doctor who

The Macra Terror, animation, recon and novel; and Gridlock

I got the new animated reconstruction of The Macra Terror (the last complete Doctor Who story shown before I was born, all of whose episodes have been lost) a few weeks ago, and finally got around to watching it last weekend - our last weekend before the lockdown, as it turned out. I prepared for it the weekend before by listening to the audio version, with Colin Baker's narration as scripted by John Nathan Turner, which I put on in the car as I drove to and from visiting B in her home - which looks like it will be the last time I see her for a while. When I first listened to the audio in 2007, I wrote:
The Macra Terror ... sounds absolutely glorious (even if fan lore has it that the evil crustaceans themselves looked rather crap), indeed I almost felt it would have fitted comfortably in to 1980s Who rather than 1960s Who. While the idea of aliens controlling an apparently happy and contented human society did eventually become a cliche, here it was all brand new - I think the only previous Who story to feature the concept was the second episode of The Keys of Marinus (though I haven't checked, and if I'm wrong someone will point it out). The "happy campers" sound exhorting the colonists to enjoyment as well as slave labour is genuinely chilling; I'm not surprised to learn that writer Ian Stuart Black had input into The Prisoner, which started its broadcast run a few months later. And ... I'll put a good word in for Michael Craze as Ben, victim of brainwashing by the evil crustacean overlords, whose character transformations are entirely convincing.

Unfortunately I can't say the same for Colin Baker's narration. I don't blame Baker (much) for this. For some reason the narration is entirely in the past tense, rather than in the present tense used by most Doctor Who audio releases; it also curiously fails to set the scene very well - take, for example, the very first lines: "The entrance to the colony was decidedly futuristic. A crowd of workers was watching a drum majorette performing to the accompaniment of a band. The whole place had the aura of a holiday camp. Everyone was smiling and enjoying the performance." Not only does it not really convey anything very coherent, it also completely misses the real start of the story as seen by the 1967 viewers, of a man looking on in terror. I think this story would benefit well from re-dubbing with a new narrative script (and possibly a new narrator).
I later observed:
Colin Baker's narration of The Macra Terror is terrible not because Colin Baker is reading it but because John Nathan Turner wrote it
Listening to it again, after another thirteen years' experience of listening to audios, it sounds even less impressive as a narration, and the kindest thing that can be said is that it was one of the BBC's earliest efforts.

After watching the recon by Loose Cannon, which uses black and white stills from the original TV showing of the story, I wrote this:
I have seriously upgraded my opinion of The Macra Terror as a result of watching the recon, one of the rare cases where the BBC audio book version is rather poor (due to John Nathan-Turner writing the linking narrative). The holiday camp atmosphere is delightfully bonkers, especially when it turns out that all the colonists are in fact the unwitting slaves of, as the Pilot puts is, "grotesque insects" who thrive on pollution and corrupt the minds of their victims. The soundscape - incidental music and various sound effects - is remarkably good even by the generally high standards of this period of the programme's history, which is just as well considering the visuals are lost. Even Michael Craze actually gets something interesting to do when Ben gets brainwashed (which interestingly means his accent slips into standard RP). The scenes of the Doctor and Polly working out what to do with the pipes in the last episode are an early version of numerous Third Doctor / Jo Grant exchanges to come. And while I feel sorry for the Australian viewers who missed out on the many shots of Polly screaming deleted by the censors, fortunately the result is that we can now watch Anneke Wills at full lung power. (Though I have a suspicion that the loss of the Macra in their first incarnation may not be such a shame.)

It's also Jamie's first proper story as a companion (though this comes about because of the narrative space opened up by Ben's being brainwashed). The Macra Terror has leapt up in my estimation; it is my favourite Second Doctor story so far. Only five episodes survive from Troughton's first season; I would swap any of them for one of these four. (And think how rapidly the programme has changed - The Savages, by the same writer as The Macra Terror, was broadcast barely a year before, with Hartnell's Doctor, Steven and Dodo; now we have Troughton's Doctor, Ben, Polly and Jamie. A huge shift.)

Well. The new two-DVD production of The Macra Terror has a new animation in colour on the first disc, and the same thing again in black and white on the second, plus also the Loose Cannon recon, with or without Anneke Wills narrating, split across the two discs, and even also the Colin Baker/John Nathan Turner audio version on the second disc. And a few extras but they are not terribly exciting. It's an impressive artistic effort. Here is the trailer:

I have to say that watching the new animation on my TV, cross-referencing with the Loose Cannon reconstruction on the iPad, I felt that in general the Loose Cannon reconstruction still wins. There's a much more in-depth analysis here, but in general the scenes with the human characters are just a bit trickier in the animated version - the motion is too jerky to be naturalistic, and the group scenes less dynamic - I begin to appreciate how important it is for TV drama in general, and early Who in particular, to capture everyone within the view of a single camera, which means the actors and their charactes gain energy from each others' proximity. The biggest exception, oddly enough, is the Macra themselves, originally wrotten as insects but realised as crabs on the screen, which are much more dynamic and credible in the animated version than they were in the original show, as far as we can tell. Poor Polly is actually dangled upside-down in the Macra's claws in Episode 2.

Still, it's very nice to have all of the versions of the story - the Baker/Nathan Turner audio, the Loose Cannon recon and the new animation - all collected on a single DVD release. That's all of the versions focussed on audio, of course - a photonovel version is still available on the BBC website.

I went back to Ian Stuart Black's novelisation of his own story as well, to refresh my memory. I had read it before, and wrote then:

I enjoyed this more than I had expected to, chiefly because of [Ian Stuart] Black's characterisation of the Doctor, which seems to me to capture Troughton's performance better than any of the novels I have read so far. We do, of course, miss out on the superb soundscape of the original (alas, the video is no longer available), and poor Polly ends up screaming a lot. But it's a worthy attempt.
The second paragraph of Chpater 3 is:
‘They’ve got him!’ the shout went up.
Rereading it this time, I felt that it possibly gets us closer to the spirit of the original production than any of the efforts at reconstruction have managed, working from a twenty-year-old script and Black's own intuition of what he had wanted to convey. There is a key scene in the first episode, fundamental to our understanding of the colony planet and its society, which I think comes across much better on the page than on any of the versions we have - I link it here with the TV script:
Script Novelisation
(An alarm sounds. Two workers stagger in through a glass door from the pit-head. The colonists rush forward to help.)
OLA: Emergency! Quick, give me that! Come on!
(He helps the injured men.)
ALVIS: (Into intercom.) Accident! Stand by, oxygen supply. (To OLA.) Take them away. Any other losses?
OLA: Two with gas sickness. Come on.
(He leads the injured men away.)
BEN: What happened?
ALVIS: Their work. It can't be helped. The work must be done.
[Ola] broke off as a metal panel on one of the walls slid back.
Beyond was another world, and out of it staggered two young men, one of them holding the other upright. They were both covered with black stains, dirt, dust, and were giddy with exhaustion.
There was no panic in the Centre. It was as though a well-rehearsed process clicked into gear.
‘Stand by for oxygen,’ Alvis broadcast over the sound system. A team of young men and women were helping the two, adjusting breathing masks over their heads as they led them away. It was done with speed and proficiency.
‘Any other losses?’ asked Alvis.
Ola pressed a button on the instrument before them and read off the signal. ‘Two more with gas sickness,’ he said.
‘What happened?’ asked Ben, suddenly sobered. This was another side to the bright picture around them.
Alvis shrugged. ‘It is their work. It can’t be helped. An accident from time to time... But, as you have heard, it is essential. The work must go on.’

Oddly enough the BBC photonovel version does make a decent attempt to get this scene with flashing alarm light which you can't see in this picture), whereas the others more or less muff it.
Anyway, I think this is still more for enthusiasts and completists than for a general audience, but it's all nice to have. You can get the DVD here and the novelisation here.

I then went to rewatch Gridlock, the New Who episode that brought the Macra back. On first showing I wrote this:
I have to say that of all old-school Doctor Who monsters to return, I really didn't expect the Macra!

I loved this. The traffic jam was neatly claustrophobic, the use of hymn tunes tremendously evocative, and the Doctor having to tell the truth about why he lied to Martha.

Sure, not a lot was made of the Macra other than some impressive CGI imagery, but I suspect they did better this time round than last time.
Rewatching a few years later, I wrote:
The Ceann Comhairle is the Speaker of the Dáil, the lower house of the Irish Parliament. The Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland is the highest official of the established religion north of the Tweed. In Gridlock the son of the then Ceann Comhairle plays a giant cat and the star of the show is the son of a former Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.

This is an episode where the core narrative is perfectly decent if a little implausible, and a fannish box is unexpectedly ticked by bringing back the Macra (now much larger than in 1967), but the most important bits are actually the development of the story arc for the season and for the Doctor's mythos. The Face of Boe's peculiar statement is obviously a set-up for future stories; but the brilliant bit is the Doctor finally telling Martha about Gallifrey, a conversation he never had with Rose as far as we know. New Who is gradually getting more comfortable about looking back. In the first season, continuity was basically Daleks, Autons and the Tardis; the second season brought back Sarah Jane Smith, Cybermen, and referred at least to UNIT; and now the Doctor is not just a lonely hero coming out of nowhere, but someone with a rich personal history only gradually being unveiled.
As I said last week, it was striking that here, as in this year's series, it is the Face of Boe/Jack Harkness who reveals new and important facts about the Doctor's relationship with the Time Lords. It was very interesting to be immersed again in the Tenth Doctor era, but also to feel the consistency with the latest developments. The Macra are a bit irrelevant. It's a great episode for the wonderful Freema Agyeman as Martha.
I had forgotten that the big revelation is that almost all of the population had been wiped out by a mutated virus. Perhaps I could have done without that right now.

You can get the new DVD here, the novelisation here, and Gridlock as part of this DVD set.

My tweets

Collapse )

Small Island, by Andrea Levy

Second pargraph of third chapter:
When you are the child of someone such as he, there are things that are expected that may not be expected of someone of a more lowly persuasion. And so it was with I.
I liked this without being overwhelmed by it. It's a novel of the Windrush period, with flashbacks to the very recent war. Levy gives very believable voices to all of her characters, including the nasty ones (which is a rare skill.) Hortense, one of the two protagonists, has a particular wake-up call, realising that her native Jamaica is seen as a small island by the British, and also coming to realise that England itself is a much smaller place than she had dreamed of. The specific instances of racism experienced by her and her husband are vividly depicted - interesting also that the attitudes of the US forces during the war are portrayed as being much worse. Queenie, her landlady, also navigates the paths of relationships and race in a time when everything is changing. You can get it here.

This was my top unread book acquired in 2019, my top unread book by a woman, my top unread book by a writer of colour and my top unread non-genre fiction book. Next on those piles respectively are The First Men In The Moon, by H.G. Wells; The Giver, by Lois Lowry; Long Song, by Andrea Levy again; and Our Mutual Friend, by Charles Dickens.

My tweets


August 2005 books

The major event of August 2005 was my first Worldcon, Interaction in Glasgow. I had a whale of a time, met many people who I had previously known only online, shared a room with Alaskan writer David Marusek, spoke on several panels, attended many more. The two best pictures of me were taken at a panel with Harry Turtledove, by Elizabeth Patrick, and just hanging around, by Anna Feruglio Dal Dan.

For our summer in Northern Ireland, the kids were able to use a trampoline:

At the end of the month, back at work, I went to an exceptionally fun conference in Macedonia, afterwards meeting with the famous Baba Tahir Emini of the Bektashi sect (who sadly died a few months later).

Books I read in August 2005:

Non-fiction 6 (YTD 29)
Getting Things Done: How To Achieve Stress-Free Productivity, by David Allen
A Very British Genre, by Paul Kincaid
The Last Journey of William Huskisson, by Simon Garfield
Peace Without Politics? Ten Years of International State-Bulding in Bosnia, International Peacekeeping vol 12, no 3, Autumn 2005; ed. David Chandler
Knowledge, Power and International Policy Coordination, ed. Peter M. Haas
The Orientalist: In Search of a Man Caught Between East and West, by Tom Reiss

Non-genre 1 (YTD 7)
The Black Tor, by George Manville Fenn

sf 9 (YTD 51)
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, by J.K. Rowling
The Prize in the Game, by Jo Walton
Nineteen Eighty-Four, by George Orwell
The World Inside, by Robert Silverberg
Imperial Earth, by Arthur C. Clarke
City, by Clifford D. Simak
Cultural Breaks, by Brian Aldiss
A Mirror for Observers, by Edgar Pangborn
King of Morning, Queen of Day, by Ian McDonald

comics 1 (YTD 6)
Like A Velvet Glove Cast In Iron, by Daniel Clowes

4,900 pages (YTD 30,900)
2/17 (YTD 23/94) by women
None by PoC

The two books from this month that have lingered with me are Ian McDonald's King of Morning, Queen of Day, which you can get here, and the seminal international relations book which I still swear by, Knowledge, Power and International Policy Coordination, which you can get here. I was disappointed by Daniel Clowes' Like A Velvet Glove Cast In Iron, but you can get it here if you want.


My tweets


Thursday reading

Red Notice, by Bill Browder
Ragged Alice, by Gareth A. Powell

Last books finished
1493, by Charles C. Mann
Fleet of Knives, by Gareth A. Powell
Babayaga, by Toby Barlow
Atlas Alone, by Emma Newman
Strategic Europe, ed. Jan Techau

Next books
Excession, by Iain M. Banks
Prophet of Bones, by Ted Kosmatka

My tweets

Collapse )

The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of Scandinavia’s Utopia, by Michael Booth

Second paragraph of third chapter:
The Danes do seem to have an uncommon facility to get on with each other regardless of age, class or outlook. Egality comes easily to them. One of my most cherished memories of this inclusiveness is of a friend's fortieth birthday party where his octogenarian grandmother was seated next to the country's most notorious rapper. and the two spent a jolly evening chatting together.
A Finnish friend was kind enough to give me this book as a Christmas present. I'm not very surprised - of the five countries and people Booth surveys, he gives the Finns much the best write-up (which is fine with me as I am more familiar with Finland than the others). He starts with a relatively long piece on the Danes (because he married one and lives there) and ends with a relatively long piece on the Swedes (because they are the biggest of the Nordic countries), and in between goes through Iceland, Norway and Finland in that order, combining interviews with experts and his own observations and, frankly, prejudices. Booth is mainly a food writer, and he is funniest about food, particularly Icelandic food:
I shall fight for as long as I remain conscious to avoid ingesting håkarl again. Apparently, the shark meat caught in these parts is toxic if eaten fresh but, rather than giving up on the whole eating shark business altogether, they eventually hit upon the idea of burying it in the ground for between eighteen months and four years until it has decayed to the point where it becomes, in the very loosest sense of the word, edible. This is håkarl.

I tried some at a bar in central Reykjavik. Clearly used to tourists 'just wanting a taste', a waitress brought me two small, sugar-cube sized chunks of unappetising-looking greyish meat in a sealed jar, 'Don't worry, it doesn't taste as bad as it smells,' she said, smiling. 'If you can get past the smell then that's the worst of it.'

She was lying. True, the smell from quite some distance away as she opened the jar was indeed abominable: redolent of a multistorey carpark staircase on a hot summer's day, with accents of urine and vomit. But that wasn't the worst of it. The burning, fishy-cheese flavour was much, much worse. I concluded that håkarl's name was onomatopoeic. It was the noise one made upon upon eating it.
It's an interesting survey from someone who has taken the effort both to understand why the Nordic countries have such good reputations as placed to be alive, and also their flaws one by one. I think he is a bit harsh on Sweden, which is not really as close to a totalitarian society as he seems to argue, and maybe also on Iceland, which surely has some redeeming virtues; but in general its an entertaining survey, which reflects what the Nordic countries think of themselves and each other almost as much as his own prejudices. I think that fans of any of the Nordic countries will find stuff to recognise here, and those who don't know a lot about the Nordics may be inspired to find out more. You can get it here.


My tweets