Tuesday, 31 January 2012

The Original Doctor Who: The Savages (Story 26, 1966)

As the penultimate serial of Doctor Who's third season, The Savages sees the first of three departures in rapid succession. This is the last appearance of Steven Taylor, to be immediately followed in the season three finale by Dodo Chaplet and in The Tenth Planet by the original Doctor himself.

After suffering through the Gunfight at the OK Corral, the TARDIS materializes on a futuristic planet. The Doctor, Steven and Dodo are quite unexpectedly expected by the civilization of the Elders, who have been tracking the ship through space and time. The Doctor, for one, is delighted by the warm reception from an advanced and enlightened civilization. Delighted, that is, until he learns the secret of their post-scarcity society.

Much Science Fiction takes the optimistic, Star Trek approach to a post-scarcity economy. In this setting, it is technology that has somehow solved the problem of want, leading to a truly just and equitable society. In the aforementioned space opera, "replicators" literally materialize food and materials from thin air without resource extraction or manufacturing industry.

Yet in real history, those societies that have come closest to any kind of post-scarcity economy have actually built luxury on top a foundation of oppression. Though we might laud ancient philosophers like Aristotle and Aurelius for their enlightened insights, the only way for a person thousands of years ago to have enough time to sit and think was to own slaves who did the actual work. In relation to the Ood, the Tenth Doctor made this same observation about modern Western civilization and its reliance on cheap wares produced by Asian sweatshops (for example, the First Doctor and TARDIS playset sitting on my bookshelf, and my bookshelf itself).

The Savages makes a very transparent analogy for this. The Elders' society is made possible by literally sucking the life-force out of another race, called the Savages. The Savages were themselves once a proud and creative race whose culture and ambition have been robbed of them by the life-sucking machinery of the Elders. The Doctor cannot condone this exploitation, so his punishment for speaking up as an activist is to be subjected to the machine himself. Meanwhile Steven and Dodo integrate into the Savages and ferment revolution in what essentially amounts to a terrorist cell. Sometimes Doctor Who can be just as timely as when it was written.

Unfortunately The Savages is also one of the serials lost to posterity by the BBC's shortsighted policy of disposing tape in the Sixties and Seventies. All four episodes of the serial are lost, save for a few brief snippets to be seen on the Lost in Time DVD set. The soundtracks remain, narrated for CD by Peter Purves. Besides the misfortune of missing any of the series, this is especially disappointing because we lose the departure of Steven Taylor, as played by Peter Purves.

At the end, the horrible life-sucking machines have been destroyed and everything is back at square one. That includes recrimination and suspicion. Just as in 1927's Metropolis, there must be a mediator between the head and the hands. That is the heart, and in this case, the impartial mediator is Steven. Encouraged by the Doctor, he gives up a life of roaming to settle into life brokering peace to a world in need.

Sunday, 29 January 2012

VEx January Giveaway - Tachyon Press Package

I'm clearing a few things out around here, and amongst them is a suite of advance review copies I've received of publications by Tachyon. One of them is Joe R. Lansdale's Flaming Zeppelins collection. To understand that, you're going to need a short story found in the Steampunk anthology. And if you're going to get Steampunk then you might as well get Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded. One lucky reader will receive all three by leaving a comment on this post and ensuring that their contact information is attached one way or another. The draw will be made on midnight, Sunday, January 29th.

Thank you one and all for your ongoing support of Voyages Extraordinaires: Scientific Romances in a Bygone Age!

And the winner is... Barry Huddleston! Check your inbox for a message Barry, and thank you to everyone, once again, for all your support! Stay tuned next month for another giveaway!

Saturday, 28 January 2012

The Clock of the Centuries (1902)

If you have not yet heard of Black Coat Press, consider this the voice crying out in the wilderness. Created in 2003 and edited by renowned writers Jean-Marc and Randy Lofficer, Black Coat specializes in English translations of classic French Science Fiction, Horror and Mystery. The earliest work they've gone back to is Charles de Fieux, Chevalier de Mouhy's Lamékis from 1738 and range up to recent work by Jean-Claude Dunyach and the Lofficers. Now that they have begun to transfer their corpus to epub and pdf formats, these obscure classics are but an easy and very worthwhile pittance to have added to one's e-reader.

My first was The Clock of the Centuries by the great Albert Robida, as translated by Brian Stableford. Written almost 20 years after his most celebrated book, The Twentieth Century, this 1902 novella has the cynical conservative Robida invent a novel catastrophe: the sudden reversal of time. A series of natural disasters sweep the world, the scale of which would send shivers of pleasure down the spine of Roland Emmerich. In the wake of them, a strange new cosmic order has taken over. For example, the sun now rises in the West and sets in the East. Hair regains its colour. Fallen teeth grow back. A couple on the verge of divorce before the catastrophe rekindle their youthful ardour. And then the dead start coming back to life.

An old philosopher whose poetic sensibilities have returned at long last lionizes the new order. No more is humanity to be ground under the heel of groping uncertainty about the future, victim to the whims of chance and fancy. Going backwards, he proclaims, is the real progress. The errors of the present can be undone, and with cognizance of history so too can the errors of the past. Devastating wars could be avoided, disasters undone, and a perfect society achieved by the time we revert back to living in caves.

Though a historical romantic in his own right who recreated "Old Paris" for the 1900 edition of the Exposition Universelle, Robida is not immune to recognizing some of the great dangers of this sort of nostalgic utopianism. As a man, his undesceased father and his very late grandfather sit around discussing the issues of the day, it becomes apparent that the past cannot come back without the attitudes that made it what it was. Grandfather has no use for these newfangled steam engines and electricity, and less for the viewpoints of his descendants. It reminded me of a discussion I once had with a friend about my fetish for Victorian aesthetics divorced from the social views of the Victorian Era, and her still open question about whether the aesthetics were themselves a product of the social views. Is it possible to have the opiated women of the Pre-Raphaelites without the Romantic pedestal-placing that was itself a product of treating women as anything other than fully equal human beings? Robida might say no, though it doesn't bother him if the approving tones describing the rapidly extinguishing feminist movement are any indication.

Robida does have a bit of fun at the expense of his characters. There is the artist, unknown in life whose work only appreciated after death, now facing the prospect of another round of poverty. Because he is alive to resume production, his works are once again worthless. The author, however, is at his best when he is still the Romantic. Being France, everyone is dreading when time reverses to the terrors of the Revolution. Into the mouth of one of time's prematurely returned specimens, Robida inserts a dazzling, passionate speech concluding with:
Your liberty, as we saw before you came to understand it, is oppression and violence, a brutal and disordered tyranny leading inevitably to the establishment of regulated tyranny. Your impossible equality will be a stupid abasement of all to a sub-normal level by a roller-press! Your liberty of 1789 ended in the prisons of 1793, where everyone found themselves equal before the guillotine, the supreme and final expression of that sweet word "fraternity," which was never so misunderstood as it was on the day when such a scaffold was made - yes, the fraternity of aristocratic and plebian heads in the bran of the basket.

Stableford has insightfully supplemented The Clock of the Centuries with an earlier time-twisting short story by Robida. Yesterday Now, written in 1890 in response to the 1889 Exposition in Paris, has a mad scientist pulling the court of King Louis XIV out of the past and into the present. Nineteenth Century France is seen afresh through the eyes of the Sun King in this satire, with the usual affirmations of astonishment and distress. He wonders what great monument is being built beneath all that scaffolding, until his scientist-host informs him that the Eiffel Tower is the finished monument itself. Louis is incredulous. Likewise is he nonplussed with the telephone, phonograph, omnibus and aerostat.

With the possible exception of Back to the Future, is there ever a story in which the fish from the past takes to being out of the water? Some of the best moments of the short are when past and present converge, thanks to the scientist using the palace of Versailles as his staging ground. The king's guard are baffled by commoners in the inner chambers, and the tour guide is baffled by these unauthorized historical reenactors. Parisians, nurtured in an Age of Industry in which everything is possible hardly bat an eyelash at the resurrected monarch, except to crowd around him as a tourist attraction.

In both stories, Robida demonstrates his Romantic sensibilities, his nostalgic view of the past and how it might comment on the perceived follies of the modern day. Yet he is not an unabashed nostalgist. He is still capable of reflecting on how we might be able to bring back the good of the past expunged of its challenges, if such a thing is even possible. If left unchecked, it is not only the good that will come back with the old day, but the bad as well.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

The Original Doctor Who: The Gunfighters (Story 25, 1966)

Bidding farewell to the infamous Doc Holliday and turning to enter back into the TARDIS, Dodo stops for a moment. She overhears the saloon piano belt out another round of The Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon, but the refrain dies away as the Doctor comments: "My dear Dodo, my dear Dodo... you know you're fast becoming prey to every cliché-ridden convention in the American West." That is a very apt description of the first Doctor's 25th adventure, The Gunfighters.

As though the historicals were losing steam by this point, and as if they knew that it would be the pentultimate one of the series, the writers decided to take a different approach. Rather than a straightforward episode of Doctor Who, what we get is a fairly straightforward Western with all of those cliché-ridden conventions. And on top of that, we get them with a farcially fake American accents.

All of the quintessential Western stuff is there: saloons and saloon girls, sheriffs and marshalls, outlaws and dusty streets. To add to the air of cinematic unreality is the everpresent Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon, being a musical narrative in twinkling piano that mirrors the Ballad of Davy Crockett. Not five minutes goes by without the unseen singer catching us up on what we just saw happen. The story itself is set during the most enduring myth of the Old West: the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

The show does have a bit of fun with it, however, and the levity prevents us from looking too far down our noses at it. Prefiguring Marty McFly, Steven is duded up the way he figures folks in the West were, all satin and fringe like a Fifties Country singer. A good deal of the plot is taken up in the Clantons mistaking the Doctor for another Doc by the name of Holliday. In the course of mistaken identity and temporary deputization, the pacifist Doctor is forced to admit that "All these people are giving me guns, I do wish they wouldn't."

There isn't a speck of the historical event that is related accurately, even once the Doctor, Dodo and Steven are taken out of the equation. It is unlikely that this had much to do with the poor reception that The Gunfighters got at the time it aired. Though not the lowest-rated episode ever, as is sometimes maintained, it did receive terribly poor Audience Approval ratings and is widely panned by critics. However, like plenty of Westerns from then to now (the big budget Wild Wild West feature film comes to mind), they seem to have been taking it far more seriously than the writers and cast did themselves.

Not that any of the cast or crew lacked in the adequate performance of their duties, but this serial is so obviously meant to be a corny Western that it's hard not to like it. The Wild West is one of the most versatile of all settings, lending itself quite easily to everything from lighthearted comedy to the roughest of historical realism. The Gunfighters is certainly one of the bloodiest stories involving the First Doctor - given the intimate attention to gunfighting and the cheapness of human life in the climactic meeting at the O.K. Corral - but Doctor Who can hardly be blamed for taking the more lighthearted approach. It was originally intended as childrens' programing, after all.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

The Original Doctor Who: The Celestial Toymaker (Story 24, 1966)

The tenure of the First Doctor is noteworthy, of course, for introducing the character and his means of conveyance, as well as two of his most persistent and popular foes, the Daleks and the Cybermen. It also provided a set of villains who were regrettably seen again rarely, if ever. One of these was the Celestial Toymaker.

Played by the late Michael Gough, the Toymaker is one of the Doctor’s most frightening enemies, by virtue of his near omnipotent power. Passing through time and space after surviving the incident of the Ark, the Doctor is rendered invisible and immaterial by this malevolent force. It draws the TARDIS into an octagonal room, and the team of the Doctor, Steven and Dodo quickly learn that they are captives of the Toymaker. It seems that the Doctor and Toymaker have met before, but the former made a good decision to high-tail it as quickly as possible. Ever since the Toymaker has rued that day, for the Doctor is the only intellect that can offer him a challenge.

Nor are his challenges idle. The Toymaker hides the TARDIS and lays out his ultimatum: to leave, Steven and Dodo must defeat a set of simple games before the Doctor wins a complex “trilogic” game. If Doctor fails or the companions are too slow, then the whole lot of them will be trapped in the Toymaker’s realm forever. The Doctor will get off easy, being the Toymaker’s eternal opponent. The companions will be stuck as literal playthings, pulled out of the dollhouse when new contestants are abducted into the game. Previous victims are Steven and Dodo’s competitors, and they will do anything to win.

This is another serial, like The Time Meddler, which not only features a unique villain but also suffers William Hartnell’s vacation time. For much of the story, the Doctor is reduced to an invisible and immaterial form whose scant lines were conveniently pre-recorded. Not that it matters much, as this is one of the infamous lost stories, the original recordings of which were excised by the BBC. Only the fourth and final episode remains, available on the Lost in Time DVD. Otherwise, the audio tracks have been released on CD, narrated by Peter Purves.

With Hartnell absent, the story really belongs to the companions and is revealing of their personalities. For instance, Dodo is bloody annoying and thoughtless, frustrating both Steven and the listener with her refusal to take the game seriously. Sometimes she succumbs to her own sense of compassion, which is noble of itself. Other times, however, she’s just dim. Thankfully she is one of the least enduring companions, short of the ones who died almost immediately after being acquired.

More surprising is Steven’s ruthlessness. Diametrically opposed to Dodo, he is driven to win the games and find the TARDIS regardless of the cost to the other victims of the Toymaker. Steven has always been a bit interesting like that, though. On the one-for-one companion replacement plan that the Doctor has registered, Steven entered as Ian and Barbara left, having to fulfill both of their roles. In the personality graft, he inherited both of their combativeness with neither of their bemused, conciliatory attitudes. He’s the first companion to take none of the Doctor’s crap. As a consequence he has already walked out on the Doctor a number of times, and is being prepared for his final departure in a few short serials.

Like the Meddling Monk before and the Dream Lord since, the Toymaker is hoist by his own petard and the TARDIS moves on to its next destination. He does get in one last act of vengeance however. The final contest for the companions was against an insufferable man-child named Cyril who gave Dodo a bag of candies. The Doctor decides to partake of the goods and chips a tooth. This final spite forces the crew to find a good dentist, which takes them to Tombstone, Arizona on the eve of the most famous gunfight in history.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

The Original Doctor Who: The Ark (Story 23, 1966)

Generation gaps abound in the 23rd serial of the original Doctor Who. The first plays out in the confines of the TARDIS itself. Having lost three companions in quick succession - Vicki in The Mythmakers and both Katarina and Sara Kingdom in The Daleks' Masterplan - the Doctor and Steven pick up young, plucky 1960's girl named Dorothea Chaplet, or Dodo for short. Much to the Doctor's outdated, grandfatherly chagrin, she's given to raiding his wardrobe for the strangest outfits and tends to speak in the deplorable manner that the young people of today do. "Fab" and "okay" indeed!

The other plays out across the generations in the titular spaceship. The crew's first encounter with it came at approximately the year 10,000,000 by the Doctor's calculations, just as the Earth was being consumed by the Sun's final novic gasp (something that he would later glimpse firsthand in his ninth incarnation). Fleeing the planet, the remaining humans have packed all of her lifeforms, plant and animal, into a gigantic space ship en route to the planet Refusis II. This planet was chosen for it's wonderfully Earth-like conditions, though it is suspiciously populated by the ethereal, disembodied Refusians.

Joining the humans on their trip is an alien race known as Monoids, who are somewhat amphibious-looking and have a single eye where the human mouth would be. However, this docile, quasi-servant race is the least of anybody's concern. Dodo, it seems, brought the common cold into this 57th Segment of time, where it has been extinct for so long that it quickly accelerates into a fullblown plague. Paranoid that this is a germ warfare plot by the Refusians, the humans try the trio of TARDIS time travelers in a McCarthyite kangaroo court.

Only the intervention of the aged human commander, who is ill himself, buys the Doctor the time required to reinvent the cure for the cold. Successful, the supicions of the conservative faction are relieved and the visitors are given the grand tour of the ship, which Dodo dubs "The Ark," including the towering statue of Homo sapiens due to be completed by the end of their 700 year voyage to Refusis II.

Bidding their hosts adieu, the TARDIS dematerializes... only to rematerialize on the same spot a moment later. A moment in relative time for the Doctor, Dodo and Steven, however, equates to 700 years for The Ark! The TARDIS has brought them back to see the consequences of their intervention. The first ominous sign is the completed statue with the head of a Monoid rather than the head of a man.

Now, as the ship bears down on its destination, the Doctor and his companions learn that they did not cure the common cold as such. Rather, it mutated into a less deadly but more insidious form, sapping the will of the human population and allowing the Monoids to revolt. The tables have turned for the former slaves, though how that bears out with the incoporeal Refusians remains to be seen.

Overall, The Ark is a very good story that takes advantage of the unique characteristics of time travel. Many of these were later picked up by the most recent Doctors in the "New Earth Trilogy": The End of the World, New Earth, and Gridlock. It's doubtful that the New Earth of New Earth, and it's New New York (learning as we did during The Chase, courtesy of Vicki, that the original New York was destroyed in The Dalek Invasion of Earth), is Refusis II, but it's a provocative thought. Nevertheless, we are still dealing with the destruction of the Earth and colonization of a new one through the Doctor's repeat visits over time.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

The Original Doctor Who: The Massacre of St Bartholomew's Eve (Story 22, 1966)

The Doctor cannot seem to stay away from France. Early on in the series we discover that the French Revolution is one of his favorite time periods, whatever that might reveal about his personality. The Doctor, Susan, Ian and Barbara had a chance to experience it first-hand in the eighth story and first season finale, The Reign of Terror. Now those three companions are long gone and The Doctor and Steven have returned a few centuries before, in time for a relatively obscure historical event known as the Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre.

The actual massacre occurred on August 23rd, 1572, the eve of the Feast Day of St. Bartholomew the Apostle. At this time, France was a hotbed of religious controversy frequently breaking down into outright violence. Shortly before, a peace treaty ended three years of civil war between French Catholics and the Huguenots, or French Calvinist Protestants. In 1571, Huguenot Admiral Gaspard de Coligny was readmitted to the French court to the outrage of Catholics. Furthermore the Queen Mother Catherine de' Medici conspired to keep the peace by marrying her daughter Margaret, sister to King Charles IX, to the Huguenot prince Henry of Navarre (future King Henry IV). The procession of Huguenots escorting the prince to stunchly Catholic Paris was a provocation that fundamentalist mobs could not ignore.

After the wedding of prince and princess, an attempt was made on de Coligny's life. No one is exactly sure who called the hit: the Cardinal of Lorraine, Duke of Alba, or Catherine de' Medici herself. Whoever it was, it created a crisis in Paris that culminated in the massacre. Huguenots demanded justice backed up by a camp of 4000 outside the gates of the city. In response, de Coligny home was raided and he was successfully murdered, his body thrown out a window. This set off the mob violence that lasted for three days and ended up with between 5000 and 30,000 Huguenot men, women and children dead. In the week following, the Crown paid workers to haul over 1000 bodies that had washed up on the banks of the Seine.

The Doctor and Steven were thrown into this sectarian mess only a few days before the massacre, during the attempted assassination of de Coligny. The advantage to script writers John Lucarotti and Donald Tosh was the obscurity of the event. Though it did much to solidify Protestant antipathy towards the Catholic Church and place the agenda of French national unity above Christian religious disunity, it was and remains a relatively unknown event. As a consequence, the viewer is swept along in a suspenseful, ever-escalating drama against which the time travellers are helpless.

The Massacre is one of the lost stories, preserved only in audio form narrated by Peter Purves. Because of this, one of the central conceits of the drama is also lost, being the identical resemblance of the Doctor to the Abbot of Amboise, retainer to the Cardinal of Lorraine. This puts Steven into a tough spot as he has fallen in with the Huguenots and must explain why his friend is supposedly masquerading as the sect's most furious opponent. Steven has also made the acquaintance of a Huguenot serving girl named Anne Chaplet. This connection infuriates Steven when the Doctor forces them to leave the scene of the massacre without her, effectively consigning her to death in the name of non-interference.

When they arrive in 1966 London, Steven reams out the Doctor's lack of compassion and storms out of the TARDIS, promising never to return. At this juncture we are treated to one of William Hartnell's greatest monologues, easily the equal to his farewell to Susan at the end of The Dalek Invasion of Earth.
Steven... Even after all this time, he cannot understand. I dare not change the course of history. Well, at least I taught him to take some precautions; he did remember to look at the scanner before he opened the doors. And now, they're all gone. All gone. None of them could understand. Not even my little Susan. Or Vicki. And as for Barbara and Chatterton - Chesterton - they were all too impatient to get back to their own time. And now, Steven. Perhaps I should go home. Back to my own planet. But I can't... I can't...

Hartnell is often accused of doddering to the point of incompetence, but this is grossly unfair. Though somewhat irascible himself, the Doctor was a character and within that character he could range from comedy to incredible pathos like this speech.

It's not quite over for him. Surprisingly, a young lady stumbles into the TARDIS looking for the phone and taking altogether too long to figure out that it's not actually a police box. Then Steven bursts back in, telling the Doctor that they have to leave, as two Bobbies are on their way over. With the flick of a switch, the two travellers have a new companion. Incredulous, Steven asks her name. It is Dodo Chaplet, possible descendant of Anne Chaplet (and, in the realms of fan speculation, the innuendo-laden descendant of Steven as well). An unfilmed scene would have also had Ian and Barbara catch a glimpse of the old blue phonebox dematerialize.

Saturday, 14 January 2012

Merkabah Rider: Have Glyphs Will Travel (2011)

Edward M. Erdelac's demon-hunting Hasidic gunslinger of the Weird West returns in the third novel of the series, Have Glyphs Will Travel. The first book of the series, Tales of a High Planes Drifter, introduced our hero and the author's vision of the Biblical West. In this New World frontier straight out of the Old Testament, demons, succubi and heretical cults tempt many to sacrifice life and soul. The second book, The Mensch With No Name, cast most of this unique vision aside to involve The Rider in the oncoming "Hour of Incursion" by the Great Old Ones, and all the attendant doubts this would inspire. If temptation was the theme of the first and doubt the theme of the second, then the theme of the third is exposition.

The Rider was both saved and cursed at the end of the previous novel. Thanks to the work of another member of his sect of Jewish mystics, he has once more become invulnerable to the attacks of Lilith's invisible demon spawn. Names are power and Lilith learned his name, making all of his abilities and talismans useless. Kabede, his new associate from Africa wielding the power of the Rod of Aaron and the Book of Life, figures out a quick and easy solution: rip The Rider's name out of the Book. He is now an anomaly, a literal mensch with no name. This restores his power but will cost him his life, for if he reaches the Day of Atonement a few months hence without having a new name written into the Book of Life, he will die. Oh, and any guesses which day is going to stage the Hour of Incursion?

Given a new lease on a cursed life, The Rider is out for answers. He finds quite a few of them as well, whether he can trust them or not. The first episode brings the fleeing Rider and Kabede to a US Army fort to hold off an assault by members of Adon's Creed. Adon, you may recall, was the turncoat teacher of Rider who betrayed and slaughtered the Sons of the Essenes. Our dynamic duo picks up a third in The Rider's old pal from the US Civil War, and this action-packed opening interlude deposits us in a major fight against another Great Old One. A Native American army is gathering in Mexico under the wing of a war shaman preaching the hour when the white devils will be cleansed from reality.

In Mexico we get our first big chunk of exposition. For the first two novels, it has been established that The Rider was about as alone as alone could be. The Sons of the Essenes had been destroyed and The Rider was just about the only person who was prepared to face down the forces of sin, death and the Devil... and worse, the forces of nihilistic chaos. However, a peacock dandy in a gaudy gypsy cart pulled by camels and an Apache warrior met in a previous episode expose Rider to the wider forces around the world (and beyond) who are aware of the Outer Gods and are fighting against the Hour of Incursion as well.

Erdelac ably channels the spirit of Lovecraft in casting depraved tribes of savage cannibals and lycanthropes as the servitors of Nyarlathotep. Still, opting not to hew too closely to the notoriously racist creator of the Mythos, he makes the Apache warriors of real history into the heroes of this episode, including Goyaałé the legendary Geronimo. In the process, The Rider learns the reassuring news that he is not in the fight alone while at the same time and for the same reasons suffering the demoralizing news that the metaphysics taught to him by his sect are not the whole story.

Later, The Rider ends up in a prison in Yuma, which gives us our second dose of exposition. Better yet, this dose is applied to us by the stage entrance of Adon. In this encounter, Adon is posing as the acting superintendent of that same prison and The Rider is at his utterly weakest, shorn of his beard, payot sidecurls, mystic weapons, talismans, and ritual purity. Understandably, such weakness is orchestrated by Adon, who proceeds with his psychological attack by the most insidious method known to man: telling the truth. At least, the truth as Adon believes it to be... The truth about the Outer Gods and Great Old Ones, the truth about God, the truth about reality, the upcoming Hour of Incursion, and his own Thanatos motivation for turning against the mystic order to herald cosmic annihilation.

Rider has been inundated with information. He received plenty from Lucifer at the close of The Mensch With No Name and more from his extradimensional ally Faustus and Adon in Have Glyphs Will Travel. Will he be able to transform this information into genuine wisdom? After all, one hopes that the treasure of wisdom is what one will gain from suffering temptation and doubt.

Right smack in the middle of this volume is a delight, pulling aside from that overarching theme. Rider takes his leave of his associates to repay a debt and perhaps fulfill a lustful fantasy. Way back in that whorehouse run by Lilith and her succubi daughters, one of those said daughters helped him escape. Now she is being punished for her deeds and Rider is set to be her white knight. The drama that unfolds in this episode is worthy of the writings of C.S. Lewis, whose Screwtape analysed the twisted moral inversions under which evil operates. Once again we see the same sensitive and insightful reflection on spirituality that drove the marvelous first novel of the series. It is a welcome respite from the cosmic nihilism of the Mythos-inspired saga.

When last I heard, the next novel of the series was slated to be the final chapter. Despite my misgivings about Erdelac's reliance on Lovecraftian themes (not for lack of appreciation for Lovecraft, just a weariness at seeing them used again when a really interesting concept is seemingly shunted aside), the whole Merkabah Rider series transcends the Weird West genre ghetto. Too often, Weird Westerns are graded on an axis of how enjoyable they are rather than how objectively good they might be. The Merkabah Rider manages to supply us with both.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

The Original Doctor Who: The Guardian of the Solar System (2010)

What happens to Sara Kingdom now?

The Guardian of the Solar System wraps up the trilogy of Sara Kingdom stories contained within Big Finish Audio's Companion Chronicles line. When we last left our protagonists in The Drowned World, our investigator has agreed to stay trapped in the mysterious, supertechnological house in which dwells the echo of Sara Kingdom. The years have passed by and his daughter, cured of the plague raging outside, leaves the house herself and dies in an accident. The investigator contemplates that his time is at an end and asks for one last story from Kingdom.

She tells of the time that the TARDIS, still on the run from the Daleks and their master plan, materializes inside a giant clock. A few minutes of investigation yields two facts. The first is that the most integral components of the clocks are countless blind, aged men trapped within it. The second is that they have gone about a year back in time from the moment that they learned about the scheme concocted by Mavic Chen, the Guardian of the Solar System, to ally with the Daleks. The Doctor and Steven bugger off to find a way to liberate the men and Kingdom is taken to see Mavic Chen by her own brother Bret... The very same brother who she killed during the course of The Daleks' Master Plan, after he joined with the Doctor against the Daleks.

Sara Kingdom sees a critical opportunity here. The Doctor is not around to harangue her about not changing a single note of history and she has no second thoughts. Presented before her is a chance to save her brother and dissuade the Guardian from entering a partnership with the Daleks. Her great moral dilemma is only that this giant clock is the key component in governing the space lines of the human empire. Without it, humanity would be fractured across space and open to invasion by any competent alien fleet. She worries that this fact is what drive Chen into the waiting plungers of the Daleks, and so she tries to twist his ear to suggestions about technology that could do away with the clock.

The Guardian of the Solar System neatly wraps up the Sara Kingdom trilogy by directly addressing a theme running between them: Kingdom's willingness to sacrifice herself, and her underlying perception that this will allow her to escape the unforgiving clutches of causality. In The Daleks' Master Plan she ultimately gave her life to ignite the Time Destructor. In Home Truths it was an act of self-sacrifice that locked an echo of herself in the circuitry of the house. In The Drowned World she plunged into carnivorous, flesh-dissolving waters. And in The Guardian of the Solar System she unreservedly opens up her consciousness to the great clock, setting in motion events that will plague her conscience ever more.

This theme is a brilliant way to wrap a plotline that, from the outset, might seem somewhat disingenuous. After all, Kingdom did only last for one serial and bringing her in for these Companion Chronicles might smack of desperation. The house into which a copy of her consciousness is locked might come across as little more than a franchise convenience. Writer Simon Guerrier pushed the trilogy beyond what could have been cynical exploitation and crafts a more meaningful exploration of the solitary thing for which the character is best known: that she died.

In so doing, however, he also opens the field wide open again. At the end of The Guardian of the Solar System, a familiar blue box rematerializes inside the house with the promise of future adventures between Sara Kingdom and whichever of Big Finish-employed Doctors emerges.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

The Original Doctor Who: The Drowned World (2009)

Whatever happened to the echo of Sarah Kingdom?

In Big Finish Audio's last Companion Chronicles episode to star Jean Marsh, Home Truths, they found an intriguing way to bring back the TARDIS passenger who lived and died in The Daleks' Master Plan. A high tech house has the capacity to grant wishes, but lacks judgement. As a consequence, tragedy struck once and threatens to do so again to the Doctor, Steven and Kingdom. Only Kingdom figures out a solution and, as a consequence, exists as an "echo," an imprint of consciousness on the technological marvel.

A thousand years later, humanity has descended once again into a dark age. In this time, such an edifice can easily be seen as sorcery. An investigator, equipped with reinvented wax cylinders, questions this apparent ghost in an effort to determine whether or not the house should be demolished by the authorities. This dilemma reaches a fevered pitch in The Drowned World, when our investigator must gather evidence to justify the existence of the house. The council must be convinced of its intrinsic value as a living being, not merely as an affront to nature or a instrument to exploit. The evidence may lie in one of Kingdom's most harrowing stories.

The Doctor, Steven and Kingdom - still on the run from Mavic Chen and the Daleks - have materialized in a room askew. They manage to clamber out of the TARDIS just before it slides into the water at the foot of the room. Steven is ready to dive in after it, but the Doctor stops him. He knows that something is amiss but refuses to say anything. Exploring this asteroid space base, the trio rescue a group of trapped miners and hear their story. It seems that, somehow, the water is alive... And carnivorous.

While the Doctor and Steven attempt to repair the life support systems, it falls on Kingdom to busy herself with trying to retrieve the TARDIS. Roiling waters trap her and several of the miners, leading to escapes and re-entrapments before Kingdom is prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice to save them. What happens next, in many ways, reverse engineers some justification for the events of Home Truths.

The flashback scenes are only dressing to the unfolding story of the investigator and the house. After Kingdom undermines his attempts to provide evidence to the council, he wishes that she dissolve her consciousness. Later on, when the plague strikes, a desperate investigator returns to the house to wish her back into existence. His appeal is that, like her willingness to die for the sake of others, she do the right thing and extend the reach of her powers to cure the plague. Maybe she can, maybe she can't, but she is willing to try only with an ultimatum attached. Before the credits roll on The Drowned World, she exclaims that the real Sara Kingdom has never returned, nor Steven nor the Doctor, nor anyone who has ever set foot in the house. She is lonely and needs a companion of her own.

The story of Sara Kingdom is set to end, finally, in the next Companion Chronicle: Guardian of the Solar System.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

The Original Doctor Who: Home Truths (2008)

Whatever happened to Sara Kingdom?

Wait, we know this one: she died.

The life of companion Sara Kingdom was wrapped up violently in her only appearance, the First Doctor story The Daleks' Master Plan. In the course of that sprawling epic, she executed her brother in the name of the Space Security Agency, then turned on the agency to help the Doctor foil the plans of the Guardian of the Solar System who was helping the Daleks to build a Time Destructor weapon. In the final episode of the serial, the weapon went off and Kingdom died as its victim, prematurely aging to the point of death.

Despite her finite tenure as a companion, Big Finish Audio approached actress Jean Marsh with the offer to reprise her role for the Companion Chronicles series. Unfortunately, the list of First Doctor companions is also finite. Of the originals, only Carole Ann Ford (Susan), William Russell (Ian Chesterton), Maureen O'Brien (Vicki), Peter Purves (Steven Taylor) and Jackie Lane (Dodo Chaplet) remain. Katarina's story is truly over, as Adrienne Hill passed away in 1997, as is Barbara Wright, whose actress Jacqueline Hill succumbed to cancer in 1993. So far, Jackie Lane has not been tapped to fill in the missing adventures of Dodo, and Big Finish has looked to other means to expand the roster. One of those has been to invent a new companion, Oliver Harper, played by Tom Allen. Another was to resurrect Sara Kingdom.

In many ways, Home Truths carries the tone of a pilot episode. Charting an untelevised excerpt of their run from Daleks, the TARDIS crew lands inside a house where two mysterious murders have taken place. Without knowing exactly where or when they are, one fact becomes apparent: the house is extremely intelligent and capable of making even the most idle of wishes come true. Eventually it is Kingdom who discerns the solution to the case and the problem now befalling the Doctor and Steven. That resolution, indeed the whole point of the audio-drama, sets us up for the resurrection of Sara Kingdom.

Her's is a unique condition, to say the least, and seems to have been a successful gamble. Kingdom goes one to star in two more Companion Chronicles: The Drowned World and The Guardian of the Solar System. Nested within those recollections of her brief time with the Doctor is the unfolding plot of her new lease on life. Drifting from strict recollections, Sara Kingdom's Companion Chronicles have graduated to full spin-off.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

The Original Doctor Who: The Daleks' Master Plan (Story 21, 1965-66)

The third season return of the villainous Daleks was set along the series' longest and most sprawling Sci-Fi epic until 1986, which necessarily means that it suffered the same purge of footage that plagues the exploits of the first three Doctors. Of the original 12 episodes of the serial, only three have been recovered with a few minutes of additional footage from another three. Besides these, which appear on the Lost in Time DVD, one must make do with the preserved audio tracks, published by BBC Audio with narration by Peter "Steven Taylor" Purves.

This serial also marks a shift in strategy for the evil pepperpots, who emerge from using the blunt instrument of superior power seen most clearly in The Dalek Invasion of Earth, opting instead for Machiavellian plotting and subterfuge. This time it is in the distant year 4000 and the Dalek's have once again turned their attention to our solar system. Rather than attack outright, as they did 1900 years before, they strike up a conspiracy with the humans' highest authority, Mavic Chen the Guardian of the Solar System. He alone has access to the rarest mineral in the universe, taranium, which is needed by the Daleks for their Time Destructor.

The Doctor and his companions Steven and Katarina, newly acquired from ancient Troy, become embroiled in the master plan when they land on the planet Kembel. From there they take off by shuttle to the prison planet Desperous, go from there to Earth, get molecularly disseminated to the planet Mira with its invisible wildlife, are brought back to Kembel and escape in the TARDIS to Earth in the 1960's, 1920's and ancient Egypt respectively. Finally they return to Kembel to thwart the Daleks' plan once and for all.

This serial features many unique twists that set it apart. The Daleks, for instance, are not the only villains to return. Who should afflict the Doctor in the Land of the Pharaohs but the Monk? The bumbling Time Lord has tracked down the Doctor to enact his revenge, but quickly finds himself out of his element when he gets mixed up with the Daleks. It's really a shame that the conniving Monk, played by Peter Butterworth, has yet to return to the Doctor Who canon. After being left in the cold by the Doctor's counterplot, he would never return. If the Master could survive the Time War, why not his more hapless, comic predecessor?

There is also the infamous "breaking the fourth wall" segment of the largely disposable middle episode, a Christmas special, in which William Hartnell toasts a Happy Holidays "you at home." This shattering of the suspension of disbelief was a regular policy for the BBC of the time period, which involved characters turning to the camera and wishing everyone a Merry Christmas from the cast and crew.

Most notable was the extermination of no less than two of the Doctor's companions: Katarina and Sara Kingdom. Katarina suffers death by being taken hostage by a stowaway from the prison planet in an airlock. Whether by accident or design, she opens the door and blasts both of them into space. This loss is especially unfortunate, as Katarina had some of the greatest potential of any companion. Where Vicki was able to contrast the companions of the present day to one from the future, Katarina was able to do so to one from the ancient past. This is a marked improvement over the most recent Doctor's companions all being from modern England. Unfortunately, the producers felt the other way and, not wishing to explore the possibilities, got rid of her fairly early on.

Kingdom, who came and went with this serial, met her horrifying end in the climax as a victim of the Time Destructor. Contrary to Katarina, her role was fairly ambivalent. The TARDIS crew met her when she, as a space security agent, executed her rogue brother Bret Vyon. After learning about Mavic Chen's involvement, Vyon assisted The Doctor, only to suffer the consequences. His appearance is particularly noteworthy for having been the first role for the late Nicholas Courtney, who would go on to become one of the best-known character in series history, Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart.

The length and status of The Daleks' Master Plan echoes the first Doctor's other great, lost epic, Marco Polo. Both are sprawling adventures ranging across Time, Space and the Silk Road - the former a Science Fiction story and the latter an historical - and both have perhaps inflated somewhat in reputation because of their absence. This serial is certainly a welcome change from the comedy of The Chase, but the new direction for The Daleks takes some getting used to after the frightful brutality of The Daleks and The Dalek Invasion of Earth. It is also the last appearance of the Daleks in the first Doctor's run.

After foiling the Dalek plot, as they are wont to do, the Doctor and Steven move on to 16th century France. Though Sara Kingdom died, her story is not yet complete. Big Finish has continued her saga in the Companion Chronicles audio series.

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon (2011)

In Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon, author Mark Hodder completes the cycle of his Burton and Swinburne series of novels. The first chapter, Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack, introduced us to Hodder's style of historical pastiche and the twist that transforms history as we know it, being the untimely assassination of Queen Victoria in 1840 as a consequence of meddling by a time-traveller from the 22nd century. This sets history on an alternate trajectory resulting in a Steampunk nightmare of Scientism run amok in the pursuit of absolute social control. The second chapter, Curious Case of the Clockwork Man, deepened the mystery of what happened by invoking mediums, mystic black diamonds and ancient reptilian races while veering in the other direction of a society gone mad with absolute, libertarian freedom. In this final chapter, Hodder looks at the greatest force to affect each of us: time.

At the novel's outset we are introduced to three separate Richard Burtons. The first is the one left to us at the conclusion of Curious Case of the Clockwork Man, Richard Burton of 1863 about to embark on an expedition to Africa in a race against the Prussians to procure the third of three psychically charged black diamonds left behind after the extinction of the ancient, time-conscious race of lizardmen called the Naga. As disclosed in the previous volume, it was one of these crystals that powered the suit of the time-traveller who would become Spring-Heeled Jack. His act not only resulted in the assassination of Victoria but a resonance amongst the crystals that opened up the vistas of time, allowing foreknowledge of a terrifying future war between Britain and Prussia. Prime Minister Palmerston is betting on the power of the African crystal to bring England to victory.

The second Burton we meet is an amnesiac lost in Africa in 1914, in the midst of that very same war. The British Empire has all-but been destroyed, its last remnants fighting a losing battle on the African continent. At its use are the exoskeletons of gigantic insects, such as harvestmen, whose innards have been replaced with steam engines. On the more successful Prussian side are bioengineered plant creatures, such as red weeds that attack enemy troops. All of this would provide fertile material for H.G. Wells in a different sort of reality where he was an author. In this timeline, he is a war correspondent who is the first to recognize the great explorer who should have been dead for decades.

The third Burton is a much aged version carrying a high-powered sniper rifle on a grassy knoll in 1840. These scene is familiar, for it is the very hour of Queen Victoria's assassination. Somehow, over the course of the other two narratives, this Burton has made it back to this moment to try to undo the entire mess created by the time traveller.

Hodder very deftly runs the narratives of these three Burtons parallel to each other, sometimes giving us spoilers to the future in the past and spoilers to the past in the future. H.G. Wells is not merely a character in the story, but a veritable subtext represented not only in allusions to War of the Worlds, War in the Air and Shape of Things to Come, but in the subject of time travel itself and whether the future can be altered. Whereas Wells' time traveller was more of a plot spectator, helpless before the forces of Darwinian inevitability, Hodder's characters are driven by the possibility that they might actually be able to restore history.

Attempting to outwit time involves a very great amount of second-guessing and trials to outwit one's own actions. Not only are we given spoilers backwards and forwards, but so are the characters. Burton bouncing around in history learns of things that he has done that he hasn't actually done yet, and must figure out why, or if he should try to alter things yet again. Layers upon layers of ambition and intention, plotting and counter-plotting, cake themselves upon the timeline as everyone tries to manipulate everything to their ideal outcome.

Pyr's biography of the author makes a point of mentioning Hodder's interest in Buddhism and Transcendentalism, which may inform our reading of his work. Some of it may come out in superficial plot devices like the Naga and the psychic world of the mystic black diamonds. More substantively, the perceptive reader might hear the echo of samsara. In Buddhism, samsara is the cycle of cause and effect, of life and death and rebirth, and of continuous suffering from which the enlightened ones may be released to the "unbound" state of nirvana. Nowhere is cause and effect more keenly felt than in this history altered by the assassination of Queen Victoria, by characters who know that this history has been altered for the worse.

It might be argued that Siddhartha Gautama's great contribution was a recognition of a possible root cause of suffering and a means to break free of samsara. That life will suffer is no great insight, for it is made by practically every religion and even anti-religion. In Christianity, the doctrine of Original Sin outlines this fact of existence. For many atheists, the most convincing argument against the existence of God is the existence of suffering. How are we to break free of this suffering? New Atheism proposes SCIENCE! as a means of gaining control over nature, society, and people, bringing about that utopia of the test tube. Christianity speaks of salvation by a God who will eventually refashion Creation into a perfected form, and Who in the mean time calls us to alleviate the sufferings of others. Buddha's insight is that suffering is ultimately caused by desire: the earnest conviction that the world ought to be different in some way from what it actually is.

Desire has so far motivated every character in the Burton and Swinburne trilogy. It was the desire of the time traveller to redeem his family name that led him to try and stop his ancestor from assassinating Queen Victoria. After his spectacular failure, his delirious ravings about the future inspire the creation of sects of Libertines and Technologists who seek to bring about a social and scientific golden age. One seeks control, the other liberty, and both fail. Politicians seek to use the power of the black diamonds to exert control in their own way, speeding the world ever faster towards apocalypse. The whole morass began with the reptilian Naga, who exerted psychic control over the original time traveller for their own ends. And finally we are carried along with Richard Burton as he desires to right history. As I observed in my review of the first novel, the reader themselves are engaged by the question of whether or not history can be restored to our boring, un-Steampunk and relatively much better version.

As Buddha observed, however, the only way to escape the cycle of life and death and rebirth and cause and effect and suffering is to expunge oneself of desire. Will Burton figure this out? Will the reader?

Overall, Mark Hodder's Burton and Swinburne trilogy has been one of the few pleasures of recent genre literature. When goggles and the anti-authority scamps who wear them is a primary scenario and plot-driver of most books, his meditation on time, fate, Scientism, Libertarianism, and the malleability of personhood by historic contingency is positively delightful. Of all the various and sundry novels I have graciously been sent to review since beginning this fair weblog, only this and Edward Erdelac's Merkabah Rider series have contributed anything of real merit, lodging themselves solidly within my top 10 or 20 works. They are well, well worth the time spent with them and receive my highest endorsement.