Apr 112014
 
By Russel D McLean

It's a strange feeling to see something you've worked on for so long finally take on physical form. Technically speaking, this is around the 8th time (counting various editions) that I've held a book of mine in my hands, and every time it feels oddly unreal. The same panic sets in, that there's something in those pages I overlooked or that I'll suddenly be found out as a fraud of some kind.

But at the same time, there's a magical moment. One where I realise what all the hard work was about. There's a moment where - and those who know me will know how rare this is - I actually get an ego trip.

Looking at the book, I remember when there was no book, just a gem of an idea. Something itching to find release. I remember when I thought I would never finish. The moments where I thought that maybe this time I'd truly messed up, that I'd never be able to create something coherent. But it happened. I know this not just because there's a book in my hand but because the guts of that book - the words, the pages - passed through so many others before this thing was created. It passed editors, copy editors, agents. It became something that talked to other people. Even in a small way.

Mothers of the Disappeared is, I hope, my best book yet. I sincerely hope so because it was a book I'd been wanting to write for a long time. The gem of the book was generated back when I was writing shorts about Sam Bryson for AHMM. I always wanted Bryson to try and prove the innocence of someone no one else would ever believe was not guilty. I wanted him to have to face his own prejudices in dealing with someone who appeared absolutely guilty and repellant. And with Mothers of the Disappeared, I took this idea and ran with it. The book became bigger than that, of course, and while that basic seed is still there, it has become a very different beast. But I'm proud of it. Very proud. As I am of all my books, even the ones I think have flaws.

The book is offically released in the UK on April 30. I'll be launching it at Blackfriars in Glasgow on the 28th (advance copies will be there for purchase!) at 7pm. I look forward to seeing people read the book, to talking to them about it, to being able to finally see the fourth McNee novel out there in the wild. It was - for many thematic reasons - a tough book to write. But I'm proud of it. And all I can hope is that you will enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.
 Posted by at 6:30 am
Mar 142014
 
By Russel D McLean

As I write this, I am finishing up the latest draft of CRY UNCLE, the last McNee novel. The draft is due to submitted just before MOTHERS OF THE DISAPPEARED  comes out in April. I feel a little odd about this one. Its the fifth McNee and I always said that I had a five book plan. One I've almost stuck to. So this, in a way, is the end.

Its not necessarily the very end. But its the end of the particular arc I wanted to write. It ties up a lot of loose ends. It brings a kind of emotional closure to certain aspects of the series. And of course it does open up the possibilities for new paths to be followed. If people want it, there may be room for more in the series. I just don't know how they would look. Yet.

To tell the kind of story I wanted to tell took a lot of ambition for someone who's not as concerned with plots as he is style. I always wanted the writing and the emotion to win out over any kind of whodunnit chicanery or clever-clever reveals. I never minded if people saw the twists coming but I did want them to be interested in the characters and where they were going. McNee has changed as the books have gone on. By the end of book 3, he had come to terms with his part in the death of his fiancee. He had started to quell the anger that he had felt for years. In fact, without giving too much away, the point of book 3 was to show that with a very specific kind of emotional switch that happened in the final act as McNee saw someone else go through the kind of anger he had experienced and realised how destructive that could be to someone.*

Book 4 therefore should start with McNee in a good place. But having had him come through that, I didn't think it was fair that he should have an easy time of it. And besides there were, as someone pointed out, still a few loose ends dangling from as far back as THE GOOD SON. When were they going to bite him on the arse?

They do. Right at the start of MOTHERS, a very bad decision we saw McNee make several years ago is rearing its head. Consequences are finally asserting themselves. He  has started to forgive himself. But can others forgive him?

We also explore a little more the time before he left the force. The book is very much about McNee's past both in the chronology of the books and his past as a cop. We learn that before he left the force he was involved in a very high profile investigation along with his now dead mentor, Ernie Bright. But while that case was close, it looks like the wrong man may have been arrested. The wrong who pleaded guilty. I've always been fascinated by the idea of miscarriages of justice, and the idea that an innocent person might have reasons for pleading guilty. So this book looks into that.  Not in a legal sense. I've never been one for that although I do think that this book might actually have more research than some of the others have when it comes to procedure. Its all about emotional consequences, however. And on that level I think it works very well.

McNee still has some very dark places to go. But I'm so very pleased that both Five Leaves and now Severn Publishing have given me the chance to write the books I wanted to write. Of course the series looks different in some ways from how I imagined it back at the start. But the thrust of that five book arc remains the same and I'm very glad to have done what I set out to do. You may be just about to enjoy book 4, but for me, book 5 is nearly complete and that brings with it a kind of beautiful bitter sweet feeling.

This may not be goodbye for McNee. But for me, it marks a kind of ending. One that makes me both smile and feel a tiny bit wisftul.

*I make no claims that I succeeded in doing this, but that was the intention
 Posted by at 6:00 am
Jan 102014
 
By Russel D McLean

I've talked about rejection before, I'm sure. But its on my mind as I sit here in my brand new office, having finally completed the move that began in November. I'm in a new city, in a new flat (after living for a month in The Literary Critic's old place, we've now found ourselves a Gothic Monstrosity that really is quite marvelous). I've spent the last few days working on the 5th McNee novel (this is the one that ties up a number of ongoing threads - is it the actual last in the series? Goodness only knows, but it certainly takes some themes that have been dangling over the books and finally lays old ghosts to rest) but I've also been unpacking some final boxes.

One of those boxes contained a lot of old rejection slips.

Someone of them are disheartening. Phrases like, "just not exciting enough" and "show don't tell" pop up frequently, especially in the early part of this millennium. But I clearly learned from them. There are three that say, "Submissions have now closed" or "this imprint will be closing" which shows just what good timing I have when it comes to most things.

But then there are others, like a letter from a respected SF editor who says that he doesn't think I would fit on an SF list but should try to go more literary. He gives me a number of names and then those names, when I find the letters, give me names, too. None of them think I'm quite there yet for their list, but they're all massively enthusiastic. Its intriguing to read, and makes me wonder if I should re-do that old "sf" chestnut someday. In fact, I'm already churning over in my mind what I would do to it, now. And I think the result would be a stronger book, although I have to wonder if its the kind of book I am capable of writing. That's always a worry for me, of course. Can my ambition match my ability?

Certainly it wasn't the case with a manuscript that went out to an editor (oh who am I kidding, it was a script, he was a producer - - and he asked for it based on an outline) that came back ripped to shreds and doodled over with crayon. At the bottom of the script is a handwritten note that reads, "As you can, my kids didn't like it, either". It still makes me go ouch. But I can take comfort from the fact that apparently the guy's a bit of a pariah, now. So there's something.

But what I'm thinking looking through the box is how much I've changed as writer over the year. Every rejection taught me something, made me grow. Every piece of advice - the well meant ones, of course - has stayed with me and guided me on my journey. I was not ready to write at 18, 20, 23. At 24 I got a break but there are still a lot of rejections between then and the publication of The Good Son to remind me that you don't just leap from not published to published, from bad to good. You make mistakes. You refine your approach. You soak up the world around you. You find your voice.

And you don't let it stagnate.

I'd like to think that in another ten years, I'll look back at stuff I'm doing now and see the change from here to then. I'll be proud - I'm still proud of a lot of what I produced back on those days, even if I'd never actually allow it to be published in that state... yes, the people who rejected me were mostly right to do so - of my work, but I'll be able to see how I've evolved and changed.

Hopefully for the better.
 Posted by at 7:00 am
Dec 202013
 
By Russel D McLean

Yes, its the time of year where everyone does their "best of" lists of the year, so I figured I'm one for jumping on bandwagons and therefore give you my top 5 reads of this year (in no particular order and probably missing out one or two that I completely forgot about, but these are in my  brainpan right now):

1) THE CRY - Helen Fitzgerald: Wow. Oh, wow. A devastatingly well written novel about a woman whose child is killed during a holiday and the aftermath of the terrible decision she may or may not have made. Its got a straight from the headlines hook,  but Fitzgerald is such an exceedingly clever author that she never once judges her characters or their decisions, leaving the reader in the uncomfortable position of having to work out who to trust and who not to believe. Its a brilliant and unsettling novel that you absolutely have to read.

2) ONION STREET by Reed Farrel Coleman: Coleman's Moe Prager series is drawing to an end, which is sad news for fans of the conflicted and always intriguing wine-store owning hardboiled eye from Brooklyn. But this book - which skips to Moe's college years - is one of his finest adventures yet; a mix of recent history, character development and brilliant plotting that confirms Coleman's place among the greatest crime writers you might not yet have read. If you haven't read Moe yet, you really need to start. Now.

3) WOUNDED PREY by Sean Lynch. An unexpected entry for me as this one just kind of dropped through the letterbox. But with its Michael Connelly-esque feel and its brilliant understanding of the psychotic nature of its bad guy, this is one of the few serial killer novels I really enjoyed this year. Or indeed, ever (I'm not a big serial killer novel fan, so they have to do a lot to convince me) Lynch has a great future in the genre, and I'm glad to have got in at the ground level.

4) THE HARD BOUNCE by Todd Robinson. Another debut, and one I admittedly read a year or so ago (but it was just released this year - yeah, check the front pages, this one's got a blurb on it from me) - - but its a great read and Robinson has an authentically tough new voice. THE HARD BOUNCE is the kind of novel I love. Full of street level violence and barely any hero cops to be seen. Boo Malone is a brilliant creation and frankly I'm looking forward to whatever Robinson does next.

5) NOS4R2 by Joe Hill. Hill has been on my watchlist for a while. His HEART SHAPED box was a little too constrained by its King-esque conventions (and yes, Hill  is King's son, but I didn't know that, then) but was very readable and great fun. HORNS was brilliantly good fun, although fell apart a little towards the end. Still, an original concept and even more assured writing. But NOS4R2 is brilliant. A sustained (and huge - we all know I usually don't like big novels) and thrilling novel that never quite does what you expect, it starts with a killer whose car takes him to his "inscape"; a place inside his own head he calls Christmasland. Our killer takes children to Christmasland in the belief that he is helping them. To do this he employs the assistance of a strange individual known as GasMask Man. Meanwhile, a girl discovers her own inscape and soon finds herself in the path of this monstrous killer. Nothing happens the way you might expect, and Hill creates an imaginative, epic horror that never once forgets about character or atmosphere. Its all a little surreal but very well conceived, and I admit to shivering more than once. I can't wait to see where Hill goes from here.
 Posted by at 10:33 am
Sep 272013
 
by Russel D McLean

11 weeks. 11 Doctors. 11 stories. Right up to the fiftieth anniversary, Russel will be reviewing one story a week for each Doctor. He will try and relate each story to a larger picture and how it relates to each period. He will occasionally make fun of them. But he will try and show you what a varied and brilliant history the show has. As well as overcoming his own prejducies about certain periods in the shows history. Each review will have spoilers and will assume a certain level of knowledge about the story in question.


The one with the slugs.


Yes, the Jon Pertwee era is on us. Doctor Who is in full colour and somehow, things look a little cheaper than they did in the days of black and white, This is mostly because the producers have become obsessed with green screen effects that never match up studio and exterior writing properly. I’m not a masive fan of the Pertwee era. There are some great early moments (anything with Liz Shaw) and some brief snatches of brilliance, but on the whole, I find Pertwee’s Doctor just a little patronising and a little reliant on over-long stories.


The Doctor himself has changed again. He’s an immaculate dresser with his own sense of style. He’s tall, with a shock of white hair and a very patronising manner, particularly where women are concerned. Its a huge problem for me in this era of Who. The Doctor is definitely an authority/father figure and the sheer number of “my dears” thrown around in an exasperated fashion are too numerous to mention. For the first part of his run, Pertwee found himself stuck on earth, which lumbered him with the UNIT cast that he first met in his second incarnation (see The Invasion, last week). The UNIT family are fine in small doses, but there’s only so often Lethbridge Stewart can be pompous and disbelieving, or Benton can be loyal or Mike Yates can be a blank slate of nothingness. Its fine for a while but soon you yearn for other things, and thankfully by the time The Green Death rolls around, the Doctor has got off planet a few times. In fact, as this story opens, the Doctor is shirking his UNIT duties for a jolly to Metebelis III. This is in character with the Doctor’s third incarnation who often seems supremely self-obsessed, perhaps because he’s never quite got over his temporary exile by the Time Lords.


It could also have something to do with Jo. If there was ever a character designed to frustrate and annoy, its Jo Grant. Katy Manning does what she can with the material, but Jo is written far too often as a child-like incompetent in constant need of rescuing by the Doctor. More than any other companion, she seems in constant need of assistance. Jo does get some redemption in this story, but her final choice to leave with the man she’s fallen in love with over the course of a few days sees her swapping a father figure for a gentler brother figure. Its not exactly something feminists would be going wild over. That said, there’s a great connection between Jo and the third doctor. He may treat her like a child, and she may willingly go alogn with it, but its clear that the way they’re written, they’re perfect for each other, and Pertwee plays the final scene where the doctor skulks into the night (because he can’t handle Jo being happy with someone else) perfectly. Its just that in a larger context, the whole relationship is a little suspect.


Anyway, to the story itself: The Green Death finds a bunch of Welsh stereotypes working down the mines and suddenly discovering that some of their number are dying with an odd green glow emanating from their corpses. The Doctor would be useful in this situation but he’s gone off to Metebelis III for a sulk/to find the deus ex machina that is the Meteblis Crystal (he doesn’t know it will come in handy, he just wants one). On his return, he finds that the cause of the deaths are a bunch of odd looking maggots that have grown to unnatural size and are oozing around in green gunk. The cause of this green gunk seems to be nearby Global chemicals who are being run by an intelligent supercomputer called BOSS that has a weird plan for world domination. Or something. I’m not sure. Basically, its Skynet (from the Terminator movies) several decades too early. And in Wales. And with maggots instead of Schwarzenegger.


As a whole The Green Death is very representative of the Pertwee era. The earth setting. The all powerful computer. The Doctor acting like a secret agent (gadgets, disguises etc). The ambition outdoing the budget (the awful CSO work in the mine that even at the time must have looked dodgy) and the very cool clothes for the doctor. Pertwee excudes authority, and is in fact the most authoritarian of all doctors (no fish fingers and custard for this doctor; he’s very very serious). And the UNIT family. There’s some brainwashing too (seemed to happen to Mike Yates every other story - - only a few more stories until he’s duped again in the Dinosaur Invasion) and the Metebelis Crystals show up for little other reason than the writers needed them to. Mind you, the trip to Metebelis III is worth it for a great example of the Pertwee Gurn as he’s attacked by the indigenous life-forms. Its actually all very entertaining, and the maggots themselves are icky-scary. Pertwee himself is on fine form, and Jo gets a few chances to be an adult, although these are destroyed rather quickly by her terrible attempts to go down the mine and of course the moments she upsets Cliff’s science experiments. There’s escape, capture, death and the sight of Pertwee in drag. Not quite the all-conquering classic some would have you believe, but a good slice of Pertwee era action. With maggots.


Moments in Time:


- Those maggots are not, contrary to belief, made from condoms. They’re party balloons. Honestly, some people just see sex wherever they look.


- We’ve mentioned Pertwee’s disguises. But the moment where he’s dressed as the charlady is incredibly Madame Doubtfire. And let’s not mention his milkman moment.


- The Doctor would obviously change his mind with regard to letting married couples aboard the TARDIS but I do find it odd that Jo’s romance with Cliff would mean the end of their knowing each other. Then again, the Doctor tends to get a little possessive about those he travels with (it would be the same with Mickey, Rose and Doctor 9)


- Everybody knows that to touch the miner’s corpses means death. Yet folk move the bodies around and touch them to make sure they’re dead without so much as a momentary niggle of fear when the script demands it.


- I know they’re meant to be horrifying, but I do find the maggots rather cute in the way they wiggle around.

- The Metebelis crystal would return in the new series under Matt Smith’s tenure. But Smith’s pronunciation of it would be rather bizarre, maybe in reference to Tom Baker's strange inability to pronounce certain ordinary words.
 Posted by at 6:30 am
Sep 272013
 
By Russel D McLean


11 weeks. 11 Doctors. 11 stories. Right up to the fiftieth anniversary, Russel will be reviewing one story a week for each Doctor. He will try and relate each story to a larger picture and how it relates to each period. He will occasionally make fun of them. But he will try and show you what a varied and brilliant history the show has. As well as overcoming his own prejducies about certain periods in the shows history. Each review will have spoilers and will assume a certain level of knowledge about the story in question.

Tom Baker is, for many, the quintessential Doctor. His unruly curls, his massive scarf (the first one knitted by Madame Nostradamus (a “witty little knitter” apparently) and his unpredictable behaviour (that became a little over exaggerated in later seasons) made him immensely popular. He would be the longest running Doctor, playing the part for seven years before finally leaving in his excellent final story, Logopolis.


He had several companions over the course of his run, including the “savage” Leela, the Timelord Romana and - for only a few episodes before Peter Davison was lumbered with his intensely irritating presence - the mathematical genius, Adric.


But its his partership with Sarah Jane Smith that many people fondly remember. Sarah Jane had replaced the outgoing Jo during the Pertwee years, and introduced a stronger female character to the mix. Sarah was an investigative journalist and while she was occasionally mistreated by scripts (perhaps never moreso than during the reunion special, The Five Doctors, where she got stuck down the world’s gentlest incline) she was, on the whole, a fantastic role model for a whole generation of young women, often able to hold her own against the Doctor. Her interplay with Pertwee was excellent, but the partnership of Sarah Jane and the fourth doctor was nothing short of dynamite.


Its hard to pick just one story from the Baker years, so I had to go with one that meant something to me personally. The Seeds of Doom is a story that I remember particularly well from its novelisation in the Target series of books. These novella length adaptations were written at a time when the possibility of TV repeats of Doctor Who was limited, and they introduced readers like myself to a whole back catalogue of stories and Doctors we never had the chance to meet. The Seeds of Doom was one of my favourites, and its tale of an alien plant intent on consuming the entire earth chilled me to the bone.


So what was it like to finally watch this six part story?


Surprising is the answer. Most of the stories selected for A Doctor a Week have been representative of the eras of the show they are from, or at least considered classics. The Seeds of Doom is surprising in that it is rather different from the shows that surround it. Others have claimed it to be an episode of The Avengers in Dictor Who drag, and I guess that’s true. There’s more of an action component than most of the surrounding stories, and anyone who thinks the Doctor is a lily white pacifist who never employs violence need to watch this one to see Tom Baker crash through windows, wave guns at people and generally do whatever is neccesary to get the job done.


What’s amazing is that none of this derring do is out of character. The monster of the piece is the Krynoid (Baker pronounces it “Kr-ih-noyd” but given how he also pronounces “homunculus”, we should always be wary of a Baker pronunciation), an alien plant that lives off animal matter and consumes whole planets. These creatures are immensely powerful and one of the greatest dangers the doctor has ever faced. We know this not just because we’re told so, but because Baker really sells his desperation in his performance. For this story, Baker dials back his performance and it works beautifully. His Doctor is strange and alien, but also unnerving because we never quite know which way he’s going to jump. Compare this to some later stories where he’s allowed to go full tilt pantomime crazy and tell me which aspect of his performance is more effective.


His concern for Sarah Jane is fantastic. Unlike Pertwee’s father figure, Baker’s Doctor treats Sarah equally. Yes, she’s from a race who can’t understand all the things that a Time Lord can, but he knows that she’s intelligent and that she matters as more than just someone to marvel at his brilliance. In a way he needs her, and that shows right through this story. He loses his temper at her, but he’s under intense pressure, and Sarah Jane gives back as good as she gets. There’s a reason she’s a fan favourite, and its this chemistry and genuine strength of character that secures her position in the viewer’s - and the Doctor’s - hearts. Its little wonder Lis Sladen would return to this character again and again; she’s a human being, something that would not always be the case for those accompanying the Doctor. And she’s great in this story (although of course sometimes she still gets scripted a little too weakly, but that’s as much the era this was written in as anything else.... at least she no longer has to deal with UNIT Medical Doctor, Harry, who accompanied them for a while and kept making digs about equality and women’s lib).


For a six part story, Seeds move fast. There are some mis-steps (a lot of toing and froing at the beginning when Doctor Who does The Thing, as they attempt to stop the Krynoid defrosting in Antarctica, and the awful decision to allow the Krynoid to speak, therefore robbing it of its elemental power) but on the whole, ever scene adds to the action. There are beautifully played human villains, too. Trigger from Only Fools and Horses does a nice line in thuggery as the violent Scorby, while Harrison Chase is one of the most chilling villains on record. In another life, he might have been an eco warrior. As it is he despises humanity so much all he wants is to see the world turned into a plant paradise. There’s real horror here, too, as there was during this era of Who. Phillip Hinchcliffe’s time as producer gave us some real horror stories, and with the body shock elements of human beings turning into plant creatures and some real nasty stuff with a compost machine, you can see why kids were hiding behind the sofa and why Mary Whitehouse was coming close to a heart attack as she tried to get kids TV to tone down the violence.


Seeds of Doom had a soft spot in my heart as a novelisation. And I hold it in even higher regard now I’ve seen it for real. The script is tight and witty, Sarah Jane and the Doctor are on top form, and the whole things just moves along at top speed. If you haven’t seen this one already, check it out.  You won’t regret it.


MOMENTS IN TIME


- I spent most of the last review moaning about the UNIT family, so its nice see new facets of the military organisation appear here.


- The Doctor really is violent here, and its easy to see why the part could have been written for John Steed of the avengers. And Sarah Jane makes a credible Emma Peel stand in, too.


- There’s a great moment during a fight in the compost machine where Chase tries to push the Doctor through the chompers. Baker looks genuinely bewildered as to why the other man is trying to kill him and his regret at letting Chase get chomped is absolutely clear. The is the Doctor. He does what he has to do, but he doesn’t have to like it.


- The action really is great. Baker crashing through skylight to rescue Sarah is a highlight.


- I’m still not sure how Sarah survives overnight face down in the styrofoam snow. But I’m glad she does. I’m sure the modern series would somehow work a way into saying the TARDIS did this.


- The whole opening stuff in Antarctica is brilliantly creepy and claustrophobic. Although as ever, the timer on the bomb seems to work in something other than seconds... (or else its the TARDIS stretching time... or something to do with the sonic screwdriver).

- I’m still not quite sure what the gag is in the very final scene. But I’m sure it was very amusing to someone somewhere.
 Posted by at 6:30 am
Sep 132013
 
Russel D McLean

11 weeks. 11 Doctors. 11 stories. Right up to the fiftieth anniversary, Russel will be reviewing one story a week for each Doctor. He will try and relate each story to a larger picture and how it relates to each period. He will occasionally make fun of them. But he will try and show you what a varied and brilliant history the show has. As well as overcoming his own prejducies about certain periods in the shows history. Each review will have spoilers and will assume a certain level of knowledge about the story in question.

For those who get upset at the Cybermen being “defeated with love” in the new series, you probably shouldn’t watch The Invasion. Later episodes show the cybermen being defeated with strong emotions (the sight of a terrified cyberman running through the sewers is brilliantly effective), and the “emotion gun” is a bit of a silly idea but somehow it all makes sense in context.


And that’s kind of the secret to watching 60s Who - taking everything in context. After all, there’s a lot that we would find very silly now. There is always padding. Always. But in the case of this eight parter, things move surprisingly fast. In fact, the pace is perfectly timed, and while one would imagine there isn’t much that can be done with the normally dull cybermen over the case of eight episodes, here they still feel fresh enough to retain the fear factor. And the fact is that they are actually not present for several episodes, allowing their more human agents to really get some development (in a 1960s kind of way).


Patrick Troughton’s run on the show sets the template for the later eras and the show we would come to know. His Doctor is markedly different to WIlliam Hartnell’s. The phrase “cosmic hobo” is thrown around a lot regarding Troughton’s doc, but its definitely appropriate. He has something of Charlie Chaplin about him in the scruffy appearance and the small frame. He’s a clown on the surface, but beneath all of that there lurks a very sharp intellect. He often plays the coward or the idiot to throw his adversaries off guard.


This serves Troughton particularly well in this episode as he plays against a 1960s swinging London backdrop. The Invasion served as a forerunner to the looming-on-the-horizon Jon Pertwee years that would see the show switch not only to colour but also a mostly-earth setting. The Invasion was one of the first stories (after The Web of Fear) to reinforce the idea that these things could happen right on the doorstep. That infamous shot of the Cybermen walking across London bridge really is spectacular to see and its very clear that this story was made with a great deal of love and attention to detail.


Ah, yes, the Swinging Sixties. A time when men were men and women were silly little things to be patronised rather a lot (but at least they wore short skirts). The Brigadier gets all the sexism this time around, and while Zoe is a brilliant mathematician, she still gets all girly and has to be looked after a lot. The one time any woman does show some initiative - going down into the sewers against the brig’s orders, for example - she manages to simply mess things up even more than they were already. But then that's pretty par for the course, and nothing compared to what we were about to see in a few years with the character of Jo Grant (who was later rounded out in 2010's Sarah Jane Adventures series, making me wish we'd seen more of her assertive side during the 1970s era).


Returning to the villains, for a moment, impressive as they are, the Cybermen are only a small part of the story. For the first four episodes, we are trying to figure out who they are, seeing only their human contact, the wealthy industrialist who has decided to assist them in their plans. He’s a chilling villain, and his impact only goes to show how the Cybermen - like the Daleks - are best used as seasoning. The Cybermen in this story are mostly mute, mostly terrifying. They lurk in the dark and when they emerge, they have the power to terrify (although as always, their near-superhuman strength seems to vary according to whether a character needs to escape or not to keep the plot moving on).


The Invasion is one of the “lost” stories. In the late seventies, the BBC junked a load of old programs including several episodes of Who. Entire stories were lost. Some partial episodes remained of some serials. And The Invasion is one of those partials. Back in the good old days of VHS, Nicholas Courtney (Who plays Brigadier Lethbridge Stewart, a man introduced previously in the Invasion and returning here prior to becoming a series regular in the Pertwee years) linked the missing episodes, but he couldn’t hope to match the missing episodes as lovely as his narration was. With the Soundtracks still in existence, the BBC have therefore animated the missing episodes. Its an odd move but works very well indeed. The animation is stylised, but fits in well with the look of the filmed episodes (its a shame that the missing episodes were mostly Cyberman-less because the animators had a great cyberdesign going).  Its an imperfect solution, but manages to achieve its goal of making the story flow nicely. And if I’m honest, those early scenes with a London under siege are achieved quite brilliantly, with a real air of menace in the angular, stylised animation.

The Invasion is one of the few Cybermen stories that really makes them terrifying. In the 80s, the Cybermen would start to show signs of greed, egotism, pride and anger that belied the whole “stripped of emotion” ideal (and let’s not talk about the tummy on the Cybercontroller in 1985’s Attack of the Cybermen - - maybe he was pregnant with Cyberbabies) but here they are still robotic and merciless. Yes, the metal effect of their suits is a little silly but that’s more to do with the time of their production. Taken as a whole, The Invasion is a brilliant, chilling Cyber Story that showcases Troughton’s take on the Doctor as an unpredictable and alien presence. With the humans every bit as corrupt as their cyber counterparts, this would the the Cybermen’s last real stab at greatness before they would be become the familiar tinpot soldiers, skulking around the galaxy (to quote, from memory, the fourth Doctor).
 Posted by at 8:02 pm
Sep 062013
 

11 weeks. 11 Doctors. 11 stories. Right up to the fiftieth anniversary, Russel will be reviewing one story a week for each Doctor. He will try and relate each story to a larger picture and how it relates to each period. He will occasionally make fun of them. But he will try and show you what a varied and brilliant history the show has. As well as overcoming his own prejducies about certain periods in the shows history. Each review will have spoilers and will assume a certain level of knowledge about the story in question.

William Hartnell was the man who started it all. On Saturday teatime, viewers were first introduced to the mysterious time traveller known only as The Doctor (although the credits did call him Doctor Who); a man who had accidentally (or perhaps quite deliberately) taken a pair of schoolteachers away from 1960s London and on a terrible voyage through time and space. the show was, of course, meant to be at least a little educational. And Hartnell’s reign had more than its fair share of proper historical adventures including The Aztecs* during which our travellers would get involved with a moment of history. During these stories the only science fiction elements would be the anachronism of our leads. There would be no monsters. No alien explanations for historical events. And while that could sometimes be a bit dull, stories like The Aztecs were actually all the more intense for these limitations.

But what viewers loved were the science fiction stories. The second adventure for the TARDIS saw them encounter a strange alien race called The Daleks. These war-hungry creatures - a mass of hate bound up in an advanced battle machine - captured the public imagination. So much so that a year after they first appeared on their home planet of Skaro, they appeared again on the nation’s television screens. But this time, they were more terrifying. This time they had come to invade earth.

The Dalek Invasion of Earth is an excellent example of early Who at its finest. yes, its a little wobbly round the edges and, yes, there’s a lot of patronising dialogue towards the female characters (The Doctor’s threat to spank his grand-daughter Susan is especially gigglesome) but there’s also a lot of derring do and risk here. In fact, its a very good adventure and a prime example of why Hartnell’s reign was strong enough to lead into the show we all still love.

The adventure starts with the TARDIS crew landing in a mysterious city that looks like London. Except everything’s mysteriously quiet and no one notices the whacking great sign that says, “It is forbidden to dump bodies in the river” - which should have been everyone’s first clue that something odd is going on. But all the same, the Doc and his companions (Grand-daughter Susan and his two reluctant travellers, Ian and Barbara) spend a long time faffing about before they realise that something is wrong. Of course the fact that a bridge falls on to the TARDIS doesn’t help.

Much of the first episode - as was so often the case with early Who is filler. Lots of toing and froing and Susan uselessly twisting her ankle. But its all rather fascinating and the sparse atmosphere of the near future created by Terry Nation is disturbing. There is a real sense of puzzling out the reality of their situation and when the Dalek rises from the water at the end of episode one, there’s a real shock value. And there would have been back in the day, too. Each episode is individually named, so the fact that this is “The Dalek Invasion of Earth” would have been lost on many viewers who would likely have gone apocalyptic when they saw this creature rising out of what was for so many people a familiar and safe landscape.   In the days before twitter and mass media propagated by the internet, it was easier to keep the viewer surprised and spoiler free.

But what’s great about The Dalek Invasion of Earth is that the daleks are a little secondary to the main plot of the apocalyptic future. What really matters here at the rebels that the Doctor and his friends fall in with and the great whacking mining camps set up by the daleks. There are great moments in here. My favourite finds a mother and daughter doing whatever it takes to survive in this new world and taking advantage of the unwary travellers they find in their midst. Theres a fairy tale element to these scenes and a real sense of betrayal as Susan and Barbara are turned over to the Daleks.

Of course, this is the 60s and Doctor Who was still a kids show that had some interesting limitations. The robomen are great in concept - humans brainwashed by the daleks - and terrible in execution (Its hard to tell if they’re bad actors or just told to act badly, and lets not even think about their daft wee helmets.) And the less said about the rubbish monster that the daleks have patrolling their work camps the better; it’s very very very slow and very very very silly. But then that’s the charm of this era of Doctor Who; for everything that looks dated, you see something that would go on to have a lasting impression in pop culture. There are moments when the screen hums with the excitement of a program that would define its era.

Hartnell’s Doctor is rather harsh, still, at this stage. He cares for people but he’s not too concerned about deaths if they serve a greater cause and he has no time for fools. He’s an odd mix of bumbling distraction and paternal harshness, and this mix is fascinating to watch. Off course, he’s also a great line fluffer. In the early days, Who was filmed pretty much in sequence, and with very little room for retakes, so its fun to see how they make Hartnell’s occasional inability to quite remember what he’s saying part of the character.

The end is famous, of course. That clip of the Doctor saying, “Someday, I’ll come back” is used over and over again. He is speaking to his grand-daughter Susan, who he deliberately locks out of the TARDIS so she can have no choice but to stay with the man she’s fallen in love with over the course of this adventure. The speech itself is brilliant, but the context isn’t. Susan’s “love story” basically sees her flirting a bit with a guy who wants her to cook and clean for him. there’s no love story. Just an affirmation of certain sixties attitudes about women. And the Doctor is all for it. Making him definitely a man of his time. But, really, the romance between Susan and David is one of the most ill-conceived excuses for a character leaving. The chemistry is laughable and the suddeness of the flirting is completely unbelievable. It seems like padding at first, and in a way it is; thrown in as an afterthought to explain the character’s departure.

However, for all these dated elements, The Dalek Invasion of Earth is epic, ambitious and mostly great fun. Everyone gets stuff to do (except Susan who just limps a lot before she falls in live). Its a very good story for Hartnell and his early team of explorers in time and space. The Daleks are a little too nasal, but you can understand the effect they’d have had at the time. And the use of a real life location (London) echoes future concerns for the show that would time and again try to frighten viewers by placing the action on their own doorstep, an approach that would be refined in Troughton's The Invasion and later come to define the first half of the Pertwee era, where the Doctor was confined to a modern Earth setting.

MOMENTS IN TIME
- The sacrifice of the wheelchair bound Dortmun is touching. Also there’s something very good in the way that he confronts the daleks - who are tooling about in their own motorised contraptions - and then forces himself to stand in order to reinforce his humanity. Nice stuff.

- The Robomen rebellion is very funny indeed. They way they lift the daleks like they’re made of balsa wood is... well, its amusing. Indeed, at this point in its history, the show’s action sequences are often very awkward. But all the more endearing for it.

- The explosions are very tiny. Full marks to everyone involved for reacting like they’re much, much bigger than they are.

- You can see the padding on occasion. The crocodile in the sewer is one of the most pointless dangers ever seen. Also the doctor’s very nimble for an old man with a cane.

*The Aztecs is, of course, the story that saw The Doctor fall in love, and quite intensely. Something that many fans would later retcon from their brains when they complained abot the doctor's feelings for people he met on his journey in later incarnations.
 Posted by at 7:00 am
Aug 102012
 
Russel D McLean

Check out Russel's new website (and blog) at www.russeldmcleanbooks.com

In The Big Sleep, there’s a great moment when Marlowe is called out to the murder of the Sternwood family Chauffeur. It’s a great scene and one that serves to move the story forward, but rumour has it that when Howard Hawks was filming the movie, he called Chandler and asked,

Who killed the Chauffeur?

 
And it’s a fair question. No one really knows. And the rumour is that Chandler himself responded quite blithely that he didn’t either, making it just another instance of his maxim that when the plot slows down you have a man walk through the door with a gun*

It’s a massive plot hole, or at least certain readers may consider it as such. But you know, I like it. I like it a lot because it makes me think of life.

In life nobody knows everything.

And nobody gets to know everything.

I like to leave a few loose ends in my novels. Of course, given that I’m writing a sequence in the McNee books, one or two of those get picked up later. A few questions from The Lost Sister will be answered in Father Confessor (but yet a few more might be raised), but sometimes there are things that you don’t need to know. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know them. And its more fun if you can argue or conjecture about what really happened.

Moving up to the modern age (ish), one of my favourite ever episodes of the Sopranos (me and ten million others) was the one where Paulie and Christopher take a Russian out to the woods to kill him. He escapes, they think they shoot him in the head, but then they can’t find the body. They get lost in the woods. They go through real bad times. But they don’t find the Russian. They don’t know if he’s dead or alive. But the point of the story is not the Russian, but how they cope with being lost in the cold and alone with each other. Oh, and by the way, if you have never watched the Sopranos here is your spoiler alert.





 Lots of people spent the rest of the series conjecturing whether the Russian was really dead, and what might happen if he returned. But he never did. And nothing ever came of the fact they killed this guy. Because it didn’t matter. And because, well, why would anything have come of that? It’s a fine dramatic line between thematic webs and daft coincidence. And the fact that we never really did know about the Russian was brilliant. Because it felt real. Because sometimes in life, you do things, or you see things, and they don’t come back to haunt you in some ironic way or have any real impact on anything again even if, in a made-up, all-the-dots-connect-world they surely should have.

Now I’m not saying I do anything as well as either of these examples, or that I use such extremes, but I do believe that sometimes you don’t have to know everything for a story to work. In fact I’d rather not be told everything and be able to imagine a world that continues beyond the confines of what I’ve seen of it.

And, really, I don’t care who killed the Chauffeur, but I do care that it got Marlowe to the right place at the right time to answer the bigger questions. And that while we never found out who did it, it didn’t feel forced or unnatural. In fact, it felt real.

*metaphorically speaking
 Posted by at 8:00 am
Jul 202012
 
Russel D McLean

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

FIFTY SHADES OF GRAY is the book of the moment. Love it or hate it, its there and its not going anywhere very soon. People will talk about what it means in the cultural zeitgeist and try to make more of it than it really is (its a naughty book - there have always been and will always be naughty books, and most of them will be written with the same regard for the English language as SHADES, and that's fine) and others will decry or mock it. But the fact is that people are reading it so let's have a genuine cheer for Ms James and her success. Its what we all want and its what very few of us will get, so let's feel good for those that it happens to.

No, my problem with SHADES is the inevitable bandwagon. Publishing always does this. Something becomes an unexpected phenomenon (ie, THE DA VINCI CODE or Steig Larrson in general) and publishers scarmble to find something "the same" but "different". They rejacket books with tangential similarities so that readers will be confused. They retitle books so that they sound the same (SIXTY DAYS OF YELLOW or THE SCHOPENHAUER SECRET*). They struggle to find the initial spark, but they don't realise that the books in question are lone freaks of nature. They exceptions. They are popular because they are the right book in the right place at the right time. And sure there might be a long tail for some of the imitators, but the fact is that the buying public don't really want the imitations. Sure they want "the same" so they claim, but what they really want is the same *feeling* they had when they read the book. They don't actually know the specifics of what they want. They only know the emotional connection or the feeling of surprise that they had reading that particular book and that's what they want to rediscover, even if they can only artticulate that feeling in terms of the one particular book that sparked that emotion.

Books (and yes I include ebooks here - they are now another delivery format, so get over it and shut up) and entertainment cannot be driven by markets in the same way as other products. They connect with readers on a very different level, on an individual level. The minute they are marketted according to what other books are doing, that sense of surprise and connection gets lost. Publishing is a risky business. It always has been. But its being shortchanged every time it tries to grab the maximum number of readers rather than simply the most passionate readers (which is always the smaller number).

FIFTY SHADES is an incredible success story and one worth learning lessons from. But the lesson here is not that "we should all be writing erotica". Its that "you should write book you want to write and maybe, just maybe, other people will love it, too". The more publishers who jump on the erotica badnwagon, the more of them (and consequently the more authors) are going to get burned when readers cotton onto the fact that what made them love FIFTY SHADES wasn't simply the erotica or the underlying story or even Mr Gray himself, but merely an odd and unknowable moment of connection with a work of fiction that cannot be mass replicated or reproduced by going through the same motions over and over again.** Publishing is at its finest when it is about passion and not money, and sometimes I wonder if the modern world is making us forget that, is letting us slip in the real business of books and entertainment.



*I don't know if these titles are real, but it wouldn't surprise me if they were.
**Go on, insert your own dirty joke here
 Posted by at 8:00 am

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