connected with the new characters in the story. This is especially frustrating since Raine becomes the new companion. I wanted to like her, but she just never connected. Some contrast is made between her and Ace, one being a posh safecracker, the other from a working-class background. But this contrast is played for more comedic effect. Given the televised Cartmel era’s tendency to criticize the establishment, a complete embrace of this character strikes me as odd. Granted, she is upper class and a thief, so she is rebelling in some way, but there seems to be a deliberate attempt to minimize TARDIS team conflict. Since such conflict has been mixed in the show’s history, maybe this was a good move, even if Raine fails to win me over.

“Crime of the Century,” then, was a mixed bag for me. It had great moments but quite a few moments that were just part of the Doctor’s game, moving one piece to a specific location. In a way, it was like watching a chess match, but not being privy to the rules or the endgame. It made sense in the end, but it took too long to get there.

First Time For Everything: Planet Comicon

A photograph of the exhibitor and vendor hall.

My friend Nick has been trying to get me to go to Planet Comicon in Kansas City for the last couple of years. Money has always been tight and the con typically fell on inconvenient weekends during the school year. This year, however, events aligned for me to go: Nick paid for my ticket, the con fell at the end of Spring Break, and Sylvester McCoy came. This last on is a big deal. Living in the Mid-West, specifically Springfield, Missouri, Doctor Who-related celebrities are rare. The closest con for a Doctor Who appearance is Chicago TARDIS, and that is an eight-hour drive. The trip is not economically feasible for me.

Kansas City, however, is about a three-hour drive, and I know people in the area, which allows me to keep the costs down.

Planet Comicon was my first big convention. Springfield has a few, but they are small (but growing). I was nervous. The semester has been busy and intellectually challenging. I have had some significant questions about my education and career this year, culminating in a trip to the local Career Expo which made me realize that I don’t want to pursue certain careers in the technical writing field. I’m not sure software documentation is part of my future. After a few hours at the expo, I was in a panic, questioning why I ever returned to school. Is this what it will be like at a comic convention?

Thankfully, no. Planet Comicon was a lot of fun. I went with Nick and a couple of his friends, and while I spent most of my time wandering the booths and attending the panels alone, I felt refreshed by the eagerness and excitement of the attendees. (I feed off energy in crowds, and the Career Expo had an energy of mild desperation, which really messed with my emotions.) I felt largely accepted and enjoyed some of the brief interactions I had with creators such as Jeremy Haun, Greg Rucka, and Alex Grecian. I hope to go back next year, maybe with more writing under my belt and more of an idea of how to start networking with creators. They currently are where I want to be.

mccoy1As mentioned earlier, Sylvester McCoy was one of the celebrity guests. I couldn’t afford to get his autograph, but his panel was extremely fun. He walked the crowd, answering questions from the audience as he went along. I had a seat near the aisle, which enabled me to get a few pictures. He told some wonderful stories. He told about meeting Matt Smith while filming the 5(ish) Doctors Reboot. “He bounded up to me like an Afghan hound, all limbs and excitement, and licked me on the face.” He discussed the changes to Doctor Who while he was on the show, explaining that he was only going to stick with it for three years, but signing on for four because he was told the show would be cancelled if he didn’t stay on. It was cancelled anyway. He expressed his displeasure at his Doctor’s regeneration. And he played the spoons. I’m thrilled that I got to see him so soon after watching his era in its entirety for the first time.

In all, Planet Comicon was a great introduction to the fan-convention world. I look forward to checking out a few of the local cons in the upcoming year, and I look forward to going to Planet Comicon again next year. Maybe one day I will be able to make the great pilgrimage to the Gallifrey Convention.

Sylvester McCoy answers a question from an audience member

Doctor Who – Thin Ice (The Lost Stories)

Where Can I Find It?

Big Finish

Written by

Marc Platt

Directed by

Ken Bentley

What’s It About?

Ad copy: Moscow 1967. The Doctor and Ace have arrived behind the Iron Curtain, and the Soviet Union is seeking a new weapon that will give it mastery in the Cold War. What is the secret of the Martian relics? As the legendary War Lord Sezhyr returns to life, the Doctor is faced with some of his oldest and deadliest enemies. The fate of Earth – and the future of Ace – are now intertwined…

cover for Thin Ice

What Might Have Been?

Any amount of research into the history of Doctor Who, specifically into the history of the McCoy era, will eventually lead to the Cartmel Masterplan. This hypothetical document dictated the plan to move Doctor Who from the perceived failures of the Sixth Doctor era and in to a bright, new future. The Doctor would have been made more mysterious, possibly being revealed as a mythical Gallifreyan known as the Other. The overall vision was to put the “who” back in Doctor Who.

Naturally, the problem with the Cartmel Masterplan theory is that the plan probably never existed. I remember listening to an interview with Andrew Cartmel which had been conducted by the Podshock podcast, and Cartmel said this plan didn’t really exist. At best, the plan was spontaneous and organic, evolving out of the scripting at the time, not connected to a long-term, detailed vision for the show. But over the years the hints of a future in the McCoy era, the allure of the cancelled season 27, and the mythology that arose from the New Adventures novels contributed to theory and speculation. The Cartmel Masterplan became a lost, apocryphal golden era for the show.

With Thin Ice we are given, then, a glimpse at what season 27 could have been. But this glimpse may be less effective than anticipated. Based on some accounts, nothing had gone to script for season 27, although ideas had been pitched. If this is the case, then these lost stories are remembered pitches filtered through decades of development. They are an attempt to reproduce a previous era, not a reflection of an abandoned vision. Essentially, Thin Ice was pitched in 1989 but not written until 2011. It is a product of its time, and that time is the present. That time has also mythologized season 27, leaving me to wonder if these stories can even really be termed “what might have been.”

Looking at what we have been given, then, is nonetheless interesting. Thin Ice engages with the idea that Ace was to be inducted into the Time Lord Academy. The Doctor, seeing her potential, submitted an application without her knowledge and the events of Thin Ice become a test to prove her worth. This is somewhat interesting, and yet, despite the themes of change and the development of Ace’s character in season 26, it seems sudden. If becoming a Time Lady has been Ace’s journey, it hasn’t really been set up well. Moving from bitter (toward her mother) and violent to merciful and peaceful doesn’t not inherently entitle one to the knowledge of the inner workings of all time and space. Fittingly, this plot point is dropped when Ace is not accepted into the Academy. Instead, the Doctor allows her to take a greater role in their adventures, moving from the pawn to an active player. This is far more fitting.

So in a way, Thin Ice plays against the Cartmel Masterplan expectation by deflating it. What we are given instead is an adventure rooted more in Cold War spy antics than Time Lord mythologizing. The Ice Warriors lend themselves well to the Cold War (Cold, Ice, Red Planet), which is something we’ve even seen in the current series episode Cold War. I am always interested when Doctor Who portrays its monsters with nuance rather than, well, monsters. The alien races the Doctor encounters can’t always become stand-ins for those traits of society that we dislike. This is why Malcolm Hulke was such a great writer for Doctor Who. The monsters had believable motivations. And we have the same in this story, with an Ice Warrior agent working with humans to recover an ancient Martian artifact from Soviet possession. The artifact is a helmet with the biodata of a legendary Martian warrior who will be reborn into the wearer of the helmet. The Soviets have been experimenting with the technology, but in addition to the problem this technology will create in the timeline, the inevitable rebirth of this legendary warrior into a human would be a bad thing for human history.

In the end, Thin Ice is an entertaining story, made even more so when divorced from the mythologizing season 27 has been subjected to. This so-called lost season is shaped more by an attempt to tell interesting stories than to recapture a long-playing, long-abandoned plot. The Ace as Time Lord concept doesn’t really work as anything other than a sign to the fans that this ideas has been abandoned. Put it out of your mind and approach the stories as they are, not as we thought they were to be.

There really is no “might have been.”