October 28th, 2006

politics

My new job

I decided when I started blogging that, since I am a public figure (at least in some countries), there was no point in embracing anonymity at the risk of being exposed; so my real name has been clear here from the start. But I also decided that I would only rarely write unlocked (or even locked) entries here about my job, or work-related stuff.

As a nod to transparency, I am now making it public that I am leaving my current job at the end of this year, and joining a new organisation as head of their Brussels office. I have been in my current position for four and a half years, in the course of which I have expanded my area of operations from the Western Balkans to include also Moldova, Cyprus and the three South Caucasus states.

But I have been on the lookout for a role which would involve more of the advocacy activities which I most enjoy about my present job, and less of the grind of production of research reports, which I don't enjoy doing so much. It also occurs to me more and more that those of us who are working in international politics, and not doing anything about Africa, have to ask ourselves why. I myself became a Balkanist largely by accident.

Thus the move. My new geographical focus will be simultanously more global, but also more concentrated in the countries where I am working; the new organisation currently has a client in Europe and two in Africa, so I am getting up to speed with the literature relating to my new responsibilities. Also on the lookout for office space in Brussels, preferably a bit closer to the European quarter than my current Avenue Louise location.

Come the new year, the number of work-related posts here will certainly decrease still further from the current low level - but that doesn't mean that there will be none at all!


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doctor who

The Caves of Androzani

Using the weekend to catch up with three classic bits of TV I have rewatched recently, and never got around to writing up here.

First up is "The Caves of Androzani", a Doctor Who story first broadcast in 1984. It was the last story to feature the fifth Doctor, Peter Davison, and is generally rated as the best of Davison's 20 televised adventures by quite some way (the dynamic rankings site has it at #7 out of 186 Who stories from 1963 to 2006, with the next best-rated Davison story, "Earthshock", at #34 and only "The Five Doctors" otherwise making the top fifty).

It's a story with curious links to the old and the new. The writer was Robert Holmes, responsible also for some of the greatest Doctor Who stories of the Tom Baker era - "The Ark in Space", "The Deadly Assassin", and "The Talons of Weng Chiang"; sadly this was the last time he wrote for the show. But the director was Graeme Harper, who came back to direct four of this year's episodes (the ones with the Cybermen). It's a dynamite combination.

The story: The Doctor and his new companion, Peri, arrive on Androzani Minor, a planet where a resource-extraction company from Androzani Major, backed by government forces, is under attack from android guerillas. The boss of the company, Morgus, and the leader of the androids, Sharaz Jek, are both villains, but nicely sketched - Jek falls in love with Peri, and is at least fighting for a cause, whereas Morgus, if a bit more two-dimensional, redeems himself by making frequent asides to the camera - it shouldn't work, but it does.

Two out of three episodes end in brilliant cliff-hangers - the Doctor faces execution by firing squad at the end of ep 1 (as did the Second Doctor at the end of the first ep of his last story, "The War Games"); and at the end of episode 3, as the poisoned and dying Doctor seizes control of a spaceship whose pilot threatens to shoot him if he doesn't turn it round, he replies "Not a very persuasive argument, actually, Stotz, because I'm going to die soon anyway... I'm not going to let you stop me now!" There's very nearly more drama in that line than in the rest of Davison's era put together.

I've seen the view expressed elsewhere that this could easlily have been a Fourth Doctor/Sarah Jane, or a Third Doctor/Jo Grant story. I don't know about that. I think that there is something peculiarly Thatcherite in the relations between Morgus and the Androzani Major government. As far as I remember the only other Holmes story featuring resistance fighters against the capitalist exploiters of resources is "The Power of Kroll", his last and least impressive Tom Baker story, so it was good to see him revisit the theme so triumphantly here; and I'm straining to think of any other Who story with a twin-planet arrangement, surely a little inspired by Ursula Le Guin's The Dispossessed.

Anyway, it's very good, although I think its looks were improved at the time by the fact that the surrounding stories are simply not of the same quality (the story immediately following was Colin Baker's first, "The Twin Dilemma", which is currently - and likely to remain - in last place on the Dynamic Rankings scale).
buzz

The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy

I spotted the two-disc English language DVD version of this going cheap in the local FNAC and bought it about a month ago. I'm one of the diehard fans of the original 1978-80 radio series, and will accept no substitutes, but there are some good bits in this televised 1981 version.

In particular, David Dixon is actually a better Ford Prefect than Geoffrey McGivern was. He confidently conveys a sense of alienness, and he makes the most of the rather boring scenes in the Vogon freighter at the end of the first episode. (Compare Fit the First of the radio series, where even his fans must admit that McGivern starts off sounding shrill and unsure.)

The other thing that works really well is, of course, the Book - the superb animations of the entries in the Hitch-Hiker's Guide, backed up by Peter Jones' narration - the one point where televising simply could not mean pointing a camera at actors reciting the lines in a stage setting. The combination of graphics and cameos - Douglas Adams himself stripping off and disappearing into the sea, the two unspeaking drinkers of the Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster - are almost without exception brilliant.

There are some tremendously naff bits as well. Rather surprisingly, Simon Jones as Arthur Dent seems to spend a lot of time standing around as if he is waiting to be told what to do. Zaphod's extra head is simply embarrassing. The departures in script from the radio series (with perhaps the exceptions of the Dish of the Day, and the Disaster Area graphics, both of which had already featured in the novels) are not usually improvements.

One particularly weird bit of interaction is the chemistry between Trillian and Zaphod. In their first scene, when they hear the radio annoucner quote Eccentrica Gallumbits' description of Zaphod as "the best bang since the Big One", he and Trillian exchange what looks to me like a knowing smile. But then at the end of the fourth episode, when it looks like they are all going to be killed by the Magrathean computer banks exploding, Zaphod and Ford shake hands and sing a song, leaving Arthur and Trillian to look aghast and, in her case, very much alone. More could and should have been made of her character; she seems just a clothes-horse for skimpy red costumes. No big criticism of Sandra Dickinson intended - like Susan Sheridan in the radio series, she just isn't given much to work with.

Still, this was worth the (low) price I paid for it - especially the documentary clips on the second disc, which do add quite a lot.
politics

I, CLAVDIVS

I've already written several entries about this while we were wacthing it, but it really is fantastic. It's a 1976 BBC dramatisation of Robert Graves' two novels, I, Claudius (1934) and Claudius the God (1935), and deserves to be even higher than 12th on the list of 100 greatest British TV shows of all time. It's almost twenty years since I read Graves' novels; but I re-read his primary source material much more recently, so some of this was fresh in my mind. And I also vividly remember seeing the "Not my HEAD!" episode when I was 12 or 13 (and living in the Netherlands).

This really is excellent stuff, and it's a bit of a shame (as with many of these older programmes) to watch it one episode a night for a couple of weeks, rather than one episode a week for three months as the makers intended. It means you pick up a bit more than necessary on the differential rates of aging among the main characters - Tiberius, for instance, shifts well from aspiring princeling to debauched old emperor, but Augustus as an old man just looks like a young man with make-up. And Caligula and Messalina are not quite young enough for the parts (John Hurt was 36 when it was filmed, Caligula 29 when he died; Messalina is clearly intended to be a teenager though Sheila White was 28); while Antonia starts off too old.

But it is easy to suspend your disbelief. In particular, it's impossible to take your eyes off the two leads (who both won BAFTA awards) - Siân Philips as Augustus' wife Livia, who poisons her way anguishedly through the first few episodes, and then Derek Jacobi as her grandson Claudius, watching in horror as the reigns of Tiberius and Caligula degenerate, and even more horror-struck when he ends up as Emperor himself. It's all really good, even some of the minor characters - particular kudos to Ashley Knight who plays Claudius as a young boy, complete with twitch and stammer.

It's startling to realise how close it is to the source material in places. Suetonius actually records the correspondence between Augustus and Livia about what the heck they were going to do with Claudius - as the imperial archivist a century later, he presumably had access to the original documents and didn't just make it up. There's a really good internet resource comparing the TV series with the actual historical facts (as far as they are known) here. My one regret is that I bought the Dutch-language version of the DVDs rather than the English version, which apparently has lots of brilliant extras.
doctor who

The Three Doctors

Oh dear. It's pretty dire. The anti-matter monsters are either laughable video effects or men in not-very-threatening rubber suits. The quarry is a quarry. There is a character who is funny because he is working class. There is a human scientist with glasses and a white coat who contributes nothing except to get zapped by the monsters. The Brigadier is at his most nitwittish. Jo is at her most annoying. The incidental music is at its most cliched and intrusive. The quarry is evidently a quarry.

There are some good bits too. The Time Lords' control centre, and Omega's palace, are nicely designed sets which add credibility to the thin plot. The bickering between Two and Three is a delight. Even One, from within his pyramid, is pretty authoritative, though there is one scene where Hartnell has to keep looking across at his cue cards. The scene where it is revealed that Omega has no body left is very good, but fatally undermined by the fact that we have clearly seen Stephen Thorne's chin in silhouette in the previous shot. The Brigadier does get one good line, when he first enters the TARDIS and says to Two, "So this is what you've been doing with UNIT funds and equipment all this time!"

But on the whole it's pretty dire. John Williams points out, on the excellent Behind the Sofa group blog, that the Target novelisation by Terrance Dicks was way better, especially the dismally executed cliff-hanger to episode 3 where Three rolls around on the ground briefly with a guy in a rubber mask. I think since I started re-watching old Doctor Who series this is the least impressive one I have seen. Best avoided unless (like me) you are a completist. Get the idea by reading this summary.


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