July 15th, 2007

doctor who

The Fourth Doctor audios

The first ever commercially produced Doctor Who audio was the 1976 Argo Records production, Doctor Who and the Pescatons, starring Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen as the Doctor and Sarah Jane Smith. To be honest, it is not fantastic. The plot is ripped off by writer Victor Pemberton from his Second Doctor series Fury from the Deep; there are only three actors (someone playing the villainous leader of the alien Pescatons), and so Baker switches from dialogue to linking narration rather jerkily; too much plot happens off-stage, as it were; and the solution, as he kills off the aliens and destroys their planet, is rather un-Doctor-ish. One for completists like me, but most of you can skip it.

Even more so the much shorter Exploration Earth, also from 1976, an educational radio programme which just has the Doctor and Sarah travelling through time and observing the gradual geological development of the planet Earth, with a chrome alien attempting to disrupt things, who is despatched rather casually at the end.
doctor who

The Wheel In Space; The Krotons

The Wheel In Space was the last episode in Patrick Troughton's second season as the Doctor, introducing Wendy Padbury as Zoe, and with the Cybermen back again. It has a mixed reputation among fans (and I have to admit that the astronomy is drastically inaccurate, and the plot, as so often with Cyberman stories, makes no sense at all), but I really liked it. In particular, I loved the atmosphere and appeaarance of the Wheel itself, a space station with a multi-national crew including psycho boss, sensible woman who is really keeping it all going, and the other various roles - including Zoe herself, brought up to be logical and knowledgeable, but with the Doctor and Jamie opening her mind to other possibilities. (The crew also includes one of Doctor Who's rare overtly Irish characters, Sean Flannigan, played by James Mellor, who also plays a non-Irish alien leader in the first episode of The Mutants; while we're on the subject, the mysterious but vital substance bernalium is named after Irish-born scientist J.D. Bernal.) To describe this as a mere remake of The Moonbase does not do it justice at all; it is what The Moonbase should have been.

And Zoe! Certainly now my favourite pre-Sarah Jane Smith companion. Her first exchange with Jamie is quite hilarious. Since four of the six episodes are missing, I listened to the CDs with linking narration by Wendy Padbury, who played Zoe; she does it fine, though I was not as impressed with the scripting as I have been for some of the others. (The two surviving episodes are on the Lost In Time DVD set.)

The Krotons was shown to us uncomprehending fans in 1981 as part of the Five Faces of Doctor Who season, along with An Unearthly Child, Carnival of Monsters and Logopolis, one for each Doctor to date. The choice was dictated by the fact that it was then the only surviving four-part Troughton story (Tomb of the Cybermen has since been recovered, thank goodness). Unfortunately, in a season which had palpable hits like The Invasion, The War Games and The Mind Robber, this is one of the misses (see The Dominators and The Space Pirates); which is quite surprising when you consider that the writer was Robert Holmes and the director David Maloney - the same team that was later to produce The Deadly Assassin and The Talons of Weng-Chiang. Oh well, one of those occasions aliquando bonus dormitat Homerus, or in this case Homeri. It's difficult to say quite why it doesn't work; the dodgy production values don't help, especially the egg-box monsters with comically spinning heads (apparently, in a Spinal Tap moment, their costumes were made a size too small); but perhaps it fails most notably on the grounds where The Wheel In Space succeeds, that the Gond society just isn't very believable and they look like actors stuck in a futuristic set. There is, however, an amusing Zoe costume malfunction at the start of episode 4 (at about 0:40 in).

That leaves me only The Seeds of Death to go of the entire black and white era. But we're going on holiday next week, so it will be a while before I finish watching it and write it up. (Non-Who fans on the f-list breathe a sigh of relief at this news.)

July Books 25) What Ifs?™ of American History

25) What Ifs?™ of American History, edited by Robert Cowley

I'd read the two previous volumes in this series, which are more global and less American in scope; loved the first one, less impressed by the second. This one concentrates on US history, and is generally pretty good - the one real dud is an essay on "What if Pearl Harbour hadn't happened?" which concludes that nothing would have been very different except that the Pacific War would have been six months late. The other Second World War essay is a bit more exciting but also concludes that it wouldn't have made much difference if Eisenhower had gone for Berlin.

There are no less than four essays on the Civil War, one of which is James McPherson's reprint from the first volume on "What if the South had won?", but the other three taking interesting tacks: one by the dubious Victor Davis Hanson credits Lew Wallace's personal disgrace at the battle of Shiloh with his later creation of the popular epic novel in Ben-Hur; one looking at the potential for insurrection against the Lincoln administration in what we now call the Mid-West, and one speculating (a bit chaotically) about the possibilities for continued insurgency in the context of Andrew Johnson as well as Abraham Lincoln being assassinated.

Two of the pieces are written from the counterfactual perspective first used, I think, by Winston Churchill in his 1931 essay "If Lee had not Won the Battle of Gettysburg". The one on how the Cuban missile crisis turned into a global nuclear war is rather conventional stuff; but Andrew Roberts' piece explaining the origins and course of the 1896 war between the USA and Britain is the pick of the book for me, although I don't quite agree on the likelihood of the US being given Quebec in a peace settlement; much more likely what happened in the 1885 Serbo-Bulgarian War, both sides being returned to the status quo ante.

The other piece that particularly caught my eye was on John Tyler, the first Vice-President to succeed to the Presidency after the death of his running-mate. Tom Wicker points out that Tyler's accession was far from assured by a strict reading of the constitution, and that the policies he pursued in office, in particular on the annexation of Texas, were crucial in their importance to the future of the country and not likely to have been pursued as successfully by any other potential president of the day. Tyler is much more interesting than I had realised, and the story has an exploding cannon as well, which in February 1844 killed numerous senior officials, one of whose grieving daughters found comfort in the arms of the recently widowed President Tyler, who married her four months later. (One of their grandsons is still alive.)

Anyway, a good collection for the history buff.

July Books 26) The Successor

26) The Successor, by Ismail Kadarë

A short but really gripping novel exploring the death of the designated Successor to Albania's Communist ruler (referred to as the Guide); did he shoot himself, or was he murdered? The event referred to is clearly the mysterious death of Mehmet Shehu in December 1981, though Kadarë has changed or invented a lot of the details - it was Shehu's son, not his daughter, who had entered a politically unwise engagement; the date of death was the 17th not the 14th; the party session at which he was denounced was the previous month not the previous day. This is beside the point anyway; Kadarë's point is about the damage the regime did to itself and to its people, and he tells the story from several points of view, including the foreign intelligence analysts trying to understand what had happened, the Successor's daughter (a particularly good passage), the architect who designed his building, and the interior minister suspected of the crime, if crime there was. There is also a fantasy element, of ghosts and mediums, which adds to the sense of layers of reality. A fascinating book.

Facebook friendswheel

I find this fascinating:

Click to Enlarge.

Click to embiggen.

There are three big concentrations, colleagues from my former job at 11-12 o'clock, British Lib Dems at 4-5 o'clock and sf fans at 8-9 o'clock. But there are a few other concentrations I can identify as well; half a dozen ladies from Livejournal at 6 o'clock, relatives at 7-ish, Cambridge friends at 1-ish, Dublin friends at around 10 o'clock. Most of the top right quadrant is either people who didn't fit any of those groups or people who the algorithm somehow couldn't comfortably insert elsewhere where they might have belonged better, and between 3 and 4 o'clock is a peculiar jumble of Brussels contacts, IT sector contacts, Irish political contacts and Patrick Nielsen Hayden.

Is there a similar friends wheel algorithm for livejournal?