Monday, February 27, 2012

Old Soldiers

Old Soldiers

Much as I love Nick Courtney (and The Scarifyers proved he could do a good Brigadier-ish character on audio; he was definitely the best part of those plays), I wasn’t too sure about this play going into it. There is no “device” as such; the Brigadier has just grabbed you, the privileged listener, for a chat and a drink (it sounds like whiskey J ). It’s that much more poignant to listen to this story, written by James Swallow, after Courtney’s death when you realize it’s more of an elegy to the Brigadier than a Companion Chronicle in the strictest sense. Certainly the Third Doctor is involved, from his flashy entrance to his rigging up of some logic-defying gadgety-device, but it’s much more the Brigadier’s story. It’s set directly after “The Silurians” (which is diplomatically referred to as “the incident at Wenley Moor”) which helps it achieve some gravity which fits well with the theme. In tone the story reminded me a bit of The Spectre of Lanyon Moor and some elements of the plot echoed “Invasion of the Dinosaurs”! Nevertheless, it was quite a nice notion to think that, in the spirit of UNIT cooperation of the (1970s? 1980s?) the Brigadier could have struck up so strong a friendship with the German Konrad.

Toby Longworth did well, playing both German roles, and it was impressive that the two actors managed to carry off a cast of literally hundreds, aided in large part by the precise sound design.

This audio underlines the fact that in losing Courtney, we have lost not only the Brigadier, but an excellent actor, who can weave a gripping spell with his voice alone.

The Ionian Mission

Book eight in the Aubrey/Maturin series, and it was pure bliss. It was like Christmas, my birthday, and Halloween all rolled into one. I absolutely adore these novels with an unrestrained passion. If you haven’t read them yet, I have to ask: WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR?! Even if historical fiction isn’t your thing, give Master and Commander a chance. However, I would recommend reading one of the first three books. You certainly don’t want to start with Ionian Mission, because it is well and truly a book for the fans. I forget which 17th century playwright said this, but it rings true, “What the devil does the plot signify, except to bring in fine things?” O’Brian stretched the years between 1812 and 1815 in the way that M.A.S.H stretched the Korean War, so while Ionian Mission has a function within the historical background to play, mostly it’s just incredible good fun.

However, my first prediction from the last book—that both Jack’s and Stephen’s marriages were going to collapse—appears to be baseless, unless merely postponed.

Marriage was once represented as a field of battle rather than a bed of roses, and perhaps there are some who may still support this view; but just as Dr Maturin had made a far more unsuitable match than most, so he set about dealing with the situation in a far more compendious, peaceable and efficacious way than the great majority of husbands.

Indeed, Stephen and his beautiful, fashionable, flighty wife Diana take the rather modern step of living apart yet maintaining an amicable and loving marriage. Their marriage is fittingly portrayed for such wonderful characters, giving glimpses of sentimentality (Diana befriending Stephen’s bachelor-pad landlady and bringing him darned socks from home), tragedy (Diana refusing to marry Stephen in a Catholic ceremony, he being Catholic and she not), practicality, and sweetness (when Diana orders a magnificent, inventive wooden case for Stephen’s upcoming sea voyage which costs money she doesn’t have). Stephen is still touchingly devoted to Diana, worrying that she might be pregnant and wondering if he can set aside his own lack of desire for children because having them would make Diana happy. Jack’s marriage is a similar combination of extremes.

In the figurative sense, his marriage was a good deal happier than he deserved (he was neither a sure provider nor quite strictly monogamous[1]) and although he was not ideally happy, although he might secretly wish for a companion with more sense of a man’s carnal nature and somewhat less possessive, he was profoundly attached to Sophie.

However, unlike the previous novel, there is far less of the women in this book. Instead, it has very much to do with an area of naval archaeology often neglected, and central to the blockade setting (I was able to nod along with much of it, having read books on Nelson’s navy for the first time in the last few months). In that sense, Jack’s men are as much the central characters as the two protagonists, from bubbly, promiscuous Babbington to lyric Mowett to dependable, unerring Pullings.

A new character, a grave Presbyterian linguist specialist in Greek and Turkish, Professor Graham, interrogates the service and much of the book, in one way or another, is given up to that. Form must be adhered to; when Stephen almost makes the ancient Worcester lose the tide, he receives a dressing down from all the officers, even though in private they are happy to see him[2]. It is very sweet[3] indeed that Jack cannot bear to stay angry at Stephen for long. Impressment is critiqued, one of the Navy’s worst excesses, and Stephen (as medical practitioner) in his small way saves a few deserving landsmen from a miserable voyage at sea. Jack feels the loneliness of command more than ever in this book, especially when Stephen has to leave Worcester on a diplomatic mission. Delicacy and diplomacy versus spontaneity and bloodshed are explored a great deal in this book; Admiral Harte, Jack’s nemesis, gives him the delicate task of deciding which Turkish pasha to back with naval firepower against the French, which makes the last quarter of the book fly by, though in honesty it’s very different than anything we’ve read in the series before. Jack is already sore at that point because he resisted confrontation against the French because of his orders.

But his youthful days are not completely behind him, as a near-brush with infidelity in Port Mahon is interrupted only by Stephen’s inept (but extremely comic) intervention. In fact, enough time is spent at leisure to see both Jack and Stephen’s most petty moments of minor sins; in point of fact, the making of their humanities. Though Jack’s seamanship may, on the whole, appear a bit uncanny, and Stephen’s ability to do almost anything except sail perhaps difficult to believe, the little tics and defects in their characters make them even more the literary men I love so very much.

Worcester is on its way to the Mediterranean to join in the blockade of Toulon, and Jack’s excellent seamanship tests the ship’s rigging as well as the timings of its crew, who delight in gun exercises firing non-regulation powder that Jack got cheap from a fireworks factory! The gunner’s wife, the only woman aboard and a fairly routine one at that, had received a number of propositions—propositions that she rejected firmly but without surprise or rancor, being used to men-of-war. The outgoing voyage also sees Jack hamstrung with a bevy of parsons/schoolmasters, to be delivered to other ships once they reach the blockade, among them the aforementioned Professor Graham and Mr Martin, a fellow ornithologist. An amazing scene occurs when a flock of exhausted quails start falling defenceless onto the deck of Worcester during the Sunday service, and Mr Martin takes great pains to save them from being devoured, Stephen and the other non-Anglicans helping while the sermon is said. There is also a rhinoceros aboard a ship (which seems dangerous to me!). Jack endeavours in extreme earnestness to make Stephen understand about “the weather-gage,” something I confess I have barely got the hang of myself, and have to resort to diagrams to even attempt to fathom.

Two fine things in this book make more of an impression than any other: the Admiral’s old pug dog, who climbs up into Stephen’s lap and bites Jack’s leg, and the rehearsal of the Messiah aboard ship. You can imagine me grinning ear to ear as I read these parts. (If I ever have time to draw, I’m going to depict these two scenes.)

I realize more and more that the film Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World not only combined the elements of the two books in the title, but bits and pieces from almost every other novel I’ve read so far, including this one; a grand “best of” compilation.

I do not know what awaits us in Treason’s Harbor, but I was shocked to find the ending to Ionian Mission an utter cliffhanger.

[1] See the first book for his youthful philandering and The Surgeon’s Mate for his matrimonial slip-up.

[2] There’s a wonderful scene when the wardroom welcomes him aboard with a song composed by Mowett and Stephen’s favorite dish, wild truffles. Reading it makes me feel at home.

[3] I mean this in a completely platonic way. I maintain that their relationship is absolutely platonic, the way Watson’s and Sherlock’s is.

Sunday, February 26, 2012


originally reviewed 6/7/2006 (!!)

(when I was still a beginning-to-medium fan)

“Perhaps spirits from the other side find fishing a bit mundane.” --Herbert

You see how hard I had to reach to find a memorable quote? This really is the dud of the season. Poor Glen McCoy. He must feel bad that his story is so universally despised. “Timelash”’s failure isn’t entirely his fault, but the serial does lack a really compelling story or interesting characters, aside from maybe Herbert. It shows neither Peri nor the Doctor up to their full capacity, and the production values are cringe-worthy. Still, it’s not all bad—I still think “Delta and the Bannermen” is worse.

Most of the problem, as I say, is that nothing is really that gripping. The Bandrill attack at the end, despite the actors’ attempts to prove otherwise, is very sleepy indeed. The action moves extremely slowly, a problem that even the director, Pennant Roberts, can’t solve. The costumes are also not the best, and the production values are positively disappointing. One wonders if all the money went to the highly costly location shooting for the serials before this one. Or if it all went to makeup. Allen Hughes’ costumes for the Karfels seem to be a weird mix between ancient Rome and Star Wars, although Vena’s Roman lady outfit isn’t bad. The Borad’s guards look like beekeepers on steroids. The thing that freaks me out more than the Borad are his robots, also on steroids, with blue faces and peroxide hair and unnervingly Alvin and Chipmunk-like voices. Peri herself notes that the Citadel is “matte” and “lacks sparkle”—is that the writer’s way of excusing the Citadel sets? The caves are even worse. I realize we see a lot of caves on Doctor Who, some of them more fake-looking than others. These are pretty bad. Need I even mention the Morlox? From the Borad, I think the Morlox are supposed to have long necks, short bodies, and flippers—but we never see their bodies. The Timelash itself shines with Christmas lights and tinsel, though, to be fair, the interior sequence where the Doctor has to get the crystals (the logic of which I still can’t understand) is kind of good. The Bandrills themselves seem like interesting enough aliens. Pity we didn’t see more of them.

The Doctor has a few of his signature quips, and he gets to be self-sacrificing in the end, but I have to say it isn’t his best story. He and Peri have a fairly entertaining argument in the TARDIS: “I am never, ever lost,” the Doctor insists. Peri whines, “What about me?” Why don’t they ever get to go where she wants to go? *whine, whine, stamp foot* The Doctor wants to go the Eye of Orion, though Peri thinks it will be boring—“Few visit apart from you.” “Does nothing please you?” he snaps. Peri’s interested in “purposeful travel.” A bit of self-pity on the Doctor’s part: “You see our time together as aimless?” Well, if she does, he can let her off in 1985 Earth. There’s a cute moment when you realize that, despite all of her whining, Peri does like traveling in the TARDIS, even with the temperamental Doctor. Stuck in a time corridor (like that hasn’t happened before) the Doctor explains to Peri, “The short answer is pow.” The two of them then don seatbelts, which are sensible, though they look pretty ridiculous. The Doctor then gives a sh*t-eating grin reminiscent of my ex-boyfriend. Wow.

Then the Doctor starts being very self-centered and a bit annoying. “Never mind what I said,” he tells Peri, when she tries not to get separated from him as per his orders to stay close. This is pretty irresponsible and ultimately leads to her getting captured. While the Doctor helps Vena and the rebels to repel the androids and the Borad’s guards, he seems remarkably unhurried about creating his crystal device and basically more interested in showing off. What I think is a nice touch is that the Doctor has been to this planet before, in his third incarnation so we find out, and is revered by the people for his help. I like the mural of Pertwee that’s revealed, and later the mirror (what are the implications of that, I wonder? or is it just the lazy writer again?). “You’ve changed a lot,” Herbert observes. “Immeasurably for the best, it seems.” “I show little mercy to time meddlers,” the Doctor says, which may be true, but is pretty hypocritical. There’s the surprisingly long sequence in which the Doctor convinces Peri to get out of the TARDIS. He even shouts at her, “Get out!” “I worry, it’s my Terran nature,” Peri admits. Even worse, at the end when he and Herbert show up unscathed, the best he can say to Peri’s incredulous “how did you survive?” is “I’ll explain one day.”

Peri shows a glimmer of actually getting some development at the beginning of the serial. She’s at last, at last dressed in an outfit that’s not only sensible (aside from the damned heels) but looks quite flattering on her as well, and not in a trashy way. Later, on Karfel, she evinces her first real sign of passion in the whole season, her love of plants. The Doctor acknowledges that she’s “a bit of botanist.” But this thread ultimately goes nowhere, resulting only in a cheap escape. For the rest of the story, Peri is made to suffer, embarrassingly. When she is captured by the rebels, it’s interesting that her way of proving herself is by identifying Jo Grant from a picture. I guess knowing one’s predecessors really pays off. I wonder if the Doctor has a room with photos of all his companions in it? That would be a bit creepy. Or maybe he gives detailed briefings for potential companions on their predecessors in case they meet up some time and want to share notes? Most of the companions in “The Five Doctors” didn’t seem to know about each other. Anyway, back to Peri. She’s carted from prison to prison, with a degrading-looking neck restraint on. “All these corridors look the same,” she notes, as she did in “Vengeance on Varos.” She drops the note the rebels give to her and ultimately leads to their capture. To add insult to injury, she becomes the ultimate screaming companion—it’s like we’ve jumped back twenty years in TV history. The Morlox attack her twice, and the first time she really has no excuse—she just stands there and screams and has to be rescued. The worst part is that the Doctor doesn’t really seem to care.

Glen McCoy must have enjoyed “Caves of Androzani” as much as the rest of us, but he went a bit too far in the creation of the Borad (or, as I first heard it, the Borax). Instead of a burned, disfigured genius who delights in beauty, we have an extremely pathetic, utterly unlikable mutation who has no concept of Peri’s feelings. He wants to explode a gas on her so the Morlox will attack her and make her into the same mutation as he, so he can, as the Doctor notes, populate the universe with little Borads. Clearly, as I said, the entire budget went to the Borad’s make up job, which is sufficiently repulsive. His age accelerator ray is quite brutal. The confrontation between the Borad and the Doctor is pretty anti-climactic, all things considered. I didn’t expect the Borad to show up again. Well, his clone did. And poor Peri is again taken prisoner while the Doctor and the Borad debate over her fate. It’s definitely patronizing. “Don’t I have a say in all this?” Of course she screams, and the Doctor’s pushing the Borad into the Timelash is a bit of a foregone conclusion. That he will become the Loch Ness monster is a cute, almost too cute, development. To be fair, Professor Chronotis from “Shada” lends some credibility to the Borad with his consummate, understated acting.

Secondary characters are, for the most part, forgettable and acted quite blandly. An exception is Jeanne Crowley as Vena, who is earnest and dignified. Rarely have I encountered such an annoying character as Teka. From beginning to end he’s irritating in the extreme. The actor wants to be playing Richard III, but instead he is a self-centered, bothersome alien. When the Bandrill ambassador sighs, “Then it seems we are at war,” he replies, “Good.” He’s downright disrespectful to the Doctor (though perhaps the Doctor deserves it), “Do you realize with whom you’re dealing?” “You’re about as powerful as a burnt-out android.” The Doctor delivers the immensely satisfying line, “Will you shut up and go away?” before Teka’s timely demise.

Herbert (ie, H.G. Wells) as played by David Chandler, is so fresh-faced and appealing he’s definitely the bright point in the serial. His youthful curiosity reminds me of Adam, but he’s less self-centered than Adam. I really don’t know that much about H.G. Wells, but the sequences in his Inverness house are really cute. He takes Vena’s appearance through the Timelash quite calmly, as he’s been holding a séance. His exorcism of the Doctor is definitely the funniest moment of the whole thing. “Avaunt, ye foul-fanged fiend! Back, spirit of the glass!” Herbert is like an overenthusiastic puppy, stowing away on the TARDIS, impetuously going into the Timelash to help the Doctor, etc. Still, that doesn’t make him less annoying to the Doctor. They have a very funny interaction in the TARDIS when the Doctor goes off to shield the planet from the Bandrill missile. When the Doctor exclaims he’s just sent Peri away, Herbert’s response is, “Oh, but she’s a girl!” “There’s nothing particularly masculine about throwing your life away.” The Doctor talks about breaking the laws of time and how the other Time Lords might react, “They’re not all as pleasant and agreeable as I am.” Ha ha, Doctor. Herbert doesn’t want the Doctor to have his demise on his conscience, and the Doctor confesses, “Thoughts of you will very low on my list.” As poor Herbert keeps saying “oh, I see,” the Doctor—looking very harried, I have to say; Colin Baker’s hair is all in a tizzy—shouts, “Shut UP!” Herbert returns, to write The Time-Machine, which the Seventh Doctor is seen reading in the TV movie.

Alas, Herbert’s presence could not rescue this from being a dull story. It shows neither the Doctor nor Peri in a particularly flattering light, and bores and exasperates the viewer along the way.

Friday, February 17, 2012

The Woman in Black

I had been looking forward to seeing this movie since I heard it was being made. I don’t see many films these days, even ones I really want to see, so I was determined to see it, come hell or high water. You see, I heard the radio adaptation (from the early 1990s, with Robert Glenister as Kipps) in 2008, and I enjoyed it very much. So much so that I got hold of the novella, and read that too. Then when the touring stage show came to Swansea in 2010, I made a point of seeing that, too. So all versions have their merits, and it indeed says something about a story if it can translate across that many media and be such a roaring success (surely it’s bound to go on some Gothic horror syllabi one of these days).

It is a ghost story in the truest sense, and though it takes place in Edwardian times, it is very much rooted in the Victorian Gothic. The film moves slowly at first, and I wasn’t surprised when I realized it is only a 75-minute film. There isn’t much in the way of plot; it’s all generated by mood, which is why it appeals to me much more than the average horror film. People will be wanting to know how Daniel Radcliffe acquitted himself, and to be honest, it isn’t an acting role that requires much of a person. There is little dialogue of consequence, and though Arthur in the film does more acting than he does in the other version (as opposed to reacting), he is in some ways similar to the Gothic heroines of Mrs Radcliffe, or Jonathan Harker at the beginning of Dracula. The film emphasizes Kipps caught in a waking nightmare in an extended sequence during the night he spends at Eel Marsh. What Kipps needs in this film is the look, and I think Radcliffe has it.

There have been some minor, but important changes, from the previous versions. Keckwick has a much reduced role, as does Jerome, and Sam Daly has inherited a wife. And what a wife! The film makes much more of the cult of spiritualism that was rather on the wane at this juncture, notwithstanding Arthur Conan Doyle (whom they even mention), than any previous version. Arthur is given much more motivation to have an open mind (as well as having the determination to finish a clearly ill-fated duty for his company). The only skeptic is Daly, but his skepticism is replaced by Christian faith, which seems to underline the film’s ending (which is rather a surprising, and conventionally Victorian, way of concluding, given the demonic goings-on of what I assumed to be a Gothic horror house). With Arthur, Mrs Daly, and others involved in mediumship and the attempts to reach out to loved ones on the other side, I was reminded of what Susan Douglas said in her great book about American radio: spiritualism gained momentum again after World War I due to so many people being lost, and so many grieving relatives. Ergo, it saw a rise at the same time as the invention of radio; both seemed to be involved in recalling voices from the “ether.”

The Woman in White is a true sensation novel, and as Woman in Black’s obvious antecedent, it actually has little influence on it. For one, Woman in Black has far fewer characters, and most of the female characters are dead. Perhaps one reason it has endured is that its obsession is with the death of children. The film is graphic in its depiction of children going to their deaths and coming back as ghosts (the Woman in Black “made them do it”). To hammer this point home even more, and to provide us with a long-lasting barrage of “eeek!” moments that make us jump, the film adds a number of props not in the previous versions, most obviously creepy toys that come alive seemingly of their own volition (I read on that these are all original ephemera). If we needed even more imagery, Arthur’s first clue that there is something alive in the house is when he rescues a baby bird that has fallen out of its nest in one of the upstairs rooms. The film does not really address the problems of legitimacy but prefer to dwell on the ghost’s irreconcilable evil.

I think I’m going to have to include the SPOILERS from now on. SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

The film decided to kill off Mrs Kipps before the events took place, which was actually quite a good decision. The film also differs decisively from earlier versions during Arthur’s overnight stay at Eel Marsh Manor. One thing worth mentioning is the rocking chair, which is the highlight of the stage show and genuinely, quake-in-your-boots frightening in the stage show. (I should mention that one shouldn’t feel, upon seeing the movie, that the play can offer you nothing new. It is an extremely clever rendering of the story, using only two actors, and minimal props.) However, one of the props happens to be the rocking chair. This scene is built upon with layers of tension so highly strung it practically makes you bolt out of your seat when the inevitable conclusion comes. But even after this, the filmmakers have felt the need to lengthen Arthur’s nightmare.

The man is out of his mind, either with bravery or . . . something. Throughout the film, he keeps having to return to the nursery. I know it’s a film, but I can imagine that myself in that position, having to turn around, walk down that corridor, and return to that room, knowing what he knows by that point in the film—well, I think my heart would stop. I wouldn’t be able to do it. But Arthur does it. Even when the ghost’s son’s ghost (?!?!) appears outside, knocks on the door, disappears, and then leaves wet footprints . . .! At this point, with the wraiths becoming more and more corporeal, I was a bit worried that things were heading for overkill territory. Shortly after that, however, came morning, and Sam Daly.

The most important scene for me in the radio adaptation was when Spider the dog ran out onto the marsh and got lost in the fog. Arthur had to save her from the squelching mud, and as I listened in appalled silence, I seriously thought she was going to die. I was really invested in Woman in Black for the first time at that moment. The film chose to leave that incident out, probably wisely. There’s only so much you can do cinematically with disorienting fog, unless you really want to alienate your audience. The first time it showed up was the brief scene in a London street, which definitely did not help in my attempting to take things seriously. The second time was actually on the marsh, and this one scene spoke volumes.

The film also differed in how Arthur dealt with the situation once he realized the sad story behind it all. He became much more proactive and decided, somehow, that he had to recover Nathaniel Drablow’s body from the marsh. With the help of Sam’s car, he did so—the body, partially preserved due to the marsh, was then brought into the house so Arthur could lead the ghost to it! On the one hand, I thought this was a lot of invented nonsense, but on the other, the scenes were so unbelievably full of tension, it seemed well worth it. Finally, Arthur thought it would be a good idea to break into Jennet’s grave, open up her coffin, and put the boy’s body in with her. Great idea!

The ending, of course, was far more direct but no less savage than the book’s.


I really enjoyed watching the film, and while my feeling afterward is that it might not stand up to repeated scrutiny, this is the kind of thing that is worthy to bear the Hammer Horror name.