Monday, January 31, 2022

Nineteen Sixty One A.D

Moonbase One is the last Hugh Walters book that I propose writing about. For the time being, at any rate. It kind of winds up an opening quartet. The first four books have all been about The Moon, and specifically about the mysterious alien artefacts on The Moon. The fifth one, Expedition Venus will be a soft reboot, repositioning the series as being about planetary exploration. All plot threads from the Moon sequence will be left dangling;  the Space Beings and their Domes are never properly explained.  Walter’s doesn’t so much conclude the Pico story as lose interest in it.

If Operation Columbus was about liberal theology, then Moonbase One is about English education and the phasing out of the Eleven Plus. 

Up until the 1940s, barring scholarships or rich parents, most children left school at 14 and got a job or an apprenticeship. Between about 1944 and 1965, children were put into a magic sorting hat which divided them into Academics (who went to Grammar School); Skilled Workers (who went to Technical School) and Workers (who went to Secondary Modern). Unfortunately, there weren’t actually any Technical Schools for them to go to, so the system turned into a straight competition in which the winners earned places at Grammar Schools and the losers were condemned to Secondary Moderns. The two kinds of school were supposed to have “parity of esteem” but in practice people who "failed" the Eleven Plus were widely regarded as having failed at life. In the 1960s, Harold Wilson swept the whole elitist system away, and replaced it with a more egalitarian model in which everyone was educated equally badly in vast mixed ability jungles. In the 1980s, this Comprehensive system was itself abolished and replaced with -- whatever the hell it is we have now. Hugh Walters would have been educated in the 1920s: he presumably either won a scholarship or had parents who could afford to pay for his secondary education. Chris Godfrey was born in 1940 and attends Wolverton Grammar presumably on the basis of having passed the Eleven Plus in 1951. (His Auntie runs a little shop and could never have afforded to educate him privately.) Schooldays over, he sails into Cambridge University: we never find out which college or indeed precisely what he studied. 

The initial set up, all those years ago, was an unashamed wish fulfilment fantasy, with Chris as the barely concealed Mary-Sue. A famous scientist just happened to be passing his school and just happened to realise that he just happened to be the ideal person to be Britain’s first astronaut. If it could happen to him, it could happen to you. Like Stan Lee, Hugh Walters has the sense to make the hero pay for his big dreams with an awful lot of grief. If you become a superhero, everyone will hate you and those you love will die. If you become an astronaut, you’ll have to do a lot of extra P.E with some particularly unpleasant P.E masters. And you will very probably die. 

But time has moved on, and Chris has become an idealised figure -- famous, brave, self-sacrificing, pious. He’s twenty-two now with a degree in -- something or other -- and feels that going to the moon is the apex of his life’s work. He is a shoo-in to be the leader of the latest mission. (Walters keeps referring to him as the Young Leader, making the US/Commonwealth moon programme sound a bit like the Boy Scouts.) Jolly stirring stuff, of course, but with a hero to whom it is increasingly hard to relate.

So, in this fourth volume,  Walters revisits the Schoolboy In Space motif.  And I have to say that he comes up with a distinctly clever plot device to justify it.

One definitely feels that as this fourth volume opens, a formula is being established. The main characters have all been thoroughly Flanderized. Or, to put it more kindly:  Walters has generated a plot machine that works, and sees no particular reason to modify it. Sir George is wise, avuncular, loves Chris just a little bit too much, but is largely absent. Sir Leo is ruthless and inhuman but gets the job done. Whiskers is nice and funny and calls people "fella-me-lad" and "young whipper-snapper". Chris is brave and noble and pious and modest and shy. Morrey is American and open-hearted; Serge is Russian and reserved. But Serge and Morrey are, truthfully, little more than names in this volume. The human interaction, such as it is, is almost all about Chris and Tony. Since Tony is in the same position that Chris was in the first book, this is rather nice, although it is a shame that Walters never makes the point directly.

There is going to be another trip to the moon; this time, three bold astronauts are going to construct a simple, pressurised dome on the surface and remain there for days or weeks, finding out all they can about the Space Beings and their increasingly repetitive Domes. There is never any question about Chris being one of the crew and (since it is an international mission) Yank Morrey and Russkie Serge, from the last volume, get to go along for the ride. Chris, Morrey, and Serge will become the protagonists of the remaining sixteen books in the series; and anyone with a background in comics may feel that Moonbase One is wrapping up an Origin Story. Nice Whiskers, the comedy RAF Wing Commander, compares them with the Three Musketeers, and at moments of peril, Chris makes the team shout “all for one and one for all” which must puzzle Serge. I suppose it could have been “to the toppermost of the poppermost.”

The Fourth Musketeer is Tony.  Tony is an alien. Well, almost as bad as being an alien. He’s from the North. And he’s distinctly common: Chris has to translate his broad Brummie accent into English for the benefit of the rest of the cast. And he didn’t pay attention at school, and he hardly ever goes to church. He’s moody. And he takes more than his fair share of chocolate. And he’s distinctly young even by the standard of agencies who routinely send sixth formers into space: he's only fifteen.

In Domes of Pico; a very bad thing happened: the nasty round monoliths bombarded the earth with nasty radiation, making all the nuclear power stations break down. In the ensuing years, a large number of younger people have come down with some sort of mysterious but always fatal blood cancer. But -- and this is actually quite clever, as blatant plot devices go -- the very small number of people who already had the cancer have equally mysteriously got better. The radiation kills healthy people but it cures sick people. (The slightly cleverer explanation is that perfectly ordinary cosmic radiation is what causes and cures the illness, and the nasty Dome rays made a temporary change to the earth’s atmosphere which let the radiation through.) Either way, the boffins want to send a sick child into space, let him absorb cosmic rays and, see if he gets better. If he does, then they can set to work making a synthetic cosmic ray generating device and save thousands of lives. 

Tony is tragically almost certain to die, and pathetically put on the space ship in a poignant attempt to save his life. Given all the tragedy, pathos and poignancy, it will come as no surprise to the reader to find out that he is ginger, freckled, happy-go-lucky, snub-nosed and endearingly naughty. He even teaches the Russian and the American to play marbles. One wanders why Walters didn’t simply name him Jimmy Olsen.

So the plot of Moonbase One partially retreads that of Domes of Pico. Chris knows that Tony is terminally ill, but isn’t allowed to tell anyone else, Tony least of all. (“Gosh! It would be awful to live with a chap you knew was dying!”) Death is regarded as mildly indecent and unmentionable. Tony’s Mum doesn’t want her dying son to come home from the hospital “Oh I don’t think I could bear it!” she says “I don’t think I could face him knowing he’s going to die.”

Sir Leo is distinctly dis-chuffed with Tony being added to his delicately prepared mission, and tells Chris to gas him, or failing that, knock him out if he causes any problem. (This line was removed from the American edition. English Grammar schools were notoriously fond of corporal punishment, but clubbing boys over the head was already considered a faux pas even in the 1950s.) Chris, however, is determined to treat Tony as a member of the crew. There is a moment of actual characterisation in which his and Sir Leo’s attitudes are contrasted:

“Very well, then. And what about the subject of the other experiment—I forget the boy’s name?” demanded the scientist.

“You’ve forgotten his name? It’s unusual for you to forget anything, isn’t it, sir?” Chris couldn’t resist the thrust at Sir Leo, and was rewarded with an angry glint in the scientist’s eyes.

“His name is unimportant. I regard him merely as an instrument. Have you any comments on his behaviour pattern to date?”

“Tony Hale—that’s his name, Sir Leo—has turned out to be a very likeable boy. “

In Blast Off At Woomera, we were told that the authorities went to some effort to provide a cover story for Chris -- no-one found out that the government was sending a teenager into space until the last possible moment. In Moonbase One, everyone kind of accepts that sticking a fifteen year old kid in a capsule with three fairly experienced astronauts is a perfectly sensible thing to do. If I had been writing the story, I might have decided that everyone in the whole world knew about Tony’s illness apart from Tony himself. He would have to be sequestered, like a jury, and there could be all sorts of tension when some damn fool brings a newspaper or a transistor radio set into the air-base. Or I might have suggested that the space agency ran a competition in which one lucky English schoolboy would win the chance to go into space, and faked the result so Tony wins the golden ticket.

So: we repeat the action of the first few books quite satisfactorily. The presence of Tony makes all the centrifuges and space-suit fittings almost as exciting as they were first time around, because they are new to Tony, and Tony is excited by them. (He is very excited indeed. He “dances round the spacesuits” in excitement when he first sees then; he “literally dances” when he first goes on an aircraft and he “babbles excitedly” when he sees the airfield.)  Although he gyrates his way through the endurance training, he sits out the serious mission briefings and science stuff. In a wry twist, he hangs around with the techies, watching them build stuff, and finds it all rather interesting. It occurs to him that if only he’d paid more attention at school, he could have been a technician as well.

Perhaps after he got back to Birmingham he’d get himself a job in a car factory. Not as an apprentice, of course, for you have to have exam certificates before you get taken on, he thought bitterly.

And so they go to the moon. Or, as Hughes, with his gift for understatement puts it: “Audacious man, in the persons of three young men and a boy, establish a foothold on earth’s satellite!” They start to do their research, having forays out onto the moon's surface and trying to learn more facts about the Domes. The Domes are still really functioning as Plot Devices, I am afraid, with no particular information about who they are and what they want. They send out a terrifying black smoke which gets everyone lost, and there is a moderately scary sequence in which our heroes have to get back from the bomb site to the moon-base despite not being able to see each other through the alien fog.

It is, as has been stated before, funny how the mind works. If I was nine or ten when I read this book, Tony was unimaginably older than me: a little bit younger than the heroes, sure, but still essentially a grown up who had been right through Big School. In my head-cannon, he is a slightly whiney and troublesome adult. Reading the actual text, he is in all respects a naughty and irritating child; and treated as such by the other characters. The scene in which he steals some chocolate rations sticks in my mind from my first reading. Chris is incredibly patronising about it, but I think I was largely on board with Tony when he said that he’d simply eaten some of his own share in advance. (Chris’s objection, that the others would be far too nice to eat chocolate while Tony goes without, didn’t really make sense to me then, and even now reads a little like moral blackmail.) By the end of the adventure, he is sulking and refusing to work with the other heroes; Chris doesn’t actually thump him across the head as Sir Leo proposed, but he does ground him in the Moonbase while the others work on the space capsule and on the surface of the moon.

But then, of course disaster strikes. A supply rocket, bringing food and fuel and even some treats, crashes. It damages the main cable connecting the three Beacons together. Without three functioning Beacons there is no way of taking off and returning safely to earth.

The whole take-off operation was dependent upon the radio beams from the beacons, for the initial guidance of Pegasus. Just as the great rocket had been carefully nursed on to its outward course by signals from Control, so its homeward journey would depend on all three radio beacons. If either of them failed to function correctly the odds were that the projectile would speed off its course and be lost in the depths of space.

So: there is no way of getting home, and everyone is, once again, quite definitely going to die. They are all very noble and brave and talk about whether a million to one chance is better than no chance at all and if it would be better to blow themselves up trying a manual launch or just suffocate slowly when the oxygen runs out.  And just when all seems to be completely hopeless....Tony agrees to come down from his room and play nicely. And he reveals a surprising twist: while he was mooching around with the techies, he learned some basic skills. He knows how to solder cables together! And although they don’t actually have a soldering iron, Tony has apparently read Lord of the Flies. Out here on the moon with no atmosphere in the way, they can use glass from a space helmet to focus the suns rays and generate enough heat to melt wire. If Tony the common working class lad hadn’t been there, the mission would have ended in disaster and everyone really would have died.

(In 1970, when the real life Apollo 13 was in similarly dire straits, the technicians at mission control gave the astronauts very detailed instructions about how to fix their stricken vessel. I can’t help thinking that if mending the cable was that easy, someone on Earth could have talked Chris or Serge or Morrey through the procedure, rather than leaving it to a stroppy chocolate pinching teen to save the day. But I am quite prepared to let this one go, because it’s a nice dramatic neat plot tie-off.)

When they get back to earth, Chris explains the moral for all to hear. Last time, we learned that evil freedom hating commie scum and normal English people would do better if they learned to work happily together. This time, we learned that workers by hand and workers by brain have an equal role to play. Again, Walters is completely explicit about this:

“Neither Serge, nor Morrey, nor I, though we are hoping to become scientists, had the knowledge or skill to make the repair. Only Tony here...had the ability to do the job. Without him, we should not be standing here now....So you space travel a good mechanic is as valuable as a good scientist. Just as we can’t all work with our heads, so we can’t all work with our hands. I think that, whatever we work with, if we do a job well we should all respect each other’s skills....”

And there you have it. In the future, Grammar Schools and Secondary Moderns really will have Parity of Esteem. 

Tony is cured of his fatal illness, of course, but we've all forgotten that subplot by this point. 

And there we leave it (for now). Chris, Morrey, Serge and Tony are a team, all set up to accompany me through the closing years of Junior School and the first few years of Big School, right up until the frabjous day when Luke and Han will burst into my life. The books are badly written; the emotionalism sometimes makes me a little queasy; the characterisation struggles to make one dimension; and the piety makes one’s jaw drop a little. But they were space books, and they were in the school library, and they did what they said on the space tin. 

I wish I could return to Stan Lee's original Marvel Universe and A.A Milne’s Hundred Acre Wood, and to some extent I sometimes do. But I can’t re-enter the world of centrifuges and space-suits and chaps laying down their lives for each other without a second thought. But I did enjoy pressing my nose against the glass and looking into that world; I can see why I was happy living there for a while.  

A long time ago, in the space age.

Sunday, January 23, 2022

Space: 1960

Operation Columbus by Hugh Walters is a very subtle refutation of J.A.T Robinson's Honest To God.

After the first manned space flight, the Soviet propaganda machine made up a quote for Yuri Gargarin: “I have been into space (the heavens) and I have not found God there.” 

Liberal Bishops responded with earnest books patiently explaining that Christians did not think that God was literally "up there" -- or even "out there". He was really, as Captain Kirk said "in here" -- in the human heart. Robinson’s proposed new theology in which “God” meant “whatever we most fully and deeply believe in” -- was, for most people, indistinguishable from atheism, which inadvertently proved Gargarin's or at any rate Kruschev's point. C.S Lewis noted that it wasn't very alarming to most Christians that the Russians hadn’t found “God” floating eight kilometers above the surface of the earth. “The really disquieting thing would be if they had.”

The burden of this difficult third album in the Chris Godfrey icosology is that you aren't any closer to God (or any further away from him) on the Moon as you would be anywhere else.  Although Chris utters a lot of silent prayers, we never see him reading the Bible; but one imagines he was familiar with Psalm 139. 

Whither shall I go from thy spirit? 
or whither shall I flee from thy presence?
If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: 
if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there.

Operation Columbus was published in 1959: two years before Vostock I and four years before the Bishop of Woolwich's book. So my theory may not entirely hold water. But people really were thinking about space travel in religious terms.  

Blast Off At Woomera, established the formula: boy goes up in rocket, boy comes down again. Domes of Pico, the second book, was a little bit louder and a little bit worse: boy goes all the way to moon; boy comes back to earth. This third volume takes things to their logical conclusion: boy lands on moon; boy comes home.

But this time, Walters struggles to make me care. I praised Blast Off At Woomera because Walters seemed to have thought through the logical consequences of his -- admittedly far-fetched -- premise. In Operation Columbus he seems to be pulling plot developments out of his space-hat in a desperate attempt to keep us interested. And then he beats us over the head with a moral even less subtle than the first two books. Even at the age of nine, the denouement made me say “Ooo....that’s a bit of a stretch”.

A year has passed since the last book; Chris is still at college. (That makes him 20, and the year 1960, if anyone is keeping track. The book was published in 1959, so we are gradually slipping into the future.) As the book opens, he is visiting nice old Sir Leo Frayling, who is recuperating from the terrible injuries he took saving Chris’s life in the last thrilling instalment. Walters has repositioned Frayling as a standard issue tough-but-fair housemaster: kind and avuncular when off duty, but an absolute bastard once the mission starts. He would like to get back to work: and it just so happens that there is a new space-mission in the offing.

The first two books began with a crisis: in each case there was a jolly good reason for sending a small boy to the moon right now. This one feels less urgent: the boffins have decided that it would probably be a good thing to go back to the moon and pick up a sample of the demolished Domes just in case the extraterrestrials -- referred to from now on as the Space Beings -- ever decide that they want to wipe out civilisation again. 

In Domes of Pico, Chris was quite cross about being asked to volunteer to fly to the moon, because he would much rather have been practicing amateur boxing at Coll. This time he is absolutely determined to be the first man on the moon. Chris persuades Sir George to reinstate Sir Leo as head of the new moon-shot, on condition that Sir Leo choose him to be the astronaut who makes the landing. When we first met him, Chris was an everyman figure who ended up at the sharp end of a rocket due to circumstance. But now he’s a very British Buzz Lightyear who feels that a chap has to do what a chap has to do. Walters reassures us that it isn’t mere “romantic ambition”, he doesn’t particularly want to “make a heroic sacrifice for science” and it certainly isn’t about “notoriety”. But “if he failed to offer himself for this final crowning achievement he would know peace no more”. I strongly suspect that there was a breathless hush in the close when he makes his decision. 

So: off we go again; training, trip to the moon, terrible dangers, return to earth. The first wrinkle is this. Operation Columbus is going to be a joint British/American moonshot but (naturally) there is only room in the capsule for one astronaut. The Yanks send their top candidate to go through the training alongside Chris at Farnborough, but Sir Leo will then decide which of them takes the trip. Once again, astronaut training is mainly about strength and endurance. The centrifuges and isolation tanks are there to “test and torture the human frame”; Whiskers the comedy wing-commander says that he expects “all these tortures to scare the Yank” and when the American arrives he and Chris are put through “the whole gamut of tests and tortures” that the air-base has available. The lad who takes his punishment most manfully gets the place on the space-ship.

The second twist is this. On the other side of the world, Bad Guys are engaged in an even nastier game of Endurance. In Blast Off At Woomera, Chris’s heroism had inspired Russia and the West to pool their resources and meet the threat of the Domes as a unified humanity. The Domes having been thoroughly nuked, Russia is now striking out on its own and is determined to get its guy to the moon first. Even by the standards of the 1950s, the characterisation of the Russians is pretty broad. A nasty Comissar threatens to redeploy a scientist to the New Regions near the arctic circle; the same fate meets anyone who “deviates from the communist party line” or “begins to have ideas and thoughts of their own”. We hear the cosmonaut thinking that a landing on the moon would be...

“A great day for the Soviet Union. A great day for him, Serge Smyslov. His name would be recorded in the history books of future generations along with those of Marx, Lenin, Stalin and Kruschev. Nothing, nothing, must be allowed to rob him, or his great country, of this glorious honour!”

We don’t hear Chris monologging that he should go to the moon in the name of the British Empire or hoping that his name will go down along with Churchill, Nelson and Henry the Fifth. The British rocket is named after Christopher Columbus but the Russian one is named after Lenin. 

One assumes that Sir Leo will use Science! to decide who goes to the Moon, but the Ruskies cut right to the chase. They put all their candidates in isolation chambers and tell them that the one who sticks it out longest gets to go. I remember finding this section quite compelling when I read it as a kid: the young Russian (“Serge”) stuck in the fake capsule, looking for ways to pass the time, counting seconds, taking gulps of glucose and hoping to sleep as much as possible seemed quite compelling when I first read them: the idea of being in solitary confinement, being free to come out by pushing a button, but trying to delay doing so as long as possible was quite scary. In the end he sticks it out for “twelve days, two hours, fifty-six minutes” and wins the golden ticket. The need for catheters and diapers has still not occurred to anyone.

Despite being his bitter rival, Chris’s American counterpart, Morrison (“Morrey”) naturally turns out to be a jolly decent chap, and the two of them form a close friendship. We rather have to take Walters' word for this: we don’t see enough of the training to get much of a sense of their relationship. I could imagine a story in which two people are trying very hard to beat each other in a competition while becoming close friends off the pitch, but this is not that story. Chris continues to talk like an English schoolboy, but Walters works very hard to capture the nuances of Morrey’s U.S dialect. (“Say - you’ve been up in a rocket, haven’t you...Gee, thats swell.”)

Morrison wins the torture show and is sent to Australia for the Moon shot, while Chris is put on the first train back to Cambridge feeling distinctly sorry for himself. (He feels better after he's said his prayers.) However, within two paragraphs of his arrival at Woomera, Morrey very sensibly decides to go horseback riding with Betty, the Australian girl with whom Chris has the barest homeopathic suggestion of a romantic relationship. Naturally, he falls off the horse, breaks his leg, and Chris gets to go to the Moon after all. 

One of the few things which sticks distinctly in mind from when I read the book in the school library is Chris being all tongue tied and apologetic to Morrey and Morrey being very American and open about it.

“Sorry about your leg, Morrey,” he burst out at last, “though it would be silly to deny I’m pleased it means I can go on the rocket trip. Still, I wish it had been something else.—Er. I mean—that is, I don’t mean I wish you’d broken something else, but–––” 

That’s all right,” the American laughed. “I know what you mean, Chris. You’re glad to be going, but you’re sorry it’s had to be my accident that’s let you in.”

This side of the story feels distinctly pointless, except to show what good sports everyone is. Chris is turned down, and Morrey breaks his leg in the space of one chapter: there is no time for us to feel that it matters very much. Books feel longer when you are eight, and I created a great deal of fan fiction in my head. Chris looked, and still looks, exactly like John from the Tomorrow People.

Walters envisages the top section of Chris's rocket landing on the moon, with retractable legs: the idea of a separate lunar module doesn't occur to him. Chris is able to leave the capsule and walk on the Moon's surface in a pressurised space-suit. The Russians have the arguably more sensible idea of providing Serge with a small, battery powered caterpillar tracked vehicle; so he can explore the moon without actually setting foot on it. Hughes is not great at describing landscapes: the moment when Chris steps on the Moon is, if anything, rather an anticlimax. The Moon is dusty and marked with craters, but not particularly  strange or alien.

Undulations and more craters seemed to be the general pattern. Some distance away he could see a change in the colour of the ground from brown to a bluey-grey.  This, he decided, must be the lunar dust, and to discover as much about it as possible was one of his tasks....

I think C.S Lewis would have complained that the books are insufficiently focussed on the idea of space-travel: the Moon is difficult to get to (like a mountain) and very hazardous to explore (like a desert) but Walters is not interested in evoking the Mooniness of the Moon. But he is good at imagining how things would present themselves to his human hero's senses: there is a lot of entertaining stuff about Chris figuring out how to move around in low gravity.

In his childhood he’d read fairy stories about seven league boots and he remembered how badly he’d wanted a pair. Now he found that with little effort he could sail forward four or five yards at each stride. It was great fun and he covered the ground.

The Commies haven’t officially sent Serge to the Moon to murder Chris: but they have used their dirty brain-washing techniques to make sure that he will decide to kill him all by himself. Chapter 8 has one of Walters’ killer closing lines:

If they both made a safe landing and came face to face on the Moon, there was no doubt in Smyslov’s mind as to what he would do. His eyes fell on the firing trigger of the rocket gun carried by his little tank.

So: while Chris is checking out the site of the now-vaporised cones and even collecting a sample, the  Russian tank is trundling over to his spaceship and firing a gun at it. Serge blasts a hole in the ship, so Chris has no way of getting home, but the recoil turns the Tank over leaving him trapped as well.

Gosh, as they used to say in Superman comics. How ironic!

So: we have an Englishman on the Moon with not enough oxygen and no way of getting home; and a Russian with plenty of oxygen and a working spaceship, stuck in an overturned landing vehicle. The solution they eventually come to is, wait for it, mutual cooperation. Chris helps Serge get the lander right side up, and they both fly back to earth in the Russian space ship and live happily ever after.

Chris and Serge have a good old British try at making friends; even trying to teach each other a few words of their respective languages. But things gradually get tense. Serge has been brought up to think that Chris is a dirty capitalist imperialist and Chris presumably thinks Serge is a godless freedom hating commie.  And Serge did recently try to murder Chris; and they’ve been forced to spend 72 hours in a very small room with no toilet. You could forgive them if their nerves got a little frayed. But Walters has a better explanation on hand: being in free-fall for long periods has a strange and barely understood effect on the human mind. It does not go well.

....Benson’s voice came back full of relief. “Only just in time. What’s been happening up there?”

Chris felt himself flush with shame. “I—I don’t quite know,” he stammered. "I think we’ve been scrapping.” 
“I should jolly well think you have,” Sir George called back. “Do you know you’ve smashed everything up and we can’t do a thing from here?” 

“Yes, it looks like it,” the young man answered ruefully.

I’m afraid I just found this silly. Serge trying to shoot Chris for the greater glory of the Soviet Union, maybe. Chris trashing the ship because he’s failing to get on with his new companion, not so much.

Although the rocket is substantially controlled from Earth, it is necessary for the human occupant to manually fire the retro rockets at exactly the right moment. With both humans thrashing each other, things look bleak. Fortunately, Walters has a full-on deus ex machina up his sleeve. Chris is, if anything, even more pious in this volume than he was in the first two. He is the sort of chap who leaps up in the middle of the night if he has forgotten to say his prayers. Before going up into space, he sends for the Padre to take Holy Communion. Just before setting foot on the Moon, he becomes involved in a full-on Sunday School sermon illustration:

Just as he was about to jump an awful thought struck him. He hadn’t yet thanked God for his safety so far. How easy it is, he thought remorsefully, to ask for Divine protection and then, when you get it, to take it for granted. He offered up a silent prayer and asked for help in the task ahead.

And all this praying pays off. During the mad fight with Serge, Chris happens to fall against the correct switch at the correct moment and put the ship back on course. Once again, God has stepped in and saved the day. Hugh Walters is absolutely clear that this is what has happened:

One switch had so far escaped miraculously. It was that which would ignite the retro-rocket in the event of failure to function by the impulse from control. Now—call it Chance or Divine Providence, as you will—the tangled bodies fell against the switch at just the moment control would have chosen. The circuit was completed and the retro-rocket roared into life.

Oh dear.

People feel got at by the Narnia books because the leader of the goodies is quite a lot like Jesus. If anything the complaint is that Lewis’s propaganda isn’t blatant enough: Lion-Jesus somehow slips in under the radar. But I have never heard anyone complain that Walters was writing Christian propaganda. (The very helpful Unexa.Org website does find the later volumes in the series, in which humans encounter increasingly angelic aliens, are a little hard to take.) A bit old fashioned and obsessed with the stiff-upper lip, yes. But all this stuff seems to have whizzed directly over our heads. When I read the book as a child (good Sunday School boy though I was) I didn’t think that the author could be serious about divine intervention as a solution to the crisis. My main reaction was that the character just happening to fall onto the crucial button at the crucial moment was a bit of a cop-out that I wouldn’t have got away with in one of my composition essays.

It’s still not over. They are now hit by a meteor, even though “it had always been reckoned that the chance of a space vehicle being struck by a meteor the size of a marble was only once in several thousand years.” I’m not quite sure why God gets to take the credit for the retro-rockets but the meteor is blamed on “the cruellest of luck”. Wouldn’t it have been more fun if it had been Satan's fault, or the Ghost of Karl Marx, or something? There is some good information about meteors and micro-meteors and shooting stars: I assume it is broadly correct. The dust on the moon seems to jump about because it is being perpetually hit by tiny particles of space sand which would burn up if there was any atmosphere, which was a good guess for the time, I think. What we perceive as shooting stars are tiny dust-sized micro-meteors, and the Moon is covered in craters because there is no atmosphere to burn up the large ones.

So now Lenin is full of holes and I can’t help imagining Arthur Dent’s voice saying that this time they are quite definitely going to die. But Chris has the idea of acting like the little boy in the dyke, and Serge, who probably doesn’t read Dutch folk lore, follows suit. They each cover a hole with their hand, and the spaceship gets back home in one piece. Hurrah! (Or rather “utter a silent prayer of thanks”.)

The final scene finds Chris and Serge in a Russian hospital. The stigmata on their respective hands are bandaged up. “Uncle George” is on hand to explain the very cryptic moral of the story while the theme tune plays in the background:

“But the most important lesson we’ve learnt from your expedition is not a scientific one. It’s something we ought to have known all along. Only by co-operation and the comradeship of all men can Mankind hope to venture into other worlds, and it is only in friendship that we can go forward together.”

Thanks, George. And just in case we miss the point

“As if to give tangible expression to this truth the two young men looked at each other.  Their two good hands stretched out and they clasped each other in a grip that seemed symbolic.”

Thank you, Hugh. But I think we were able to spot the symbolism by ourselves. Chris and Serge, raised to hate each other, but not that different inside. Symbolic. Russian aggression ends up rebounding on the Russians themselves. Symbolic. Russian lad trapped inside his lunar lander, British lad outside it, separated by a steel wall, unable to communicate, while their masters on earth wrangle and argue and an international incident threatens to break out. Symbolic. The British and the Russian, in a space ship, their lives in mortal danger, who fight each other rather than pull together to save the day. The final divine act which forces them together. Nur noch ein Gott kann uns retten.

If the Russians are as monstrous and evil as they have been represented, then surely making peace with them is the last thing we ought to be doing. We ought to be building up our nuclear missile collection and militarising the moon. Chris can still be friends with Serge, of course, provided Serge has seen how horrible Russia is and defected to the West and become a Christian. But you can’t have it both ways. You can’t tell us a story in which the Russians are pure evil and then tell us that we should all live together in peace and harmony.

So: a bit of a disappointment, this one: but I will have a look at the next one, which completes the initial quartet. Will we finally find out who made the domes? Will Chris stop being quite so pious and develop some flaws? And which two supporting characters from volume 3 are going to become regular team members in volume four? Stay, as they used to say, tuned. 

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. 

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 his friends to stop them -- and no-one can be bothered to make the aliens even slightly impressive. And the Doctor points this out.

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.