Thursday, November 12, 2009

the angel of scutari

Unfortunately my experience with Big Finish has been spotty; like most people I can’t afford to buy a subscription. Jamie bought me Angel of Scutari, which I’d been eyeing anyway, as it relates to one of our projects. I hadn’t gotten around to listening to it until now, not due to disinterest, but due to lack of time and wanting to listen to it on a long coach journey. I just had a long coach journey so I managed to listen to it! In the past I haven’t done very good Big Finish reviews because I haven’t taken good notes. Ta-da—good notes!

I have to admit that the very first scenes did not impress me, which is a shame as I really liked the play by the end. Reflecting on it, I don’t see how Paul Sutton could have written the first few scenes any other way—they were necessary for the way the story panned out—yet I wonder if another writer would have handled it differently. The introduction sets the scene: it’s 1853 and William Russell (not the one who played Ian!), the London Times’ correspondent, writes about the Charge of the Light Brigade from the Crimea. Back in London, General Kitchen (Alex Lowe) gives a rather heavy-handed appearance of desperation and cynicism: “Sebastopol should never have happened.” Also in London is “Miss Nightingale,” demanding from her friend Sir Sidney Herbert “when are you sending me to the Scutari?” The whole interaction between the two is kind of clunky; Florence wants to go nurse, her friend wants her to get married, “I can live without love—I cannot live without my work.” Intriguingly, she will be joining Thomas Hector Schofield—the “angel of Scutari.” Cue theme music!

Audio conventions are found in abundance, though they can be forgiven. “This is it, then?” asks Ace, giving the Doctor the chance to tell us where they are (the Crimea). “This is a ship,” Ace tells us, too. Unfortunately they seem to have landed in the middle of action on a Russian ship. Poor Ace keeps getting badly injured, and the Russian soldier who first threatens to shoot her, then helps to save Ace (as the “blue box” goes over the side), is almost annoying. Until we find out that he’s a young Lev Tolstoy (John Albasiny). The Doctor is separated from Ace, who ends up in hospital with the amusing, bet-making writer. “Are you trying to chat me up, Lev?”
This is when the time travel comes in, and while it takes a lot of concentration to keep up, it is worth it. A few months earlier (in the Crimean timeline) Hex, the Doctor, and Ace land in the British army barracks. The Doctor lets Hex wander—“he knows exactly where he is and when.” However, in the later timeline, the Doctor gets attacked by William Russell who wants to shoot him—even though from the Doctor’s perspective they’ve never met. End part 1.

Part two consists of Hex wanting to muck in and help the soldiers in the Crimea, before Florence (Jenny Spark) gets there—Ace lets him use her spare key to get supplies from the TARDIS. In the other timeline, Russell has the Doctor, Ace is still with Tolstoy, and we don’t know where Hex is. The Doctor debates with Russell over the ethics of the war. In the earlier timeline, Ace is flabbergasted Hex has turned into “St Francis of Assisi .” In the later timeline, Hex sees the TARDIS chopped up for firewood! He’s tongue-tied when at last he meets his idol Florrie. “Your implication is lascivious,” she retorts to William Russell, who has insinuating that she and her traveling companion, Kitchen, who was meant to have killed the Doctor as a collaborator way back in the first few minutes of the play, is her sugar daddy. (“You are pretty hot,” Hex says.) There’s another slightly anti-climactic cliffhanger.

In part three, in the earlier timeline, the Doctor is imprisoned in a Russian dungeon and meets a thoroughly grey Nicholas I. Meanwhile Ace is still with Tolstoy and overjoyed that the TARDIS hasn’t been destroyed because she can still read Russian. In the later timeline Hex escapes from Russell by giving him tea that “tastes like the inside of a Muscovite’s britches.” He finds Nightingale and confesses his doubts about traveling with the Doctor and Ace—confesses his feelings for Ace but “I’m not so sure anymore.” “You kiss her . . . a lot?” “She’d break my arm if I tried!” Ace is also being a bit romantic with Tolstoy, too, helping him win his bet with a kiss—before she knocks him out and tries to make a getaway.

Part four sees Tolstoy and Ace as an impressive double act, the Doctor escaping with the help of a golden spoon, a hug that saves the day, a shameful secret revealed, and the phrase “I’ll explain later” used! Ace is also charmingly jealous of Nightingale—“if you stay out of my face, mush”—rather like the fact she and Rose didn’t get along in “The Ten Doctors” comic.

The plot in Angel of Scutari is necessarily complicated because of the timeline issue, and though I can’t explain it in a way that makes sense, it does. Make sense. As this is a radio play, the entire Crimean War has to be distilled into a handful of recurring characters. This is easy with Tolstoy and Nightingale since they’re in the action all the time, and particularly with Tolstoy, are charmingly written and a lot of fun—they hold our attention. Nightingale as written is a bit of a wet noodle, but probably true to life. I think the last audio play I heard with Sophie Aldred in it was The Settling, similar to this in several ways, including it being about a brutal war, the fact it was all historical and no aliens, and the way the Doctor and the companions got separated along the way. The play, though dark, was not quite as hard-hitting as The Settling. On the plus side, however, the Ace here seemed much brighter, younger, and I could see her uttering each line. Sylvester McCoy is a wonderful radio actor and, as in The Settling, he was often in situations where he didn’t know whether his companions would live or die.

There is no romanticism of war in The Angel of Scutari, with the trivialities of the Crimea presented solidly against the desperate conditions of the hospitals, which Hex tries so hard to ameliorate. Nevertheless it is quite funny in parts and contains many a witty line. As ever there are fantastic soundscapes and editing, and hearing this particular theme tune really takes me back to my childhood.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Desolation Island

‘You cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs,’ said Jack quickly, before the chance should be lost forever. ‘Ha, ha, Stephen, what do you say to that?’
‘I might say something about pearls before swine—the pearls being these priceless eggs, if you follow me—were I to attempt a repartee in the same order of magnitude.’
‘I did not fag all the way up here to be insulted about my wit, which, I may tell you, is more generally appreciated in the service than you may suppose,’ said Jack.

As you know if you’ve read me, I read a Patrick O’Brian book in the Master and Commander series every year. Just one, every year. 2009 was the fifth book, Desolation Island. The reason I measure out my exposure to these books is that I am convinced they are the best historical fiction ever written, and every time I read one of the books it makes me immeasurably happy and intellectually fulfilled. Even though the last book, The Mauritius Command, was incrementally lesser than its predecessors (particularly HMS Surprise, my favorite of the ones I’ve read so far) Desolation Island is certainly back up in the stratosphere. So good—I have no words.

Well, me being me, I actually do. Here’s the review .

Like the two previous books, Desolation Island starts on land with Captain Jack Aubrey, his wife Sophie and their three children, her mother Mrs Williams, Dr Stephen Maturin, Barret Bonden (ship’s coxswain), and Preserved Killick (steward)—one big happy family in Ashgrove Cottage. O’Brian has always written Sophie extremely well, and though she gets comparatively little disclosure in this book, O’Brian conveys Sophie’s complex feelings toward her husband (who she loves deeply, who she has to govern to a certain extent on land, and who she worries about while he is at sea), and toward one of her best friends, Stephen. Despite their domestic bliss, Jack’s get-rich-quick schemes are dubious and almost draw him into a duel. Meanwhile, Mrs Williams must never be forgotten:
Most of the servants in Ashgrove Cottage were sailors, partly because of the extreme difficulty of inducing maids to stay within reach of Mrs Williams’ tongue; upon seamen, however, long inured to the admonition of the bosun and his mates, its lash fell unregarded; and in any case its virulence was much diminished, since they were men, and since in fact they kept the place as trim as a royal yacht.

There is an outrageous aside where Killick buys a wife before we return to Stephen’s secrets. (‘But if you had heard him speak of wombats—oh, just in passing, and not with any sense of ill-usage—it would have brought tears to your eyes. Oh, Jack, he is so very low.’)

The reason Stephen is so low continues to be Diana Villiers, Sophie’s cousin and a selfish, high-flying woman Stephen has loved for the better part of three novels. She has continuously rejected him, (In a brief flare of rebellion, anger, and frustration he thought of his enormous expense of spirit these last few weeks, of the mounting hope that he had indulged and fostered in spite of his judgement and their frequently violent disagreements; but the flame died, leaving not so much an active sorrow as a black and wordless desolation) but this book proves he is still desperately in love. Her spectre is invoked when Stephen is summoned on his avocation: spying. It seems Diana has been caught up in spying for the Americans and has just avoided being arrested by the Bow Street Runners. She is implicated with a Mrs Wogan, an American, who is being transported for her undercover crimes. According to Stephen’s superior, Mrs Wogan ‘writes like a cat, with every third word underlined, and cannot spell. Speaks excellent French, however, and sits a horse to admiration: no other education that can be detected.’ Due to his obsession over Diana, Stephen appears to be losing his mojo as an intelligence agent, and his superiors want him to reassert his usefulness by spying on Mrs Wogan as she is transported to the colonies—on the Leopard, a ship given to Jack to sail to New South Wales. The book wickedly tempts us with a portrait of William Bligh and never delivers!

Aboard ship, Jack is faced with a not very enjoyable task of transporting convicts (among them three women including Mrs Wogan), insubordination, and a possible Jonah. Stephen likewise must question if his heart is in spying when he starts to fall for Mrs Wogan, who physically resembles Diana, and equally he feels kinship for Michael Herapath, the American who dotes on Mrs Wogan the way Stephen dotes on Diana. Stephen, despite his misgivings, sees himself as a much superior spy: Not the slightest flicker of awareness. Either the woman was the most consummate actress or she had never heard his name. Diana, he reflected bitterly, might not have been so proud of mentioning it. SPOILERS: I spent the whole book in mortal terror that Wogan and Herapath were much more artful than they seemed, and she was going to poison Stephen or betray him or something. I was wrong! /SPOILERS

Midway through the passage, the convicts and then the crew are afflicted with gaol-fever (no idea what kind of contagious virus this would now be called) which thins out the crew and makes every man precious. Jack’s lieutenant, Grant, proves a thorn in his side, though Jack (in letters to Sophie) and Stephen (in his cipher journal) are quick to admit he has his good points : maintaining his mother and two unmarried sisters on his pay, his strong seamanship and chastity. Though “Lucky” Jack Aubrey never backs down from a fight, he does not seek out the Dutch ship Waakzaamheid. Instead, the mighty ship pursues and nearly destroys the Leopard in some of the most exciting sea battles yet described in the series. From them Jack nearly does not return alive, though the wonderful thing about Jack Aubrey is his humanity. While contemplating the Dutch captain dressed in black, ‘I wonder,’ thought Jack, ‘whether it is just an odd chance, or whether we killed some relative of his? His boy, perhaps, dear God forbid.’ He is gracious and compassionate to his enemy: [destruction of the Waakzaamheid] filled him with a kind of sorrow, a strange abiding grief.

Jack has a virtuoso role to play in this book, as the rest of the story shows him commanding his ship out of sea-fields of icebergs (some of the most startling imagery the books have yet produced), near-mutiny, Desolation Island, a confrontation with an American whaler, and ultimately he keeps his conviction, his cool head, his faith in Stephen, his love for Sophie, and his mastery of the sea.

Despite this, I found the book spending a lot more time in Stephen’s head than it did Jack’s, which is somewhat unusual as both characters have been given equal attention in the past. I have no complaints as I love Stephen deeply and would suffer no hesitancy if he ever asked me to marry him! Anyone who has ever loved without that love being returned will recognize themselves in Stephen, and my heart aches for him through most of the book. His frustration with the walls of falseness he has to put up in order to pursue his espionage is combated by his opium habit. Despite all this cynicism, the book ended on a much more romantic, compassionate, humane, and even sentimental note that I expected; it was really a pleasant surprise and a joy to behold.

I think resolution to Stephen’s Diana problem will at last be achieved in the next book.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Poetry on Tap

“A Wild Gush from Poetry on Tap”

CARDIFF, WALES – Poets PETER FINCH and LESLIE MCMURTRY will read their latest work at the new Poetry on Tap reading series on Sunday, 15 November, upstairs at the Promised Land, Windsor Place (off Queen St), from 2pm.

PETER FINCH is the author of several collections of poetry and local history, including The Welsh Poems and Real Cardiff. He will be reading new and previously unread poems from his forthcoming Seren collection ZEN CYMRU. Swansea-based upcoming poet LESLIE MCMURTRY, originally from Albuquerque, New Mexico and recently announced the winner of Rev. Eli Jenkins' Five and Country Senses Poetry Competition, will also read.

The evening also includes an open mic section. Entry £4, and £2 for open mic readers.

Poetry on Tap is a monthly poetry and spoken word series co-curated by Ivy Alvarez and Mab Jones, providing a showcase for electric experimentation and lively risk-taking through poetry, with exciting and uncommon pairings between poets and spoken word artists. Supported by Academi.
In brief:
What: Poetry on Tap, a monthly poetry/spoken word series
Where: The Promised Land, Windsor Place (off Queen St)
When: Sunday, 15 November 2009, start 2pm
How much: £4 / £2 open mic readers

Notes for Editors:
Ivy Alvarez is the author of Mortal (Washington, DC: Red Morning Press, 2006). Her poetry is featured in anthologies, journals and new media in many countries, including Best Australian Poems 2009 (Black Inc), Brilliant Coroners (Laupe House) and Letters to the World (Red Hen Press).

Mab Jones is a poet, comic, writer, performer and spoken word artist. Winner of the John Tripp Spoken Poetry Audience Award and semi-finalist in the Funny Women and Radio 4 National Poetry Slam competitions, her first poetry book is forthcoming in 2010.

Poetry on Tap Blog:

Friday, October 30, 2009

a dark, dark tale

Earlier this month I would wake up early and go to work, and the air would be crisp and would remind me of when we used to go camping when I was a kid: that getting out of the tent feeling early in the morning. Then a few weeks ago the sky was so blue and I could almost hear the hot air balloons overhead—October is always Balloon Fiesta time in New Mexico. The other night there was a night bird singing as the wind blew all the leaves from the trees—not only is it autumn, I thought, this is Halloween weather.

I’ve asked myself many times why this “holiday” so obsesses me. When I was writing columns for Noticias for fun, I wrote one seasonal one about Halloween, in which I tried to justify Halloween (not only to myself, but possibly to people who think it’s Devil-worship). I’ll quote directly from the article:

In an excellent essay by Neopagan Isaac Bonewitz, it appears that Halloween as we know it had its origins in the Celtic/Pagan fire festival of Samhain[1]. Some scholars refer to it as the beginning of the Celtic New Year, and it was certainly the beginning of the Winter Season. When it was absorbed into the Christian church calendar, the day became All Saints’ Day. Celtic seasons started at sunset, so the night before became “Hallowed Evening,” of course translating to “Halloween.”

Many of the recognizable traditions we practice on Halloween today come from this Celtic tradition: the handing out of treats for youngsters, the theme of death and the spirit world (which we see most purely translated in Dia de los Muertos today), and, my personal favorite, costumes. As author Philip Carr-Gomm describes in Elements of the Druid Tradition, “Time was abolished for three days of this festival [Samhaim] and . . . men dressed as women and women as men.” As for the candy, early November has for centuries been a time of feasting; by the late nineteenth century, rowdy kids in Ireland and the United States made themselves such a nuisance on Halloween that adults organized “safe” Halloween rituals for the younger kids. A little later, we see the word trick-or-treat coming into use, about 1939.
Halloween is still very much an American holiday, though commercially I’ve seen it making in-roads in the UK and even France. I don’t quite know why it caught on in the US; I suppose you’d have to ask Washington Irving! Different countries have different times for festivals of misrule and/or costumed shenanigans,

The costume element of modern Halloween can be incredibly fun—disguise and pretense ameliorated by the spirit of the day. Mardi Gras functions this way in some countries, such as France, that don’t celebrate Halloween. Medieval feast days, including, perhaps most famously, January 6th, the Epiphany (or the Feast of Fools), were opportunities for role reversal through costume. The rich and poor would exchange roles, doing this through costume, and the Catholic religion would endure one day of mockery (“mock the prig and shock the priest”) from its normally devout flock. Human culture loves to pretend, a custom we’ve kept going since ancient Greek drama.

From what I’ve experienced in Britain, Britons don’t need an excuse to dress up, they will do fancy dress any time of the year, as the custom of pantomime proves! I have wondered why Canadians have more of a concept of pantomime; I speculated that tough colonials like Americans and Australians wouldn’t stomach the concept of cross-dressing in the same way. Am I totally off the mark? Perhaps we Americans needed to align this fancy-dress thing with Halloween and its appeal to a darker nature in order to make it socially acceptable?

I concluded in the article that it was the dressing-up and the appeal to the darker nature that fascinated me about Halloween. I’ve written tons about that darker element, since the Gothic Horror class gave me ample opportunity to do so.

Granted, as Bonewitz goes on to say, “Halloween became a holiday in modern times for which half the fun was being scared out of one’s wits.”

Don’t ask me why, I love the Gothic, I love that frisson of fright. (among others) But firmly in fiction: my imagination is too good that if anything unearthly ever happened to me, I’d probably die on the spot of sheer terror.

But thinking back, I probably began loving Halloween because my mom read Halloween books to me when I was very small. I remember them well. Scared Silly had to do with Harold the dog, Chester the cat, Howie the dachshund, and Bunnicula the rabbit, not to mention their unsuspecting owners the Monroes. I loved Scary Scary Halloween because of the lovely rhyme, the thought of the mother cat protecting her kittens from monsters even though they were just kids in costumes, and then the cats getting to play after all the kids had gone home. I also remember Clifford’s Halloween and The Berenstein Bears’ Halloween. A Dark Dark Tale scared the crap out of me even though it had an ending that deflated all the fear you’d built up. It was mostly Stephen Gammell’s horrific illustrations from the Scary Stories series that kept me up at night. I would not recommend those books for very young children. Adults, even. Similarly horrible illustrations for Jack Prelutsky[2]’s The Headless Horseman Rides Tonight.

I don’t think I’ve raised any new points here or plumbed any depths of my subconscious to tell you better why I like Halloween so much. To be fair, I also love Christmas and go to great lengths to do all the festive things at that time of year, too. It’s funny, you look at Dickens, who popularized Christmas into the huge, jolly[3] festival it’s become today, and all he wrote about at Christmas were ghosts! He, too, must have realized that people love the little chill on their spine that makes them sit closer to the fire. Mind you, that Spirit of Christmas Still to Come is scary. Have you ever seen Scrooged? Or Want and Ignorance who come out from under Christmas Present’s robe begging for pity and help? Even Dickens’ supernatural was tinged with a social conscience.

Have you ever seen Disney’s Fantasia? The “Night on Bald Mountain” is another potentially terrifying sequence, but you know how it ends? Calmly—with figures holding candles and putting the anti-Christ mountain back to sleep. That part used to bore me as a child (!) but there is that element to Halloween, too. It’s appropriate that many people in New Mexico still celebrate Dia de los Muertos—even though everything is all skeleton-themed, it’s about thinking of your dearly departed, the passing of your family and honoring their memory. Nothing spooky, nothing scary. The flower traditionally associated with this day is the marigold.

I wonder if that’s why I’m so attracted to Milton’s Comus above everything else he ever wrote, including Paradise Lost. It took place and was written for Michelmas, the Carolinian Halloween and a festival of misrule, perhaps a bit like the Shrovetide Ball held in Phantom of the Opera. His study in excess and insatiability, Comus, Circe’s son, is as seductive and intriguing as his Satan, and we all find our selves “taking the Devil’s part” to an extent. However, he’s never allowed to win, order is restored, the Brothers, with the help of the Attendant Spirit and Sabrina the nymph, free the Lady, and the whole group return from allegory into real life on 29 September, 1634.

Oh yes, and I do love the candy. :-)


[1] Pronounced “sow-en.”

[2] I met this beloved children’s poet when I was five or so, he signed my copy of Tyrannosaurus Was a Beast and drew a picture of the “Leslie-a-saurus.” Then I met him a second time when I was 20 as he was a family friend of my boyfriend at the time!

[3] Some would say overcommercialized

The Krillitane Storm

The Krilllitane Storm by Christopher Cooper (spoilers)

I must say that, though the title didn’t grab me, the idea of the Doctor in 12th century Worcester did. I wasn’t disappointed; though the book started out in a formulaic manner, it eventually defied expectations and was entertaining and not your usual monster runaround. There’s a lovely mock-medieval woodcut of the Doctor with sonic screwdriver, which really sets the tone. :-D

Though I liked “School Reunion,” I thought the Krillitanes were the dullest part, notwithstanding Anthony Head’s oddly mesmerizing performance. The Doctor is companion-less, which was worked to varying degrees—I couldn’t help thinking of “The Deadly Assassin” at the beginning of the book, and the contrast—here the Doctor desperately needs someone to explain stuff to, as the tone is very much in that vein even if it’s a narrator (possibly in the Doctor’s head) giving the reader the low-down. For all that, he’s Tennant through and through, right down to getting kissed passionately by a woman pretending she’s his wife in order to save his life. (This section, whether it realized it or not, is the exact same situation Pierre Gringoire and Esmeralda find themselves in during The Hunchback of Notre Dame, right down to the Doctor escaping the noose. But I digress.) The woman, against type, doesn’t belong in the 12th century either. Her name is Emily, and though she’s very recalcitrant about her intentions initially, she isn’t stalking Krillitanes like the Doctor. The beginning of the book, with the Worcester townies stuck in their houses in fear reminded me of The Nightmare of Black Island and Wooden Heart, but it quickly changed tactics, to its benefit I think!

Another of Cooper’s invented characters is Captain Darke, also possibly straight from The Hunchback of Notre Dame but a good deal more intelligent than Phoebus. At first I found him a bit tedious but he grew on me. I liked how he chastised his men for believing the Doctor’s psychic paper when they couldn’t read! Darke is godless and disillusioned, a distinct possibility I suppose since he may be an ex-Crusader (like Bois-Guilbert from Ivanhoe!), but it seems convenient that the characters in the book accept that the Krillitanes aren’t the Devil. Cooper acknowledges that there isn’t much history in this book, and while that’s true it seems to work for the story—we know that Stephen and Matilda are fighting for the crown, and although medieval characters have dialects of a sort, it’s neither hugely pompous stage-writing nor way Cockney as is the more recent fad. As it is I prefer more of the meat of history as in Dale Smith’s The Many Hands, but it leaves room for huge incongruous set pieces like two Krillitanes fighting each other in the vaults of Worcester Cathedral (“Father’s Day”?).

The first U-turn in the book is that the Krillitanes aren’t the monsters. Oh, they’re as self-satisifed and phlegmatic as in “School Reunion,” and as savage and voracious, but they’re being used, “farmed,” in a highly unethical, seedy subplot, perpetrated by evil, sleazy conmen and scientists, so much like an updated “Nightmare of Eden.” The Krillitanes’ brood and family system is explored to impressive detail (whether this all came from Toby Whithouse or another source is hardly relevant). Oh, there were touches of other things ranging from Star Wars to The Monsters Inside to “The Daleks’ Master Plan,” but I don’t know that’s because my mind always makes connections that way or if the work itself was derivative. The book’s pace was good once it got going, and I did find it exciting, a page-turner.

The switches in perspective threw me off; many of these Doctor Who books do that without warning. It has always struck me as an amateur way of moving the story along, but perhaps that’s just sour grapes. Emily, even if she is named after the author’s daughter, isn’t as distinctive a one-off companion as June, and despite a strong beginning, I wish she’d had a bit more development. I also got a “Shakespeare Code” vibe from medieval Worcester (which isn’t too far off; didn’t they film there for that episode?). I can almost imagine Ten, well-written as he is, being replaced easily by Four—he’s that kind of Doctor and this is that kind of story.

all a matter of perspective

Radha handed me Rubina Ali’s Slumgirl Dreaming: My Journey to the Stars saying it was a quick and interesting read, a semi-autobiography from one of the child stars of Slumdog Millionaire. She did warn me beforehand that it was no great work of literature, and I did get through it in a few hours. The font was huge and the typos abundant; there was a lot of Hindi in it that I didn’t understand. I suppose what surprised me the most was although Rubina lives in a slum in East Mumbai, she was never desperately poor. She grew up with a loving family (aside from her estranged biological mother) and until her father’s accident caused him to be unfit for work, she and her siblings were supported by her father and had enough to eat. Fame is, indeed, a double-edged sword, as it wasn’t until she had stayed in big hotels in America that she began to find the rats and cockroaches in her slum unbearable and yearn for a toilet in her own dwelling.

The writing is a curious mixture of the conversational musings of a ten-year-old and seems to have been transcribed by someone who speaks English about 80% accurately (not Rubina; having attended an English school at the behest of Danny Boyle, her English is improving but the book still lists two co-authors). Rubina is prudish about things like swimming suits (“very small clothes”) but the book doesn’t hesitate to call the sewers in East Bandra full of “shit!” She also mentions hijra and later children being sold into slavery. As a devout Muslim, Rubina and her family are charitable—“I have a better fate than many.” She approaches something like irony when she describes hotel guests in LA looking at her and her co-stars, swimming in a jacuzzi for the first time, as staring at “jungle animals.”

Among the many people she meets in her rise to fame, she loves Danny Boyle and calls him Danny Uncle. She loves ice cream, chocolate, pretty clothes, but not pizza. She’s heard of Bollywood but not Hollywood: “Do the Americans make lots of films?” she asks in LA.
“Yes, loads!”

It’s all a matter of perspective.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Land of Bells

I finally finished the book Jamie got me, and it was great. My slow speed was not due to listing attention but lack of time! It was The Codebreaker’s Secret Diaries, the first translation into English of the diaries and letters of Jean-François Champollion, the Frenchman who cracked the hieroglyphs in the early 19th century, and someone about whom I was mostly unaware. I would love to read the original material in French as something is always lost in the translation, and though the book is well put-together and has good linking material, the footnotes seem to be off and there are some editing issues.

Overall, though, a fascinating read. This probably wouldn’t have been a book I would have picked myself and therefore would have cheated myself of a compelling story that has convinced me that a), b) or both needs to be made into a radio play:
a) Champollion’s journey through Egypt, 1828—1829
b) The 1801 surrender of the Rosetta stone passing from French hands to English ones
I also feel I need to visit the British Museum again, as Champollion’s enthusiasm on all things Egyptian will not be sated by the poor mummy of Hor in Swansea Museum.

The title is a slightly misleading one, as though the book consists of Champollion’s letters (mostly to his older brother) and his diary entries, they really weren’t secret. Nevertheless, despite his mastery of languages and intuition on hieroglyphics, Champollion was embroiled in the politics of Egyptian decoding in the early 19th century and as such had a few enemies who made his trip to Egypt difficult—not to mention the political situation in Egypt at the time and the perils of the journey itself.

Because I have been interested in ancient Egypt since at least the age of 10, it was inconceivable for me to imagine a time when hieroglyphics were not understood. Yet reading Champollion makes you realize for how many centuries the pictographs sat undeciphered. Champollion assembled his dream team, a mixed group of Tuscan and French naturalists and draughtsmen, and told them to provision a year for the journey! (Think—we can fly from Europe to Egypt in a few hours!) I feel very cool to have visited the Egyptian museum in Torino which is mentioned in this book—at the time it was the prime source for Egyptian antiquities in Europe (what Champollion shipped back during his expedition formed the basis of the Louvre’s collection).

For the non-Egyptologist, what is the value of the book? Well, as the quotation on the back from the Sunday Times says, “his enthusiasm is infectious.” As a travelogue it’s quite interesting; his descriptions of Cairo and Alexandria in particular. He’s an amusing and witty writer, and as any Frenchman would talks about the food in Egypt, particularly trying to relish salted crocodile meat on the occasion of his daughter’s birthday and about the virtues of drinking gallons of Nile water. Champollion’s theories on the hieroglyphs were, at the time, controversial because if he had deciphered the dates correctly it would invalidate the literal reading of Genesis in the Bible—he also writes surprising things like, “If I were to judge the future by the past, it isn’t the Muslim population who will hinder me but rather the European one, that is to say ‘Christians,’ who , as in the rest of the Levant, are the worst of their kind.” He also describes the local dress he adopted, the better to work in, and has much to say on negotiating with the Ottoman Turks who controlled Egypt at the time.

Champollion talks occasionally about Egyptian women in something between an ethnologist’s observations and sort of objectifying, and it’s curious that none of his letters to his wife are in the book (either he didn’t write them or they don’t include anything relevant; he does mention her a few times with affection but no indication of what she thinks of her husband being away for a year!). He does reflect approvingly on the “courteousness” of the ancient Egyptians, that the wife of the prince Satmei is “shown after her husband and before all the other officials.”

The sad thing is that Champollion’s poor health finally conquered him at the premature age of 42, exactly two years after he returned from his Egyptian expedition. There is definitely a bittersweetness as he leaves Egypt, knowing with certainty he will never see it again. This is something somewhat foreign to us now, as even though you can be pretty sure you may leave a place, with technology it’s not 100% certain you’ll never be there again. Though he had the companionship of his team and the fellahs he hired as workers, the long days he spent in his tent due to gout must have been lonely and frustrating. “I am still without news from all of you since the letters from July. Either the post is very badly organized (frustrating) or you are not writing. –unforgivable. Either hypothesis only depresses me, which I am doing wholeheartedly. Egypt is the most beautiful school in patience that exists in the world, but its lessons don’t stick.”

batman and son

I’ve said before I don’t particularly care for the Ras al Ghul thread or his progeny, and it rather sickens me in fact to think Batman and Talia al Ghul ever could have had a child together, but that’s personal preference I suppose. Anyway, that’s the conceit at the heart of Grant Morrison’s Batman and Son, well-written and beautifully drawn by Andy Kubert and Jesse Delperdang.

Batman and Son is somewhere in the middle of a complicated Batman storyline vaguely in line with beginning at the beginning again, though it’s well into Batman’s career and Tim Drake is the second Robin. The Joker’s just been shot by a cop dressed up as Batman, and Commissioner Gordon has just succumbed to the Joker’s laughing gas (resulting in a fairly amusing scene of Gordon in the hospital telling everyone they need to lighten up) . The story sees the return of hordes of Man-Bats (I’ve never understood the fascination with that character, but there you go). Talia tells Batman he’s sired her son, Damian, who’s been raised by the League of Shadows and is one bratty individual who beats up Alfred! There’s a subplot to do with London but the setting is really never brought to its full potential, though there is a nice romance between Bruce Wayne and Jezebel Jet, a model.

Tim and Alfred are the winning slices of brightness and humor here, though a conversation between two “novelty crime act” goons is a hoot and also presages, slightly, the beginning of The Dark Knight. Speaking of which, I hope Grant Morrison got some money out of TDK, because “The Clown at Midnight,” over-the-top, gluttonous, disgusting prose-poem with art for the Joker foreshadows the Nolan!verse Joker. Morrison is either a very good writer or the world’s absolute worst. I can’t decide which, and I’m sure it’s deliberately been left that way. John Van Fleet’s art is totally unnerving and perfect, and hidden within the Joker’s tale of horror is a surprising conclusion for Harley Quinn. The Joker here is at home with knives and from the art it looks like he’s carved, or had carved for him, a Glasgow grin. (Also he appears to be dressed in a nurse’s outfit as in TDK!) I did chuckle morbidly at the thought the Joker’s toxic blood would kill a mosquito. Morrison has written Harley better than anyone since Paul Dini, and although she may at first look like a pathetic, psychotic weakling, she almost foils Batman with her lightning-fast gymnastics and grace. She’s the one who pulls the trigger and stops the Joker.

The last chapter of Batman and Son makes absolutely no sense to me. Great artwork, no idea what’s going on.

the man in the iron mask

This is the third in the series of Marvel’s Illustrated line, basically the Classics Illustrated for the Noughties, and I have to say I was bitterly disappointed. Not by the artwork by Hugo Petrus and Tom Palmer, which is fairly standard comics fare (perfectly good draftsmanship, but very regular panel arrangements, made for telling a long story rather than wowing with the artwork). By the story!

I’ve never read any Dumas. I had The Three Musketeers sitting on the shelf next to Les Misérables for years, but I never got to it, it was such a massive tome. I’ve seen the Wishbone episode though! :-D I know most people agree that the book is always better than the movie, but I’m one of those weirdoes who often find the reverse to be the case. I know the Randall Wallace Man in the Iron Mask was a huge flop, but I saw it many times with my sister (going through one of her Leonardo DiCaprio phases; I preferred Gabriel Byrne!) and we loved it. I thought the story from Dumas’ original was going to be like that. Turns out it’s convoluted and much less heroic, probably truer to history, and the swashbuckling is actually kept to a minimum. Obviously I can’t judge a book on its graphic novel (!), so I will read the original one day (in French if I can). But I am still seriously disappointed.

There are too many differences (improvements?) to name. Still, you can see why it would be difficult for anyone to adapt the story of the three musketeers plus D’Artagnan. Unbeknownst to me until now, The Three Musketeers is the first part of a trilogy ending with The Man in the Iron Mask, known as The Viscount of Bragelonne; or, Ten Years Later . The middle volume has the dull title of Twenty Years After. Now I know from my mother who remembers having read one or all of these many years ago that despite the sprawling quality it’s quite good. I have read abridged versions of The Count of Monte Cristo in French (for French class) but that hardly gave me a good idea of Dumas’ style. Now, I’m indebted to Dumas—he and Victor Hugo helped give us the Romantic, French historical novel, no doubt inspired by Sir Walter Scott (and, if my instincts on parts of Man in the Iron Mask are correctly, Maturin). But again, I can’t say how well it was emulated without reading the final product.

torchwood: rift war

I almost think Torchwood works better as a comic than as a TV show. At least until recently, and the comic actually goes in the opposite direction of “Children of Earth”—it’s a bit more user-friendly, not all the sex and sharp edges we got from the first series (thank God), probably because being published in Torchwood Magazine, it had to contend with a teen/young adult audience. That’s my theory, anyway. Torchwood might even work better as a comic than Doctor Who, because in Doctor Who even if you split up the Doctor and companion(s), you can only have so many threads of the story going at once—whereas Torchwood (at least before the end of series 2) had a big team!

There are a couple of reasons why I loved this collection much more than I thought I would. First off, it has some great (and very distinctive) art by Paul Grist, SL Gallant, D’Israeli, and Brian Williamson. Grist is now drawing for DWM, and his very simple, cartoony style works well—especially for characters like Owen. I almost feel like “Making It Stranger” could be done in this style. SL Gallant is slightly more painterly. Willliamson is trippy, very graphic design/CGI/photorealistic. I like them all.

Also, as it’s Torchwood it’s set in Cardiff (mostly) and therefore I’m tickled pink when the Castle features, as does Queen’s Arcade (which doubled for London when the Autons attacked Jackie in “Rose”) and amusingly, there are dinosaurs in the Millennium Stadium. :-D There’s a lovely appearance from Rhys, and some good Cardiff in-jokes (GWEN: “Six hundred years of degenerate godless behavior.” JACK: “Cardiff on a Friday night”). Overall they’ve got the scripting right, though, as I said, the team are a lot less snippy with each other than I remember. And apparently Jack and I both share a fondness for Guy of Gisborne in black leather. :-D
The stories . . . are episodic and move at a nice pace. Nothing ground-breaking here, but fun. I’d recommend this volume over some Doctor Who graphic novel collections!

Monday, September 21, 2009

Robin Hood and stuff vol 9 x 2 (How It Was Lost)

Plenty of people were telling me Robin Hood had jumped the shark in episodes 9 and 10. I didn’t really agree, but I did notice that there didn’t seem to be the fanfare associated with the program originally, which I attributed to viewer figures falling off. The show was cancelled due to its lack of audience and its cost to produce, but even though it ended up killing almost all of its original characters, it might have come back. Would it have been worth watching? I don’t know, but I expect not.

Timothy Praeger had the unenviable task of introducing us to Archer, Guy and Robin’s half-brother, who I quickly realized as the episode wore on, was being touted as the next Robin. This annoyed me because it invalidated my theory (which is still a cool theory) but also because I disliked Archer from the moment he was introduced (even if physically he did manage to look like he shared genes with Jonas Armstrong and Richard Armitage!). Sent on a mystical mission by Robin and Archer’s father, Guy and Robin quickly remind the audience of what happened last episode and prepare them for fights and exposition. Despite their common goal the two end up fighting as usual, observed by a passing Allan (who, if I read my notes rightly, spends his free time gathering wood). “You killed my wife and you expect me to forgive you!” “I loved her as you loved her,” says Guy. “I cannot forgive myself.”

Once Allan has brought all the outlaws down upon them, Robin quickly has to explain that Gisborne is on their side. “He killed my brother!” an incensed Kate screams. When Robin explains that they share a brother, Kate rages, “Who’ll bring my brother back to me?” Still united by their goal to “destroy Isabella,” the outlaws reluctantly agree—“he’s pure evil”—to let Robin and Guy go to York to get Archer. (Personally if I went to York I’d get a nice cup of tea but that’s just me.) Robin rides a black horse and Guy a white; I thought this was symbolism at the time but now I think it’s laziness.

In York Archer (who has a manky rat’s tail) is in prison but enjoys freebies outside his cell with Tracy-Ann Oberman. This mildly amusing side-plot establishes quickly that Archer is a con-man with compassion for his fellow prisoners who enjoys alchemy and adultery on the side. Isabella is meanwhile fuming. Heavy is the head that wears the crown (or holds the keys to Nottingham). “Do you think they’re plotting against me? . . . I want them alive.” John takes the moral high ground as is his wont; Allan tries to convince him not to leave the group. “There are many roads to the same place, John.”

The banter between Guy and Robin in York is rather amusing, and I enjoyed the fact that Robin caused Guy to be arrested and thrown into the dungeon so he could find Archer. Archer, despite the fact that he believes “there’s no honor in being poor,” still tries to get all his cell mates out when he, Guy, and Robin have a jail break. I’ve written “let’s grope Gisborne” which I think must have to do with being arrested, as he later says when his life is threatened, “Put me out of my misery.” There’s some passable fighting as the three half-brothers put off the forces of York. Robin tells Archer about Isabella, his half-sister: “she’s rich, she’s powerful.” This causes Archer to help them get out of the tight squeeze, but he “has his own plans.” Undeterred, Robin and Guy get back to Sherwood, and Guy wants to know, “where do you want me to sleep then?” I can tell you where to sleep—no, you see, my salacious comments just aren’t fun anymore. Hmm.

“Something Worth Fighting For” parts one and two by Simon J Ashford started, like the last three stories, with some promise. Everyone’s uppity because Richard returns within the month. “England will never be a slave to King Richard,” is declared, then a good fight is had. I’ve written a huge FAILURE but I can’t remember why or whom. Archer makes his way to Isabella’s side, declaring “Robin Hood’s a nut.” Isabella’s costume has slowly gone from the passable historical to the outlandish (à la Marian)—here it’s a skirt with red ruffles. She is obsessed with Robin, and I think absolute power coupled with a desire for revenge has turned her into a villain. Whether or not it’s a valid transformation is difficult to say. “He still loves me,” she says angrily. And to whom does she say it? Kate’s mother of all people. Her machinations have reached new lows when she forces Kate’s mother to plant a locket on Robin to make Kate believe he’s still having dealings with Isabella. As I wrote at the time, “This is the dumbest, most circulocutious plot ever.”

Kate’s mother takes the bait, Kate takes the bait. To further divide the outlaws, Isabella issues Allan with a pardon, so the dunderheads immediately think he’s done something spy-like to warrant it. “I haven’t done anything!” I find it strange and significant that Allan adds, “You believe me, Guy?” And Guy is noncommittal! The group shuns him, even as he rejects his earlier complicity. “Every day I wish I could take that back.”

Isabella and Archer’s dealings seem rather incestuous, which is not a nice image. Isabella is annoyed to work with, much less be related to, “some nasty little hustler like you.” Robin is captured, and with only a few men, the outlaws stand little chance of breaching Nottingham’s gates to get him back. Tuck’s advice is novel—a sit-in, of sorts—with Rohan’s decrepit army defending Helm’s Deep at his side. “We are going to turn the other cheek.” Tuck encourages the first archer to “be a man, start [the killing] with me.” Eventually it descends into chaos as Isabella is abandoned by her captain-at-arms. “Goodbye, Sheriff, and good luck.” There’s a surprisingly satisfying bitch fight between Isabella and Kate, interrupted only by the corpse of Allan—who’d previously been seen looking up at someone going, “you!”—and the return of Vasey the Sheriff of Nottingham!

As cliffhangers go, it’s rather inferior to the last two. We knew he wasn’t dead even if Guy and everyone else thought he’d been killed, and though he’s brought a huge army to crush everyone, the shock value isn’t what it should be. In part two, everyone is a bit baffled: “that ghost has raised an army!” “I want my town back,” says the Sheriff. “Your weapons are no match for these men’s hatred of you.” The show has always been obsessed with gunpowder and anachronistic super-weapons like Greek Fire previously, and now the alchemical Archer must pit his knowledge of “Byzantine Fire” against the Sheriff’s supply of it. Archer is the one, in fact, who sold the Byzantine Fire to the Sheriff. “We have to take the trebuchets” (in order to prevent spectacular explosions).

“Why didn’t you give me up to him?” asks the newly-noble (or simply world-weary) Guy to Robin. “I’m with you,” he announces. For Marian’s sake he almost had been in the Helm’s Deep episode from season 2. With Isabella tucked safely into the dungeons, Guy goes to her to offer her honorable death: poison. “This is your idea of mercy?!” Even from where I’m standing, this seems a bit lame and not a little dangerous. “For our mother’s sake,” he says. “There’s precious little left of goodness in either of us.”

Kate attempts a dangerous run to get word to King Richard for reinforcements, but the Sheriff introduces the historically sound but unfortunate fact that “he was captured by Leopold of Austria.” Robin points out that the Sheriff is unlikely to kill everyone. “Who’s going to pay tax if they’re all dead?” Vasey asks (he seems to have lost all sense of humor when he “died”). “I’m bored with that game.” Meanwhile Isabella has escaped and is running through tunnels. She’s all for creating traps and letting the Sheriff in. Guy, stupidly, pursues. “I set up this little trap . . .” In a stand-off with Vasey, Isabella, and her captain-at-arms versus Robin, Guy, and Archer, the Sheriff notes that it’s better that the battle is decided this way; “the important few.” I will say this: the choreography here is well-handled and quite good.

I knew Robin Hood was going to die from the start of this episode. It wasn’t until this scene that I knew Guy was going to die. This made me very disappointed, and although the manner of his death was better than it could have been two seasons ago, it still seemed a bit of an anti-climax to his revolution toward good. It’s perhaps fitting that in the end Isabella got to strike the killing blow. She also (very Hamlet-like) got to graze Robin with a poison-tipped blade (courtesy of Guy, however unwittingly this time) and announced, “You’ll be dead before sundown.” She and her cronies initiated a retreat, but not before Guy could die in Robin’s arms. “This is the end . . . Marian, the love of my life . . .” As per usual, RA milks the drama for all it’s worth. I’m not going to lie and say this didn’t vex me exceedingly.

Even Isabella felt a bit of remorse that she’d had a hand in killing her own brother; “this is no time for sentiment” announces the Sheriff. However, by this time, Tuck had discovered the secret to Byzantine Fire. A very easy and morally grey way of killing off ALL the villains: blow them up! Which was exactly the puzzling and unlooked-for conclusion. However, it’s time for angels to sing the sweet prince to his rest: “it’s time to say goodbye.” Again I’ll confess I wasn’t dry-eyed as Much, John, Tuck, Archer, and Kate bid their friend and leader goodbye. “We have cheated death so many times,” says Robin to poor Much (one of two original characters who DON’T die). “This isn’t fair,” cries Kate, and she certainly has a point. Robin is both visionary and quite serene at the end: “the greatest adventure is yet to come.” Tuck rallies the survivors into planning for a future without a man called Robin Hood, but the organization can still bear his name. If it wasn’t cancelled, however.

There were some sophisticated ideas this season, and if the freshness and zest of the first series could have been combined with some of the darker, larger issues raised in this one, perhaps we would have had a cohesive whole. Did the characters really “jump the shark” or were the constant switching sides merely a reflection of real life? To be sure I’d have to watch the series again. John and Tuck had some strong episodes before they faded into the background; Kate, while not always the most nuanced of characters, was at least consistent and bright. I feel quite sorry for Allan; his character growth had stagnated by the end of last series (why they didn’t send him off like Will and Djaq I don’t know) so they just waited for the opportune moment to kill him off! Much remained the backbone of the program but, again, did not develop to a significant degree.

Robin I found a little less insufferable this season (and clearly superior to this Archer character). Isabella I found quite intriguing at times and wished there’d been a bit more cohesion to her character, especially in developing her relationship with PJ (and where did PJ go anyway?). Vasey was missed when he wasn’t around, yet perhaps the evil camp Sheriff act was getting old too. Looking at it dispassionately, Guy’s character was at its most interesting in “A Dangerous Deal,” when he had a new character to react against and the possibilities for him to rediscover the “good” aspects of his nature were most fecund. After he “turned good,” I have to admit he was relegated to the sidelines a bit and became almost boring. I should have seen his death coming much earlier than he did, because like Allan he was becoming a puppet for “yes, Robin,” “no, Robin.” He seemed to have lost his bite when he made his peace with the outlaws. I’m not suggesting that he couldn’t have been interesting if he’d been good; as I said, I’m happy to rewrite the end of series 3 so that Archer and Robin die heroically and Guy is the next Robin. You’re probably tired of me harping on that theme, though.

Series three was a mixed bag. I was certainly depressed after it was over that it would be no more, even as I criticized the last few episodes. C’est la vie.

The films

My sister persuaded me to see this finally. I’m as fond of vampires as the next person (we taught a lot of vampire stories in Gothic Horror) but I’d been avoiding this teen phenomenon, which is ironic since my sister does not like anything fantastical but claims to like Twilight because it has a basis in a “real place.” It exceeded my expectations, but I still find the fact the vampires “sparkle” to be ridiculous. It shares a lot of themes with Being Human. Edward is written to be absolutely irresistible to girls of a certain age. Here is my rather snarky haiku:
Twilit twits moan, angst-
pale across silver forests.
Enough already.

Star Trek
I finally saw Star Trek. I never watched much of the original series, but I kept up pretty well during my youth with all subsequent visions (up through Enterprise, in fact). As Johanna said, it was worth seeing for Zachary Quinto alone, but . . . I’m not sure. It was entertaining, but when all was said and done, rather slight. I know you could accuse several of the Star Trek movies of that. To be sure, it looked good. The pseudo-‘60s look was nice. There were amusing moments. I think they went a little overboard in that department, though! I got very confused as to canon and wasn’t sure whether I was supposed to take it as an alternative universe or not. As far as villains go, and many of them in Star Trek as of late have been bad, Nero was cardboard. Oh well.

is Mihyzaki’s latest film and though I haven’t seen the majority of his oeuvre, I do own Princess Mononoke. This was trippy but sweet. Ponyo is a goldfish-princess-mermaid and Soske is the extremely bright five-year-old who causes her to become a girl. My favorite part was when the sea turned Devonian and was full of coelacanths and trilobites, but it was also a source of terror for me as I didn’t want a mosasaur to come out of the water and eat the kids!

I saw Watchmen on the plane ride back. It was very faithful to the comic. Too faithful, perhaps, as it seemed to lack a certain directorial boldness, reproducing scene-for-scene some of the panels and scenes from the book (which, perhaps, is how Alan Moore likes it?). I was annoyed by the rather too-obvious soundtrack. The special effects were able to achieve Dave Gibbons’ art, which is rather a feat, and I liked the casting of Patrick Wilson as Dan/Nightowl. I will say it was about 20 times better than Sin City!

The Gunfighters

I loved, loved, loved The Gunfighters. If the novelization is this much fun, I have to hope the TV story isn’t beyond all hope. It is an odd Doctor Who in that it’s a comedy and completely silly—Steven and Dodo are bordello pianist and singer respectively, and the Doctor stumbles around the bloodthirsty Old West inadvertedly getting into trouble and giggling, no doubt. What must work in the novelization’s favor, of course, is that the voice is just right and you don’t have to contend with (what I’m told are) wobbly American accents. Donald Cotton is pulling a tour de force with voice in this; if I ever teach creative writing I will use The Gunfighters to show my students how consummately it can be done. It is funny and utterly convincing, if you need to be convinced of a mad, half-serious alternative universe version of the Wild West as seen through the filter of old films.

As Jamie pointed out to me, the frame story which adds just a bit more credulity to this tale (as if that was required!) of a journalist meeting Doc Holliday dying in a Wild West old folks’ home and hearing from him the real events at the OK Corral is a great device. This gives us my favorite part of the book:
'So I take it, Mr Buntline, that at your tender age you may not have heard of time travel . . . or even, so help me, of the TARDIS? Well, like I say, it ain't that easy to understand: but the TARDIS, if you'll kindly believe me, was--and is, for all I know--a kind of four-wheel buggy designed for ridin' every sort of direction through eternity, without much decent respect for the laws of physics. And this other Doctor feller I was tellin' you about, he drives it back an' forth through the star-spangled centuries, like it was a rodeo-bull got loose in Jackson's Hardware Store! It's a fact! Never seems to know quite where he'll land up next! And back in 1881, by golly, it was Tombstone, Arizona--where the poor old buzzard got hisself taken for me!'

What really sets the tone and shows you just what kind of nuttiness you’re in for is the fact the Doctor demands to land the TARDIS because he needs a dentist. Surely, surely at his age and his Gallifreyan superiority he could fix his own teeth?! Or what has he been eating that caused such bad tooth decay?! I’m giving this way too much thought, aren’t I? Doc Holliday, his lady friend Kate, Wyatt Earp (and his brothers), and Clanton Brothers, Johnny Ringo, and other “vernacular” characters cause riotous laughter—the cast of Firefly might, just might, be at home in this particular universe!

I also like that Kate likes the cut of Steven’s jib (as do I!), that Dodo is mistaken for Steven’s “bespoken,” that Cotton manages to explain any plot holes with the wonderful voice that deprecates itself and plants itself firmly on the reader’s side, and the fact the Doctor goes around accidentally shooting people with a shot gun (think of the assured Fifth Doctor who later points so many guns! Clearly he learned from this experience it pays to have some savoir-faire with weapons even if he doesn’t want to use them).

My copy of The Gunfighters was owned by Rhys Wyn Hughes of Bangor, and I really wish I could get in touch with him as I suspect he owned this book as a teenager (in the back he’s ticked off all the Target novels he’s read). The only drawback I can think of for The Gunfighters is that the book smells like mold.


I’ve hefted this mighty tome on buses and planes and finally finished reading it. Steven, who’s TTZ’s resident comics expert, believes that creativity on the DWM comic strip has declined since the new series, and while I don’t really have the knowledge to comment, I can say the current strip is a lot less grand than during the Eighth Doctor years. Endgame is the first volume of Eighth Doctor comics (thank you, Jamie!). It introduces Izzy, whose haircut I apparently now have, one of the comics’ most beloved companions.

Alan Barnes and Scott Gray are responsible for all the writing and Martin Geraghty for nearly all the art. That means there’s a great deal of cohesion on one hand, and a lot of sameness on the other. Certainly Geraghty proves his mettle as a very good draftsman with a keen sense of chiaroscuro. I do have to save a bit of warmth for when Sean Longcroft and Adrian Salmon contribute some art toward the end on shorter strips, even if by virtue of their being shorter their stories don’t seem to hold much water.

There are some fabulous full page spreads that elicited gasps from me, even on the plane as I was reading, including a giant reveal of the Celestial Toymaker in the title story. There are clever conceits in this story (it introduces Izzy and takes place, more or less, in Max Edison’s Stockbridge) and fabulous, scary images of the Doctor fighting a clockwork/playing card version of himself. In “The Keep,” the next story, the images of the 51st century are a bit different than the ones Captain Jack inspires (Izzy thinks so too). Like “Endgame”’s reintroduction of an old villain, “The Keep” alludes to “Talons of Weng-Chiang.” Izzy’s obsession with sci fi embarrasses the Doctor but no doubt strikes a familiar chord with us. I’m also tickled by the fact she wants to “chunder” at hearing Milton’s verses!

In “Fire and Brimstone,” there’s another impressive reveal of a Dalek. I love that the font the Daleks talk in is different than the rest of the lettering (actually I have it in Word now—Steven gave it to me). My favorite story is probably “Tooth and Claw” (ironic since I dislike the Tennant story by that name). It’s a bit camp and turns up the classic Gothic horror meter really high, with spies, the island of Dr. Moreau, vampires, and the occult all thrown in. It also introduces erstwhile companion Fey, who might like to get jiggy with Izzy if they ever had the chance. Captain Jack would have a field day with Fey.

Along with Max they’ve also brought back the Doctor’s ally Shayde, and there’s a fun twist on him (?) by the end of the book. “Wormwood” makes you believe the Doctor’s regenerated into Nick Briggs (Izzy’s reaction to the new Doctor anticipates Rose’s frustration in “The Christmas Invasion”). Interestingly the Briggs Doctor is wearing roughly what Matt Smith’s Doctor is wearing!! At least the Briggs Doctor has good taste in tea. Now, I have never pretended that the huge Eighth Doctor story arcs don’t sometimes bore me, and Endgame is no exception—though at least there are the huge, squee-ful panels of handsome Paul McGann. I thought “By Hook or By Crook” was going to resemble my story “Shaving is a Tedious Thing,” (er, not to be confused with something Jamie wrote by the same title) but it didn’t after all. Oh well—all great minds can’t think alike!

Definitely the best way to spend a long flight!
I also borrowed Star Trek: The Manga Ultimate Edition from the library, as it seemed an appropriate choice. The art is in all cases exceptionally good. “Side Effects” as drawn by Makoto Nakatsuka, “Forging Alliances” as drawn by Steven Cummings, and “Til Death” as drawn by Jeong Mo Yang look particularly manga-style to me, while the others have a more fluid style. While among these stories is one written by Wil Wheaton, I think my favorite is “Bandi,” by David Gerrold, which is so silly, it even makes fun of Tribbles, and is drawn like a pulp comic by Don Hudson. It has a tongue-in-cheek ending that reminds one that the birth of slash fiction came in order to distinguish fan fiction friendship pieces about Kirk-Spock from slash ones (ie Kirk/Spock). That’s not something I really want to contemplate but I thought it was worth mentioning.

Most of the comics are very funny, usually when Spock and McCoy are bandying quips about (particularly in “The Humanitarian” by Luis Reyes). I’m not a huge fan of TOS so the somewhat bland morality, even as modernized by the writers to the best of their abilities, left me a bit cold. I liked that in “Communications Breakdown,” by Christine Boylan and Bettina Kurkoski, Uhura got something to do other than say “Yes, Captain,” and I could tell the female writer and artist were taking a stab at making her a three-dimensional character.

What I really want to get my hands on is their TNG manga collection!

Too Many Mothers

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie is a charming yet hard-hitting, playful memoir about growing up on a Spokane Indian Reservation. I saw Alexie speak when he was promoting the book, and I have my sister to thank for this recommendation. I’ll save my review proper for later, for reasons which will become clear.

The last book I finished on the trip was, you guessed it, another memoir, this time by Roberta Taylor called Too Many Mothers. I must say originally I felt obliged to read it as Jamie bought it for me from the used book shop in Cardiff market (seeing as how he knew Roberta Taylor from The Bill, read and recommended the book, and I’d enjoyed her performance in Cuddlesome with Peter Davison). However, I quickly became engrossed in the book and was distraught when I thought I’d left it on the plane after coming in to Albuquerque. However, I found it and finished it on the way back!

It’s a very interesting memoir in that a lot of it coincides with those of John Barrowman and Dawn French (no, really!) in terms of familial relations. It’s subtitled “An East End Childhood,” and is a sophisticated and unsentimental look at a clan of poverty-stricken Londoners, many with wicked tendencies (Dawn French’s grandmother is almost the double of Roberta Taylor’s). In some ways it reminds me of Sister Carrie. Like John Barrowman’s book, it takes a non-chonological approach to telling a story, though it’s less the story of Roberta Taylor, actress and however else she may describe herself, it’s almost fictionalized family history. That’s my favorite kind. I loved how Taylor made me see parallels in my own family; I, too, was raised mostly by women. I can’t claim we have the same skeletons in our cupboards, drama, petty larceny, and cruelty (as far as I know!!), but when you can follow your family back to the early 20th century, as I can with my grandparents, you begin to see parallels.

What I really liked about the book was the structure and Taylor’s ability to go into any “character” (her relatives become characters) and tell their story, not from their POV (she’s still granddaughter Rob), but in a way that makes them sympathetic even if they are, like her grandmother, rather vicious. The book begins with Boxing Day 1956, a narrative that continues throughout, and forms rather an effective homing beacon that the reader knows will always find him or her. Taylor uses this as the jumping off point to take us from the youth of her grandmother Mary, from a truly “low” class of East Enders, who marries Bob, a sailor who when he finally returns from duty, keeps making her pop out kids. Then he turns to drinking and domestic violence. With this in mind you can empathize with Mary’s sourness in later life and her ill-fated love of fine linen.

Mary’s eldest daughter Flo strikes a bit of a chord with me. Dropped on her head as a baby, she has developmental problems throughout her life that of course go undiagnosed and make her a source of mockery. She’s the “dozy cow with her funny turns.” My eldest aunt, while she wasn’t hurt like that (as far as I know!!) has gotten the same kind of rap. In Taylor’s family, there were three other girls of a similar age (kind-hearted Doll, hard-as-nails Viv, Rob’s mother Win) before two of Mary’s surprise pregnancies. The family is a large and diverse one, especially when Viv marries a Lascar (then his brother, then a family friend . . . ). Win’s story is poignant as for a very long time Rob doesn’t know her own parentage.

I really can’t think of anything I didn’t like about this book. It got funnier toward the end as the inverse proportion of bleakness receded!

Living to Tell the Tale

Living to Tell the Tale by Gabriel García Márquez jumped out at me on the shelf at the library (behind it was Dalek I Loved You, which I had to return before I could actually read it). I’ve had sort of a love/hate relationship with Márquez because I really didn’t get One Hundred Years of Solitude and much preferred Love in the Time of Cholera. I’ve since adapted to his style a bit, but I have to say the memoir was a tour-de-force. Oh, I suppose it petered out a bit toward the end, and I was somewhat disappointed Márquez’s later life was either ignored altogether or glossed over. However, the first few chapters are amazing. Márquez is at his best weaving rambling and mysterious (he’s the godfather of Magical Realism, after all) stories of his childhood all over Colombia.

I found it very interesting indeed that Márquez found so much inspiration for his works from his life, past, family history, etc. In fact the central story from Love in the Time of Cholera is his parents’: “when I was past fifty [I] decided at last to use their story in Love in the Time of Cholera,” including his father’s telegraph office hammock, next to it a “bachelor’s cot with well-oiled springs.” I don’t know why, but this makes me hopeful, somehow, as a writer: ie, while I may not at present possess the finesse to incorporate my life into memoir like this, that will immediately get picked up by creative nonfiction journals, at least I can save it up and use it in fiction. Which is exactly what I did with The Gathering Dust, which is the play about my grandparents. But we’ll come back to that.

Okay, I’ll admit that Colombia has taken quite the center stage in my life at the moment, due to my boyfriend and various projects, etc. I hope he’ll take it as a compliment that at points I found Márquez’s style and subject matter so similar that I got confused to whose account I was reading: Gabriel García Márquez, 82-year-old Nobel Prize winner, or Jamie George Beckwith, Cockney Colombian diarist. Of course, as always when I read a work in translation, I wonder what it would be like to read the original—though I think I have read all Edith Grossman translations of Márquez. The beginning of the book, as it rambles around Márquez’s youth, superstition and family history, lore and legend, opens in a manner that grabs you in immediately. Márquez’s voice is a familiar one, but quietly omniscient.

I was also fascinated by the portrait of Márquez’s schoolboy days and amazed to find many of Florentino’s romps in LitToC to be based on real experience! “The reality is that I did not understand why I had to sacrifice my talents and time on courses that did not move me and therefore would be of no use to me in a life that was not mine”—his youthful arrogance and the things he got away with because of his natural talent made me tsk tsk! However, this is all turned on its head when, in order to save his numerous family from destitution, he has to get a job in order to send money home. This is when, you feel, that he’s finally grown up. And for me, that’s actually the end of the book. The rest is disappointingly sparse if you are looking into insights as to how a famous writer writes, or what he made of his fame, though the stints on various newspapers were entertaining and interesting.

Probably the funniest part is that after I read this book I had a dream I met Márquez and he wanted me to be his mistress!

Monday, July 20, 2009

the story of martha

And Martha didn’t hesitate, she put her own hands upon the Doctor’s cheeks too. She felt how cold they were, and she was so warm against them, and she pushed harder until she could feel she’d reached the Doctor’s warmth too, she knew it must be deep inside somewhere.

I wonder if any of the BBC books can claim to be any closer to fan fiction than The Story of Martha. In that case I wonder why I held off reading it for as long as I did! It’s a curious book, because imbedded in the overarching narrative (of the Year That Never Was, the grand 365 days described in “The Last of the Time Lords” which saw Martha walking the world, spreading the Gospel of the Doctor) by Dan Abnett are short stories Martha tells of the Doctor to inspire the pseudo-religious faith we see so ridiculously demonstrated. I realized halfway through that the short stories are our way of actually making this a Doctor Who book, because without them the Doctor would figure almost not at all. I guess that’s one way in which it differs from fan fiction: if I’d written The Story of Martha you can be sure there would have been a lot of angsty Doctor-yearning, though I suppose this might be the place where Martha might start to “get over” the Doctor . The narrative is really quite spare; I almost wonder if Abnett had made it more complex and was told to tone it down so the book didn’t end up being 1,000 pages long. Again, see, if it were my fan fiction it would have been twice as long because it would have followed Martha with more precision, rather than picking the random incidents to detail. But I digress.

The quality of the incidental stories varies. I wasn’t surprised that the strongest one by far was by that Very Clever Man, Rob Shearman. The others are “unknowns,” at least to Doctor Who book fandom. Many of the stories are so short, I imagine it’s difficult for the writers to get any kind of characterization in before the plot begins—at least I hope that’s why the characterization is, in my opinion, a little sloppy. “The Weeping” reminded me of the Adrian Salmon “Universal Monsters” comic from Doctor Who magazine in fall 2007 (the dialogue in this is a bit off). “Breathing Space” reminded me of Arthur C. Clarke and I liked the general idea, but I found the dénouement rather confusing. 102 “The Frozen Wastes,” I’m pleased to report, starts out a bit like “Over and Under” part two! It was certainly the most memorable part of the book, dreamy and engagingly manipulative of time. It had some great images and appealed to the senses. Plus it had the Doctor and Martha dreaming together , hot air balloons, and a French explorer trying to get to the North Pole (like Raoul, alas). (Though I can’t see Martha fantasizing about Leonardo DiCaprio, can you?) “Star Crossed” has a twist reminiscent of “The Doctor’s Daughter,” and somehow the grungy atmosphere reminds me of Firefly!

Martha’s UCF (Unified Containment Force) nemesis, Griffin, is okay for an adversary, but some of those scenes suffer from blandness. Early scenes feel like 28 Days Later, yet I can’t imagine Martha would make the rookie mistakes of wearing perfume and earrings when she knows the perception filter is the only thing keeping her alive. Martha’s French operative friend Mathieu obviously made me think of Mathieu Frenchie the whole time, which was very amusing. I was very disappointed when the Brigadier in charge of the Turkish side of the Underground was not Alistair or even Winifred (though this guy’s father knew Benton, which is why he assumes the Doctor is still a dandy). Where was the Brigadier? Everything goes a bit too real when Martha ends up in the slave camps in Japan—her despair was so palpable and depressing (visions of Empire of the Sun). However, this is probably the strongest point in Abnett’s narrative. The Master, interestingly, shows up very little!

I guess the best compliment I can give the book is that it inspired me to write more fan fic! :-D

Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Discovery of France

‘You must be a stranger, sir, in these parts.’
‘Yes, my home is very far from here.’
‘How far?’
‘More than a thousand leagues.’
The old woman looked incredulous.
‘More than a thousand leagues!’ at length repeated she; ‘and why have you come so far from home?’
‘To travel;--to see how you live in this country.’
‘Have you no relations in your own?’

--Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

How do I review this book? More than almost any other I’ve read recently it seems to defy description. Parts of it were impossible to put down, other parts were relatively dull so I skimmed them. It’s written by an Englishman who doesn’t fit the mold of Peter Mayle and those in that genre (I loved Encore Provence but it does seem an overwritten genre)—his grasp of French history, sociology, psychology, folk methodology and presumably language matched only by his desire to see France by bicycle. My only reservation about the book is the baffling tone, which at first seems to venerate the lost traditions of provinces or pays of France and the people of these places, but later seems to attack their ways of life as backward. In fact he just seems to grumble about everyone and bemoan everything, whether the traditions were lost or kept. Maybe that was just how I read the book.

I hope I haven’t put you off it. I saw it in Waterstones in Cardiff in February as I was browsing and put it on my list because I was intrigued—some of the photos are haunting, for example the shepherds of Landes who clocked 10 mph speeds on their stilts! For a Francophile and history buff like myself, it was a fascinating read. I started learning some of the greater ideas the book espouses as early as in my high school years—for example, that the Voices told Jeanne Darc to go “into” France from Lorraine because Domrémy wasn’t in France at the time—and later on in French Chic in University—learning that bits of French actually come from old Celtic/Gaulish terms as well as Occitan and Provençal and the other regional languages—and from personal experience in France—seeing how much the Breton signs in Brittany resembled Welsh ones! (And the fact that a popular saying in the Alps was “Happy as a corpse” doesn’t surprise me after having lived in Chambéry.) But I have to confess like many of the reviewers of this book, the greatest fun was in going “huh! I never knew that” over and over at the amazing facts and anecdotes Graham Robb has uncovered.

Why has France had so many instances of feral children (mostly in the 18th century)? Until extremely recently—the last 50 years—Robb says it was “an undiscovered continent” where Paris stood for all of France but wasn’t really. A fascinating group in this loosely organized continent whom I had never heard of were the cagots, a persecuted caste about whom very little is known—in fact it doesn’t even seem to be clear what made a person a cagot and why they were considered inferior. Yet somehow seeing the photo in the book of a church column depiction of a cagot in Monenin I feel a resonance, even if it’s just because it reminds me of the wonderfully eccentric statuary museum in Avignon.

While I know I would find spending all winter “smoking, playing cards, hunting, and sleeping” as the people of the Rhône did in winter extremely dull, what’s a bit more shocking is that as late as 1807, people in Arras spent their winter months in underground cities carved into medieval quarries! (I picture the Mole People of New York City.) Old people were keen to die when they could no longer be of service (one thinks of some Native American tribes whose elderly would walk off into the sunset) and thousands of children were abandoned or given to “enterprising women known as ‘angel makers’” who would “perform what can mostly kindly be described as post-natal abortions.” My three jobs at once seems to have been a French precedent—“The millions of people who seemed so stubbornly inefficient to administrators were engaged in the mysterious activity known as ‘muddling through.’ The closest economic term is probably ‘cross-subsidizing.’” It is likewise not surprising to me that women did all the work, as evidenced in their omnipresence in the fields. It was that damn Code Civile of 1804 that curtailed much of women’s power (much as British Victorian legislation was slow to give women any kind of rights).

I was astonished to learn the Tour de France had its beginnings in a foot-propelled tour carried out by apprentices, going from town to town learning their trades and returning to their pays to marry and become masters. Dogs as workers and modes of transportation (surely if you’ve read 19th century literature you’ve come across a dog-cart?) is contrasted with tales of mindless animal cruelty. Surely someone’s made a film about the great map-making voyages made across France, starting in the 1740s and continuing through the Révolution (one map-maker was killed by villagers who did not wish to be on the map!). The evolution of hoteling in France is very amusing. There is certainly sadness on Robb’s part that the tourist trade was ever allowed to develop and cause native people of the pays to pander to what tourists wanted in order to earn a better living, which led to their children moving to the cities, etc, etc. It’s astonishing, yet again, that anthropologists and budding ethnologies assumed that the darker tendencies of Picards and Bretons was due to them being closer to Neathderthals! (One almost wants to cheer when an effigy of Béccassine, the cloddish make-believe Breton woman, was destroyed in the 1930s.) My absolute favorite section, however, is Mme de Génlis’ German/French phrase book of the late 18th century. Reading her phrases gives you a good idea of what travelling was like:
Postilion, stop; the brakes must be attached.
The descent is quite steep, I wish the brakes to be attached.
I believe the wheels are on fire. Look and see.

Postilion, allow this poor man to climb onto the seat.
He is so tired! Leave him alone. He is an old man!

The horses have just collapsed.
Is anyone hurt?
No, thank God.
The horse is badly wounded. It is dead.

Poor man! Be assured that I sympathize with your suffering.

I suppose I won’t bore you much more with things I read in the book that made things I had experienced while living in/ visiting France more clear (maybe I could write my own book about that). In the end maybe what I enjoyed most about this book was that I got to read it on the plane to France sitting next to the person who gave it to me.

the vampire of paris

The gap of BBC Doctor Who books that I haven’t read is decreasing quickly—I think I only have six to go (until they release more, again). To combat this (I guess?) I decided to try one of the books for “younger” readers, The Vampire of Paris by Stephen Cole (from the 10-book Darksmith Legacy). Was it really a good idea to start with book 5? Well, it was an interesting experiment. In contrast to the BBC books, this book clocks in at just over 100 pages with an enormous font and lots of visual devices to entice younger readers. Despite this very obvious appeal to a certain age range, I liked this book! Maybe it’s a bit closer to the Target books. Whatever it is, it’s skilfully done and quite impressive that Stephen Cole (who in general I find quite verbose) to have distilled Doctor Who so successfully this way.

There’s a helpful “The Story So Far” at the beginning (some of the EDAs could have used this!). The Doctor is in a Key to Time-like quest and has a new companion named Gisella (who will put you in mind, not completely falsely, of Compassion). I was attracted to this particular title because the synopsis said Paris and 19th century—I was so there, imagining a St-Germain-type vampire. I was totally wrong on that front, but I was rewarded with the Doctor almost replacing Steven’s escapades with the Eiffel Tower in 1900. Great minds obviously think alike! Stephen Cole as you know has a sort of uneven history with me—some of his books I’ve enjoyed but in general I’ve not been as uniformly impressed by him as by writers like Jaqueline Rayner or Justin Richards. But he really entertained me with one. It’s got a great story (genuinely scary/disturbing), memorable if quickly-drawn characters, and he has a real understanding of the key traits that make Tennant’s Doctor work. Cole is very knowing, dropping in some hints for some of the older readers. When the Doctor starts climbing the Eiffel Tower, he exclaims, ‘Blimey, I hate climbing towers . . .’ He also takes the not-very-amusing joke from “Fires of Pompeii” (sorry, I didn’t find it amusing) about Welsh and turns it on its head:
‘What was that Welsh bit, sir?’ the driver called back.
‘Blimey,’ the Doctor muttered. ‘Whenever I speak in the local lingo it comes out as Welsh. But maybe if I try Welsh . . .’ He cleared his throat. ‘All right
–dewlch ymlaen !’

There are some features of the book that take you out of the narrative—like TARDIS Fact File on Paris, Montmartre, the Eiffel Tower, etc—it makes me think of the Hartnell episodes where Barbara and Ian were constantly dropping pedagogical info into the sci fi. All in all I’d be tempted to read more of the Darksmith Legacy.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

top 10 british tv programmes

This wasn’t by any means easy. As I tell people, I really like British TV. I always have. I barely watched TV in the US last year when I was home. Doctor Who always qualifies as good TV, but unfortunately I chose the year of the Specials to return to Britain. Sigh. Anyway, I’ve separated this into two parts—my ten picks for best TV series --and then a few choice one-offs or other types of programmes that weren’t series. To be truthful, it’s not a complete survey of the field—I tend to watch programmes that I suspect I will like, but I will tune into things recommended to me. But I often surprise myself—Spooks anyone?—so I might just surprise you, too. These are, by the way, in no particular order.

1. City of Vice This is my one choice that isn’t current, but it was so good I had to include it (even if I’ve only seen 2 episodes . . . that’s a situation easily remedied since Jamie bought me the series on DVD!). As I said before, I want to aspire to write like this for my Milton project—if it could be produced at even a fraction of the sophistication and accessibility of this series, I would be happy. As far as I’m concerned, it ticks every box for me. My historical expertise is most profound in the 19th century, also I’m getting a fair way into the 17th, but my knowledge of the 18th isn’t bad either, so I am pleased to see it’s shown as the sordid, cheerful, random era it was. The idea has just enough of the genres it straddles to appeal both to mystery fans who like watching modern day detectives such as Robson Green pursuing murders, and the historically-mad, who just like looking into the past. It follows the real life Bow Street Runners, the only oasis of crime-fighting in the dark and dangerous London of the 18th century famously banded by novelist Henry Fielding and his blind brother, John. I remember watching the two episodes I saw and thinking how I loved every scene, every line of dialogue. Ian McDiarmid is a perfect Henry Fielding. Everything we know and don’t know of the 18th century is there: sexual perversion, extreme poverty, prostitution, coffeehouses, broadsheets and newspapers, London as a maze, and the Fieldings have to apply some kind of logic and procedure to an era that seethes with the ephemeral. There is a huge dose of the kind of overt sexiness that has made dramas like HBO’s Rome and The Tudors a success but in the case of City of Vice I feel it’s earned, whereas those programmes may on occasion have to stretch at it. The audience’s way into the story is achieved by Henry’s narration and clever, almost interactive maps that chart the progress of the story through London—indeed, the city is made palpably its own character. I must also make a special mention of Iain Glen, who plays John Fielding, the brother blind since youth. He makes a corking good character, and I have to confess he is exactly how I would imagine Old Milton.

2. Tess of the D’Urbervilles A superlative adaptation—sexy, moving, beautifully filmed, and well-cast and acted. Gemma Atherton was a superb Tess. The fact that it was four hours long made it possible to adapt the book in a reverent fashion, so that you could really understand why Tess, Angel, Tess’s mother, and others acted the way they did. The music was absolutely gorgeous and moving. The tail end of the 19th century in Hardy’s Wessex was perfectly recreated. Although I’ve always regarded Angel Clare as a little sh*t, in the final episode I did at least want him and Tess to get together—though of course I knew they wouldn’t end happily (yes, I did cry). I’ve always been a fan of Hans Matheson, and he made a perfectly dissolute Alec d’Urberville .

3. Stephen Fry in America Certainly I was biased by being an American and I wanted not only to see Stephen’s take on the US—a combination of the genuinely affectionate and bewildered!—but what format it might take in order to be fit for British consumption. In the process I learned a lot about my home country that I didn’t know, and I have to be honest: it made me homesick. Last fall, Fry drove across all 50 states in the London cab he owns. In Vermont he mixed ice cream at Ben and Jerry’s (he said something to the effect of the world needed ice cream). He spent a lot of time in Massachusetts in Harvard discussing the principles behind the founding of our country (he quotes Gore Vidal in that the Puritans were escaping persecution so they could find someone to persecute). He went hunting in upstate New York, cab driving in Queens, and mixed with the Mob (sort of). Very often this show teaches me stuff about my own country that I don’t know, including the “Body Farm” in Tennessee where students study bodies in states of decomposition in order to find killers—Stephen saw his first dead body. He went ballooning over North Carolina and had a very traditional Thanksgiving in Georgia. He hates Florida, visiting with “snowbirds” the “living embodiment of hell.” In Alabama he attended a college football game. Aaaaand so on.

4. Mock the Week The funniest thing on British TV, IMHO.

5. Spooks I didn’t expect to like Spooks, it wasn’t really my cup of tea, you know, spy shows. But then again, if you think about it, I am into League of Extraordinary Gentlemen so maybe it’s not such a stretch. Anyway, I will admit readily that Richard Armitage is the reason I started watching (though the fact James Moran had written an episode helped), and he made the viewing of it even more enjoyable than it would have been otherwise. I personally found the season I saw (called MI5, understandably, in the US) quite slick, nail-biting, well-made and well-acted. Perhaps it wouldn’t stand up to constant scrutiny, but I found it quite unpredictable and modern, relevant. As you can tell when you look at this list, I don’t tend to favor many contemporary dramas so the fact I found it entertaining enough not to miss an episode probably says far more about it than I can right now.

6. Little Dorrit Some people objected to the fact this was cut up into 14 episodes, but I really enjoyed it—felt appropriately serialized and Dickensian—and I didn’t miss an episode. For the most part it was well-adapted and moved along at a good pace, except for a few spots when it stalled. There were some superb performances from the likes of Matthew Macfadyan (formerly of Spooks no less), Andy Serkis, Eddie Marsan, Russell Tovey, Alun Armstrong, Emma Pierson, Claire Foy, the list goes on and on. How much money did the BBC have to employ this many people?! Anyway, in addition to the great performances, the sets, the costumes, and the filming in Venice must have cost a pretty penny—yet in my opinion it was all worth it, what a glorious spectacle. Moving, too, in its smallest moments, also a bit scary and often quite funny. Maybe not one of Dickens’ greatest novels (she says, having read only three!) but still very enjoyable.

7. The Victorians: Their Story in Pictures It was really difficult to choose one show to typify the many things I’d seen on BBC4 having to do with the history of the Victorians. I decided on this one, written and presented by Jeremy Paxman, because it didn’t try to sensationalize Victoriana, nor make it too ridiculous and quirky. He used contemporary pieces of art to show what Victorian life was really like and how it was still relevant to us today. The first episode of the series piled on the sweeping melodrama of “the City!!” as well as the degradation and misery of the poor. Paxman showed one of my favorite paintings of all time, Ford Madox Brown’s Work, as well as some other stunning crowd-work by the likes of William Frith, and a blacksmith/painter named Scalper. The second episode concerned maybe the first Victorian cliché I ever learned, the Angel in the Home. The show also did a masterful job showing the ignominy of the Crimean War in canvases by the likes of Lady Elizabeth Butler, and describing the atrocities on both sides in the case of the Indian Mutiny. It also was most eloquent on the nature of imperialism through art like the Albert Memorial. Overall, very valuable—it took itself a bit too seriously on occasion, but it wasn’t afraid to be irreverent.

8. Being Human I started off as a skeptic; I really couldn’t see how a show about a vampire, ghost, and werewolf sharing a flat could actually work (in Bristol no less), even if it was written by Toby Whithouse. However, I was quickly proved wrong. It’s funny how issues surrounding such supernatural characters remind us so succinctly of the problems facing humans. For example, how do you tell a potential love interest you’re a werewolf? Or what do you do when you find the werewolf who made you one? What do you do when you find out your fiancé killed you? If you’re a vampire how do you respond to the woman you made a vampire against her will and who still loves you? The weakest link in this show was only inevitable—there had to be some big threat against which our heroes had to prepare themselves and it was vaguely boring in its way. The real threat was humanity!

9. Ashes to Ashes I only saw one episode of Life on Mars and never saw any of Ashes to Ashes series 1 (though I lived vicariously through the Staggering Stories podcasts where they discussed the plot in detail, with spoilers and all!). Again, I couldn’t really imagine myself liking the show particularly, seeing as these police procedurals didn’t really interest me and I couldn’t see how they were going to explain Alex Drake’s journey, especially in the light of the way Life on Mars ended (plus, although the ‘80s interested me slightly more than the ‘70s, it isn’t near to my interest in the 1880s!). Despite myself, Ashes to Ashes really grew on me. It was accessible, and it was much better to see Philip Glenister playing Gene Hunter proper instead of a vanilla version in the boring Demons. I thought the music was cool, the fashions spectacularly ‘80s , and the twists and turns interesting and entertaining. Again, I don’t know how well it would stand up to scrutiny but it seemed logical in its own weird way. It’s genuinely funny, and I know some people were criticizing the possible sexual tension between Gene and Alex, but I thought it was tastefully done and extremely subtle. Looking forward to series 3!

10. The Devil’s Whore Like City of Vice, I expect this will have a lot of bearing on my Milton project. was another superb costume drama. It was subtitled “The Life and Times of Angelica Fernshaw,” and that’s exactly what it depicted—the riotous gaiety of the court of Charles Stuart, followed by the turmoil and battles of the Civil War, followed by Cromwell’s Protectorate. The sumptuousness in costumes was matched only by the outstanding performances. Andrea Riseborough goes from 18 to 40, a landed aristocrat marrying for love who accidentally gets her first husband killed, who falls in love with a revolutionary, Rainsborough, who is killed for opposing Cromwell, then takes turns with the Diggers, the Ranters, and finally returns to her ancestral home. Through it all floats Edward Sexby, a mercenary who falls in love with Angelica almost as soon as he sees her. I grow to admire John Simm more and more, and he positively smoldered as the enigmatic Sexby. Peter Flannery said this took years to get to the screen, but I hope for him it was worth it—it was for me. Bravo Channel4!

Lost in Austen was quite fun, as were The Sarah Jane Adventures. The Tudors were fun but sordid (but that’s HBO as I keep forgetting!). Whitechapel and Moses Jones were both good. I would have put Red Dwarf on the list but that’s cheating a bit too much; suffice it to say, I wish I had not been ignorant of its charms for so long. I also love QI; Alan Davies=squee! The Last Word Monologues were simple TV at its best. Robin Hood might have been on this list but there wasn’t room and besides, it failed.

As for the one-offs, Doctors (with Sylvester McCoy) was particularly memorable. I will probably never watch the show again, but that episode was really funny and sweet. Armando Ianucci’s Paradise Lost you know all about. That doesn’t make it any less great! I also liked How Reading Made Us Modern.

Here’s to another year of British TV!