Mars Attack

Spoilers on ice
Doctor Who: “Empress of Mars”

So a few weeks back, we weren’t allowed a reference to Harry Sullivan, companion for Tom Baker’s first season and the opening of the second, as well as appearing in a later serial, because no one would remember him.

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Monks’ Anxiety

Spoilery McSpoilface.

Doctor Who: “The Pyramid at the End of the World”

Bill, for reasons that are no clearer than she’s on the opening credits, is picked up by an American general and the Secretary General of the United Nation, interrupting the real date that replaced the virtual date from last week (and I wonder if this is going to be a thing — we are repeatedly informed she is a lesbian, but she won’t be allowed past first base. There was Heather, too, don’t forget). When there is a crisis, the Doctor gets to be president of the world (although note that the dead president last week doesn’t have the orange look Bill mentions) and the current crisis is the appearance of a five thousand year old pyramid, which has landed between the American, Russian and Chinese armies, threatening… well, oddly getting between them so you’d think it’d be safer.

How do they know it’s five thousand years old?

They just do, okay.

And it’s home to monks, because everyone knows that monks live in pyramids, wearing particularly tasteful curtains.

Look, this episode is co-written by the guy who did the Moon-egg-butterfly-Moon-egg episode, which makes The Clangers look like a Larry Niven novel.

Somewhere, the end of the world is underway, as at a research lab the hungover scientist Douglas screws up an experiment and the cock up isn’t clocked by short-sighted Erica. (Erica, I like, I could bear more of Erica.) The whole world is in danger of being poisoned by them. Fortunately, the Doctor is able to find them, thanks to Margot hacking the security cameras — the Doctor couldn’t do the hacking because he’s visually impaired — yes I know he’s already hacked two computer systems since he lost his sight, don’t quibble. He also gets locked in the lab in question. Because the sonic screwdriver won’t work on a combination lock. Because labs use mechanical locks.

Obviously.

Meanwhile, the Monks are offering to help, but will only do so if asked — shades of the Doctor asking Bill if he can save the world in ”Thin Ice”. In return for saving the world, they will want the world, which they have been practicing to invade since humanity crawled out of the slime.

Yes, I know it would be a pain in the butt if after all that humanity didn’t want help. You’d think they’d asked for consent before they were so committed, but the practices clearly told them Bill would oblige…

Yes, Bill, after the Secretary General and the three military leaders asked, but apparently not in the right way.

Do these monks want to invade or not? David Archer must have cows he has to get back to milk.

Bill has finally learned — and you wouldn’t think her so dumb — that the Doctor hasn’t got his sight back. She can ask for help, with love, and not fear, honest, unlike the Secretary General, so sight is restored.

How?

Don’t ask. You should be more worried about the STORY ARC and that Margot is apparently dead in the TARDIS and

Will nobody think of the Vault?

:/

Doctor Who: “Smile”

Nu Who has built a few episodes around people being prevented from doing or being forced to do certain things — I’m thinking especially of “Blink”, but if I had a better memory of the last ten years I could think of more examples. Here it is again then: smile, though your heart is aching
Smile even though it’s breaking
When there are clouds in the sky, you’ll get by
If you smile through your fear and sorrow
Smile and maybe tomorrow
You’ll see the sun come shining through for you.

Smile, it’ll never happen. Imagine having to smile or you’ll die.

Actually, I have a feeling Ray Bradbury already did, a story where someone was arrested for not smiling — I used to know titles, and I know it wasn’t “The Smile”.

So the Doctor seems to have taken Bill under his wing — he was grooming her, educationally speaking at least — and she’s still asking the questions that were the clever and probably unconscious subtext of the original creators of the series. Why a police box? How much did it cost? Why did you take it? How do you fly it? The Doctor as helpline, answering all calls. Bill is owed a trip, so she asks to see the future to see if humanity is happy (dramatic irony). After the gadding about shenanigans of “The Pilot” we get a single destination.

Of course, Margot is contractually obliged to knock knock and tell us about the Vault and the Doctor’s duty to guard it. The Doctor, never knowingly underhubrised, reckons he can pop out to ten thousand years from now and be back before Margot’s finished smoking the kippers.

Yeah, right.

But in what the Doctor here calls “negotiation” with the TARDIS as opposed to steering, we know that navigation is as accurate or off-kilter as the plot demands.

So we are transported to the future human colony and we see characters running through wheat fields.

Naughty.

Colonist May does not have long for the colony world, as her reaction to hearing that Everyone is Dead is to cry and leads her to be flayed by the killer locust robots called Vardies.

I am half convinced this is Polari.

But only half.

So the Doctor and Bill walk into this death trap, with Bill entranced by robots who speak emoji. The Doctor has a lovely cake and eat it line about a future “utopia of vacuous teens”, and they have their first Vardy experience. Actually, I do like the look of this utopia future — CGI and a leisure centre I assume — and the central gimmick is neatly done, even if you half expect someone to be quoting the Three Laws of Robotics. The emojibots enforce happiness. An outbreak of grief would doom the colony. After the Doctor and Bill discover a rather literal skeleton crew, the Doctor realises the answer is to blow the colony buiding up.

The second act becomes about the attempt to do so and the exploration of the colony ship Erehwon — a nice joke let down by the misspelling of Samuel-no-relation-Butler’s novel. Complications ensue, which is the arrival of a killer emojibot and the awakening of the colonists. The Doctor can’t blow up the ship because it will kill the colonists, but if he doesn’t blow it up the ship will kill the colonists.

The Doctor has been making allusions throughout to the Magic Haddock, which is a variation on W.W. Jacobs’s “The Monkey’s Paw” story about three wishes, with the third wish wiping out the previous two. He also mentions a reset button — a rather knowing thing in what we know is the last season of the programme in its current form. Moffat has hit reset buttons before. A few years ago, the narrative used to be resolved by simply rewriting DNA on the fly, here the waving of the sonic screwdriver is the universal panacea.

And it was going so well.

I think Frank Cottrell-Boyce gets away with it, because the banter between Bill and the Doctor is fun, and we should keep an eye on her movie knowledge. I could have done without them both saying the episode’s punchline.

But, like a Spielberg movie, it doesn’t stop there, at the right point — like the early Hartnell episodes we are tipped into the next episode, with an elephant on the Thames. So take note — the Doctor was wrong about blowing something up and he was wrong about being home again home again jiggidy-jig. But then, I guess, it’s never too late for him to get home on time.

But at some point hubris is going to be clobbered.

Look On My Prequels, Matey, and Despair

Alien: Covenant (Ridley Scott, 2017)

It really does worry me that with this and Prometheus I was looking at my phone at the fifty minute mark and was wondering when someone, anyone, was going to die. By now, the Alien template should be established — a small crew, who you’ll never quite be able to distinguish, stumble upon something nasty and are killed one by one until the final girl survives. In the case of the Alien franchise we know there are going to be aliens, but unfortunately they seem to want to delay gratification as long as possible.

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Stockholm from Home

Passengers (Morten Tyldum, 2016)

I have a memory of being taught by an alleged ex-nun who, when she was teaching film, apparently kept reaching for “it was all a dream”. Psycho, for example, didn’t happen, but was dreamt, presumably by Marion Crane in the hotel before Loomis arrived and before she stole the money and drove to a motel. Passengers could well be a dream — it certainly comes across as wish fulfilment.

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The Short Long History of the Short

Ann-Marie Einhaus (ed) (2016) The Cambridge Companion to the English Short Story (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press)

It’s always good when a piece of work finally appears — I’ve been through research and drafts and edits and proofs and galleys. In here I have a chapter on “The British science fiction short story” (and I mourn my title or subtitle, which was something like “Authors and Editors”).

While the identity of the first sf novel is contested, Brian W. Aldiss’s championing of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) provides a useful starting point. Her nested tale of a scientist who fails to take adequate care of his creation cemented an archetype of the genre and demonstrated an ambivalence towards science and technology that characterizes much British sf. Her depiction of the landscapes – of Germany, Britain and the Arctic – also points to an interest in the pastoral and the natural world, under threat from the Industrial Revolution. Her only other sf novel, The Last Man (1826), displays a pessimism and sense of decline that was also to pervade the British form. Shelley’s career was hampered by the politics of her family life; after the death by drowning of Percy Bysshe Shelley she had to borrow money from her father-in-law, Sir Timothy Shelley, against her son, Percy Florence’s, inheritance. Sonia Hofkosh argues that Shelley ‘recognizes an economics of the marketplace, wherein production and consumption are compelled and constrained by publishers, editors, and readers’. She published in the annuals, ornate gift books that contained vignettes, poetry, accounts of the previous year and engravings. The first annual had been Forget-Me-Not: A Christmas and New Years Present for 1823 (1822), but the Keepsake (1827–1857) was more successful. In Shelley’s ‘Mortal Immortal’ (Keepsake, 1833), protagonist Winzy becomes immortal as he accidentally drinks an alchemist’s potion and then watches his lover Bertha as she ages and dies. It is tempting to read this (like The Last Man) autobiographically, with the dead Percy forever twenty-nine and Mary subject to the ravages of time and economic struggle.

There then seems to be a fifty-year gap: ghost, horror and fantasy short stories, but no sf.

Of course, if I’m wrong, let me know the British sf short stories between 1833 and ‘The Battle of Dorking’ (May 1871) (I mention ‘The Signalman’ (1866)).

I’m hoping the fifty-year gap is 1826-1871, as ‘Mortal Immortal’ pushes the genre boundaries a tad. *koffs*

I take the story up to Nina Allan and Chris Beckett. It is a sprint.

But some good stuff in the collection, including Paul March-Russell on “Writing and publishing the short story”, period pieces on Romantic, Victoria, early twentieth-century, mid twentieth-century and … plus genres such as detective, gothic and microfiction.