TV EYE: Doctor Who, S5 E02: ‘The Beast Below’

Once again, it’s time to look at Who. I won’t be writing this much on every week (if only because on the current form, it’ll get very dull writing “Matt Smith and Karen Gillan are both brilliant” over and over again), but it’s time for me to get my teeth into an episode that may not have knocked my socks off as much as last week’s, but still had plenty of delights on offer. As usual, fear the spoilers…

This isn’t going to be big on dignity!

TV EYE: Doctor Who S5 E01: ‘The Eleventh Hour’

Yes, it’s been a busy week. Yes, it’s taken me longer to write this than I wanted. And yes, I loved last Saturday’s episode. I’d have loved it even if I’d watched it on my own, but seeing it in a gigantic hall with hundreds of other sci-fi geeks, and then getting to hang out afterwards with friends and essentially go “Squeee!” lots, was rather amazing. As you’d expect, fear the spoilers…

‘Why does nobody ever listen to me? Do I just have a face that nobody listen to? Again?’

TV EYE: The Eve of the Who

So. I’m in that situation again – a new series of Who is about to start, a new Doctor is about to be properly unveiled. And this time… I’ve actually done a pretty good job of staying away from spoilers. While I have watched the trailers, I haven’t seen too much of the upcoming episodes, and I like being in this situation. I haven’t even properly seen the TARDIS interior (beyond the small details on the main cover of the Radio Times – I haven’t opened up the ‘gatefold’ bit so I haven’t seen the whole thing), which means I’ll get my first proper glimpse this Saturday when I watch the episode with a whole bunch of people at Eastercon. And I like this. I used to go hunting for spoilers to a ridiculous degree, but I like being able to approach this with an open mind.

And while five years of ups and downs with New Who has certainly taught me to be cautious… I have to admit that I’m liking what I’ve seen so far. It’s possible I might end up eating my words (hell, I thought RTD doing Who would be a slam-dunk of brilliance before I saw it, and it took me a long, long time to get used to his style). I’m also not expecting this version of Who to be non-stop brilliance – I mean, Moffat is a fantastic writer, but he’s also had his ups and downs. And, as he’s said in interviews, coming in once a year, being brilliant for an episode and then disappearing off again is very different from actually being the head honcho. It is, though, going to be a bit weird to be almost thinking in the reverse pattern of the way I’ve approached New Who before – I spent big chunks of the show looking forward to the points where RTD wouldn’t be writing it (especially in the dark, dark days of Aliens of London and (*shudder*) World War Three), and now it’s going to almost be the reverse situation – in the upcoming season, there’s a whacking great six-episode run that’s free of Moffat, and which also has the slightly worrying prospect of a Chris Chibnall-written two-parter (anyone who saw either season finale to Torchwood will know exactly how horrifying that might be). Who knows? There’ll be ups and downs. There’ll be moments I love, and moments I detest.

But I really am liking what I’m seeing. A lot of the changes seem pretty sensible. It does look like the tone is shifting in a slightly weirder direction. It does look like the show is actually going to be… different, while still keeping lots of the original DNA. I’m sensing more of the kind of changeovers that happenned in Classic Who in the 1960s, where there’d be a slow but definite shift of tone, rather than some of the later handbrake turns (going from Horns of Nimon to The Leisure Hive, for example…). It’s nice that it seems like they’ve realised that while obviously they don’t want to break the show (especially now that it’s the most succesful it’s ever been), they also know they’ve got to keep it moving; that Doctor Who lasted for so long because of its capability to change and evolve with the times.

And I’m liking what I’m seeing of Matt Smith, too. I suspect it might take a little while to get used to his style, but from the clips I’ve seen, he does seem to be approaching the whole thing with a very distinctive sense of energy. And this also seems to be a very Doctory – it’s nice to see that we’ve actually gotten to the point where we’re allowed to have a posh Doctor again, and it’s good to see that it really does look like a different take on the character. Tennant’s Doctor did eventually acquire his own style and personality, but there was a while where it did feel like you could have slotted Christopher Eccleston into his episodes and it really wouldn’t have made that much difference (especially in S2). This does feel like we’re going a different way – time will tell whether it works, but I’m going to watch, and I’m going to see. And I’m sure I’ll be jotting my views down here (whenever I can fit them in between my current rather terrifying workload).

Who is back. A new phase is beginning. It’s looking like this is one fandom I’m never going to completely kick. And I’m actually quite happy with that…

The Beautiful Ones

It’s Saturday night. It’s also been nearly a month since I’ve posted here. I’m not sure if I’m losing the blogging habit, or if it’s simply that I’ve had one of those months where my days have been a certain routine, and measuring time gets kind of tricky (with whole weeks seeming to go by in a flash). It hasn’t been completely short of incident, however, so – in the manner of my last post – here’s a few updates:

News Nugget 1: I’m up to 92,000 words on my latest novel. Now, it has to be said that this is 92,000 words of a draft that pushes the word “first” as far as it will go – a shambling thing that I’m going to have to do an awful lot of work on. However, there are some very good bits in there, and I think I’m gradually figuring out how to write this thing (which is another proof of the writing theory I stick to (borrowed from Neil Gaiman), that you only know what you’ve got with a story until you’ve gotten to the end). I’ve also got an interesting reversal of the situation on my previous novel – with The Hypernova Gambit, I had a log-jam of exposition in the middle of the book, whereas here I’ve got a log-jam of characterisation. I’ll figure it out, but I think writing this as a much more character-centric piece is definitely paying dividends.

News Nugget 2: Partly as a result of this progress, and of various thoughts I’ve had… the next project (or, more accurately, an ‘inbetween’ project before I start the next proper project) is going to be a rewrite of The Hypernova Gambit. It’s more for myself than anything else, and the knowledge that through the last rewrite (and getting distance from it), I think I’ve worked out what I need to do to it. One of the things that always bothered me is how bloody long it is – 188,000 words is a bit too much for something that’s supposed to be a fun romp, and I’ve had some significant ideas on streamlining it, sharpening it up, and getting it under 150,000 words. It may not improve the chances of it getting published in any way whatsoever – but I feel like I owe it one last try. (This will, however, be the very last pass on the book. After this, it really does head off to the ‘Completed Projects’ file, and I’ll be onto my next adventure – I still love The Hypernova Gambit, but it’s only got a little bit left to teach me.

News Nugget 3: I’m finally getting out properly in Manchester, as a result of my regular Thursday Comics nights. To explain: it’s a chance for a select band of customers and friends at my local comic shop to lurk around the shop after hours, eat nice food and talk about comics. It’s run on most Thursday nights, I started going last October, and it’s turned from an occasional event into a regular occurrence. On top of this, a couple of weeks back I went out with various people from the Comics Nights, and had an absolutely fantastic evening – it featured some of the most hilariously powerful cocktails I’ve ever had in my life, and ended at a Karaoke bar with me doing a rousing version of “What You Waiting For” by Gwen Stefani. I even ended up tagging along to a small-scale live gig as a result of this week’s Comics night, with a couple of bands I’d never heard of, in an authentic Manchester rock club (you could tell it was authentic by the hilariously awful nature of the toilets…). And we’re already planning on heading out next Friday. I’m flirting with the idea of “Don’t Stop Me Now” by Queen, if Karaoke once again becomes a factor…

News Nugget 4: In an act of sheer wanton abandon, I decided to go to a ‘tweet-up’- a meeting of people organised on Twitter, for people who work in the book business. It was called ‘Twinter’, it was happening in London, so this meant me doing an impromptu voyage to the Big Smoke. And it actually went rather well – it was held in a posh bar in Belsize Park (one of those ones that make you laugh at exactly how expensive the drinks are), and while I spent the first hour or so feeling horribly out of place, I finally managed to mingle, make some acquaintances, and have some very nice chat (and even – shock! horror! – give out my business card a couple of times). It all went extremely well, although getting accomodation at a central London hostel was… well, it backfired on me thanks to the ‘specifically assigned’ bed being very poorly labelled. I came back to the room at past midnight, ready to collapse into bed, only to find that (a) my ten bed dorm was horribly, horribly stuffy – the kind of stuffy you can only get by putting nine people in a non-ventilated room, and (b) there was someone in the bed that I’d made up earlier that day. Thankfully, I did get something sorted, but it involved me having to take a top bunk (not exactly ideal), and I was up again at 5.30am. Thank heavens it was only one night…

News Nugget 5: As a result of My Twinter Adventure, however, I’ve decided to say “Why not?” and go along to the London Book Fair in April. It’s happening a couple of days after a very good friend of mine is having a birthday party in London, so I’m combining the two. I don’t know if it’ll be specifically useful to me in my new life as a proofreader (and writer), but I figure I might as well go along and find out.

News Nugget 6: TV-wise at the moment, I’m enjoying the hell out of Season 6 of Lost – the last couple of episodes haven’t quite reached the out-of-nowhere craziness of the season opener, but it’s still thoroughly entertaining stuff that’s throwing so many narrative curveballs I can’t help but be swept along by it. What I’m also doing, though, is watching The Twilight Zone – not any of the colour versions or imitations, the classic B+W version. I’ve gotten the first and second seasons on DVD, and it’s fantastic stuff. I’ve always had a liking for anthologies, but they don’t always work – I’ve watched a lot of The Outer Limits (again, the Sixties version), and while there are some great episodes, they do feel a little stretched at 50 minutes. The Twilight Zone, on the other hand, is 25 minute episodes, and the format is perfect for the televisual short story. With the first season being made in 1959, naturally there’s plenty about the show that’s dated – and yet, the spirit behind the show hasn’t. There’s a wonderful darkness to The Twilight Zone – it has a handful of whimsical episodes, but for the most part it’s a wonderfully bleak look at impossibilities, magic, science fiction and cruel twists of fate. Serling’s style is occasionally overwritten and slightly over-laconic (especially in his opening/closing voice overs), but it’s also got a tremendous amount of heart, and a level of grit and realism to the characters that really makes the whole thing stand up remarkably well. At heart, The Twilight Zone is like a collection of nuggets of the best of Fifties/Sixties black-and-white cinema, unafraid to be profound or intelligent or provocative, and unafraid to push into some very dark territory. (It’s also crammed to the rafters with familiar faces – I’m a long way from William Shatner’s famous turn in ‘Nightmare at 20,000 Feet’ (that’s in Season 5) but we’ve already had Patrick Macnee, Jean Marsh, Martin Landau, Rod Taylor, Martin Balsam, and later on in other seasons there’s everyone from Robert Redford and Charles Bronson to future Bond villain Richard Kiel).

News Nugget 7: I’m extremely glad I’ve figured out how to make my Xbox 360 playable – after spending a good chunk of January working my way through Batman: Arkham Asylum (which is a fun but odd game, a mix of absurd camp and over-extreme horror, but also one of the best mixes of combat and stealth I’ve seen, where the combat is thrilling and the sneak-around-in-the-shadows stealth is genuinely tense), and then I fell back into the world of Mass Effect. This is a SF roleplay adventure I first played back in 2008, and I enjoyed but wasn’t bowled over by it, mainly because it seemed to be over very quickly. Turns out, that was simply because there was a whole bunch of side missions I didn’t know about – and after doing a replay (going for more of the ‘Renegade’ options – the game gives you varying ways to play the story that do genuinely effect what happens), I was finally tempted into picking up the recently released sequel, Mass Effect 2. And wow, I’m very glad I did – it’s an example of a sequel that improves in almost every respect on the original game, and the level of characterisation that’s gone into the story is incredible – this is an SF world that it’s very easy to be lost in. It’s hilariously derivative, essentially playing as a slightly more hardcore interactive version of Babylon 5, but the dialogue features a minimum of cheesy one-liners, there are some genuinely funny moments, imaginative aliens, beautiful design, and some of the best voice acting I’ve ever heard in a game (trust me – if there’s one thing that can catapult you out of an immersive game, it’s characters sounding like bad actors standing in a studio reciting dialogue). I’m 15 hours into my first play-through (fitting it in around tons of proofreading, writing, reading and reviewing) and I’ve barely scratched the surface. It’s one of the few computer games I’ve bought for full price, and in this case I haven’t regretted it in the slightest.

News Nugget 8: Some things I’ve seen – there’s a new trailer for the upcoming season of Doctor Who online at the BBC (after airing tonight):

And initially I was excited to see it, until I realised it was one of those slightly dreadful ‘concept’ trailers that they’re occasionally in the habit of doing that don’t feature any actual footage from the show, and fall into the “Well, it must have seemed like a good idea at the time” category. I like the opening, though, and am still curious to see what’s what. And it’s saying ‘Easter’, so there’s the strong possibility it might be airing the same weekend as Eastercon (which would make a nice follow-up to last year’s Planet of the Dead screening).

Another thing I’ve seen – a three minute ‘teaser’ for a show that doesn’t actually exist yet. One of the more interesting aspects of the internet is how things that wouldn’t normally have been seen outside the industry can build up a momentum all of their own. In this case, it’s what’s referred to as a ‘sizzle reel’, which has been put together to show what an episode of proposed SF caper/heist show ‘Slingers’ would look like:

As teasers go, I have to admit that I rather like that – I’m definitely liking the stylised Sixties version of the future, and I can see the whole Rat Pack/Oceans Eleven thing working well in an SF environment (probably better than the Western elements of Firefly; I know there are tons of people out there who adored the show, but coming to it after the fact, I found the Western elements to be the bits of Firefly I liked the least – it worked best when it dropped the space-six-guns, bar fights and ‘Hey, let’s help the hookers out’ plots and just tried to be a gritty nuts-and-bolts SF show). There’s some fun stuff in this teaser – there’s also certain shots that push the low-budget stylised look into sheer incomprehensible abstractness, and the storytelling could be a little clearer (I think the characters are hi-jacking some kind of A.I., but it’s hard to be sure…), but I’d definitely be game for checking this out if it ever makes it into the land of the produced.

I’m not actually watching very much TV at the moment. I’m slowly catching up with Glee, which manages to have enough genuine fun to make up for the painfully forced moments and the chirpy musical ibe (it’s from the creator of Popular, a high school show which was a similar mixture of really good characterisation and absolutely thunking unsubtlety), but otherwise there’s little on the horizon until New Who starts. I may have to start getting those other Twilight Zone sets soon…

* * *

And that’s where I’m standing. With plenty to do, and a determination that 2010 is going to be a better year for me. So far, the results are not too bad. Here’s hoping…