September 14th, 2013


Links I found interesting for 14-09-2013



Despite the lack of regular updates, I have been continuing my rewatch of New Who, an episode a day unless other circumstances intervene (eg good weather at the weekend, or taking the car to work so I can't watch on the train). Yesterday I reached the end, so far, of Torchwood, and it's a wet weekend, so it is opportune to write it up properly.

To start with Miracle Day. I had seen only the first couple of episodes when it was first broadcast - summer holidays are not a great time for me to catch up with new shows, what with travel disrupting my usual routine - and it rather failed to grab me. Episode 2, in particular, is almost entirely about a transatlantic plane flight and seemed almost as long, though of course it is only 50 minutes, and then I think I just lost interest partway through episode 3.

It's worth persevering with. Episode 5 (of the ten) is where it really catches fire, if you will excuse the metaphor, with wild sex and pyrotechnics; from then on, Jack and Gwen, with new American colleagues Rex and Esther from the CIA, and orbited uneasily by child-murderer Oswald and various others, try to discover who is behind the sudden absence of death from the world, to an eventual dramatic showdown simultaneously in Argentina and China. It's a global reach for the longest single chunk of narrative in the Whoniverse (unless you count Season 16). I would add that, apart from Episode 3 where I stalled first time round, my favourite parts were those written or co-written by Jane Espenson.

It also sees Torchwood come closest to the core concept of some of the best Who stories - the charming quasi-immortal hero, with his girl sidekick from a different culture, helps a small team of dedicated locals to confront the sinister forces of Big Business and government. Of course it isn't quite the same as Who - it turns out that Jack's long-ago relationship with an Italian chap is part of the key to the problem - but it does tick some of the boxes as well as providing entertaining script, acting and effects. The very last words are one of Jack's new American friends asking him, "What the hell did you do to me?" and the viewer who has enjoyed the accelerating rollercoaster of the last few episodes may well ask the same.

These are not the last words of Torchwood, however. Concurrent with Miracle Day, an interactive app for iPhones and iPads was released called Web of Lies, which features two parallel stories told through animated webcasts similar to those the BBC did in 2001-03: Gwen and Jack in an adventure in 2007 which takes them to Chernobyl, and a 2011 plot which brings a young woman investigating her brother's shooting in Los Angeles, to Coney Island for a showdown with the allies of the bad guys from Miracle Day.

I haven't worked out how to get access to the various walled garden app stores so as to get the full value of the interactive games, but the narrative bits of the episodes are bootlegged on Youtube, and watching them gives an eerie feeling of nostalgia for the old bootlegged Doctor Who videos. The very last words of Torchwood, so far, are "I'd figure out something else", spoken by none other than Eliza Dushku, who is the lead guest star, and as always excellent in a not hugely stretching role.

I previously wrote up the first two seasons of Torchwood in the course of this rewatch (1a, 1b, 2a, 2b), and also wrote up Children of Earth when it was first broadcast (to great debate). I would urge Torchwood fans to also seek out the seven radio plays (1, 2-4, 5-7) - particularly the first (Lost Souls, by Joe Lidster) which despite dodgy science gives a certain closure to Toshiko and Owen, and the last (The House of the Dead, by the ever-reliable James Goss) which does the same for Ianto. I have listened to them again in sequence with the TV programmes as part of my rewatch (more on this when I have finished the entire exercise, which will be in about a month at current rate of progress).

I'd also like to flag up the Torchwood books, which I think are the most consistent in quality of any of the post-2005 ranges of Whoniverse novels (the best of all, of course, are the Brilliant Book annuals). I particularly enjoyed, well, anything by James Goss, but especially First Born, which is set between Children of Earth and Miracle Day and may therefore not be as accessible to non-fans. More casual browsers should try Border Princes by Dan Abnett and Slow Decay by Andy Lane, both set during the first season, to see if this is their cup of tea. The direct-to-audio stories are also good, with again a shout-out to James Goss for Ghost Train.

So after all that, was Torchwood worthwhile? I can't match the eloquence of Philip Sandifer, who has chronicled how Torchwood mapped the beginning and end of his marriage, but I share his defensiveness of the project; taking the Whoniverse concept but bringing it closer to the X-Files and Buffy in execution, with a decent ensemble cast, is not a stupid idea, and when it is good (Out of Time, Adam, the P.J. Hammond episodes, Children of Earth, the second half of Miracle Day) I find it very good television indeed; also as noted above I like the audio plays, and find the spinoff books and audiobooks to be generally pretty good quality. On the other hand, I must admit that the low points (End of Days, Fragments) are worse than any of the low points of either New Who proper or the Sarah Jane Adventures. Of course, part of that is about having high expectations, which is never a bad thing. And if we were to judge all of Old Who by The Twin Dilemma, we probably wouldn't be having this conversation.

September Books 6) Just War, by Lance Parkin

At a quarter to seven on June twenty-eighth, the Germans attacked. I was there, most of us were. It was Friday, the warmest evening of the year. We were just coming back from church and Mayor Sherwill was making a speech on Smith Street, trying to reassure everyone. There was a droning noise, a squeal, and then a thud. We’d never heard a sound like it before, so we didn’t realize at first that the Germans were bombing the harbour.
This is a New Adventure with the Seventh Doctor, Benny, Ros and Chris, with flashbacks to the Seventh Doctor's travels with Mel (which have never merited a full-length spinoff novel of their own). I realised about a qurter of the way in that I had heard an audio adaptation of it several years ago, one of the very first Big Finish audios about Benny, with her husband Jason replacing most of the other regular characters. The audio was good, but the book is also very good; too many Second World War stories, and not just in the Whoniverse, reach for easy cliches, and although the nastiest characters here are German and the nicest (apart from regulars) are Brits, there is a decent level of ambiguity all the way thorugh - including about the Doctor's role. Ros in particular gets some good moments as an authoritative black woman officer impacting the establishment in London, and poor Benny gets some nasty torture at the hands of the occupiers of Guernsey. The New Adventures seem to have been passing through a good phase generally at this point, in early 1996, though the end must have been already looming.

September Books 7) A Murder Is Announced, by Agatha Christie

[Miss Marple said:] “Fifteen years ago one knew who everybody was. The Bantrys in the big house - and the Hartnells and the Price Ridleys and the Weatherbys... They were people whose fathers and mothers and grandfathers and grandmothers, or whose aunts and uncles, had lived there before them. If somebody new came to live there, they brought letters of introduction, or they'd been in the same regiment or served on the same ship as someone there already. If anybody new - really new - really a stranger - came, well, they stuck out - everybody wondered about them and didn't rest till they found out. But it's not like that any more. Every village and small country place is full of people who've just come and settled there without any ties to bring them. The big houses have been sold, and the cottages have been converted and changed. And people just come - and all you know about them is what they say of themselves. They've come, you see, from all over the world. People from India and Hong Kong and China, and people who lived in France and Italy, in cheap places and quaint islands. And also those who made some money and could retire. But no one knows any longer who's who...”
And that, thought [Inspector] Craddock, was exactly the source of his trouble. He didn't know. They were all just faces and personalities vouched for by rationing and I.D. cards... well-printed but without photographs or fingerprints. You could get an I.D. for the asking - and partly due to this the subtle ties that hold the structure of the rural society together were loosening. In a city nobody knows their neighbours; neither in the country, but sometimes you have the illusion that you do.
In my current run of Agatha Christies, this is the first I've read from after the second world war, and I must say I found it very interesting. It combines a particularly ingenious plot with some fascinating, if somewhat wrong-headed, social commentary. Christie puts words in her characters' mouths which suggest that she feels the world is going to pot as a result of the upheavals during and after the war (in a way that she doesn't do so much for the aftermath of the First World War; she was born in 1890 so experienced both in adulthood), and the story - the first murder being that of a Swiss immigrant - seems to be an indictment of how the general decay of morals in society works itself out in a specific case of corruption of the outwardly very respectable murderer. There is also another character who is a refugee from Nazi atrocity, and appears at first to be a complete stereotype but actually turns out to be one of the most helpful in solving the mystery.

Another point which is very deserving of note: the book features what I understand to be the most overtly gay couple in any of Christie's works. The omniscient narrator speculates as little about the sex lives of Miss Hinchliffe and Miss Murgatroyd as about any of the other characters, but it's pretty obvious what is going on, and it really takes some colossal blinkers to claim otherwise. And it's an absolutely clear statement from Christie, in 1950; true, the characters are somewhat stereotyped (though nothing like as badly as Mitzi the maid) but their treatment by the author is entirely sympathetic, and their relationship is accepted without comment by everyone else in the village.

This is also the only Agatha Christie novel which I've seen adapted for the stage. (I have seen The Mousetrap, but that is based on a short story which has not been published in the UK.) Back in February 1981, the newly reopened Grand Opera House in Belfast hosted the stage adaptation by Leslie Darbon, starring Hazel Bainbridge (mother of Kate O'Mara) as Miss Marple. I remember that both she and Margaret Ashcroft (niece of Peggy Ashcroft) who played the lady in whose living-room the murder takes place, were pretty impressive to my thirteen-year-old judgement. I didn't remember the names of the actresses, but was delighted to find that the programme book is preserved online. I see that the lesbian couple are dropped from the stage play, along with a number of other extraneous characters; my memory is that the climax is Miss Marple snatching away the covering for the murderer's embarrassing scar, and then explaining it all at slightly too great a length to maintain the dramatic tension.

Gosh, it's interesting to look at advertisements in a Belfast theatre programme in 1981. It's very nostalgic to see that Robinson and Cleaver have the best spot, inside the front cover, but it didn't stop them closing three years later. I see that the Carriage Restaurant, located in the railway station at Helen's Bay, was offering "French, Jewish and Italian" specialties; I wonder how adventurous the Grand Opera House's clientele were in those days. (In a fit of curiosity I googled what had happened to the chef; he moved to Gloucestershire to breed Afghans, and the business was taken over by Michael Deane, who is still one of Belfast's best known restaurateurs.)

In 1950, "fifteen years ago" seemed like a completely different era (as Miss Marple actually says). The stage adaptation specifies the setting as being not 1950 but "Agatha Christie time". It's very weird to reflect that the story, published in 1950, was less than half its present age when I saw it at the Grand Opera House in 1981. Has the world changed more since 1981 than in the previous 31 years? I think so.