Who Review: Arc of Infinity

In Amsterdam, a couple of tourists spend the night in a crypt. During the night, one of them is hypnotized by a strange creature who employs him carry equipment. This alien being is composed of anti-matter, and is using the city as a power source for an elaborate plan, a plan that involves the Doctor. Meanwhile, on Gallifrey, the alien has an accomplice steal the Doctor’s bio-scan. This creature appears to have knowledge of the Time Lords, and wishes to live in the world of matter again by bonding with a Time Lord, namely, the Doctor. On the TARDIS, the Doctor and Nyssa are hit by an energy bolt which attacks the Doctor. He recovers, but is anxious to locate the source of the attack. The High Council of Gallifrey are also concerned about this anti-matter creature, and it’s plan to bond with the Doctor. Should this creature manage to cross into the world of matter, the effect would be devastating. They recall the TARDIS, and both the Doctor and Nyssa are pleased to cooperate with the investigation, fully aware of the danger to the universe posed by this creature. However, while the Doctor wants to find the anti-matter being, discover who he is, and prevent him completing the bond, the Council has another solution in mind: kill the Doctor…

SPOILER ALERT!! My comments may (and likely will) contain spoilers for those that haven’t seen this serial. If you want to stay spoiler-free, please watch the story before you continue reading!

“Arc of Infinity” was the first story of Doctor Who’s twentieth season, broadcast in January of 1983. Part of producer John Nathan-Turner’s plan for the show’s twenty year anniversary was to bring back an old character in each episode. For this story, the returning character was [SPOILER] Omega, the renegade Time Lord last seen in the tenth anniversary special, “The Three Doctors,” featuring Doctors one through three. Ten years on and the poor guy’s still stuck in anti-matter world, longing to join the rest of his kind, and willing to go to dangerous lengths to make that happen.

The Amsterdam location shoot apparently had nothing to do with the story. Nathan-Turner wanted to film the story on location, chose Amsterdam, and then told the writer, Johnny Byrne, to make it fit. Always up for a challenge, Byrne used the fact that Holland is below sea-level to contrive a plan by Omega use a fusion booster from Gallifrey to power his bond with the Doctor. This booster draws energy from hydrogen atoms, which are in plentiful supply in Amsterdam.

The “Arc of Infinity” in the story is a curve between dimensions whose properties shield anti-matter, enabling Omega to appear in the matter world, though only in one location. He later uses the Arc to take control of the Matrix on Gallifrey.

This isn’t a bad story, with some good ideas, and a workable plot. Johnny Byrne had previously written “The Keeper of Traken,” the story that introduced Nyssa, so no doubt he was pleased to get the chance to develop her character a little more, especially since she’s the sole companion for this story. However, I think it suffers from some dodgy effects and costumes, and what seems to me a lack of real drama. There are some potentially gripping scenes that just don’t come off, either because the effects are a bit blah, or the acting is, frankly, a bit blah. At the end of part one we have a great cliffhanger with Commander Maxil, played by future Sixth Doctor Colin Baker, shooting the Doctor. First, Colin Baker doesn’t look at all comfortable with his weapon, which makes the scene a bit awkward. Then he shoots, the Doctor collapses, and we see him on the floor. The part two cliffhanger, where the Doctor is apparently executed, had a lot more going for it, with all the smoke, Nyssa’s pleading and tears. Then we get to part three, and Omega has taken over the Matrix. That’s a big deal! And our cliffhanger is the Doctor’s somewhat plaintive, “We’re too late,” and a shot of Omega floating across the criss-cross Matrix pattern on the screen. Again, a good cliffhanger idea, but lacking punch.

Sarah Sutton has an opportunity to shine here, and she does. I’ve said in previous reviews how she plays Nyssa with such conviction, and this is no exception, taking full advantage of the scenes given to her to put her all into this character. Aside from some of the other leading characters, however, the performances seem a bit laid back for the supposed danger the universe is in thanks to Omega.

And then there’s the chase scenes. It’s hard to determine whether the lengthy excursion through the streets of Amsterdam is truly relevant to the plot, or whether they are padding for time, or if John Nathan-Turner wanted to make the most of his travel budget. Probably all three to some extent. Yes, we need time for Omega to gradually deteriorate, but it does seem a little protracted beyond what is needed for the story. At least I think so.

At the end, Nyssa laments Tegan having to return home to her job. Tegan, beaming with delight, informs her she got the sack (a phrase that, surprisingly, Nyssa understands). Everyone is overjoyed that Tegan is now one of Britain’s many unemployed… well, okay, they’re happy because this implies she is free to rejoin the TARDIS crew. When Tegan makes explicit her intentions (“So you’re stuck with me!”), Nyssa is delighted. The Doctor says, “So it seems,” and gives a rather bemused smile. I wonder, if this was the modern series, would the Fifth Doctor and Nyssa have been like the Tenth Doctor and Rose? He appears to look on Tegan as an awkward third party. Peter Davison has made no secret of the fact that he thought Nyssa was the best of his companions, and (no offense to the others) he would have liked to have seen more Doctor-Nyssa stories. Perhaps his own feelings are showing in that scene.

To sum up, “Arc of Infinity” is good, but not great, thanks to the execution more than the writing. The average viewer won’t be bored by it, and there are far worse stories, but aside from finding out what happened to Tegan, it’s totally non-essential.

When Bad People Do Good Things

A few days ago, I posted the following in Twitter:

It was meant as a pithy commentary on what’s happening in our society at the moment. Last year, it seemed as if every time you pulled up the news, some major celebrity had died. This year, it’s major celebrities being outed as sexual predators, or guilty of sexual misconduct.

Don’t misunderstand. I don’t lament the fact that women are finding the courage to stand up and tell their stories. Some have waited years for this moment, not out of opportunism, wanting to cash in on a trend, but because others have gone before and demonstrated that, at long last, they will be taken seriously, and not be punished for speaking up.

But this raises an important question: What of the work these shamed, and in many cases now jobless, celebrities leave behind? Should it be shunned along with them? Should we never watch another episode of the Cosby Show? Or House of Cards? Or watch another Dustin Hoffman movie? Can we separate the bad men from their good work? To what extent are they “dead to me”?

Before offering thoughts on this, let me make clear that I come to this from a Christian worldview. According to that worldview, no-one measures up to the only objective standard of goodness there is: God’s. We are all sinners, standing guilty before Him, and it’s only by God’s grace that we all don’t sink to the worst depths of depravity. This demands of me the utmost humility, recognizing that I have no grounds within myself to judge someone else’s moral failing. However, God has spoken to these issues, so it is to His judgment I appeal when I make any moral pronouncement with regard to anyone’s misconduct. And while there is forgiveness of sin available in Christ, which puts us in a right standing with God, this does not absolve us from the moral and legal consequences of our actions. And anyone who claims the name of Christian should be willing to own those consequences, knowing that God is glorified when we repent of, and take responsibility for, our sin.

There’s a lot of theology summed up in that last paragraph. If you have questions, or want chapter-and-verse, let me know in the comments.

With all that said, is it an endorsement of these people’s sin to enjoy the fruit of their talent? I think the answer is no, and I don’t think it inappropriate to enjoy a Charlie Rose interview, or a tale from Lake Woebegon. While Charlie Rose and Garrison Keillor have been accused of sexual misconduct, this was not a part of their work. Claude Debussy was a moral reprobate, and if the #MeToo movement had been around in his lifetime, he would no doubt have a long line of accusers. And yet his is some of the most beautiful piano music on the planet. I would not commend Debussy as a person, but I cannot deny his musical genius.

It pains me to see Dustin Hoffman added to the list of those accused of sexual misconduct. I’m a fan, and still enjoy his movies. I might try to absolve him by saying the allegations are over things he did thirty years ago. But that means his victim has been suffering in silence for thirty years, and only now, in light of the changed atmosphere in Hollywood, does she feel comfortable coming forward. What he did was wrong, and he should be held to account. His protestations over the allegations only make things worse. His response should be unqualified repentance, and a desire to submit the consequences of his actions. But I’ll still watch “All the President’s Men” because it’s a great movie.

I do think that, while these abusers are still alive, out of respect to their victims, it’s good to have a public moratorium on their work, at least for a season. Let those who have been wronged seek justice. Let the accused be held to account for what they’ve done. Where there’s true repentance, let there be forgiveness, bearing in mind that true repentance accepts the temporal penalty for the crime (loss of job, jail time, etc.), and forgiveness does not nullify the need for that temporal penalty.

After that, though, I don’t think it in bad taste to return to those people’s work, and enjoy it for what it is, even while we grieve over those who created it. Just as we might enjoy Debussy’s music, or Anne Perry’s novels. After all, if we only ever enjoyed the art of the morally pure, there would be little left to enjoy.

What do you think? Feel free to disagree with me, but please disagree agreeably. 🙂

Who Review: Time-Flight

Something strange is going on at Heathrow airport. It seems one of their Concorde’s has gone missing, disappearing from radar just as it was coming in to land. Meanwhile, on board the TARDIS, the Doctor offers to take his companions back to the Great Exhibition as way to help them move on from the loss of Adric. But something sends the TARDIS off course and they end up inside one of the terminals at Heathrow. When security comes to investigate, the Doctor appeals to UNIT, and the trio are taken to the airport authorities who have been instructed by UNIT to get the Doctor’s help to find their missing aircraft. The Doctor suspects some kind of temporal anomaly, which would explain why the TARDIS was affected. His solution is fly another Concorde along the same flight path as the previous one, and use the TARDIS on board to track where, and when, the flight is going. As the Doctor predicted, they disappear from radar, but they seem to land back at Heathrow. But what they see is an illusion. The truth is that they have traveled back in time some 140 million years. Their perception is being manipulated by a conjurer named Kalid, who is not at all what he appears to be, and who will go to extreme lengths to achieve his true intentions…

SPOILER ALERT!! My comments may (and likely will) contain spoilers for those that haven’t seen this serial. If you want to stay spoiler-free, please watch the story before you continue reading!

“Time-Flight” follows directly on from the events of the previous story, “Earthshock,” most notably, the death of companion Adric. Still in shock, the Doctor’s suggestion of a trip to the Great Exhibition seems a little heartless. After all, Tegan and Nyssa are still grieving the loss of their friend. It would be consistent of the Doctor’s character to be insensitive to human grieving since he’s not human. But one of the Fifth Doctor’s personality traits is a greater sensitivity to suffering than his previous incarnation, so it is somewhat out-of-character. Interestingly, when Tegan tells the Doctor to travel back in time and rescue Adric, the Doctor insists that he can’t change what’s happened, and they should never ask him to do something like that again. It appears the concept of a “fixed point in time” that can’t be changed existed in the Classic Series! It’s all moot anyway, since the crew wind up in Heathrow, and are soon caught up in the mystery of the missing Concorde.

With the help of Captain Stapely and the second Concorde crew, the Doctor is able to detect where and when the aircraft has traveled. When they load the TARDIS horizontally into the Concorde’s cargo hold, the Doctor flips a switch on the console so the TARDIS interior is verticle. Nyssa says she wishes they’d known about that on Castrovalva–one of a number of references to previous stories in this episode.

Peter Davison, who played the Fifth Doctor, considered “Time-Flight” a good story let down by bad effects. In all honesty, I think that’s generous. It’s not a terrible story, but it lacks the dramatic scale of previous adventures. It turns out that Kalid is actually the Master, who escaped from Castrovalva but at the cost of his TARDIS which suffered damage along the way. He is now stranded on prehistoric Earth, getting there around the same time as the Xeraphin. The Xeraphin had attempted to escape a battle situation and ended up crashing on Earth. The Master’s arrival caused the ethereal and powerful Xeraphin to split between good and evil, the evil side aligning with the Master, the good side helping the Doctor. The Master wants to use the power of the Xeraphin to get his TARDIS going again so he can escape. This power would be dangerous in the hands of the Master, so the Doctor must try to stop him.

While the Xeraphin do engage with the plot, ultimately the story is all about the Master trying to escape prehistoric Earth. He’s not trying to take over the world, or the universe–he just wants to get away. Granted, getting away with a powerful energy source in his TARDIS is a potential recipe for disaster, but I don’t get the feeling the Master’s that concerned. For him, the Xeraphin power (which is, actually, a gestalt of all the Xeraphin) is simply a means to getting his TARDIS away from Earth. When the Doctor proclaims, “The Master has defeated me,” at the episode three cliffhanger, I’m not convinced: the Doctor never gives up that easily. And exactly how did the Master “defeat” the Doctor? He didn’t try to kill the Doctor; the Doctor just failed to stop the Master at that point in the story.

The special effects are not brilliant. At best they are passable, but never outstanding. And while the appearances of Adric, the Melkur from “The Keeper of Traken” (Nyssa’s first story), and a Terileptil from “The Visitation” are a nice surprise, I can’t help feeling they’re a bit contrived. It’s the last story in the season, so they’re reminding us of past story elements. But Nyssa and Tegan aren’t taken in by these psychological manifestations, which just underscores the fact that they’re there more for the audience than the story.

The best cliffhanger is at the end of episode four where the Doctor and Nyssa accidentally leave Tegan behind at Heathrow. To those watching at the time, it looks like this is Tegan’s last story, which would be unusual since there was no announcement that Janet Fielding was leaving the show. You can be sure people tuned in for season twenty to find out if Tegan is coming back.

I think the real winners of this story are the British Airways pilots. They come across as level-headed, resourceful, and able to quickly adapt to strange concepts and evolving situations. No wonder Heathrow was so willing to let the BBC film there!

To sum up, I think “Time-Flight” is for the die-hard Whovian. Unless you have to know what happened to the Master, there’s nothing here for the casual viewer. Pretend the season ended with “Earthshock” and move on.

NaNoWriMo 2017 Reflections and Dissection–and an Exciting Announcement!

The 2017 NaNoWriMo challenge finished yesterday. As regular readers know, I participated in the challenge this year (hence, the sparse blog content for the past month), so I thought I’d give you a run-down on how I did and what I learned. There’s also an exciting announcement embedded in this report, so read on!

We Know You Told Us One Time, But What Is NaNoWriMo Again?

The purpose of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is to encourage aspiring novelists to quit talking about how they might one day write a novel, and actually do it. The original organizers hoped that out of the project, more people would appreciate what it takes to write a novel, many would feel the joy of being creative, and some would end up launching a writing career. I’m not sure why they chose November. Seems a bit arbitrary. And with Thanksgiving in the US being the last Thursday of November, it isn’t necessarily the best month for it. But that hasn’t stopped it being insanely popular. Participants are required to write at least 50,000 words by November 30th. Again, that seems a bit arbitrary. Unless you’re writing Middle Grade, 50k doesn’t make for a novel. Okay, and unless you’re Nicholas Sparks. But for most of the rest of us… 🙂 I think the organizers reckoned if you haven’t ever written a novel before, 50k seems like a lot, so actually writing 50k is an enormous achievement (and it is for anyone). Also, if you manage to write 50k, writing another 20-30k isn’t as daunting as it first seems.

What Did I Do?

As I mentioned in a previous article, my NaNo project this year was a re-write of an epic tale I wrote about ten years ago, then shelved, promising myself I would return to it some day. The original was about 300,000 words long, and full of clunky sentences, indulgent world-building, and awkward descriptions. I liked the story, however, and thought it worthy of the work. Coming to it again I decided that, even after editing, it would end up being at least a two-novel series, so my NaNo challenge would focus on writing a new first draft of Book 1.

How Did I Do?

It took me 21 days to complete the 50,000-word challenge. I ended up writing 62,537 words at the end of 30 days, finishing the first draft of the first book in the series. So, YAY! I won NaNoWriMo 2017!!

Does this mean I have a novel ready to go through revisions, beta reads, and querying for an agent and eventually publication?

No. Not in the slightest. Let me explain.

I’ve learned quite a bit over the ten years since I first wrote this story, not only about writing, but also about what makes a story work. Everything from the age of the characters to the amount of conflict to pacing, and a whole host of other things. I knew from the opening paragraph that there were structural issues that needed to be addressed. The first thing I changed was the characters’ ages. In my “synopsis” I said the characters were college-age. I decided the story would work better, and appeal to a wider audience, if I aged them up a bit and set them in a work environment, not a school environment. This worked even better than I expected. But it became clear to me as I approached the end of the first book that there were still problems. While there are moments of intense conflict, I don’t think there’s enough early on to keep readers interested. But more than that, this story has some major motivational issues. The reasons why the characters do some fairly radical things, and make some life-threatening decisions, seem flimsy at best. I’ve come to the conclusion that I need to make some deeper, more consequential changes to the plot structure for this to work.

Another consideration that tells me this story is not ready for prime time even now is the fact that I want to get an agent and go the traditional publishing route. This means my debut novel MUST be self-contained, even if it’s intended as part one of a series. If you look at any series published as an author’s debut (e.g., the Harry Potter series), you’ll notice the first novel ends in such a way that you could stop reading there. Yes, there are loose ends and questions, but at the end of the story, the hero wins, and the villain is, at least seemingly, vanquished. There’s good reason for this. Publishers invest a lot of money in the books they publish, from editing to cover design to printing to promotion. Not to mention the author’s advance. This isn’t such a big deal with an established writer. The publisher is guaranteed to make their money back, and an ongoing series will keep the fans coming back for more. With a debut novelist, however, there’s a lot of risk. What if that first book doesn’t sell? What if the author quits writing? By giving the publisher the assurance that the first book, while part of a series, can be stand-alone, the debut novelist (and his/her agent) stands a better chance of selling that novel.

Book one of my series is NOT stand-alone, and I can’t see how it could be. It’s more like THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING*, where you know the story isn’t over. Or like the end of A GAME OF THRONES, where the conflict between the kingdoms is gearing up, Daenerys has her dragon eggs, and it’s clear you need to get the next book to find out what happens.

This is why I’m shelving this project again. This is not going to be the book I query to get an agent. Not only do I need to work out the structural and motivational issues, this is not the right time in my publishing career for this series. I think it has a lot of potential. It just needs some further marinating, based on the work I’ve done this month, and it needs to wait until I’m more established as a writer.

Lessons Learned

To wrap up this reflection/dissection, here are some things I learned this past month:

  1. With a bit of discipline I can be quite productive. My average word count was over 2,000 per day. And it didn’t take me all day to churn those words out. At that rate, I could be popping out a novel every couple of months! Now, realistically, that won’t happen because books need to be edited, and writers need reading time, and, well, life. But I could certainly be writing more than I am. In fact, during the first week of NaNoWriMo, I wrote a short story that has been accepted for publication by Riggwelter! (That was my exciting announcement, btw.) Look for it in the February 2018 issue. I’ll remind you closer to the time.
  2. I could actually do this writing thing full-time. I’ve often wondered whether I would be disciplined enough to write if writing was my day job. When I get time off work, even if I intend to write, I don’t always take the opportunity, and I end up doing other things. This NaNoWriMo, I took two weeks off work (one near the beginning of the month, and one the week of Thanksgiving). During those weeks, I disciplined myself to work on NaNo in the late morning and afternoon, leaving evenings free to do other things. And it worked! I got stuff done.
  3. I’m a writer. I hear you saying, “Well duh!! Look at your banner!” But that’s not what I mean. Have you ever done something that makes you feel complete, like you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing? The thing that sends electricity through your particular wiring in a way that nothing else does? Music does that for me to an extent, but this past month has confirmed to me that writing is that thing for me. Why writing over music? I’m not sure. It’s one of those weird things that I know is true, but I couldn’t for the life of me explain it to you.

Anyway, I’ve rambled enough. That was my NaNoWriMo month in a very large nutshell. I’m glad I did it, and I might well do it again next year. We’ll see.

Did you do NaNoWriMo this year? If so, how did you do?

* By the way, THE LORD OF THE RINGS series was originally written as a single volume; it was the publisher who split it into three novels due to war-time paper shortages.

Who Review: Earthshock

A team of paleontologists and geographers comes under attack during a cave expedition on Earth. Military help arrives, but they find no traces of either the missing team members, or of their alleged assailants. When the soldiers sent into the cave to investigate start reporting missing squad members, even the military must concede there is a real threat in the caves.

Meanwhile in the TARDIS, the Doctor and Adric fall out over Adric’s desire to return home. The TARDIS lands, and the Doctor, Nyssa, and Tegan leave Adric to plot a way back to E-Space on the ship’s computer while they explore. They seem to have landed in a cave, and before long they find themselves having to explain their presence to a squad of soldiers looking for missing expedition team members. It soon becomes clear that the Doctor had nothing to do with their deaths when they all come under fire from deadly androids. As if this isn’t enough trouble for the Doctor, things will only get worse when he finds out who’s controlling the androids, and what they plan to do…

SPOILER ALERT!! My comments may (and likely will) contain spoilers for those that haven’t seen this serial. If you want to stay spoiler-free, please watch the story before you continue reading!

“Earthshock” is one of the two best stories this season, and possibly the best of the two–the other being “The Visitation”–both written by Eric Saward. The story starts with an extended prologue, which was a novel feature of “The Visitation.” In this story’s five-plus minute opening scene, Saward sets up the story by introducing us to the cave explorers, the soldiers who come to their aid, and the danger they face. While it’s no longer a novelty, this device not only gives us insight into the peril the TARDIS crew will be facing, but it gives us a chance to get to know the new characters, which doesn’t always happen when the Doctor’s around stealing the limelight.

When we eventually get to the TARDIS team, the Doctor and Adric are at each other’s throats again. What starts as a conversation in Adric’s room, where he has mementos from previous adventures (the android mask from “The Visitation,” and a Kinda necklace), turns into an argument about taking Adric home, and how Adric feels unappreciated, the butt of jokes, and an outsider (cue music from Adric’s first story, “Full Circle”). I have to say, I think Adric has a point. But I’ve said more than once that the Fourth Doctor and Adric worked well together, and everything changed when the Doctor regenerated. The Doctor refuses to take Adric home, citing the difficulty of plotting negative coordinates for E-Space, and the virtual impossibility of piloting the TARDIS through a CVE again. Adric says he can do it. By the time he shows the Doctor his calculations, however, both sides have calmed down and Adric admits he doesn’t really want to leave. Its this kind of scene, building our sympathies with Adric, that makes the finale so much harder for Adric’s fans.

“Earthshock” is notable for a couple of huge surprises, and some minor ones. The first of the big surprises that the production team managed to keep secret from the public (a feat that would be impossible these days) is the return of the Cybermen. The reveal at the end of episode one is brilliantly done, and certainly delighted me when I first watched this story. How cool! And even more cool was the fact that they played little clips of the First, Second, and Fourth Doctors’ encounters with the Cybermen. Bear in mind, in 1982 Doctor Who was not available on VHS or any other medium. If it wasn’t on broadcast TV, you didn’t see it. So it had been years (and in the case of fans like me, never) since people had seen these old stories.

We get a minor surprise at the fact that veteran British comedy actress Beryl Reid is playing the freighter commander. Not only is this drama, but it’s sci-fi, both anomalies for Ms. Reid. However, she’s a consummate professional, and gives the part her all, putting in a good performance. Someone more suited to the role may have done better, but it’s testimony to the caliber of actress she is that, even though she is clearly mis-cast, she does well.

Another minor surprise, at least for me, happens when the Cybermen come on board the TARDIS, and the soldiers fire on them from the Console Room. It had been established previously (the 1976 story, “The Hand of Fear,” to be precise) that the TARDIS Console Room was in a special “state of temporal grace” such that weapons do not work there. Clearly that detail was neglected for the sake of a gunfight in the TARDIS. We also see the meek and pacifistic Fifth Doctor pick up the Cyber Leader’s gun and shoot him multiple times at point-blank range. The Doctor has not been averse to using violence when necessary, but this seemed particularly out of character for the Fifth Doctor, and a bit excessive for any Doctor.

The second major surprise is, of course, Adric’s demise. It’s accidentally heroic, caused by his determination to solve the logic puzzles that would release the freighter’s navigation system so he could steer the ship away from Earth. He could have escaped, but sudden inspiration causes him to leap out of the transporter that would take him to an escape pod, so he could try his idea. Before he gets the chance to solve the final puzzle, a dying Cyberman blasts the console. There’s nothing left for him to do but grip the badge his brother had given him before he died in “Full Circle,” and watch the Earth hurtle toward him. The episode closes with a silent credit roll over a picture of Adric’s broken gold-rimmed badge for mathematical excellence that the Doctor had used against a Cyberman. It was a powerful finale, and certainly stunned Who fandom. Even those who didn’t like Adric (and there were many of those) were shocked that they would actually kill him off. What makes his death even more tragic is that the plot made it inevitable. It was that freighter hitting Earth that caused the extinction of the dinosaurs (an event the Doctor told Tegan was “unexplained” in episode one–not any more!). If Adric had succeeded in solving the puzzles and diverting the freighter, the dinosaurs would have stayed and Earth’s history would have been dramatically altered (according to this particular theory, anyway).

I don’t find flaw with much in “Earthshock.” Most of my criticisms are to do with the sets and the costumes, but I have to temper that criticism with the acknowledgement that, as always, the production team were doing the best they could with what little money they had. Sadly, the results are soft, silver-colored Cyberman boots, and flimsy looking doors and storage containers.

The Doctor’s speech to the emotionless Cybermen about smelling a flower, watching a sunset, and eating a “well-prepared meal” is a little strange. Especially the “well-prepared meal” part. But the Doctor’s emphasis on the value of emotional experience only serves to underscore the strength of the Cyber Leader’s argument that emotions are a weakness. There’s no disputing that by threatening Tegan’s life, the Cyber Leader can control the Doctor. Their back-and-forth makes it clear that there is no reasoning with the Cybermen with regard to the value of emotions. Having never known joy, fear, delight, love, friendship, etc., they cannot appreciate the inestimable worth of such things.

To sum up, “Earthshock” is Must-See Who. Definitely a story the die-hard needs to see, but also one that the casual Whovian will enjoy. Good acting, a great script, and full of shocks and surprises (well, not so much now that you’ve read my review!)

Who Review: Black Orchid

The TARDIS materializes in 1920s England, and immediately the Doctor finds himself the guest of the Cranleighs who hope his cricketing skills will help the home team. Confused, but glad of a nice reception, the crew meet their hosts and enjoy a lovely day of cricket and cocktails, followed by a fancy dress dance. There are turned heads when the Cranleighs meet Nyssa; one of their own, Ann Talbot, is her exact likeness. Uncanny. Spooky, even. But Nyssa and Ann turn this into an opportunity for fun at the dance. However, doubles and mistaken identity turn deadly. A man is strangled to death, and the only witness, Ann Talbot, identifies the killer as a man in a mannequin costume–the one the Doctor has been given to wear. The Doctor needs to prove his innocence, and find the real killer before there are any more killings, least of all his own…

SPOILER ALERT!! My comments may (and likely will) contain spoilers for those that haven’t seen this serial. If you want to stay spoiler-free, please watch the story before you continue reading!

Pure historicals, where there are no BEMs (Bug-Eyed Monsters) and alien tech, used to be a mainstay of Doctor Who in the Sixties (“Marco Polo,” “The Reign of Terror,” “The Crusaders,” “The Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Eve,” “The Highlanders” to name a handful). However, when Terrance Dicks took over as script editor in the 1970s, the pure historical all but died out, giving preference to stories of alien interference in Earth’s past (e.g., “The Time Warrior,” “The Pyramids of Mars,” “The Masque of Mandragora”). “Black Orchid” marked the return of the pure historical, albeit for only two episodes. And it also marked the last time this format would be used in Classic Doctor Who. Clearly, audiences liked their BEMs and alien tech.

One of the criticisms leveled against “Black Orchid,” and one I think is fair, is the fact that, for most of the story, it’s like an Agatha Christie murder-mystery, and the TARDIS crew could have been anyone. They don’t bring insights or knowledge from their alien lives to bear on the story. The Doctor, Tegan and Nyssa fit right in with the period, and Adric becomes the awkward teenager. Granted, there’s not much character development you can do in two episodes, and that’s another part of the problem. Producer John Nathan-Turner’s aversion to the six-part story, which was popular in the 1970s (Tom Baker’s era had at least one six-parter per season), led him to divide the twenty-six weeks he was given for season nineteen into six four-part stories and one two-part, as opposed to five four-part stories and one six-part story. The result is a story with a lot of potential, but much that could have been developed, particularly in terms of character.

That said, I think there are commendable elements to “Black Orchid.” First, it’s a good story. The plot’s fairly solid, with a mysterious creeping man, family secrets, and a puzzle to solve with dire consequences if assumptions are allowed to go unchallenged. The Black Orchid of the title is a prize flower shown to our heroes near the beginning, which turns out to be the big clue that helps the Doctor solve the mystery. Second, it’s a period drama, and if the BBC know how to do anything, it’s period drama. This means the costumes and the sets are excellent, and totally believable for the era. Even the Doctor’s Edwardian cricket outfit doesn’t seem too out of place. The acting is, for the most part, top notch, with Sarah Sutton being given the opportunity to shine in the dual role of Nyssa and Ann Talbot. She manages to bring enough nuance to each part that the observant Whovian should be able to tell when she’s being Nyssa, and when she’s Ann.

Once again, Adric gets the short straw (see the previous three stories). He really doesn’t have much to do, and when he is doing something it’s either dancing badly (and complaining about it), or eating. The Doctor doesn’t need his help to solve the crime, and, indeed, no-one really needs him to do much of anything. So he doesn’t do much of anything. Part of this is the consequence of having three companions and only two episodes. Some are not going to have much to do. But in a way, this also helps build up to Adric’s finale in the next story. He’s the odd-one-out, distant from the Doctor, awkward with the girls, and feeling left out and surplus. This just makes the resolution of his character arc all the more heartbreaking–read my review of “Earthshock” for more about that.

I was a bit surprised at how well Sir Robert and the police constable accept the TARDIS. Sure, they are bewildered when they see the interior, but when they step out and find themselves transported from the police station to the Cranleigh’s, they don’t seem at all perturbed. I would have liked to have seen a bit more reaction from them. Also, the ending is a bit abrupt. Lady Cranleigh presents the Doctor with the “Black Orchid” book, which the Doctor says he will treasure. Close up on the book’s title, and that’s it. Sure, the book is a memento of the adventure, but, unless I’m missing something, it’s not particularly poignant. We know of George Cranleigh’s affection for the flower, and the trouble it got him into–that was the Doctor’s big clue, after all. The book only confirms what we already know.

There are some Whovian points of interest at the beginning of the story. First, Tegan says she wants to travel with the crew some more, so the Doctor doesn’t have to worry about getting her back to Heathrow just yet. Perhaps a bit surprising after all she’s been through, but maybe she didn’t realize until the beginning of the last story how much she had grown attached to her new friends. Also, the Doctor says that the Great Fire of London, which they caused at the end of the last story, would have happened anyway whether they had been there or not. This appears to be a reference to the “fixed point in time” concept which has become a big part of the New Series, explaining why the Doctor cannot prevent certain historical events, and their devastating consequences, from happening (e.g., the destruction of Pompeii).

To sum up, this is a good, enjoyable story. The die-hard Whovian ought to see it, and the casual Whovian would enjoy it, but not really be missing much if he or she skipped it.

Who Review: The Visitation

Strange lights in the sky portend doom in mid-seventeenth century England. At least it does for a local squire, whose household comes under attack from an alien visitor, who, after killing everyone, takes up temporary residence in the squire’s basement.

Meanwhile, the Doctor, attempting to return Tegan to Heathrow airport, arrives 300 years early. When the crew set out to explore, they are accosted by locals with large sticks. Thankfully, a new friend comes to the rescue. Richard Mace is an actor turned highwayman, who uses his guns to frighten away their attackers. It seems a plague has gripped the town, which explains the xenophobic reaction to the Doctor and his friends. No-one knows where the plague came from, so all strangers are suspect. But something’s not right. Mace wears a necklace that the Doctor identifies as some kind of control device of alien origin. Worn around the neck as an ornament, it’s harmless. But attached to the wrist, according to its original design, it takes over the mind of the wearer. Now separated from the TARDIS, and without the TARDIS tracker, which Adric lost in the scuffle with the villagers, the crew plus Mace take refuge in a nearby barn. There they come across more evidence of an alien presence. The barn is on the grounds of a manor house, and the Doctor believes that’s where they will find answers. Little does the Doctor know, that manor house is under alien occupation. And a deadly surprise awaits them…

SPOILER ALERT!! My comments may (and likely will) contain spoilers for those that haven’t seen this serial. If you want to stay spoiler-free, please watch the story before you continue reading!

“The Visitation” is the first of the two outstanding stories from this season (the other is “Earthshock”), both written by newcomer Eric Saward. Indeed, such was the quality of his work with these stories, producer John Nathan-Turner appointed Saward script editor, taking over from Anthony Root. Saward makes his mark from the outset by giving a five minute prologue that sets the scene for the story, and ends up with the residents of a manor house, including the squire, all dying at the hands of an alien invader. When the TARDIS lands, we already have a sense of what the crew are walking into.

Things in the TARDIS are a little tense. First, the Doctor and Adric squabble over the events of the previous story, “Kinda.” In that story, Adric took over a “TSS,” an armed exploration vehicle that’s controled by thought. He panicked and nearly killed one of the Kinda. The Doctor is still upset with him about that, it seems, though they do eventually resolve their argument. Then, when the Doctor misses Heathrow by 300 years, Tegan gets upset and storms out. The Doctor has to chase after her and calm her down, assuring her he will get her home. The Fourth Doctor never had this much trouble with his crew!

At this point, they could have all piled back into the TARDIS and left. But the Doctor smells sulphur, becomes curious, then they are set upon by villagers and get involved to the point where the Doctor feels morally obliged to stick around until the Terileptils either leave or are defeated.

I noted a moment ago the spat between the Doctor and Adric. It seems as if we’re building to a big moment in Adric’s story (which we are). Eric Saward also wrote Adric’s final story, “Earthshock,” so I wonder if he was preparing for that story here with all the Adric bashing going on. Part of me wants to think Saward had a plan because that would be cool. But Adric and the Fifth Doctor have had a rocky relationship from the start. In this story we see very clearly how they have transformed from the wise mentor and his young student in the Fourth Doctor era, to the older brother and his annoying kid brother in the Fifth Doctor era. While they settle their dispute at the beginning, the Doctor doesn’t congratulate or even acknowledge Adric’s achievement in successfully piloting the TARDIS to the manor house. Tegan and Nyssa don’t hold back their applause, which makes the Doctor’s lack of enthusiasm more pronounced. If that wasn’t enough, when Adric asks if the Doctor knows where the Terileptils are, the Doctor responds with sarcasm: “That’s why I’m searching for them.” Again, I like to think all this is deliberate, setting us up for “Earthshock.”

The TARDIS crew is temporarily augmented in this story with the addition of actor-turned-highwayman, Richard Mace. He’s an interesting character since he seems largely motivated by self-preservation, though he does feel sympathy for his new friends. This kind of complexity, where a character has mixed motives, and hence a bit more depth, is good, and clearly something Saward relishes. The Terileptils also are not just straight-up monsters. These particular Terileptils have escaped a penal colony where they have been brutally treated. They can’t return to their home planet, and so act out of a desperate instinct to survive. Yet, despite their aggressive manner, they have a love of beauty and art, which is reflected somewhat in the design of their spacecraft, but especially in their android, with his colorful and bejeweled armor.

We get to see Nyssa’s TARDIS bedroom, which is where she takes the sonic enhancer she has made to destroy the android. I think this is the first time since “The Keeper of Traken” we have seen her doing something technical and practical to help the Doctor. She had been pretty much sidelined for the previous two stories, so it’s good to see her more involved here. After destroying the android, she confesses regret to Adric. The android was, after all, a magnificent machine enslaved to do the will of the Terileptils. This attitude reminds us of her Traken origins, which predisposes her to peace, kindness, and seeing the good in things.

A landmark moment in this story is the destruction of the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver. This device had been a part of the show since the Second Doctor story, “Fury from the Deep,” making occasional appearances until well into the Third Doctor’s time when it became an established prop. Both producer John Nathan-Turner and Saward felt the sonic screwdriver had been overused as a convenient device to get the Doctor out of trouble. They wanted him to use his head more than his gadgets, so Saward wrote its demise into “The Visitation.” Little did Saward know, however, that Nathan-Turner didn’t plan to bring the sonic screwdriver back. Saward thought the Doctor would go back to the TARDIS at the end of the story and pull another sonic screwdriver out of a drawer. But Nathan-Turner’s vision held sway, marking this the last time we see the sonic screwdriver in the Classic Series.

In the end, the Doctor makes history, literally, by destroying the Terileptils, and accidentally starting the Great Fire of London in the process. Thus is explained one of history’s great mysteries!

“The Visitation” is well worth your time, borderline “Must See.” Eric Saward’s script is well constructed with good dialog and engaging characters. The BBC knows how to do historical costume dramas, so the costumes and sets are excellent. Even the Terileptil costume, while limited, isn’t bad for low-budget early 1980s sci-fi. Indeed, the use of animatronics to control the creatures “fins” and lips was considered cutting edge at the time. Definitely a story for both the die-hard and the casual Whovian.

Who Review: Four to Doomsday

Attempting to return Tegan to Earth, the TARDIS crew end up on a spaceship, equipped with very advanced technology. While Adric and Nyssa inspect the gadgets, the Doctor and Tegan explore the ship, and are granted an audience with the ship’s frog-like captain, Monarch, and his two equally frog-like cohorts, Enlightenment and Persuasion. It appears their hosts are Urbankans on their way to Earth, and are, naturally, intrigued by the Doctor’s visits to Earth, and Tegan’s depictions of Earth fashion. Monarch has a plan to help the people of Earth, cursed as they are with sickness and frailty. Aboard his ship he has representatives of four ancient Earth cultures: the Chinese, the Mayans, the Greeks, and the Australian Aborigines. He hopes they can be ambassadors of peace and goodwill, helping to sell Monarch’s plan to Earth’s varied inhabitants. Adric is quite taken with Monarch’s intentions, but the Doctor senses something fishy. It soon becomes apparent that Monarch’s plans for Earth are far from good. And the Doctor and his companions might be too much of a threat to be allowed to survive…

SPOILER ALERT!! My comments may (and likely will) contain spoilers for those that haven’t seen this serial. If you want to stay spoiler-free, please watch the story before you continue reading!

“Four to Doomsday” is writer Terrance Dudley’s first script for Doctor Who. Not one of the show’s best writers, but not the worst, either. On the whole, is a pretty work-horse story. At first it sounds like Monarch wants to do the Cyberman thing–robotize the human race, eliminating their susceptibility to disease, their propensity to irrational thought, and their emotions. It’s to Dudley’s credit that he didn’t make that Monarch’s real goal, otherwise this might well have been another Cyberman story. However, Monarch’s true intentions are a bit of a hard sell. Having already plundered Urbanka, he wants to mine the Earth for its minerals so he can power his ship beyond light speed, achieve time travel, and go back to before the Big Bang to meet himself. Yes, he thinks he’s God. What makes this a hard sell is the question: what then? Why go to all this trouble simply to travel before the beginning of the universe? Most lunatic despots would want to use this power to dominate other worlds, and gain mastery over the entire cosmos. Monarch just wants to say hi to his pre-universe self. Sorry, this seems a bit unambitious, as well as bonkers. But Dudley manages to construct four episodes around this premise that hold the viewer’s attention, which is not to be sneezed at.

There are some things that were done well on “Four to Doomsday.” The floating cameras (“monopitcons”) look like they’re dangling in the air, even when using green screen to achieve the effect. And there aren’t any obvious dialog clunkers (I suspect the Doctor telling Monarch that he has “no intention of interfering with your monopticons!” was deliberate Benny Hill humor). Nyssa fainting at the end of the story was a surprise, and a nice way to keep people watching to see what happens at the beginning of the next serial. How seriously was she affected by Monarch’s brain-drain process? Or is there something else wrong? For a contrived ending to explain her fleeting appearances in “Kinda,” I think it worked. (It seems the production team wanted to write Nyssa out, so “Kinda,” the next story, had been written without her. However, Peter Davison insisted Nyssa was the right sort of companion for his Doctor, so she stayed. Nice one, Peter!)

Unfortunately, there were a number of things that didn’t work at all for me. It didn’t make sense that the Doctor gave Tegan the TARDIS key, and yet Adric was able to enter and exit the TARDIS without it. Then there’s the fact that Tegan just happened to be able to speak the Aborigine’s native language, without any explanation. Of course, she’s Australian, so she must speak Aborigine! The episode one cliffhanger was a bit of a non-cliffhanger. The formerly froggy Enlightenment and Persuasion enter the room looking distinctly human and wearing clothes Tegan had drawn. A bit of a surprise, maybe, but not a cliffhanger! And Bigon’s big reveal at the end of episode two, where he pulls back his “skin” to reveal robot circuitry, was not the best piece of CSO I’ve seen on Doctor Who. Especially the “mask” reveal, where the actor’s face looks straight ahead while he lifts the dummy face up! This could have been done better, even on a tight budget. As it is, it looks cheap and makeshift. Of course, there’s the classic scene where the Doctor, floating in space, launches himself toward the TARDIS by throwing a cricket ball against the side of the ship, and catching when it bounces back, using the momentum to propel him. Sounds wonderful, except it’s impossible without gravity. So much for the producers trying to be more “scientific.” Finally, when the Doctor goes into a deep trance to preserve oxygen, how come he breathes so heavily? One would think his breathing would be shallower.

This story makes me wonder what they were trying to do with Adric. His stories as the Fourth Doctor’s sole companion showed a lot of promise for the character. Now he’s become a gullible, misogynistic, irritating teenager. His piece about women being “impatient and bossy” sounds like something from the schoolyard. According to Adric, women aren’t very intelligent and don’t like to read. And when Nyssa, who, throughout this screed, is studying a book on mathematics, challenges him, Adric responds saying Nyssa doesn’t count because she’s only a girl, not a woman. Then later, Adric is genuinely taken in by Monarch, and believes his plan to refashion human beings is brilliant. Are the producers trying to make us hate him? If they’re intention was to write out Nyssa, then why make Adric so unlikeable? As it is, Adric’s days are numbered, but that decision was made after this story was written. Call it Providence, but scenes like this, as painful as they are, work to build up Adric’s departure in a few stories.

In summary, “Four to Doomsday” is not bad Who, but definitely missable. Unless you have to know what’s wrong with Nyssa at the beginning of “Kinda.”

NaNoWriMo Has Begun!

Here we are… November 1st! Doesn’t it seem like this year has flown by? Soon it’ll be Thanksgiving, then Christmas, and then before you know it, it’s 2018! But never mind all that, because for the next 30 days (including today), I’m going to be writing a novel. I wrote about my NaNoWriMo project last week, so I won’t get into what it’s about again… though, thanks to an idea I had a few days ago, that little synopsis is already inaccurate.

Anyway, all this to say this blog probably won’t see a lot of activity for the next month. Please feel free to drop notes of encouragement either in the comments here, or on Twitter, or Facebook. I’ll try to post quick updates in those places as I have time. If you’re doing NaNo too this year and would like to be “buddies,” my NaNo name is cds.

Thanks for your support and encouragement! 😀

The Reformation’s 500th Birthday

Five hundred years ago this very day, on October 31, 1517, a young Augustinian monk named Martin Luther nailed 95 theses to door of the castle church in Wittenberg, Germany. He was hoping to generate an in-house theological debate over “Indulgences”–special dispensations granted (or sold) to people to shorten their time in purgatory. The practice went back to the time of the Crusades, when in 1095, Pope Urban II granted a special indulgence to the penitent who fought. By Luther’s time, Indulgences were being sold to pay for church projects, like the rebuilding of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Luther firmly believed the Pope would never approve such a practice, hence his desire to debate both the power and the efficacy of Indulgences. In his theses, Luther argued that true repentance comes from the heart, and cannot be bought, and no papal pardon can relieve anyone of the guilt of the least of his sins. However, Luther soon discovered that the Pope was not on his side. In making his argument, he couldn’t avoid statements that undermined the Pope’s authority. Following his arguments to their logical conclusion, with Scripture as his support, Luther became convinced that Scripture, not the Pope, the Church Fathers, or any one else, had authority over the consciences of people.

Thus began what we know today as the Protestant Reformation.

In breaking with Rome, Luther paved the way for the establishment of churches beyond papal control. Like-minded Christians gathered to worship according to their theological convictions–Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, etc. And while important secondary issues separate these denominations, all true Christian churches are united upon the principles of the Reformation: there is no authority higher than Scripture alone for Christian faith and practice; and salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, by Christ alone, to the Glory of God alone.

Some further reading on Reformation history and theology: