October 29th, 2006

doctor who

City of Death

Diehard fan though I am, my family was living in the Netherlands in 1979-80 and so I have never seen any of Season Seventeen ("Destiny of the Daleks", "City of Death", "The Creature from the Pit", "Nightmare of Eden", "The Horns of Nimon" and what there is of "Shada"). I have now put this right, as far as I ever intend to, by watching "City of Death", the third Who story to be set in Paris (after "The Reign of Terror" and "The Massacre") but only the first to actually be filmed there, starring the fourth Doctor and the second Romana, very much on top form.

A great deal has been said about this story, so I'll just add that I too liked it; while I still have difficulty deciding between "Genesis of the Daleks" and "The Deadly Assassin" as my favourite story of classic Who, "City of Death" is certainly in my top ten, maybe my top five. Paul Cornell, in the panel that I memorably partly chaired in Dublin in March, singled out Duggan's punch as one of the great moments of Doctor Who, but I'm not sure I can agree: the climactic scenes on the primeval earth actually look a bit naff in comparison to the rest of the story, since they are ostensibly happening outdoors but videotaped rather than filmed. (And as artw pointed out, "Surely the atmosphere would have been unbreathable then?")

And while it would have been nice from a purely plot point of view to have sacrificed some of the padding for a little more exposition at the end, the padding itself is just great to watch. We'll be in Paris next week for a day - looking forward to it!

Edited to add - did anyone else think the incidental music in the first episode had a slight resonace with Gershwin's "An American in Paris"?
earthsea

October Books 13-17) Amber, the first series

13) Nine Princes in Amber, by Roger Zelazny
14) The Guns of Avalon, by Roger Zelazny
15) Sign of the Unicorn, by Roger Zelazny
16) The Hand of Oberon, by Roger Zelazny
17) The Courts of Chaos, by Roger Zelazny

I was prompted to relive this early enthusiasm by Lyn Gardner's thought-provoking article in Strange Horizons, "The Solitary Quest: The Hero's Search for Identity in Roger Zelazny's Amber" which fulfilled all that I ask for in a piece on sf - it helped me better understand what I have already read, and gave me pointers to more pieces that I might enjoy. Gardner's basic argument is that the books are about Corwin's journey to his own new identity, and I completely buy it. I would in fact add a few more pieces of evidence which seem to me to support her thesis.

First off, paths and roads are all over the place. There is, most obviously, the Black Road linking Amber to Chaos. The hell-rides, which I've always felt are the most beautifully descriptive passages in the books, are journeys along paths which may or may not be secure. The Pattern itself is a path that must be followed by the initiate. Indeed, if one thinks about Zelazny's other fiction, journeys and roads are perhaps as prominent in his works as, say landscape in Brian Aldiss. In a fascinatingly weird chapter in the final book, Corwin's jouney becomes overtly entangled with concepts of being, where he encounters a philosophical crow, a submerged nihilistic being, and the dancing Spirits of Time while travelling.

Second, while Corwin experiences his goal through the form of a quest, his brother Random undergoes a similar transition, from homicidal little fink to his father's unchallenged successor, basically by being redeemed through the love of a good woman. doyle_sb4 is hoping against hope that Torchwood doesn't turn out to have that plot but I think it's a perfectly viable alternative, and I think Zelazny thinks so too; but he is telling Corwin's story, not Random's. Lyn Gardner is right, I think, to single out Corwin's conversation with Random's wife Vialle near the start of the fourth book as a crucial turning point - perhaps Zelazny is signalling it by writing himself into the story as a minor character two pages later.

Third, I've reflected before on the role of religion (as opposed to mythology) in Zelazny's work. It is striking that (as Gardner perhaps unwittingly makes clear in her essay) the source of Corwin's character transformation is not love, as in Random's case, but his lengthy sojourn on our planet; and when he draws his new Pattern in the final book, it is memories of Paris (and elsewhere on Earth) that inform him. Zelazny was presumably brought up with some Catholic background (and can hardly have been uninformed about Christianity). Is it stretching matters too far to see some parallels with a divine Son who spent a lifetime on our planet? Of course, the effects and outcome are completely different but I can't help feeling there is something there.

Anyway, apart from those reflections, I enjoyed re-reading the books. There are so many great descriptive passages, and succinct one-liners that I had forgotten. This quote, for instance, from near the beginning:
I like libraries. It makes me feel comfortable and secure to have walls of words, beautiful and wise, all around me. I always feel better when I can see that there is something to hold back the shadows.
There are flaws as well: the consistency of Corwin's genealogical statements is far from perfect, and the retrospective attempts to work out exactly how he comes to be in hospital at the very start of the story make it rather obvious that the author had no idea how he got there either. The means and motivations of the minor characters - especially Bleys, who allies with Corwin, and Caine, who tries to kill him - are not always convincing. And while Zelazny was generally a master at combining banter in contemporary English style with his fantastic background settings, there are one or two points when it slips. Still, I am no longer reading these books as I once did to strip-mine them for information about the setting, I am just reading them for entertainment, and it is a very pleasurable experience.
doctor who

The Moonbase

Sorry for the mucho Doctor Who posting this weekend, a combination of not feeling like doing much else and catching up with stuff I've watched ages ago and never got around to blogging. Anyway this will be a fairly short post.

The Moonbase was a four-part series broadcast just before I was born in 1967. It is set entirely on the Moon, at a base from which the world's weather is controlled; the Doctor and his three companions (Ben and Polly from 1966 and eighteenth-century Jamie) arrive in time to avert the conquest of Earth by the Cybermen their second appearance after The Tenth Planet. It's not easy to watch, because episodes 1 and 3 are lost; in the end I played the soundtrack off my Lost In Time DVD while flicking through the BBC photonovel, and then watched episode 2 and 4 directly.

I have to differ with the fannish consensus that this is better than the Cybermen's previous outing. I found the Cybermen more difficult to understand, the plot implausible even making allowances for scientific hand-waving - the base commander ought to have been shot for his attitude to security - and the direction seems to consit of lots of actors standing around waiting to say their next line.

On the other hand, the look of the sets is pretty good; two years before Armstrong and Aldrin, they do a decent lunar landscape and setting. The incidental music is great. And Troughton is brilliant, though Ben is annoying, Jamie comatose for much of the story, and Polly is repeatedly patronised - noticeably the only female character, told to go and make the coffee, told she can't take part in the final attack as it is "men's work". I don't find myself especially mourning the two missing episodes.