Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Coffeehouse 6: The Unnecessary Reboot of an Old Classic!

First one since July 2013!

There’s a new barista in the coffeehouse.  He has an oddly slack face, but a very smiley mouth.  Like he’s not quite awake yet; he looks sleepy and slow moving, messy hair, minimal eye contact.  Sleep still in the corners of his eyes.  The large Manageress, as beautiful and voluminous as ever in her huge black apron moves faster than you’d think she could, almost whirling about her area, laughing quietly, and chatting to him non-stop about a competition she’s entered.  I sit in the far corner, listening to the soft sounds of their conversation mingling with the other soft conversations and the harp concerto on the overhead speakers: something that moves repetitively up and down, in a riff.  Hypnotic.   It’s 7.05 a.m.  I am here early, but already the baristas are in the swing of the day, and the coffeehouse is half full.

There’s a tidy man next to me diagonally.  He wears small rimmed glasses, has quietly combed hair and is earnestly doing a crossword next to his empty demitasse cup.  He smiles at me fleetingly when he catches me staring (occupational hazard, the staring and the getting caught at it).  He has very intelligent assessing eyes.  I feel momentarily uncomfortable and look away.

Tory businessman (of this post of old) has put on a bit of weight, and sits near the front of the coffeehouse, looking out, looking around, always checking his environment.  He’s on his phone, as ever, and suddenly he is much louder than everyone else, and we can all hear his business deal being conducted.  Even his pale blue shirt looks oddly loud on him today.  Might be that he’s by the window, and the light has suddenly risen clearer, clouds out of the way of the sun.  Spring is soon here, the light comes much sooner now.

I’m aware that I’m really not properly conscious yet.  I feel a bit dizzy in my head, and when I watch my hands, they shake ever so slightly.  This isn’t a hangover or anything; I barely drink except on special occasions.  This is just years of hardly sleeping, so that I always seem to be in a very deep sleep just prior to actual waking up time.  It’s like trying to pull myself back to the world through fifty duvets.  My head suffocates on feathers and wants to let go into them.  I have to hold tight to what level of consciousness I can get.  Sometimes I don’t feel like I’m properly in the world till about 8 in the evening, when I will suddenly wake up truly and feel in synch with my surroundings, no longer ‘behind myself’ as my mother would say.  I get up and tell my legs to move to the counter to get another coffee.  This is quite rare, feeling so out of it that I actually need 2 coffees.  I squint in the light as I get closer to the front of the shop, from where I have been hiding at the back.  I ask for amaretto syrup in my soymilk latte, just for a change, hoping it will shock my mouth and slap the rest of me behind the eyes.

I also order porridge, and take it carefully back to my seat, hearing Tory businessman get ever so slightly quieter as I move away from him.  We are back to nodding now, after our long ago disagreement.  I take the lid off the honey and watch it catch the light as it gloops out, golden and perfect, into the sludge that is the porridge.  I stir and lick the pot and generally try to extract all possible honey from the situation.  When I am finished and have enthusiastically stirred, I look up and find Tidy Man looking at me again.  I smile and realise there’s honey on my chin too, I wipe at it and lick my fingers, embarrassed.  The overhead music has switched to The Magic Flute, and Pagagaina is making me feel even sillier.

Tidy Man does a me and suddenly gets up and sits next to me, quite too close indeed, and says he couldn’t help noticing that I keep rubbing my neck and the top of my back.  I am quite perplexed at someone so abruptly getting right in my space, but there we are; I do this to people, so I suppose it will happen to me sometimes too.  I hope I don’t stare at people in quite this way though – he is looking at me slightly too intensely, slightly too intently.  I feel a bit creeped out.  I move back in my chair ever so slightly and fold my hands infront of me, and reply that yes, I have a stiff neck and a bad back.  Turns out he’s a Sports Therapist (so you say, you possible serial killer! - God, hope people don’t think I’m a serial killer too??).  He tries to lure me away from my chiropractor, talking about reduced fees and comparisons of length of treatment. 

I feel this is a big flaw with the modern world, you know.  This idea of sudden networking; that you can get in anyone’s face at any time, and casually start trying to sell yourself or your business to them.  Especially if they are your friends.  It’s maddening.  It makes me feel as if the person talking to me has absolutely no care or interest in me at all, as me; I am just a possible score, a possible fee.  They are rudely trying to mirror my gestures and tailor their language to fit mine (which is amusing when I am in the mood for Laurence Sterne type eighteenth century sentences with many unnecessary clauses and extra adjectives).  It’s a total con, and hardly anyone is any good at it.  I listen to his patter, feel still creeped out, and also sorry for him, because I’m scoring him out of ten for his sales pitch and so far he has two.  Blame that on the insincerity I can hear.  I am aware I’m making a face, my unimpressed face.  I usually only make outright rude faces at people I know, as I figure they probably deserve it if I am, and also, they can take it, as they know me.  But I also make faces at annoying sales people and sometimes know, Tories.  (And most recently, yesterday, at Jack Straw’s photo while I was reading The Times: I mean, you expect that kind of cash for questions/introductions crap from the Conservatives, but Labour…in the run up to the election?  You stupid absent of all campaign that I can see, idiot wankers.  You want to Give The Election Away?  TSK.  Anyway.)

For no reason that I can see, I’m struck by a vivid visual memory:  When we first moved to this house we had a problem with mice. We tried several humane deterrents which didn't work. Traditional snappy traps worked. They have not been back since. I felt awful taking the little corpses away.  It only happened 4 or 5 times before they got the message.  Once, a trap failed a bit, and we found a mouse with his little back leg caught in it.  I wanted to kill him, a mercy killing, as I didn't see how he could have survived with one less leg and I didn't want him to be limping prey for some big cat or something, or a fox.  But Stanley set him free, and he ran off as best he could.  He was the last mouse we ever saw in the garden, though we kept the traps up for another winter.  I think they went and told their friends that we were barbarous, cruel and dangerous, so they stayed away. I was saddened and ashamed, but they couldn't keep coming in the house - they were in all the rooms, they have diseases: Fluffhead was small and fragile.  I cried for days at the wounded mouse.
So there's my awful little mouse tale.  The weird thing is, they were so lovely, so beautiful, little dark things. Smooth and soft and compact.   And yet once, the next spring, I found a corpse (must have been left by cat or fox) of a huge rat in the garden.  I couldn't understand my reaction to it at all.  I couldn't go anywhere near it.  I looked from further than arm's length and I was utterly revolted.  Its largeness, bulkiness, it’s rough and matted hair.  It’s cruel looking little teeth, its ugly segmented tail. I was giving it these sobriquets while I was looking at it: ugly, cruel etc.  It seemed to just pop out of some base bit of my brain.  I was completely unaware that I have anything against rats at all - you hear about how very intelligent and clever they are.  Yet when I saw it, I could not even touch it to take its body away.  I had a shovel and couldn't even shovel it without touching it directly.  It was a really weird experience.  I had to wait for Stanley to come home and do it.  I couldn't understand myself at all.
Weird. Why am I looking at Tidy Man, who seems undeterred by my unimpressed face and my now folded arms, and remembering this?  I do my puzzled face.  He stops talking.  He writes his name and phone number on a napkin, and says he’ll leave it to me, to decide if I want ‘treatment’ with him (I see a serial killer with an oddly ratty pointy face, I’m tied up on a ‘treatment’ table in a soundproofed room; I’m still being mean to rats, what is up with that?).  Tidy Man seems already to have tidied away his things and he is now leaving.  He waves at me, a small and very brief gesture and is gone without looking back.  I am still sitting there with folded arms and I haven’t said a word since I confirmed I had a bad back.  How did I make him leave?  Did he read the unsucess of his pitch on my face?  Did he see me phase out when I thought of mice and rats?  I unfold my arms and realise I have hiked my shoulders right up tensely.  I let them deliberately down and shake my head.

Where Tidy Man was are now two women, both licking the foam from the top of cappuccinos. They have their heads together, locked in instant terribly important conversation.  Both wear purple sweaters and black scarves looped loosely over their shoulders.  Some kind of uniform?  A third woman turns up and it’s as if she calls them to order – they stop talking instantly and pay attention to her.  Same clothes.  Line Manager?

Near the window, Tory businessman has vacated, and a woman with wavy soft brown hair and a permanent slight smile on her face, pink cheeks from the wind, has sat.  I can see her face as she checks messages on her phone.  The slight smile holds.  She gets up and goes to order coffee, scratches her elbow absently.  The smile holds.  I always wonder about those people with the slight soft smiles.  The Mona Lisa smile that doesn’t vary.  It’s not as if they are remembering something, or thinking happy thoughts, because the quality of the smile is unchanging, as if this is how their face settles, in repose. I read in a magazine once that you should try and hold your face like that (if you are a grumpy person like me), as it releases endorphins, and it takes less facial muscles to smile than to frown or hold a blank depressed face (odd).  It fools your brain into thinking you are more peaceful and receptive than you are feeling.  I am not entirely convinced, and watching the woman, it does look a bit vacuous, as if her face has just gone to sleep.  Like a Barbie but only half finished.  But I am probably jealous, so I won’t criticise.  I hope she is thinking happy thoughts.  Maybe she has that song in her head. Good song.  Weirdly deluded, but good song.  She’s dressed in shades of grey with small flowers over everything.  She shakes some chocolate powder over her hot chocolate with cream.  Mmmmm.  She has hot chocolate.  She MUST be happy.

A man sits down at the table directly opposite me.  He is one of those people who take up space.  And make noise without being aware of it.  He sniffs very loudly.  Sings tunelessly to himself while setting up his laptop, and messily drapes his very puffy anorak over the back of the chair he has pushed out, effectively hemming me in to my table.  He smiles hugely at me (which I see out of the corner of my ‘leave me alone’ eye; see, this is the punishment I get for being friendly so often, today I am attracting annoying people).  I smile back nonetheless, as I don’t want to hurt his feelings.  I do one of those without teeth smiles, of medium warmth.  He makes a lot more noise chatting to the barista who comes to take the tray of the last patron away.  When the barista goes, he mutters to himself.  “Talk to yourself inside your head”, I want to say, exasperated.  But I don’t.  I can just tell I’m going to have trouble reading now, as my left ear is listening to his murmuring and sniffling and bashing away at the laptop keys; his constant readjustment of himself in his chair.  Argh.

Further away, my attention is taken up immediately by a baby crying.  A work from home father I have seen before, has gone to the toilet and his baby is wriggling in its wooden high chair and crying heartbrokenly at the sudden removal of company.  I wonder how long it will be before I don’t feel the cries of ANY baby as a physical compulsion to go and pick them up and cuddle, soothe them?  I remember with Fry it didn’t seem to stop till he was in secondary school.  God, that’s ages yet for Fluffhead.  Thankfully, the father reemerges and the baby immediately stops wailing.  The father dries its eyes with a tissue and plays a wiping nose game, making honking noises for the baby.  The noise I hear now is the baby laughter, that very sweet sound of the laughter that seems to roil up like lava inside the child and erupt out so violently it often causes hiccups.  The game goes on for quite some time, and I watch, quite transfixed at the smiling and the way the whole body moves with each hiccupping explosion.  Its small hands wave about, conducting the joke.

When they simmer down, and the father begins to check his emails, the baby is holding his bottle, and looking about alertly at everyone.  The man opposite seems also to have subsided, and the harp concerto is back on.  It’s 9 a.m.  and it’s quiet again.  I close my notebook and open my kindle.

Monday, 23 February 2015

Charlie Brooker's Black other introduction needed

I know I’m getting to this, as usual, several years after everyone else.  But here we are, my impressions, without access to anyone else’s opinions and hype, no reviews read.  For anyone not English, Charlie Brooker is an English satirist – they would do that weird thing they do nowadays and call him a Broadcaster-slash-Comedian-slash-Columnist or whatever, you know, the thing where you can’t just have one or two jobs.  Anyway.  He moans and rants and commentates the news, the pop culture elements that get pushed at us via media of all kinds.  He clearly worries about everything as only a child of the 70s can.  He has a real way with words in his books, columns and his various news shows (currently, the UK is screening the latest series of Weekly Wipe, his news and film/TV review).  Black Mirror is his latest lot of satirical dramas (the one everyone else remembers being ‘Dead Set’, the mini drama series that married our love of zombie horror with our inexplicable love of very jaded reality TV shows).  I missed all the Black Mirrors when they first aired.  People talked too much, so I ignored them, as I often do, when people talk too much about something on TV.  Fry has been nagging me to get to them, so I did, and bloody hell, they were good.  So…

Oooooooo, now here was some class.  Very very very worrying and disturbing class.  On reflection, I think there was only one slightly weaker than the others episode in all of this, and that was only because I felt the ending lacked a little something [The Waldo Moment].  All of them had cracking and scary ideas.  All about what could, would, may happen if we aren’t careful with the direction our technologies go.  In a personal sense – facebook, Twitter, the over reliance and over use of technology to live our lives and help us, and cut us off from each other.  Absolutely every single story had something very thought provoking and DISTURBING to worry me about.  Also, it wasn’t afraid to be almost relentlessly downbeat…a bit 70s, a bit Doomwatch in a way, Survivors.  A drama about thinking and consequences, and all the consequences are bad.  I LOVED this throwback TV with the totally up to date concerns.


Black Mirror, Series 1
There was, in order, the one I don’t know how on earth they got made about the pig [which was to worry us about the fickleness and rather English love of humiliation in public perception of important people], which had the unlikely end of being about art, of all things…I spent all of that one wondering why no one was concerned with the poor PIG.  Were they going to tranquilise it, give it…lube?  I mean, Jeez, surely a short speech from animal rights people was an opportunity missed here, in this very humanocentric story.

Then there was the one about the people who had to cycle all day while watching awful things on TV, and their only escape was to be able to be on a talent show.  The actor I adore, Daniel Kaluuya, ran off with this episode entirely.  He has a crush on a girl and pays for her to enter the awful talent show with the killingly cringey Rupert Everett as one of the judges [what a triumph of nastiness he was].  She sings a beautiful sad song and you imagine she might be about to have a better life…but she is coerced into another show, ‘Wraith Babes’, a porn show, where she is to have medicated sex forever and never be herself again.  AWFUL.  Daniel is understandably very upset about ‘this outcome’, and gets himself on the show to…he knows not what, but he makes a speech with broken glass to his throat so they won’t cut the film of him till he’s finished telling them off.  They end up giving him his own channel, so he becomes one of the hideous things the cyclists watch on TV, still with the now gimmick of the glass at his throat – he’s a sort of satirist, venting and complaining and shouting about how crap everything is, that you listen to while you get on with the crapness everything is.  Bit like…Charlie Brooker.  Daniel ends up alone, in a slightly bigger cell room, with orange juice [wahey, such a treat] looking out at a huge green forest.  Is it real?  Or another picture on his computer illuminated walls? If it’s real – why can’t anyone go outside?  If it’s not – why can’t he have friends over, why must everyone cycle and cycle and be alone forever and watch the awful things on TV, or be the awful things on TV?  I thought and thought…this was my joint second favourite one.

Then, to end series 1, there was the one that seems to be everyone else’s favourite, about the memory implant that you can get in your head so you can rewind your life constantly and overanalyse everything like a 15 year old on the phone to her best friend.  Or like a depressed anxious person with even more incipient mental health problems. Fry and I looked at each other during this and knew that it was of supreme importance that should such a device as this ever be invented, it’s absolutely vital that we never get one, we are bad enough as it is.  The actor Toby Kebbell was the one who ran off with this episode.  I don’t know if it’s because I am constantly worried what people think of me and if it might be true [there’s a waste of time, trying to synthesise one piece of unimportant info to get the other, when you have no idea if the first is correct!], but his performance as the worried and jealous boyfriend [who ends up being quite correct in his suspicions] was both very funny and totally spot on, painfully spot on.  I wanted him so badly to be wrong.  The scene where he and his girlfriend have sex and both are viewing memories at the same time – he of earlier her, her of…who?, is really chilling.  No real closeness at all. Fantasizing during sex is one thing; but actual physical viewable memory…hmmm.  Again, an absolute ton of food for thought here, the moral issues, the mental health issues of a device like this.  Well explored.  And their eyes look very creepy when they are viewing the memories.

Black Mirror, Series 2
On to series 2, which begins with the very worrying one about not letting people go when they die.  It’s bad enough already, mourning a dead person – when my dad died, I was a mess for a long time; its now, what?, seven years later and I am just starting to make peace with this…and in the world of this story, you can have a cheat version of your dead loved one, constructed from online data.  For however long you like. You can talk to them by text, or by phone, and if you are really rich – by actual fleshly robot that can even have sex.  The point I thought of here, as well as the obvious, this is as bad as fake mediums and the like, as they may comfort you, but they really inhibit your ability to live in the world and try to go on without the dead person; the other point is: how did the woman in this AFFORD the robot??  He himself [the dead loved one] said it was pricey.  They already lived in a remarkable beautiful country house.  What did he do, apart from playing on facebook?  She did have a work at home job, where she seemed to move things about on her enormous computer screen all day – some kind of graphic designer, or graphic illustrator??, but I felt this story fell into exactly the same trap as a lot of the 70s stuff I grew up with: unintentionally incredibly middle class, and giving me the odd and totally untrue idea, that I could have a vague sort of a job doing something or other that looks a bit interesting and is unlabelled – and from this, I can have a really comfortable lifestyle and lovely country house with really big garden.  In the old days, this would have come complete with decanters and the G&T after work which the wife offers the husband – which I DID grow up seeing on the God That Is TV so I am convinced must somewhere somehow be true….…Oh…I’ve lost my track.  Anyway.  That.  All these stories are very middle class, just thought I’d point that out.  A lot of dinner parties and such.  Having grown up with a tray on my lap, alone in the living room with My God The TV, I struggle with the cognitive dissonance of all this.  Didn’t take away from my enjoyment of the episodes though.  Just in this case, really wanted to know how the hell they afforded their lives.  Credit card debt??

Next there was my joint favourite episode, the one about what do you do with criminals who commit those awful and gratuitous crimes against children, the ones you hear about on TV and you think “oh bloody hell, these fuckers should be dead, or tortured to death” and you come over all Old Testament-y. The thing is, despite much Quakerliness in my earlier days, and much discussion with Stanley and various others about why there should NOT be capital punishment, when I hear about exactly these sorts of cases, I usually do come over so massively overemotional and unreasonable that I totally got the point of the twist at the end of this episode [Jamie Bulger – all you need is that one picture.  You know the one.…I can’t think straight just thinking of the picture].  I don’t know if I could have ‘enjoyed myself!’ as instructed, since I am more along the lines of execute the feckers, single shot to the head, that’s it, rubbish disposed of, use as fertiliser, walk away…I am not of the lets have fun with this punishment school, at all.  But I got the point.  The point was to make the killer suffer as much as the victim – by making them as innocent and terrified and confused as the victim must have been.  Absolutely fiendish idea.  Really cruel, because the killer is mindwiped; and becomes An Innocent.  You aren’t punishing the same person as the one who did the crime, you are just torturing another innocent person, and doing more violence.  Unhelpful.  Also unhelpful to encourage the public to buy tickets and enjoy – children included.  Terrifying idea.  Also – the mindwipe thingy could have been used to start the killer onto the rehabilitation track, surely?  It could have been used for good…I was really chilled at this one.  Because half of me bought the idea whole. Even though it was NOT justice.  *Gulp*.

Lastly was the one where a very crude and shouty blue cartoon stands for Parliament and is a better prospect than the jaded and senseless politicians.  Worryingly, and as I am sure the point of this one was, Fry whole heartedly endorsed the shouty penis flashing cartoon, and said if anything could make him vote, it was Waldo.  That really does sum up this one.  My politically apathetic and nihilistic son would have voted for the blue cartoon bear with no policies, who was also incoherent in his criticism, but caught just enough of the sheer anger and disillusion we feel toward our politicians to be relevant, and moreso than them.  HMMM.  I was scared.  Amazing, that these were actually like horror, but not horror.  Again, it’s that Doomwatch vibe.

Christmas Special
And very lastly, and joint bestly, the Christmas Special.  Fry and I were very happy to see one of our favourite actors, who really should be in everything [like Olivia Coleman of course]: Rafe Spall, and oh my god, does he suffer in this.  This was constructed perfectly, like an old style 70s portmanteau horror, you know the ones – there are usually around 3 story segments, the first is good, the second is a bit silly, and the third is the kicker.  This one distinguished itself by virtue of worrying me with the silly second segment moreso than the genuinely scary other segments, because I felt a terrible sense of the length of time for the poor poor Cookie Girl with nothing to do.  Rafe Spall was on the button, it was slavery – and torture.  And how could the woman who contributed herself not think of the life of her clone tiny self, buttering her silly under toasted bread etc.  Cow.  Why couldn’t they give the poor Cookie Girl some books, a TV, a pretend little world of some sort, a cyber cat or dog for company.  A program that sophisticated and they didn’t think to keep their little slave workers contented??  That’s humans for you.  Huh. I was disgusted and terrified by the plight of Poor Cookie Girl.  If it was me, I’d have gone mad in less than a couple of days, I am more or less certain.

Anyway, the first bit was how to Game women [a la Neil Strauss and all those other imitators] to a date, to bed etc, in this case, with a shy boy who has a gamer speaking in his ear and an online community shouting encouragement from the cyber sidelines.  Creepy.  The boy gets his comeuppance [as portmanteau horrors used to specialise in, they were comeuppance poetic vengeance films – punishment fits the crime] by not realising that he has landed a girl who also hears voices, but they are all hers and she wants to mercy kill him, and herself. So she poisons him.

And the last bit was where the gamer from the first bit, who was talking to Rafe Spall at the beginning – that first bit was his story…it’s how HE gets his comeuppance.  But then, so does Rafe Spall, who I felt very sorry for. The American gamer [where do I know him from? Funnily enough, I just checked, and it’s not from the EVERYTHING he’s been in, it’s from a lone episode of Charmed ages ago…] has to find out what is going on in Rafe Spall’s head, and via technology and some empathic gaming, does so.  It’s a story about facebook and the awesome power of The Block.  This is relevant, as for the first time in 3 or 4 years, I had to block someone a few days ago, after much attempts at explaining to them privately and publicly, why they were inappropriate
 /unkind /mean /cruel /pissing off everyone I know as well as me.  If you’ve never blocked anyone on facebook, what it is, is…you get tired of deleting their trollish comments, or of tailoring your status updates so they just can’t see them, and you make it so they cannot see you, At All.  To them, once they are on your blocked list, it appears as if you have vanished.  They cannot communicate with you.  This story was - what if you could block people in real life?  They chose to do it not as a disappearance, but as making the person a grey shape.  You can see they are there [and they can throw a vase of flowers at you, as demonstrated, which was a bit of a flaw, I thought], but you can’t hear them properly and they can’t see or hear you properly either.  Rafe Spall got blocked by an ex girlfriend, which led to a terrible misunderstanding [I actually won’t spoiler that bit], and he pays for that once he confesses to what happens next.  The gamer, who imagined he would go free from prison once he got Rafe Spall to confess, does not.  [As he covered up that poisoning in the first segment because that gaming thing he was doing with shy boy was illegal if technologically aided, not to mention, gamer was the bastard who had to break the will of tiny cloned Cookie Girl as his day job.]  No, he gets a terrible punishment that is both very chilling, plus I have no idea how it would actually work.  If he is blocked by absolutely everybody, and they only see him as a red blob [which I presume means dangerous], then…how does he go shopping to buy toilet paper [or food, obviously], as no one will be able to hear him properly??  I suppose he will have to do Tesco ordering online.  Forever……That was actually the kicker, and a terrible punishment for a very amoral man…but I am still more distressed by Cookie Girl.  Oh yes, and by Rafe Spall who had to listen to Christmas No 1’s on a loop, forever, and couldn’t break the radio.  That was harsh, as I think his crime was facilitated by the girl blocking him and not simply having a conversation with him and explaining WHY she didn’t want to stay with him once she was pregnant.  So I got the point here being that The Block makes us lazy [and quick to punish], because in real life we couldn’t do such a thing and would have to deal with the person.

In fact, all these tales were about the ways we don’t just deal with people face to face or correspondence to correspondence, at least.  The memory implant allowed us to just loop continually getting paranoid and not living.  Twitter and facebook allow us too much input into the ever changing lives and fates of celebrities when we could be living our own lives.  Mindwiping allows us all to become tortures of criminals if we choose, instead of living our own lives.  Satire is great, but you have to be the change you want to see, not just laugh at the way things are. Etc. Etc.  All most relevant and most worrying. 

For a few days after these, which I did see in a massively addicting 12 hour clump of horrified screen stare-age I walked about feeling disturbed by them.  They stayed with me.  I started to worry about Charlie Brooker’s head, as he must be in a state of worry and disquiet having all these terrifying consequences in his head…not to forget weird stuff about pigs. [I mean, obviously the pig thing was in your face shock value, but…you know…poor pig, unsung and uncared for pig…]

Hmm.  I’ve wound down now.  That’s it.  These were brilliant, I hope he intends to worry, disturb and horrify me for another doom laden series at least.

Hmm.  How to finish?  Oh yeah…

And now, as Charlie Brooker would say: “Go away.”

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Doctor Who books Read and Heard, Part 15!

 This post: treats from the eras of the Second, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth and Eighth Doctors.  (And a mention of the Seventh.)
A note on order.  Target Originals are not read in order of publication (which was all over the place), but in order of each Doctor, and each Doctor is read in order of their stories broadcast on TV.  However, I jump about in terms of which Doctor I read at any given time.  The Virgin New Adventures for Sylvester will be read in order; as will the BBC 8th Doctor series (as though they had been on TV, see?  I’m trying to get an arc flavour).  The BBC Past Doctors series and the Virgin Missing Adventures are simply read in terms of which one I fancy next, as they are stand alone adventures slotting in-between the TV ones.

Oh, and in case you forgot, I’ve taken to recording which books I read that are actual paper copies, and which are Kindle or other electronic.  I’m being social historical for my own benefit. I want to see how long it is before I just plug books straight into my brain, how many years before I’m a reading cyborg.

As always with these rambly reviews: OFTEN LARGE SPOILERS ON ALL BOOKS IMMINENT!!!!

1.     Doctor Who: And the Ice Warriors, by Brian Hayles (Target Original)
(2nd Doctor.  This was an oddly mixed read for me. I enjoy watching this on TV whenever I see it.  But I found the book stilted and unsatisfying for most of the first half.  I read the first half in bits and bobs, as I read plenty other books; but I note I did read the second half all at once and it did seem to suddenly pick up loads and race off.  I can’t therefore tell if this is a book that reads best when you eat it all at once in a big binge; or whether it started very slow and improved all at once.

The problems I had were with the characters. It seemed that the books main protagonists were all like an actor of the era, often in Who: Philip Madoc – white angry late 50s/early 60s man.  I felt as if there were lots of characters not very different: all tunnel visioned, arguing their righteous points and being rather bulldoggish.  I got bored of Arden and his unwavering insistence on his excavation when their mission was more important; I got bored of Storr being pig ignorant about science, I got bored of Jan Garrett having utter faith in the computer like a robot [yes, I know she’s female but she came off very nondescript for the first section of the book]; and lastly, I got very bored indeed of Clent and his power struggling. Initially I was bored of Penley too, but I warmed up to him later when he actually put his issues to one side and began to try and help the situation; his interaction with Clent by the end of the book warmed me up to Clent as well - both ended up seeming more warm and human.  I was very irritated with the way the characters were so taken up with their own issues and power wrangling that they really weren’t paying attention to the plight of the Earth and the machine that so badly needed fixing, except from within their own narrow focus boxes.  I know this was probably exactly what was intended - to show people sick of each other from pressure of mission and close quarters, but it did make them seem quite stupid, plus I always find it’s lethal to make me, as reader or viewer, so sick of characters that I cease to care.

Hence I was very happy when the Doctor and his clowning about arrived; with Jamie and his down to Earth priorities, and Victoria, who for all her confusion was a plot developer here.  I particularly enjoyed her interactions with the Ice Warriors, who were the saving grace of the whole book.  Not monsters.  Creatures, with their own …issues, again [apologies for repeated use for that annoying word]. Yet their problems I understood entirely and therefore sympathised with: they were in extremis even more than the human characters: they needed fuel, they needed to escape, or they needed to conquer where they were for lack of a homeland, in order to feel secure again.  Their problems were about the totality of their civilisation’s survival. [Yes, so were the humans, but their petty treatment of each other made me root for the Ice Warriors instead.]

I enjoyed the way the book picked up in the second half, with the Doctor allowing himself to be taken prisoner, adapting the Ice Warriors sonic weapon to the deadly Level 7, the ill-starred negotiations.  Yes, maybe I should have read this book all in one go. As even the humans, once they started to work together, interested me again.  Anyway.  If I had to give this book an out of 10 rating, I wouldn’t know what to do with it. 

The Ice Warriors are very underused in the canon Who universe aren’t they?  I would have liked to see several more stories with the warlords. The Peladon story was an interesting sideways take, but more would have been good.  These creatures had more of a life span than they received, I reckon. [Better than cybermen…or daleks, she says hurriedly, while thumbing her nose, then hides behind an Ice Warrior, unafraid of backlash.])
  1. Doctor Who: Seeing I, By Jonathan Blum and Kate Orman (BBC Eighth Doctor Series)
    (Loved this instalment of the Eighth Doctor adventures.  So far I am finding this series stronger than the parallel Virgin New Adventures for Sylvester, much more readable.  This part was even better than the standard I am coming to expect.  It was structured beautifully, and very simply. 

    Basically, the Doctor is looking for the annoying Sam, who has been separated from him for several stories now; and in looking for her he falls into this adventure - and into a prison he cannot escape from.  He, the Doctor- CANNOT escape.  Quite a premise.  It’s realistically set up too.  Sam in the meantime, is struggling with her feelings of shame at having run away from him and her crushingly large [and yet sort of boring] crush on the Doctor. [I blame my irritation here on new Who’s over usage of this device with female companions, when this crush here came first, so it’s unfair of me to be annoyed with it, really.]  While trying to make sense of herself she also has to try and get a life - she isn’t looking for the Doctor as he is for her.  She falls into a horrible humdrum life, on a very well realised planet, which manages to be very alien and very recognisably as dull as Earth can be when you do nothing but work, eat and sleep and feel you have no fun OR purpose.  Sam realises she needs to be who she can be, to do things that matter to her.  To get an identity away from her feelings about the Doctor, and confusion about her earlier life.

    By the wonderfully simple device of having a chapter for Sam, then a chapter for the Doctor, I actually failed to notice that they were separate for almost two thirds of the book – he imprisoned and forever, futile-y trying to escape and trying to work out why he can’t seem to; and she gradually becoming no longer an annoying girl, but a principled and strong woman.  Sam ceases to be afraid, starts to do things that matter, and moves on from the Doctor – whilst never failing to realise it was he who helped her become who she is now.

    Then she finds him…and she rescues him. Again, because of new Who overegging the companions involvement to the point of ‘this is the Companion Show highlighted by our reactions to the Doctor, an interesting alien’, when I first realised she was going to rescue him, I felt irritated.  Again, this was an unreasonable reaction – this book was first, and it weaves the story in such a way as you realise, yes, the Doctor may eventually have managed to free himself [he was imprisoned 3 years – this story takes place over a long drawn out time frame, permissible of course because of his relative immortality, and Sam’s need for growth at this point]…but it was fitting, by the time Sam became the woman able to save him, that she would do so.

    One of the tremendous strengths of this story was the growth both characters undergo whilst separated: Sam becomes likeable and I began to properly cheer her on, for the first time in this series; and the Doctor faced a set of circumstances that really did seem insurmountable; we watch, unbelieving but understanding, as he seems to slump into depression, to giving up.  And yet, this behaviour didn’t feel at all like any sort of a betrayal of the Doctor’s spirit [as it could have done] – it felt very real and scary for him.  It created page turning reading.

    Another strength of this story was the eye tech – it’s a chilling idea, taken to great lengths and I understood it all [rare for me - I tend to get lost and only carry the gist of any Who technobabble; but all the computer analogies were well described, both simply and in enough detail for me to get their complexity without getting lost].  I liked the data umphs, the IX Net; the scary idea of the implants - and the eventual reason why the Doctor could not escape.  And the way he makes friends with his later absconding computer program that learns and mimics him: DOCTOR.

    The only thing I had trouble visualizing in this whole book were the alien race, the ‘I’.  I just couldn’t feel for them - which may have been a plus and shows how alien they were, as I couldn’t empathize at all.  I felt a bit sorry for them in an abstract way, despite their original predatory angular nature, when they were reduced the ‘eeping’ at the end. Also it felt silly to have anyone reduced to ‘eeping’.

    Can’t really praise this one enough: very readable, flowing style, massively enjoyable, great subsidiary characters [Shoshona, all of Sam’s activist friends, Dr Akulu]; scary and thought provoking concepts – that don’t seem that far from actual reality when you think about it.  Recommended.  ACTUAL BOOK.)
  2. Zeta Major, by Simon Messingham (BBC Past Doctors Adventures)
    (5th Doctor.  This book was good fun.  It’s based on the same world area as Planet of Evil with Tom Baker, with its anti matter and anti-men; except this story takes a remark made at the end of that story and then goes far ahead in time to see what happened as a result, which is where this story begins, for Davison, Tegan and Nyssa.  The world is run by Church clerics - a wonderfully anti-pious set of Mafioso dons who are ruthless, venal and potty-mouthed, a very amusing set of cunning villains. Opposing them are the Imperium science based faction- who seem to have rather little to do with science and more to do with being power hungry. The society is entirely based around building an energy tower, which is almost finished and has so far taken a thousand years.  It’s become clear to insiders on both sides of the warring factions that the tower will not work and never could have: so the entire drive of their society all this time has been pointless, and when the masses realise, a huge civil war will break out.  Yet, with the injection of anti-matter into the scenario, they are hoping to change the balance, for whoever ends up with the Tower, controls Morestran society.  It’s a very nifty set up, believable in its corruption, and funny as well as serious.

    The Doctor begins by being plagued by terrible hallucinations of black oppressive nothingness overwhelming all. The companions worry that since Adric has only just died, that the Doctor is having some kind of breakdown as a result.  Once they land, they are all separated, as usual, and then the story gets going.

    Tegan spends most of her time with Ferdinand, a science sympathiser who is going insane from his need to get revenge on the Church faction for what they did to his family. He is only just holding his mind together when Tegan comes, and she spends most of her interactions with him trying to understand the difference between just action, retribution, and revenge. He is a tortured character, and interesting.

    Nyssa ends up in a Church research centre, staggered at the backward society where intelligent females are regarded as an impossibility and a threat, excepting exceptions.  She ends up contaminated by a particularly cruel anti-matter experiment and becomes an anti-woman [which is worrying for a while but is sorted in a rather pat way at the end].

    The Doctor ends up going back and forth between Zeta Major and Minor, trying to find out why the anti-matter experiments are taking place and who is responsible.  The ultimate answer turns out to be the marvellous character creation, Kristyan Fall, the Zero Man, a sort of weirdly invincible anti James Bond character.  At the beginning he has been captured and held prisoner [and tortured] by Church officials for years, but they release him to do a mission.  Which was stupid, as he is clearly the sort of character who will only do exactly what he wants right from the start. I found him very amusing, rather worrying, and vivid. [I won’t spoiler you with his fate.]

    I really enjoyed the device of the Church meeting minutes, and other memos and telegrams from various characters, as ways of letting us know what’s happening offstage: succinct, funny, and ironic often.  The whole book felt very theatrical, actually. I enjoyed the going off sideways from the Planet of Evil basis to the story, though to me the whole book had more of a Masque of Mandragora feel, what with the labyrinthine factional politics etc. I enjoyed Tegan’s attempts to reclaim doomed Ferdinand from madness; I enjoyed the Doctor reasoning with Fall and the grudging untrusting respect they gain for one another; I enjoyed Nyssa’s reactions to the zealot opportunism of the factions she was exposed to – there were many subsidiary characters in the book, all feeling products of the twisted societal structure.  The anti-matter creature at the end was well realised.

    As I was coming to write this review, I forgot how to spell Kristyan [an ‘i’ or a ‘y’ at the beginning bit?] and so looked it up online, having already parted company with my copy of the book.  I was surprised to read this book getting bad reviews in many places: too many characters not well demarcated, inferior compared to Planet of Evil, Doctor being either dull or out of character etc.  Have to say none of these issues touched me at all.  I thought this book was well paced, the Doctor was busy being unwell but still did lots of things, in character [!], and I had no problem sorting the characters one from another - they were all similar, but that was the point: the society was hidebound, paranoid, medieval and dangerous – the people emerged from that mould ruthless, corrupt, and aggressive.  I saw no problems here at all, a good addition to the series; and the politics did keep making me laugh – ruthless people unchecked can be very funny… from a distance.  ACTUAL BOOK.)
  3. Doctor Who: The Shadow in the Glass,by Justin Richards and Stephen Cole (BBC Past Doctors Adventures)
    (6th Doctor. This was the best Second World War ‘What If Hitler Was Still Alive?’ book I have ever read. Not that they number many, as I’m not one of those people really into the whole alternative end to WW2 and similar scenarios.  I remember my dad watching loads of WW2 documentaries as a child, and lots of ‘the last days of Hitler’ type programmes, so I think I must have absorbed a lot of this osmotically, as I was oddly over-familiar with the historical chain of events elaborated on in the novel - the events in the bunker in the last days, and various things still unexplained about it, whether Hitler had doubles, where was his body etc.  All this was woven carefully and wonderfully neatly into a Really Rather Cracking adventure for the 6th Doctor, the Brigadier, and a Sarah Jane type journalist called Claire, who has less morals but is nonetheless very likeable.

    The 6th Doctor and the Brigadier were a marvellous pairing in this novel.  The sort of asides the Brigadier was delivering were so very apposite and perfectly judged, he was larger than life and even more dapper as an older man than he was as a younger.  The sense of the older but still very vigorous and able Brigadier was, again, perfectly judged.  I saw it all as I read, and not a false note anywhere.  The 6th Doctor boomed and made sarcastic comments and was generally excellent, at the top of his game as we so rarely saw him allowed to be on TV, what with the patchy writing his few TV stories suffered from. It’s a real shame these two couldn’t have had any adventures together, as this book shows what a great team they were.  And along with the journalist Claire, who wasn’t a third wheel at all, they made an excellent unit [no pun intended though there it is].

    Can’t praise this highly enough. It was scary at the beginning [red eyed horned imps glimpsed in glass and out of the corners of eyes], and I thought it was going to end up a horror; then morphed into an alien story with several twists.  Ended up as a Classic Who story, feeling almost lifted from the Pertwee era, but with Colin Baker having his stamp all over it instead.  Just excellent!  ACTUAL BOOK.)
5.    Doctor Who: And the Loch Ness Monster, by Terrance Dicks (Target Original)
(4th Doctor. This is going to be a rather bitty review, so bear with me.  I love this story on TV.  The book let it down considerably, which was a shame, as I usually find Terrance Dicks’ books very readable. There was, in the TV version, an awful lot of Tom bouncing off the companions, and being quirky and full of energy and life; the first thing I noticed on reading the book was the way a vast amount of banter and humour had been lifted straight out of the exchanges, leaving them purely informative and functional, plot developing, but more or less character-less.  The whole of the first scene when they land and come out of the TARDIS, for example. I know it’s a recovered scene, but even some of the later scenes have a lovely backward and forward feel with Tom and the others via dialogue, and in the book, this feeling is almost gone.  This leads to a great loss of atmosphere, as the humour and quirkiness are the balance to the otherwise fey and odd feel of the Scotland depicted, with its English fish out of water characters come to visit meddlesomely.  The book also misses the development of the scene in the Decompression Chamber when the Doctor and Sarah are trapped and after hypnotising her he does that wonderful unearthly wail before putting himself in a trance too.  The oddness of that and its sound, is part of the iconic moments of this odd story.  Again, just a functional scene in the book.  No wail.

The next thing to say, is that in the TV version, I find the Zygons to be, for me, the scariest of ALL Who creatures.  They are just so…squishy and organic and …remind me of the fact that Insides Are Better Left Inside.  They are bodily and nodular and have those circular suckery bits…oooooo <shivery meltdown>.  I think if I met one and touched it, I might throw up; and then it would look at me with those eyes, and I’d…throw up again in terror. There was no real physical sense of them given in the book: I was purely working on memory.  I feel this was also a mistake: they are horrendously PHYSICAL, it’s one of their great strengths as a menacing and revolting form of life! It’s annoying they are not portrayed with more oomph in the book.

This is the last story of UNIT proper.  And the swansong of Harry, one of my favourite companions [“thankyou, old girl,” he says to me in my head, with a smile].  So: Brigadier and Benton – yay!  Harry – yay!  This was actually one of the nicest exits of a companion, when you think about it – just deciding to stay home and take the train instead.  Hands in pockets, done a bit a travelling, stay home now, gentle smile – very nicely done.  It’s part of the way old Who was understated and didn’t have to constantly be squelching in the guts of the companions emotions all the time, squealing and throwing forth blood and viscera.  You wouldn’t catch Harry behaving that way, and I’m strangely reassured and comforted by that; adds to his solidity and strength.  For me, Harry has the same sort of reassuring quality that Jamie had, his loyalty; though obviously he was older and less headstrong, but both were beautifully capable to have about.  Harry has his marvellous evil-with-a-pitchfork scene in this story, where he really did chill my blood with his sudden change of character.  This again, is written blandly in the book. I think maybe you should miss this book, and watch the TV story. It has much more to offer in terms of atmosphere, character development and general look, sound. Then again, as usual, make up your own mind entirely. Yes, I disagree with myself- you go read it and see what you think.

Just to say what I did like and felt was done right in the book: I like the way this story is based on a real mystery, and does its best to explain the Loch Ness legend with the Skarasen [the poor Skarasen, almost as maligned as the Myrka -  another lovely noble critter that I didn’t mind at all!].   I like that the story has a eco-theme, the dig at the beginning about our “planet’s dependence on a mineral slime”, as relevant today as ever due to much delayed and woefully lacking investment in renewable energy.  I liked the Duke of Fothergill and his snobbiness [though he seemed a much more alarming and articulate character before we knew he was a zygon imposter]. I liked the Nurse, that scary nurse who is supposed to be helping you and isn’t really – while I was reading I was seeing Billie Whitelaw in my head for this character.  I liked the Doctor commenting that the Brigadier “has a touching faith in high explosives as a universal solution”, one of his more laconic comments.  And yes - I really like the Skarasen, scary faced thing!  ACTUAL BOOK.)

I’m stopping here with this post, for 2 reasons.  Firstly, I seem to have waffled very long about the 5 books I have mentioned.  And secondly, I wanted to add a note about the Big Finish audios. I’ve listened to nos. 20 and 21 and was going to add those to the end of this review as items 6 and 7. But I won’t because I don’t have much to say about them. No 20: Loups Garoux, by Marc Platt, was a werewolf story with the Fifth Doctor and Turlough. Though I could see it had much to recommend it in some ways (a good exploration of the idea of werewolves, an interesting rainforest setting and Eleanor Bron voicing one of the main characters), it didn’t grab me at all, and my attention drifted mercilessly, even though I wasn’t doing anything else while listening to it.  It was great to hear Mark Strickson (as Turlough again, being one of my favourite and one of the most underused companions – and he was given some character depth in this story).  But I just wasn’t enjoying it.  The same went for no.21, Dust Breeding, by Mike Tucker, a writer I usually enjoy very much.  This was a Seventh Doctor and Ace story - all the reason for me to enjoy it more…but what I heard was a lot of very bad accents that put me off right from the start.  I thought the initial idea was very interesting, but it sounded as though Sylvester and Sophie Aldred themselves weren’t that enthused.  Again, my attention wandered all over the place, I just did not feel involved.

As I came to the end of these two, I realised I have been hopefully making lots of comments about how these plays will pick up as they go along, but so far, more of them I am NOT enjoying than I am, by far. So I think, whilst I am going to carry on listening, in future I’ll only review those I enjoy - or else otherwise really have something to say about. They may well pick up, but in the meantime, I don’t get any pleasure out of writing reviews consistently saying why I didn’t like something.  I like those to be the exception, not the rule.  So the Big Finish audios you’ll see reviewed here in future are the ones that grabbed me, for whatever reason. The books I will carry on as usual, as I am finding only the very occasional one I’m not liking there, so no need to change.