Saturday, January 15, 2022

1959: A Space Odyssey.

To my relative surprise I enjoyed Hugh Walters' Blast Off At Woomera, so I decided I had better have a look at the sequel, which is called The Domes of Pico. There are eighteen books in the series, and you will be relieved to hear that I am not planning to read them all.

The book has a slightly unusual place in my personal canon. In the olden days, when books only existed in libraries, there was generally a list of “other titles you may be interested in” on the fly-leaf, and “books by the same author” opposite the title page. We proto-geeks read and memorised everything, even the ingredients of Sugar Puffs, so those lists of titles became a kind of poetic incantation. Warriors of Mars, Maid of Mars, Chessmen of Mars, the Voyages of Doctor Doolittle, Doctor Doolittle in the Moon; "this book tells how whole cities abandon the earth to wander in space". The titles were often more evocative than the actual books, and it was pot-luck whether or not you got to read them. The Martian chess men play a disappointingly minor role in the umpteenth Barsoom novel.

Hugh Walters' list was relatively easy to commit to memory: after the first couple of volumes, he went in for planetary alliteration: Journey to Jupiter, Mission to Mars, Passage to Pluto and so on until the solar system ran out of planet. But The Domes of Pico, the second book in the series, didn’t appear on the majority of fly-leaves. I suppose that not all the early volumes were kept in print so the older volumes weren’t listed in the newer editions. Some of the books went by more than one title:  I spent a long time hoping to find a copy of First On The Moon, which turns out to have been the American title of Operation Columbus. At some point I must have gone into a different library, possibly while I was on holiday, and learned that such a book as The Domes of Pico existed, but I knew I would never get to read it. This gave it a kind of talismanic magic. The book I never saw; the book that didn't exist, the book that all the kids would have read in the olden days, but which I, forced to live in an age of bronze knew about only via redacted flyleaves...

I didn't articulate it like that, of course, but it's the kind of thing which gets into kids' heads. Black and white Doctor Who; the Eagle; the wireless; Saturday morning pictures; air-raids -- part of the normal base-line world for which I was somehow born too late. This is the closest many of us came to C.S Lewis’s elusive joy. J.K Rowling based an entire career on a vague sense that olden-days schools were the most school-like schools.

At any rate: the Domes of Pico; the one book in the Chris Godfrey saga that was never in any East Barnet library. Unfinished business; a promise to my eight year old self. I am finally filling in the missing piece.

It is exactly like all the others. 

It is very obviously a sequel. In fact, it's a fairly transparent attempt to do Blast Off At Woomera all over again. Boy is trained. Boy flies to moon. Boy to all intents and purposes killed. Boy saved by borderline divine intervention. We don't find out the secret of the domes in this second volume; and the actual trip to the Moon is a bet “meh”. But there is a secondary, human, psychological plot which is much more compelling than the Russian spy sub-plot in book one. It is contrived and melodramatic and overwritten, with more of that mawkishly masochistic emotional scab-picking that characterised volume one. It’s incredibly far-fetched. I liked it very much indeed.

At the beginning of the story, Walters gives us readers a crucial piece of information which he withholds from most of the main characters, leading to all sorts of tension, irony and soul-searching. Then at the end of the story, he quite shamelessly leads his readers up the garden path by not giving them a piece of information which is entirely obvious to everyone in the actual story. 

I probably don't need to be over-worried about spoilers when talking about a book that has been out of print for half a century. I was flattered and indeed humbled whenever anyone said that they were reading or re-reading Steve Ditko's Spider-Man because of my essays. More so when they said they were reading Saint Mark's life of Jesus. But I would be very alarmed if anyone went off and read these pot-boilers as a result of my literary nostalgia. They're very much of their time and you probably wouldn’t enjoy them as much me 

But if anyone is reading along, you might like to skip this essay until you have got to the end of Domes of Pico. It is pretty much impossible to talk about the book without giving away The Twist.

Modern Young Adult writers love first person narratives in spunky kid voices. "Mum? Is that you? I guess you’re wondering why I wasn’t in school today? Well, I know this sounds a bit random but I'm on a space ship, let me explain...". We can probably blame Salinger; or come to think of it, Mark Twain.

Walters does not do this. At all. He starts three paces away from the action, with a boring adult doing boring adult things, described in boring adult language: 

Calder Hall. The name of the world's first plant for generating electricity from atomic energy still produced inside the Minister of Fuel and Power a warm glow of pride.

Warm glow of pride: do you see what he did there? 

The sentences are convoluted; the words are big; and no stock phrase or cliche remains unuttered.  When the minister hears that Calder Hall has shut down "beads of perspiration glisten on his forehead."  When the power station was first opened, the needle on the electricity meter had "begun its steady march round its large white dial" and “a new age had been born." Some kids -- one at least -- rather like this approach. It makes us feel that we are reading a proper book. It gives us permission to take all the outrageous action seriously. The hero of the hour is still Chris Godfrey, the undersized schoolboy who got zapped into orbit in the first book, but we readers get to overhear what the adults are saying about him when he's not in the room.

You can understand why the energy minister is sweating. It's not only Calder Hall that has shut down: every nuclear power station in the world has stopped working simultaneously. Some of the newspapers think that the big meltdown is a result of a previously unknown property of Uranium. "Yet the true cause was a different one. Staggeringly different!" Walters isn’t coy about grabbing the reader’s attention and keeping it grabbed.

The culprit is those mysterious Domes which young fella-me-lad Chris was sent up into space to photograph in book one. The Domes are continuing to do excellent work as an all purpose plot device which provide the Rocket Research Institute with an endless series of narrative excuses to put teenaged boy’s lives at risk. Walters keeps assuming that we need reasons to send children to the moon. “Because it’s there” isn’t a sufficient motivation. 

There is, incidentally, another fairly well-known science fiction story in which a big dumb object of presumably extra-terrestrial origin sits mysteriously on the moon waiting to be found. 2001: A Space Odyssey didn’t come out until 1968, but the short story on which it was based was published in 1953, four years before Chris Godfrey's first encounter with the more rotund monoliths.

Since Blast Off At Woomera the Mysterious Domes have been joined by an equally Mysterious Cone. The Cone is firing out neutrons which is what is causing all the world's power stations to go critical at once.  And also giving people radiation sickness, which seems to manifest as blindness. This is likely to result in the end of civilisation as we know it: Walters actually uses that venerable phrase. The only solution is to, er, nuke the site from orbit. But a nuclear strike would only be possible if there were a missile guidance beacon on the moon near the Cone. And only a human astronaut would be able to accurately place such a beacon. Can you see where this is going?

Two years have passed since the first story. It is is specifically 1959 and and Chris is specifically 19, having finished his first year at Cambridge. It's the little things that remind us that we're in the 1950s. Chris share something called a "railway compartment" with two old ladies on a steam train; his Aunt has a coal fire and shops have "early closing days". Telephones are referred to as “instruments” and the news is heard on “radio sets”. Chris Godfrey’s own dialogue is straight out of Billy Bunter. ("It was a dirty trick! Uncle George was not playing the game!")

Since civilisation needs to be saved right now, and since Chris is the only person on earth with experience as an astronaut, Sir George Benson of the Rocket Research Establishment asks him to volunteer for another mission. 

I’m not sure I swallow this. One of the joys of the first book was that once you had accepted the premise of a school-boy in space, everything else followed logically and convincingly. But the idea that in the past two years it hasn’t occurred to anyone to train up an airman or a test pilot stretched my disbelief suspenders a little bit too far. (Chris’s last space flight has caused him to put on height, so there is no longer even the excuse that he will fit into the capsule.)

The first half of the book is a bit of a plodding retread of Blast Off At Woomera. It isn't as interesting, either for us readers or for Chris, because it's no longer new to us. Centrifuge, space suit, weightlessness; it’s jolly uncomfortable but all chaps’ upper lips remain resolutely stiff. Chris inconveniently acquires a new personality trait, "claustrophobic" to go on his character sheet alongside “small”, “shy”, “brave”, “hungry” and “pious”. This is something of a drawback since he is going to have to spend five days, rather than twelve minutes, squashed in a teeny-weeny space capsule. The boffins try putting him in a small capsule-shaped room for a few hours to acclimatise him, but he can't hack it. So they decide to anaesthetise him after take off and bring him round when he gets to the moon. Which is exactly what they used to do with the monkeys.

Chris can last five days without food or water; but they thoughtfully supply him with toothpaste tubes of glucose for him to suck when he wakes up. Real-life astronauts are always asked "How do you go to the bathroom in space?" but Walters is far too British for the question of space-potties or space-nappies to even occur to him. In volume three Chris will get to supplement his diet with "meat tablets" but there is still no bathroom.

And so we come to the Twist. 

Nice Uncle George isn't in charge of the mission: this time it is run by Nasty Sir Leo Frayling. Walters is really good at dropping big, dramatic, one liners at the end of chapters, and Chapter 6 is a doozy:

As he walked towards the door of the Cabinet Room Sir Leo Frayling found one of his fellow scientists at his side. As the two men passed through, his companion pulled Sir Leo back.

“If he goes, what chance has Godfrey got of getting back alive?” he asked in a quiet voice. Sir Leo looked his colleague squarely in the face. “

"Absolutely none,” he answered in the same low tone.

It seems that the cosmic rays coming from The Cone would kill any astronaut before they got anywhere near the moon: so the capsule has to be shielded with lead. But lead is quite heavy; and although the rocket has got enough fuel to take Chris to the moon, it won't have enough to bring him back. Uncle George obviously wouldn't consent to killing such a nice young man as Chris (even to save Civilisation As We Know It) so Sir Leo doesn't tell anyone what he has planned. It's kept on a strict need-to-know basis. The people who do need to know become very awkward and tongue tied around Chris, but naturally, he doesn't particularly spot that anything is wrong.

This is the fulcrum around which the second half of the book turns. I am not going to use the expression "moments of psychological complexity" but there is no doubt that in Chapter 16 actual characterisation occurs.

Bad Sir Leo waits until Chris is asleep to tell Nice Uncle George that he is intending to kill the boy. But Chris, who is, after all, only 19, decides to play a funny jape. He pretends the anaesthetic has kicked in before it actually has. Ergo, he hears sentence pronounced. (Bad Sir Leo is a fine rocket scientist, but he isn't bright enough to switch off the radio.) This is the lynchpin around which the story spins. Chris wakes up in orbit around the Moon. He tells ground control that he knows they have sent him to his death.  And he sulks.

“You might as well know I heard your announcement that I can never get back. Yet all along you’d been telling me I’d be all right. It was a dirty trick.....I—I’ve finished with everybody. I’m not going to despatch your precious beacon.....But you’ve all played me a dirty trick, so I’m through.”

You sent me on a suicide mission without telling me. Well, I'm not playing. I'm going to go to my room and just let civilisation come to an end without me. So there.

Nice Uncle George has to persuade Chris to lay down his life selflessly to save the world. And the resolution is genuinely quite affecting. Chris asks Sir George if he would have still asked him to fly the rocket if he had known it was a suicide mission. And Sir George replies "Yes Chris, I should--and I know you would have done it." So Chris completes the mission, knowing he has no chance of ever coming home. Everyone starts having surges (of pleasure, exaltation, and excitement) and the narrative voice spends a few paragraphs going completely over the top:

For had not the youth of each generation, Chris thought, willingly sacrificed themselves in the defence of their fellows? Why should he, typical of the young people of the day, be more of a coward than the young men of former days? Christopher remembered those thrilling accounts he’d read of the soldiers, sailors and airmen in the last war, and of their heroic deeds....

My friends you would not tell with such high zest, etc etc etc.

Overall, the book is less pious than the first one was (and much less so than the next one is going to be). Chris and Nice Uncle George do say their prayers before going off on the mission, but there is a slight sense that everyone is embarrassed by it. Chris himself is prone to say "God grant that I can hold out" when things get hard and to "thank God for his deliverance" when they turn out okay, although the grown ups all use "my God" and "good heavens!" as mild expletives. But Chris's willingness to become a victim in order to avert the end of civilisation as we now it is absolutely explicit. It would be going too far to see him as the Lamb Of George, taking the full force of the cosmic rays so the world doesn't have to. But there is no question that for Walters, heroism means self-sacrifice and vicarious suffering. In the first book, Nice Uncle George directly likened the walk to the space capsule to the condemned man's walk to the gallows. This time, Chris's suicide mission is repeatedly described as sacrificial. Granted, we talk about sacrificing soldiers lives in wars; and Walters talk about the spirit of self-sacrifice (i.e working hard and doing without) that animated Londoners during the Blitz. But when Bad Sir Leo's plan is first proposed, the Minister of Defence wonders whether he should ask the Cabinet to decide "whether this human sacrifice should be made". (He directly compares Chris with Laika, incidentally.)

Obviously, all heroes dice with the Reaper. I can remember watching Star Trek when I was a little too young for it, and starting to notice that nearly everyone was nearly killed in nearly every episode -- by space plagues, wars, alien execution chambers and duels with space lizards... The stories weren't to do with Space; they were to do with Death. And of course all pop songs were to do with Love. It's like, Love and Death were the only things that grown ups were interested in. (I only found out about the Thing they were most interested in a bit later.) But Walters doesn't put his characters into cliffhangers in which they might die, and then show how bravely and ingeniously they got out of them. He keeps telling us that they definitely will die, and tries to make us believe that they have died -- and then, at the last minute, reveals that they are not dead after all. "I'm going out and I may be gone some time" could stand as an epigram for the series. Hugh Walters helped to run the local Boy Scout Troop.

It is not quite true to say (as some people did after my last monograph) that Hugh Walter's Church of England God is a deist figure who never does anything. It would be truer to say that Walter's invokes the  Christian deity as a deus ex machina, particularly when he has got the heroes into holes he can't otherwise get them out of. In the first book, Chris is literally on the point of entering Heaven but is pulled back by the thoughts and prayers of everyone in the whole wide world. In this one, he is saved from certain death by a some fairly unlikely plot machinations -- and immediately (sitting in his capsule after touchdown) "humble words of gratitude to his Maker fill the young man's mind".

The resolution is hugely contrived, and the Twist is so transparent they omitted it from the American edition. But it is such fun -- where 'fun' is defined as piling agony on agony and turning the melodrama up to eleven -- that it is hard for the reader to object. 

Chris puts the homing device on the Moon. With characteristic understatement, Walters describes this as "a grand finale, perfectly performed, precise and accurate in its execution" which "writes with a flourish, 'The End', on the last page of the slim volume of his life." Mission control zaps him with anaesthetic to spare him the inconvenience of starving to death.

It has been heavily foreshadowed from the beginning of the story that there is a spare, back-up rocket at Woomera base. Once Chris has been figuratively and literally put to sleep, and once the nukes have been launched, Bad Sir Leo and Good Sir George have a very frank exchange of views in a separate room. It ends with a punch being thrown and the second rocket being launched. Naturally, we assume that Nice Uncle George has punched Nasty Sir Leo out, taken over the mission, and volunteered to lay down his own life in a daring, miraculous “it's a long shot but it might just work” rescue of Christopher.

But Walters doesn't say this. He says that Sir George and Sir Leo went into the back room; there was a fight; one man came out of the room, and the man who was still standing put the rescue operation in place.

I wonder if you can guess what is coming?

The plan makes sense -- or as much sense as plans in stories can reasonably be expected to make. Chris has been sent up in the lead shielded rocket because the Cones are sending out evil Cone Radiation; but once the Cones have been nuked, there is no reason that the second, lighter, unshielded rocket shouldn’t be sent up, with enough fuel to make a round trip. Indeed, it isn't quite clear why that couldn't have been the plan from Day 1. And since the whole point of the story is that Chris is the only person who can possibly fly the ship, is it really plausible that Sir George -- sorry, the man who came out of the room -- would be able to launch himself into space at three minutes notice? Couldn’t they at least have trained a back-up astronaut alongside Chris, what with the future of civilisation hanging in the balance, and everything? Three weeks training would presumably have been better than three minutes.

But that said, it's all very dramatic, with Sir George -- sorry, the man in the space ship -- experiencing blood clots in his eyes and all manner of indignities while carrying out the daring rescue. The language is pretty bloody for a kids book -- I momentarily thought of Kimball Kinnison being consumed by space-fungus and the various forms of dismemberment visited on the Last Legionary.

The man crouched uncomfortably in the small cabin of P. 1 was in great pain. Not only was the compartment too small for him, but his inadequate protection against the terrific strain of the blast-off had caused him serious internal injuries. Grimly he struggled to fight off nausea and insensibility as he peered through the film of blood that filled his eyes.

He pulls it off, of course, using mechanical grabbers and retro rockets to turn Chris round and point him back at the earth.

So: Chris survives. And he guesses what has happened. The first thing he does is say thank you to God, and the second thing he does is ask to say thank you to Nice Uncle George who has (in all probability) laid down his own life to save his surrogate nephew’s.

And Chris is told -- stop me if you've already guessed -- that it wasn't Nice Uncle George who saved him: it was Nasty Sir Leo. Sir Leo punched Sir George out; Sir Leo went up in the back up rocket; Sir Leo was willing to die to save Chris. Because nasty Sir Leo was never nasty to begin with. He was just doing his duty, to Queen and country, and his duty was clearly to sacrifice one volunteer in order to save the lives of nearly everyone on earth.

The whole book has basically been a really easy trolly problem. The greatest good to the greatest number clearly demands that someone lay down their life. But if the person is not a theoretical faceless grunt, but your son, or surrogate son, or nephew, would you do it? (It is an interesting conjecture. A fascinating idea. But would you do it?) Earlier in the book the Minister of Defence had been dead set against human sacrifice until his own wife falls victim to Cone induced radiation sickness, at which point his ethics become considerably more flexible.

In the first book, Chris's sacrifice brought about the end of the cold war, or at least the space race. In this one, Chris and Sir Leo's mutual sacrifice creates an eternal bond between the two of them and Sir George. The three are going to be the core of the space exploration team for the next several books.

I didn't enjoy Domes of Pico as much as Blast Off At Woomera, and I don't think I would have done so when I was a child. It rushes through the nuts and bolts; and the climax seems slightly too easy. But I decided I had better have a glance at volume three, Operation Columbus, which begins:

"A landing must be made on the moon!”

Like I say: Walters may be a corny old over-written sentimentalist, but when he grabs my attention it certainly stays grabbed. 

Doctor Who Season 15

Horror of Fang Rock

The Invisible Enemy

Image of the Fendahl

The Sunmakers


The Invasion of Time

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Friday, January 14, 2022

What Did You Think Of The Last Season Of Doctor Who

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Thursday, January 13, 2022

15:6 Invasion of Time

"That passed the time."
"It would have passed in any case."
"Yes, but not so rapidly."
      Waiting For Godot

A religious-academic figure in robes and a skull cap runs through a warehouse. Or perhaps it is a factory.

He is accompanied by three aliens in metal armour.

Three incongruous figures run into an old fashioned hospital ward, with curtained-off changing cubicles. One is wearing a big coat, a hat, and a scarf, even though he is indoors. The other, by complete contrast, is wearing what seems to be a bathing costume. A Flash-Gordon looking storm trooper, in red plastic armour, hides in one of the cubicles. One of the aliens looks through the curtain, but doesn't see him, for some reason. The chase continues.

This is what Doctor Who has become.

The final episode of Season 14 was a rich autumnal costume drama. It featured two supporting characters who are still remembered with great affection five decades later, and wonderful dialogue about the invasion of Iceland. The final episode of Season 15 involves mismatched characters chasing themselves in circles through hospitals, swimming pools and an art gallery, arguing about which corridor they have been down before. The stock brickwork buildings are supposed to be the interior of the TARDIS. 

From lavish, atmospheric costume drama to surrealistic farce in one year. We talk about Doctor Who re-inventing itself. This is Doctor Who deconstructing itself: Doctor Who rotting from the inside out.

If Doctor Who is serious science fiction then Invasion of Time is not a Doctor Who story.

If Doctor Who is about transporting you to luscious alien worlds that will stay with you until the day you die then Invasion of Time is not a Doctor Who story.

If Marco Polo or Tomb of the Cybermen is the template for what a Doctor Who story should be, then Invasion of Time falls short, far short, laughably short of the ideal.

But Invasion of Time is a Doctor Who story. So this is what Doctor Who was always like. Mad, silly, incoherent, and gloriously uninterested in its own lore.

It exemplifies everything which non-Doctor Who fans think is wrong with Doctor Who: everything we fans like to deny or excuse or forget. One set of aliens, the Vardans, are literally pieces of tin foil hanging on the ends of coat-hangers. And they sound Welsh. Nothing wrong with sounding Welsh: lots of planets have a Wales. But amid all the posh-English Time Lords it is one more thing which sticks out; one more aspect of the show that we can't quite commit to believing in. 

Sets may not literally wobble; but the exterior sequences on Gallifrey -- referred to ominously as the Outside -- are filmed in the usual BBC quarry with added sand. The Outsiders are English actors with posh accents dressed up in fake fur rugs. They are meant to be Time Lords who have renounced their heritage: they come across as one more set of Plucky Rebels. (Some people have connected them with the shabogan, the hooligans who scribble on the walls of the Panopticon in Deadly Assassin, but this is pure fan dot-joining.) In the middle episodes Leela goes full Magnificent Seven and tells them they have nothing to lose but their chains. It's Underworld and Sunmakers all over again. It wouldn't be a Doctor Who story without armed insurrection.

We aren't talking about unintentional silliness, like the unfortunately phallic monster in Image of the Fendahl. We aren't talking about over-ambitious ideas that come across as ludicrous because of the BBC's cut-price special effects, like the Doctor's blood-stream in Invisible Enemy. We aren't even talking about a sensible production ruined by a single ill-advised rat. Invasion of Time is intentionally silly -- deliberately bad. You could dub-in better Vardans (it has been tried). You could conceivably reshoot the Sontarans with masks that actually fit. It wouldn't make any difference. It isn't the dematerialised Vardans that are the problem. We can accept that strips of tin-foil dangling from wire coat-hangers are standing in for beings of pure energy: we do, after all, accept that quarries and cigarette factories sometimes stand in for alien worlds. The problem comes when we see their true form: humans in stock military uniforms.

"Disappointing, aren't they?" says the Doctor. Yes: they are.

This is a story about how an alien race invaded the Doctor's own planet; and how the Doctor lied and deceived and alienated 

The sequences in which people literally walk round and round the TARDIS looking for the bathroom is embedded in the story and can't be edited out. (The bathroom is an ornate swimming pool: the English do call public swimming pools "baths", especially in the North, but bathroom is also used as a euphemism for bathroom, particularly by schoolteachers and the affectedly posh.) The TARDIS interior is not a bug, but a feature. It's the scripts which make the Outsiders unconvincing as dissident Time Lords, not their LARP-style costumes. (This was before LARP.) 

At one point, the Doctor has a conversation with himself about how he can escape from the Chancellor's room undetected. He speaks the line "Even the sonic screwdriver won't get me out of this one" at the audience, into camera, for all the world like a Play School presenter. The temptation to shout "It's behind you!" is overwhelming.

Later on, he runs down a corridor, confronts some Time Lord Stormtroopers, and says "Salute the Sash of Rassilon". They all bow to let him pass. Leela, who they have been told to arrest, simply says "I'm with him" and they let her pass as well. The Doctor bribes a guard with a jelly baby: there follows a bizarre mime in which the two of them try to eat their sweet at the same moment. (It recalls the battle of wits from the Princess Bride. This was before the Princess Bride.)

It is, as a very wise man said, funny-peculiar rather than funny-ha-ha. Gallifrey, for no reason that I can work out, is strewn with multi-coloured inflatable chairs. When the Doctor is inaugurated as Time Lord President, the crown (which gives him access to the Matrix) is brought in on an inflatable plastic cushion.

What we are watching is now The Tom Baker Show. It should have been obvious that Doctor Who was bigger than any one actor and that  allowing one charismatic thesp to gain the ascendency would put the show into terminal decline. But for now, Invasion of Time is happy to acknowledge the new normal and run with it. The story is about the Doctor: his nastiness, his silliness, his misanthropy -- and our ultimate faith in his benevolence. He is allowed to be awful because we know he is only pretending; and yet we suspect that the pretence -- shouting at Borusa, shutting out Leela, making illogical demands -- reveals what he has always really been like. (A writer named Shakespeare did a similar trick with a mad Danish prince.) In the past we have arrived on alien planets and asked "What is going on here?" and waited for the Doctor to tell us. Now, we have to ask "What the hell is the Doctor doing?" And there is no-one to tell us.

The last few stories have been topped and tailed by TARDIS scenes: that has become the formula, the way Doctor Who has always been, at least since last Christmas. The TARDIS is not just the vehicle that takes us to new adventures: it is home. The Doctor Who Family are discovered learning to read, or playing chess, or trying out painting; some threat interrupts them; but by the end of the episode they return home. Invasion of Time subverts the set up. Leela and K-9 are alone on the TARDIS; the Doctor has left them there; he won't tell them what is going on. He is positively horrid to Leela ("K-9, tell her to shut up") but Leela, touchingly, retains her faith in him. We don't seriously believe that the Doctor has turned evil; because we know he is the Doctor, but we can't figure out what is going on. We never really do find out: we kind of have to accept that the Doctor knows what he his doing even if we can't quite see all the moves.

This is Doctor Who. The hero is a petulant man-child with jelly babies who wears his winter coat indoors. The universe has followed suit. Tom is silly. The monsters are silly. The universe is silly. The silliness is the point.

At the beginning of Episode 6, we see first the Doctor and then the Sontarans leave the TARDIS control room and pass into the rest of the ship. It feels as if a huge taboo has been broken. For very many years, the control room has, to all intents and purposes, been the whole of the TARDIS. We saw a bit of corridor and a boot room in Season 14; and way, way back in the black-and-white we saw sleeping quarters and a food dispenser, and there have been intermittent references to wardrobes and labs and storerooms. But this is the first time we have seen the interface. And behind the white hexagonal walls and buzzing console are bricks and wooden slats. We aren't just going to a part of The Ship we haven't seen before. We are stripping away a level of reality and slipping back-stage. Camelot really is only a model. In its way it is as jarring a moment as when Number Six realises that London is a stage-set and that he is still in the Village; or when Evey realised that she was never really in the concentration camp to begin with.

Those of us who care about canon are free to say that the TARDIS is infinite and that if the Doctor happens to have configured it to look as if it is made of bricks and mortar, that's his prerogative. Some people think it's cool to make the desk top of their high-end Mac resemble the boot-up page of a first generation green screen Amstrad. (This was before Amstrad. It was a very long time before Apple.) But that's not what happens in the story. In the story, everyone thinks that the TARDIS looks like this because it is a broken down, archaic, rather ridiculous piece of technology. And that's a big part of what Doctor Who is doing to itself. Undercutting. Demythologising. Inviting us to laugh at the very premise.

In Episode 5, the Doctor and K-9 retire to the TARDIS. The Doctor is going to connect K-9 to the Matrix because the Matrix is infected with a Matrix virus and it won't affect K-9 because he doesn't have a brain. Or words to that affect. Tom can't fit the Matrix halo onto the robot head, so he hangs it over one ear, instead: the producer has fixed it by the next scene. K-9 is supposed to be a robot, constructed by a human scientist. The Doctor is the president of the Time Lords. Yet throughout the dialogue, it is clear that K-9 has the upper hand.

--You are the most insufferably arrogant, overbearing, patronising bean tin....someone said that about me once
--Correction master, several people have said that about you
--Well at least no-one's ever called me smug
--Correction master....

Doctor Who was often preceded on a Saturday night by the Basil Brush show, and it is developing a similar dynamic. Roy North is nominally in charge, nominally the grown-up, the sensible one; but Basil Brush the sarcastic, anarchic puppet comes out on top in every scene. We know, though Mr Roy does not, that it is really Basil's show. Ernie is clever and pompous and writes the plays, and Eric is moronic and spoils everything; but we know who is really in charge. The Doctor is clever and powerful and good and would have his name on the tin if we knew what it was; so it is very tempting and funny to allow his side-kicks to prick his pomposity. Sarah and Jo could often see right through him. But while Leela looks up to the Doctor with an almost religious awe, K-9 seems honestly to think that he is a fool and the TARDIS is a clapped out piece of technology. And we are supposed to be on K-9s side.

Of course the Doctor is smug: that is the point of him. Of course Basil Brush is rude: that is the point of him. It is absolutely fine for Jo to be better than the Doctor at sweet-talking warehouse men and for Leela to be better than the Doctor at hunting -- even for Zoe to be able to do the kinds of sums in her head for which the Doctor might use a computer. But if the Doctor is not as clever as he thinks and the TARDIS is not as wonderful as we thought then the whole idea of Doctor Who starts to evaporate.

Once I had a sprig of thyme.
It prospered be night and be day;
Till a false young man came a-courting to me,
And he stole all me thyme away.

I suppose one ought to try and say something about the plot.

One summary might go a bit like this:

"Powerful aliens seek to conquer our hero's home-world. In order to gain their confidence, our hero pretends to side with the invaders, to the extent of deactivating the planetary defences. The plan works: the aliens reveal a crucial piece of information, and our hero defeats them. However, while the planetary defences are switched off, and even more powerful set of evil aliens sneak in and conquer the planet."

Not a bad plot in fact. It makes more sense than Flux. There are some holes in it, but there always are. I don't know quite why the Doctor needs the precise co-ordinates of the Vardan home-world, and why he has to go to such extreme lengths to get them. I don't know quite why the Vardans are such an existential threat to the omnipotent Time Lords? Their unique selling point appears to be that they can teleport along any kind of power-source, including people's brain waves, which is a neat trick, but doesn't quite make them the ultimate force in the universe. And they kind of have trouble teleporting through lead. I don't quite know how the Vardans are defeated: there is some talk of black holes and time loops; but this is hardly the last time the Doctor will defeat the bad-guys by Doing a Thing. It's the last minute entrance of the Sontarans which makes the set-up look distinctly wobbly.

Robert Holmes reputedly told Graham Williams that the best way to write a six part story was to write a four part story and stick a two part one on the end, and I am not saying he was wrong. BBC copyright being what it is, Graham Williams had to ask Holmes' permission to re-use characters from the Deadly Assassin, and Holmes' also owned the rights to the Sontarans, which explains why it wasn't the Daleks or the Cybermen or the Master or someone actually threatening. 

At the exact moment when the Vardans appear to have been defeated, the Sontarans sneak in through the hole in Gallifrey's defence net and say, in effect "Aha: you fell into our trap. This was what we intended you to do all along!" The Sontarans knew that if the Vardans invaded Gallifrey, the Doctor would have to convince them that he was a turncoat. And they knew that the only way he could convince them that he was a turncoat was by deactivating the planet's defence system. But the Doctor isn't that predictable and the Sontarans aren't that clever. If the baddies had been a super-intelligent, super-logical race then we might just  have swallowed it, but even before they developed their chocolate fixation the Sontarans were rather dense, rather plodding infantry. And the Doctor, as usual, is improvising his head off.

If I wanted to be cruel, I would say that Graham Williams is waving his hands around and hoping we don't notice. The Vardans are invading Gallifrey because they are: the Doctor pretends to side with them because he does: The Sontarans pop up in Episode 4 because they do. But if I wanted to be kind, I would say that Graham Williams understands TV drama very well. Saturday night TV is constructed out of individual scenes, not grand plot arches. It is more important that fun stuff happens than that the exposition makes sense. 

And lots of fun stuff certainly happens. It is fun to watch Tom being evil in Episode One. It is fun to watch Tom being barking mad in Episode Six. Perhaps it would have been a mistake to make mid-March audiences attend to the pay-offs of early February set-ups. Most of the people who watched part six would have forgotten all about part one. It was 1978. Boxed sets were what Meccano came in.

Graham Williams has a strange attitude to continuity and consistency. In Horror of Fang Rock, he took a whole scene explaining why Leela's eyes had changed colour from brown to blue. The real reason was that Louise Jameson didn't much like wearing contact lenses. It is highly unlikely that viewers would have spotted the change if it hadn't been pointed out. Most of us were still watching in black and white. This time around, it has been decided to blow some of next season's budget on replacing the K-9 prop with a slightly less unwieldy one. Presumably concerned that, six months down the line, fans would say "Hey! Why is K-9's motor very slightly less noisy than it was last March?" he offers us a whole, excruciating scene in which K-9 is written out and replaced with -- a different K-9!

But as well-acted, well-written, genuinely interesting a character as Leela is summarily dispensed with, married off to a bit-part player she has barely exchanged five words with. Louise Jameson wanted her character to be killed off; Williams hoped she would stay on for another season, so the scene was added in a hurry. Maybe Williams thought that fans cared more about the shape of the tin dog's ears than the fate of the lady co-star. Maybe he was right. A new character, Rodan, the first female Time Peer we have encountered, is introduced purely in order to replace Leela as the Doctor's companion. She spends at least two episode convincing us that she would, in fact, have made rather a good companion. But at the end of the story she is left behind without a by-your-leave and never mentioned again. Romana, who will take Leela's place next year , is pretty much the same character as Rodan, only taller.

Time is an illusion. Lunch time, doubly so.
      The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy

In March 1977, an up-and-coming comedy writer pitched an idea for a new comedy show to Radio 4. He purported not to specially like science fiction; but he seems to have grown up with Doctor Who, and his script, dealing as it did with the End of the World, had strong science fiction elements. Radio 4 commissioned a pilot episode immediately, and the writer shrewdly sent a copy of his script to out-going Doctor Who script editor Robert Holmes. Holmes commissioned a Doctor Who script more or less on the spot. Incoming producer Graham Williams had already decided that his second season (season 16) would have an over-arching theme, and the comedy writer bounced a lot of ideas about the Key To Time around before pitching an off-the-wall one about a hollow planet which materialised around other planets. Meanwhile, the script which Williams had originally commissioned to end Season 15 (thought to have been entitled Killers of the Dark) turned out to be un-filmable. A replacement script had to be cobbled together at the last minute by Williams and incoming script editor Anthony Read, in or about August 1977. This is why the story is credited to the fictitious David Agnew.

It follows that, when Graham Williams was writing The Invasion of Time, he had had sight of at least the pilot script for that wholly remarkable radio series. Synchronistically, the first episode of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy was broadcast on the Wednesday as the final part of Invasion of Time was broadcast on the Saturday. (8th and 11th March, 1978.)

Douglas Adams had no direct input into Season 15 of Doctor Who; and certainly nothing that Graham Williams wrote approached Douglas Adams' level of wit. But it is hard not to hear Adams' voice in some of the Doctor's lines. ("They went to war with each other" he says of the Minoans in Underworld "Learned how to split the atom, discovered the toothbrush, and finally split the planet".) The TARDIS back-rooms have a certain family resemblance to the squalid Vogon Destructor Fleet; and the theory about the ubiquitous utility of the towel has a Doctorish daftness to it. David Dixon's Ford Prefect has a certain Bakerish quality to him; Geoffrey McGivern, not so much. 

The influence may not necessarily have flowed in only one direction. Adams had presumably seen Tom Baker's Doctor, so some of Baker's comic persona could have rubbed off on Adams. He would probably not have pitched Pirate Planet in the Jon Pertwee era.

Adams treats the end of the universe and the meaning of life with a sort of half-smile: there is none of the Python's surrealist outrage about the absurdity of the world. We are only a year or so away from the Pythons themselves treating the most sacred story in the western canon with the same kind of wry bemusement. The TARDIS has, up to now, been astonishing and wonderful, the magical hook on which the world's greatest TV show hangs. It's now a faintly ridiculous machine which everyone makes fun of. The Earth was colonized by hairdressers. It's not da-da-ist anarchy; any more than Life of Brian is a serious attack on anyone's faith. It's just a mild undermining of authority, which is in the end more insidious. Doctor Who started in a world where elderly boffins chatted to serious chemistry teachers about three dimensional graph geometry and Boyle's law. But it has ended in a world where the Doctor tells his own teacher that he learned nothing in college that he couldn't have arrived at from blind instinct.

Which is, come to think of it, very much what Obi-Wan told Luke Skywalker. Switch off your targeting computer. Feel, don't think. We've all heard quite enough from experts.

If Invasion of Time feels like a rushed job, that's because it was. If it feels like writers are struggling to fill blank pages, that's because they were. If it seems like characters are repeating themselves, saying the same things over and over again, going round in circles, literally and metaphorically, that's because they are.

Waiting for Godot is a play in which (allegedly) nothing happens, twice. Critics try to work out what it's really about. But what it's really about is two characters, desperately trying to fill the space until the play ends with something, anything. And the audience are supposed to say"Ah. That seems to be a familiar concept. What does it remind me if? Ah yes, life."

I felt that the Doctor running round in circles on Gallifrey and in the TARDIS, repeating himself, saying the same thing over and over, not really getting anywhere, had the some of the same vibe.

--What is it?
--That's the Chancellor's office.
--Well, I know it's the Chancellor's office.
--Well, no one goes in there unannounced.
--Well, announce me.
--All right.

The Sontarans may be invading time, but "David Agnew" is endlessly searching for witty and imaginative ways to pass it.

Tuesday, January 04, 2022

Keep Hoping Machine Running

What I Wrote About This Year

Doctor Who - 75,000 words

Politics - 30,000 words

Comics 25,000 words

Folk Music 17,000 words

Books 9,000 words

Movies 4,000 words

What I Didn't Get Around To Writing About This Year

The Micronauts

The Eternals

The New Gods

The Wombles

The Tomorrow People

What I Am Writing About At The Moment

More juvenile science fiction

Doctor Who season 15

What I Am Hoping To Finish by November 2023

A big book about Tom Baker

What I Am Still Hoping To Get Around To Writing About

The Eternals 

The Micronauts

The Tomorrow People

What I Am Going To Write Less About

Doctor Who

What I Am Going to Write More About

Other things

What I Never Going to Write About Again

Gender politics

What I am going to be better at

Promoting and monetizing projects 

Other projects for 2022:

Put Spider-Man essays into a big book, tentatively entitled "Steve's Version"

Turn Saint Mark into an audio book / podcast

Continue to write about gigs, concerts and live shows and try to get Brizzle local meejah to pick me up

Think some more about role-playing games

Chicken out of NaNoWriMo at the last minute, again

Something about roleplaying games; Aslan 16 perhaps?

An exciting secret games related project.

As of tomorrow, I am voluntarily working one day less at my day job ("work life balance") specifically so I can spend more time writing. This is a small act of faith, on my part. If you would like to reassure me that I am not completely insane then please jump over to my Patreon and pledge me a few bob (*) each month. 

(*) 1/- = $2.19 in todays money. 

Thursday, December 23, 2021




I am going to talk about the first science fiction book I ever read; possibly the first real book I ever read. I am going to try to explain why it was my favourite book when I was a child, and what it was like coming back to it after very nearly fifty years. 

When I was four or five the grown-ups asked me what present I would like for my birthday. "Something to do with SPACE" I replied. I got a magnificent plastic space helmet, one size fits all, with a NASA logo and a visor you could raise and lower. It echoed, slightly, when you put it on your head so your voice seemed to be coming from the moon itself. I got a space suit to go with it: a silver pair of P.Js, really, with moon-shot patches and Stars and Stripes sewed into them. I can't remember wearing the suit, but I can remember sadly realising that I was getting too big for it.

I was born in 1965 so I would have been just about conscious of the moon landings. I think I was just barely aware of the Apollo 13 near disaster; I think my mum shielded me from watching the TV news in case it became too sad.

I suppose the choice is arbitrary. I decided I liked Space. I might just as well have decided that I liked Unicorns.

It is not hard to explain why, at the age of eight I went crazy for Spider-Man and at the age of twelve I went crazy for Star Wars. Maybe you went crazy for Pirates of the Caribbean or Toy Story or Jurassic Park. Spider-Man and Star Wars are texts. I was crazy about the stories that Steve Ditko and George Lucas were telling me.

But very small children know that they like Pirates or Dinosaurs long before they have encountered any actual texts. They don't like particular stories. They certainly don't care about letters of marque or paleontology. But they do know that Pirates and Dinosaurs are cool.

Space-rockets were cool. Daleks were cool, too, long before I knew that they came from Skaro or contained a disgusting mutant or wanted to rule the universe or even that they appeared in a TV series called Doctor Who. 

Children become obsessed with the oddest things: lifts or trucks or teapots or the colour pink. It's almost a form of imprinting. How many serious grown up interests started with pointless childhood fixations, I wonder? See a pony at the age of three; develop a serious interest in dressage and the Grand National at the age of sixteen. Get a toy turtle at two; get a junior black belt in Judo at the age of eleven.  

The overwhelming majority of grown-ups read stories about businessmen and lawyers and vets and village school teachers and middle class Italians and narcissistic Norwegians. They say that they literally cannot understand why any grown-up would want to read "all those crazy space stories". And crazy space story readers can't work out why anyone in their right mind would want to read a story about ordinary things happening to ordinary people in an ordinary world. Perhaps the grown-up majority just never fixated on space rockets or dinosaurs? 

Didn't Freud think that most kinks were perfectly normal elements of infantile sexuality that particular people never grew out of?

Some of the unpleasant far-right science fictions fans who called themselves Puppies believed that no-one really liked mainstream fiction: it was being forcibly imposed on a docile population by a feminist-academic cult, to make America more vulnerable to the communist take-over. Or something. Guardian cartoonist Tom Gaud drew a celebrated cartoon in which a science fiction reader imagined that mainstream fiction readers were dull sourpusses who were secretly jealous of all the fun he was having. 

Two mutually uncomprehending sub-cultures. Two people for whom "books" mean different things.

Yes; I know. There are dog people and cat people, but Mrs Smith down the road dotes on her poodle and her siamese.

We like Doctor Who because, when we were too young to know what Doctor Who was, we thought it was fun to run round the room shouting Ex! Term! In! Ate! in a silly voice.

We like Pirates of the Caribbean because when we were too young to know what a sailing ship was, we thought it was fun to run round the room shouting "Arrrr!" in a silly voice.

We are interested in equestrian sport because when we were too young to know what a horse was we thought it was fun to gallop around the room making clip-clop noises with our tongues.

It really was that simple. That was why I decided I liked Space. 

Not because of the adventure.

Not because I liked the idea of different worlds and aliens.

Because a rocket ship is a great, big, tall, willy-shaped firework.

And mostly because it is fun to run around the room shouting FIVE FOUR THREE TWO ONE BLAST OFF.

Not the real reason. Not the only reason. But the point of origin.


My first school was split between Infants and Juniors. The Infants were segregated off in their own corridor. I don't think there was ever an Infants Library. I suppose there must have been books, but I can't remember any particular ones. We were taught to read from Janet and John, of course. At home I had a fine collection of Ladybirds. I remember Magic Roundabout Annuals and a very dog-eared Disney Storybook. Doctor Seuss was disapproved of because he rhymed Zed with Bee and couldn't spell "colour". 

I think that Picture Books are a slightly more recent publishing phenomenon. I can recall Infant teachers reading to us from quite text-heavy books: Winnie the Pooh and Noddy and Alice in Wonderland and the Song of Hiawatha. I remember Miss Ward reading us Hans Andersen's Tinder Box and Miss Heinze reading us Jason and the Argonauts, both unexpurgated. The romance of human sacrifice and public execution kicked in quite early.

The rest of the school was the province of the Juniors, and the Juniors had their own library -- a tiny little cubby hole lined with what we would now call Chapter Books in A-B-C order of the writer's last name. We were presented with one of those old fashioned blue ticket-pockets which allowed us to take out (and take home) one book a week. Miss Beale allowed some of us more voracious readers to have two. I read the obvious: Doctor Doolittle, Mary Plane, Paddington Bear, the Wombles, Enid Blyton, who I never really took to, and Willard Price, a kind of entry-level Clive Cussler. But I gravitated to the very small section of Space Books; what I knew, at the ripe old age of seven or eight, to refer to as Science Fiction. 

I think that the publishers were commissioning big-name writers to write juvenile material, or scouring back-catalogues for kid-friendly material. I remember titles like Have Space Suit Will Travel (Heinlein); A Life for the Stars (Blish) and Islands in the Sky (Clarke.) I don't think Asimov wrote anything for for children.

I can date my Spider-Man infatuation precisely; the second week of February, 1973. (The Wombles came on TV the same week.) I don't have any reference point, but I suppose it was about the same time when I walked into the Junior library and pulled down a little tome, with small print, no pictures, and an abstract cover. 

A cover perfectly suited to fixation on five-four-three-two-one-blast-off. It was old fashioned and perhaps out of print when I read it. Libraries seemed to have copies; I never saw a paperback in a bookshop. For years I would have said it was my favourite book. I only read it once, and it's been out of print for decades. 

But the Internet is the Internet; and Orion Publishing has decreed that every science fiction novel ever written, however obscure, can be dowloaded into my Pocket Computer at the touch of button....


As a matter of fact, you can go home again. But home looks different. Unless you have been away for too long. Then it looks exactly the same.

So: Blast Off At Woomera by Hugh Walters. 

If you are close to my age and frequented libraries, you certainly read it; if you are any younger you won't even have heard of it. I don't know what I thought re-reading it was going to feel like: embarrassing, I suppose, a vague nostalgic cringe. I have watched a lot of old children's TV recently, thank you Brit Box. Thunderbirds is as wonderful as ever, but I wouldn't want to watch very much of it. Catweazle stands on its own two feet as a charming piece of comedy-farce with both a heart and an historical head. The Tomorrow People makes me squirm in my seat. 

I've talked about what it was like to read Stan Lee's prose for the first time, or see one of Jack Kirby's cosmic spreads. But that experience is unrecoverable. I can't go back to Spider-Man and the Silver Surfer because they never left me. I can't compare "reading them at fifty" and "reading them at twelve" because memories of reading them and thirty five and twenty seven and sixteen rush in to fill in the gap. I believe that I have seen Star Wars at least once a year for the past forty five years. I could have a very good go at reproducing the script from memory. I had forgotten every single thing about Blast Off At Woomera, except that it is about a rocket, which blasts off, presumably from Woomera.

I read through it in a single sitting, pretty much glued to my chair; the word "unputdownable" (unputtable down?) never truer. I am not a fast reader: I got through the Dune series and Ulysses by setting myself targets -- this many pages today, this many pages before I am allowed a coffee break. But this ancient kid's book dragged me in and refused to let me go. (As an adult, I mean. I think I found it quite hard-going as a kid, but liked things which were A Bit Too Old For Me.) 

Do not, whatever you do, go away and read the thing on my recommendation. In the cold light of day it is really not very good at all. It clearly the work of a very good amateur, one Walter Hughes who sold metal beds and ran the Rotary Club. Hugh Walters was a cunning pen name. He tried his hand at writing science fiction because he thought the existing stuff wasn't sciency enough. Blast Off at Woomera was published in 1957: four years before Yuri Gargarin; nine years before James T Kirk; twelve years before Neil Armstrong. It comes from a time when Dan Dare was still in his pomp on the front page of the Eagle. Like Dan Dare, Hughs' hero, has to confront strange, alien life-forms; savage creatures, strangely dressed, with deadly weapons who hate for no reason and kill without purpose. In the Eagle it was the Treens from Venus. In Blast Off at Woomera it is the Teddy Boys, and they come from Battersea Funfair.

He had read about the exploits of some of these young hooligans in the papers. Wolverton had, happily, been without them, and this was the first time he had seen any in the flesh. What he saw did not reassure him. About eighteen or twenty years old, they each had “sideboards”, gaudy ties and suits with velvet lapels.

It was more than a decade old when I found it, and already quite old-fashioned. Now it seems to speak to us from another world. 1950s England is vert nearly as alien as the planet Venus.

Walter Hughes was a member of Arthur C Clarke's interplanetary society, but the story is as unlike Clarke as any book could be. Clarke likes his hardware and he cares about his science; but he is also full of romanticism and awe and childish wonder. 

H.G Wells was also in the Junior Library. I got to the end of  War of the Worlds but First Men "In" The Moon defeated me. My father rather approved: H.G Wells was a proper author. He never did quite persuade me to have a go at Kipps. I remember the fugitives seeing a tripod on a hill near East Barnet. East Barnet was where my school was. My secondary school was at the top of Cat Hill, where John Betjamen had disastrously failed to teach cricket. I imagined that was the Hill H.G Wells had in mind. Wells is not as romantic as Arthur C Clark, but he makes you aware that the universe is big and strange and terrifying and awesome. Hughes' heroes wouldn't recognise the Cosmos if it bit them on the nose while they were munching their bacon and eggs. Blast Off At Woomera is singularly uninterested in the Cosmos. 

War of the Worlds begins:

No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man's and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.

2001: A Space Odyssey Begins

Behind every man living there stand thirty ghosts: that is the ratio by which the dead outnumber the living... Please remember this is only a work of fiction: the truth, as always, will be far stranger.

Blast of at Woomera begins (and I promise I am not making this up)

Sports Day at Wolverton Grammar School is the social event of the year. Held traditionally on the third Saturday in July, it falls in that delightful period between the end of all exams and the start of the longest holiday. It is then that the masters become human beings for a brief spell and even the Head is known to quote an occasional humorous Latin tag.

It sits halfway between Biggles (unlikely yarns about the RAF by someone who had actually flown a plane) and Jennings (unlikely yarns about schoolboys by someone who had actually been a teacher). It starts in a school; and it it never quite leaves the ethos of the school. In that way the hero, Chris Godfrey, has something in common with Harry Potter.

I loved it unreservedly. I can fully understand why it became so big when I was little.


So, it is 1957. England has its own space-programme. It has sent unmanned probes and monkeys into space; but the time has come to send up a human being. A full-grown man wouldn't fit in the capsule, so Sir George Benson recruits a seventeen year old schoolboy, who is so small he could pass for 12. The boy is trained for some weeks, and an Englishman duly becomes the first human being in space.

"Boy volunteers; boy is trained; boy goes up; boy comes down." That's very nearly all there is to it. 

The boy hero, Chris Godfrey, is the most transparent of Mary Sues. He has very little personality or interior life; he's brave and clever and shy and not much else. We follow him on trips to a scuba-diving company to get his experimental space-suit fitted; to a centrifuge where he experiences artificial G-force and to an RAF base where he experiences weightlessness in a supersonic jet. We also follow him on an R&R trip to Battersea funfair (where he has the unfortunate encounter with the Teds); to a music-hall where he sees the Crazy Gang; and on a pre-launch picnic in one of the prettier parts of the Australian outback.

Hughes keeps our feet on terra firma. We get a blow by blow account of Chris's experience: how well he slept each night, what he had for breakfast each morning and at what time. (Come to think of it, "eating a lot" is another personality trait.) Hughes shares with Enid Blyton and J.K Rowling a habit which drives grown-ups mad but which often grips kids. He never skips over a piece of action or offers a summary of what is going on. Anything which can be expanded into a scene, is expanded into a scene: characters often provide a running commentary about what is happening next. Nothing is shown which cannot be told. When Chris is driven from his home in Wolverton to London in a military vehicle, the tension reaches fever pitch:

The Royal Air Force corporal who was driving the car turned to Chris and asked if he would like to pull up for a coffee. Chris replied that he didn’t mind and would leave it to the corporal, who, after cogitation, volunteered that coffee wasn’t much in his line—so they continued their drive to London.

The scene in which he changes his underwear before putting on his space suit is very nearly as thrilling:

Following the white coated man into a small side room, the boy saw that he was to strip and put on one of the light cotton garments placed ready for him. This covered the whole of his body except for his hands and his head, and was secured by a long slim zip fastener up the front. A pair of special socks were pulled on, and he walked a little self-consciously into the larger room where the others were still examining the suit.

I don't know how much Hughes actually knew about aeronautics but it all feels convincing to me. The premise takes a little bit of swallowing -- are there really no adults of restricted growth? couldn't they have recruited a jockey? -- but it is treated with logic and conviction, and followed through to its logical conclusion. The manned space flight has to happen right now because the boffins have spotted possibly artificial constructions on the moon and need photographs of them. The test rockets have capsules in them, because they have been launching monkeys into space. The capsules are monkey-sized, and can't be made grown-up sized in the time-frame. There has to be a human occupant, because there is no way of training a monkey to operate a camera. 

The space agency takes sensible steps to cover their tracks: when Chris is whisked off to London without a cup of coffee, it provides a sensible cover story that he has gone on holiday. When Chris arrives at Woomera, the crew of the base are told that he is Sir George's nephew. When the truth leaks out -- the government is putting children in experimental rockets! -- the media backlash is wholly plausible. We really feel that if the English government had put a grammar school boy in space in the 1950s, this is how it would have happened. 

Why did I find the book so hard to put down? I knew perfectly well -- and I must have known perfectly well when I was in Miss Beale's class -- that the launch was going to be a success. Hughes was hardly going to make us plough through a hundred and fifty page chapter book (with no pictures) only for the rocket to explode on the launch pad or for Chris to chicken out at the last minute. But I found myself racing through the final chapters to get to the denouement. Not because I wanted to know what happened: but because I wanted to imagine that it was happening to me. 

And even when the twelve minute adventure finally takes place, Hughes dials it down. Chris's message from orbit is not "one giant leap" or "my god, it's full of stars" but "Moon....big....clear".

So. In some ways, quite a dull book. It renders space-travel prosaic and unromantic and even ordinary. And for precisely that reason, the most exciting book I ever read. It feels real. It feels like you are there. I went from shouting five, four, three, two, one in a toy space helmet to knowing I definitely wanted to be an astronaut when I grew up. This book told me truthfully what it would be like. Reading it was as close to being an astronaut as I am ever likely to get. 

However "Boy goes up. Boy comes down" is not quite enough plot to sustain a novella. So Hughes adds a subplot. It orbits the margins of the main story: just sufficiently to add some tension and some jeopardy to the narrative. And to provide a punchline and a sub-text that I didn't quite see coming.


It's the damn Russians, of course.

The English believe that the mysterious domes that have appeared on the moon were built by the Russians: that's why the mission is so urgent. But one of the Woomera scientists is a Russian spy. (It is rather hard to tell one scientist from another, so the spot-the-traitor whodunnit falls a bit flat.) The spy sabotages the mission; the rocket crashes on re-entry...and Chris is killed! The photos are saved (the plucky lad hugged them to his body on the way down) and it turns out that the domes are not created by the Russians after all, but possibly alien. As a result, the British and the Russians end their rivalry and pledge to work together. Our hero's self-sacrificial pluck has ended the the Cold War and secured the future of the space programme.

Ronald Reagan reportedly told Gorbachov that if the earth were invaded by aliens, then the Americans and the Russians would bury their differences and come together as fellow members of the humans race. In Clarke's disappointing sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey, America and Russia step back from the brink because the Black Slab turns Jupiter into a second sun. And, of course, it is the ending of Watchmen: Ozymandias's faked squid incursion averts World War III at the eleventh hour. It is nice to think that a furniture salesman and part-time boffin had the same thought twenty five years earlier. It is quite possible that Alan Moore has read Blast Off at Woomera: Alan Moore has read everything.

Fortunately, Chris turns out to only have been mostly dead. Not only does he miraculously recover, but the cosmic radiation has given him a growth-spurt! So Hughes gets to have it both days: a death scene of monumental sentimentality in Chapter 20, and a happy ending in Chapter 21. In a way, it would have been a better story if he had stayed dead: but you don't kill off heroes in kids fiction, and anyway, it would have been a shame to have missed out on sequels with names like Passage to Pluto, Mission to Mars and Something to Saturn.

But there is another reason why our hero survives his near-certain death. Astute readers will have spotted it already. The book doesn't only have a plot and a sub-plot. It has a sub-text. A huge, massive, in your-face subtext that I was totally unaware of for 50 years.


The book starts with Sir George Benson, visiting his old school on sports-day, and noticing that one young lad, an academic high flyer with an interest in rockets and astronomy, would be small enough to fit into his rocket.

They have a jolly good chin-wag in the headmaster's study. Chris isn't allowed to make a decision straight away:

"No grand heroic decision please. I’m sure Sir George won’t accept an answer one way or the other until tomorrow morning. Isn’t that so, Benson?”

“Absolutely,” came the reply. “Run along now, Chris, and think about it very carefully.”

“And pray,” added the headmaster.

Pray? Well, it's an old fashioned book; and headmasters are generally very old fashioned characters. Mr Berry was very probably born when Victoria still occupied the throne. One might suppose that Hughes is drawing a contrast between the old-world religious authority of the head of a grammar school, and the modern scientific authority of the head of the space programme.

On the day before Chris boards the Hogwarts Express, it is mentioned in passing that he and his Aunt go to evening service at their local church. Well, most people did. Hughes probably wants us to see that Chris is leaving the old world of family, shop, school and parish behind him and going to join the modern outward looking world in That London and eventually Space.

On his first Sunday in the Metropolis Sir George asks Chris if he wants to go to church, and Chris says that he does. But everything stays decorously C of E: Chris's sentiments are humanistic and nationalistic rather than spiritual.

Here, indeed, was written in metal and stone the record of our history. Here were recorded the lives and achievements of the great, each—be he poet or politician, scientist or explorer, king or commoner—had made his contribution to the advancement of our race. Each had helped to take a tiny step forward down the long corridor of human progress.

But as the big day draws close, some serious piety sets in. A few days before the launch, Chris gives up counting sheep to send himself to sleep and starts to think about theology instead:

What after all, he thought, am I? Why should I be concerned about myself when I’m only a scrap of animated matter in a universe of infinite variety and mystery? Surely we are all of utter and complete insignificance—unless God has chosen us for some purpose of His own.

And just before Chris goes out to face his fate, comes this wholly remarkable passage:

“Chris, lad,” [said Sir George] “we can only stay a few minutes. I thought perhaps you and I might spend just a few moments together in silent prayer. No matter how perfect man may try and make a machine, it’s God who has the last say as to whether or not it will function. Your life will soon be in His hands, and I know you’ll be all right if such is His purpose.”

“Thanks, Uncle George. It would be a comfort to say a prayer with you. I’m a bit shy with other people, but I’d like us to do it together.”

The man’s arm round the boy’s shoulder, they knelt on the dusty concrete floor.

Chris is an orphan, raised by his Aunt (as all good heroes are): and by this point in the story he is calling the man who is going to blast him into space "Uncle". Which is not creepy at all.

I remember being given Lord of the Flies to read, around the age of twelve or thirteen.It came from the same post-war schoolboy universe as Hugh Walters; and it had once been a shocking book. Mr Wallis the English teacher who gave it to us he thought it was important for us to learn about the Evil in Men's Hearts before World War Three kicked off. Like most grown-ups he seemed to believe that a nuclear holocaust was more or less inevitable. But no-one who had been in the boys changing rooms of a north London comprehensive would have been remotely shocked by the idea that, sans parental authority, teenaged males would start to bash each others brains out. If he had really wanted to shock us, Mr Wallis would have given us Coral Island, which took it for granted that shipwrecked boys would do the decent Christian thing, buck up and civilise the natives. People educated at English public schools in the 1910s might possibly have been shocked that Wilfred Owen thought that dulce at decorum est was a big lie: what shocked us in Mr Wallis's English class was that people in the olden days could possibly have believed in anything so silly. But there is something genuinely shocking about an old man and boy kneeling down to pray before the the five-four-three-two-one thing happens. Reed Richards didn't ask Johnny Storm to say a prayer before launching himself into the cosmic ray storm. Perhaps things would have gone better if he had. Dan Dare was known to get a service-book out in his capacity as a ship's captain, but it is hard to imagine him kneeling down with Digby and squeezing his arm. 

Blast of at Woomera  looks forward to a future of British-led space exploration, international co-operation and (by volume six)  peaceful contact with benevolent space aliens. But it simultaneously looks back at a passing 1950s worlds of good manners, decency and Christian certainties. Our hero may be the first Space Man, but he is not part of the new world of teddy boys and teenagers.

Did we cringe? Did we think "Oh, this is a Christian book, I hadn't realised?" I think that, in 1972, we hardly noticed. Americans and people under the age of thirty five will hardly believe how ubiquitous the Church of England was in English schools in the 1970s. Compulsory religious studies; a hymn and prayer every morning; nativity plays; visits from the local vicar. Prayers and church and morals were just part of the dull roughage that grown-ups liked to put into books. We looked straight through them. I am endlessly astonished by the people who tell me that they read the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and didn't particularly notice that the dying-and-rising god-lion was A Bit Like Jesus.


Chris Godfrey is an almost completely passive protagonist. He has no agency whatsoever. His heroism consists being subjected to the discomfort of g-force, the nausea of zero-gravity, the indignity of endless medicals and injections and changes of underwear and Taking It Like A Man. He puts himself in a position where he is quite likely to be killed, and he doesn't chicken out, even though it is made clear to him that he could.

The English are proud of the stiffness of their upper lips. There are no terms of endearment when Chris takes leave of his Aunt. On the day before the mission everyone keeps saying "see you in a few minutes" even though they know he is likely to die. There is a queasy sense of male closeness: Greatrex, the whiskered battle of Britain veteran who takes him under his wing refers to Chris as "young feller-me-lad" to his face and "that kid" out of earshot.

The Battersea Park Teddy Boys demand that Chris literally licks their boots, and Chris acquiesces. Sir George and Greatrex are shocked that Chris allowed himself to be humiliated rather than fighting back.  “If the kid really has a yellow streak, he’ll start squealing when the time gets near for the blast-off." But then they realise that Chris would have liked to have punched one of the group of bigger men with knives who outnumbered him. But he held back, because he knew that his getting hurt would jeopardise the mission. "In some circumstances it takes a great deal of courage to be a coward" says Sir George. Much manly squeezing of hands and gruff clearing of throats ensues. 

And on the final day, after Chris has said his prayers and refused a hearty breakfast, it's Sir George who starts to have second thoughts 

With every yard that they covered, Benson had to fight the thought that he was sending this lad to his death, that he was accompanying him to his execution.

Everyone is conscious, but no-one quite says, that what they are engaging in is child sacrifice. We overhear a conversation among the scientists about the ethics of sending monkeys into space: some think that it is wrong to kill dumb beasts who can't possibly understand what is happening; others think that killing a few animals for advancement of human knowledge is justifiable. When the monkeys survive, the families on the base make a great fuss of them and give then names. Hughes does not draw the obvious conclusion -- that Chris is somewhere between and experimental subject and a pet: but the thought must have occurred to many of his brighter readers. 

We see the launch twice, once from Sir George's point of view, and once from Chris's. In mission control, we hear Chris sobbing; in the claustrophobia of the rocket, we hear all the doubts that are going through his mind.

Would he be seeing any of them again? Of course he could if he wanted to. He had only to call out that he was too scared to carry on, and Sir George wouldn’t press the switch. Or would he? It wasn’t fair of them to ask him to undergo this mental agony, let alone the physical torture that would probably follow.

Uncle, if it be possible, save me from this hour. In case we miss the point, as the rocket falls to earth, God makes a brief, on-stage appearance.

Nearer grew the brightness at the end and all Christopher knew was that he wanted to reach it more than anything he had ever wanted before, for somehow he was sure that in that bright glow lay happiness and peace and rest. With a half-formed prayer in his mind he came to the end of the tunnel or corridor and all about him was the light.

English literature has also involved an element of sentimentality which borders on the sadomasochistic. From the sacrifice of Isaac to the Prioress's Tale, via Little Nell and Babes in the Wood, right through to tabloid salivation over "Maddie" and "Jamie", there is nothing we like better than blubbing about dead kids. The language when Chris is apparently killed is completely over-the-top:

Would to God young Chris had been spared, [Sir George] breathed to himself in silent anxiety. With a choking in his throat he admitted to himself how much this youngster had come to mean to him.

And weeks later, in the hospital:

Two large, dark eyes like miniature pools in a thin, white face. For a second or two Benson stared, too full of emotion to speak. Then the incredible boy, still too ill to speak, slowly winked an eye. In spite of himself and to his eternal chagrin Sir George felt the tears smart in his eyes. Again that slow movement of Christopher’s eyelid—so full of meaning, so very precious. Silently Benson left the ward, a prayer of gratitude singing in his heart.

So: a scientific procedural, told very much in the language of a school story, conceals a clear Christian metaphor. Virtual death and virtual resurrection. He is lead like a monkey to slaughter. He is humiliated and bears his suffering cheerfully. He is betrayed by one of his own. His suffering brings the world together.

The Russian spy, we are told, is not doing it for the money: he is a completely sincere Communist. We don't find out what Communism is all about, but we do find out that the spy had a difficult childhood which set him on the wrong track. I don't know if this is supposed to be a redeeming feature -- he kills one of his friends because of an honest political conviction -- or if it makes him more of a monster. He politely arranges to be shot in the head in the final scene, and ends up in a mental hospital, saving everyone the embarrassment of a real execution. His communism is described as a faith; more oddly, as a kink. It is the language that relatively tolerant people in 1957 might have used about gay men: it's not really their fault and they can't help it. But it's the act of a godless commie that brings Chris back from the Light and indirectly causes peace to break out. How, if nothing else, ironic. 

Blast Off At Woomera is not an allegory. It's a space story about a boy astronaut by an amateur boffin; beloved by junior library geeks who wanted to be astronauts when they grew up. Hughes puts Christian morals into story in the same way he puts in thermal underwear and cooked breakfast: they are the kinds of things that go into stories of this kind. 

And yet. Hughes wasn't above playing around with names. His pen-name is a kind of pun: Walter Hughes the furniture salesman became Hugh Walters the science fiction writer. (A science fiction writer named Wally Hughes appears in one of the later volumes.) I doubt that he consciously intended the symbolism, but it is hard to avoid noticing syllables of the main character's name. Chris Godfrey. Chris/God. The story of how Chris sacrificed himself for the world. 

And it would be remiss of me not to mention that Christopher Godfrey literally means "Christ-Bearer Peace-of-God."