Science fiction

He became more powerful than you could possibly imagine

I learn from Facebook comments that the “commonly accepted story” is that (SPOILERS AHEAD for A New Hope) Sir Alec Guinness persuaded George Lucas to kill off the character of Obi-Wan Kenobi so that he could avoid appearing in any Star Wars sequels. (Which, obviously, worked out real well for him.)

This is news to me.  If it’s commonly accepted, it must have only gained such acceptance relatively recently. (Granted, in my case, relative recency would be any time within the last fifteen or twenty years.)  When I was coming up through fandom in the 1990s, very much the commonly accepted story was that Lucas decided to kill off Ben Kenobi upon realising that there was nothing for him to do in the second half of the film other than hang around in the background being ineffective (something Princess Leia already had nailed down quite nicely), and that Guinness was in fact furious at the change.  Here he was, already leery at appearing in this latter-day Flash Gordon-esque, cheap sci fi potboiler, and only having agreed to do so because he had been so impressed by the enthusiastic young writer-director’s insistence that a dignified portrayal of the Kenobi character would imbue the film with a psychological believability—but now he was being told he would spend the second half of the picture as a disembodied voice.

Now, I’m not here arguing that my story is right and the new story is wrong, though personally, until I see a citation for the new version, I’ll be sticking with mine, because I first came across it in Skywalking, the 1983 George Lucas biography.  (In fact, the original account appears to be included in Google Books’s preview of Skywalking.)

No, rather, I’m just fascinated by how the story flipped completely around—from Lucas killing Obi-Wan off over Guinness’s objection to Guinness strong-arming Lucas doing it—yet both, entirely contradictory stories are to illustrate the same conclusion: that staid old Sir Alec Guinness was dismissive of science fiction and came to regret slumming it in Star Wars.

There’s something important (or at least mildly interesting) there, I think, about oral transmission and the myths we build about our past.

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The Doctor has his Day (SPOILERS)

Three DoctorsOn Friday, we passed the fifty years since the deaths of two of the great names of early British fantasists; and then a day later, Britain’s greatest television fantasy reached its fiftieth birthday, and threw itself quite the party.

I’d been somewhat worried about the fiftieth-anniversary special.  Despite my best efforts, I’d been unable to avoid spoilers about all the elements from the last fifty years of Who history that it would be giving screentime to: Daleks and Zygons and Cybermen (about which … um … ?) and David Tennant and Billie Piper.  Combined with the cliffhanger that had ended “The Name of the Doctor”, with the Smith Doctor and Clara trapped in the deepest depths of a vaguely defined “Doctor’s Timestream” in which all his memories and past adventures could haunt them, that had got me really worried that the special would take place in some sort of fantasy dreamland in which gratuitous continuity references could be hurled at us for eighty minutes as placeholders for an actual story or dramatic tension, a la “The Five Doctors”.

But I will happily admit I felt a lot better after seeing “The Night of the Doctor“.  That reassured me that the special was going to approach things in what I think is exactly the right way: more self-indulgent than we’d expect of a typical Doctor Who story, to be sure, and with some continuity elements that were going to be baffling to audience members who didn’t understand their history, but with the needs of the story still supreme and with every allusion and reference and onscreen recurrence having an actual, legitimate justification for appearing.

As a piece of nostalgia and as a celebration of Doctor Who, I think “The Day of the Doctor” does its job wonderfully well.  By its end I was grinning with happiness.  It was full of love for the programme it was honouring, it was funny, it was dramatic.  It gave us a climax that I think we all have known was inevitable, in one form or another, for many years, and because of the occasion it was able to give us that climax in a way that made it as special a moment for us as it was for the Doctor.

(And I will freely admit that I spent much of the episode thinking, See? This is exactly what I was talking about!”)

Billie Piper was excellent.  I loved the banter between the three Doctors, which I honestly felt was written better than in any of the previous multi-Doctor stories, and I particularly liked the Smith Doctor’s habit of commenting on allusions to Who history: “Nice scarf!”; “You never do”; “He always says that.”  And was that final cameo by Tom Baker widely known about?  Because I certainly managed to stay unspoilt for it, about which I’m very glad; that wonderful little surprise at the end really made my day.

As a work of storytelling, an episode of Doctor Who and a contribution to Who continuity, “Day” is a lot more mixed, I think.  Of course we all knew from the moment the Moment (hehe) chose to present herself as Rose Tyler that the episode would end with the Hurt Doctor having his memory wiped of events.  But I think that by using that memory loss to allow him never to have destroyed Gallifrey, never to have pushed that big red button, Steven Moffat struck a real blow at the character of the Doctor as it’s been constructed over the last eight years.

The Doctor pushed that button.  The Doctor murdered every Time Lord and every Gallifreyan.  Throughout the RTD and Moffat production eras–particularly the RTD era–that has been who he is.  It’s not just a matter of him thinking he once did it, it’s a matter of him being someone who did do it–a matter of him having been the Doctor, as the Smith Doctor so wonderfully puts it, on the day it was impossible to get it right.  There are so many times over the course of New Who when the Doctor opts to once again push that button or this time not to push it, and the dramatic impact of those moments is very much informed by our knowledge, as the viewer, that he is a man who has pushed that button before, knowing that there would be no escape, and who could choose to push it again in the same circumstances: when he refuses to unleash the delta wave in “The Parting of the Ways”, when he drops the impossible planet into the black hole in “The Satan Pit”, when he shows Miss Hartigan what she has become in “The Next Doctor”, when he flirts with megalomania in “The Waters of Mars”, when he sacrifices himself to seal the cracks in the universe in “The Big Bang”.

All those moments now have been altered.  The Doctor no longer is someone who definitely can get it wrong, because he no longer is someone who definitely did get it wrong when it mattered most and there was no right way to get it.  He is a less fallible and therefore less compelling character.

I don’t object to Gallifrey coming back; indeed, I welcome it, as long as it’s handled right–and the writers of the programme for the past eight years have consistently shown me that they can indeed handle potentially tricky continuity morasses like this.  But I object to the Hurt Doctor never having had to press that red button, and I object to him coming out of the situation knowing that he found a way to avoid pressing it, even if that knowledge did then get locked up in his head for four hundred years.

But for me the important thing about “The Day of the Doctor” is how wonderful it was to be a Doctor Who fan yesterday, and how much the episode helped that wonder along.  When we reached the fortieth anniversary ten years ago, the idea of having anything like this for the fiftieth would have been laughable.  But we’ve had a fiftieth-anniversary special that now holds the Guinness record for largest international transmission in history; we’ve had a TV movie about the programme’s genesis; and we’ve had days of national and international celebration.  “The Day of the Doctor” was certainly a worthy entry in all that, and rewatching it in the years ahead is something I will always do with joy.

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To conclude, I’ve got a list here of all the little shout-outs to previous Who, both classic and new, that I’ve noticed, omitting obvious plot-integral things Captain Jack’s vortex manipulator or the appearance of all thirteen Doctors in the climactic sequence.  This is from two viewings, during neither of which did I take notes, so I welcome any other additions people have:

–The opening shot, the policeman’s silhouette on the I.M. Foreman’s Scrapyard gate, is a recreation of the original shot from the programme’s first episode, “An Unearthly Child”.

–Clara is teaching at Coal Hill school, where Ian and Barbara are teaching and Susan is a pupil in “An Unearthly Child” and which the Daleks invade in “Remembrance of the Daleks”.

–We see a portion of the Tennant Doctor’s (or as I like to call him, D-Ten) encounters with Queen Elizabeth I, alluded to in “The Shakespeare Code”.

–River Song’s high heels are held by the Black Archive.

–The Tennant Doctor’s line, “You’ve redecorated! I don’t like it,” a quotation of the Troughton Doctor from “The Three Doctors” and “The Five Doctors”.

–The Brigadier’s old file on the events of “The Three Doctors” being named Cromer.  Nicholas Courtney was very pleased with his ad-lib about Cromer in that story, and I think giving the file that name was lovely.

–The refusal, as in “The Sontaran Stratagem”, to pin down whether the UNIT stories took place in the 70s or 80s.

–The Tennant Doctor’s last words being, “I don’t want to go.”

–Osgood wears a Tom Baker scarf.

–I did rather wonder if the Smith Doctor’s monologue at the end was meant to allude to the McCoy Doctor’s closing monologue in “Survival”.

–I really loved that the Brigadier got explicitly namechecked and his photograph on the companions’ bulletin board got a lingering closeup.  Nicholas Courtney is, I think, the most loyal servant Doctor Who has ever had, and to acknowledge his passing in “The Wedding of River Song” and then to pay tribute to him again on this day of days have both been perfect moments.

–On the subject of that bulletin board, I also really liked that we saw the different faces of UNIT over the decades pictured alongside the companions they were apparently checking on: Captain Yates and Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart and Brigadier Bambera and Captain Magambo and Kate Lethbridge-Stewart.  Nicely done.

The Time Lord and his ladies

Spoilers for the seven series of New Who, concentrating on the plot and character arcs of the five primary companions

Saturday night I saw Star Trek: Skyfall, then came home and watched the Who finale, “The Name of the Doctor”.  So I spent a lot of that night watching loving homages to Classic Who and Original Series Trek that had clearly been made by people who care about those things as much as I do, and I loved every second of it.  A lot of effort obviously went into crafting things designed to bring joy to longtime, old-school fans, and I appreciate that.  Especially with Doctor Who–the technical achievement we saw in “The Name of the Doctor” was clearly a longtime coming in both conception and execution, long enough that it was already in a pretty advanced stage by the time that worst of Who episodes, “Let’s Get Hitler”, was produced back in 2011.

But there was something else that really struck me about “The Name of the Doctor”, something troubling.  I’ve been noticing bits and pieces of it at least as far back as “School Reunion” in 2006, and it’s always bothered me.

When Doctor Who repremiered in 2005, much was made of the new attitude the programme would now have toward the Doctor’s female companions.  They would be intelligent, active, independent and competent, not the ditzy, over-terrified sexist stereotypes that we were assured they had been throughout the programme’s first twenty-six seasons.  I long ago debunked the idea that ditzy, over-terrified companions were ever a common thing on Doctor Who, or that capable, confident companions were any sort of departure for the programme.  But this is more than that.  The more I look at it, the more it’s a central message of New Who that the Doctor’s female companions–women who we’re regularly told are special, unique, transcendent individuals in a way we never were in the classic programme–are of value only insofar as they submit themselves to the Doctor.

RosevsMarthaRose and Martha

Much got made during the RTD era of the effect the Doctor had on his companions, of how he made them flourish, capable of more than they would have been otherwise, whether we saw that as a good thing (“But she was better when she was with you!”) or bad (“He fashions his friends into weapons.”).  Three of RTD’s four series finales turn on the companion saving the universe (and the Doctor) by achieving some feat that shouldn’t be humanly possible.

First you’ve got Rose, cracking the TARDIS open and taking the time vortex into herself; then Martha, who spends a year wandering the post-apocalyptic Earth, spreading word of the Doctor.  Rose refuses to accept her separation from the Doctor and goes to any lengths, including physically impossible ones, to return to him, as she will later do once again with the dimension cannon.  Martha, on the other hand, walks away from the Doctor.  She sacrifices him, as she sacrifices her family, as she sacrifices at least a degree of her own humanity–when she returns to England at the beginning of “Last of the Time Lords”, she is a visibly harder, less merciful, less empathetic person.  Rose rips apart the fabric of space and time to satisfy her own desire to be with the Doctor, whereas Martha spends a whole year in a literal hell on Earth, surviving entirely on her own, telling everyone she meets the importance of having faith in the very man who failed to save her, her family or her world.

And yet of the two, who is routinely treated as the example of the perfect companion, the one who surpasses all others?  Whose sacrifice is considered greater?  Even the Master laughs at Martha’s trauma, derisively citing Rose as her better, because Rose stared into the time vortex in order to return to the Doctor.  The Master, who never even met Rose, thinks immediately of her when trying to come up with an example of companions superior to Martha, rather than thinking of, say, the companion whose brain had such a capacity for mathematics that the Master actually kidnapped him and wired him into his own TARDIS, then was able to harness that mental capacity into constructing solid illusions capable of invading the Doctor’s TARDIS.

After They Leave the Doctor

It is true that time with the Doctor seems to leave his companions more capable, more accomplished individuals.  New Who has shown us Sarah Jane, Martha and Donna all excelling in their independent lives–in Donna’s case, even after just a few hours and a single adventure with the Doctor.  Of course, Donna turns herself into a professional, perceptive investigator of suspicious situations not because the events of “The Runaway Bride” opened her eyes to the dangers Earth faces constantly and awakened in her a desire to be involved in foiling those dangers; no, she’s simply going to places she thinks she’s likely to find the Doctor so that she can hopefully run into him again.  And, in fact, her veneer of accomplished professionalism is just a charade; she’s actually empty and deeply unfulfilled so long as she can’t find the Doctor.

But that’s okay, right, because after she does finally reunite with the Doctor, she and we discover that she’s the Most Important Woman in the Universe?  Donna, of course, believes that’s impossible–she believes she can only be important because she’s associated with someone of real importance, the Doctor.  But the Doctor assures her that no, the importance is hers and hers alone.  So what is that importance?  Why is Donna the Most Important Woman in the Universe?  Because she happens to be the one who’s there to give the Doctor a hand (literally) when he needs it.  If it had been Rose or Jack who were the last ones out of the TARDIS aboard the Dalek spaceship, we’d be talking about the DoctorRose or the DoctorJack.

Yes, Donna then saves the day during the final confrontation with Davros, but critically, it is only the Doctor part of Donna that does so.  It’s the new intelligence and perception that the addition of Time Lord genetics has given her; there is, again, no reason it had to be Donna involved here rather than anyone else.  And if we really want to get all feminist-critical-theory over this, there’s the very obvious subtext to the idea that what makes Donna special, what allows Donna to fulfill her potential, is that she serves as a receptacle for the Doctor’s genetic code.

At least Sarah Jane achieves for realsies what Donna was only playing at: she’s an actual investigator and defender of Earth.  Which is not to say she ever got over the Doctor; it’s important that former companions never get over him.  She waited for him, pined after him–clearly she felt a romantic love for him that she did a remarkably good job of hiding, since she showed nary a single sign of it during her actual time in the TARDIS.

Still, she’s overcome being abandoned by the Doctor and has made a life for herself as a truly exceptional person.  She’s never found the right man to settle down with, of course, but that’s a perfectly reasonable choice for a character like Sarah Jane–she’s simply not someone who’d necessarily need a romantic relationship at the centre of her life.  Which is all fine, until Sarah states outright that the reason she never found the right man is because no man could ever measure up to the Doctor.  Sarah Jane Smith was introduced to Doctor Who as the explicit representative of feminism, a driven, focused, professional woman; a woman who took it upon herself to lecture the Queen of Peladon on the women’s lib movement.  But when New Who gets a hold of her, we find out that the reason she never got married is not because she simply didn’t need a man to make her life complete; it is, rather, because being friends with the Doctor ruined her for all other men.

Come.  The fuck.  On.

Which leaves only Martha.  Martha is the only companion of the RTD era, and possibly of New Who as a whole (I’d consider Amy a borderline case), to make the conscious choice that she has outgrown the Doctor, that she is ready to face life after the TARDIS.  She leaves entirely under her own steam at the end of series three in a scene that’s a neat parallel to her walking away from the Doctor in the cliffhanger at the end of the prior episode and heading off alone to face whatever the Earth has to throw at her.  She forges her own path–and the Doctor absolutely despises her for it.

Martha chooses to make a difference in the world by joining an organisation that the Doctor himself devoted six seasons of his life to, an organisation built by his closest friend–and yet he regards Martha has having placed herself under suspicion by having joined the organisation.  And we as viewers aren’t directed to take issue with the Doctor’s reaction, to see him as some sort of emotional predator who demands adoration and complete submission from the women he takes with him on his journeys–no, it would seem we’re supposed to agree with him for being disappointed with and suspicious of Martha for joining UNIT.

The Women With the High Concept Nicknames

The Most Important Woman in the Universe.  The Girl Who Waited.  The Impossible Girl.

(Why is Clara infantilised as the Impossible Girl instead of the Impossible Woman?  Is it possibly for the same reason that the Doctor–the fucking Doctor–, when trying to distill the sheer, fascinating impossibility of her into a single sentence, actually devotes more words to how eyecatching her ass is than to the fact that he keeps meeting iterations of her scattered throughout his timeline and watching them die— “A mystery wrapped in an enigma squeezed into a skirt that’s just a bit too tight.”  I am going to puzzle out this impossible womangirl, puzzle out what the universe is trying to tell me through her very existence, and defeat whatever profound danger she represents.  And then, Jesus H. Christ I’m gonna hit that.)

Amy, the Girl Who Waited.  Her nickname is a regular reminder of her deeply creepy origin story.  The Doctor meets her when she’s a child, promises he’s about to admit her to a universe of wonder and adventure, and then vanishes for twelve years.  Returns, shows her that that universe of adventure is real, that he is real, and then vanishes for another two years, before ultimately returning to bring her aboard the TARDIS.  The Doctor is grooming her.  He grooms her to regard him as the most wonderful person possible, as her only gateway to an escape to the life she dreams of.  He grooms her to respond to his sporadic arrivals in her life by dropping any other priorities she has so she can place herself at his disposal.  And he grooms her not to expect anything from him in return–not even his presence, or the idea that he’s under any obligation to keep promises he makes for her.

And now we come to Clara, the Impossible Girl.  Whose impossibility, we discovered on Saturday, exists purely so that she can save the Doctor, over and over again, all throughout his life.  Even if we assume River’s line about “millions” of Claras being created is hyperbole, there must still be, at a minimum, thousands.  Thousands of Claras, through all of time and space, whom, it would seem, are all born, live only the first twenty or twenty-five years of their lives, and then have their encounter with the Doctor–a few minutes, a few hours, a few days; the whole purpose of their life.  And then, apparently, they die.

And Clara is fine with that.  She’s fine with the idea that on a thousand different worlds in a thousand different times, she has lived a thousand different lives, each of them to help the Doctor on one of his adventures.  More than that, she’s proud of it.  “I was born to save the Doctor, and the Doctor is safe now.  I’m the Impossible Girl, and my story is done.”

It’s not there in Classic Who.  In Classic Who, the Doctor is the leader, yes, and he inspires his companions’ trust.  But the companions (generally) leave of their own free will, either because they have outgrown their need for him or because they have found another calling that compels them more.  But in New Who, the message is clear: these exceptional women have tremendous potential, but they fulfill that potential only by pledging themselves totally to serving the Doctor.

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Hopefully she won’t end up murdering my father-in-law, then being possessed by his ghost

After posting

to Twitter last week, it suddenly occurred to me–hey, it would be awesome to dress Girl as St Alia of the Knife for Dragon*Con this year.

Not sure how we’d do the Fremen eyes. The rest of it should be pretty straightforward, and she loves dressing up

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The Zero Hour
Words yesterday: 4792
Words total: 19,250

Time spent writing: 2pm-4pm; 6pm-8.30
Reason for stopping: tapped out
Darling: She gave him a smile–a sad one–to acknowledge that he had at least attempted subtlety in asking about her husband.
Words that boggled Word: catalogue, doorframe
New words today: spats, dwelling, fingerless

MarsCon



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This weekend we headed down to Williamsburg for MarsCon.  I can’t do a pictorial overview like I did for DragonCon, because there’s much less spectacle and therefore fewer pictures.  But everyone had a great time.  Lisa, I think, liked it especially because it’s such a smaller scale than DragonCon–there were about twelve hundred guests–and therefore she didn’t have to deal with crowds, of which she’s no fan.

Lisa and a lifesized Cassandra
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We went to a few things we wouldn’t have gone to at DragonCon, like the bellydancing show and the charity auction (both at Boy’s instigation), and really enjoyed ourselves.  Girl especially enjoyed herself at the auction–she figured out the game and started raising her hand every time a new bid was called for.  And the kids’ programming we went to–a kids’ science activity session and a how-to-draw Star Wars characters session–were small enough that the kids actually got to interact with the presenters.

Three Doctor Who cosplayers
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I was gratified at the profile Doctor Who had around the con.  The most common costumes were zombies, because that was this year’s theme, and steampunk, because that’s the trendy fashion nowadays.  But once we get into the specific franchise costumes, there were about four or five Star Wars costumes, four or five Star Trek costumes, and at least two dozen Doctor Who costumes.  Who was also the only TV/movie franchise to get its own dedicated panel, albeit one that was rather dampened by the one attendee who shouted down anyone who mentioned the programme’s current production era without expressing hatred for Moffatt’s approach to Doctor Who.

A Dalek cosplayer
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So we’ll be heading back again next year–and hopefully we’ll have the sense to book a hotel room when we pre-register for the con, in which case the hotel won’t be sold out by the time we go looking for a room.  As it was we stayed two miles up the road from the Holiday Inn where MarsCon was held, and yet somehow there two more Holiday Inns between us and them.  Seriously, three Holiday Inns in a two-mile stretch on one road.

The bellydance show
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And the space shuttle? That was mine.

Twitter screencap

I first heard the word internet on an episode of seaQuest DSV.

I remember this because I had actually recently made up the word internet for a science fiction story I was writing. To name an international network, I’d combined international and network. How original am I.

(Actually, I have a feeling I’d combined interplanetary and network or interstellar and network.)

And my reaction to the word’s use on seaQuest was to think, Damn. Now I can’t use that word, because now it’s a seaQuest word. Everyone’s going to think I stole it from seaQuest.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

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If you don’t see a YouTube video above this text, check out the original post to see it.

Dragon*Con

Eleventh Doctor and Amy Me and Idris

It’s been a hectic couple of weeks for me.  Earthquake one day.  The next day, I left on an unexpected trip to England, which then got unexpectedly protracted by two days.  I finally did get back, at ten p.m. Tuesday night.  Then, at nine a.m. Thursday, we headed out again.  First, we spent the morning at Boy’s orientation for kindergarten, meeting his teacher and seeing his classroom.

Then we set out directly for Atlanta, driving eleven hours that afternoon and evening and two hours the following morning, and by ten o’clock Friday we were at Dragon*Con.

Cosplaying children: soldier and princess Snake Eyes and the Baronness

This was our second year at the con, and I deliberately set out to make sure that we had a chance to have some experiences this year that we hadn’t had last year.  The first of those was getting Boy down there to take a look around.  (Last year, he spent the weekend touring Atlanta with his grandparents.  We’d planned for him to come down one afternoon, but he never made it.  I’m genuinely unsure whether his decidedly non-geek grandparents simply never found the time, or whether they were somehow trying to shield him from the geekery.)

So Friday afternoon I headed back to our hotel in Dunwoody, picked Boy up and headed into the city with him on the subway.  He was excited about going, but I was worried that once he got there in amongst the crowds and the cosplayers that he’d freak out.

Boy with the characters of Strawberry Shortcake

I needn’t have been concerned–he loved every second of it.  To the point of walking right up to Darth Vaders and Godzillas, tapping them to get their attention and asking to have his picture taken with them.  (We’d run into an Eleventh Doctor and River Song on the train, so I think that primed him on what to expect.)  Star Wars characters, Doctor Who characters, Disney characters–he got excited any time we saw any of them.

Saturday morning, I took him to the DragonCon parade.  The crowd in front of us let him through to the front so he could sit on the kerb, and again, he had a great time–especially when a pair of Ghostbusters in the parade mistook him for a poltergeist and attempted to set their trap for him.

The Ninth Doctor, Rose, the Tenth Doctor and Boy

Then Lisa took him with her to a Phineas and Ferb panel where, after initially being somewhat shy, he apparently not only started raising his hand to offer his own comments, but eventually refused to put it down, raising his hand for his next question or comment as soon as he had finished his last one.  After that, we took him to the lightsabre training for kids programme, where he had a blast learning how to whack other kids with sticks.

(In retrospect, maybe that wasn’t the best panel to take to him to three days before the first day of kindergarten.)

On a trip to Kings Dominion a couple of weeks ago, we got Boy a double-ended lightsabre.  I told him I wanted to take a picture of him wielding it, and he so perfectly dropped into character for the photo that I was convinced then that he’d enjoy cosplaying at DragonCon.

Boy with lightsabre

We therefore got him a gas mask, and though he wore it around the house all week (really creeping Lisa out by asking, “Are you my mummy?“), he proved entirely unwilling to don it once we got to the con.  I think perhaps next year we’ll try him with a costume that doesn’t require covering his face–I don’t know whether he felt like he was missing too much with the gas mask goggles on, or he was simply too aware of the fact that he was in fancy dress, but I do think the facemask was the root of his problem.  Friends have suggested he should dress as Harry Potter, but I’m inclined to wait on that until he at least knows who Harry Potter is.  Perhaps we’ll see about making him a miniature Doctor costume.

The other thing I wanted to do this DragonCon was sample a more varied array of programming.  This largely came about because of the con’s new smartphone app.  There’s so much different programming going on all the time at DragonCon that last year, using the huge, unwieldy paper grid, I basically just ended up going to most of the BritTrack panels, with a few big celebrity panels thrown in.

Eleventh Doctor and Amy Two young women as Robin and Batman

But with the app, I was able to see every panel for a given time in one place (critically, I was also able to see every panel’s description), and I could tag all the different ones that caught my eye.  So I ended up at the Star Trek track, the American Sci Fi Media track, the SF/Fantasy Literature track, the Alternate History track and a couple of others.

And it highlighted to me how Dragon is really about a half-dozen cons all coexisting side by side.  (Which is, obviously, the secret of its success–it attracts so much enthusiasm because of its huge population.)

Like on Sunday night, when I went to Michael Stackpole’s panel on Robert E. Howard’s original Conan the Barbarian stories (a panel that convinced me I finally need to crack open that copy of The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian I’ve had for several years).  I’d never been to any programming down in the Lit track’s little cave.  It turned out to be on the fourth floor down in the Hyatt.

Slave Leia Me with a pirate wench

The first floor one enters in the Hyatt has the hotel bar, the street entrance, reception, and the bridges to the Marriott and the food court/subway station, so it’s packed with con-goers and hotel guests and cosplayers.  Only the Marriott is busier or louder or more crowded or slower moving.  Then you go down a floor, and you’re in a big lobby giving access to another street entrance, to one of the con’s big ballrooms, and to the screening room for the con film festival.  So it’s almost as busy as upstairs.

The third floor down has some gaming tables and the comic book Artists’ Alley, so it has some much smaller, dedicated crowds for those two things, plus a bit of overflow from the two floors above.

And then you get down to the bottom floor, where the lit track is, and it’s honestly like stepping into another world.  Emptier.  Quieter.  Much older, with almost no one under forty.  And with many fewer cosplayers.  From one perspective, it’s a quiet retreat where people are celebrating the roots of where almost everything else at DragonCon comes from.  From another, it’s a bunch of people who are actually missing what most of us think of when we think of DragonCon.

Clockwork android Jessica Rabbit and me

Two last good bits I want to make sure to mention.  The first was Sylvester McCoy’s panel on Friday morning, where I got to hear Sylvester both play the spoons and do a dramatic reading of Matt Smith’s speech from “The Pandorica Opens”.  And the other was at the small Red Dwarf panel on Sunday morning, where the closest thing to a celebrity was the guy who voiced the toaster on the programme (actually, he was only on for three episodes, so it would be more accurate to describe him as the guy who originated the voice of the toaster)–who actually turned out to be one of the funniest, most engaging panelists I’ve ever encountered at a convention.

And in closing, an Ariel cosplayer.  These pictures were taken, respectively, Friday night and Saturday night, and I didn’t realise they had been of the same girl until yesterday.  Well-played, Ariel.  Well-played.

Ariel and Boy Ariel

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Say what you mean, and mean what you say

Christopher LloydIt’s a habit of mine that when I encounter a misused word or misleadingly incorrect punctuation, I pretend to myself that the person actually meant what they said or wrote. So, for instance, when the receptionist tells me the doctor will be with me momentarily, I pretend she actually meant momentarily (“for a moment”), and that I’ll be shown back to an examining room where the doctor will shake my hand, say hello, and then depart, ending the appointment.

Christopher Lloyd is coming to DragonCon this year. And I refer you to the last line of his bio:

Lloyd won an Independent Spirit Award for his chilly depiction as a soulless murderer in Twenty Bucks.

I

The five stories that should be exterminated

The human Dalek SekJust as the Daleks have given us some of the best Doctor Who over the years, they’ve also been witness to some of the poorest. Here, then, are my five least favourite Dalek stories. But when it comes to Doctor Who, it seems nothing can ever be wholly without merit, so for each story, I’ve also added a brief section at the end, detailing those little moments of pleasure mixed in amongst all the awfulness.

An invisible Dalek5. “Planet of the Daleks”. Jon Pertwee (third Doctor), season 10, 1973. Written by Terry Nation; directed by David Maloney.

There’s nothing really horrible about “Planet of the Daleks”, which is why it’s down here at no. 5 rather than further up on the list. It’s just that it doesn’t really work–it’s relentless mediocre. The central premise of Dalek research into invisibility is a bit silly, but that’s hardly enough to scuppered pretty much every other Who story ever made. The invisible aliens themselves are bit silly, though they get considerably worse when they make themselves visible by donning the purple pelts of skinned animals–pelts so shiny and clean and silky that they genuinely look like an army of Grimaces.

What redeems it: I do rather like the character of Rebec, mostly because of the actress, I think–Jane How has some sort of very watchable quality about her. There’s also the Doctor’s final speech to the Thals, about not glamourising the experience of war.

The new Daleks confront the Doctor4. “Victory of the Daleks”. Matt Smith (eleventh Doctor), season 31, 2010. Written by Mark Gatiss; directed by Andrew Gunn.

When it first aired, I talked about the problems “Victory of the Daleks” created for itself by attempting to shoehorn its premise–a very good premise, on its own–into the limiting formula of having to accommodate one of New Who’s “celebrity historicals”; this only gets compounded by the fact that the historical celebrity in question is thoroughly underserved by the story. And when you bring in Sir Winston Churchill and then treat him like this, you’re always going to lose my sympathy. But what really knocks the story down into “five worst” territory is the unveiling of the new, redesigned Daleks. I don’t mind the obviously marketing-minded decision to give us a rainbow of new Daleks each with their own candy flavour. I don’t mind the weird, blocky mounting for the gun and sucker. What I mind is that they’re humpbacked. Perhaps you have to see them in person, handle them to really understand just how ungainly they are–certainly the moment that drove it home for me was finding a red drone Dalek on the shelf at my local comic book store. They are seriously carrying so much junk in their trunk that they genuinely look like they’re supposed to be played like a panto horse, with one guy running the front and a second running the arse.

Ironside DalekWhat redeems it: It’s a little bit ironic (don’t ya think?) that in the story that gives us the naffest Daleks ever, it also gives us pretty much the coolest Daleks ever–the Ironsides. Seriously–how can you beat Daleks painted in olive drab, with tiny Union Jacks emblazoned on them, their ear-light things covered over to stop them being spotted from the air, utility belts draped over their shoulders? The prospect of Spitfires flying into orbit to duel with a Dalek spaceship is also pretty damn cool.

Dracula vs a Dalek3. “The Chase”. William Hartnell (first Doctor), season 3, 1965. Written by Terry Nation; directed by Richard Martin.

The Daleks’ third outing, in which they build their own cardboard doorway time machine and pursue our intrepid TARDIS crew through time and space, isn’t so much a cohesive story as a series of set pieces. We see the Doctor, Ian, Barbara and Vicki flee from the Daleks on the desert planet Aridius; we see them flee from the Daleks atop the Empire State Building in 1965; we see them flee from the Daleks aboard the Mary Celeste; we see them flee from the Daleks in an animatronic funhouse; and finally we see them flee from the Daleks on the jungle planet Mechanus. Real low points include the bizarre sight of the Daleks fleeing in terror from Dracula and Frankenstein, and the android “replica” of the Doctor the Daleks construct to infiltrate and murder the group. This replica looks absolutely nothing like William Hartnell, but even if we’re willing to play along and pretend that he’s identical to the Doctor, we’re then treated to the sight of Barbara and Vicki eventually realising which Doctor is real and which is fake for no good reason.

What redeems it: Peter Purves’s Alabama yokel, confronted by a Dalek on the observation deck of the Empire State Building, walking in a full circle around the creature, and the stationary Dalek’s eyestalk rotating 360 degrees to follow him, is an undeniably endearing moment; indeed, the Daleks’ appearance at the Empire State Building in the first place brings a smile now, since we learnt in 2007 that it was actually the Daleks who constructed the great skyscraper in the first place (see below). Also fun is the signage the camera pans across just before we fade away from the monster funhouse: Frankenstein’s House of Horrors, $10; Festival of Ghana, 1996–cancelled by order of Peking. Just how many distinct fears of the future can we find in that brief message? We’ve got China dominating Africa; we’ve got the British Commonwealth using American currency.

A Dalek flanked by a pair of pig slaves2. “Daleks in Manhattan”. David Tennant (tenth Doctor), season 29, 2007. Written by Helen Raynor; directed by James Strong.

It’s just silly, from the title onwards. It also suffers from the fact that the central point of its story, the event on which the cliffhanger separating the two episodes of the story hinges (episode two is entitled “Evolution of the Daleks”) isn’t actually an interesting one–nobody particularly wants to see a “human-Dalek hybrid”. The very appeal of the Daleks is that they aren’t human. It’s actually a shame that most of the hybrid prosthetic is so well done, because it’s completely undercut by those jiggling, twitching vestigial phalli dangling off its cheeks.

What redeems it: I guess there’s just inherent comedy value in Daleks turning their heads, because the moment that always elicits a smile in this disappointing story is when the two Daleks beneath the sewer drain draw together to start discussing treason, and one of them actually looks over its shoulder to make sure they’re not being overheard.

The Movellans1. “Destiny of the Daleks”. Tom Baker (fourth Doctor), season 17, 1979. Written by Terry Nation; directed by Ken Grieve.

Tom Baker is the longest-serving actor in Doctor Who’s title role, but his tenure coincided with the biggest dearth of Dalek stories the programme has so far experienced: in seven years, he fought the pepperpots only twice. And yet with these stories (the last two Dalek scripts Terry Nation contributed), he managed both the Daleks’ best story and their worst. Nicholas Briggs, who voices both the Daleks and the Cybermen in New Who, has called “Destiny” the Dalek story where “Terry Nation forgot the Daleks aren’t robots”. This seems an accurate summation–and it’s rather odd, considering that at one point in the story the Doctor actually picks up and handles a Kaled Mutant. But the Daleks depicted in “Destiny” are coldly logical machines, who need to find some foreign source from which they can inject ingenuity into their strategic planning. They’re opposed by an equally cold and logical robot warrior race, the Movellans–a more poorly realised “warrior robot” race than whom is difficult to imagine, with their lithe, beautiful bodies, spandex uniforms and glowing pink guns. The Dalek props themselves are fallen to pieces. And then, again as Nick Briggs points out, we’ve got the extras playing the Daleks’ slave workers–extras who smile slightly as the Daleks select them from extermination, then don’t so much fall down when shot as look around for a comfortable place to sit down.

What redeems it: As poor as I think season seventeen is–and it’s one of Doctor Who’s two worst seasons ever–it does have the advantage of having been script edited by Douglas Adams, and every one of its stories contains lovely repartee in dialogue. There’s also the undeniable chemistry between Tom Baker and Lalla Ward, which infects all of the second Romana’s stories–it’s no surprise these two ended up (very briefly) married. But this is pretty minor stuff when set against the consummate awfulness of the story–as you’d expect from the very worst Dalek story ever.

I

The Scholar and the Concubine
Words yesterday: 2018
Words total: 11,331

Time spent writing: 2pm-2.45, 9pm-10.30
Reason for stopping: End of chapter
Darling: He did not speak so brusquely out of disrespect, but rather because he was used to commanding men, and not at all to conversing with women.
Words that boggled Word: gartered
New words today: urbane, handmaid, wimple

The five stories that will exterminate you

The Dalek levitatesThe other day I picked the Daleks as my favourite sci-fi villain ever. There’s a lot I love about the Daleks, but one of the big things is that they have been with Doctor Who through the whole shebang. They came in with the very second story, “The Daleks”, and were responsible for turning the show into a hit in the first place; and they were the monster in the most recent story, the season 31 finale, “The Big Bang”. And in all the intervening 31 seasons, they’ve been the Doctor’s most constant adversary; they only period they’ve been absent for any length of time was when we had only a single Dalek story from season thirteen to season twenty, season seventeen’s “Destiny of the Daleks”.

Because they’re so pervasive throughout Doctor Who, then, they have almost as wide a range of stories–in terms of quality–as the series itself does; there are Dalek stories I’d consider to be amongst Doctor Who’s best stories, and Dalek stories I’d consider amongst its worst. So I have picked out my five favourite and my five least favourite Dalek stories. Today I’m going to go through my five favourites, simply because I think the least favourites will be a bit more fun, so I’m saving those for later.

The Daleks emerge from the Sphere in 'Army of Ghosts'co-5. “Doomsday”. David Tennant (tenth Doctor), season 28, 2006. Written by Russell T Davies; directed by Graeme Harper.

I struggled really hard picking between “Doomsday” and “Remembrance of the Daleks”, then realised that actually, the only authority that gets to decide how many stories I list in my five favourite Dalek stories is me. So. Of the two, if I had to, I’d probably take “Remembrance” as the better story, but I’d be heartbroken to leave out “Doomsday”. The first episode (titled “Army of Ghosts”) has, hands down, the best cliffhanger Doctor Who has managed since 1988–I put it at number ten of my favourite television cliffhangers ever. Its other best moment is when the Daleks start trash-talking the Cyber Leader–a moment clearly inspired by the commentary from Terrence Dicks and Peter Davison on “The Five Doctors” DVD, which must have inspired Russell T Davies to agree with Our Terrence and make it a part of the Doctor Who canon, once and for all, that Daleks are more badass than Cybermen.

Ace attacks an Imperial Dalek with a baseball batco-5. “Remembrance of the Daleks”. Sylvester McCoy (seventh Doctor), season 25, 1988. Written by Ben Aaronovitch; directed by Andrew Morgan.

Officially “Silver Nemesis” was Doctor Who’s twenty-fifth anniversary story, but that was just so they could put silver in the title–it’s “Remembrance” that’s the real anniversary story. The Doctor and Ace return to Shoreditch in 1963, mere hours after a pair of teachers from Coal Hill School, Ian and Barbara, followed one of their pupils, Susan, into strangely humming police call box and found themselves whisked off to Neanderthal times with Susan’s mysterious grandfather–in Doctor Who’s very first episode, “An Unearthly Child”. Now, in 1963, the Doctor and Ace discover suburban London caught up in a Dalek civil war, as a pair of factions vie for possession of a powerful Time Lord artefact the Doctor and Susan left behind on their prior visit here. It’s a continuity-fest utterly inaccessible to the casual viewer (hence why it’s at number five), but it’s incredible fun. The final appearance of Michael Sheard (Admiral Ozzel in The Empire Strikes Back), who had appeared as a string of guest characters in the 1970s in such stories as “Pyramids of Mars” and “The Invisible Enemy”, and the first appearance of William Thomas, the only actor (so far) to have appeared in Classic Who, New Who and Torchwood. The first time we see Daleks levitate (camera trickery had been used to achieve the effect in “Revelation of the Daleks”, but here special effects actually allow us to see a Dalek glide up the stairs).

'Revelation of the Daleks'4. “Revelation of the Daleks”. Colin Baker (sixth Doctor), season 22, 1985. Written by Eric Saward; directed by Graeme Harper.

If I were to try to get a New Who adherent interested in the programme’s first 26 seasons, I’d start with “Revelation of the Daleks”–because if the story had never got made in the 1980s, they could take Eric Saward’s script and shoot it, without rewrites (except for a search-and-replace to change “Peri” to “Amy”), today. It is perfectly-pitched dark comedy, a macabre, science-fictional horror story. It’s “funeral parlour–of the future!”, the same way the RTD era gave us “hospital–of the future!”, “rush hour–of the future!” and “library–of the future!” It’s directed by the only director to have helmed episodes of both the classic programme and the new programme. (He directed “Doomsday”, above.) The story turns on its bizarre, bizarre characters: the creepy, ugly, womanising funeral director; his overweight assistant, besotted with him, the only woman he won’t flirt with; the Laurel and Hardy workers who show a cruel sadism when they’re given the chance; the obvious Don-Quixote-and-Sancho analogues of the aging assassin and his squire. The character of the goofy radio DJ obsessed with the rock’n’roll music he constantly plays to the funeral parlour’s corpses is pure Russell T Davies, though I do wonder if the New Era would have been able to turn him into the tragic hero he becomes in his final scene. It’s even falls during season 22, so it’s in two 45-minute episodes rather than four 25-minute episodes.

Dalek in front of Big Ben3. The Dalek Invasion of Earth“. William Hartnell (first Doctor), season 2, 1964. Written by Terry Nation; directed by Richard Martin.

The Daleks are never more of a Nazi-analogue than they are here, in their second appearance. It’s essentially a science fiction take on a Nazi occupation of Britain, and it combines its chilling portrayal of that with some of Doctor Who’s most iconic images ever, the Daleks rolling through Trafalgar Square or across Westminster Bridge. I’ve reviewed “The Dalek Invasion of Earth” at length on the past; click on the link above to read it.

The Dalek and Rose2. “Dalek”. Christopher Eccleston (ninth Doctor), season 27, 2005. Written by Robert Shearman; directed by Joe Ahearne.

The reintroduction of the Daleks for the first time in the revived Doctor Who series is just about as perfect as a Dalek story can get–and it only has a single Dalek in it. It’s basically a retelling of Alien, with a significant dollop of King Kong thrown in. That produces a tense, claustrophobic horror story. But what really makes “Dalek” work is the clear determination on the part of everyone involved–the production designers, writer, director, producer–to make sure that the Dalek in “Dalek” really does come across as just as threatening, just as lethal, just as powerful, just as awesome to a 2005 audience as the original iteration of the species did to the 1963 audience back in “The Daleks”. In this, they’re aided by the fact that Daleks had been absent from television screens for sixteen years, and they succeed immaculately. Add what’s probably my favourite homage New Who has ever paid the classic programme, the re-creation of the point-of-view shot that marked the Daleks’ very first appearance in the series, with Rose replacing Barbara.

Davros and the first Daleks1. “Genesis of the Daleks”. Tom Baker (fourth Doctor), season twelve, 1975. Written by Terry Nation, directed by David Maloney.

“Genesis”, in which the Doctor, Sarah Jane and Harry find themselves sent back to the final days of the Kaled-Thal War on the planet Skaro in a bid to prevent the creation of the Daleks, is my favourite episode of Doctor Who ever. It’s possibly the most atmospheric piece of television I’ve ever seen–tonally, everything it sets out to achieve, it accomplishes. The claustrophobia of two peoples who live their entire lives in tunnels underground, the world above them torn apart by a thousand years of war. The real sense that the Doctor and his companions have stepped into a time whose events aren’t quite clear to us, though we know their result: the creation of the Daleks. And in the closing episodes, the almost tangible aura of this is all there is left–that these few corridors and the people (and Daleks) in them are the only remainder of Kaled and Thal civilisation. And over the course of the six parts, as we watch two civilisations fall and a thousand-year war end in apocalypse, then see the handful of survivors fight for their lives and the opportunity to start anew, it conveys a sense of the epic that I have very rarely found anywhere else.

The Scholar and the Concubine
Words yesterday: 2239
Words total: 6925

Time spent writing: 1.15-2.45; 8.30-midnight
Reason for stopping: Quota
Darling: A foolish question, but one did not point that out when so august a personage asked it.
Words that boggled Word: taberna, Hagia
New words today: dank, quiver, linen, dean

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