A review of ‘Doctor Who: Survival;’ the novelisation by Rona Munro and audio-book read by Lisa Bowerman

Where as I’ve never seen Survival, the audio book made a great holiday listen, and if you are a fan of Doctor Who, especially the Classic series, and thrice especially the Target novelisations, this is something of a poignant treat. Poignant because Survival is both the final serial of the 26th season and also the final story of the entire original 26-year run of the Doctor Who. The story was first broadcast in three parts, weekly, from 22 November to 6 December 1989. The story contained a number of finals, the final regular television appearance of Anthony Ainley as the Master, of Sophie Aldred as Ace and the last regular television appearance of Sylvester McCoy as the Seventh Doctor.

The audio book is narrated by Lisa Bowerman, who played Karra, a ‘Cheetah-person’ in the tv Survival story, and has also voiced the New Adventures / Big Finish audio drama favourite Bernice Summerfield.

The book’s settings are, variously, Perivale in West London and a dying Alien world. We begin in West London, where the Doctor brings his companion Ace back to her home, Perivale, to catch up with family and friends. Other than Ace being in a real mood about the whole thing, something is very wrong (as it would be). People are disappearing. And a particularly feral black cat watches from teh sidelines, as does the Doctor’s most implacable foe…
It transpire that people are being chased by horse mounted ‘Cheetah-people’ into another dimension, where they run and hide or are killed by for sport by the same cat creatures. Worse, the planet itself is directing everything with a malign force that seeks to compel an accelerated Darwinian struggle and spread it to new worlds. Turns out the Master is stuck on the planet, and needs the Doctor’s help to escape…

The story has a number of characteristics typical of the show of this time. First, it is an original and pacy story. The show had not strayed into interminable story arc territory at this stage. It combines very domestic and familiar settings (London estates, suburbs, youth clubs, and so on) with alien worlds. It is full of the Seventh Doctor’s particular characteristics, the rolling, r’s, a kind but determined and persistent approach, and the familiarity of a trusted Uncle with vert eccentric habits. And the inter-play with Ace, extreme banter and a real bond.
It also has the casual and violent ends of quite a few minor characters (still a trope) that keeps dramatic tension high. You really don’t know who is going to make it (apart from the Doctor and hos companions. Companion death was still relatively rare.

The Master is a strong component in this story. He is thoroughly evil, some of his actions are wholly irredeemable, and yet darkly witty and engaging. We get some intriguing backstory of the Master and the Doctor’s shared story in this novelisation as well
Lisa Bowerman’s narration is really well done. She is clearly enjoying herself, conjuring the 7th Doctor, Ace and others before our eyes, and that is infectious.

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A review of Charles Marsh’s “Strange Glory: A life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer”

This book has been a faithful companion for a few years of my life now. I have taken an absurdly long time over it, because of the busyness of life, and knowing that I’d never abandon it unread, that I’d always pick up where I left off.

It is a remarkable biography of the war-time minister and theologian. It is so rich in detail, so evocative of the times and places of it’s subject, I felt I had actually visited the places in the book, and met some of the people concerned. We begin with Dietrich’s childhood in a wealthy and connected family, and there are different flavours of the provincial and urban life of the time, of the holidays in mountain retreats studying nature and poetry, of the holiday games and rituals. Then there’s is the young man Bonhoeffer, studying and traveling, visiting sumptuous locations such as Barcelona, transported by the Cathedrals and Orthodox Christianity he encounters there, the parades, the music, the sung catechisms. We watch him navigate University life, cut his exceptional theological teeth, and then travel further and mature greatly in his views and theology in New York and with Harlem churches, where he makes strong connections with social action, protest, political idealism and Christianity.

Tangentially through all this there is the growing horror and dread of the growth and spread of the Nazi movement, including in the Churches. Bonhoeffer’s attempts to organise a dissident group of preachers is described, as the oppression and Nazi barbarity gains momentum.
Bonhoeffer meets Eberhard Bethge, with whom he develops an enduring and profound romantic friendship that at times borders on a possessive mania (on Bonhoeffer’s part). This is an important theme in Bonhoeffer’s life, revealing inner conflicts both in his self and in his theology.

Bonhoeffer is involved, even if it is peripherally with one of the plots to assassinate Hitler, and this seals his awful doom of execution in a Nazi concentration camp. Here the power of the writing to put one in the very shoes of Bonhoeffer has a terrifying and oppressive affect. Charles Marsh views Bonhoeffer’s fate without blinking, he offers no distancing philosophising or sermonising, only Bonhoeffer’s own words.

In it’s description and analysis of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s writings and thought, the book presents these ideas in all their freshness and excitement. That is, the excitement of a faith that is there to change the world, to challenge evil and turn established orders on their head; so the last, the brutalised, poor and oppressed come first in a theology of service and sacrifice, and the first, that is the preening leaders and Churchmen so quick to yoke their faith to the Nazi machine, come truly last as the abominations that they are.

A remarkable work, detailing a remarkable life.

A review of James Goss and Douglas Adam’s “Doctor Who: The Pirate Planet.”

When I was 8 or 9 I would tune in and be engrossed by the Phillip Hinchcliffe era of Tom Baker’s Doctor Who. They were gothic tales, visceral and horrific at times and for me could be the stuff of nightmares. This is the era that gave us the terrifying Sutekh and his robot mummies in Pyramids of Mars, the body horror of human beings transforming into repellent aliens in The Ark in Space and The Seeds of Doom, and more.
Something odd then happened. I entered a new unhappier phase of my life, starting an awful private school away from home where I felt alone and bullied. And Doctor Who changed. Gone was the brooding atmosphere and (often) scary monsters. Instead we got Graham Williams,   then John Nathan Turner producing, with Douglas Adam’s (amongst others) scripts. To me, then, they were naff. Unfunny (but trying for funny), unscary, and not the Doctor Who I loved. Now this may well have been me, transference and all that. But I just could not get along with the new (then) Who.

So I picked up James Goss’s recent telling of ‘The Pirate Planet’ with lowish expectations. I remembered very little of the TV original of the story (apart from the bit where K9 takes out the robot parrot) which spoke volumes to me. What a wonderful surprise, then, to find this an engaging, very funny page turner, with an ingenious story and satisfying resolution.
It’s all a bit of a labour of love for James Goss. He went out, as the book’s postscripts and afterwords explain, to find Adam’s early drafts of the story and struck gold, finding at least three earlier drafts of the story fizzing with humour, ideas and invention, which necessarily had to be curtailed for the small screen.

It’s about a hollow world, like a giant Tardis, that can materialise around planets and literally suck the lives out of them. Valuable minerals are extracted, and some shower down on a brainwashed and duped population. This is ruled over by a shouty cyborg captain with a nice line in oaths, insults and threats, and a nurse hovering at his shoulder to make sure his lumbering robot frame does not overheat and cook his flesh. He has a robot parrot, and a terrified civil servant of sorts he can shout at called Mr Fibuli. But to what purpose does this planet continue its genocidal, planet killing course? What hidden terrors lie beneath the surface, literally and figuratively? And who are the mysterious ‘Mourners,’ a depressed psycho-telekinetic cult that can literally paralyse people with despair?

The 4th Doctor, Roman and K9 are about to find out, over the course of a wonderful, head-spinning, and very funny yarn. Really loved this. Clearly James Goss and Douglas Adams are the archetypal marriage made of heaven.

A great read, whether you saw the original or not, and if like me, you did not get on with this era of Who originally, give it a shot.

A review of “The Poems of T.S. Eliot” read by Jeremy Irons

The poems of T.S. Eliot are puzzle-boxes; intricately woven riddles, conceits, ideas, imagination and social criticism. But you don’t solve them as you would the Times Crossword. You keep turning them over, and over, finding the main themes, solving the smaller riddles, recognising the purposefulness ambiguity of some of it.
Eliot wrote of the disillusionment, cynicism, and corruption that followed the First World War. It applies to his times and all times, and is powerfully resonant in our current age. His work is full of his own frustration and anxiety about the role of the poet in a time of tribulation and suffering when so many are giving their lives.

“…..My words echo
Thus, in your mind,.
But to what purpose
Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose leaves
I do not know.” (Burnt Norton)

The brutishness of modern man is typified by the recurrent character of Sweeney, as in Sweeney among the Nightingales:

“Apeneck Sweeney spreads his knees
Letting his arms hang down to laugh…”

Eliot often references the classical world of literature, myth and mythology, and then subverts them with the jarring imposition of characters like Sweeney.

Eliot’s own unhappy marriage bleeds into the poems, strikingly at times. He and his wife Vivienne both had mental breakdowns, Eliot eventually leaving his wife alone and unvisited in an asylum.

“‘My nerves are bad tonight. Yes, bad. Stay with me.
Speak to me. Why do you never speak? Speak.
What are you thinking of? What thinking? What?
I never know what you are thinking. Think.'” (The Wasteland)

And his Christianity, a profound Anglo-Catholicism that stared death in the face, offering a very hard won redemption. Eliot did not offer any easy Grace.

“A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)” (Little Gidding)

These themes all blend, crytallise and dissolve in his well known, epic poems, The Wastelands and The Four Quartets. And the sense that there is hidden meanings always to be unlocked, stacked within each other like Russian Dolls, always delights me when I come to Eliot.

And then there are playful, delightful Practical Cats, where the words fizz and dance off the page, brilliant for smaller readers, and wonderful to read aloud. These are poems that grow with you.

This reading by Jeremy Irons is wonderful. That actors gravitas, humanity, and emotional range are perfectly suited to these works. This is one I will revisit time and again.

A review of Michael Marshall’s “We are here.”

I first read Michael Marshall Smith, as he was then, over 10 years ago. He wrote powerful, original, imaginative science fiction; funny, tragic, and brilliantly written. Such work includes Spares, Only forward and One of Us. Then he started writing more in the thriller genre, dropping the ‘Smith’ part of his identity, and I read the ‘The Straw Men’ trilogy. These were horror-thrillers, the kicked that Thomas Harris kicked into orbit with ‘Man-hunter’ and ‘Silence of the Lambs.’ The horror, rather than the humanism and the humour of the earlier works, is what I remember.

And since then he appears to have stayed predominantly in the thriller genre. ‘We are Here’ has elements of that, and something new, urban fantasy of a Neil Gaiman flavour, with the occasional horror reference. This is territory that Stephen King and others have explored. Believe hard enough in someone, and they just might appear….

The story has a strong opening. A serial killer on the run reviews his career before burning burning to death in a motel room, apparently aided by the voice in his head that urged him to kill, now literally in the room with him.

Jump to an author on a trip to New York to meet his publisher. A chance bumping into a stranger in the street, not once but twice, unsettles him, especially when said stranger says ‘remember…’.
Are these incidents related. This made me eager to find out more. Then we move to an ex intelligence operative John Henderson, and his girlfriend Christine, who decide to investigate a complaint from one of Christine’s friends that she is being stalked. Again, we wonder about the connection.

And we are kept wondering for a very large section of the book. There is a very slow reveal. And unfortunately, a bit like me at 49, it gets very baggy in the middle. There appears to an urban sub culture, planning something, and there is a flavour of the supernatural about their affairs and how they are organised, with ‘corner-men’ and ‘journey-men’ and so on. This is what reminded me of Neil Gaiman. What are they? Ghosts? The recently departed? Some kind of other supernatural beings?

When the reveal comes you’ll either snort with derision and slam the book shut or keep going. I think most of you will keep going.

In the last quarter things hot up and there are some gripping set pieces where you genuinely don’t know what will happen. And horrible things do happen to good people. The chief baddie, Reinhardt, is a type of demonic gangster with apocalyptic plans. And I didn’t honestly know if they would be brought to fruition.

As it happens I still don’t. The novel ends in a tangle of unanswered questions. At one point there is a reference to a lot of deaths told in a few short sentences. Characters disappear, literally, in clouds of smoke. I honestly don’t think Michael Marhsall knew himself how to close. A shame, as this has has some cracking scenes and ideas, but they don’t really gel into a coherent whole. The characters are also incoherent and hard to realise imaginatively. I definitely did not have this problem with his earlier work.

The audio book is narrated in the dead pan, sardonic tones of the PI genre by Jeff Harding. His narration of the female characters grated a little, others have done this tricky feat a lot better.

Go with this if you are patient and appreciate novelists who take risks. There are definitely moments that will reward you, as there are ones that exasperate.

A review of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” (audio-book version read by Rob Inglis).

The story of Bilbo Baggins, his unexpected party, then journey, with Gandalf the wizard and thirteen dwarves, to slay a dragon and seize it’s plunder, can give us new gifts whenever we come back to it.

If you’ve only ever seen the movies (that despite some voices are not all bad) you owe it to yourselves in this magical, compact piece of story telling enchantment.

It is a fantasy quest where not one word, not one action, is superfluous or wasted (this is why many took so vehemently against the films and their stretching the tale to three epic movies).

It’s funny, charming, thrilling and profound.   There are worlds of enchantment, and always we sense behind events the massive, coherent universe, with it’s own myths, languages and histories, that Tolkien built, exploring further in his Legendarium (including the Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings).

It’s not as whimsical as you may suspect or remember.  There is real tragedy here, real horror and character development and complexities (as in Thorin’ journey and his corruption by dragon gold) and the final siege speaks to us of how our own affairs between nations can become so intangibly fixated on our own interests, sometimes noble and right (Bard) and sometimes corrupted by greed and paranoias about entitlement and ancient grudges (elves and dwarves).

For these reasons and more it is the archetypal book written for children and beloved by adults.

The audio-book version read by Rob Inglis is perfect.  He breathes his love for the tale (I suspect) into his reading.  He has rich style that balances gravitas with a lightness of touch that keeps us listening keenly. His renderings of the different characters is superb, communicating perfectly the home-bird reticence of Bilbo and his growing courage, Gandalf’s wisdom and authority, the dwarves distinct characteristics including blustering pomposity as well as courage and quick temper, and the ultimate menace of Smaug.  The songs are wonderfully performed, and I could quite happily listen to them all repeatedly.  There’s also a main instrumental theme that is entirely appropriate, that opens and closes the tale.  Other than that, any effect other than the narrator’s voice does not intrude.

A review of J.R.R. Tolkien’s (edited by Christopher Tolkien) ‘Beren and Luthien’

Christopher Tolkien has watched over his father’s work, elucidating it, making sense of his father’s scrawled notes and battered note-books and translating them into works like his ‘History of Middle Earth’ which has long been a bulwark against misrepresentation of his father’s work.
Here he takes one of the foundational stories of ‘the Silmarillion,’ another being the recently published ‘Children of Hurin,’ and shows, through his craft as an editor, how the story has evolved.

Beren and Luthien is an important story in the Legendarium, as it has at its heart the union of man and Elf (Eldar), the bringing together of mortal and immortal, part of the grand design of the God of Middle Earth. It has many fantasy staples; an impossible quest, mythic objects (the Silmaril, jewels of celestial power), a dark lord (Morgoth), spells, monsters and heroic beasts. It has moments of cinematic grandeur; Beren leaping at horse-bound baddies, the dark lord toppling from his throne under a spell and the crown rolling across the floor, the unbearable tension of Beren’s knife blade breaking taking a jewel from said crown and the shards grazing Morgoth’s face, and then all the monster’s blinking slowly open, a rescue by Eagle, and more…

The tale has had a fascinating evolution. An early form has Sauron, Morgoth’s lieutenant, replaced by Tevildo, a monstrous cat reigning over other bewitched cats in a cat-palace that puts captives to work in the kitchens and catching mice. Some mock this, but it has a narrative power of its own. Then Tevildo becomes a sorcerer called Thu, basically Sauron in all but name, and then Sauron himself.

The principal versions are ‘the Lay,’ an epic poem, and prose versions that condense the narrative as in the one eventually appearing in ‘The Silmarillion.’ Christopher Tolkien jumps from one to the other, better to illustrate how the story has evolved, and the versions influenced each other, as well as the impact of events in J.R.R. Tolkien’s life such as return from war, the success of ‘the Hobbit’ and writing ‘The Lord of the Rings.’

There are also some wonderful illustrations by Alan Lee, colour plates and line drawings of images and scenes from the narrative.

It is an awesome, enchanting read that immerses you in the magic of Tolkien’s world, and also illuminates the writing process and the larger narratives that surround the tale. My feeling is that it is not the best jumping on point for those new to Tolkien, because, for example, of the discussions on the interactions between the different narratives that may be a bit much for newer readers. It would help if you have read some of the popular works and even better the Silmarillion, but is not essential, as this is a tale that has power to stand on its own.

A review of Stephen Baxter’s “The Massacre of Mankind: Authorised sequel to The War of the Worlds.”

This begins promisingly, with a fascinating exercise in counter-factual history. This defines the first quarter of the book, and it threads through the rest of the work. So, the book asks, how might history have turned out in the aftermath of H.G. Well’s War of the Worlds? The answer is, a harder, cynical world in the first quarter of the Twentieth Century. The values that defined us then have been replaced by an anxious militarism that always has an eye to the Martians returning. And Britain is isolationist, so does not intervene with Germany’s Imperialist ambitions. Suffragettes are terrorists. Technology has benefited from Martian technology. The Titanic did not sink as its hull was plated with Martian steel. And so on.

Walter Jenkins (the narrator of the War of the Worlds) reaches out to his ex-sister in law Julie Elphinstone. She is young, progressive, and our narrator for this new work. Walter warns Julie that he fears the Martians are coming back. And slowly, and surely, they certainly do draw their plans against us. Again.
Only this time they have studied the last war and have some new tricks up their sleeve. A terrifying wave of missiles bombard landing sites to eviscerate the military. And when the Martians land, their mobilisation is much, much faster. No slow unscrewing of the cylinder here.
And so, landmarks are obliterated, people are rounded up as cattle and drained of their blood, and Julie, Walter, and the UK military must find a way to put the Martians once again back in their box.
The trouble is, fascinating ‘What-If’ history aside, and the odd impressive set piece, for example massive city like trench works surrounding a Martian landing site, huge giant tank like ‘Land-ships’ doing battle with the Martians, and a really grotesque scene inside Martian feeding and human vivisection pits, it is surprisingly, given the subject matter as described, thuddingly dull.
Part of the reason is the weird detachment of writer and narrator. Stephen Baxter writes science fiction with a capital S. He is very serious about the science. Fair play. But it makes for a tedious narration when we keep having exposition on the science behind this, and that. He also forgets to write human souls. One character is applauded for his ‘clear thinking’ in working for the Martians and leading them to human survivors to be drained of their blood. Because that is a clear thinking, scientific approach to symbiosis, you see. I just wanted to shoot the bastard.
Nothing seems to have any real urgency. And the story keeps stopping and starting again. And the last act is tragic. Not tragic as in catharsis and drama. But tragic as in weak. In War of the Worlds the Martians stop because they catch a cold. That is an epic confrontation next to what happens here. No spoilers, but it hinges on landscaping.
The audio-book is voiced by Nathalie Buscombe, who sounds as bored as I felt, like she is describing minor irritations at a day in the office rather than inter-planetary war-fare.
It is dull, cynical, cold. A bore of the worlds. Hated it.