Saturday, June 15, 2013
Friday, April 19, 2013
"Does Lord Azaxyr look like a bitch?" Perhaps my favourite thing about the Ice Warriors is that despite their frosty reptilian exteriors, one of them was always played by Sonny Caldinez, a name more suggestive of a sleazy Cuban hitman with a late-'70s moustache and a medallion tangled in his chest-hair. (Actually, Caldinez is from Trinidad, and thus about as far from frosty and reptilian as you can get. But he was known for his late-'70s moustache.) Here, though, we see proof that Mars' own criminal faction has been influencing the human underworld for decades. Tarantino would go on to work with the Sontarans in his movie "Glourious Deth".
Thursday, March 28, 2013
No, it's not "our" one, and nor was Robert Banks Stuart attempting to warn us. Scarily, though, it fits the timeline of the Doctor Who universe for HIV to have been dug out of the Antarctic permafrost in 1976-80. In case you think this sounds fatuous, bear in mind that the New Adventures did the plant-like-alien-parasite-as-AIDS-metaphor in 1992 ("Love and War"), and it worked brilliantly.
Doctor Who sees the big-budget action movie as aspirational, but in 1981? "Yeah, we need a caption-card for that Five Faces thing. Here are some back-issues of Doctor Who Magazine and a pair of scissors. Oh, and they've just invented this thing called Pritt-Stick, have you tried it?"
I like this partly for its nostalgia value (the very sight of it evokes the primal smell of tea-time, then the despair I felt when I realised I'd missed episode two of "The Krotons" in an age when we had no reason to think we'd ever have the chance to see it again), and partly because it demonstrates the difference between BBC-Then and BBC-Now. Computer-driven design means that even the PR material for "The Power of Three" looked like an ad for "The Bourne Ultimatum". Which may be apt, given that recent
...originally published in 1938. I refuse to believe that Barry Letts / Robert Sloman didn't read at least one of these when they were young. Also, if Doc Savage is "The Man of Bronze", then his version of the Green Death is probably just verdigris.
We're so used to thinking of Roger Delgado as the Sexy Older Man that we forget what he was like when he was younger: the sort of character actor who, were he around today, would be second-in-command to a terrorist leader grudgingly played by Art Malik. But what we really learn from this photo is where Derren Brown got his powers of hypnosis. Clearly from his father, a mysterious ex-army man called General Sam (Ret). Oh, Derren Brown was born in 1971...? What a coincidence.
Friday, September 28, 2012
We can be sure, at least, that wormholes work. Which is to say, we can be sure we won't look stupid if we bring them up in conversation. We know this because Carl Sagan told us so. Needing a way to bring humans and aliens into Contact, and not wanting to resort to anything silly like spaceships travelling faster than light in real-space, he concluded that the most feasible method of travelling bbbillions and bbbillions of miles in order to meet one's own dead dad was to interpret General Relativity in a rather dynamic way. This idea wasn't new, and the w-word had been used by a rather apologetic John Wheeler in the '50s, but it's informed every generation of nuts-and-bolts sci-fi since 1985. Nobody has yet proved wormholes impossible. In theory, they're still the fastest way to get from A to A-but-on-the-other-side-of-space.
Note the sentiment buried in that logic, though. It's a sentiment - perhaps in more than one sense of the word - that's found even in Sagan's own musings. Not wanting to resort to anything silly like faster-than-light travel. Current Scientific Thinking is an awkward, chimerical thing, always slippery, always mutable, but mutable in surprising ways. Thankfully, and despite the best attempts of creationists to suggest otherwise, it's well aware of its own nature: yet even so, there are principles for which even the most flagellantly self-analytical physicist feels an attraction stronger than reason. You don't mess with the speed of light, even if the Standard Model is incomplete. And you don't try to outwit the Laws of Thermodynamics, especially not the second one.
This last point is interesting for historical reasons. On the surface, the nineteenth century was "just" another era in which science continued to get the upper hand over slack-jawed dribbling assumption, as were the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the early Industrial Revolution (divide those up into smaller mecha-geological periods as you see fit). The difference is that all of these previous movements had put the Arts Scientifick within a Christian framework, or a Muslim framework if you consider what the Islamic world was up to while we were getting medieval on each others' asses. During the 1800s, science realised / was permitted to point out that no monotheistic God was influencing the equations, let alone marking anyone's homework. The most profound effect of this wasn't the rise of atheism, the decline of religion, or some Dawkinsian crusade towards a definitive post-sacred Truth: in a way, quite the reverse. A much more fundamental result was the sensation, now so common that most of us take it for granted, that nobody had prepared a finale.
Consider the consequences. Before the age of Darwin and Maxwell, even science had a millenarian approach to the universe, a belief - never fully defined, never fully formulated - in some carefully-arranged end point. The appropriately God-awful phrase "intelligent design" would describe most scientific thought before the twentieth century, far beyond mere biology. Famously, the Whig model of human existence took it for granted that every epoch was an improvement on the last, and Whig history went hand-in-hand with the notion of scientific progress even as late as the 1960s. We were definitely heading somewhere, towards an inevitable New Jerusalem, if not exactly the New Testament version then certainly a guiding light at the end of time.
And then, within a generation, it transpired that we weren't. Evolution may not have been an entirely random process, but the understanding of natural selection showed that nobody was making plans. It was as if the cosmos had left us at a motorway service station with £3.50 in sandwich-money, then driven off into the night (a suggestion there of abandonment by parents, but we'll come to that). And if evolution was bad, entropy was catastrophically non-catastrophic. The Laws of Thermodynamics had become formalised by the mid-1800s. Not only did we not have a final destination, but everything was falling apart faster than it could be repaired. Creation was grinding to a halt, and despite what many of us may have picked up from "Logopolis", it wouldn't make a groovy green CSO effect before it went.
One might think that by embracing the Second Law more passionately than any other principle, the physicists of the world are at worst obsessed with the absolute extinction of all life, at best just very intelligent goths. In fact, the acceptance of entropy is what finally freed science. It must have occurred to the majority of people reading this blog that those with the most apocalyptic religious beliefs, those who both expect and eagerly await a final judgement on Goodies and Baddies, just seem to want their dads to step in and sort everything out. To accept that you're going to die is a form of maturity; to accept that everything dies, but to continue to care about it anyway, might arguably be seen as the greatest achievement of either an individual or a culture. You see what I mean about scientists having a sentimental attraction for certain parts of the cosmic model. Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington described entropy as holding "the supreme position among the laws of Nature". It's impossible to frame this in a context without some sense of emotion.
"There is something lamentable, degrading, and almost insane in pursuing the visionary schemes of past ages with dogged determination... the history of Perpetual Motion is a history of the fool-hardiness of either half-learned, or totally ignorant persons." So wrote Henry Dircks, as long ago as 1861, after he'd made a survey of all those who'd tried to produce infinite work / energy in clear breach of the Laws. Those who've attempted to build a perpetual motion machine, to violate the greatest of inviolables, have traditionally been seen as not only misguided but... delusional. Childish, even. And we have been, of course. Millions, literally millions of human beings since the nineteenth century have attempted to build such machines, not all of them adults. Kathy Sykes, the televisual physicist, admitted that she spent much of her childhood trying to do it with Lego. Leaving aside the point that this clearly makes her the ideal woman, she can hardly be alone.
This in itself tells us something interesting. When grown-ups try to make devices that effectively generate something out of nothing, we can assume they generally do it because some entropic instinct is telling them that FOR CHRIST'S SAKE, I DON'T WANT TO DIE IN THIS INCREASINGLY COLD AND ULTIMATELY FUTILE UNIVERSE. It's hard to imagine a six-year-old having the same impulse, although H. P. Lovecraft may have come close. It seems likely that there's an element of challenge involved here. Tell a child to do anything and they'll do the opposite. Tell an intelligent child that something is impossible - an intelligent child like, ooh, maybe the kind who used to watch Doctor Who when it was about things - and they'll try to prove that it isn't. But even beyond that...
All right, let's ask the question, and let's answer it with our instincts. Pretend you've never heard of thermodynamics; pretend you don't know that Maxwell's Demon is as much a product of superstition as every other kind. Why can't you build a perpetual motion machine?
After all, so much in nature's universe tempts us to believe that it's not just possible, but inevitable. Newton showed that an object set in motion, if left unmolested by gravity, atmosphere, and all those other nuisances of friction you find on Earth, should carry on indefinitely. Sadly those nuisances of friction include any machine you might build in order to exploit the process, but nonetheless, the subconscious message we're given is that Things Go On Forever. All schoolchildren are, or were, taught that if you push an object in outer space then it'll keep moving. Often provoking awkward questions about what happens when it hits the edge of the universe, questions which may be even more tangled now. (I'm not a racist, but do you remember how neat our galactic neighbourhood was before all the dark matter moved in and started overcrowding it? I've heard you can get up to 1.898E27 kilograms of superdense material into one council flat.) With true-but-misleading lessons like these found in most childhoods, is it honestly so ridiculous for someone to believe they can construct a device that literally gives 110%...? Efficiency, that is.
Six years ago, I designed a perpetual motion machine of my own. I didn't actually set out to do this: I was watching a documentary about water wheels (look, I'm Homo BBC4, all right?), and found myself niggled. Two sets of facts, both of which had been explained to me as "true", seemed to contradict each other. The result apparently went against Maxwell's equations, so something was clearly wrong somewhere.
My machine was purely theoretical. It couldn't be constructed on present-day Earth, because it relies on the ability to artificially engineer wormholes. But nobody's ever proved that to be impossible, and if Carl Sagan can accept it as the basis of an argument, then I'm sure you can.
Here's the diagram. And I've already copyrighted it © 2006, so hands off.
It's really very simple. The core of the device is a vertical tube, within the gravitational field of a planet (or any other sizeable body). A projectile, let's just call it a metal ball, is dropped into the tube. It turns the "water wheel", and the energy is stored in whatever medium suits you. After that, the ball falls to the bottom of the tube and enters your wormhole. The wormhole has been arranged, and space-time carefully folded, so that the "exit" of the wormhole is at the top of the tube. Travelling from bottom to top without actually being lifted, the ball begins its journey again. The wheel keeps turning. Infinite energy is produced.
No, I couldn't see the problem either. But I'm one of the half-learned.
The obvious difficulty - I say difficulty, not flaw - is that entropy strikes at the heart of the machine. The ball will wear down the wheel; the machinery will fall apart. But this ceases to be a problem when you realise the vast amounts of energy being produced out of nowhere, more than enough to fuel a self-repair system. Vast energy permits the replacement of matter, so it's an engineering problem, not a problem with the physics. (And if you're prepared to countenance the wormholes, then something clever involving nanites is probably going to be on the cards.) This aside, it all looked moderately rational.
Given my background, however, it seemed... a little unlikely that I'd found a way of punching entropy in the face. I took it to a few of my more academically-scientific acquaintances, and asked them what the problem was. Now, this may be a constant peril when laypersons ask questions about theoretical physics without a BBC2 voice-over to hand, but their answers weren't terribly illuminating. Among other things, they speculated that the gravity would in effect "run out": a difficult proposition for me to grasp, given that every model for gravity I've seen (or do I mean metaphor for gravity...?) has presented it as a side-effect of the nature of space-time, not a finite quantity. I couldn't really worm a de-vagued version out of anyone, and my elementary research into gravitational potential energy didn't help much. The suggestion was also raised that the engineering of wormholes might in itself require infinite energy before infinite energy could be generated, although if you're going to assume that the universal rules re: the warping of space-time have been deliberately fixed in order to protect the Laws of Thermodynamics, then you might as well just write GOD SAYS NO on the diagram.
A few weeks later, I was invited to a book-signing in London. Not just me, natch, since my own gravity isn't yet sufficient to pull in a crowd on my own. I was there signing (among other things) About Time; seated next to me was the author of The Science of Doctor Who, the sort of book that everyone had been expecting for ages, but apparently rushed into production after the 2005 series bulldozed everything else in broadcasting while standing on ITV's throat. I was, I admit, rather unfair that afternoon. As you may know, The Science of Doctor Who was a rather - ahem - svelte book, whereas About Time eventually took up six volumes and increasingly felt as if it were made of dwarf-star alloy. Its multi-million-word bulk had already covered most of the pop-science areas in The Science of, and this allowed me to show off like nobody's business. "Oh, so you've gone for quantum entanglement as the most likely answer to teleportation?" I'd say. "We discussed that possibility in the essay under 'Nightmare of Eden', but we concluded that..." And so on.
Nevertheless, my neighbour during that signing was a proper science writer (and, later, the author of How to Destroy the Universe... I don't think I was that mean to him). At the end of the day, I drew my design on a piece of paper - I remember it being a napkin, but probably only because it's always a napkin in these stories - and asked him why it didn't do what I thought it did. He frowned a bit and made some interested "mmm" noises, but ultimately agreed that he didn't know either. He took it away for further analysis. I never heard from him again.
There are two notable points here, which between them mean that the Wormhole Water Wheel has done its job, at least as a personal thought-experiment. Firstly: though I still don't know exactly what's wrong with it, it doesn't immediately look stupid to people who know a lot more about physics than I do, which is more than you can say for most perpetual motion machines. Secondly: it's raised questions in my own mind about the very nature of "stupid", and the way sentimentality - or, if you prefer, basic human need - influences our sense of speculation even when we think we're being wholly scientific. More than once while I was touting my impossible machine, I was left with the sense that the explanations as it Why It Didn't Work were based on the assumption that It Can't Possibly Work, even that the universe required safety protocols to ensure its failure... meaning, they weren't exactly explanations.
A third and incidental point is that the diagram would make a really nice T-shirt.
As adults, the contempt we feel for perpetual motion is as instinctive as our childhood belief that it must surely be possible. Often, such designs have been the symbol of absurd, irrational folly: I particularly like their status in Vonnegut's Hocus Pocus, his almost dinosaur-like description of them as the fossils of doomed ambition. Yet it takes an above-average understanding of physics to spot the hitch in the Wormhole Water Wheel, whatever the f*** it is. The very concept requires wormhole engineering as well as conventional Newtonian physics. Might we not at least speculate, then, that some even more exotic and unlikely combination of not-impossible elements might do exactly what the Water Wheel is intended to do? Ultimately, the Laws of Thermodynamics are considered unbreakable for two principle reasons. One is that no observation has ever been made which contradicts them, although this is possibly the most contentious area it's possible for a human being to enter. (Which is to say, the question "when has something ever come out of nothing?" could well be answered with the question "what are you currently standing in?". It's not unreasonable to suggest that "universe" and "a breach of the Laws of Thermodynamics" are synonymous... not unreasonable, but unprovable, at least for now.)
The second reason has less to do with observation than with history. Culturally, we need entropy: without it, we become children again. This is why, like the offspring of an abusive parent, we're inclined to defend it even though we secretly want it to go away and stop hurting us. It's not that we have a death-wish, it's just that our awareness of our own ultimate doom is what stops us behaving as if we can expect the Rapture at any moment. This doesn't mean we should consider its inviolability to be "true", nor should we deny the possibility that one day a Wormhole Water Wheel 2.0 will actually turn out to be workable, if only as a theoretical possibility.
Then again, I would say that. Because I don't want to die. And because I still find it perfectly acceptable - this time for reasons that are political as much as historical, or at least grounded in a sense of human creativity and human compassion - that there might be an Omega Point waiting for us at the end of time, a light at the end of a near-total darkness. A light of our own making.
None of which has very much to do with Doctor Who, at least not directly. Unless I'm a splinter of a Jagaroth whose future incarnation is trying to push you juuust a little bit further.
Wednesday, July 25, 2012
Secretly, this is about my cousin. His name is Steven, and he's now a doctor of cybernetics. This could have been predicted by anyone who'd witnessed even a fraction of his early life. In 1979, when I was seven and he was sixteen - he having been born in 1963, a trait of many notables in this chronology, from Tat Wood to Jarvis Cocker - he was the first person I knew who owned a home computer. The machine was a NASCOM-1, a conglomeration of boxes, cables, and sharp-toothed circuitry which just two ZX-years later would have all the cutting-edge appeal of a Spinning Jenny. The more remarkable point is that when he was in his seventeenth year, an age at which you and you and you and I were all watching pop videos and doing terrible things to our own bodies, my cousin Steven built the NASCOM-1 himself out of its component parts. This wasn't necessity: in that early period, computers came in kit form or complete, the latter being slightly less affordable. Like me, Steven had a fundamentalist middle-class upbringing, though he lived in a nicer house. I'm fairly sure his family, sensing as all parents did that computers were the Coming Thing, would have been happy to chip in the extra in order to fast-track him towards the inevitable future of AI-run governments and chunky digital lettering.
No. Steven had the kit-form NASCOM-1 because he wanted to put it together himself. He wanted to solder the chips to the boards, the boards to the framework, to understand how exactly what was happening in its electro-guts when the lurid green hexdecimal began to fill up the screen. I have profound memories of his hunched, athletic form (because I fear that the "geek" stereotype had no meaning in 1979, my cousin being a Sports Day champion, as well as an individual whom a girlfriend of mine - twenty years on - would describe with the single syllable "mmMMmm"), poised with a soldering iron in his hand as if he were a Soviet figurative sculpture of the microchip age. Over a period of weeks, I watched the Black Box of the CPU take shape in time-lapse, until the day came when he could switch it on. It worked without hitches or glitches, which is perhaps the least likely thing in this whole narrative.
This is supposed to be about Doctor Who, though. So given all of that as a prologue:
October, 1979. I'm with my mother in the newsagent's between home and school, between here and elsewhere, the suburban middle-ground into which I'm forbidden to journey alone. She's popped into this shop for... oh, God knows what. This is the time of Wavy Line and MacFisheries, and the rules of corner-shopping are different. Something, however, catches my eye on the sort of wire-frame rotating rack that may or may not still exist in your century. A comic... no, it's a magazine. Or...
"Oh!" says my mother, following my eyeline and seizing it from its nest. "It's a Doctor Who Weekly. There are free transfers, look."
A year earlier, I'd bought (very well.. I'd been bought, I was six and I shouldn't be embarrassed about my lack of financial independence) Star Wars Weekly, at least until the comic-strips based on the actual film had dried up and they'd started printing some blather about Jabba the Hutt being a chimpanzee. Star Wars Weekly had been a top seller at the time, getting its own TV ad with C-3PO explaining its benefits, in preparation for his Currys work thirty years later. Off-screen sources were as important for Star Wars as The Making of Doctor Who - with its definitive list of all stories up to "The Hand of Fear", priceless at this stage - had been for those of us who believed we were representing the Old Religion as well as the New. With hindsight, yes, it was the success of the Star Wars title that led Marvel Comics' UK wing to think it could copy the format for Doctor Who. Modern fandom appears to have brushed this aside, as if a Doctor Who publication were an inevitabiliy, and therein lies the source of my surprise. I had no warning that such a publication had been launched, and therefore...
I knew, even then, that Doctor Who had been around for sixteen years. And as I'd never been permitted to investigate this particular shop before, I naturally assumed that a weekly treasury of posters and parallel-adventures had been in existence for ages, but that I was only now eligible to read it. Then a little red-and-yellow bubble in one corner informed me, in the sort of writing I now associate with Jack Kirby, that this was the first issue. I honestly believed it had to be some sort of mistake. This can't be the first issue, can it? My cousin Steven collects Marvel comics. Some of his are quite rare, I'm told. Should we inform him of this? It must have been sitting in the rack for years. In reality, we must be up to issue #1,000,000 by now.
You may notice a certain increase in enthusiasm since 1978. This is largely because Doctor Who had come back to TV in September 1979, on a shockwave of publicity, and... had done everything right.
It's not in my nature to describe the Terry Nation landfill of "Destiny of the Daleks" that way, especially when its disco-wig androids made the gap between Boney M and Outer Space seem narrower still. As I've suggested before, what's weak with the eye of hindsight may have been startling at the time, or at least perfectly-camouflaged for its own historical environment. "Destiny of the Daleks", in so many ways an archetypal (or my archetypal) sterile, cardboard-flavoured Graham Willaims story, did its job beautifully. It brought back Daleks, for those of us who had no living memory of them but somehow knew exactly what they sounded like, a knowledge passed down to us like an older sibling's clothes. It put the Doctor in the middle of a war between two inhuman factions, dead on-key for the cinematic SF of the time, but also suggestive of the news stories that even us young-'uns had seen about Idi Amin in Uganda or the "unpleasantness" in Iran. It regenerated Romana in a way that, first time around, seemed too bizarre to be silly. Then it put her in a slave-camp, let her feign her own death in order to dig her way out of a shallow grave, and dumped her in a plastic explodo-tube as a cliffhanger. It strapped yellow canisters to Dalek suicide bombers and showed us Daddy Cool robots being confused by rock-scissors-paper. It ended with Davros on ice.
No other story I can think of looks so crass now, but seemed so clued-up at the time. No other story so divides my childhood self and grown-up self. I was obsessed with it. Later I was obsessed with the Target novelisation of it, even noting the minor differences in the Doctor's "all elephants are pink" schtick. It renewed my interest in TV-Doctor Who, as nothing in what we now call Season Sixteen could have done. Maybe because, despite all its in-jokes and Douglas Adams' best attempts to make the series swallow its own tail, so many people on-screen were treating the story as if it actually mattered (Tyssan was yet another Terry Nation / Gerry Anderson hybrid, a crash survivor of the XL-5, but this time he looked as if he'd just made it out of a concentration camp). By the end of this year, that wouldn't be the case.
But then there was "City of Death".
The most obvious thing to say here is that it had the highest ratings of any Doctor Who story, not Morecambe and Wise-level but certainly in the same league; the second-most obvious thing to say is that this was due to a strike at ITV. Many claims and counter-claims have been made as to whether this strike was actually in progress during the transmission of episodes X, Y, Z, and N, but I believe I speak for everyone who saw it on first broadcast when I say that I don't care. "City of Death" was right, from first to last. Matt Irving's modelwork in the opening scene, a spider-engine crouched on a cracked prehistoric landscape, a spaceship as singular as those in Star Wars were dynamic. The beautifully-costumed thing in the cockpit, seaweed with a sense of space-chic. The seemingly unconnected first episode, criticised for its "running through Paris" sequences now, but so unlike what we'd come to expect (pre-'80s, going to France was as exotic as scuba diving) that even the clumsy crack-in-time sequence seemed enticing and mysterious. Then, finally, the cliffhanger. Also much-derided with hindsight, also fantastic when you don't know how these elements are meant to fit together. Oh, I see! He's the thing from the opening sequence? Right, got it. Cliffhanger not just as set-piece, but as narrative turning-point, the way it's meant to be.
In retrospect, the plot of "City of Death" makes less sense than any story since "The Wheel in Space". It's a children's-hour version of the universe, where a space-monster makes a time machine by keeping a scientist with a funny accent in his basement, where events are only linked by monstrous coincidences, where the shock of seeing Scaroth in the Renaissance blanks out the numerous questions as to how the Hell this could possibly work. But if we cared about reason, none of us would like "Genesis of the Daleks". Twelve years later, teen-me would have a 'phone conversation with teen-best-friend (one who watched Doctor Who as a child, but not obsessively), and tell him I'd got that story on video. You know, with the one-eyed seaweed-monster...? He'll be non-plussed, and at that moment, my mother will walk past me in the hallway. She'll say: "Tell him it's the one with the six Mona Lisas." I will. He'll immediately respond: "Oh, that one!"
Y'see, it's not always the monsters that stick.
I fear this can't last. Both the collective memory of fandom and the column-inches of the Sun would come to reinforce a banal vision of the programme in this phase, a version in which children mainly watch the show for K-9. Yet these two stories, most precisely-targeted of their era even if one of them looks a dance-off in a gravel pit, don't feature a functioning K-9 at all. The next story will, and many of us will grow bored with it after episode one. The same will be true of "Nightmare of Eden", in which only the weirdness of Mandrels' legs will keep us watching, however good the premise looks on paper. "The Horns of Nimon"... for me, its greatest contribution was the presence of its lead monster at an exhibition in Madame Toussaud's, the following year. It lurked in the darkness, but lit up and bellowed when my mother walked past. As I believe I've mentioned, she had a deep-rooted psychosexual horror of / fascination with minotaurs. Hilarity ensued, at least for me.
The story itself, when broadcast, merely matched "Underworld" in taking a primal, terrifying myth and turning it into a gutless circuit-diagram of grey corridors and demi-science. Worse, it wasted Graham Crowden's one shot at Doctor Who. Soldeed's pop-eyed madness at the end of episode three genuinely bothered me, as a stoic seven-year-old, and remains the only part of the story to provoke any response at all. Other than irritation.
Funny. I never met my father, and I was uncommonly hairy even before puberty. I was just thinking about Pasiphaë, and... no, it's not important.
But these betrayals were yet to come. In the middle of "City of Death", Doctor Who Weekly appeared, and this was a bigger shift of expectations than anything the BBC could provide. In the texty middle-layer of DWW, we were given weekly breakdowns of what had happened in every Doctor Who story, beginning at the beginning. The Making of Doctor Who had compressed these legends of the ancestors into a single paragraph per story code, but now there was a blow-by-blow reconstruction which didn't claim that Ian and Barbara met in the fog on Barnes Common before immediately embarking on a trip to Skaro. Yeah, I'd got wise to Target's trickery. On either side of the "historical" matter (and a regular page inspired by Ripley's Believe It Or Not, in which we were informed of Tibetan yak-butter tea... not something you can simulate with margerine, I discovered), there were the comic-strips. Of vastly more weight than those in TV Comic or the insipid annuals, purely because they were created by the champions of the bloody-snouted 2000 AD generation. "The Iron Legion", the alter-universe epic that ran from #1 to #8 and has been reprinted in endless forms since, was by Pat Mills, John Wagner, and Dave Gibbons. The creators of Judge Dredd and the artist of Watchmen. It was a masterpiece.
Early instalments of "The Iron Legion" accompanied "City of Death", and these two conflicting versions of the Doctor Who universe co-existed beautifully. Even then, we had a sense that nothing shot at TV Centre could actually show us an army of Roman Legionnaire robots in full battle-mode, but that didn't matter: instead it gave us the close-up conflict of the Doctor and Scarlioni, Tom Baker and Julian Glover. "City of Death" works, for all the yawning improbabilities, because the lead characters form a gravitational system of their own. Time Lord and Jagaroth, circling each other like suns about to collide, with Romana as the major planetary mass (never mind accurate, is it even legal to describe Lalla Ward as a gas giant...?) who might swing the balance. In the end, it's the tiny moon of Duggan that makes a difference. Matt Irving's effects are lovely book-ends, but not the main attraction, as they might be post-CGI. This isn't an epic, and doesn't try to be. "The Iron Legion", that's our mythology in epic form, with at least as much wit, invention, and humanity as what we considered "real". Before this point, no off-telly vision of Doctor Who could have claimed to be neck-and-neck with the BBC's. "The Fishmen of Kandalinga" would be a let-down even compared to the weakest of Hartnell serials. Now that had changed.
So when "Nimon" shrank the format back into Doctor, monsters, and corridors... you can see the problem, I think. We'd already witnessed the villainy of General Ironicus, the giggling weirdness of the Ectoslime, and the imperious horror of the Malevilus (the latter echoing the psychic pterodactyls of At the Earth's Core, which doesn't exactly bring us full-circle, but does create a pleasant link to Peter Cushing's battle-cry of "you can't hypnotise me, I'm British"). Tom Baker slouching around yet another tinfoil planet, treating the monsters-of-the-month with such contempt that they never seemed any threat at all, was a poor substitute. These days we know the original script was a worse proposition still, the Nimon (or Nimons, the plural remains contentious) removing their horn'ed masks and revealing themselves to be poxy mini-aliens dressing up as minotaurs in order to scare the natives. Even those who claim this story was a witty, ironic attempt to offload all the clichés of Doctor Who - and it wasn't - can't escape the accusation that it felt like a stab in the back even at the time of broadcast, yet the Scooby-Doo ending would've put the series on a permanent cartoon footing. "It's a MisterJenkinsonoid, the caretaker-race from disused planet Fairgroundus 6!"
This is, as you'll gather, purely a description of the early phase of the Doctor Who Weekly / Monthly / Magazine comic-strip. Beyond the mid-'80s, it was devised by fans or friends of Gary Russell rather than comic-book people; even Paul Cornell, now arousing more of my jealousy than almost any other individual by being safe in the bosom of DC, couldn't match the intensity of the early issues. Alan Moore's back-up strips were an obvious influence on both Marc Platt's view of ye olde Gallifrey and my view of its future ("Alien Bodies" shares 95% of its DNA with its closest relative, "4-D War"). Abslom Daak was created by a writer who had a general contempt for Doctor Who but liked anti-heroes with chainsaws, effectively Moffat with a better sense of what would work visually, yet even he supplied enough Dalek-rending action to become legendary. If we'd begun to suspect that Doctor Who existed far beyond the transmission, then here was the proof in literal black and white. 1979 showed us everything the TV series could do, and everything it should stop doing; hinted at what the Doctor might get up to when removed from the studio floor, and reminded us that we still needed a baseline that didn't involve Han Solo substitutes cutting Daleks' heads off, fun as they may be in the short term.
It seemed only natural, at the time, that this new weekly link to Doctor Who past and future should come from Marvel. The Marvel universe was my third-favourite mythology. Throughout the '70s, my cousin had read everything from Spider-Man to the much-undervalued Warlock, and had kept older oddities like the Marvel series based on 2001: A Space Odyssey (drawn by Kirby, one issue concluding with the fabulous caption "NEXT: VIRA THE SHE-DEMON!", something that surely would have been featured in the movie if Kubrick had thought of it). He'd taught me the canon without really intending to. I've never read a comic that features Annihilus, but I know exactly who he is and what he did to earn that manner of Villain Name. I went with Steven to meet Stan Lee at the Roundhouse in London, in... ohhh, 1976 or thereabouts. The Roundhouse staff had plastered the restaurant area with pages from Marvel back-issues, just as I'd plastered my own bedroom with pages from The Doctor Who Monster Book, heavily-muscled butterflies pinned to walls that sweated grease. I remember being fascinated by this, far more than by the weird man with the moustache who talked to my cousin for a bit and may have signed something.
A shared universe. An ever-growing pantheon. Did my cousin teach me that, deliberately or otherwise? Was my own internal Doctor Who pounded into shape by the mighty fist of Marvel (Excelsior!), or specifically by stories like "The Iron Legion", "City of the Damned", "Time Witch", "The Dogs of Doom", and - most interesting of all, since it not only understood the nature of Doctor Who far better than the programme's lead actor did, but even resembles the 2005 version if you can imagine it updated with mobile 'phones and a token reference to Chavs - "Star Beast"?
Steven also taught me how to program computers. This has proved a worthless skill in itself, since computers in our epoch don't like being programmed directly, and their complexity relies on strata of pre-existing code to which I've never been formally introduced. Programming is, however, a worthwhile lesson in logic. Not enough logic to stop me having my suspicions, mind: his first, middle, and surnme each have six letters, he was born on the sixth day of the sixth month, and he refused to let me check his scalp for the tell-tale birthmark after I'd seen The Omen. Now he has his PhD in Artificial Intelligence, he may still prove to be the Anti-Christ by building Anti-God. In which case, fair play to him. One of my twelve historical fragments still regards him with some resentment, since members of my family have long used him as the yardstick by which to measure my own development, and I definitely couldn't build a computer by the time of "Remembrance of the Daleks". But overthrowing the natural order of creation would be a significant result for him.
And he taught me about Dr Octopus. That's as important as your dad showing you how to shave.
Sunday, July 22, 2012
And then, at some point before my sixth birthday, I stopped watching Doctor Who.
So far, there's been a question hiding in every year I've unravelled (or do I mean ravelled...? The ball of yarn only becomes complete on your way out of the labyrinth, and memory works in much the same way). This question seems the most baffling of all. I've been responsible for no end of awful, embarrassing, and ill-considered things, and a fully-collated list of my character defects would be its own Monster Book, yet no-one would ever call me flighty. I was never a child of fashion, never prone to crazes, despite pretending for some weeks to be a fan of the Bay City Rollers - I'd never even heard any of their records - purely so my she-cousin would allow me to wear her commemorative tartan scarf and hat. I liked the bobble on top. "Ehh, I'm bored of Doctor Who, I'm into cars now" is not a sentence one can imagine me saying even in the most slippery and grotesque days of my adolescence.
Nor, on the face of it, was this a time when anyone would expect a child to be driven away from the series. 1977 had been the year of "Face of Evil", "Robots of Death", and "Talons of Weng-Chiang" in quick succession, all of them flash-freeze-memorable to the soggy childhood mind, and in two out of three cases for reasons that had nothing to do with monsters. I didn't remember Weng-Chiang had a giant rat, until the Target novelisation was presented to me during a week in an isolation ward, and Jeff Cummins' version was shown looming over the story like the hairy descendant of the Skarasen. The imagined Skarasen, that is, although the on-screen specimens may also have been related. On TV, the Doctor, Greel, and the face-off with Li-Hsen Chang in the music-hall had been more than enough.
We now know, of course, that those final stories of gothic-font Doctor Who had an unfair advantage. Hinchcliffe responded to his sacking by wilfilly pushing the series over-budget, hence the proto-Prisoner Cell Block H nature of Graham Williams' first season. But I was still too small-minded, in the only possible good sense, to care about budgetary limitations. The shonkiness of "The Invisible Enemy" or "The Sunmakers" wouldn't have been enough to turn me away, especially not when I had a small henge of Target books beside me.
No, really. I used to make them into henges.
Then why is it that by early 1978, I'd stopped watching the series that I'd come to think of as a kind of pulse? In later years, sci-fi police investigated, and immediately rounded up the usual suspect.
On Christmas Day, 1977, BBC1 had broadcast the Morecambe and Wise Christmas Special. The 25th of December had already become an annual feast day of the Light Entertainment Saints, yet this is the one case in which nostalgia documentaries agree absolutely with anyone who kept their memory of the era in its original packaging: this single broadcast really was a Bigger Thing than we can now imagine. It was seen by more viewers than any other show in British entertainment history, either 21 or 28 million, depending on whose stats you believe. The latter would be half of the entire population, and bear in mind that infants weren't counted. Ratings are rarely reliable (as we'll see in future years), yet the nation held its breath for this programme, treated it as the axis of the Great British Christmas. I can report as a first-hand witness that the nation exhaled with some relief, not at all disappointed. Awkward as much of it may appear now (just like Doctor Who, in fact, and keen-minded readers may remember that Eric Morecambe and Tom Baker would later team up for a TV special of their own), pundits are in accord that this was both the apogee and the end of what they call the Showbiz Age of British Television.
The next day, Boxing Day 1977, Star Wars opened in the UK.
Astrology is a great thing: the difficulty is that many people believe it to be literally true, a complaint it shares with religion, economics, and the politics of fandom. Mapping arcane designs across one's own life is the source of an awful lot of human creativity (and, I'd argue, the root of most fiction), yet if you believe your own individual pattern of symbols and circumstances to be meaningful on a cosmic scale, then you're likely to be a bell-end at best or genocidal at worst. My own personal astrology sees Christmas 1977 as a major conjunction. It wasn't just Morecambe and Wise. The whole of the BBC was in the ascendant until that point, responsible for drama that was blatantly in a different league to the kind we saw in Hollywood movies (although I won't pretend that I had any grasp of I, Claudius at the age of six), responsible for comedy that was blatantly in a different league to anything on commercial television (The Comedians would literally be a crime these days). Then, overnight, the stars shifted.
Just before that Christmas - and aptly, while I was trying to watch the seasonal special of Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em on a tiny, fuzz-riddled black-and-white television in an uncle's spare room - I was presented with an early gift. It was a ticket to see this new Star Wars ballyhoo, which had already been massive in America and which the grown-ups believed was obviously the future of spaceships, monsters, and suchlike. I regarded the ticket with a complete lack of interest, but took an immediate shine to the birthday-cum-Christmas card in which it had been delivered, a Chris Foss-era masterpiece of an albino wing'ed dinosaur ripping apart some poor bugger's star-cruiser. I'd seen SF films on television. They weren't as exciting as book covers.
Nostalgia-telly, even that made by the BBC, will still claim Star Wars to have been the big cinema event of 1977. This is twaddle, at least on this side of the Atlantic. I saw it in the still-mysterious heart of London, in the final week of 1977; given that the grown-ups considered the ticket to be in some way significant, I might even have been at the UK premiere. But films crept across the landscape like seasons. There were no cineplexes, no simultaneous releases. For England, then Wales, then Scotland, then Ireland, 1978 was the year Star Wars gripped us by the throat, Sith style.
Oh yes, it changed everything. To explain the effect it had, and what came after, would take a novella-sized essay in a place that's not primarily interested in Doctor Who. But it not only gave us our first all-encompassing universe (a fictional envionment in which every angle, every smallest detail of design and dialogue, seemed part of an ongoing and worn-in World of Worlds... George Lucas called it a "used future", inspired by footage of Apollo astronauts returning to Earth surrounded by food-wrappers and blown-out technology), it also introduced us to a wholly unfamiliar visual dynamic, a pulsing new-wave version of Space Opera that made it seem as though this story was both a thousand years old and happening now. Tat Wood, already pube-age and suitably crabby in 1978, has tried to argue that Star Wars was just a Doug McClure adventure movie on a bigger budget. Leaving aside the massive gulf in understanding between Professor Yaffle's childhood and my own, there's an obvious counter-argument. We'd seen big-budget McClure a year earlier: it was the (first) tragic remake of King Kong. Star Wars wasn't just a new species. It was a new genus. Even now, I regard it as the most creative film ever made, though not the best. In its construction, that is, clearly not in its plot.
So is that it? Is that why I drifted away from Doctor Who? Because Star Wars turned up instead?
They were never really in competition. Only adults believe that children can't follow more than one world at a time, and later, the ability of these two great science-fiction animals to drink at the same watering-hole would become clear. Julian Glover and Michael Sheard and Milton Johns would all play imperial officers in The Empire Strikes Back, and their performances on Hoth or Bespin would be of no greater or lesser importance than their appearances on Earth or Gallifrey (although Lucas would overdub Johns with a gruff American accent, rather charmingly because he felt that Englishman-as-imperial-villain had become a cliché, hilarious if you compare Our Milton's aside to Lord Vader with his rather fey villain in "The Invasion of Time"). Indeed, by 1980 I was so aware of the strengths and weaknesses of each that I found much of the latter half of Empire quite frustrating. You're running up and down corridors in Cloud City. Corridors aren't your job, yeah? At least when the Doctor does it, he's usually saying something witty and interesting at the same time. Go back to those huge walking robot things, you're great at that. Leave the close-ups to us, because you're just opening slide-doors and firing at Stormtroopers. What is this, the boring bits in "The Sun Makers"?
Two decades on, I'd finally see the surviving bulk of Doctor Who that hadn't been available to us in the '70s or '80s. I'd pass judgment on earlier stories, even stories I'd seen as a child, using the measuring-tools of the early '90s and without any thought as to how they would have been viewed at the time. Disappointingly, most reviewers on the internet still do this. The '90s was the age when science fiction drama first became obsessed with the ominous notions of "dark" and "adult", when story-arcs became more important than stories, when it was seen as a form of shame to have children amongst your audience. I was especially harsh on the Graham Williams years, simply and absurdly because his version of the series wasn't how this "cult" thing called sci-fi should look and sound. (I was even harsher on the '60s run. I once considered "The Ark" to be the worst Doctor Who story made. A terrible script, that much is true, but the visual ambition of it would have been striking even by the next generation's standards.)
The trouble is, even with the best of wills and knowing the scope of what Williams secretly had in the back of his mind, I still can't bring myself to like his reign. The ratings were perfectly sound, and would get better, for a variety of reasons we'll come to in 1979. But the rest of British culture was twisting out of shape: punk rock for the teens, bigger questions for the adults (even I, Claudius was met with angry complaints from viewers who thought Rome should sound like Shakespeare, while Verity Lambert's Rock Follies beat it to the BAFTA by being awkwardly political), and the start of a decade-long struggle over the question of what British Society actually meant. I had no firm understanding of any of this, yet even I could measure Doctor Who against sources like Star Wars and - this one's significant, given that it came directly from a non-mainstream place, and wasn't just anorak-fodder in its early years - 2000 AD.
Speaking of which, for the last six paragraphs, I've had the name "Big-Budget McClure" stuck in my head. He sounds like a cowboy who guns down dinosaurs for the reward money. Well, this is the age of "Flesh".
1978 began with "Underworld". This is roundly and rightly condemned as one of Doctor Who's most excrutiating moments, but for all the wrong reasons. The CSO'd caverns are a horror to behold, yet those of my age had been primed not to notice blue-screen lines, and adults were prepared to put up with much uglier technical glitches in much more conventional programmes. "Underworld" was banal, and this is the voice of a child who saw Greek as his second-most-familiar mythology. Monsters weren't necessary then, as they wouldn't be today if programme-makers hadn't become the pimps of CGI werewolves, but to turn Jason's dragon into a network of corridors is an insult to art as well as sense. Going back to "The Sun Makers", it seems incredible that any writer - let alone Robert Holmes - could devise a story based on tax rates, or that any audience could have been expected to care. I'd lost all awareness of the programme by "The Invasion of Time", to the point that when I learned of the story's existence some years later, I was astonished that I'd missed something so profound as the Sontaran Invasion of Gallifrey. Nobody could have called it "profound" if they'd actually seen it.
Graham Williams did something terribly wrong, I'm afraid. Not the "he ignored continuity" problem that Ian Levine would later use to gut-barge his way into the production office, not the "it looked cheap" problem that '80s and '90s viewers pointed out when slick was the order of the day, not the "Baker's just messing about now" problem that even children noticed by the end of the Williams run. Doctor Who is, at its best, the sardonic relative to the rest of television. The true meaning of "camp" isn't "a bit gay", but "knowing that the world is just a game of dress-up". Being the adventures of a pseudo-immortal who's only passing as human, the series follows fashion, then looks down at itself and says: "Hmmm... this frock coat is either too much or too little." Yet in order for this to work, it needs to go to extremes. Instead, as of 1978, it specialised in self-conscious self-parody. Occasionally bearing good ideas, but even then, marred by a blandness that tried to excuse itself by winking at the camera. The line between "camp" and "in-joke" is thin, but crucial.
If Star Wars distracted me from Doctor Who, then it wasn't because Star Wars was bigger, better, and more expensive, the conclusion that was wrongly and catastrophically drawn by the media from the '80s onwards. Looking back, I can see that what snagged me at the age of six was excatly what had snagged me at the age of five: the very possibility of elsewhere. Leela's planet was elsewhere. Weng-Chiang's House of the Dragon was elsewhere. So were Tatooine and the Death Star trench. The former two taught me investigation and sarcasm-in-the-face-of-adversity (you wouldn't believe how big the "deadly jelly-baby" line was at the time), the latter two taught me brilliance and dynamism. The drab space-installations of "The Invisible Enemy" and the sterile hospital-corridors of "The Sun Makers" were filler.
By 1978, I was living on a council estate, for practical reasons that aren't hard to work out given my previous one-parent-family angst. It was a brand-new estate, and we were the first to move in, if only because I needed a wee and my mother demanded the keys some minutes before all the other tenants were allowed to enter. It was, as I later discovered, a place where the council shovelled people who had nowhere else to go; its sense of anger, as other families were housed in the low-rent "maisonettes", became more overt over the years. This is why I'm not going to talk about it much from hereon in, and yet for all the sense of threat, it had one outstanding feature. There was a small plaza across the road from our new home, just as there had been in Walton. And as my site of pilgrimage in Walton had been W. H. Smith's, here it was a tiny family-owned toyshop, a narrow alley of shinyness between freshly-scraped monoliths of concrete. A toyshop which in 1978 sold Star Wars figures for 99p each, more than it sounds to twenty-first-century ears, but still within pocket-money grasp. I knew boys at school who'd spend more than that every week on white chocloate mice. Being diabetic, I had the biggest army of Stormtroopers in the county.
Right at the beginning of this... what do I call it? Chronology? Auto-blog-raphy? Right at the beginning, I asked the question of how we come to call ourself fans, when in some cases we only enjoy a nouvelle-cuisine-sized portion of the television series. What remained unsaid, or only implied, is that the television series is only a fragment of the whole of Doctor Who. Think of it as a visible extrusion of a massive multi-dimensional body, because you know we've always liked that metaphor. Nor are we simply considering the mass of physical bumf that's now become mishandled and mislabelled until it's simply "merchandise". It's true that this was always part of the experience, at least for the early viewer-generations. TV21 was closer to the way '60s children liked to imagine the Daleks than "The Chase"; readers of Malcolm Hulke's Doctor Who and the Cave-Monsters still tend to forget that the broadcast version doesn't give names to the Silurians or that Major Baker's experiences with the IRA are never mentioned, while those who'd read Doctor Who and the Doomsday Weapon before TV Gold repeated "Colony in Space" in the early '90s are still convinced that the text version is the "proper" one. But...
It's not just about the tie-ins. More than any other series ever created, Doctor Who suggests the existence of environments we've never seen, an unlimited potential beyond the homeworld of the television series and the frontier colonies of (say) the TV Comic strip. Actually, the multiple slightly-wrong versions of the Doctor in comics, annuals, and such might be seen as alternative takes on something with uncertain boundaries. Even Star Wars is limited by its own rules. No, more than that, those rules are the reason it succeeded. Doctor Who demands a constant re-thinking of rules, invites us to query how each new time and place actually works (a factor absent from many Williams-era and most Moffat-era stories, both marked by a Doctor who automatically knows everything without having to ask questions, both marked by scenarios that are venues for set-pieces rather than functioning worlds). You used to write your own stories, didn't you? Perhaps you still do, although these days they may be more likely to involve sex between cast-members. When you had enough story ideas, you may even have turned them into your own Alternative Season. I still do this now, and could easily write down a complete episode list for the season that began with "The Book of the World".
"Could", he says...
Doctor Who is a mind-game that asks you to play at home. Which is, if nothing else, polite of it. Just because I stopped caring about what was on television in 1978, that doesn't mean I left it behind. I still made offerings at Targethenge. It might once again seem berserk that anyone could support the Home Side while failing to watch a single match, although I know of many fans who've found themselves in a similar position since 2010, and several others who were already suffering the symptoms in 2005. Yet this is the nature of Team DW. Things would improve in 1979, of course, or I probably wouldn't be here. As for 1980... opinions differ. Time heals all wounds, even wounds to the series. The promise of what it might be protects us from what it currently is. We hope.
But it is true that I could've bought at least one-and-a-half new works of the Terrance Dicks canon for 99p. Star Wars figures allowed me to engage in non-solitary games with the rough non-middle-class council-estate boys, which for me justifies George Lucas' existence in itself. Nobody collected toys for the sake of collecting, after all. This form of Star Wars allowed us to reconstruct, and then anagram, the struggle against the Empire in exactly the same way that Dinky's die-cast Gerry Anderson vehicles had allowed children to mess with Captain Scarlet half a generation previously. The fact that none of my new acquaintances really cared about Doctor Who can be interpreted in a number of ways, although the bigger point is that even the sloughed-off plastic skin of an idea can have an identity of its own. By the end of the year, I was confused and annoyed that you couldn't get 99p Doctor Who figures anywhere, even though (my exact thought, at the time) "Doctor Who has got loads of brilliant things in it".
One Christmas, possibly even Christmas 1978, I was given a Denys Fisher Cyberman. That's the way all action-figures had worked, just a few months previously: they were big, clunky, Action Man / Sindy-scale chunks of plastic in dramatically-illustrated boxes, the Sindy comparison being especially relevant in the case of Denys Fisher's Leela. They were things you were given as gifts, not things you could afford to take down from the shelf and up to the counter on your own. If this sounds an overly cynical and consumer-driven sort of democracy, especially from someone whose tongue turns to aspic when using the word "merchandising", then remember that we took them out of their plastic bubbles and rammed them against each other in order to re-arrange universes. Not as subtle or as limitless as the great game of Doctor Who, but a form of storytelling, nonetheless. I have lingering doubts that Character Options' "Exploded Cassandra" or "Old Woman with No Face" figures have been used in quite the same way. Bonus points for the Drashigs, though.
We needed pocket-money pocket-sized Doctor Who figures in order to remake our own favourite universe. Instead, I got a twelve-inch Cyberman with a nose. The TV series had let me down badly, and now even the dolls were being embarrassing.
Oh, one more thing. Many of you may think of Star Wars as a sci-fi film; some of you may feel that it was always, at heart, a children's story; those of you who follow Simon Pegg's path will pretend it's an adolescent geek's film, and that Han Solo was always the important one. But in 1978, when it came to Britain, a major part of its appeal was that it swashbuckled. Our parents loved it too, because it was as if Errol Flynn had finally got to play Flash Gordon.
The sleeve-notes on the BBC video claimed that the opening scene of "The Invasion of Time" was a nod to Star Wars, even though this would barely have been possible given the timeline. Memos of the era show that Graham Williams specifically wanted the Megara in "The Stones of Blood" to be as un-robot-like as possible, so that nobody would compare them with droids: the first demonstrable influence of the film on Doctor Who, albeit a negative one. I put it to you that the earliest positive result of Star Wars on the broadcast episodes was "The Androids of Tara" (yes, they do have an actor in common, shush). True enough, every word of the script could have been written one or two or five or ten years earlier, the plot being based on The Prisoner of Zenda and the dialogue never challenging the principles of BBC pretend-historical drama. But that year, "Tara" got it absolutely right, for the parents if not for the children...
...it swashbuckled. With electric swords.