Friday, April 27, 2012

Eight Doctor plays, more of series 4

I loved the Eighth Doctor plays so much, I put my money where my mouth was and bought the entire run of the fourth series when it was on sale.  Thus, I can finally go back to listen to the stories I missed.  This I did, beginning with Nevermore and Book of Kells.

I was quite upset when I heard there was going to be a play called Nevermore, given that it probably involved the Doctor meeting Edgar Allan Poe.  Upset, because I’d already written two versions of this, firstly with the Seventh Doctor and Ace, then with the Tenth Doctor and Martha.  But Nevermore is not a historical (though it has some throwback elements) and the rather unlikely plot seems more suited to the NA novels than the other stories in the season.  Nevertheless, I found it fairly enjoyable.  It was heavy on the Poe, with long extracts from his work.  Were they really necessary?  Perhaps, but perhaps it was just enough for a Master and Margarita-like giant black cat to be terrifying people on a prison planet, with the Doctor stuck in The Pit and the Pendulum and Tamsin buried alive.  I did love the giant raven-robots, though they did start to sound like Daleks after awhile.  I must say I was not entirely happy with their rendering of Poe during the short scenes the Doctor related, when he apparently did meet with Poe during the last week of the writer’s life.  (I prefer to think the Doctor was embellishing on the truth and that the version of events actually fits my canon :-).)  

I enjoyed The Book of Kells somewhat more, and it has the distinction of having inspired me to read the first Sister Fidelma mystery, which afforded me much pleasure.  I was looking forward to listening to it before that, given it was a historical, set in a period rarely portrayed in mainstream fiction (whether on TV or audio), and not somewhere the Doctor has gone very much before.  I’ve also seen the Book of Kells in Dublin, and although I wasn’t aware there was a mystery regarding its disappearance for a few months in the 11th century (some 350 years after the events of Absolution by Murder and some 60 years before “The Time Meddler” takes place), that makes it an even better setting for Barnaby Edwards to embroider upon.
Kells has a complex mission, much of which I wouldn’t have been aware of if I hadn’t listened to it out of sequence.  It’s telling the story of the illumination of the manuscript, the journeying of Norse King Sitric to pre-empt war with Brian Balloo, allowing Tamsin to show off her acting skills (as Sister Maria from Salzburg!), and showing the Doctor that he can sometimes be very, very wrong.  Also, they see some definite signs of time meddling.  SPOILERS Also Lucie Miller is right under everyone’s noses as Brother Lucianus, but even with the voice-changer people have GOT to know something’s up.  /SPOILERS

Having to perform all this, there isn’t a huge amount of room left for historical considerations, so much of the follow up I was expecting from Absolution by Murder (I read/listened to them concurrently) never materialized.  Book of Kells is perhaps one story that didn’t need to be the cut-down length of the Eighth Doctor Adventures.    

Absolution by Murder

My mother has read quite a few historical mysteries, and I even remember reading a short story or two featuring the then-newborn (not literally) Sister Fidelma as a sleuth.  At the time, it was quite easy for me to accept the notion that monks and nuns were once permitted to marry and to co-habit. 

It was Big Finish’s Book of Kells, an Eighth Doctor/Tamsin story from the last series of the Eighth Doctor plays, that inspired me to look for Peter Tremayne’s first Fidelma book.  Lo and behold, the library had it (though it’s been some 12 years since Tremayne began writing the series) so I plunged in.  Judging by the emergence, and the fervor, of the International Sister Fidelma Society, I am not alone in finding the period about which Tremayne writes to be absolutely fabulous.  Fidelma herself is a great character, but she wouldn’t exist unless there was a world for her to inhabit.  Ireland of the 7th century is just such a world, one whose level of civilization and sense of equality for women boggles the mind of those indoctrinated with a perception of the Dark Ages and the medieval church as purely restrictive and barbaric.  Why did it disappear? you may ask yourself.  Well, that is the subject, or one of the subjects, of Absolution by Murder.

Of course, there wasn’t really such a thing as “Ireland” and much less a concept of the “British Isles” at 664 during what is now known as the Synod of Whitby.  When the Synod sets out to decide which church, the Celtic or the Roman, that the Christian inhabitants of Northumbria will follow, it picks out a brilliant and seminal moment in time—though the participants don’t quite know that.  Fidelma is not only part of the Celtic delegation and a young religieuse from the Abbey at Kildare, she is a dalaígh, which is a kind of law expert and arbiter from the Brehon courts, which means she has studied law (and various other subjects) for eight years.  Raised as an Eoghanacht princess, this means she is incredibly well-educated as well as having a great deal of power.  She is independent and fiery (as demonstrated in the first scene where we meet her) and also dedicated to justice.  Does she sound too good to be true?  Perhaps, but she’s a very winning character.  She is also a great female role model of the kind which are probably scarce in Anglo-Saxon traditional history. For one thing, we get primogeniture from the Anglo-Saxons, and given that the Northumbrian characters in the book treat women with less respect, we are led to believe that Irish society, as well as the Celtic church, were much more democratic and less gender-biased.   

So how do the Celtic and Roman churches differ? you ask.  Well, Tremayne has provided a brilliant way into this complicated (and often theologically thorny) issue by giving us this Synod, where the speakers are debating these very issues—while at the same time, the characters’ personal prejudices tell us a lot about the mores of the day, too.  The Celtic church is centered at Iona (which I found out, after searching Google Maps, is a tiny island off the coast of western Scotland) and was founded by Columcille, St Columba. St Columba brought literacy to the tribes of Picts (or, as they are called in the book, the Cruthin; instead of Brits, y’all could have been known as the Cruts at one point).  Among other things, the Celtic church and Roman church have different liturgy, different tonsures, etc.  Ascetics following Paul’s precepts are beginning to make a dent in both churches’ notion of the conhospitae, ie, where religieux (as monks and nuns are called as they are not really monks and nuns as such at this period) can marry and have children, and indeed cohabit in “double-houses” where they can raise their families in God’s service.  

The Ionian way of life comes off a lot more appealing, especially from a female perspective, than the Northumbrian one; punishment in Ireland is more about compensation and less about barbaric practices like stoning.  Various characters like Bishop Colmán drive this point home by being sniffy at the Northumbrian Christians, feeling like they are pretty inferior given they have only recently acquired Christianity and are barely literate.  Irish astronomy and learning also look pretty good compared to the ways of the Northumbrians.  In a sense, it’s a shame all the characters in Absolution by Murder can’t speak the languages they are speaking in, as it would be an amazing mixture of Latin, Greek, Irish, and Northumbrian.  Still, Fidelma has something to learn from Brother Eadulf, a Roman brother who has studied in Ireland as well as Rome.  They become co-sleuths investigating the death of Abbess Étain, a gifted orator for the Columban church.  Having recognized that the unsolved murder will fan the flames of the different factions at the Synod, Fidelma and Eadulf try to work past their differences.  

There are some very interesting characters at Whitby Abbey on this occasion, from the sensualist Abbess Abbe to the effeminate Brother Seaxwulf to the elderly Sister Athelswith and members of King Oswy’s royal (plotting) family.  That said, I had figured out the culprit (though not quite the motive), which is extremely rare for me; I’m usually a dunce when it comes to mysteries.  I’m not entirely happy with the conclusion, though I can’t really discuss it without giving it away.  Let me just say that it smacks of sensationalism as the easy way out. 

Much as I find this world and Fidelma’s part in it irresistible, Tremayne is not the world’s best novelist.  I’m told the writing improves as the books progress, and given that Peter Berresford Ellis is a world authority on Celtic history, I guess we can forgive some occasional clunky writing.    Furthermore, when the Synod reaches its conclusion, that the Roman church will be observed in Northumbria (it’s not a spoiler, you can look it up!), I can’t help wondering what the world would have been like had the Celtic church won over.  Somehow I can’t shake the feeling the world would have been a lot better.  

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Short Trips: The Muses

As with practically any short story anthology, the offerings are necessarily a mixed bag.  Surprisingly, given that the Eighth Doctor is on the cover, he featured only in a small role in the last story, “The Glass Princess” by Justin Richards.  Richards, is, by the way, obsessed with glass, but I have to confess I was almost in tears as I finished this story.  It was easily my favorite, though it was highly sentimental, and yet the fairy tale quality really charmed me.  It was with surprise that I realized Steven Moffat had freely adapted the idea for “A Christmas Carol.”  

For the first half of “Confabula,” by Ian Potter, which featured the Fifth Doctor and Nyssa, I was extremely impressed by the intricate class-based sci fi critique.  However, he rather spoiled it by his too-clever reveal.  Highly enjoyable, too, was Simon A. Forward’s “The Astronomer’s Apprentice,” where Victoria, Jamie, and the Second Doctor visited Traken long before the Fourth Doctor ever got there.  I’m such a sucker for Traken, even though I guessed the twist of this one.

“Katarina in the Underworld” by Steve Lyons was a good tribute to one of the least-liked companions, and the First Doctor was beautifully portrayed.  I think it would make a great Companion Chronicle, in point of fact.  “Teach Yourself Ballroom Dancing” was a surprisingly touching story for the Sixth Doctor.  It’s not every day he gets kissed on the lips by ballet dancers.  Alas, I’m not sure I really got the point of “An Overture Too Early” by Simon Guerrier.   

Batman: Masque

Batman:  Masque by Mike Grell and André Khromov

Another entry in the Elseworlds series, this time from 1997, it was the one that I had read about for years and despite my love for both Batman and Phantom of the Opera, I’m afraid the cheesiness of the cover put me off for awhile.  To my surprise, Masque is not a simple retelling of the familiar elements with Batman pasted in; the writer and the artist have obviously seen the affinities in the two mythos and have gracefully threaded them together.  Also of value are the beautiful, rather phantasmagoric panels which flow nicely and also evoke the 1890s-1910s style of line drawing (with crosshatching, etc), as well as newspapers and the Lon Chaney film, that aid very much in setting this in a Gotham of the early 20th century, much in the way the 2004 Phantom film is set in a make-believe 1870s in France:  familiar, yet strange.

The genius of Masque is that it allows both Bruce Wayne and Harvey Dent to share the Phantom’s role, since both have obvious connections to it.  Bruce Wayne transforms into Batman in a costume that, in the true spirit of irony, seems to have been copied in the Faust scene of Batman Begins; he reaches Gotham from his underground lair (which looks at least as much like Dr Jekyll’s laboratory as it does any version of Erik’s secret house that I know of) via horse and carriage.  Gotham’s opera house (theatre?) is putting on Poe’s Masque of the Red Death, though I suspect this particular version is a ballet-only piece, and it looks very Palais Garnier-like.  So far, so good.  Masque of the Red Death stars Harvey Dent and Juliana Sandoval (the harmless Carlotta character), with the dancer Laura Avian as understudy.

Outside the theatre, Commissioner Gordon and his Police Chief O’Hara double for the role of the managers and ask Batman to pursue a thief on Gotham’s rooftops.  Unfortunately, in the midst of the fight scene, Harvey Dent’s costume catches alight—in my mind, looking a lot like the flaming head of the Ratcatcher, or the specter who pursues the hapless fireman, in the original novel—badly burning him.  Afterwards, Bruce brings flowers to Laura—in effect, fulfilling both the Phantom and Raoul role, which is quite original.  Bruce and Laura try to persuade Harvey to become a dance instructor, but he refuses.  Lucky Laura then gets approached by two mysterious figures, one who dances with her and one who saves her from robbers.  This latter one takes her underground, where she cleverly guesses his dual identity.

Laura and Bruce’s fantasies of a happily married life (like Christine and Raoul’s) are thwarted by two things, one being Bruce’s fear of commitment, and the other—well, let’s just say Harvey has decided to take a page out of the Don Juan Triumphant / “Point of No Return” book.  “She doesn’t belong in your world!” shouts Harvey.  “She belongs here, with me!”  There’s a spectacular falling chandelier scene, culminating in Laura getting the life not even Raoul would have granted Christine.  You see, as Erik always reaches the end of the story alone, so too must Bruce always remain isolated by his calling.