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Posts Tagged ‘Douglas Adams’

Terry Nation is a writer who I’ve been considering writing about for ages. He remains an interesting figure; high profile (as TV scriptwriters go) and divisive – no less a figure than Stephen Fry has praised Nation’s mastery of a certain type of storytelling, while on the other hand Sue Perryman’s catchphrase (‘Terry ****ing Nation!’) more than adequately encapsulates the views of those people who find his scripts rather hard work.

I find Nation’s work to be rather exasperating: while he wrote several really important Doctor Who stories, only one of them is genuinely great, and much of the rest of the time his scripts feel like they’ve been phoned in (there’s a funny interview on one of the DVDs where Barry Letts recalls pointing out to Nation his tendency to try and sell them the same script year after year). Outside of Doctor Who, the two key Nation series are surely Survivors and Blake’s 7 – now, I like both these shows a great deal, but I also find that their quality significantly spikes once Nation himself cuts back on his creative involvement. One would be tempted to peg him as an ideas man with no real facility for actual plotting, were it not for the dearth of actual imagination in so many of the Dalek stories.

On the other hand… well, I’ve been watching Destiny of the Daleks again, Nation’s 1979 contribution and quite possibly the first thing by the writer I ever saw. On paper this looks like it should have ‘classic’ written all over it: the most iconic Doctor taking on his most iconic enemies, with a script handled by arguably the two biggest names ever to write for 20th century Doctor Who, Terry Nation and Douglas Adams.

destiny

Having recently equipped the TARDIS with a device which can make it land somewhere entirely random at the start of each new adventure, the Doctor quite naturally finds himself on a planet he has already visited on three previous occasions: the unhappy planet Skaro, birthplace of the Daleks (though he doesn’t realise this for a bit). With his newly-regenerated companion Romana he sets about poking about on the ruined planet, intrigued by signs of drilling operations and the presence of not just a slave labour force but a starship crewed by the enigmatic Movellans. Why are all these people, not to mention the Daleks themselves, here on Skaro?

Destiny of the Daleks is not a story which enjoys a stellar reputation. I seem to recall that even Terry Nation himself was not exactly enthused by the realisation of his scripts, nor the rewrites Adams performed on them (‘Adams added a lot of silly jokes’, according to John Peel). And I suppose it’s easy to see why: the Daleks themselves are not exactly in great form, with the prop casings themselves clearly in frightfully bad nick, and Nation’s grasp of continuity (never his strong point) hits a new low. Never mind that the story seems to have forgotten that Davros’ bunker was located several miles from the old Kaled city (who knows, the Daleks may have moved the body – it certainly doesn’t look like the same place), but it pretty much explicitly states that the Daleks at this point are wholly robotic – ‘the Daleks have encountered another race of robots!’ exclaims Davros at one point (my emphasis). Quite when this final mechanisation occurred, or why Davros isn’t more surprised by it, is never addressed.

Personally I’m the sort of person who tends to treat shaky continuity as an engaging problem to be solved, rather a deadly flaw in a story. Certainly there seems to be almost a tendency in fourth Doctor stories for previously-cyborg creatures to become wholly synthetic in nature: the Cybermen are also described as ‘total machine creatures’ on their return appearance. We know from other stories that different factions of Daleks have shown a tendency to evolve in different directions (observe the biological and technical differences between the Imperial and Renegade factions a few stories down the line, not to mention the physical differences between Dalek mutants in the 20th and 21st century series), so it’s not entirely impossible that this particular group have uploaded their consciousnesses into fully robotic casings.

This does present the problem of explaining the manner of the Movellans’ ultimate victory over the Daleks, which was, we are told, based on the Movellans’ exploiting the Daleks’ biological nature by deploying a virus against them. Possibly the Daleks broke the logical impasse with the Movellans by reverting to a partially-biological state of existence, thus giving the Movellans an opening which they exploited.

Then again, the Movellans are a peculiar sort of creation in many ways. My natural instinct when it comes to one of John Peel’s elaborate Dalek-related retcons is to run a mile: his suggestion that the Movellans themselves are Dalek constructs and that this entire story is a bizarre put-up job designed to stop the real Skaro being destroyed is startling, to say the least. On the other hand, it does solve several of the hanging mysteries concerning the Movellans themselves. The Movellan civilisation is evidently quite capable of matching the Daleks when it comes to technological sophistication and ruthlessness, and yet we never hear of them outside of this particular story (the old FASA RPG makes a valiant attempt to boost them to the same level of major threat as the Daleks, Sontarans and Cybermen, but even here you can sense the writers’ hearts aren’t really in it). Even in the story itself, it’s indicated that the Movellans routinely attempt to conceal their robotic nature from others, although they’re quite happy to ‘resurrect’ dead soldiers no matter how odd this looks (and how does this work, exactly? We see no sign of the bodies of Lan and Agella being retrieved from the ruins prior to their reappearance, so are these just copies, rather like the Cylons in 21st century Battlestar Galactica?). What happens to them after they defeat the Daleks? Just who exactly are these guys, and how does their society work?

Well, it’s certainly somewhere with its own special ideas about fashion, anyway. The Movellans are interesting from a cultural viewpoint as they represent one of the very last examples of a certain kind of SF aesthetic in Doctor Who: the shiny-clean-exotic-camp look. Always more of a feature of bad pulp SF, this look was practically obliterated overnight by the appearance of the grimy-used-utilitarian aesthetic in the original Star Wars. The simple look of the Movellans is perhaps one reason why this story is not better regarded, along with (while we’re talking about bad pulp SF) such awkward plot devices as the convenient brains-on-belts idea (Sharrel’s arm also comes off improbably easily in his final struggle, too).

So the continuity is largely a mass of unanswered questions and the story itself is driven along by a collection of frequently-shaky plot devices. And yet this is still a story I have considerable affection for. Whatever the problems with the script, there’s not much wrong with the direction, particularly the steadicam work with the Daleks. And while episode one contains so many Nationisms you almost feel like flinging your arms around it and greeting it as an old friend, elsewhere in the story there are moments of genuine innovation and quality: the stand-off between the Doctor and the Daleks in episode three treats all involved with respect. The Daleks are properly ruthless and intelligent (as, for that matter, is the Doctor). And the central idea of the logical impasse is an intriguing one.

Then again, there’s always the question of how much of a Terry Nation script was actually written by Terry Nation himself. There are certainly enough stories in circulation where rueful script editors recall receiving ‘scripts’ on the backs of fag packets or envelopes and being left to expand these into a workable state while Nation zoomed off to the airport in his sportscar. The truth of this can surely be seen from looking at the four Dalek scripts with Nation’s name on them from the 1970s, for each one of them clearly bears the mark of the script editor involved: the ones overseen by Terrance Dicks are carefully plotted with solid characterisation, if not a lot of new ideas, while the script developed by Robert Holmes is morally sophisticated with a very strong villain (and, by the way, the Daleks are hardly in it). Here, with Douglas Adams as the script editor, we get a story with a very interesting central conceit, some good set pieces, but a slightly shaky grasp of plotting and continuity.

I didn’t really intend this to be a hatchet job on either Terry Nation or Destiny of the Daleks, and yet I find I have largely opted for not much more than faint praise and backhanded compliments. Perhaps this isn’t the greatest story Doctor Who ever told, and perhaps Nation’s talents as a writer were more limited than his reputation might indicate. But in their own way they are both great entertainers.

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The Semi-Obligatory When’s-It-Set Discussion

With Destiny of the Daleks we again run into the problem of the Dalek dating issue I talked about when I discussed Revelation of the Daleks, with the associated problem of the destruction of Skaro in Remembrance of the Daleks and its reappearance in the TV Movie and that silly story with the asylum. I am inclined to stick to my inclination to take on-screen events at face value: the Skaro that’s vapourised on screen is the same planet visited in this story and others, and we have to attribute its reappearance to Dalek meddling in the timelines at some subsequent point.

Given the Daleks are apparently not active in Earth’s galaxy for a millennium prior to the year 4000, and that it seems reasonable to assume that the resurrection of Davros (in this story) occurs towards the end of the Daleks’ pre-Time War history, I am going to go with the consensus on this story and suggest it occurs somewhere around the 45th century, ninety years before Resurrection of the Daleks and roughly a century or so before Revelation. If only all the associated continuity issues were so easy to resolve…

 

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Well, the longest day of the year brings the best news imaginable for many friends of mine. Frequent visitors will have seen the large number of vintage movie reviews which have turned up here over the last four or five months, and attentive ones may even have read my thoughts on the travails of the h2g2 website where they originally appeared. Well, today it was announced that h2g2’s future is secure.

h2g2 is a site devoted to two things: encouraging great writing (of every kind), and building a sense of community between all the various readers and contributors who visit it. h2g2 probably kept me sane for a long while in the early 2000s, and got me started writing film reviews on a regular basis. As a result I saw many good films I probably would otherwise have missed (saw a lot of duds too, but never mind), engaged in a lot of rewarding discussions, and made some friends along the way. I only really think of myself as an associate member of the community these days, partly because nearly everything I contribute there turns up here first, but the news of its continued survival is still extremely welcome.

So what’s to happen to the site? Well, the BBC (who have, to be fair to them, done a good job of curating it in difficult circumstances) are passing it over to a consortium made up of Robbie Stamp, one of the co-founders of the original site with Douglas Adams, a group composed of key community members themselves, and a company specialising in this kind of website called Noesis.

Quite what the future holds at this point is obviously a little unclear, but I get a strong sense that the new maintainers of the site have as great an understanding of h2g2’s past, present, and future as anyone could hope for. Life without h2g2 would go on, but it would be a little colder and more boring, and I’m delighted that my days will continue to be warm and interesting for a while yet.

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A Blatant Plug for h2g2c2

It takes a big man to admit he may have been wrong. Or so they tell me; personally, I wouldn’t know (and don’t start going on about that review of The Bourne Identity, please). Last week I commented on the BBC’s unfortunate but understandable decision to ‘dispose of’ the h2g2 website and the associated community. My initial reaction was that this was the beginning of the end, and as you can probably tell my first response was to start exporting my material off h2g2 itself and start reposting it here – that’s the source of all the archive reviews that are making up the bulk of this blog right now (and will probably continue to do so for quite a few weeks if I see this through to completion).

However, I may have been a little too pessimistic about h2g2’s prospects as a live entity. The members of the community, both present and lapsed, have come together with the speed and resourcefulness one would have expected, and are doing their best to fight for the site’s survival. I think they need and deserve all the support and publicity they can get, and posting this is really just to make their profile a tiny a bit higher.

The guys of the h2g2 Community Consortium now have their own website and obviously I wish them all the best. The news that they’ve been offered free web hosting should they be forced to take over the running of the site itself removes my main concern about h2g2’s short-term viability, should it actually come to a community buy-out.

I still think there needs to be some reflection amongst members of the community as to what h2g2’s reason for being is, as opposed to it just being a place that people come to because they’ve been members for ages and really like the vibe. I think there needs to be a vision for what h2g2’s supposed to be, something distinct and attractive that will continue to draw new people to become part of the community. That’s the only way to guarantee the site’s future, long-term. Personally, I don’t think it’s there at the moment – or if it is, it’s not obvious what it is.

But that’s a discussion for the community itself to have, in conjunction with any third party that opts to take over responsibility for the site. In the meantime I am, cautiously, more hopeful about the future of what was once my favourite place on t’internet.

 

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Well, we had an election last year, and unfortunately people were in a selective-amnesia ‘ooh I feel like a bit of a change’ sort of mood and the Forces of Darkness got in. Depressing, certainly, and not likely to improve one’s view of one’s fellow citizens, but until today it never touched me personally – not in any real sense.

I was at a party with a senior BBC techie late last summer and we got to talking about the corporation’s future (I love the BBC – along with the NHS, which wouldn’t you know it is also in the crosshairs of the current mob, it’s one of the things that makes me most proud to be British). He assured me that whatever Chinless Dave might come out with in interviews, plans were in place to break the BBC and then hack it apart.

And the process seems to be starting, assisted by the succession of ‘BBC is morally-depraved/ ageist/irredeemably left-wing’ stories you can read in the Daily Mail every day at the moment – funding for BBC Online is being slashed by 25% and hundreds of websites are to be closed or ‘disposed of’.

So what, you might say. A fair question, but here’s why this stings just a bit more than it ought to. In the late 90s I had one of my occasional self-destruct moments and spent a few years just drifting about on autopilot. In this period I found and joined an engagingly odd website called h2g2. Chances are you’ve never heard of it. h2g2 was the typically-visionary creation of Douglas Adams, a few years before his untimely death. It was a reference resource consisting entirely of user-generated content, like Wikipedia (which didn’t even exist then). It was also, in a slightly eccentric way, a social networking site, like Facebook (ditto).

When I got myself together enough to decide to start writing again, it was h2g2 where I posted most of my work (by this point the site had been taken over by the BBC, as it hadn’t managed to support itself). Mostly I wrote film reviews for the site’s internal newspaper, weekly for three years and irregularly for another five, until the editors and I politely disagreed on a few points of policy and we parted company. I didn’t want to stop writing that kind of thing and so I got myself a blog. Which you are reading now.

Alas, the submissions process for the encyclopedia-side of h2g2 was so rigorous and convoluted that it was soon outpaced by Wikipedia (when it arrived) in both size and public awareness, while the nature of the site’s interface meant it couldn’t compete with the like of Facebook as a genuine social network. Being a BBC site meant it could cling on between those two stools.

Not any more, of course. h2g2 is to be ‘disposed of’ – sold on, if one believes the BBC. I wish I could believe it was possible, but the harsh facts are that this site couldn’t support itself even during the dotcom boom, even with Douglas Adams’s involvement to draw the crowds. The community attached to the site are tremendously loyal to and protective of it, but there simply aren’t that many of them in real terms: there’s no prospect of h2g2 ever turning a profit, which seems to be the only thing that matters any more.

For quite a few years now I’ve been quietly marvelling that the BBC were continuing to keep h2g2 ticking over, given that this basically involved them using UK taxpayer’s money to fund a small, culty, international community. But the news that they’re pulling the plug still came as a bit of a shock. I’m sympathetic to the BBC’s position, but still saddened. The site is still there for the time being, of course (currently in the middle of an unfortunately-timed and bug-ridden redesign). What will happen if they can’t find a buyer for it I don’t know – survival as a read-only resource for the database part, oblivion for the community areas, I would guess (the possibility of having to export 200-ish old reviews makes me blanch a bit, to be perfectly honest).

Such are the realities of 21st century life, I suppose. Money may be saved, objectives prioritised, and so on, but the world will be duller and less peculiar place. There may just be a chance of h2g2 clinging on somewhere in the online equivalent of one of those wildlife preserves for mad parrots or depressed primates (something Adams himself might have seen the irony of), and I know that there are no doubt future swings of the axe to look forward to that will cut deeper and hurt more people more painfully… but, anyway. So long, h2g2, and thanks for… well, much more than I can easily say.

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It has been announced that Anthony Horowitz, creator of the popular and acclaimed Alex Rider series of novels (and also notorious piece-of-TV-SF-junk Crime Traveller), is to write a new Sherlock Holmes novel (given the historic difficulty of sustaining a novel-length story centred on the Holmes character – even Arthur Conan Doyle couldn’t manage it – one wonders if Horowitz knows what he’s let himself in for. But I digress). This draws me back to a topic which I’ve touched on before here, albeit briefly: the phenomenon of the ‘zombie franchise’. This snappy piece of terminology (which, to be honest, I’ve just coined myself, and really hope catches on) is how I like to refer to the situation where the original writer of a character or series passes away, only for the publishers to farm it out for somebody else to continue.

Lest anyone be confused, I don’t consider this to be the same thing as fan fiction, which is where admirers of a particular character or setting feel inspired to write their own unofficial additions to the canon. This sort of thing has a long and occasionally distinguished history, although it’s many years since I’ve enjoyed the mixed sensations of comfort, excitement, and guilt that I always get when slipping into the warm waters of Fanfic Lagoon.

No, I refer to – well, this sort of thing: Night of the Triffids by Simon Clark, And Another Thing… by Eoin Colfer, Licence Renewed (and many others) by John Gardner, The Bourne Upset (no, I kid you not) by Eric van Lustbader, Scarlett by Alexandra Ripley, The Winds of Dune by Brian Herbert and Kevin J Anderson … what, will the line stretch out to the crack of doom? Enough examples already.

These are all professionally-published sequels to famous novels, but (and this is the crucial thing) not by the original author – normally because the author in question has had poor taste enough to die before running his creation into the ground. And they make me nuts. Not just because they’re more-often-than-not lousy (I haven’t read all of the above, but the ones I have were substandard, not just to the original but as works of fiction generally), but because of what they represent.

But first, let’s make a vague nod in the direction of balance and see how one might attempt to defend this sort of thing. (Writer thinks himself into headspace of publisher/agent.) Well, the families of the deceased author in question have all agreed to the sequel being written and are frequently closely involved in the project (to the point where Brian Herbert has now written more Dunes than his father). There’s still a demand for stories set in these worlds, and we’re just meeting that demand. Also, it’s bound to stir up some new interest in the original books when the sequels come out…

Hmm, well. Not convinced – not convinced at all, to be honest. I don’t wish to impugn any of the authors’ families, as I’m sure their motives are as varied as the individuals involved, but I can’t help but suspect that, were one to peer into the eyes of any of the individuals involved on the publishing side, one would see a $-sign looking back at you. ‘We’re just meeting a demand’ has been the defence of numerous peddlers of substandard, overpriced, ethically dubious, or downright harmful material down the centuries, from slave traders to drug dealers to the publishers of Hello! magazine. As for ‘stirring up new interest in an old book’ – for interest, read sales, and there’s your $ sign again.

Not one of these new books has done anything to enhance the reputation of the original – usually you’re damned lucky if the original isn’t slimed by association. They are cash-ins, approved cash-ins, admittedly, and not all totally lacking in merit – but still cash-ins. At the time And Another Thing… was released I was accused of over-reacting when I described it as ‘literary grave-robbing’, but I stand by that.

The thing which really annoys me about the zombie franchise phenomenon is that, on the face of it, it treats the original writer as somehow incidental to the success of his or her book. I suppose it’s a tribute to their skill and imagination in creating a world so vivid and believable that it seems to be a real place they just stumbled into, and then returned bearing stories with them. Why not pay another writer to go there and bring back what he finds? Except, of course, that isn’t how it works. The best you can hope for are shadowy imitations and self-conscious aping of the original ideas and style. A tribute this may be, but it’s also a back-handed compliment of the harshest kind.

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Yet another SF adaptation-or-remake rocks up on BBC4, to wit: Dirk Gently, the ‘first ever adaptation’ of Douglas Adams’ novel Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency (except for the adaptation which comprised part of The South Bank Show episode on Adams in 1992, obviously). I’m a considerable admirer of Adams as an individual, but the original novel is probably my least favourite of his books, for reasons we’ll come to presently.

The adaptation is the story of philosophically-inclined detective/con-man Gently (Stephen Mangan), retained to locate an elderly client’s missing cat. In the course of his investigations he hooks up with old friend Richard Macduff (Darren Boyd) and finds himself entangled in the affairs of recently-vanished businessman Gordon Way.

Heresy! He’s not wearing a red hat!

As usual for a piece of BBC4 drama, this was clearly made on a budget of about fifteen quid, but had the usual sort of engaging performances we’ve come to expect from this kind of production. The slightly byzantine plot unfolded (I’m tempted to say unravelled) accessibly enough, but it all seemed a little bit self-consciously quirky and the major surgery the story had undergone seemed to have affected it for the worse.

The plot of the novel is convoluted, sprawling, and – I always hesitate before speaking ill of Douglas Adams, and did so even before his untimely death – arguably partly plagiarised. Harsh words, but given that one of the major characters is an impossibly old man who lives inside a time machine which is bigger on the inside than the outside, surely justified. The general steals from Doctor Who are compounded by the way the book recycles the plot of a particular story – the brilliant City of Death, which Adams co-wrote with two other men, neither of whom is credited in the novel.

One of the reasons I was curious to see this version was to see how the makers managed to incorporate all this suspect material, and their cunning solution was to omit it entirely from the main plot – although references to some of the removed material, such as the Electric Monk (a labour-saving device for people too busy to believe things themselves), were sneaked in here and there. This did mean the plot was almost entirely different, losing much of its scope and not unpleasantly mind-buggering quality, and the sudden appearance of a time machine (the same size within and without, this time) quite close to the end was a jarring, credulity-stretching moment and triggered a sharp tonal shift from quirky comedy-drama into full-on fantasy. This was probably quite a big ask to make of any viewers not acquainted with the original story. Viewers who had read the book, on the other hand, were no doubt startled by how little this resembled the original (though genre fans who’ve seen the most recent BBC adaptations of The Day of the Triffids, The Lost World and Dracula should have known what to expect).

Mangan’s big performance and big hair certainly suggested a man staking his claim to a place on the list of auditionees when Matt Smith eventually moves on, although the format – brilliant, eccentric detective teams up with comparatively thick assistant – inevitably recalled Sherlock Holmes as well. (Odd how Holmes and the Doctor seem to be spiralling towards each other more and more these days.) Boyd was rather good in a less showy part, but possibly best of all was Helen Baxendale who managed to bring a bit of emotional depth and realism to what was ultimately a rather frantic and self-consciously silly story.

Dirk Gently wasn’t really up to the same standard as other BBC4 offerings like the recent First Men in the Moon, but it was pleasant enough and passed an hour engagingly. From some angles it even resembled the pilot for a very strange detective/SF fusion series. I can’t honestly believe the BBC would be insane enough to proceed with a full series of original Dirk Gently stories, but I’d certainly give it a look if they did.

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