Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Taking "Delete, Delete" To a Whole New Level

Librarian in the TARDIS, Review 7.02

Title: The Harvest
Written By: Dan Abnett
Team TARDIS: Seventh Doctor, Ace, Hex (joins)
Adversary: Cybermen
Originally Released: June 2004
Range and Number: Big Finish Main Range #58

Summary: (from TARDIS Wikia) -
On the morning of 12 October 2021, Hex woke up. He was expecting to go to work at St. Gart's in London as normal and, that evening, have a great time in the bar of the White Rabbit, celebrating his 23rd birthday.

But after his ex-flatmate is wheeled into A&E following a bike accident, and the strange young woman from Human Resources tries to chat him up and an eight-foot-tall guy in a Merc tries to run him down, Hex realises things are not going quite as he expected.

Then in a Shoreditch car park he meets the enigmatic Doctor, who explains that he's an extra-terrestrial investigator and something very strange is going on up on the thirty-first floor of St. Gart's.

Therefore, aided and abetted by the Doctor, and his other new friend, 'Just McShane', Hex decides to investigate. Trouble is, everything that goes on at the hospital is being observed and noted by the occupants of the thirty-first floor; occupants who are none too pleased that people are poking their noses into business that doesn't concern them; occupants who will go to extraordinary lengths to ensure that no one discovers the truth...

My Review:
This is new territory for me, I don’t mind admitting.

For some reason, the Seventh Doctor’s Big Finish stuff has kind of fallen through the cracks for me. I attached myself early on to the Fifth Doctor, so I devoured all of his Big Finish stories (well, most of them). I also heard how good the Sixth Doctor’s Big Finish was and I was eager to sample those. And the Eighth Doctor... well, that’s pretty much all that there is available, is there? The Seventh Doctor was one that I always meant to go back and listen to, but just never did for... reasons. Honestly, I have no good excuse (beyond time constraints). So, when I was in the Dealer’s Room at Gallifrey One last February, I saw a chance to get some Seventh Doctor Big Finish (I usually get the digital downloads from BigFinish.com, so getting the CDs was a new experience). I asked the guy at the table which one he’d recommend and he told me that “The Harvest” was a good one, so that’s the one I bought (and I will die if it turns out the guy who sold it to me was a director or producer of Big Finish and I didn’t recognize him - it’s hard to recognize people when all you know of them is their voices!)

Anyway, I decided to review “The Harvest,” basically because it’s one of the Big Finish CDs I bought at Gallifrey One. I’ve since listened to a few Seventh Doctor audios in the course of Traveling the Vortex reviewing some here and there, but none that caught my attention enough to warrant a place in these reviews. But, I’m open to new experiences and since Big Finish is Made of Awesome - I’m even more open to the idea of something completely new. So - here goes!

The first part has a lot of similar themes to the first episode of “An Unearthly Child.” Not direct callbacks, mind you. There’s no Coal Hill School or Foreman’s Scrapyard (well, an argument could be made for the latter, as there seems to have been a parking garage built on top of it. I hope Mr. Foreman got top dollar for that) - but we do go to Totter’s Lane. Ace has established herself as an employee of the hospital and people have noticed that there’s something strange about her. And the entire episode follows Hex - who is about to become the Doctor’s newest companion. The Doctor doesn’t even show up until the cliffhanger of part 1 and Hex’s first look at the TARDIS doesn’t occur until part 2. So, it’s not direct parallels, but there are enough similarities to warrant notice (besides - I get a kick out of any mention of Shoreditch or Coal Hill or Totter’s Lane or anything else to do with the very first Doctor Who episode. So, yeah, I’m going to talk about it).

The rest of the story, however, goes on it’s own track but it is no less enjoyable. Ace, ever the resourceful and independent companion, goes off on a task given to her by the Doctor, leaving Hex to be inaugurated by the Doctor on his very first adventure.

Even though this story is very much Hex’s story - I want to talk about Ace for a bit, since I didn’t do it before. Before I’d even started on Classic Who, I noticed that Ace was a lot of people’s favorite companion. I know this is said about pretty much every new companion, but Ace is very different to any of the others. She’s got an edge to her - which I guess falls in line with the hardcore punk trends of the late 1980s-early 1990s (and when I say “hardcore,” bear in mind that I saw this “hardcore” time period through the perspective of a young child. Hardcore is relative when you’re talking to a four-year-old). And while I haven’t read any of the Virgin New Adventure novels, that’s the kind of character Ace really became in that line. I can understand why people like that sort of thing - it’s not something I’m into, but I can appreciate Ace as a character. I can appreciate the layers that she has - she’s someone who exhibits a tough exterior, but those layers slowly get peeled away as she faces down her own demons. It may have been the first time that the televised stories dealt with a companion’s backstory (other companions have had plenty of backstory that didn't get dealt with on TV, but spin-off media has made the most of these formative events). Sort of like how the writers were trying to give the Doctor back some of his layers of mystery, Ace was getting hers taken away and I can see where that appeals to people.

(Huh - maybe I just talked myself into liking Ace more than I thought I did. Achievement Unlocked!)

As far as Ace’s role in “The Harvest” - Ace is a companion that isn’t likely to get captured just to get rid of her for the sake of the narrative. More often than not, she’s gets sent on an errand for the Doctor for reasons that she doesn't questions, but there's never a sense of "blind obedience."  The Professor needs something done, he needs Ace to do it, she’s going to go and the reasons why may or may not become clear later, but that doesn't matter right now. And that’s what happens here - it’s a classic Doctor-and-Ace plotline. Ace has infiltrated the HR department of St. Galt’s Hospital because there’s something screwy going on and the Doctor needs someone to investigate for him. The Doctor (presumably) mocks up an employment history and background so Ace can get a job there (as “Miss D. McShane” - but she goes by McShane at work) and she does her snooping at work while the Doctor hacks into the computers to find information his own way. They really are a spectacular team and they work brilliantly together - even when the Doctor doesn't need something blown up.

And then, there’s Hex. I don’t know too much about him, but I do remember listening to “Project: Twilight” and “Project: Lazarus,” which deals with some of his background - except you don’t know it until a later story (and damned if I can remember it off the top of my head right now - I know it has to do with Evelyn Smythe). His backstory is pretty complicated and I haven’t had the time to go through all of it - it’s more or less by dumb luck that I've stumbled on the bits that I do know and I’m not sure how much to tell without spoiling or divulging wrong information. Just know that there is a history with Hex and the Doctor and Big Finish probably does it very well - I just don’t know much about it yet.

(Tansy of Verity! has a really good post about Evelyn Smythe and she mentions the Big Finish stories where Evelyn Smythe’s storyline crosses paths with Hex’s backstory. I recommend her take on Evelyn, just as an overview of her character, but since some of it dovetails into Hex’s story, I’d recommend it for that as well. It’s not real spoilery at all, so you’re safe on that level).

As far as “The Harvest” as a story goes - since this was the first time I’d listened to this story at all, I listened to it again and made notes about things that caught my attention, now that I knew where the story was headed. The idea that the Cybermen would ever want to reverse-engineer themselves is such a fantastic concept, not to mention it bookends nicely with “Spare Parts,” which is widely regarded as a Big Finish classic - and rightly so (and I’m not just saying that because that story is a Five/Nyssa story - though that little detail doesn't hurt in my estimation). I don’t know if that was intended, but the fact that the Doctor was there for the origins of the Cybermen adds an extra level to the Cyberman mythos and a little extra kick to this story as well. The Cybermen have come to this time in Earth’s history because they believe that Earth’s technology is advanced enough to where they can replace all the metal and cybernetics with flesh and bone and humanity - even though the Cybermen were supposed to have eradicated their humanity a long time ago.

This story brings in some tough themes that the Seventh Doctor’s stories have been known to tackle (especially the novels, as far as I've been able to tell) - ethics of using cadavers for medical experimentation, organ donation, how far government entities ought to be involved in these exchanges (actually - some of this came into play in “Medicinal Purposes,” now that I think of it). And the idea that even some Cybermen would wish to go back to their former “weak” humanity - even that someone as high up as the Cyber-Leader would do such a thing - opens up a lot of interesting themes that haven’t been explored with the Cybermen before. Usually they just come in and blow stuff up (or kill the Doctor’s companions).  But this scheme gives new meaning to the Cybemen's catchphrases like "Upgrade" and "Delete" - upgrading to humanity and deleting their mechanical natures.

I enjoyed this story a lot. It represents a way that Big Finish can take risks with the Doctor and his companions (and even well-loved villains), yet still remain faithful to the original characters. It’s also an example of a story where these characters are given more to do and allowed to expand on their own backstory.  And if you can't do that in the audio adventures, where can you do it?

***
Next Time, on Librarian in the TARDIS -
Review 7.03 - The Doctor finally remembers to take the trash out... six regenerations later.

Previously -
Review 7.01 - The Silver Linings Masterplan

Saturday, July 27, 2013

The Silver Linings Masterplan

Librarian in the TARDIS, Review 7.01

Title: Silver Nemesis
Written By: Kevin Clarke
Team TARDIS: Seventh Doctor, Ace
Adversary: Cybermen, Lady Peinforte, Herr de Flores
Originally Aired: November 23 - December 7, 1988
Number of Episodes: 3

Synopsis: (from TARDIS Wikia) -
Earth, 1988: While the Seventh Doctor and Ace flee from emotionless men wielding futuristic pistols, Herr de Flores is intent on heralding the Fourth Reich. Meanwhile, the villainous Lady Peinforte uses black magic to propel herself forward from 1638 for a final confrontation with her sworn enemy — the Doctor.

As the Doctor desperately evades multiple enemies, a meteor containing a Gallifreyan super-weapon is hurtling towards the planet. Whoever controls the statue will hold the power of life and death over the entire universe...

My Review:
I mentioned before that when I started in on Classic Who, I tried to avoid fandom opinion so I could go into these stories with a fresh perspective and not be tainted by other people's perceptions. It was difficult to do, simply because these episodes had been around for years and years and many fans had already established their own opinions about them and weren’t shy about voicing them. Also, I thought it a little dumb to try and avoid spoilers for stories that were 20, 30, 40 years old.

I started to hear many Opinions about Classic Who from fans. And one of those Opinions is that “Silver Nemesis” was bad. Like, make-your-eyes-bleed bad. No real specifics given beyond... it’s just bad. So, I avoided it (plus, I was more interested in watching the early Hartnell stuff, and then skipping ahead to the Peter Davison era - I really didn’t have a rhyme or reason to my approach to Classic Who. I really was flying blind).

Then, I discovered Traveling the Vortex and fell in with their immensely enjoyable Friday Night Who tweet-alongs. Last year, they did a Cyberman Adversary Archive (the second time they tackled such a theme) and scheduled “Silver Nemesis” for Friday Night Who. I thought “Well, if I’m watching with friends, maybe it won’t be so bad.” We have a tendency to talk amongst ourselves if a story isn’t that interesting (then again, we have a tendency to talk amongst ourselves if Twitter trends something a bit off-the-wall - like a Jesse and the Rippers reunion - and never mind if the story we’re watching is interesting or not).

So, the “Silver Nemesis” Friday Night Who went on as scheduled. And, wonder of wonders, the story was not as eye-blindingly bad as “everyone” said it was. The Vortex Boys’ review of the story said as much, as did much of the feedback (including a contribution from yours truly). I think that was the first time I really started to consider that fandom at large may have their own opinions and they may pass them off as Conventional Fan Wisdom™ and speaking for the fandom in general - but I didn’t have to accept those assessments. In fact, it would be better if I didn’t, because most of the things I liked didn’t necessarily fall in line with Conventional Fan Wisdom™ and I’d had enough of being told what to like and dislike in fandom (one big reason the Harry Potter fandom fell out of favor with me - it felt like you had to agree 100% with the Big Name Fans or you were treated like a moron. Sure, it’s not a huge deal, but it was to me at the time). That was actually the beginnings of the idea for this blogging project, if I’m completely honest with myself - the idea of giving lesser-appreciated stories some credit and their due.

Anyway - “Silver Nemesis” itself. It was meant to be the 25th Anniversary story in 1988 - silver being the color associated with a 25th Anniversary (does that mean the 50th Anniversary special is going to be called “Golden Nemesis”? We already have confirmation of the Daleks - so why the hell not?) Cybermen are silver - so, it works!

I admit, it’s a little gimmicky (gimmicks? In the JNT era? No!), but it doesn’t detract from the story itself.  But if you're like me and consider "Remembrance of the Daleks" more to be the 25th Anniversary story (what with the Doctor and Ace visiting Totter's Lane and Coal Hill School in 1963 and that almost-meta-but-not-quite moment where the BBC announcer introduces a brand new science-fiction program), then "Silver Nemesis" doesn't have to be anything more than a regular Doctor Who story.  There are some brilliant concepts here - a time-traveling noblewoman from 1638 who's steeped in "witchcraft" that's really Gallifreyan technology (and, really, what is magic but science that we simply don't have an explanation for yet?), living metal that was developed by Rassilon and Omega (and quite possibly the Doctor, but he doesn't really want to get into too many details on that), a comet that comes back around every 25 years to cause mayhem in human history (and here I pause because I think that it's been 25 years since the last go-round and I think "oh shit, what now?").  The Cybermen are sort of an afterthought, I admit, and could have been used better.  Then again, Ace beat the crap out of a Dalek with a baseball bat earlier in the season.  Why not also have her take out three Cybermen with a slingshot?

I have to talk about Lady Peinforte in this story because she is magnificent! I sort of wish they'd dispensed with the Neo-Nazis and just had her and the Cybermen and the Doctor trading barbs (and really - what is the Seventh Doctor's era's obsession with Nazi-esque characters? "Dragonfire" had a guy in a Nazi-style uniform and he kind of had that quality and "The Curse of Fenric" had actual Nazis. Honestly, I'm just curious).  Lady Peinforte is a lot like the Rani - she knows what she wants, she's going to go after it, and she's not really interested if you're comfortable with her reasons - either shoot the silver men or go cower in the corner! And while we're standing here being all impressed with Ace and her slingshot (rightfully so), spare some praise for a woman who can take out Cybermen with a bow and arrow! A gold-tipped arrow, sure, but a freaking bow and arrow!  Whatever circumstances she met the Doctor before, he has obviously made an impression on her, so much so that she regards him as her equal and can only threaten him by revealing his secrets.  And when you have a villain standing toe-to-toe with the Seventh Doctor, with all his "Grand Chess Master" style - it's pretty chilling.  I think that scene at the end when they're all in a bit of a stalemate (no pun intended) is one of the best moments in Doctor Who - one that took me completely by surprise and needs to be revisited.

Speaking of the Grand Chess Master - there is this theme of the Doctor's neverending chess match with the universe.  Many people have heard of the "Cartmel Masterplan" which basically boiled down to the idea of giving the Doctor back more of his mysterious nature and there are quite a few details in this story that lend to that.  Lady Peinforte alludes to knowing many of the Doctor's secrets - which, he isn't too worried about those secrets coming out, but there's always this double-play that the Seventh Doctor is working on.  Whenever I watch a Seventh Doctor story, there's always this underlying streak of mischief or malice (depending on how severe the Doctor's playing it) beneath the clownish exterior.  It's something I haven't explored very much for myself, but I am intrigued by it.  I think the Eleventh Doctor has a touch of this in his character as well - that there are things that we don't know about him, even if he tells us what's going on (like his adventures with River Song or that 200 year gap when he was traveling on his own except for those intermittent moments when he thought to go back for Amy and Rory - and what does he get up to when it isn't Wednesday and he's taking Clara somewhere on her day off? We never find out and he doesn't seem to be in a hurry to let us in on that secret).

Speaking of Eleven - Fez Sighting!

And I think he's got a mop there too! Or something.
I guess Ace is more appreciative of fezzes than any member of the Pond family.
I've talked about them separately in this review, but the Doctor and Ace - yeah, I can see why people rank this Team TARDIS as their favorite.  Before I'd ever seen one of their stories, I just looked at them and went "How in the world does that work? A older, professorial-looking guy and an '80s-punk chick with a boombox and a baseball bat?"  But then I watched them interact and just loved them both!  Their personalities complement each other and strike all the right harmonies.  My favorite part was when the Doctor is asking Ace if she's been good and not mixed up any Nitro-9, to which Ace responds that she's a good girl and does what she's told.  And then the Doctor tells her to blow up the Cybermen's ship - presumably with the Nitro-9 that she's not carrying (I notice a lot of stuff blows up when Ace is around. And you'll get no complaints from me on that topic).  It's the mentor-student relationship that shines through - something that Doctor Who has done somewhat in the past, but never as good as with Seven and Ace.  It's a neat little dynamic and one that I don't know that you could replicate with anyone other than Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred (though I won't complain if anyone wants to try in the future).

I guess my point in reviewing "Silver Nemesis" is that - while there are flaws and I'm not excusing them - there are reasons to enjoy this.  It's not the "Holy-Crap-This-Is-Terrible-Remove-This-Offensive-Thing-From-My-Sight-Immediately!" story that I was led to believe it was.  Mostly, where it falls down is that there were too many things going on and that got in the way of everything fitting together (I mean, not everything can be as jam-packed as "The Five Doctors" - which does the "Everything and the Kitchen Sink" thing very well).  But I can appreciate what they were trying to do and I am fairly good at filling things in with headcanon and I can pretty well ignore the things I don't care about (like Neo-Nazis.  Seriously, guys. You lost. Do you just want to get your butts kicked a second time?)  There are parts that are worth watching and enjoying.

At the end of the day, it's ultimately up to you what you like and dislike.  A few days ago, I came across this post on Tumblr (it's not about Doctor Who, but the concepts are the same) - what you like and dislike is linked to what sorts of past experiences you bring to the table.  A lot of people have this idea that's left over from the 1980s that all '80s Who is trash (which, I'm going to get into in more depth in this Bonus Section) - but I'm a New Whovian, so I don't have those preconceived notions.  Even when other fans tell me that 1980s Who is crap, I look at it and say "I don't think it's crap - are we watching the same show?"  So, yeah, I don't hate "Silver Nemesis."  And I don't hate the 1980s.

***
Bonus Topic -

I've been wanting to discuss this, but it always made my reviews so much longer and I've had to cut it out. But since this is the last TV story from the 1980s that Librarian in the TARDIS is going to tackle, I'm just going to stick it on here at the end as a bit of an Epilogue to '80s Who. Chime in if you have your own thoughts (or if you were actually there in the 1980s - I'm too young to really remember much) -

Recently there was an article floating around that tackled the claim that 1980s Doctor Who was rubbish. And my take on it goes thusly: Doctor Who fought for years to gain respect at the BBC - probably even from the earliest days of the show (and here we give thanks for the Daleks). The public loved the hell out of the show, but it wasn't so kindly thought-of by the Powers That Be. The BBC wasn't really thrilled that their most popular show wasn't a period drama or a soap opera - it was a show meant for children. As far as I can tell, they couldn't even consider getting rid of it during Tom Baker’s run otherwise they would have had riots and general uproar about it. But after Tom left... they could start putting jokes and snide comments in the press to make it sound like the show was crap.  It's just like Conventional Fan Wisdom™, except it came straight from the BBC.  Add to the turmoil over budgets and all those other behind-the-scenes shenanigans going on, it created the perfect storm for cancellation (and the fact that the audience who were kids in the '70s had become adults and were suddenly “too cool” for all that stuff they did as kids and tried to distance themselves from it. Everyone does that - don’t try to pretend you didn’t). So, what people remember about 1980s Who is probably more about the generally broadcasted opinions and Conventional Fan Wisdom™ at the time than if the stories themselves were bad.  The long and short of it is that in the 1980s, it was cool to hate on Doctor Who and its fans.  And a lot of those attitudes linger on in the Old Guard, even today.

Thing is, the internet has made it easier to find people who hold similar opinions to yours. In the 80s, it was probably a lot harder to find fellow fans of Doctor Who, never mind finding fans who share your tastes in the show (and we won’t even get started on the availability of the episodes themselves. Between iTunes downloads and Amazon Prime shipping and day-and-date airings on BBC America and other less *ahem* savory tactics - we in the internet generation certainly have a lot to be thankful for). So, the media could run roughshod over the show all they wanted without risking much dissent from fans or the public. A fan’s only recourse was writing a strongly worded letter to the Radio Times, but they couldn't really print all the letters and the few they did print could be played off as a few isolated and delusional nuts that need to get out of their mothers’ basements and get a freaking life already! The public in general wasn't going to kick up much of a fuss because they didn't want to be branded as irate fanboys who just needed to grow up and get girlfriends. Besides - the entertainment industry was always there with something new to spoonfeed you anyway.

Fandom eventually moved underground - and there have been pages and pages of experiences related about this written by people who were actually there. My take on all this - if fans back then really knew how many like-minded people there were and had a way to connect to each other and gather to make their voices heard, Doctor Who never would have been treated as poorly as it had been (and I guess the BBC has learned its lesson because they eventually came crawling back, hats firmly in hand and a penitent mea culpa on the lips, to give us a spectacular reboot)

(I know - it’s weird that I’m talking like I was there and I went through all this, when in reality, I was still in diapers when this crap was going on and I had zero clue about any of it. But you hear enough about fellow fans’ experiences and I start to empathize with them and relate their experiences in general geekdom to my own - elementary school was hell on a girl geek in the early '90s. By the way, current generation of kids - you’re welcome).

This abuse by the general media still happens to a certain extent, but fans now have support system of other fans and we can all give the collective finger to the media Powers That Be (Rule Of Thumb: Do Not Piss Off Tumblr).  Even when you deal with fans that you don't agree with, that's okay - go find someone who you do agree with and go play in that corner of the sandbox.  That's the beauty of Doctor Who - there is so much to love and to participate in that you really don't have time to hate on anything.  At the risk of sounding like one of those damn hippies - life is too short to hate things. Find something to love and let other people do the same.

I dunno - it's worked out for me so far.

***
Next Time, on Librarian in the TARDIS -
Review 7.02 - Shoreditch Needs a Holiday

Previously -
Review 6.04 - The War Games People Play

Friday, July 26, 2013

Throwback Thursday (on a Friday) - "The Graveyard Book" by Neil Gaiman


**Originally posted on cj's bookshelf on May 13, 2011**

Title: The Graveyard Book
Author: Neil Gaiman
Publisher: HarperCollins
Release Date: September 2008
Recommended for Ages: 10 and up

Synopsis: (from Goodreads) -

After the grisly murder of his entire family, a toddler wanders into a graveyard where the ghosts and other supernatural residents agree to raise him as one of their own.

Nobody Owens, known to his friends as Bod, is a normal boy. He would be completely normal if he didn't live in a sprawling graveyard, being raised and educated by ghosts, with a solitary guardian who belongs to neither the world of the living nor of the dead. There are dangers and adventures in the graveyard for a boy. But if Bod leaves the graveyard, then he will come under attack from the man Jack—who has already killed Bod's family . . .

Beloved master storyteller Neil Gaiman returns with a luminous new novel for the audience that embraced his New York Times bestselling modern classic Coraline. Magical, terrifying, and filled with breathtaking adventures, The Graveyard Book is sure to enthrall readers of all ages.

My Review:

 I’ve been told for a long time that I ought to pick up Neil Gaiman because I would enjoy it. Sadly, other things came up for me to read, so poor Neil got put on the backburner. However, when the news came that Neil Gaiman would be writing an episode of the upcoming season of Doctor Who (one of my absolute favorite TV shows), I knew I had to pick up something of his and read it. Then, the Scholastic catalog came to my desk at school and it had “The Graveyard Book” listed for sale, I saw that this had won the Newbery Award, so I ordered it for the library and read the book. And yes, I do enjoy Neil Gaiman.

Nobody “Bod” Owens is a young boy whose family’s was killed when he was a baby. He somehow wanders into a graveyard and is more or less adopted by the ghosts that live in the graveyard. He is raised in the ghosts’ culture and is very at home there. It’s the world of the living that presents the most perils to him. What I found the most interesting is that this is a story where ghosts and ghouls are no threat to the living protagonist. The ghosts are very much Bod’s family and he is the most comfortable there. My favorite is the conversation of whether or not to send Bod to a regular school in the world of the living – it’s just like a conversation that any child’s parents would have over which school to send their child to. I had to remind myself constantly that these people are ghosts and it added a whole new dimension of humor to the story. I also think that a boy like Bod wouldn’t be so afraid of death and I wonder if that is a theme of the story as well – that there is nothing to be scared of in death or dying. Depending on the personality of a child and how their parents feel about it, this could be a good story to read in a time of death.

It took me a while to realize how the format of the book worked – this book is written much like “The Jungle Book” in that each chapter is a short story about Bod and his adventures in the graveyard. The ghosts are so much fun to read – they each have their own personalities that reflect how they were in life and they aren’t the old recycled ghost tropes that have been used in the past. Gaiman writes his characters so vividly – Mrs. Owens is such a lovely mother figure and Mr. Pennyworth is his kindly, if a little doddering, teacher. I love all the little ghostly details in the narrative like the parentheticals that mention the epitaphs on the gravestones of the different characters (Example, Bod’s grammar and composition teacher has the epitaph - “Miss Letitia Borrows, Who Did No harm to No Man all the Dais of Her Life. Reader, Can You Say Lykewise?”)

I’m really glad I came across this book and I’ll be looking for other works by Neil Gaiman in the future.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The War Games People Play

Librarian in the TARDIS, Review 6.04

Title: Players
Author: Terrance Dicks
Team TARDIS: Sixth Doctor, Peri Brown
Adversary: The Players
Original Publication Date: April 6, 1999
Range and Number: Past Doctor Adventures #21

Synopsis (from TARDIS Wikia) -
Arriving on the sun-baked veldt in the middle of the Boer War, the Sixth Doctor is soon involved in the adventures of struggling politician and war correspondent Winston Churchill. Of course, he knows Churchill is destined for great things, but unseen forces seem to be interfering with Winston's historic career... The Doctor suspects the hidden hand of the Players, mysterious beings who regard human history as little more than a game. With time running out, can the Doctor find the right moves to defeat them?

My Review:
How many historical time periods has the Doctor visited?

No, seriously - try and count. Start from the beginning. Cavemen, the Aztecs, the French Revolution, Ancient Rome, the Crusades, Ancient Greece, whatever time period “The Massacre” was meant to take place in, 18th century Scotland... and that’s just the 1960s! (and I know I’m missing a few in this list). And what does he usually do? Meddle in events. Get caught up in the conflict. Most of the time, it doesn't affect history too much - just enough to get the flavor of the time period the story is trying to portray (note that I said “Most of the time”). While the Doctor (and the Time Lords) are supposed to only observe, very rarely does it actually happen. In fact, in one of the novels (and I’d have to track down which one specifically), the Doctor admits that the Time Lords never venture out of their TARDISes because even physically being present in history changes time in very small ways. Instead, the Time Lords are only supposed to observe things on the scanner. No better than watching the History Channel, but from the comfort of a futuristic Time and Space Machine (to which, I called so much bullshit. What’s the point of time and space travel if you never leave the ship? That’s like going “camping” in an RV that has satellite TV hookups and video games and a fully-stocked natural gas kitchen!) The Doctor further stated that he couldn't travel like that - he’d rather get out among the events and actually see them without the filter of the scanner. Which is something he’s done quite often.

I’m getting ahead of myself. ANYWAY -

In “Players,” the Doctor actually does the most simple observing that I've seen him do. More or less, he’s there to make sure that events stay the way they’re supposed to be. There are these “Players” - beings that sit outside time that just like to play games with history. Kind of a group of Opposite Day Time Lords. Instead of watching over time and keeping things in the right order, the Players like to, well, play with time. In the book, there are these short little interludes where someone is talking about moving pieces, as if it was a chessboard. And the Players are obviously talking about the Doctor and the historical events he’s involved in.

And the historical event - well, the historical person - the Players have chosen to play with this time is Winston Churchill.

Like the synopsis says, the story starts with the Doctor and Peri meeting Churchill in 1899 when he was a war correspondent during the Boer War. Turns out, the Players are trying to get Churchill killed, just to see what would happen to history. The Doctor foils that plan and he and Peri end up in 1936, just before King Edward VIII is set to abdicate the throne, thus making it harder for the Nazis to take over Britain (I could claim that I knew all these details, but it’s a mix of the author’s introduction to the 50th Anniversary Edition of “Players” and a few Wikipedia searches that gave me the pertinent information. Librarians may not know all the answers, but we know where to find them!) Churchill isn't anywhere near the Prime Minister-ship (is that what they call it?) and the Players are still determined to keep him out of play in World War II - again, just to see what happens (these guys sound remarkably like the Eternals in “Enlightenment” - just screwing around with time for their own entertainment. You would think that such advanced beings would have more interesting things to amuse themselves with).

I really enjoyed this book. Terrance Dicks - one of the godfathers of Doctor Who - has a great grasp of how the Sixth Doctor and Peri interact. As I read this story, I could actually hear Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant speaking the dialogue, as if it were a Big Finish audio. There are even a few chapters where the narrative switches to the Second Doctor in a flashback to an incident after “The War Games” (referencing that Season 6B Theory that makes certain details of the Second Doctor’s timeline possible - I won’t go into it here) and Dicks has that Doctor’s voice down as well. I know that Terrance Dicks wrote a ton of the Target Novelizations (he wrote the novelization of “Warriors of the Deep,” which I thoroughly enjoyed) and this makes me want to find more of those books (come on, BBC Books - reprint those! You can do it!)

Also - this is the Doctor and Peri as close buddies, which I love seeing. In all the different time periods they land in, the Doctor presents Peri as his young ward and a family friend and he takes that self-imposed charge seriously (the way the Sixth Doctor looks out for his companions is fantastic.  He may have started out gruff and manic, but by the end of this incarnation, he is someone I would feel completely safe with. You don't mess around with someone under ol' Sixie's protection - you just don't). And Peri’s grown into her role as companion so well that the Doctor actually sends her to attend a party given by a person that obviously means the Doctor and Peri harm, but he expresses confidence in Peri that she can handle it and come back to him safely.  And she really does a great job being the "spy" - so to speak - even if things get a little out of control and Peri ends up in danger, but the Doctor realizes his mistake and soon comes in to fix it.  The Doctor and Peri are much more in sync with each other and it is a joy to behold.

It’s weird to say this, but I liked the Doctor’s non-interference in this story. It’s not something I want to see all the time, but it’s a nice change of pace. Kind of like “The Deadly Assassin” where that’s just one story where the Doctor doesn't have a companion, just to try something new and mix things up a bit. This is one story where the Doctor and Peri are more or less observers only. Yes, there are a few things that they have to set right because of the Players’ meddling - but it is very minimal. Sort of like swatting a child’s hand away from sneaking a cookie before dinnertime. History proceeds more or less as scripted and it’s a cool thing to watch. This story is probably not going to be everybody’s cup of tea - especially if you have your heart set on Action! Adventure! Rewriting History! Winston Churchill Commissioning Ironside Daleks! But it was a good little tale. Considering how often the Doctor and Peri are separated by Great Danger and Grave Peril - it was nice to give them somewhat of a break (probably as close to a vacation as Peri is ever going to get). It’s also a quick read - the action moves fast and you’re never left bored with the narrative. Things stay interesting, even if they are predictable - and this is one instance where they certainly better be predictable! We can’t have World War II without Winston Churchill, come on!

Bottom Line: Is this the best Doctor Who story ever? Not necessarily. Is it enjoyable? Most definitely!

***
Next Time, on Librarian in the TARDIS -
Review 7.01 - A Silver Lining On the Way

Previously -
Review 6.03 - A Meeting of History and Morality

Friday, July 19, 2013

A Meeting of History and Morality

Librarian in the TARDIS, Review 6.03

Title: Medicinal Purposes
Written By: Robert Ross
Team TARDIS: Sixth Doctor, Evelyn Smythe
Adversary: Dr. Robert Knox
Originally Released: August 2004
Range and Number: Big Finish Main Range, #60

Synopsis (from TARDIS Wikia) -
Edinburgh, 1827. The infamous body snatchers William Burke and William Hare are at large. The local prostitutes dull their fear with cheap whisky. The graveyard owls are hooting. Business is good.

When accidental tourists the Doctor and Evelyn Smythe stumble upon one of Britain's most lurid, illuminating chapters in history, a simple case of interest in the work of dedicated man of science Doctor Robert Knox, quickly turns sour. Just what is that time-bending Scots mist? Whatever it is may put the very fabric of the universe under threat...

As always.

My Review:
Yeah, yeah, I know. Another Big Finish Sixth Doctor review... At this point, I’m not so much “bending the rules” as I've outright chucked them out the window. But I figure, the Fourth Doctor got two TV reviews - shouldn't Six get two Big Finish reviews? (besides, I’m discovering that I am having way too much fun with this stuff and I may find excuses to do more beyond November 23).

While finding a TV story for dear ol’ Sixie isn't too terribly difficult (there aren't that many to choose from), pinning him down one audio story is another endeavor altogether (I imagine I’ll have a similar conundrum when it comes to reviewing an Eighth Doctor audio). This is a result of combination of factors - fantastic storytelling, a new lease on life for the Sixth Doctor (you only have to listen to a few minutes of any Sixth Doctor story to know that Colin Baker is having the time of his life with this stuff), and wonderful original-to-Big-Finish companions. And, as far as I’m concerned, the poster child for wonderful original-to-Big-Finish companion is Dr. Evelyn Smythe. How could I stiff Evelyn in being featured in my blogging project? That would be a crime to the world of Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Celebratory Blogs!

(Apparently, I just made that a new sub-category of blogs. Go me!)

Evelyn Smythe is a history professor at Sheffield Hallam University when the Doctor meets her and she takes her profession very seriously. You just don’t mess around with Dr. Smythe - but she will treat you to her famously delicious chocolate cake if you’re having a rough day (she reminds me a lot of Professor McGonagall in Harry Potter, who is another no-nonsense-woman-with-a-squishy-candy-center that I adore to bits). I wanted to give Evelyn some time in these reviews because of her great contributions in the Big Finish canon - but I didn't want to review her first story, “The Marian Conspiracy,” because it’s one that gets a lot of attention (I may fudge the numbers here, but I’m not going to deviate from my mission to shower love on some largely unnoticed stories). Didn't want to do “Arrangements for War” or “Thicker Than Water” or “Doctor Who and the Pirates” for the same reason (that’s not to say you shouldn't listen to those because they’re fabulous and you totally should!) Plus, there are a few where Evelyn is the companion, but she doesn't do a whole lot and there wouldn't be much to talk about for her. But the one that I really liked that I hadn't seen many reviews of was “Medicinal Purposes.”

The basic premise of “Medicinal Purposes” is the time period during which the infamous grave-robbers/murderers, Burke and Hare, were at large in Edinburgh, Scotland. When I started listening to this story, I confess I’d never heard of these guys - or the rhymes or folktales that had materialized around their history. But, doing a little old fashioned research (read: I looked it up on Wikipedia), I learned pretty much all I needed to know to understand this story (and they say Doctor Who’s educational value ended when the Daleks showed up). Just for a quick-and-dirty summary - Burke and Hare were hired by Dr. Robert Knox to supply him with cadavers to study for his well-attended anatomy lectures. They started out with simply digging corpses up from cemeteries, but Knox eventually wanted fresher specimens to study, so Burke and Hare obliged by killing low-class nobodies (mainly criminals, drunks, and prostitutes) and delivering the bodies to Knox for study. It was when the people who attended Knox’s lectures started recognizing the victims that their little scheme got caught.

Just from reading the Wikipedia entry, the story is morbid and sad enough. But then you have a historian like Dr. Evelyn Smythe who actually meets the victims and to give voice to your own concerns - it’s positively gut-wrenching. Some of the first people the Doctor and Evelyn meet are Mary Paterson and “Daft” Jamie Wilson - who were both victims of Burke and Hare - and they’re such great characters. The Doctor takes a shine to Jamie in particular - noting that the Doctor once had another young friend from Scotland named Jamie (“a noble name for a noble young man”) and if that doesn't break your heart, I don’t know what will (oh, and the part of Jamie is played by a certain Scottish actor that you might have heard by the name of David Tennant. This was the last Big Finish Doctor Who he recorded before being cast as the Tenth Doctor). Evelyn tries to convince Mary and Jamie to get out of Edinburgh - not unlike Donna trying to convince people to leave Pompeii - even though she knows that their deaths are part of history.

The story poses an interesting question of morality - what Burke and Hare did in murdering those people was wrong. But those murders resulted in lots of medical advancements, which eventually would save lives. That’s the basis of an argument the Doctor and Evelyn have toward the beginning of the story and neither one of them comes up with a good enough solution. In fact, it cuts to the heart of Evelyn’s character - she wants to appreciate history and stay faithful to what actually happened, but at the same time she realizes that these are real people and these terrible things actually happened. Evelyn is a kind, tender-hearted person underneath her somewhat gruff, no-nonsense professorial exterior (she’s a lot like the Doctor in many respects and I think that quality of hers is what influences the Sixth Doctor toward becoming a much more softer and mellower person) and it’s tough for her to come to like Mary and Jamie, only to know how it all ends for the both of them.

Even though the Doctor and Evelyn have to let history take its course, it turns out there is another villain lurking around 1827 Edinburgh. It turns out that this particular time period has become a tourist destination, of sorts, for many entities that live outside time. They’re sort of like the Eternals from “Enlightenment,” but not really (at least, that’s what they reminded me of) and their idea of a great vacation is to experience history firsthand by inhabiting the lives of historical figures. Once the historical experience is over, it restarts within the time bubble and the next batch of people get to experience history, but they actually take over the people who lived through it - so, in a way, they keep reliving these horrible events (why this particular point in history has become such a popular tourist destination, I have absolutely no idea). The Doctor has to put a stop to this incessant repetition of time and set history back on its regular course - which means Mary and Jamie and all the other victims of Burke and Hare will die and the world will go on without them (but not without first becoming famous - as Jamie so joyfully observes).

I think this story needed a companion like Evelyn to bring out the humanity in these people.  Other companions could do it as well, but to have someone of Evelyn's maturity, morality and intelligence brings the whole issue to the fore.  Evelyn is a unique companion in many ways, but she reminded me a lot of both Barbara Wright and Donna Noble. This could just be because I watched "The Aztecs" and "The Fires of Pompeii" and listened to "The Reign of Terror" and "Medicinal Purposes" all within a month of each other - (it is the 50th Anniversary - MY TIME MUST BE CONSUMED WITH DOCTOR WHO AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE, right?) - but I could see so many wonderful similarities between these three characters.  Both Evelyn and Barbara have to reconcile their feelings about meeting these historical figures and seeing how human they are, while also maintaining that history must remain as it is.  And then you have Donna's impassioned pleading with the Doctor to "just save someone" at the end of "The Fires of Pompeii" - and as much as Evelyn tries to warn people, she can't.  Especially since the timeline's been messed with so much.  But it's the wanting that makes all the difference in the moral depth of a character and Evelyn has it in spades.

(Drawing these conclusions makes me want to see this little Trifecta of Awesome to meet up in a Doctor Who short story or something. There is a fanfic in which a young PhD student named Evelyn Smythe meets one Barbara Chesterton, who’s come to give a university lecture about the religious practices of the Aztecs. Evelyn and Barbara meet up again years later while Evelyn is traveling with the Doctor - and Six meeting up with Ian and Barbara again is so heartwarming that it turns your insides to goo and your day automatically becomes filled with sunshine, rainbows, ponies and strawberry ice cream.)

On the whole, Evelyn is a great addition to the companion lineup and we are damn lucky to have her along for the ride.  It's not so much that Six needed a humbling influence - he needs what the Doctor always needs: a friend.

***
Next Time, on Librarian in the TARDIS -
Review 6.04 - The Sixth Doctor meets Winston Churchill. This should be interesting.

Previously -
Review 6.02 - Hello, Doctor. It's So Very Nice to Meet Me.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Throwback Thursday - "Hex Hall" by Rachel Hawkins

**Originally posted on cj's bookshelf on May 6, 2011**

Title: Hex Hall
Author: Rachel Hawkins
Publisher: Hyperion Books
Release Date: March 2010
Recommended for Ages: 14 and up

Synopsis (from Goodreads) -

Three years ago, Sophie Mercer discovered that she was a witch. It's gotten her into a few scrapes. Her non-gifted mother has been as supportive as possible, consulting Sophie's estranged father--an elusive European warlock--only when necessary. But when Sophie attracts too much human attention for a prom-night spell gone horribly wrong, it's her dad who decides her punishment: exile to Hex Hall, an isolated reform school for wayward Prodigium, a.k.a. witches, faeries, and shapeshifters.

By the end of her first day among fellow freak-teens, Sophie has quite a scorecard: three powerful enemies who look like supermodels, a futile crush on a gorgeous warlock, a creepy tagalong ghost, and a new roommate who happens to be the most hated person and only vampire student on campus. Worse, Sophie soon learns that a mysterious predator has been attacking students, and her only friend is the number-one suspect.

As a series of blood-curdling mysteries starts to converge, Sophie prepares for the biggest threat of all: an ancient secret society determined to destroy all Prodigium, especially her.

My Review:

I enjoyed "Hex Hall" a lot.  I wasn't sure that I would, given my track record with supernatural novels.  But the premise sounded fun and I suppose I still had hope that supernatural writer could still craft a believable and compelling story instead of just cashing in on the popularity of the genre.  I am happy to report that "Hex Hall" did not disappoint (FINALLY!)

The best part about this book that I want to focus my review on is two characters: Sophie and Jenna. The story is told from Sophie's first-person POV and she is a delight.  Her personality shines through the narration - she's sarcastic, she's witty, she's fun - but she's also shy, awkward, a little clumsy and she has some great reactionary moments.  And the best part? I DIDN'T NEED HER TO TELL ME ANY OF THAT!!! (Take notes, Bella Swan.  No, use the pencil... that long yellow pointy thing with the black tip).  All those quirks and traits came through in her voice and that is a tribute to Rachel Hawkins' writing style and the characters she creates.  I wanted Sophie to succeed and expand her magical talents - I cared about what was happening to her.  I was mad at her father for never showing up in her life and I had no idea why people were being so cagey about her family's past.  And, yes, I even fell a little bit in love with Archer the same way Sophie did (although, I think Cal is much cuter and I hope we here from him in future novels).

Okay - on to Jenna.  Jenna is a vampire, the only student at Hex Hall who is.  When I read that Jenna was a vampire, I admit I rolled my eyes and thought "Oh, here we go - another emo, I-am-a-monster-I-want-to-die-but-not-before-gettin'-jiggy-with-it character" (seriously - why are vampires always written as being obsessed with sex?  They're worse than frat boys).  But I was pleasantly surprised to find that Jenna is not any of those things.  Sure, she is a little broody and mopey, but she has valid reasons for that (her former roommate had been brutally murdered on school grounds.  She was blamed for it initially, but they couldn't prove she'd done anything).  However, Jenna's friendship with Sophie quickly turned Jenna into a very likable person.  I even forgot that Jenna was a vampire for a little while because of it.  It was only when dead bodies started showing up and Jenna was being blamed for it that I remembered what she really was.  In fact, the characters in this book are very comfortable about being witches, shapeshifters and fairies that this could have been any realistic fiction taking place in any high school in America - well, any high school that had "Classifications of Shapeshifters" on the curriculum.

Basically, "Hex Hall" is what I imagined "Twilight" would be when before I read the latter.  I was vastly disappointed in "Twilight," to be honest.  I mean, how can you turn an interesting premise like a vampire in love with a human and turn it into a pile of boring tripe?  I've kind of been down on supernatural stories lately because of the glut of them in the market due in no small part to "Twilight"'s popularity.  Many of their plots have been as flat and cardboard as "Twilight" was (people say Stephenie Meyer has no writing talent. I say these people are nuts.  It takes at least some amount of talent to write a sex scene that's as exciting as watching paint dry.  No, wait - watching paint dry is more exciting.  At least something happens).  But "Hex Hall" has renewed my faith in the supernatural genre.  Kudos to Rachel Hawkins for showing that supernatural stories don't have to be the new Harlequin romance genre any more than disaster movies have to be sappy chick flicks (ahem, Titanic).  You can have a compelling and interesting narrative without the unbelievable love triangle that books like "Twilight" and "Evermore" have done (oh - I need to post my "Evermore" review on this blog - that one was a doozy).

Phew - that's enough about "Twilight" (one of these days I will enumerate my problems with those books just so you know I have legitimate complaints about it).

Anyway, if you're like me and think the supernatural genre is a waste of time and shelf space, I would ask you to seriously consider reading "Hex Hall."  I think of it as "Harry Potter" meets "The Princess Diaries" meets "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch."  It's lots of fun with a hint of spooky darkness that doesn't diminish the engaging storytelling.  Plus, there are plenty of mysteries still to be solved in future books and I look forward to that as well.

One more thing - the cover art for these books is gorgeous.  I'm sort of hoping there will be some significance about the mirror images.  Even if there isn't, I will just enjoy them - I really like the effect and the colors.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Hello Doctor. It Is So Very Nice to Meet Me.

Librarian in the TARDIS, Review 6.02

Title: The Wrong Doctors
Written By: Matt Fitton
Team TARDIS: Sixth Doctor, Melanie Bush
Adversary: Mr. Petherbridge
Originally Released: January 2013
Range and Number: Big Finish Main Range, #169

Synopsis (from TARDIS Wikia) -
With Evelyn gone, the Doctor sets course for his destiny... in the form of his first meeting with Miss Melanie Bush, a computer programmer from the village of Pease Pottage, currently busy rehearsing with the local Amateur Dramatic Society – and blissfully unaware that her future is on its way, in his TARDIS.

Make that two TARDISes. Because at that very moment, a slightly younger Doctor is flying into Pease Pottage, too – returning his future companion Melanie Bush to her rightful place and time, after they were flung together during the course of his Time Lord trial.

Time travel is a complicated business – the iguanadon terrorising Pease Pottage being a case in point. But how much more complicated could things possibly become, if the wrong Doctor were to bump into the wrong Mel?

My Review:

Six and Big Finish. Seem to go together like peanut butter and jelly. Ketchup and french fries. Shoes and socks. Fred and George Weasley. Melanie Bush and Pease Pottage.

(Sorry - not going to sing Grease. Just... no).

Choosing a Sixth Doctor audio story to review was hard. And not because there aren’t any good ones. Actually, pretty much anything that Big Finish does for the Sixth Doctor is going to be good (granted, I haven’t heard everything, but I’ve listened to a pretty good sampling and I haven’t found a stinker yet - *mandatory disclaimer about personal opinion and such*). It’s common knowledge that Big Finish has allowed Colin Baker to flesh out the Sixth Doctor in a way that he was not allowed to do on television. If for nothing else, Big Finish deserves all the praise and patronage fans can give them (but there are other reasons to throw money at Big Finish - some of which I’ve covered and some that I’ll get to later). While I did warm up to ol’ Sixie through his TV run, it was Big Finish that solidified him as a personal favorite.

There is always a thrill at the prospect of having past Doctors come back, even so many years later (doesn't matter that Peter Davison is so much older and doesn't look much like he did when he last played the Doctor, my fangirl senses go nuts every time I see "Time Crash").  It's partially nostalgia, but also fun at seeing the Doctor meet his past or future selves.  But we often get bogged down in thinking that the Doctor has to meet Five or Six or Seven or Eight or whoever and sometimes we miss the obvious - why not have the Doctor meet himself earlier or later in the same regeneration?

TV could conceivably do it.  Special effects are such that it can be done.  But having the Doctor meet himself in audio? That just takes some clever work on the part of the actor (and some very clever writing).

The Sixth Doctor is an interesting choice for this because of how much he has changed since "The Twin Dilemma."  That was always by design from the start.  The Sixth Doctor was supposed to start out as a patently unlikeable guy (chalk it up to regeneration gone wrong) and then over time would smooth out the rough edges and he'd become more... mature, I guess would be the word.  Of course, the Powers That Be had other plans and that never came to pass on TV.

If you've never heard any Sixth Doctor audios and just want to know how this Sixth Doctor compares to the one you know from TV - "The Wrong Doctors" is an excellent place to begin.  All you have to know is that he's traveled with a few other companions and he's mellowed out a bit. This story is a prime example of how the Sixth Doctor has changes during this regeneration and it also explores the long-term plans that were in place for the Sixth Doctor originally - for him to go from this brash, unlikable person to someone more kindly and (for lack of a better term) “squishy” - but still have that underlying edge that marks him as the Sixth Doctor.  But, in reality, he's just a big teddy bear.

(Hey - there's a marketing idea! A Sixth Doctor coat for Build-a-Bear! Even better - a Build-a-Bear range for every Doctor! Get someone on that!)

This story sees the Doctor right after the events of "The Trial of a Time Lord" when he is taking Mel back to her home in Pease Pottage (despite her protests that she didn't meet the Doctor in Pease Pottage - but he's too much of a know-it-all to listen).  This story also sees the Doctor right after Evelyn Smythe (an original-to-Big-Finish companion, whom I'll get to soon enough) has left.  The contrast between the two versions of the Sixth Doctor could not be more striking - and it's not just down to his decision to wear a much more toned-down blue version of his costume.  Doctor 6.1 is still pretty gruff and shouty, but Doctor 6.2 is more reflective and he makes the conscious decision to go find Mel - figuring that it's time that she takes the stage in his life.  Things go wonky when they figure out that Pease Pottage is a the scene of some Time Distortion Shenanigans involving a time energy being harvested through some weird time bubble (the mechanics of which I don't quite understand beyond "Some weird shit is going down and the Doctor needs to fix it."  Usually, that's all I need to know).  It's unclear whether or not the time bubble caused there to be two Sixth Doctors or what the deal is, but hearing Colin Baker play off himself as the 1980s Doctor and the 2012 Doctor is just so brilliant that I quit worrying about it after Doctor 6.1 got after Doctor 6.2 for wearing Necros mourning colors.

There is also a marked difference in Mel - who there is also two of.  Because the Doctor dropped Mel off when he did, there is a younger Mel trapped in the goofed-up Pease Pottage and there is an older Mel that has traveled with the Doctor... yet, not traveled with him (the wibbly-wobbly timeline of "Trial of a Time Lord" has just mucked everything up - sometimes it's just better to smile and nod and go with it.  And I'm not explaining it very well - but it is really good, trust me!)

I love that Big Finish is taking the time to explore what we never got to see on TV.  I love that it's tackling these difficult snares in continuity - which, there are few bigger snares than when Mel joined the Doctor and how the events of "Trial" are supposed to work out.  I love that we get to see the Doctor's personality smooth over and how he matures.  It's almost like Six was a petulant child (sometimes - not all the time) at the beginning of his regeneration, but his companions each have a marked effect on him in their turn and he becomes so much more than the scary, disturbed Doctor that tried to strangle Peri in "The Twin Dilemma" (he's never going to live that down - though he is trying).  It's like how the First Doctor was gruff and distrustful and suspicious at the very beginning, but Ian and Barbara brought out the good in him over time and by the time they left, he had this mischievous twinkle in his eye and a knowing grin and you can't help but love him.  It is such a joy to see how the Doctor's companions influence him for the better.  It's like he's recognized how much better he is with an entourage - not necessarily just to have someone to pass him test tubes and tell him how wonderful he is, but to point out when he's making mistakes and show him how much better he could be.  And he wants to be a better person, but he just needs someone to show him how to do that.  Once he gets the hang of it - it's a brilliant piece of work.

Anyway - Sixth Doctor and Mel. Cute as can be. I don't think any other Doctor/companion team has been so well-matched.  Not just the fact that their hairstyles are a '80s-Curly-Hair-Extravanganza - but they play off each other and their personalities fit like a dream.  I love Six and Mel.  There is a scene (kind of a crucial scene, so I won't spoil it) but Mel says that she misses the Doctor's old Coat of Many Colors (like I said, he's taken on the more subdued blue by this time) and the Doctor promises to go back to wearing that coat for her because she liked it so much.  It's such a sweet moment and beautifully written (and the fact that it fixes that particular bit of continuity is just an added bonus at the end of the day).  But it is cute that the older Mel calls Doctor 6.2 "Indigo Jones."

"The Wrong Doctors" is just a fun and fantastic celebration of the Sixth Doctor and one of the best outings for Big Finish.  It acknowledges that something went very wrong in one of the Doctor's lives (both in-story and in the messy world of television production) and sets out to make it right and knocks it out of the park.  Colin Baker is having a blast playing the Doctor and I get to have a blast listening to his performance. And there is nothing wrong about that.

(ba-dum-tish)

***
I found this audio clip of Colin Baker talking about the Sixth Doctor and he particularly mentions this story, but also about the ideas behind the Sixth Doctor's personality and where things were supposed to go.  I thought it be appropriate to include in this review, since I've had some of the same thoughts and ideas about the Sixth Doctor and it's quite nice to hear the Doctor himself give voice to some of those thoughts - "The Sixth Doctor was a Brave Idea"

(And here, I must cheer and applaud and whoop at the fact that the Sixth Doctor is "not just the embodiment of his costume." That statement made me very happy ^_^)

***

Next Time, on Librarian in the TARDIS -
Review 6.03 - Watch Out, History! Here Comes Evelyn Smythe!

Previously -
Review 6.01 - Telling Conventional Fan Wisdom™ Where To Stick It

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Telling Conventional Fan Wisdom™ Where To Stick It

Librarian in the TARDIS, Review 6.01

Title: Timelash
Written by: Glen McCoy
Team TARDIS: Sixth Doctor, Peri Brown
Adversary: The Borad, Maylin Tekker
Originally Aired: March 9 and 16, 1985
Number of Episodes: 2 (45 minutes each)

Synopsis (from TARDIS Wikia) -
On the planet Karfel and in 1885 Scotland, the Sixth Doctor and Peri, together with a young man named Herbert, become entangled with the machinations of the despotic Borad.

My Review:
At the beginning of this blogging project, I noted that I wanted to review stories not necessarily based on what Conventional Fan Wisdom™ tells us is good. As much as I love things like “The Aztecs” and “Earthshock” and “Remembrance of the Daleks” - those reviews have been done to death and I felt it was time to show some love to other stories in the Doctor Who family. I also wanted to dispense with Conventional Fan Wisdom™ in reviewing things that fandom tells us are horrible, terrible, utter shit and Simply Not Worth Your Time (the red-headed stepchildren of Whodom, if you will).

When I first embarked on my voyage through Classic Who, I tried to stay away from fan opinion for the simple fact that I wanted to go into it the way I went into New Series - untainted by outside opinion and able to form my own reactions and thoughts to each story in turn (this is why I was so surprised when Conventional Fan Wisdom™ told me to hate the “Daleks in Manhattan” two-parter when I actually loved it - it was also my first indication that Conventional Fan Wisdom™ was not all it was cracked up to be). But I also wanted to get into fandom and carve out my own little corner and stake out a presence and be known on some small level. It was a hard balance to strike, lemme tell you.

I couldn’t get away from the disparaging comments and snide remarks about the Sixth Doctor’s era. I quickly learned about the behind-the-scenes woes and turmoil with hiatuses and complaints (to my great shame, the very first thing I learned about Colin Baker was that he was the first actor to actually be fired from the role of the Doctor - something I now know was patently unfair and Michael Grade is a big, fat, sissy, nincompoop - excuse me my potty language). Among these disparaging opinions was the Conventional Fan Wisdom™ that “Timelash” was The Absolute Worst Doctor Who story ever committed to screen (though there were some diverging opinions that distinction actually belonged to “The Twin Dilemma” or “Silver Nemesis” - that Mighty 200 poll did more harm than good, if you ask me). I approached all three of these stories with much trepidation. Didn’t help that I had recently bawled my eyes out at the end of “The Caves of Androzani” with the death of the Fifth Doctor and I wasn’t sure if I was going to take too kindly to Peter Davison’s successor, simply on principle.

(I’d like to just take a moment and reflect on how I was sore about something that happened almost thirty years ago and is now a long-gone memory in the annals of television, but I was reacting strongly to it in 2011. That’s what this show does to you. Plus, I’m an emotional twerp. Hell, I cried at the end of “The Chase” - but those were happy tears. That’s another story - remind me to tell you about it later).

Well - chalk it up to another tick in the “Conventional Fan Wisdom™ SUCKS!” column because “Timelash” is not as eye-blindingly bad as “everyone” (quote,unquote) seems to think.  In fact, it's one that I rather enjoy.  And it also lends to the idea that some people are merely “fans” in that they like to have a platform to bash incessantly on the show (or they like to bash incessantly on anything.  Fandom, sometimes I just don't get you).

Something I've noticed about the Colin Baker era of Doctor Who is the amount of dystopian stories there are.  This may come down to percentages simply because there are a lot fewer of ol' Sixie's televised stories out there, but there is a distinct 1984/The Giver/The Hunger Games feel to much of his run.  Between "Timelash" and "Vengeance on Varos," there is plenty of Crapsack World to go around (don't click that link if you value your free time).  And I'm not sure that Doctor Who had done a whole lot of that up to this point.  Personally, I enjoy a good dystopia story (I have The Giver listed on my personal "List of Greatest Books Written In All of Our Lifetimes And Beyond," if that tells you anything...) and I am intrigued to see how far they could have taken this theme in the Sixth Doctor's era, had it been allowed to continue.

But it's not all Doom and Gloom in Karfel.  Part of it is the Doctor's brightly colored coat - which, for all the assertions that it was meant as a commentary on how his regeneration went wonky and he wasn't right in the head, I actually think it's a mark of his colorful and outgoing personality.  The Sixth Doctor wants you to know that he's there, that he's not going to disappear into the background without a fight and you are going to take notice of him, regardless of the shit you try to pull (the BBC - and fandom, really - could have taken note of that).  That's one thing that I find so fun about Six - and I didn't expect to.  The Sixth Doctor is one that took me completely by surprise how much I enjoy his portrayal.  Not enough to unseat Five as my Doctor, but enough for me to create an "I Love the Eighties" tag on my Tumblr (I already had "I Love the Sixties" - but I'm not sure if the Seventies are going to get that distinction).

What was I saying - oh yes - Doom and Gloom in Karfel.  Well, we establish early-on that the ruling class on Karfel are a bunch of jerks and there's an underground resistance force that hasn't gotten very far with the whole "You Rebel Scum" act (the most they've been able to do is not get eaten by the Morlox).  The daughter of the pro-temp leader, Vena, has run off with the Maylin's Artifact of Great Power But Not So Much Responsbility and she's fallen into the deadly-dangerous Timelash.  Meanwhile, the Doctor and Peri are dealing with the TARDIS's inexplicable moods and they've indavertantly fallen into the time tunnel that makes up part of the Timelash. They run into Vena, land on Karfel, and get separated (as is tradition once the Doctor and his companion(s) join up with the adventure - already in progress).

And - due to the technology of the time tunnel - the Doctor ends up with one of his most charming one-off companions.  A shy-yet-adventurous young man named Herbert.  Herbert positively sparkles in this story.  And I so wanted him and Vena to get it together by the end of the story.  But when it's revealed that Herbert is actually H.G. Wells and he's got a story or two to write back on Earth... well, it's not meant to be (dammit).  But I do enjoy the Wellsian story aspects (even if I'm not as well-versed in H.G. Wells as I might ought to be - don't kill me!)

That's not to slag off Peri at all.  True, Peri doesn't come off quite that great in the second part of this story - but she has some brilliant moments in the the first episode.  Her interactions with the Doctor in the TARDIS are a delight - while they might bicker and carry on, she really does want to travel with the Doctor.  There is always an underlying friendship between these two.  There are more layers to the Six/Peri relationship than are immediate apparent.  Looking back, you can tell that they were going for the long game with these two and it's a shame that the BBC couldn't have more patience with what was going on (and here, we must shower Big Finish with all the praise and adoration for giving Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant more opportunity to explore these characters.  Hell, for the run they've given the Sixth Doctor, full-stop, they deserve a spot of honor in the annals of Doctor Who, forever and anon).

I know I talked in my last TV story review about how I didn't give a rat's left pinky toe about special effects as long as the storytelling holds up, and that remains true.  But when I see something I like, I do have to give props (no pun intended).  And I love the effect with the Timelash itself.  The fade-in/fade-out effect as people go in and out of the thing is just great.  Also, the atmospheric feeling the scene when the Doctor is climbing through the Timelash is so neat.  That is something that the writer's imagination can come up with perfectly, even if it gives the set designers and effects team headaches.  But for 1985, that wasn't half bad and I loved it!

Something else I loved about the story structure of "Timelash" is that we-the-audience get to see the action Karfel before the Doctor arrives.  It's like we time-traveled to the adventure before the Doctor did.  We know who the bad guys are and who the oppressed are and what kind of conditions they live on.  Plus, there's an added bonus (we later learn) that the Doctor has been to Karfel before and he is revered as a sort of hero among the people - even so far as they know (or accept) that he can change his appearance and he travels with companions.

Fun Fact: The story as televised says that it was the Third Doctor with Jo Grant that came to Karfel all those years ago - but the original script called for it to have been the First Doctor with Ian, Barbara and Susan. Hence, Tekker's surprise that the Doctor is only traveling with one companion. I couldn't figure that one out because I knew Three only ever had Jo or Sarah Jane when he actually got off-world.  But I suppose that the Third Doctor would have been more recognizable to audiences in 1985 because of VHS availability or reruns or what-have-you, so that's probably the reason for the script change (shame... I would have loved the original Team TARDIS to have gotten a shout-out.  But that's neither here nor there).

I've got to talk about Colin Baker and this is a good place to do it.  Like I said earlier, he is the only actor to have been fired from the role, but that is probably the most unfair thing to ever happen in television.  Because when you get right down to it, Doctor Who has few greater champions than dear Sawbones Hex (as he is known on Twitter - follow his Twitter feed, you will not be sorry).  For all the perception that the Sixth Doctor is brash and mean and unpleasant - there is a certain gleam beneath that rough exterior and that is due in no small part to how wonderfully Colin plays the part.  I'll get more into what's gone on with Big Finish in my next review, but that shine was there even in television and I'm really annoyed that people missed it the first time around (it's like when you hear that Firefly was canceled and you actually watch the show and you wonder how in the world those idiot TV executives and the media got away with the crap they pulled because the show is so good). If anybody has reason to be sore about Doctor Who, it's Colin Baker.  But the great thing is that he's not!  He goes to conventions and does interviews and DVD commentaries (and is so hilarious and lovable) and is just one of the most amazing people you could ever meet (haven't met him myself... yet. Gallifrey One, next February - YAY!) - and, most importantly, he has such a love for the show and it's good to see that hasn't dampened at all. So, yeah, can't say enough good things about Colin or his Doctor.  I think perception's softened up a great deal in years past and more people are giving his era a chance, which I think is wonderful.

In all, this is an enjoyable story.  Also, it goes to show that Conventional Fan Wisdom™ doesn't know what the hell it's talking about half the time.  So, all you Classic Who newbies out there - I'm going to give you this advice: Sample everything and find what you like.  Don't just follow the crowd with what's "good" and certainly don't listen to the crowd about what's "bad." Everyone's tastes run differently.  You may fall in love with the scarf - then again, you may fall in love with the celery or the amazing multicolored dreamcoat (or even something in black and white).  The very best thing about Doctor Who is that it's as wide and varied as the universe and it's not fair to limit ourselves just to what is publicly acclaimed.  If you do that, you will miss out on so many glorious treasures.  And you're only hurting yourself.

***
I have to throw some love toward Verity! for their Sixth Doctor retrospective last month. They mostly discussed "The Mark of the Rani," which is another favorite of mine, but they did have some good things to say about "Timelash," so I'm recommending that episode as a supplement to this review.  But, really, you should be listening to their discussions every week.

***
Next Time, on Librarian in the TARDIS -
Review 6.02 - If you start talking to yourself, you're not crazy. You're just a Time Lord.

Previously -
Review 5.03 - Why My Sister Let Me Sleep With the Light On

The Preemptive Critic - Saving Mr. Banks



I summed this movie up on Twitter thusly: It's Emma Thompson as P.L. Travers and Tom Hanks as... Tom Hanks with a Walt Disney mustache.

Tom Hanks is one of those actors that never blends in with the character. Same with Julia Roberts and Tom Cruise. They basically play themselves and the other characters call them by different names. Even in Forrest Gump, he was still Tom Hanks with special needs.  Under other circumstances, I would be thrilled for this movie (surprised as hell, but thrilled). But that ain't Uncle Walt, no matter how you slice it.

I will probably see this movie and I might enjoy it - but I preemptively hate the decision to cast Tom Hanks as Walt Disney.  Just... no.

(I also observed in Twitter that this seems to be the year for movies and specials depicting the creation of beloved franchises - witness An Adventure in Space and Time, which I have been bouncing around the house about that all week).

Throwback Thursday - "Dairy Queen" by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

**Originally posted on cj's bookshelf April 29, 2011**

Title: Dairy Queen
Author: Catherine Gilbert Murdock
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin
Date of Publication: June 2007
Reading Level: ages 12-17

Synopsis (from Goodreads) -

"When you don't talk, there's a lot of stuff that ends up not getting said."

Harsh words indeed, from Brian Nelson of all people. But, D.J. can't help admitting, maybe he's right. When you don't talk, there's a lot of stuff that ends up not getting said. Stuff like why her best friend, Amber, isn't so friendly anymore. Or why her little brother, Curtis, never opens his mouth. Why her mom has two jobs and a big secret. Why her college-football-star brothers won't even call home. Why her dad would go ballistic if she tried out for the high school football team herself. And why Brian is so, so out of her league. When you don't talk, there's a lot of stuff that ends up not getting said. Welcome to the summer that fifteen-year-old D.J. Schwenk of Red Bend, Wisconsin, learns to talk, and ends up having an awful lot of stuff to say.

My Review:
I enjoyed this book a lot. The story is told from DJ’s first-person POV and her voice radiates through the whole narrative. Murdock doesn’t shy away from sarcasm or snark – but the story has a down-to-earth tone that seems more genuine than some YA books that are supposed to be about real-life teens.

DJ Schwenk is basically running her family’s dairy farm in Red Bend, Wisconsin by herself after her two older brothers get in a fight with her dad. Her younger brother, Curtis, is busy with little league baseball and her mother is about to get a position as the principal of the school where she’s been teaching sixth grade. Jimmy Ott, a family friend who coaches football at Red Bend’s rival school, Hawley, suggests that the Schwenks have Brian Nelson, a second-string quarterback for Hawley, work on their farm during the summer to train up for football season so he can be the starter. In the course of this, DJ ends up being Brian’s athletic trainer (her brothers always had her run after their passes and she became a pretty good player just from practice). Along the way, she decides to go out for Red Bend’s football team because it’s something nobody would expect her to do. And, of course, she develops a crush on Brian.

This book is nothing like the usual high school, Romeo-and-Juliet-esque YA romance. First off all, the romance plot is secondary – the main crux of the story is DJ dealing with work on the farm, issues with her family, issues with her friends and keeping people from finding out about her plan to try out for the football team (until tryouts actually begin, that is). It’s an authentic look at a strong female character who is truly a tomboy and doesn’t even dawn on her that she would like boys (it’s the revelation that her best friend, Amber, is a lesbian and has a crush on DJ that gets DJ to start thinking that she does like boys). The unspoken conflict between DJ and her father is so believable and real. I loved the contrast between the Schwenks, who never bring any kind of family conflict out in the open until it becomes a big blowup, and the Nelsons, who talk about everything (DJ often refers to Brian’s mother as Oprah Winfrey and she sometimes imagines the Schwenks going on Oprah to talk about their problems. The scenarios DJ imagines bring a tone of levity to an otherwise emotionally burdensome situation).

The small-town dynamics are wonderful, especially the wrench of the Red Bend vs. Hawley rivalry (I speak from experience when I say that small-town high school rivalries are SERIOUS BUSINESS – nothing about this rivalry is exaggerated). DJ’s older brothers played football for Red Bend and they lost a big game to Hawley, so the fact that DJ would even consider being friends with Brian (never mind dating him) is a major factor in her self-discovery. She feels a great loyalty to her family and her team, but she also wants to be friends with Brian (after he quits being a whiny brat about working on the farm).

There are two other follow-up books after “Dairy Queen” – “The Off Season” and “Front and Center,” both of which are very good and I recommend them.

Monday, July 8, 2013

The Preemptive Critic - "Austenland"

(Been a while since I've done one of these... let's see how it goes)


It is a truth universally acknowledged that most single women from Utah are Jane Austen fanatics.

(Oh, who am I kidding? Even most married women from Utah are Jane Austen fanatics. Don't ask me to explain why, though, because I really have no idea).

This movie is based on the book by Shannon Hale, who is one of my favorite young adult authors.  But she's also written a few novels for grown-ups (I have a hard time calling them "adult" novels, even though that's what they are - but connotations and all that) and they are pretty good.  I'd heard scuttlebutt that Jerusha Hess (one-half of the husband and wife team that brought you Napoleon Dynamite) directed a movie version of Austenland for this past year's Sundance Film Festival and I wondered if the movie would get a release in mainstream theaters (I wouldn't be caught dead wandering around Sundance, no matter the reason).  I enjoyed the book quite a bit - and I enjoyed its sequel (Midnight in Austenland) and I highly recommend both (and here I have now realized I haven't done a proper book review of either one - must put that on my list...)

Already being a fan of the book, I preemptively love this movie.

(And no man is ever going to compare with Mr. Darcy.  But that's good because he's not the one I'm looking for.  I would, however, like to know where Mr. Bingley's been hiding).

Thursday, July 4, 2013

The Best of Everything - Happy Birthday America!

Hey America! It's the day we got out of that rotten relationship with Great Britain and put them permanently in the Friend Box! (they weren't too happy about it at first, but they soon got over it and wanted to be friends later).  And that means it's a day to post celebratory videos!

This first one is quickly becoming a tradition - the Muppets' version of "Stars and Stripes Forever"



The second is also a tradition around here: a mash-up of "The Patriot" and "John Adams" (music's awesome, FYI)-



The third - this is a new one this year and it'll probably become tradition too - a video from Steven Crowder talking about what American Culture really is -



So, enjoy your fireworks, beer and bratwurst, and pizza today.  Because that is what makes America awesome.

Happy Independence Day!

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Throwback Thursday - "The Truth About Forever" by Sarah Dessen

Note: I'll be out of town for Independence Day festivities tomorrow, but I still wanted to get something out for Throwback Thursday. Have a happy and safe 4th of July, everyone!

**Originally posted on cj's bookshelf on April 27, 2011**

Title: The Truth About Forever
Author: Sarah Dessen
Publisher: Speak
Date of Publication:  May 2006
Reading Level: 14 and up

Synopsis: (from Goodreads) –

A long, hot summer...

That's what Macy has to look forward to while her boyfriend, Jason, is away at Brain Camp. Days will be spent at a boring job in the library, evenings will be filled with vocabulary drills for the SATs, and spare time will be passed with her mother, the two of them sharing a silent grief at the traumatic loss of Macy's father.

But sometimes unexpected things can happen—things such as the catering job at Wish, with its fun-loving, chaotic crew. Or her sister's project of renovating the neglected beach house, awakening long-buried memories. Things such as meeting Wes, a boy with a past, a taste for Truth-telling, and an amazing artistic talent, the kind of boy who could turn any girl's world upside down. As Macy ventures out of her shell, she begins to wonder, Is it really better to be safe than sorry?

My Review:

I. Love. This. Book. When I first picked it up, I thought it was going to be the typical whiney-piney story about a high school girl that develops a crush on a boy that she meets during a summer job and the plot would only get as complex as wondering if their relationship could make it after the summertime.

How wrong I was (and Sarah Dessen really ought to have a talk with the person who writes the summaries for the back of her books).

Very much like “Dairy Queen” – which I also enjoyed – this story deals with changes in Macy’s life and how she copes with them. She has a number of choices: either do what everyone else thinks is best for her (including her sort-of-but-not-really boyfriend Jason) or latch onto this new group of friends that really are the ones helping her deal with her father’s death.

I love that Macy falls in with the Wish Catering crowd almost by accident, but that they are the ones that help her out the most. It goes along with the theme of the book that amazing things in life are typically the things that you don’t plan for. As I read the book – especially the climax of the story where Macy and Jason finally meet up again when Jason comes home from camp – I realized a lot of things about myself and how my life has gone the past year and a half. Without getting too personal, I experienced a change very much like Macy in that things I thought were solid and secure really weren't and I wound up latching onto something rather unconventional, but it was exactly what I needed at that time. My point is that this book resonated with me and that’s probably why I enjoyed it so much.

I suppose that’s why we want teens to read a variety of things. You never know what is going to change a kid’s life – even if it’s just a moment when they need something to take their minds off whatever problems they have. There are a lot of good things out there to read and experience – many in the most unlikely places. Just take the time to get out of your comfort zone to find it.