Sunday, 30 January 2011

VEx January Contest - Two Books by Pyr

This month is another tandem giveaway. I will be choosing two lucky recipients for one of either The Horns of Ruin by Tim Akers or Vampire Empire: Book One: The Greyfriar by Clay and Susan Griffith, both books provided by our friends at Pyr.

To enter, please leave a comment to this post. Note, however, that your profile must have an e-mail link. Unfortunately I've had a few too many non-responses from would-be winners who have not. If your profile does not have an e-mail, you will be automatically disqualified.

The draw will take place at midnight on Sunday, Jan. 30th. Good luck and thank you for your ongoing support of Voyages Extraordinaires: Scientific Romances in a Bygone Age!

The results: Congratulations to Anonymous Tony and lordofthewaters for winning the January giveaway! Look for a message in your in-box soon and a book in your mail-box shortly! And to all of you, thank you again for your support of Voyages Extraordinaires!

Thursday, 27 January 2011

The Original Doctor Who: Frostfire (2007)

Whatever happened to Vicki? At the close of The Mythmakers, she had adopted the identity of Cressida and wed Troilus of Troy, becoming a figure of legend in the process. Leaving the Doctor and Steven behind with their new companion Katerina, she ventured off to a misty and unknown future-past. Vicki never was seen again... on the show.

Once more, Big Finish comes to the rescue of First Doctor fans with the release of the Companion Chronicles series. The very first volume in the series featured Maureen O'Brien reprising her role as Vicki to reminisce about her life with the Doctor to a mysterious voice kept in the cold and dark beneath the temple in ancient Carthage. This strange other, it seems, is the only person that she can talk to about her former life. Through it she tells us that her new identity leaves much to be desired: it's all so very primitive, with no one to talk to honestly lest they take her for a witch. Poor Troilus can't even grasp the simple concept of a pulley!

To the freezing entity lit only by a tiny oil lamp, she unfolds a lost tale of the original Doctor. Immediately after their encounter with the Monk in The Time Meddler, the TARDIS landed the Doctor, Vicki and Steven directly on the frozen River Thames in Regency London. It is the coldest day of the year, practically of all time, feeling as though something is sucking the heat out of the whole city. Exploring, they meet a shifty Italian, some English gentry, Jane Austin and take in a frost fair sideshow. The sideshow's feature attraction also seems to be at the heart of this frigid mystery... A phoenix egg discovered in Tunis, the Carthage of antiquity.

Whether it was intentional or not, the placing of Frostfire in the continuity is well done. It was The Time Meddler that introduced into the series the concept of a Science Fiction historical, and Frostfire is of the same type. Of their First Doctor offerings, it would be interesting to see Big Finish attempt a true historical in the tradition of the first season. Despite the preference for Science Fiction, one still welcomes any and every canonical adventure of the First Doctor that is handed to us some 40 years after the fact.

This latter-day story in particular delivers wonderfully on the central premise of a causality loop and the ethical questions that can rise out of one, leaving a little something for one to ponder at the end of it all. If you were caught at the beginning and end of a causality loop, would you feel the moral obligation to try and end the death and destruction that comes in the middle? Is it even possible? This quandry, above and beyond her own emotional need to have a confidant, presses in on Vicki's psyche throughout the drama.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

The Original Doctor Who: The Myth Makers (Story 20, 1965)

A plain. Two warriors do battle. In their banter, the names of the combatants are revealled: Hector and Achilles. Yet this battle is not quite as Homer described. Achilles turns tail and flees Hector, instead of the other way around. And as he flees, they pass something out of place: a tall, blue police box.

Doctor Who's twentieth story is what is called a "Shaggy God" trope. Specifically the term is meant to describe any type of story where Biblical events are given a Science Fiction explanation, such as Adam and Eve being astronauts or Ezekiel's chariot being a UFO. It works for nearly any great legend and literature of antiquity, however, including the Trojan War. Who better to double as Zeus but the irrascible old original Doctor?

Odysseus, the crude and uncouth sailor, has no use for the idea that The Doctor is the father of the gods. Achilles, on the other hand, credits him with the triumphant victory over Hector. Of course, Achilles has carefully chosen to "elaborate" his lucky near-defeat into the legendary battle documented by Homer. Were it not for the distraction caused by the sudden appearance of The Doctor, Hector would surely have skewered him. While Achilles and Odysseus debate it out and Agamemnon pettitions The Doctor to help the destroy their enemies, Steven is captured by the Greeks and the TARDIS is hauled off by the Trojans.

In the midst of the city, Vicki emerges from the blue box and is immediately considered a prophet, much to the chagrin of Priam's daughter Cassandra. She also catches the eye of young Troilus, especially after Priam gives Vicki the more ordinary and respectable name "Cressida". Steven escapes the Greeks and lands himsefl a captive in Troy, doing so under the assumed name of "Diomede". Inadvertantly, they have set in motion the tragedy later recorded by Shakespeare. Or have they? As we have seen, the ancient legends may not mirror quite what The Doctor and his companions have seen with their own eyes.

That question hangs over the head of the TARDIS crew. The Greeks expect "Zeus" to help them win the war or they will execute him as a fake. Can he entrust his own fate to the vagueries of ancient poetry or will he fulfill the prophecies of Troy's destruction himself? Meanwhile, the Trojans expect "Cressida" to prophesy their victory or else. What is she to do, knowing full well the terror coming to Troy in the last days of the war?

There is one last piece of the puzzle, and that is the destiny of Cressida and Troilus. This starcross'd affair is utilized by the writers to dispense with another member of the TARDIS crew. For the first time it's not the Daleks that rip the hardy bunch of companions apart. Yet like Susan before her, it is love that pulls Vicki from her intergalactic explorations. As Troy burns, Cressida and Troilus meet up with the party led by Aeneas. In their presence, she is able to turn her "prophetic" foreknowledge into an omen about the creation of a new Troy, a new nation on a far shore.

Not strictly historical, The Myth Makers could almost be considered a third class of Doctor Who stories: the literary, drawing its inspiration from the celebrated works of Homer, Virgil and Shakespeare. Yet this is curiously not done with a mind to encouraging an investment in classical literature. The "shaggy god" elements deviate from the original texts almost on a one-for-one basis. It nearly hearkens to the joke of Biblical scholarship that is epistemological cynicism. Every time the Bible says someone like King David was a hero, a would-be scholar automatically treats them as an abject villain. If the Good Book says that Jesus was celibate then He must have been married, and so on. If Homer says Achilles was a mighty warrior slaying Hector, then episode writer Donald Cotton makes him a coward who scored by sheer luck. If it does prod one towards the literature, it is merely to see how it twists and tangles it.

The Myth Makers is one of the stories lost to the infamous BBC video purges. Currently only a few snippets from the various episodes exist, all of which can be found on the Lost in Time DVD collection. The fullest document remains the soundtrack, which exists in its entirety and which the BBC has released on CD with linking narration by Peter "Steven" Purves. Most recently, the BBC has released Doctor Who: The Lost TV Episodes: Collection One: 1964-1965, a five story set including Marco Polo, The Reign of Terror, The Crusade, Galaxy 4 and The Myth Makers.

Back on the TARDIS, The Doctor and an injured Steven must grow accustomed to their new companion: Katarina, a Trojan servant girl convinced that she has died and now resides with the gods in their celestial temple. Our Time Lord is primarily worried with finding proper medicine for Steven, hoping that their next destination will deliver. Unfortunately, they land on the planet of Kembel and in the midst of the conflict promised by Mission to the Unknown.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

The Original Doctor Who: Mission to the Unknown (Story 19, 1965)

While in post-production for the season two opener, Planet of Giants, the producers of Doctor Who cleverly recognized that it would be stronger as a three-episode story rather than the planned and filmed four episodes. This left them with another problem in having to make up for the lost episode. Season two came and went before the opportunity presented itself with the onset of season three.

Trying to add an episode to a serial would bring on the opposite problem that happened with Planet of the Giants: they would be deliberately choosing to water a story down. That wouldn't do at all, so they went for something a little more daring. Mission to the Unknown became the first episode of Doctor Who not to feature the eponymous character at all. Even recent stories like Blink would not be so cheeky as to not have him in the episode in any form, yet Mission to the Unknown takes the risk. No "Doctor Lite"... 100% calorie free Doctor Zero.

With the Doctor out of the way, writer Terry Nation was free to play with making an informal pilot for what would have been Doctor Who's first spin-off. The only thing more popular than the Doctor were the Daleks, and Nation felt that there was plenty more to be told about them that didn't involve a blue police box. Some 40 years later, Big Finish Productions would figure on the same with their Dalek Empire series of audio-dramas. Nation's gamble never came to fruition, but Mission to the Unknown did serve as a worthy preamble to the next big appearance of the Daleks on their home series.

While the Doctor, Vicki and Steven were off in Galaxy 4, the Daleks were preparing to unleash their own master plan for the annhilation of Earth and subjugation of the Solar System. Not that the naieve UN pilot Gordon Lowery could believe that. So far as he knew, the Daleks failed in their bid for the planet over 1000 years before. Marc Cory of the Space Security Service fills him in: the Daleks have been very active in the outer reaches, conquering worlds and making treaties with others, and a Dalek ship has recently been spotted in the vicinity of Sol. That is why they have landed on the planet Kembel. The 3S believes that the Daleks are present and using the jungle world as a base of operations for another raid on Earth.

Part of the evidence are the presence of Varga. These ambulatory fungi are vicious, beastly things that reproduce by turning anything stuck with one of their spines into a Varga. That, sadly, is what happened to their crewmate Jeff Garvey, whose murderous rage could only be halted by Cory's lethal marksmanship. A plant this homicidal could only have come from one planet: Skaro. Sure enough, before long, the Daleks are hot on their trail.

The next stop for the TARDIS is ancient Troy, where they once more involve themselves in history. But immediately thereafter, they too pay a visit to the planet Kembel for another of Doctor Who's first great, and lost, epics.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

The Original Doctor Who: Galaxy 4 (Story 18, 1965)

The introductory story to Doctor Who's third season is surprisingly typical. The Doctor, Vicki and Steven land on a desolate planet with three suns hanging in the sky. There is no sound, which is odd for a world so seemingly well-suited to life. Then a robot appears... A cute little thing that Vicki nicknames a "chumbly", for its chumbling movement. From there, the trio are embroiled in a desperate wargame between two species that couldn't be more different.

Galaxy 4 is one of the unfortunate lost serials from the early years of the series. So far there are only the audio files, which have been released on narrated CD by the BBC, and a few film clips appearing on the Lost in Time DVD. Together they convey the moral that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. The chumblies are the machine servants of a species called the Rill, a monstrously hideous alien race. The Doctor and his companions are rescued from the chumblies by a gorgeous race of warrior women called the Drahvins. Maaga, the Drahvin leader, informs them that the evil Rills caused them to crash on the planet and killed one of their number. Furthermore, the planet is in its last days before disintegration. But Maaga has a plan to capture the crashed Rill ship, which is in better condition, and escape. For this plot to work, she needs The Doctor's help.

Needless to say, not all is as it seems. They learn that Maaga is the only one of the Drahvins who can think independently. The rest of these gun-toting supermodels are emotionless cloned soldiers. There are only enough men on their homeworld to breed officers, the surplus exterminated. Maaga also has an uneasy air of violence and mistrust about her. This is so pronounced that she fires on a chumbly robot approaching their ship, explaining that the Rills use them to disseminate a lying offer to escape the planet together. When The Doctor offers to use his own equipment to determine if the planet is going to explode like the Rill say, Maaga holds back Vicki as a hostage. Then when Vicki and The Doctor go to reconnoiter the Rill ship, Steven is withheld.

By this point, about one and a half episodes into the four-episode run, the plot is telegraphed. The Rills did shoot down the Drahvin ship... after the Drahvins fired on them. As for the dead Drahvin, she was injured and the Rills sent out chumblies to help her. Maaga came along, fought off the chumblies, and then killed the injured crewwoman herself. She asserted that the Rills were "responsible" for her death. Their offer to bring the Drahvins with them on their ship was sincere. The Rill come from a planet devoid of conflict whose inhabitants communicate telepathically. Vicki learns all this when she is captive in the Rill ship, having seen the horror of the creatures for herself. Yes they are hideous, but that does not make them any less intelligent or benevolent.

This heartwarming story ends as one might imagine, with everyone learning not to judge a book by its cover and that leaving people to die on an exploding planet is okay if they're bad. The TARDIS escapes in the knick of time, sending its passengers back to Earth in those days already ancient when Homer wrote about them.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

The Original Doctor Who: The Time Meddler (Story 17, 1965)

Susan, The Doctor's granddaughter, has long-since chosen to stay on post-Dalek Earth to marry her mortal beloved. Ian and Barbara have left the infinite confines of the TARDIS, procuring a hapless Dalek time machine and returning to 1960's London. Vicki remains with the curmudgeonly old man, but there is also a new arrival... A stowaway. In the chaos of the battle between the Daleks and Mechanoids on the planet Mechanus, human astronaut Steven Taylor found his way into the policebox and become the newest companion.

The Time Meddler marks a few occasions. The first is the departure of the last of the original companions. As mentioned, Ian and Barbara took their leave at the close of the previous serial, The Chase. There is a new set of companions now, neither of which are using the then-modern day as a reference. Vicki, Susan's replacement after The Dalek Invasion of Earth, was from the 25th century and Steven is from approximately the 23rd. That opens up some theoretical possibilities. Finally there is the titular occasion of our first meeting with another member of The Doctor's race besides his family, and a whole new type of Doctor Who story.

The Doctor, Vicki and Steven arrive in England in 1066 and it takes a great deal of convincing Steven that they have indeed travelled through time. Not helping the case are anachronous artifacts, like pocket watches and gramophones. It seems that another time traveller is playing a wicked game. Queue The Meddling Monk. Though the name of their species is never stated (and would not be until the end of the Second Doctor's reign), he is another Time Lord with another TARDIS. He also has a plan involving the Viking invasion of England.

These elements mark The Time Meddler as the first pseudo-historical of the series. To this point, the strong Science Fiction content was limited to stories set in the future or on alien worlds. Of the twin educational goals of this children's show, science was for the future and history was for the past. There was no time to involve The Doctor and his companions in Sci-Fi antics in antiquity because there was so much to teach.

At the close of the second season, with the original cast gone save for William Hartnell himself, producers were ready to try new things. It did take some convincing however. The public could not, at first, make heads nor tails of the pseudo-historical. Toasters and gramophones amongst the early Britons indeed! Yet The Time Meddler would become the first of many. The remainder of the First Doctor's run would have another four straight historicals (or, more accurately, three straight historicals and one musical Western), but afterwards, pseudo-historicals like The Time Meddler would take over for any adventure set in the past. Nowadays, Cyberkings in Victorian England and Daleks in the London Blitz are the norm and historicals are unheard of.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

The Original Doctor Who: Quinnis (2010)

Quinnis was a brief mention in the third First Doctor adventure, Edge of Destruction. About "four or five" adventures before, the planet immediately before their arrival on Earth, Susan and The Doctor briefly lost the TARDIS. No more was said about it.

Seeing a possibility, Marc Platt drafted Quinnis, the second of Big Finish Audio's Companion Chronicles to feature Carol Ann Ford reprising her role as The Doctor's granddaughter. Susan is still on Earth in the wake of The Dalek Invasion of Earth, excusing herself from another welcome ceremony for the moon colonists finally rescued from the lunar orb. Her thoughts turn to her son, Alex, and we the listeners are introduced to one of the most original and questionable pieces of Doctor Who mythology added by Big Finish.

Marc Platt also scripted the Eighth Doctor audio adventure An Earthly Child, in which we are introduced to rebellious young Alex, ensnared by a militantly xenophobic group called Earth United. Along comes the Eighth Doctor to blow Alex's mind. The family reunites in Platt's Relative Dimensions, and in between is Quinnis. Of course, this raises a continuity question with what was established during the Tenth Doctor's tenure. The half-humanity of the Eighth Doctor was admirably dismissed by Russell T. Davies with the line that human and Time Lord genes are incompatible. Yet Big Finish has provided us with Alex, child of Susan and David Campbell.

Nevertheless, the point of Quinnis is not The Doctor's family relations. It is the opportunity to hear of what happened in those days before Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright introduced us to the TARDIS. Back then, the chameleon circuit still worked, so when the TARDIS crossed the rough time tracks into the Fourth Universe and landed on Quinnis, it was able to take on the appearance of a colourful market stall. The pair of errant Gallifreyans have arrived on a parched world, in a city composed entirely of an intricate network of aqueducts fringed by homes.

Through some inopportune questions and his querulous nature, The Doctor ends up becoming the mediaeval-like village's "rain-maker", charged with bringing the long-overdue rains. The previous rain-maker couldn't deliver and was literally tossed out of town. Beneath the web of bridges is a plain where no-one goes and anyone who does is never heard from again. While The Doctor is dealing with this problem, Susan makes the acquaintance of Meedla (played by Carol Ann Ford's own daughter, Tara-Louise Kaye). Apparently an orphan, Meedla expresses an eerie sort of prophetic vision. She predicts the onset of the storms, and a chaos that follows, and sorrowing tears for Susan.

Quinnis makes several departures from the preceding Companion Chronicles starring Ford as Susan and William Russell as Ian Chesterton. Both of these stories - Here There be Monsters and Transit of Venus respectively - carry the aura of the low-budget original series. One can imagine the plant-like navigator of the human space ship rendered in mâché like the Animus of The Web Planet, or the set of a 18th century tall ship. One cannot extend the same courtesy of "Bridgetown" on Quinnis. Ford made the same observation in the behind-the-scenes interview affixed to the end of the programme. The scale of the story is small, only a handful of characters, but the sets would be tremendous, Romanesque. Platt cited his own vacations in Saharan Africa as an influence. There is also a pretty nice scene of The Doctor shooting catastrophically rampant weeds from aboard an ornithopter.

Other habits of the script, like allowing the villains superstitiously regarded as evil to actually be evil, align it squarely with the tone and type of other Doctors' audio adventures. This is sensible enough, as Platt's writing credits encompass the Eighth, Sixth and Fifth Doctors, as well as a television credit on the Seventh. He is also responsible for one of the most well-known, dubiously canonical Doctor Who novels, Lungbarrow.

Still, despite these concerns, Quinnis is a welcome excursion into The Doctor's pre-televised explorations through Time and Space. Platt even sets it up very nicely for why Susan would spend several months in high school at their next destination.

Saturday, 8 January 2011

VEx December Contest - American Pickers Season 1

Our friends at History have given us a very special and cool giveaway for the holiday month of December. We've got two sets of the season one DVDs from the series American Pickers!

What is American Pickers you ask?
Part sleuths, part antiques experts, and part cultural historians – Mike and Frank’s adventures bring them to small towns across the country in search of weird and wonderful Americana. Each treasure hunt leads them to fascinating, quirky characters – everyday people with stories that open a window onto American life.

As professional “pickers,” these childhood buddies comb through memorabilia and artifacts, hoping to find treasures among the trash. Sometimes they make a few bucks; and sometimes they walk away with little more than the history of an item.

To enter the contest, just leave a comment to this post. On midnight, Dec. 26th, I'll draw two names out of the tophat.

In the meantime, American Pickers, the #1 new cable series of 2010, returns for new episodes of its second season beginning tomorrow, Monday, December 6 at 9pm ET on History. Be sure to check it out!

And the winners are: I had to redraw for the giveaway, and while tanya904 is awaiting her copy, ArtSnark can look forward to theirs! Check your inbox for a message! Thank you both, and to everyone, for your continued support of Voyages Extraordinaires!

Thursday, 6 January 2011

The Original Doctor Who: Transit of Venus (2009)

Whatever happened to Ian Chesterton? The special introductions filmed for The Crusade brought William Russell back to home video, and then Big Finish Productions followed up with the fifth of their Companion Chronicles audio-dramas starring a companion of the First Doctor. Transit of Venus is also the second to focus on one of the original companions.

Where the previous one, Here There Be Monsters, was a Science Fiction tale from the perspective of Susan, Transit of Venus is a classic historical from that of Ian Chesterton. Immediately after leaving the Sense-Sphere, a furious Doctor declared that he was going to abandon Ian and Barbara the next time they landed on Earth. You thought that was during the French Revolution? Think again.

Instead, they end up on the Endeavour: Captain Cook's celebrated ship, aboard which he claimed Australia for England. The TARDIS materializes on the deck of the ship, Ian and Barbara leave, and the next thing Ian knows, he wakes in the hold with The Doctor looking over him and the news that Susan and Barbara were tossed overboard in the big blue box! Adjusting to the fact that they will have to spend the rest of their lives in the 1700s (and for The Doctor, that will be a very long life), they settle into life on the ship by masquerading as visitors from Venus. Venus, Ian remembers, was making a transit across the Sun that year, forming a... well... not entirely perfect or plausible explanation, but one that Cook does not press. Ian immediately makes the acquaintance of ship's botanist Joseph Banks, who fells an albatross while quoting from Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner... Two years before Coleridge's birth. Obviously, not all is as it seems.

As scriptwriter Jacqueline Rayner explained in the included bonus interview, her model was Marco Polo. That lost story set the tone for the historicals and was a sweeping epic that would be perfect for the Companion Chronicles. It would also have to be. Transit of Venus would have been impossible on television in 1964, requiring tall ships and tropical foreign coasts. It could have been done, one supposes, with judiciously not showing anything, but plays better on the screen of the mind's eye.

Russell is a pleasure to listen to. The pretense of having a disembodied voice to talk to is long gone. Now, we are listening to grandfatherly Mr. Chesterton (who did marry Barbara, according to The Sarah Jane Adventures) tell an old tall tale of his time on the TARDIS. His impression of the Doctor could use some work - no one seems to nail it quite like another, later companion - but that's all par for the story. This time, we're just curling up in front of the fire while he sits on his rocking chair, drifting in and out of tangents.

In the end, everyone survives but The Doctor is still furious with the pair of school teachers. He still plans on dispensing with them at the next earliest opportunity, though ol' Mr. Chesterton leaves it open, with a sly and imagined wink, as to whether it will be in Revolutionary France or somewhere else entirely.