Category: books

TV Club, Doctor Who, Shada

“Shada” (season 17, episodes 21-26. Filmed in 1979; never aired.)

In 1979, Douglas Adams, then script editor for Doctor Who, wrote a story for the show in which the villain disastrously shatters into half a dozen fragments of himself that scatter throughout time. That was “City Of Death,” one of the best serials Doctor Who ever did. Later that year, he wrote another one. This time, the story itself exploded, shattered into half a dozen fragments of itself, and scattered throughout time. That was “Shada,” the great lost story of season 17, a half-filmed serial from Tom Baker’s second-to-last season as the Fourth Doctor. And for a long time, people wondered if it too wouldn’t have been one of the greats. But that was back when it was still lost.

It’s oddly appropriate that the last scene of “Shada” begins with the Doctor reading from Charles Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop, because despite the persistent efforts over the years to give it life again, “Shada” remains, in all its various and contradictory manifestations, just an old curiosity. It’s not awful, mind you. It’s not anywhere near the toxicity level of something like “The Twin Dilemma,” in which the stupidity is actually painful to watch. No, this is just a thinly written, overly formulaic story, with some clever ideas and a smattering of good Adamsian jokes and Bakerian Doctoring stretched out over a lot of boring filler. “Shada” would never have engendered so much interest if Douglas Adams’ name hadn’t been attached to it.

Still, even if it’s mediocre, it’s worth a look. If nothing else, “Shada” is interesting as a bit of complex pop-culture archaeology. There are at least seven versions of “Shada” floating around out there, ranging from complete adaptations to fragmentary scraps.

Originally published Feb. 17, 2013 on avclub.com. Read the complete article.

Review: Stephen Baxter, The Wheel Of Ice

Usually, fans have to be wildly optimistic, if not delusional, to expect quality literature from a line of authorized tie-in novels to a science-fiction TV series. But in recent years, the editors behind the Doctor Who books have been making an effort to overcome skeptics by snaring acclaimed science-fiction authors like Michael Moorcock, Alastair Reynolds, and Stephen Baxter to put their own stamp on the adventures of the time-traveling vagabond. Baxter tells a new story about an old Doctor with The Wheel Of Ice, which features Patrick Troughton’s Second Doctor in an adventure set during the TV show’s sixth season, in 1969.

Baxter earned his reputation for the rigorously constructed hard-SF Xeelee Sequence books, but he’s no stranger to happily jumping on someone else’s train—besides his recent collaboration with Terry Pratchett on The Long Earth, he’s written an authorized sequel to H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, and co-authored a trilogy set after 2001: A Space Odyssey with Arthur C. Clarke. Baxter takes the TARDIS controls with similar respect for the original source material, which is one of The Wheel Of Ice’s chief strengths. Troughton was Baxter’s childhood Doctor, and Baxter’s enthusiasm for the era is palpable. The book fits his serious approach to emphasizing the science in “science fiction” particularly well—although the Second Doctor era was hardly rigorous about that sort of thing, its enthusiasm for futuristic ideas like space travel was based in part on the idea that someday, humanity’s real future might look like the one it was showing us. Baxter’s Xeelee stories are filled with well-thought-out, sometimes arcane explorations of astrophysics and xenobiology, and although he tones that down to a less mind-bending degree with Wheel, it’s good to see some thought put into Doctor Who’s alien worlds beyond the superficial, timey-wimey, hand-waving level the series often settles for.

Wheel hits the ground running with an engaging, breezy first half, as the Doctor investigates an enigmatic, dangerous hole in time near the Wheel, a mining base orbiting Saturn. In spite of the exotic setting, his Companions Zoe Heriot and Jamie McCrimmon quickly feel at home—the former because she grew up on a similar space station and the Wheel is actually part of her own history, and the latter because the Wheel is populated by Scots like himself, with whom he feels a strong camaraderie, even though they were born hundreds of years after he was. But all is not well. The harsh conditions on Saturn are made worse by the profit-motivated tyranny of the Wheel’s corporate masters. That, in turn, is causing grumblings of revolt from the station’s young people and working poor, along with mysterious, deadly acts of sabotage. In classic Doctor Who tradition, the Doctor and friends are falsely accused of the crimes upon their arrival, and must find the real culprits: android-like “Blue Dolls” who serve the same alien entity responsible for the hole in time. That being, called Arkive, is older than the solar system, and aches for the days of its youth in a way that’s more than a little insane, not to mention hostile toward the unsuspecting humans it thinks of as usurpers.

Baxter nails one of the basic elements of any book like this one, capturing the voices of his three main characters with such precision that Troughton is almost audible in the Doctor’s lines. Baxter is especially good at seeing through Zoe and Jamie’s perspectives, going beyond using them as placeholder heroes, and getting at what makes them tick. Jamie’s rugged heroism and desire to protect people comes to the fore when he shepherds a group of young rebels who flee to a nearby ice moon. And Zoe has to confront the unsavory side of her own history as she learns that her own advanced civilization was founded on the near-slavery conditions on the Wheel. Baxter has mixed success with his secondary characters, creating a compellingly well-rounded portrait of a family divided by the growing political revolt, but an annoyingly one-dimensional shrew in the book’s main human antagonist, Florian Hart, a corporate greedmonger oozing with angry contempt.

Still, the first half of Wheel Of Ice is tremendously promising, setting up a smart, engaging mystery that feels like a genuine artifact of 1969 Doctor Who. That only makes it more frustrating that the second half is botched so badly by an underwhelming finale. Baxter seems to lose interest entirely in Arkive’s aeons-long scheme in favor of a hackneyed confrontation with Hart involving some truly hoary clichés concerning a ticking time bomb and the color of the wire that should be cut to defuse it. Worse, genius-astrophysicist Zoe has no part in the resolution; Baxter sidelines her so she can babysit a 3-year-old. It’s a disappointing fumble to an otherwise satisfying read.

Originally published Jan. 14, 2013 on avclub.com. Read the complete article.

Review: Gareth Roberts/Douglas Adams, Shada

Charles Dickens has The Mystery Of Edwin Drood. Bruce Lee has Game Of Death. And for Doctor Who and Douglas Adams, the great unfinished story is Shada. A six-part serial scripted by the Hitchhikers’ Guide To The Galaxy author while he was screenplay editor for the venerable science-fiction TV series in 1980, Shada was meant to be the grand finale of Doctor Who’s 17th season, but strikes at the BBC halted filming halfway through, and scuttled the story. Since then, it’s grown to mythological proportions in its own absence, with a reputation as a tantalizingly incomplete fragment of unfulfilled potential.

Like a ghost, Shada has refused to stay quietly dead, popping up in fragmentary or much-reworked versions over the years. Most famously, clips of Tom Baker and Lalla Ward in character as the time-traveling Fourth Doctor and his companion Romana were used in the 1983 anniversary special “The Five Doctors,” and in 1992, Baker provided linking narration when the surviving footage was released on video. In 2003, Paul McGann starred as the Eighth Doctor in a rewritten, partly animated audio version.

Adams himself cannibalized Shada for his 1987 novel Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, after which he washed his hands of it, saying the episode was “not that great” and refusing to put his name on the video release, which he claimed had been authorized by mistake. (“Whoever it was had forgotten that I wanted Shada sat on.”) His sudden death in 2001 sunk any lingering hope that he might eventually write a proper novel version, and it became, instead, unique among Doctor Who’s sizable array of missing adventures, as the only one from a writer of Douglas’ caliber not at least available as a novelization.

Now Shada is back in another regeneration, as a novel authorized by Adams’ estate and penned by Gareth Roberts, a frequent writer for the current TV series. It’s a respectful, even loving adaptation of the original scripts, and Roberts takes pains to try to recreate the spirit of the Adams era of Doctor Who, when it was often something like a cosmic screwball comedy. And other than fleshing out the underwritten side characters, he sticks very closely to Adams’ plot, which—ironically enough—revolves around a lost book.

Originally published June 25, 2012 on avclub.com. Read the complete article.

TV Club: Doctor Who, “Destiny Of The Daleks”

“Destiny Of The Daleks” (season 17, episodes 1-4. Originally aired Sept. 1-22, 1979)

Just going by pedigree of the writers involved, “Destiny Of The Daleks” should be a lot better than it is. It marked the final Doctor Who script from Terry Nation, one of the series’ oldest and most reliable writers and the creator of the Daleks. The story also marked the debut—as script editor—of the inimitable Douglas Adams, who had written “The Pirate Planet” for season 16 the year before and was now taking over the big chair. And “Destiny Of The Daleks” was a huge success at the time, setting new viewership records for the series along with the following story, “City Of Death”—both helped a lot by a strike that had taken the BBC’s main competitor, ITV, out of action. But although there’s a lot to enjoy here, especially in the early episodes, in the end the story fizzles out. It’s dragged down chiefly by a revisionist take on the Daleks and their creator Davros that makes both less interesting and fails to build on the promise of their previous appearance in “Genesis Of The Daleks.” It’s sunk further by miring the pepperpots in a stalemate with a deadly dull army of alien robots, the Movellans, who look something like Milli Vanilli in white disco outfits.

Most of what works well here is loaded in the first half of the story, so let’s start there.

Originally published May 13, 2012 on avclub.com. Read the complete article.

Interview: Dylan Hicks

Dylan Hicks first made his name in the 1990s as a musician, writing a bushelful of witty, sharply observant songs on his albums Won, Poughkeepsie, and Alive With Pleasure. And although he’s reinvented himself as a fiction writer, the love of music still plays a key role in Hicks’ new debut novel, Boarded Windows. Moving between the 1970s and 1990s, Windows tells the story of an erudite but socially hapless record-store clerk and his conflicted relationship with Wade Salem, his con-artist father figure and one-time bass player for fictional country-music star Bolling Greene. Hicks hosts a launch party for Boarded Windows May 10 at the Loft Literary Center and a record-release show for a companion album, Dylan Hicks Sings Bolling Greene, May 12 at Bryant-Lake Bowl. He talked to The A.V. Club about writing his novel, returning to songwriting, and crossing the line between truth and fiction.

Originally published May 9, 2012 on avclub.com. Read the complete article.

TV Club Doctor Who: 24: City of Death

“City Of Death” (season 17, episodes 5-8. Originally aired Sept. 29-Oct. 20, 1979)

Today’s stop on our nonchronological journey through Doctor Who brings us to somewhere close to the end of the second major period of the Fourth Doctor era. The most obvious way to mark changes in the series over the years is simply by which actor is playing the main character, but Baker’s seven years in the role, longer than anyone else, spans three distinct periods, more or less. There were always many other forces helping to shape Who, whether that was external ones like the 1960s Dalek craze or competition from shows like The Avengers and Batman, or internal ones like the changes in creative vision brought in whenever a new producer or script editor took over. I’ve already covered two serials from Baker’s first period (“The Brain of Morbius” and “The Talons of Weng-Chiang”), when horror-friendly Phillip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes were the creative leads behind-the-scenes. (Baker’s debut, “Robot,” is really more of a holdover from the Third Doctor creative team of Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks.) The third section begins in Baker’s last season, with the ascendancy of producer John Nathan-Turner, who would steer the ship like a slow-motion car crash through nine years and four Doctors, before flying his metaphorical “Mission Accomplished” banner with the series’ cancellation in 1989.

Originally published Jan. 8 on avclub.com. Read the complete article.

Review: Terry Pratchett, Snuff

British fantasy author Terry Pratchett has spent nearly his entire career writing about the Discworld, a pancake-shaped land carried on the back of a giant cosmic turtle. Over the decades, his Discworld series has blossomed from a clever Douglas Adams-style parody of the sword-and-sorcery genre into a broad-ranging social satire that uses jokes about wizards and trolls to deliver sage observations about the human experience. Snuff is the 39th installment; this incredibly long run is made more incredible by Pratchett’s consistently high level of craftsmanship and creativity, especially his clear, warmly wise, sly prose style.

Originally published Oct. 26, 2011 on avclub.com. Read the complete article.

Review: Lawrence Block, Getting Off

New York writer Lawrence Block is best-known these days as a master of hardboiled crime fiction, with a diverse collection of noir series characters, including alcoholic gumshoe Matt Scudder, charming thief Bernie Rhodenbarr, and lonely but terminally professional hit man Keller. In his early career, though, he also wrote under a plethora of pseudonyms, including Jill Emerson, credited with seven novels of steamy lesbian erotica. He was young, he needed the work, but he wasn’t ashamed—in fact, he later republished at least one of the Emersons under his real name. Block picks up the Emerson identity again—sort of, anyway, since his own name is far larger on the cover—for Getting Off, the first hardcover published by stylish indie imprint Hard Case Crime, which specializes in classic reprints and new (but hardly virginal) works of gleefully sleazy old-school paperback pulp fiction.

Getting Off covers the same unabashedly tawdry territory as Emerson’s older oeuvre, with a twist worthy of Jim Thompson: The nymphomaniacal, blonde protagonist is also a sociopathic serial killer who drifts from town to town murdering her many men, motivated by lingering rage and abandonment issues left over from father/daughter incest that spilled over into patricide. Deceptively innocent, Kit Tolliver isn’t just a sex maniac (and remorseless knife-wielding maniac), she’s a pathological liar who changes her name and life story with unnerving ease to lull her victims. Reflecting her rootless existence, Getting Off unfolds chapter by chapter like a series of linked short stories, in each of which she meets and disposes of a new man. She’s icy and clinical about murder, but constantly overheated about sex. Aimless, she picks up some semblance of a life goal (and the novel picks up the threads of its loosely woven plot) when she realizes that of all the men she’s had, five have survived—which is unforgivably sloppy of her, and ought to be corrected.

With the same skill he’s shown in his more mainstream work, Block slowly ratchets up the intensity and violence, using each successive murder either to give a deeper glimpse into Kit’s twisted psyche, or push her one step further toward her psychotic but somehow distortedly logical goal. He also accomplishes the same trick Thompson often pulled of planting readers inside his killer’s mind just enough to understand her without sympathy, as well as Richard Stark’s trick of treating criminal behavior as just a job to be worked. And as with Thompson’s books, there’s a thick layer of dark humor bubbling throughout the swamp of Kit’s messed-up psychology—the street-smart but undereducated Kit mistakes a reference to Shakespeare’s Goneril for “gonorrhea,” and also encounters a kinky but violently untrustworthy threesome-seeking couple apparently named after Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.

Emerson/Block writes about killing and the sex with such shameless relish that it would be foolish to even suggest this is anything but exploitative trash. Especially when the phenomenally lurid cover art so accurately reflects what happens under the dust jacket. John Waters would love this book, and would be perfect to direct any future film version. Some trash can also be high art, but Block probably isn’t even trying for anything loftier here than entertaining sleaze. But for exploitative trash, it’s excellently crafted and lean.

Originally posted on avclub.com Sept. 21, 2011. Read the complete article.

Harry Potter live chat


Earlier today, I met with fans of the Harry Potter series for a live chat on MSNBC.com to discuss the final movie, the differences between the books and the films, and the future of the series. The chat’s over now, but you can see a transcript of it here.

Review: Nick Mamatas, Sensation

In his 2004 debut novel, Move Under Ground, Nick Mamatas handled what could have been a gimmicky premise—a fight for the soul of America between H.P. Lovecraft’s evil chaos god Cthulhu and a ragtag crew of Beat writers led by Jack Kerouac—with intelligence, depth, and wit. Unfortunately, he’s on considerably shakier ground in his third novel, Sensation, which fumbles to an unfocused conclusion after a strong beginning.

Sensation’s central idea spins off from one of biology’s creepier parasitic relationships: the Costa Rican wasp Hymenoepimecis, which plants its eggs in a living victim, a spider of the genus Plesiometa, then chemically alters the spider’s behavior so it willingly builds a nest for the larvae that will eat it alive. Mamatas takes that a step further, imagining a secret war between the arthropods that has spilled over into our realm. Although the conflict has been raging for thousands of years, the humans are completely unaware of it, thanks to the Matrix-like machinations of the spiders, who have been keeping understandably quiet about the fact that they’re actually a collective superintelligence with long-term plans for a forcible symbiotic relationship with Homo sapiens. Both species envenom human minds for their own purposes; the wasps inspire anarchy and chaos, while the spiders seek conformity and control. Colonies of the arachnids observe and influence history in disguise, riding in the hollowed-out heads of artificially constructed “men of indeterminate ethnicity.”

The spiders’ carefully guarded secrecy is thrown into jeopardy when their wasp enemies sting an ordinary middle-class New York City woman, Julia Hernandez. The wasp venom is just as bizarrely potent on humans as spiders, and it wreaks profound changes in Julia’s personality. Without knowing she’s changing, Julia transforms into a radically different person, with anarchist politics and a brutally direct penchant for cutting right to the point. In Sensation’s most potent sequence, Julia leaves her husband Ray at gunpoint in the middle of sex, cruelly refusing to give a reason because “I like the idea that your stomach just turned to concrete.” With no apparent plan in mind, she becomes the catalyst of a nationwide movement of Dada-esque hipster anarchists, then murders a rich capitalist and turns fugitive. Ray watches this from afar in helpless confusion; the spiders view it with dispassionate alarm, certain it’s a new skirmish in the millennia-old deathlock with their insect enemies.

It’s a compelling setup worthy of Philip K. Dick, and Julia’s horrifying transformation seems like a promising jumping-off point for Mamatas to explore how biology affects the big questions of whether there’s any such thing as free will or a single “self.” Is Julia a helpless pawn driven insane by forces beyond her comprehension, or her own true self for the first time?

But after a strong first 50 pages, Mamatas doesn’t seem to know where to take his story. Julia’s anarchist revolution bogs down in annoying stunts and tired twists on Internet catchphrases, leading one bored sheriff to yawn that “there ain’t no criminal statutes against being tedious.” A mid-novel revelation of the wasps’ true motivations drains the book of any further dramatic potential, and even seems hostile to the idea of striving for positive change against oppression. Weirdly, Sensation throws its most caustic satiric barbs at hipster poseurs, not the near-totalitarian aims of the spiders, which comes across as if Mamatas has switched allegiances this time, from Kerouac to Cthulhu.

Originally published May 19, 2011 on avclub.com. Read the complete article.

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