Doctor Who Reviews – The Pyramid at the End of the World

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Written with no prior knowledge of what’s going to be in the episode – I watch the ‘Next Time’ trailer and make sure I see, hear and read nothing else – and written immediately after my first viewing. This is my unfettered, emotional response to this week’s DOCTOR WHO fare.

That was a most enjoyably tense forty-five minutes of TV viewing.

Actually, the two scientists in the lab bringing about the end of the world through carelessness and the common cold – but not through broken glasses – would have made a fine incredible suspenceful episode of a TV show all by itself.

Mixed together with everything else, this made for one of the most nerve-wracking episodes of DOCTOR WHO I can remember in an age. The rising panic as the clock counts down, the sense of impending doom in the lab, Nardole collapsing, The Doctor’s blindness putting everyone at risk and Bill forced to make an impossible choice.

This was an episode to make you grip your seat, devour your finger (and even your toe) nails, and force grey hairs to sprout spontaneously on your head even if you’re bald.

But even beyond those bits designed to twist your insides, there were numerous moments to cherish here: The Doctor’s languid walk to the pyramid, sunglasses on and jacket blowing in the breeze, that was so rock’n’roll it was like Keith Richards playing the part for the moment; elsewhere we had Nardole’s sexiness; and The Doctor’s instant – flirtatious, though respectful – rapport with Erica in the lab. The show could do with a Twenty-First Century Liz Shaw, and there’d be worst candidates.

Indeed, the only bit that irritated me was the U.N Secretary General crashing into the date. Having done it with The Pope last week, it was the law of diminishing returns this. Obviously Moffat thought he’d found gold and wanted to pass it off again, but with jokes you’re supposed to top what went before rather than give slightly less good versions.

Despite that though, I once again loved it and, once again, am hoping with every fibre of my geeky being that next week lives up to it. In short I hope next week is not ALIEN 3, although I would be perfectly happy if Paul McGann showed up.

End notes:

  • The Monks are a great villain.  Not just their design (although it is a bit derivative of The Silence) but the fact that they seem to be acting out of some weird sense of compassion. If it turns out that the rumour is correct and they are the proto-Mondasian Cybermen, I’m going to be a tad disappointed. We need a new great villain in the Pantheon.
  • It’s interesting, given how often love saves the day in DOCTOR WHO (‘Closing Time’) for instance, that here it’s Bill’s love for The Doctor that curses the world. A neat twist against the norm.
  • I’m typing this in a hotel in Southsea, with Mrs Jameson on the bed beside me and Baby Jameson asleep in her travel cot four feet away. It’s our Bank Holiday trip away, but we’ve still built our Saturday night around DOCTOR WHO. That’s how rock’n’roll we are!

 

 

Me, (Re)Writing, in 2017

typewriter

I think it’s a good habit for me to keep a writing diary, so that’s why I’m now trying to get an entry out every week.

(Yes, I know if you look back through these entries you’ll see that there’s a couple of weeks’ gap, but this is a new resolution. Not a New Year Resolution, but definitely a mid-May one.)

All going to plan it should help me put into context what I’ve done that week – how many of the writerly tasks I set out to do I succeeded in, how many others slipped away.

On good weeks, I should feel a little bit of pride in myself. Always I’m going to overload myself with too many tasks so I’ll never get time for all of them, but I will hope to have seen some progress made.

Other weeks (and there will hopefully be fewer of these) I will give myself a damn good kicking.

But at least I’ll do it publicly.

This week I have dug another four stories out of my trunk. Four shorter tales this time, all of them about people trapped in rooms and all of them clearly born from my deep-seated claustrophobia. I intend to have them published in one volume this autumn.

My main task though has been working through the story I wrote about last week – my tale of the gothic. The story of a pompous, bullying aristocrat who receives his comeuppance.

This is a tale I will publish this summer.

What’s really amusing me about it as I work my way through the manuscript is inserting in as many old, syllable-laden words as I can. There are already a great number in there, but I’m getting high satisfaction from cramming in more, poring through the dictionary and thesaurus in my head (as well as actual dictionaries and thesauruses) to see what I can find.

If I’ve already used the word ‘bacchanalian’ – what else is there? ‘Revel’, ‘debauch’, ‘den of licentiousness’.  English is a great language with which to describe drunkenness and clearly that’s always been the case.

Stone of Fire by J.F. Penn

stone of fire

I think I picked up STONE OF FIRE at exactly the right moment. After a week filled with dark and distressing headlines, it was a fantastic relief to immerse myself in a piece of sheer escapism.

That’s what it is at its core – unpretentious escapist fun. It’s just happy whisking you from exotic locale to exotic locale, asking you to cling on to its helter-skelter spirit of adventure and not look back. Whisked together in its story of powerful ephemera from Jesus’s time, are an Oxford academic with military skills, a secret organisation, another secret (but more evil) organisation, and a mad American billionaire with a diabolical scheme. The whole thing is preposterous, but undeniably gripping in its bonkers way.

This week Roger Moore also died, the kind of news which, when it broke in context of Tuesday, made me feel how lucky and incredible it is that some people get to live to eighty-nine and have full and rich lives. But STONE OF FIRE, as well as stealing me away from the horrible headlines, also seemed like a strange tribute to him.

To describe this book succinctly, it’s basically a Roger Moore James Bond film with a thick topping of religious Macguffins.

The Wannabes by F.R. Jameson

Wannabes 2017 cover

Looking back at THE WANNABES, ten years or so after I wrote it, I find – with a baffled smile – that I’m not quite sure where it came from.

Whereas for my other novel, HELL’S SECRETS, I can remember the exact moment when I started to type down the story, for THE WANNABES it’s a strange blank.

I can certainly recognise some of the inspirations that wind through the pages. Undoubtedly, there’s a bit of Patrick Hamilton’s HANGOVER SQUARE, which is a book I loved at the time; there’s a great dollop of THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH, although – if I’m honest – probably more of the Roger Corman film than the Edgar Allen Poe story. I saw that movie on BBC2 when I was about fourteen and the images have never left me. The character’s lead name comes straight from William Faulkner’s LIGHT IN AUGUST. Although, since Stephen King made the same steal for THE GREEN MILE, maybe it came from there too. I had read both, after all.

There’s a lot of that’s autobiographical within the pages. People I knew who made their way into the book, stories from my own life, things that were happening to me which barged their way in.

Then there are the pubs.

Both THE WANNABES and HELL’S SECRETS feature a hell of a lot of pubs, and back then – I will confess – I was something of a frequenter. Today, as a new dad, I imagine my fiction will contain noticeably fewer public houses.

Write what you know, they say. So if you are someone who frequently has a pint in their hands, write about someone who frequently has a pint in their hand.

What I don’t remember though is where the story came from. I don’t recall any moment of inspiration. I just remember writing it and it suddenly being there.

However, what I do remember is the moment before. That flash of realisation when I decided to become a genre author.

Until then I’d been scribbling away with a mindset that was self-consciously literary. With a mind full of Philip Roth and Richard Ford, I was trying to write books that said something.

This period went on for a while, as when you’re young you have a tendency to self-importance and can easily convince yourself that you do have something meaningful to say. But when I wrote in that way I could never create anything I truly liked. The stories I wrote were okay, but they were not brilliant and what I really wanted to do – with my self-important literary poseur head on – was write something brilliant.

Something brilliant and something important and something meaningful and something poetic and all so many somethings.

But one day I took a step back and looking at my bookshelves and saw the Raymond Chandlers, the Stephen Kings, the James Herberts, the Agatha Christies and wondered what the hell I was doing. Yes, I liked reading literary fiction, but what I really enjoyed – what really gave me pleasure – was horror, mysteries, crime, thrillers.

This was not only the stuff I liked, but in odd idle moments I would write little sketches of stories designed to be as scary, creepy and gruesome as hell.

What I needed to do was so obvious that I was annoyed at myself for weeks for not thinking of it earlier. I needed to be writing horror, to be writing mysteries, books with a crime at their centre, which wanted to do nothing more important than thrill.

That’s what was going to make me happiest.

And THE WANNABES is the first full-length ripe fruit of that realisation – a book where I tried to cram in so much of the stuff I liked, that it can’t help but amuse me as I read through and see a check-list of all the things I was into and how I reinterpreted them.

It’s a supernatural thriller, certainly, but it’s also a genre compendium – one shot through a psyche just excited to be bringing all these things together.

 

THE WANNABES is available on Kindle and should you feel tempted to read it yourself, you can buy it for a reasonable price through the links below:
Amazon UK
Amazon USA
Amazon Canada
Amazon Australia

 

The Fireman by Joe Hill

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Quite frankly, I’ve struggled to write this review of THE FIREMAN.

There was so much I liked about it at the outset, so much that was clever and entertaining and humane – but the whole tailed off so badly, that my over-riding emotion at the end was disappointment.

However, I didn’t want to write a negative review, one that pulls apart its flaws for all to see, as for most of its long length I actually enjoyed it. There’s a lot of really good stuff here. But it’s also the case that if I was asked to recommend it, that recommendation would come with so many caveats it would surely end up standing as a non-recommendation.

Firemen put out fires, so if you have a novel whose heat and intensity suddenly extinguishes, a fireman seems an apt figure to be standing over it.

Although pretty much set in the now, THE FIREMAN is post-apocalyptic novel about a terrible disease named Dragonscale, which carves bright tattoos into a person’s skin to make them instantly recognisable and causes it’s victims to spontaneously combust. A huge chunk of humanity succumbs to it, while the rest are forced to protect themselves anyway they can.

The narrative centres on Harper Willows, a young infected nurse and the new life she has to create herself once the Dragonscale forces her into hiding.

This is where the book is at its best, creating a story that is undoubtedly epic and yet keeping it at the same time utterly personal. The world Harper moves to is vividly captured, the characters she meets so beautifully drawn and the way the story develops feels like watching a chess-master move all the pieces together.

There is a logical place for the book to finish about three quarters of the way through, but Hill doesn’t take it. I don’t mind that, as I appreciate books which confound expectations in their structure.  But unfortunately that last quarter just loses the passion and spark of what went before and the book becomes a trek to the finish. A trudge for both the readers and characters, that even late twists or outrageous coincidences can’t save.

It’s a shame – as there’s so much that’s great in these pages, I felt almost hurt I didn’t walk away from the book feeling more delighted with the experience than I did.

Joe Hill is, of course, Stephen King’s son.

A fact I wouldn’t feel the need to mention if THE FIREMAN didn’t have resounding echoes of his father right the way through it. I noticed the phrase “forgotten the face of his father” from THE DARK TOWER series, as well as a reference to the beverage Nozz-a-La from the same books. It’s twenty odd years since I read THE STAND, so I’m not overly familiar with it, but it does seem from a little routing around on the inter-web as if there are numerous parallels between the two books.

It’s both curious and a shame as clearly Hill is really talented in his own right, but heading down this route it seems he could just end up a footnote to his father’s work. Not really a Dirk Cussler, but certainly not a Martin Amis. And that would be disappointing, as I really think he is good enough to carve out a place all of his own.

Doctor Who Reviews- Extremis

extremis

Written with no prior knowledge of what’s going to be in the episode – I watch the ‘Next Time’ trailer and make sure I see, hear and read nothing else – and written immediately after my first viewing. This is my unfettered, emotional response to this week’s DOCTOR WHO fare.

Next year, when presumably he’ll no longer be contributing scripts, we’re really going to miss Steven Moffat.

Even those who stand as detractors (and I know there are many) would – even if they don’t like his tricksy style – surely concede that his scripts have ambition to them, they have intelligence. At their best his scripts have more unfettered ambition and pulsing intelligence than most shows on TV manage, let alone most DOCTOR WHO episodes.

Take, for example, ‘Extremis’.

Looking at the ‘Next Time’ trailer, I thought it was going to be DOCTOR WHO meets Dan Brown, and that’s great. As if THE DA VINCI CODE had been a big hit in 1974, surely Robert Holmes would have leapt on it and we’d have had a version starring Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen.

The Doctor meets X current popular thing is a long and noble tradition in the programme.

But we’re wrong-footed at the start as it clearly isn’t just DOCTOR WHO meets THE DA VINCI CODE, indeed the imagery couldn’t be any more GAME OF THRONES if they had George R.R. Martin playing the chief executioner. And before we know it THE MATRIX is thrown in there as well. All this in forty-five minutes, with an alien invasion, existential terror and the comedy ending of a date somehow crammed in as well.

Okay, it’s a particularly dark episode and I can see why some people will resist because of that. It’s taking the themes of THE MATRIX and really squeezing them. In the Kenau Reeves movie, when characters realised they were in a computer simulation they tried to liberate themselves. Here it’s suicide, or mass-suicide. It really is dark.

But I loved it.

I thought the script (as you might have surmised by now) was fantastic.

The direction was magnificently atmospheric.

P-Cap was superb.

P-Mac doubly so.

Even M-Lu, whose acting I haven’t had cause to praise thus far, was excellent.

I’m fully aware that a duff episode next week may tarnish the gleam of this one, but for now I’m a very contended Whovian.

 

Random other thoughts:

  • I didn’t notice any First Doctor references this week, but maybe I was too caught up in the story.
  • Although, apparently there’ve been lots of David Bowie references this series as well, and I’ve missed them too.
  • I’m starting to suspect I’m not very good at spotting references.

Me, Writing, in 2017

typewriter

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve been given in writing is to not to throw anything away.

When you’re writing, you’re bound to start things you don’t finish, have ideas that fizzle out. You’ll no doubt have short stories you wrote and never went back to, or even completed novels (or really close to completed novels) which have been placed on the back-burner for so long now the bottom of the pan is scorched.

Maybe you got distracted by a different idea. Maybe your passion for the project dissipated for some reason. Maybe something happened in your life (“Events, dear boy, events.”) that meant with all the good will in the world, you couldn’t finish it then and it slipped to some dusty corner of your mind.

The Why doesn’t matter.

What matters is that you keep everything. That you don’t lose track of any work you’ve done.

Having finished the first draft of the new book last week, I’m now taking a short break from it. A chance to contemplate it, give myself some distance and gain a clearer point of view about what works and what doesn’t.

But still wanting to be productive, I’ve dug out a story from the old trunk and am working on that, with a view to making it the next thing I publish.

Actually, this story wasn’t one I had to wrestle out dog-eared from somewhere at the bottom of that trunk (you know, the kind of thing buried under yellowed receipts and the water-stained manual for a DVD player I no longer own), but one that’s been sitting pristine on top. It’s a tale of the gothic I wrote five years ago and have tinkered with on and off ever since, always with the thought I was going to finish it, but never quite getting there.

Until now.

But I know that further down in the trunk there are other stories, even one whole novel which I’m sure I can come back to. I’m confident that the ideas remain strong, that a lot of the themes and characters are already there, they just need to be rewritten.

The thought of that pleases me tremendously.

It means there are days ahead when I don’t have to start from scratch. The tyranny of the pure blank page can be ignored whilst I work on them.

Yes, the rewriting will require hard work, but since I last picked them up, I’ve done a lot of thought on narrative and writing – read a lot more – and I know I can do a better job on them now than I did back then.

Keep everything!

Don’t throw out your notepads. Don’t move files into the Recycle folder and forget about them when you change laptops.

You never know when you might have opportunity to make something really good out of it.

Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb (1971)

blood from the mummy's tomb

The first half hour of BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY’S TOMB is absolutely fascinating.

After an ancient Egyptian opening which manages to be wordlessly creepy without ever leaving the studio, we then have the tale of a beautiful young woman seemingly exploited by all around her.

Her father has a weirdly solicitous relationship with her, like a seedy wooer rather than a dad; she seems to have her own stalker; while there’s a joke that the main reason her boyfriend goes out with her is her looks.

Elsewhere we have a secretary whose first appearance is being jokingly grabbed around the throat by her boyfriend, and it starts to look like a film about the dreadful things that men do to women.

BIG LITTLE LIES as 1970s creature feature. Hammer Horror as feminist text.

Amazingly in the first half hour it even passes the Bechdel Test.

Of course, in the context of a Hammer movie whose poster features a prominent cleavage, these tools for a feminist reading are surely there by accident rather than design, and the rest of the film is indeed a lot more plodding and prosaic.

If you’ve ever seen a MUMMY movie, you’ll have a good idea of what’s going down – a powerful Egyptian Queen dies long ago and in the present day her spirit tries to take over a beautiful young woman.

This one runs through those normal plot beats, but does throw in some creepy moments – jackels in the streets of London, a man thrown through the window by the power of thought. There’s some good scary stuff in here.

But there’s also a lot that just doesn’t work, that doesn’t seem to have been thought through.

The character of the dad changes quite quickly – from the weirdo at the start, to a normal father without particular comment. And as for the rushed conclusion – so we’re heading into big time SPOILER territory here – why if Margaret was basically Tera does she turn so swiftly against Tera at the end?

The biggest problem though is Valerie Leon. I’ve only ever seen her in CARRY ON films before, and she never stood out there and she certainly doesn’t here.

Valerie leon

It’s not that she’s bad as such, more characterless. Things seem to happen around her, while she stands about like a beautiful busty cypher. She has a line-less, almost plastic, face and a way of holding her head curiously to the side – particularly in those scenes where she’s terrifying some poor hapless man. Surely in the script it’s written that her face takes on a scary aspect, but Ms Leon completely fails at that challenge. Indeed, what that expression brought to mind was THUNDERBIRDS’ Lady Penelope, and once you have that thought in your head, most of the terror does dissipate.

lady penelope

It’s a shame as there’s a lot that’s good here, and one can’t help think that with another draft of the script and a better lead actress, we’d be in the presence of a classic.

Revival by Stephen King

Revival

The first three quarters of REVIVAL brings forth the image of Stephen King sat at home of an evening, drinking ice-cool lemonade, reading some John Irving and thinking “y’know, I could do this.”

All the stuff you’d expect from your standard John Irving novel is there – meeting the central character in childhood; his extended (often colourful) family; crucial moments in adolescence that shape him; and a dramatic adult life narrated with good humour –REVIVAL hits every one of those beats. It makes for an interesting read, as clearly we have King trying something different here: a coming of age novel which, for the main part, isn’t trying to be horror.

Let’s be fair, if anyone can handle a ‘growing up in sixties and seventies Americana’ story it’s Stephen King. We’ve seen him do it in numerous other tales, albeit all while more directly servicing the trademark horror.

Most of REVIVAL is a breeze of a read.

But I can’t help thinking that the whole thing would have been more interesting if King had just kept going with a straight Irving impression and seen where it led him. Let REVIVAL be the strange outlier in his books, the one with no horror elements at all.

Maybe that would have worked, maybe it wouldn’t – certainly the first three quarters suggest that it could work, it would just depend on how well King could have landed the ending.

For in the actual novel we have, King in the last quarter goes right back to what he knows best and gives us a Lovecraftian horror show.

Now John Irving and H.P. Lovecraft are far from natural bedfellows, but if anyone can pull it off this unlikely coupling, it’s good old, homespun, folksy Stephen King.

A lot of what Irving writes about in his books – the lost America of the baby-boomers – is what King writes about, although from a very different angle. As for H.P. Lovecraft, King didn’t become the pre-eminent horror writer of his generation by not knowing his Cthulhu mythos.

But even though King is obviously the best writer to do this, this match up doesn’t quite work. Having taken a less beaten path for most of this novel, King ends on something he could presumably knock out whilst queuing for groceries.

There’s nothing wrong with it, and King does go out of his way to make sure that everything in the first three quarters is paid off in the denoument, but even with a master storyteller – who can bestraddle both these literary models – the change of tone between the two is just too great. They just don’t click together. Probably because we’re going from something really interesting in the context of a Stephen King novel, to something horror fans have read at least one thousand, four hundred and eight times before.

I don’t think anyone is going to hold ‘Revival’ as their favourite King book.

My suspicion is it will likely divide people in to two camps. Those who appreciate King trying something different will love the first three quarters and feel indifference to the end; whilst those who love horror and nothing else, will find this an interminable read and maybe even give up on it before it gets to the real horror parts.

I’m very much in that first camp.

Even though I’m a horror fan from my vampire teeth to my talon-toenails, the first three-quarters are just much more interesting and dynamic.

So much so that I ended the book wishing that King would actually settle down to write a straight novel of childhood and life in America, not concern his mind with any worry of fan service, and surprise everyone – maybe even himself – with where he ends up.

Doctor Who Reviews – Oxygen

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Written with no prior knowledge of what’s going to be in the episode – I watch the ‘Next Time’ trailer and make sure I see, hear and read nothing else – and written immediately after my first viewing. This is my unfettered, emotional response to this week’s DOCTOR WHO fare.

Or ‘Attack of the Killer Space-Zombies’!

I think the part that most people will lock onto here is the corporate nature of the villianry. This isn’t just any evil corporation, this is the kind of evil corporation that makes the one in ALIEN look like it prides itself on its generous pension scheme and has outfitted the Nostromo with a state of the art crèche.

The idea is dropped in early and allowed to run and run, with the show having gleeful fun with its own lack of subtlety. A company that not only charges employees for the air they breathe, but will think nothing of killing them off if it suits the bottom line. A company which can only be beaten by threatening the profit margins.

I actually laughed at the throwaway line at the end that six months later capitalism crashed. Bringing down the capitalist system before moving on blithely just seems like the most perfect Doctor thing to do.

But, for all that I enjoyed it, it did feel by the end that the fun it was having with its ideas did get in the way of the drama somewhat. Obviously Bill was going to be fine, and nearly everyone else was just an incidental character so in the final stand-off the jeopardy was somewhat muted.

There was a discussion on RADIO FREE SKARO last week – their review of ‘Knock Knock’ – about how DOCTOR WHO can’t really do horror as it can never allow itself to be as brutal as the third act of a horror movie needs to be. (I’m not sure that’s a bad thing though as this is after all a family show and so shouldn’t be as brutal as a horror movie. This is a gateway drug into horror movies, rather than the movie itself). You could make the exact same point about this week’s as last, that it can’t fully buy into the tropes it’s working with. That even with space-zombies, it can’t be as horrific as it really wants.

But whereas last week’s fully committed to its cause, thunder and lightening included, this week’s ran with its (admittedly great) idea to the detriment of its emotional punch. Intellectually I absolutely like this one more, but it didn’t make me squirm nearly as much.

When I saw the ‘Next Time’ trailer last week, I thought ‘Oxygen’ was going to be an absolute classic – while instead it’s another strong episode in what’s turning out to be a really strong series.

A strong series still awaiting its absolute classic.

Other matters:

  • Obviously the first episode written after it was decided to make Nardole a regular, and he does bring a certain low-level charisma to the team. A way to get across exposition with jokes rather than The Doctor’s intensity.
  • I can’t imagine it will be the case, but I will be seriously impressed if they keep The Doctor blind for the next eight episodes of his tenure.
  • The fluid-links, Bill dubbing him her Grandfather in the last episode, the photo of Susan on the table and the upcoming return of The Mondasian Cybermen. What other Hartnell references are there? (I know I’ve forgotten some.)
  • I still think it’s Missy, but it can’t be River in that vault, can it? Can it?