Showing posts with label 2021. Show all posts
Showing posts with label 2021. Show all posts

Wednesday, December 22, 2021



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."



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.

Tuesday, December 21, 2021



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.

Monday, December 20, 2021

Something to do with space...


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.

Sunday, December 19, 2021



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.

Saturday, December 18, 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....

Sunday, December 05, 2021

 What do you think will happen in this week's episode of Doctor Who, Andrew?

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

The Nature of Middle-earth

Can we get three questions out of the way before we start?

1: Ought Tolkien to have engaged in world-building above and beyond what was needed to tell a story?

2: Given that he did, ought his relatives to have made his unpublished notebooks available to the public?

3: Given that they did, ought we to read them?

The answers being: yes, if he wanted to; yes, if they want to; and yes, if we want to.


The Nature of Middle-earth is a sad, infuriating, fascinating and above all, unreadable work. If it were all we had to go on, we would describe Tolkien's creative process as a pathology. We would place him, at best, alongside the more obscure gnostic ramblings of Phillip K. Dick; and at worst, alongside the patterns some crazy man has daubed on the wall of his padded-cell: meaningful to him, meaningless to the rest of us.

But this book is not all we have to go on: at some level, these kinds of writings -- jotted down on the backs of exam papers and royalty statements, yet carefully preserved by Tolkien himself and by his children -- led to the Tale of Beren and Luthien, to the Mirror of Galadriel, to the Steward and the King. Can we make the connection?

Many of us doodle on the backs of envelopes. The Complete Doodles of Leonardo Da Vinci or the Collected Scribbles of Van Gogh would be intensely interesting. They might not be great works of art; but they would tell us things about the artists' development and their working practices that we couldn't find out anywhere else.

The Complete Doodles of Andrew Rilstone, not so much.

The Nature of Middle-earth doesn't tell us much about the nature of Middle-earth. But it does tell us a good deal about the nature of Tolkien's creative process. More, perhaps, than we actually wanted to know.


There is no single, finished thing called Middle-earth to talk about the nature of; only three differently unfinished works in progress.

There is, if you will, Middle-earth I, the setting of the Book of Lost Tales, back when Beren was an Elf, Sauron was a cat and minstrels had names like Tinfang Warble.

There is Middle-earth II, the world of Lord of the Rings and the published Silmarillion, when Hobbits, Dwarves and the sunken island of Numenor had inveigled themselves into the long-standing Elf-mythology.

And there is the projected Middle-earth III which would have made the world of Lord of the Rings more consistent with real-world geography, real-world astronomy and real-world theology. It would have ret-conned out the flat-earth, the sky done, and the literal sun-chariot, and made Eru and Morgoth theologically consistent analogues for the Catholic God and the Catholic Satan.

Maybe Numenor-Atlantis never sunk beneath the waves, muses Tolkien at one point. Maybe it just had all the magic sucked out of it and turned into America.


The notes that make up the Nature of Middle-earth were written at the very end of Tolkien's life; and are therefore mainly about the projected, unfinished, and inferior version of what purists call The Legendarium. Anyone expecting a collection of geek-heavy lore -- more or less canonical information about the setting that got left out of the books -- is going to be deeply disappointed. Very little in this book would be of the slightest use to someone producing, say, a role-playing game, a work of fan-fiction, or a four hundred and sixty five million dollar TV series for Amazon Prime. It would be more help, I think, to someone trying to write a grammar of Elvish; although even here Tolkien's thinking is in a permanent state of flux. Carl Hostetter, the editor, is an expert on Quenya and Sindarin and used to be the head of the Elvish Linguistic Fellowship. He also wrote computer software for NASA, which was probably a lot more straightforward.

In the Silmarillion, the Elves are created and wake up in Middle-earth long before the creation of the sun and the moon; they go on a very long journey to Valinor (where the gods live under the light of the Two Trees) but they eventually rebel against the gods and come back to Middle-earth. Tolkien has decided that for Lord of the Rings to work as a fictional pre-history of our own Earth, the sun and the moon must have always existed. And this puts his chronology right out. He starts doing sums in his head about how long a Valinorian year lasts compared with a "year of the Sun", how long Elves live for, and how much they breed. Given that they are immortal, if he gets his figures wrong the world is going to be teeming with the little pointy-eared buggers; if there are that many, they can't all have decamped to Valinor and he doesn't want to spoil the story about how the first Men found quite a small tribe of Elves when they first came over the mountains. 

And so: pages and pages of different "generational schemes": if Elves hit puberty at such-and-such an age and have yay many babies, what would the population be after X, Y or Z generations? At one point he calculates the ratio of Elf-Years to Human-Years to three hundred decimal places -- without, the editor reminds us, the aid of a pocket calculator or correcting fluid. 

This is not writing; this is not world-building. It isn't even doodling. It is displacement activity.

Elves live longer than humans, but not ridiculously longer: not much more than a hundred and fifty years. But time passes much more slowly in Valinor, and once they are in Middle-earth, Elves continue to age at the Valinorian rate (although they perceive time as humans do).  Arwen is 2788 years old at her marriage, but, subjectively, she's only about 28.

Naturally, it's not that simple: Elvish children age at about the same rate as human children; and hit puberty at about the same time. And age doesn't effect Elves the way it does humans. They don't go grey and wrinkly or become weaker and they don't grow beards. Their spirits (fea) and their bodies (hroa) are plumbed together very differently from those of humans. At their creation, Elves looked very much like men; but the longer they live the more spiritualised their flesh becomes. In the end, their fea "uses up" their hroa: any Elves in Middle-earth today (in the twenty first century) would have bodies that have become completely spiritualised, and would appear to us as disembodied or invisible beings. Making babies exhausts some of their fea, which is why they (fortunately) tend to have very small families.

Hostetter provides a helpful appendix pointing out that this is in line with Catholic thinking. The idea that the soul inhabits the body and is separable from it is a gnostic heresy. A good Catholic thinks that a human person is a unity of body and spirit. (The theology of the incarnation of Jesus became very complicated around this point.) Tolkien's theory that the fall of Morgoth-Satan entailed a corruption in the nature of they physical universe depends on this Thomist/Platonic conception of matter.

So what happens if an Elf is killed? Tolkien can't simply say that an Elf's spirit goes to Elf-heaven: he is very committed to the idea that Elves, body-and-soul, are "coeval" with the life of the material universe. It takes a direct conversation between Eru (literally God) and Manwe (top Valar on earth) to sort it out. Eru gives Manwe permission to create new bodies for any Elves who have been temporarily dis-incarnated. Tolkien gets justifiably worried about whether an Elf with a new body can be said to be the same elf as he was before, and goes down a deep rabbit hole about whether an exact replica of your house would still be your house. (Yes, if your house burned down and was replaced by one exactly the same you would feel that you had your house back; except with respect to an object that you loved particularly because it was, say, a gift from a friend. That can't be replaced because what you love is not the thing itself, but its history. And so on for some pages.)

In places, Tolkien's lyrical story telling voice does shine through. Here is is recounting the Elves own story about their first generation:

Imin, Tatis and Enel awoke before their spouses, and the first thing that they saw was the stars, for they woke in the early twilight before dawn. And the next thing they saw was their destined spouse lying asleep on the green sward beside them. Then they were so enamoured of their beauty that their desire for speech was immediately quickened and they began "to think of words" to speak and sing in. And being impatient they could not wait but woke up their spouses. Thus (say the Eldar) elf-women ever after reached maturity sooner than elf-men; for it had been intended that they should wake later than their spouses.

The six go exploring and find another group of twelve; the twelve find twenty four, and so on until there are a hundred and forty four of them. The Elvish words for the numerals one, two and three (Minn, Atta, and Nel-De) come from the names of those first three Elves, although scholar-Tolkien adds a footnote saying that this is a story-internal myth; and that it is more likely that latert Elves retrospectively named their first ancestors after the numerals. Because there were twelve dozen Elves in the original creation, the Elves count in base twelve and don't have names for any number higher than a hundred and forty four. (A hundred and forty four is, of course, a significant number in the first chapter of Lord of the Rings.) Elvish children play a this-little-piggy game in which they call their fingers Daddy, Mummy, Big Boy, Little Girl and Baby. Those words also sound like the numbers from one to five.

Tolkien has started with some theoretical ideas about the origins of language; some mathematical calculations about how many Elves there need to have been for the demographics to make sense; and even a note about the rate of maturation in he-Elves and she-Elves: but the ideas have come together into a charming narrative about Elf-Adam waking up Elf-Eve too early because they were so keen to start creating poems. That particular story would not have happened if not for the theoretical ground-work.

Some of the material is of more general interest. Tolkien is quite annoyed by Pauline Baynes' illustration for a poster-map of Middle-earth; he takes particular exception to her giving the Nazgul hats: so he provides extensive notes about what the characters looked like. He seems to be interpreting his own text as if it were an historical document. She shouldn't have drawn Gollum going naked, because the text says he had pockets; he "evidently" had black garments, but when the text says he is "as dark as darkness" that just means he couldn't be seen with normal eyes in a dark cave. Elsewhere he explains that Aragorn and Boromir would not have had beards, not because they shave, but because of their Numenorean ancestry and Elvish blood: Elvish men don't grow beards. (This made we wonder about the beardlessness of Hobbits.)

But some of it is really astonishingly trivial. A paragraph about the Druedain's cultivation of mushrooms (rejected by Tolkien because it made them too much like Hobbits) is lovingly reproduced. We learn that they liked fungi; that they knew which were poisonous and which were not; that they planted fungi near their dwellings; that Elves on the whole don't like mushrooms; that some people even think that fungus has been cursed by Morgoth. It's like Tolkien feels that he has to say something about everything, even if he has nothing to say. But as a result of the doodle, he now knows that some people in Middle-earth call mushrooms "orc plants".

Or again: Tolkien makes a linguistic note about the Elvish word gor, which can mean "warn" but also "influence" or "counsel". To elucidate the nuance, he says that it is derived from the word ore, which in Lord of the Rings is translated as "heart" ("my heart tells me") but which does not in fact refer metaphorically to the bodily organ. It means something more like "inner mind": particularly thoughts which seem to come into your mind spontaneously, which Elves think come from the Valar or even from God. Humans, think the Elves, are bad at listening to their ore; it may even be that their ore gives them bad advise, because of the actions of Morgoth/Satan. Tolkien the linguist is cares that Elvish words do not correspond exactly to English words; Tolkien the philosopher cares that Elves have their own perception of how psychology and conscience operate; Tolkien the Catholic cares about the consequences of original sin in his sub-creation. We're a very long way from translating Hamlet back into the original Klingon.

Hostetter helpfully notes that when Tolkien said that the Lord of the Rings is fundamentally Catholic, he does not mean that it is explicitly or directly Catholic (in the way that C.S Lewis's fairy tales and science fiction stories were directly and explicitly Christian): he means literally that they have a Catholic foundation. The building blocks of the world take Catholic thinking for granted. It is clear that, in a similar way, the Lord of the Rings is fundamentally linguistic. Elves have a particular perception of time; and a particular way of thinking about the future; and a particular view of conscience because Tolkien was concerned about the nuances of the word gor; and a thousand other words as well.

There is a kind of writer who cannot describe a character opening a door unless he first decides what the doorknob looks like. Perhaps we need to think of Tolkien as an historical novelist, writing stories in an imaginary history which he had created himself, but a history nonetheless. He could no more make up a fact about Elrond than Hilary Mantel can make up a fact about Thomas Moore. And his history is created out of philology and Thomist theology: in asking these incredibly dry, abstract questions, he is bringing the world into sharp enough focus that he is capable of writing about it. If Boromir had told Frodo that his favourite food was an orc-plant, Tolkien would have believed it because he hadn't, in that sense, just made it up.

So it seems that that was how Tolkien wrote. How Middle-earth grew; how it congealed on the page. If you love the Lord of the Rings and the Silmarillion then you have to say that this was the right thing to do; a different writer would have done it differently and we would have ended up with a different book.


Still: the Nature of Middle-earth is a sad book. Middle-earth, so solid, so convincing, "a world more real than any other", dissolves into a series of calculations and conjectures; an unknowable, unfinishable work-in progress. Sad because Tolkien was so obviously struggling to do the impossible. An old man, working out his backstory to three hundred significant figures, when we would rather he had written one more poem or a single footnote about the Entwives -- when we would much rather he had not abandoned his "thriller" about Minas Tirith during the reign of Aragorn's son. 

And because it seems like such a waste. 

On one occasion the BBC declared the Lord of the Rings the 26th greatest book of the twentieth century; on another, the best loved British novel of all time. It is estimated to have sold a hundred and fifty million copies, which would make it comfortably the best selling "authored" book of all time. 

If Tolkien hadn't wasted his time worrying about pedantic detail, imagine what he could have achieved.

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

If you are so clever, Andrew, then what would you do if you were showrunner of Doctor Who?

If I were show-runner of Doctor Who I would go back to basics. 

First, I would work out what "basics" means. 

I would not advocate a reboot or a Rilstone Masterplan or more Timeless Children or even another Time War.

I would present the Doctor as a wanderer (not a traveller or a tourist) running from something unspecified and searching for something unspecified, in a TARDIS he can't quite operate: a space gypsy rather than a space trouble shooter. 

Whatever happened to the cosmic hobo?

I am happy enough with the Time Lords existing: but I wouldn't think it necessary to go on and on and on about them. "I am from Galilee in the constellation of Kasturbation" has a certain aesthetic flavour to it. "I was born in another world, and I renounced my own people to become a wanderer" tastes different. I know which I prefer.

Characters don't need to speak the words "Doctor who?" every five minutes, or indeed ever again. But the majority of the supporting cast should be asking the question. One or two of them know the answer, but they aren't telling. 

I do not care who plays the fifteenth Doctor provided they stick around for a while. The endless speculation as to who is going to replace Jodie Whittaker's successor has destroyed the show as a piece of drama, however much fun it might have made it as a game show. 

We talk about lame duck presidents and caretaker governments: one third of Jodie Whittaker's entire run on Doctor Who will have been a holding pattern, killing time before the return of RTD and whoever he casts as the Doc.

In the olden days, some fans might have known that someone called Holmes or Adams was editing the script; they might even invite him to speak at one of their convocations: but the notion that a newspaper would have an opinion about who the next producer of a TV show ought to be is bizarre in the extreme. 

We are all excited about the Netflix adaptation of Neil Gaiman's Sandman. (It must be pretty galling for him that, after all he has done, he will live and die as "the guy who wrote that comic where Death was a cute goth chick" although in fairness, it was a very, very good comic.) The one question none of us is asking is "Who do you think the next Morpheus will be when Sturridge leaves?" We kind of assume that actors sign on for seven seasons. Granted, arguing about whether the next 007 could be a Bondess is as much part of the British way of life as arguing about whether Last Night of the Proms could afford to be a bit less jingoistic. But Casino Royale premiered in the same year as Rose. Daniel Craig has out-Bonded Eccleston, Tennant, Smith, Capaldi and Whittaker.

The actor I hire to play Doctor Who in 2022 will, if all goes well, still be in the role when I quit in 2029, by which time no-one will be able to imagine that it could ever have been anyone else.

Colin Baker says the next Doctor should be a Doctor of Colour. 

I wouldn't go as far as should myself; but the next Doctor certainly could be a black person, and there are (I assume) many black actors who would be great in the role.

But I don't think that a black Doctor would shake up the format, particularly, any more than a woman Doctor seems to have done; and I think that the format badly needs upshaking. When they find out who I have cast as the Doctor, I want the fans to be as gobsmacked as they were when Troughton became Pertwee and Pertwee became Baker. "Don't be ridiculous: how can that silly little man in the checked suit possibly be the same person as the irascible old crotchet with the white hair?" 

When I saw the first still of Paul McGann, I thought "Yes: he looks exactly as I expect the Doctor to look." That, as Yoda might have said, is why he failed. Christopher Eccleston confounded all our expectations about who the Doctor should be: he had to fight every step of the way to convince us that he really was the same guy who failed to touch the two wires together on Skaro and was prosecuted by the Valeyard. If he had been an elderly Edwardian in a frock coat and a wooly scarf, would New Who have lasted beyond Season 1?

Jodie Whitaker was the first female Doctor and it wouldn't have made the slightest difference if she hadn't been. She could have phoned in the same characterisation in guy clothes with male pronouns: in fact it might have been more interesting if she had. The message of the Whitaker era, and indeed the Whitaker error, is not "The Doctor can be anyone". It is "The Doctor can be anyone more or less like David Tennant."

Given that New Who is all about romance, you might have expected a lady Doctor to become the obscure object of some Impossible Boy's desire. The thirteenth Doctor isn't even particularly maternal, which would have been a different take, albeit not a particularly interesting one.

The single point of intersection on the venn diagram which we should cling to is the idea that the Doctor is, when all is said and done, fundamentally and illogically British. Sometimes Scottish and sometimes Northern, but usually posh-English. Chibnall's multi-ethnic Timeless Child seems explicitly created to remove that one remaining point. I may very well cast a black or Asian actor as the Doctor: but they will be black British or British Asian. They will still like cricket and tea and jelly babies and jammy dodgers and cucumber sandwiches.


Colin Baker was on to something with his idea of a nasty Doctor Who would gradually mellow.

The Twin Dilemma is appalling; but the characterisation of the Doctor in Attack of the Cybermen is genuinely interesting, even though the story itself is a steaming pile of Levine. But Old Who couldn't generate story arcs: Colin had to say lines that were written for Peter Davison. The new Doctor was pretty much just the same as the old Doctor with a bit more of an attitude problem than before. 

In one sense "a nasty Doctor" is a contradiction in terms. If regeneration can really turn a person who is never cruel or cowardly into a monster, then "regeneration" is another word for death and the Thirteen Doctors are Thirteen different people, not Thirteen aspects of a single being. 

But suppose the Doctor, our Doctor, jelly babies and psychic papers and sonic screwdriver and all started behaving in a way that seemed, by our standards evil... Suppose that the right thing to do according to his Time Lord logic was the wrong thing to do from our human point of view, and suppose that after three seasons we understood that? Wouldn't that have been a story worth telling? 

For about thirty seconds, it looked as if that might be the point of the John Hurt. But having been introduced as the bad Doctor, the one who disgraced the holy name, he was almost immediately reduced to simply Captain Grumpy. 

I don't want to cast a black Doctor, a gay Doctor, a trans Doctor or another female Doctor: that is just the kind of thing you would expect me to do. I want to do the last thing you would expect. 

What then? A disabled Doctor could be interesting, not because it would give kids who are wheelchair users the opportunity to imagine themselves as the hero (kind though that would be) but because a Doctor in a wheelchair wouldn't be able to run down corridors or swing across chasms or use Venusian aikido. They would have to approach problems in a different way. The dynamic of the show would change. 

And it would be amusing to hear the Daleks making fun of the Doctor because he can't climb stairs. 

What about an alien Doctor? A Krynoid Doctor or a Sontaran Doctor or a Sltheen Doctor? What about the Doctor regenerating into a robot? 

But Andrew, that is not canon. We know that the Time Lords are all humanoid.

Granted, every Time Lord we have seen so far has looked human. But every Time Lord we had seen was male, until the first female one was introduced; and they were all white until we saw a black one. I declare unilaterally that the universe is full to the brim of Time Zygons and Time Ogrons and conceivably also a Time Dalek. I declare unilaterally that Time Lords take on the form of whatever species they are with at the time of their "death". Romana (and the Third Doctor) got to choose their forms: it just so happens that, up to now, the Doctor has always chosen to identify with his favourite species.

And further more: Doctor Who is a made up thing and we don't care about canon.

So: what if Fifteen was a very warlike Doctor who happened to be a very peaceful Sontaran? 

A very peaceful English Sontaran? 

What if he became the Face of Bo, a brain with tentacles, or a small owl-like bird with two heads. And what if we had to learn, over many, many, seasons that a small patch of ochre slime could stand up for the little guy, never be cowardly or cruel, and have a strange liking for cricket and jelly babies?

Or if that fails: I will regenerate them into a child. Unearthly or Timeless: I will find the youngest actor I can who can plausibly deliver the lines. Better yet, I will use CGI to cast a baby in the role, and allow them to age at the rate of about two years per season. By the time I return Doctor Who to its owners, "the Doctor-baby" will be a fourteen year old adolescent with their whole career in front of them. (They could have a companion they call grandfather.)

I said that Doctor Who didn't really have any lore. So, I would invent some.

It astonishes me, that while some people demand that Jodie Whittaker has to go away and watch Planet of the Giants before she is allowed to do a scene with Rosa Parks, we are quite happy for Backstory of the Daleks to be reinvented pretty much every time they appear. The Cybermen, too. In 1966, the point of the Cybermen was that they came from a counter-earth on the far side of The Sun. RTD had a quite clever notion (he was full of quite clever notions) that this could be recast in the modern idiom by placing them on a parallel earth in a parallel universe where everyone was wearing eyepatches. (I made that last bit up.) That rapidly got forgotten and it turned out that wherever you go in time and space, augmented humanoids use the same design that Rose's dad made up in the early twenty first century, sometimes even with the same corporate branding. 

Each time we meet the Cybermen or the Daleks or the Sontarans or UNIT or the endless, endless iterations of the Human Space Empire and its vast fleet of space-arks, we reimagine them from the ground up. Or just rely on some sort of oral tradition. 

"The Daleks? They have an empire, I think, which rose and then fell and was fought against by men in grubby uniforms called Tarrant?" 

There is no chronology. There is certainly no geography.

What if there were?

There hasn't been up to now. For many years, Terry Pratchett maintained that there could never and should never be a map of the Discworld. After about a decade of publishing stories, he bowed to the inevitable and commissioned someone to create a map. I am not a Terry Pratchett fan, having only red ten or twelve of his books, but I suppose a fan can tell me whether the stories are 

a: more funny
b: less funny
c: differently funny
d: about the same funny

since Ankh Moorpork acquired a street-plan. 

In 1989, thirty minute serials were already an anachronism.

Twenty five minute serials were a weird historical aberration. I suppose that in 1963 there was a five minute weather forecast or Potters Wheel ident to be squeezed in between the cliffhanger and the evening news so they couldn't spare a full half-hour for Doctor Who. That format stayed in place for 26 years because dammit, Jim, you can't improve on perfection. Even Big Finish went with 25 minute segments until they didn't. 

In 2005, the rebooted Doctor Who very naturally went with 45 minute stand-alones, with just a smattering of two-parters to keep it weird. But when I take over as show-runner, that format will also be looking decidedly olde worlde. Picard and Discovery and Sandman and Loki are predicated on multi-season arcs, intended to be gobbled up in mighty box-sets. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier was, to all intents and purposes, a six hour presentation of a fourth Captain America movie, and all the better for it. Even Masters of the Universe had a beginning, a middle and an end and jolly good fun it was too. If Doctor Who for the millennium had to be 45 minute Buffy-a-like zingers, Doctor Who for the twenties and thirties needs to be a series of binge worthy boxsets.

The unique selling point of Doctor Who is that it can encompass all of time and space; but it hardly ever does. 

Stories arrive in particular settings and stay there. Steven Moffat did sometimes let the Doctor zip between different time periods in the same story; but that was mostly to allow him to play with the idea of non-sequential story telling, of effect preceding cause. 

I would use Doctor Who's extensive backlog of stuff and create a single unified Doctor Who setting, fuzzy round the edges, but solid enough that audiences could get to know Skaro and Raxacoricofallapatorius in the way that they got to to know Casterley Rock and Kings Landing: as places with a consistent feel which stood in a consistent relationship, geographically and politically. I'm not looking for the Silmarillion, but I am looking for a series Bible: something like one of those Histories of the Marvel, or, as it were, DC Universe, or the little map of the galaxy in the front of all the best Star Wars guidebooks. A Time Line from Big Bang to Big Crunch, noting when the Daleks started expanding and when the Time Lords took their non-interference vows and precisely when the human race finally left earth. There would be periods where Sontarans and Rutans were struggling for control of the galaxy and periods when everything was overrun by Daleks. Davros and the Master and Mavic Chen and Ming the Merciless and Rassilon would be treated as characters rather than adversaries: they would have off-stage-lives when they weren't being the Doctor's opponent-of-the-week. 

I would under no circumstances tell the viewers that this is what I had done. My first story would just be a story: maybe the Doctor would find and orphan alien on a near future earth, and protect her from the locals, even though she just wanted her alien mummy. I expect he would then embark on a quest to take her home. (If we go with the idea that the Doctor is a baby with the mind of a Time Lord, clearly the alien would have to be a big scary monster with the personality of a toddler. Has that ever been done before?) But I would drop in a few facts and references to the the setting and hope that the audience notices that they are more specific and more consistent than they used to be. ("I can't call UNIT, because they were  disbanded after the Grail scandal about a century ago.") 

But it would become increasingly clear that I was no longer writing individual adventures, but instead, writing a twenty-six week soap opera that ranged around the fictional galaxy and fictional time line I have created. The individual action would be old-school Doctor Who: no corridor would fail to be run down and no cliff would fail to be hung off. But the adventures would have consequences for the setting and ramifications for the characters that would only be seen in the next episode or the next season. A conspiracy that the Doctor initiated in the court of King Arthur would bear fruit five thousand years later in the heart of the Draconian Empire. Human rebels would be holding out against the Daleks on 22nd Century Earth; UNIT would be trying to repel the same invasion in the 21st. A season long quest by the Doctor-baby to find the alien's mummy would intersect with these, and many other, historical events. (I suppose the baby would pull the Draconian Excalibur from the stone?)

"Are you saying, Andrew, that you wish Doctor Who was a bit more like Babylon 5"

No. I am saying that Doctor Who should be a bit more like The Mandalorian.

"But you hated Babylon 5."

No. I hated the inept, childish scripting and the fact that JMS couldn't distinguish between religious allegory and the libretto of Jesus Christ Superstar. I liked the ambition and the structure and the space ships. I like the fact that it was doing big science fiction concepts in the Star Trek format, even though the big science fiction concepts were mostly a pile of derivative poo. I think that "Star Trek with a backstory and a setting" could potentially have been more fun than Star Trek had ever been.

"Wouldn't it be better to just make up brand new science fiction stories with up to the minute stuff about transexual smart phones and AI black holes and just happen to have a Time Traveller called the Doctor in them?"

You could do that. 

You could take out everything that made Doctor Who Doctor Who, apart from the Doctor. 

And then you could rewrite the character of the Doctor so he/she / they were not recognisably the Doctor at all; either because of the infinite Childish variations or because someone has decided that it would be cool to make him a tough talking hispanic cop who does drugs and thinks with his fists. 

And then you could write him out of the series altogether and just do stories. 

This would be the rational thing to do. 

Because as mentioned before, there is no rational reason to carry on making Doctor Who. 

But the reality is that we are going to have to carry on making some kind of TV show with the words "Doctor Who" printed on it.

So we will kind of pretend.

Or we could just bow to the inevitable and cast Benedict Cumberbatch.

Sunday, October 10, 2021

Thoughts On The Occassion of the Appointment of Mr Russell T Davies to an Unprecedented Second Term as Producer, Chief Writer and De Facto Showrunner of Doctor Who

There was a red-haired man who had no eyes or ears. Neither did he have any hair, so he was called red-haired theoretically. He couldn't speak, since he didn't have a mouth. Neither did he have a nose. He didn't even have any arms or legs. He had no stomach and he had no back and he had no spine and he had no innards whatsoever. He had nothing at all! Therefore there's no knowing whom we are even talking about. In fact it's better that we don't say any more about him.

Danil Ivanovich Kharms

There is no reason for Doctor Who to exist; but it is impossible for it not to.

In 1989, Doctor Who was an embarrassment to the BBC: the fossilised remains of a Reithean Saturday night edu-drama which an Imperial College student society had successfully turned into a cult. As long as it existed, there was no particular reason to cancel it; but once Michael Grade had pulled the plug, there was no particular reason to bring it back.

Superman and Spider-Man can be endlessly deconstructed and reimagined around a narrow set of tropes. Exploding planet; childless farmers; sick Auntie; radioactive spider; dead uncle; glowing rocks; teenage side-kick; Irene Adler; Sheriff of Nottingham. 

Doctor Who can hardly be said to exist at all: its premise is so fluid that all fans can do is hallucinate minutiae about a lore that was never really real. The Doctor is a guy who travels in space and time. Except for the couple of seasons when he didn't.

"Doctor Who can be anything it wants to be" was a unique selling point in 1963: but an anthology series that can go from spoof Homer to camp Dan Dare to serious sixteenth century historical fiction in consecutive stories is a harder sell in the age of Netflix than it was in the days when your choice of viewing was the channel with the adverts or the channel without them

Why is there not a vast, interconnected shared universe of Doctor Who spin-offs, as big as Star Wars and the Marvel Cinematic Universe?

If you stare at a blank sheet of paper for long enough you start to see patterns. We have been staring at Doctor Who for a very long time, and no very coherent pattern has yet emerged.

The Mandalorian is a Frankenstein series, fragments of lore stolen from dead movies, stitched together and reanimated: and yet it manages to be fully itself. The show knows that Sand People always ride single file to conceal their numbers, but the viewer doesn't have to. It stands on its own feet. Lone Wolf and Cub meets the Magnificent Seven with aliens.

Why isn't The Adventures of Nyssa a thing? Why can't that in-joke about Ace starting a charity for orphans when she got back from the Time War be spun out into an entire series? Why aren't Martha and Mickey saving the universe on a weekly basis? 

Because no-one outside of a very narrow fan-elite has heard of these characters. Your Mum knows that Batman has a Butler called Alfred: she doesn't know that it was kind of implied in The End of Time that the Doctor's Mother was a weeping angel.

The Mandalorian and the Marvel Multiverse Phase 6 are constructed from pre-existing lore. Doctor Who does not, in the required sense, have any lore for us to work with.

(I don't know when the word "lore" was coined to mean "back-story, canon, and continuity". Some people think it comes from the World of Warcraft computer game. It is a very useful word and I propose to carry on using it.)

There have been four spin-offs from Doctor Who, and I am pretty sure you can only remember three of them. The Sarah-Jane Adventures was a vehicle for Elisabeth Sladen. And also some very decent child actors, but mostly Elisabeth Sladen. K-9 and Company, despite the title, was a vehicle for the same actor. Torchwood was a vehicle for John Barrowman, which means that we probably never have to watch it again. The Adventures of K-9, which you haven't seen and really, really don't want to was a vehicle for a piece of hardware. Bob Baker and Dave Martin didn't own the rights to the K-9 prop, but the BBC couldn't prevent John Leeson saying "affirmative" into a ring modulator. It may, for all I know, be canon and it may not have compared unfavourably with other Australian kid-friendly soft-cyberpunk soap operas of its day, but it has very little to do with Doctor Who.

"A strange lady and some schoolkids get into scrapes with space monsters" is an obviously good pitch for CBBC and if Lis Sladen is available you might as well cast her. Some episodes of the Sarah Jane Adventures clearly had very strong connections to Doctor Who. Others, not so much. If you want to say "The Death of the Doctor is canon in the Doctor Who universe" then I certainly can't stop you. But I can't help thinking that if you were watching a quite good kids TV show mainly to find out what happened to Jo Grant after she sailed down the Amazon on her blue crystal, you may possibly need to take a long hard look at your life.

Torchwood was a piss-poor sci-fi show that had been cross-promoted -- at best seeded -- in Doctor Who. You can barely even call Army of Ghosts a backdoor pilot: all it actually had in common with Barrowman's sex-and-aliens travesty was that they both had the word Torchwood in them. "What if the Victorian science fascists in Season 2 of Doctor Who had the same name as some sexually incontinent Men in Black scavengers in a completely different series?" doesn't amount to a premise. Mentioning the word Torchwood in Doctor Who is a fair enough way of getting people to tune in to the new show -- and god knows, there was no other reason -- but it doesn't amount to an expansion of Doctor Who lore. 

The Captain Jack who appears in the One With the Gas Masks was an interesting and appealing character; but he has very little to do with the immortal camp pantomime turn on BBC 3. This was before we knew about John Barrowman's zip fastener related issues.

But when Russell T Davies talks about spin-offs and a Doctor Who Universe, this is the kind of thing he seems to have in mind. He used Doctor Who to float ideas for unrelated programmes he'd quite like to have made. The one about the  Time Travelling lady aviator; the one about the underdeveloped Doctor-clone played by Peter Davison's daughter for another; Billie Piper and, er, Noel Clarke running a parallel Torchwood on a parallel earth for a third. Poor David Tennant actually had to look into camera and pitch the title with a straight face. "Rose Tyler, Defender of the Earth and the Video Rangers".

In 1977, the BBC seem genuinely to have considered rehiring Christopher Benjamin and Trevor Baxter to do a series of Victorian sci-fi horror yarns: not because That Corner of the Whoniverse needed development, but because Jago and Litefoot were obviously funny characters who the viewers enjoyed. 

That's what spin-off means. It occurs to someone that the snooty landlady from Man About The House, or the pretentious shrink from Cheers, could sustain a series on their own. I seem to remember that the one where Ronnie Barker's burglar from Porridge went straight, imaginatively called Going Straight, was quite funny.

Before the Great Hiatus, Doctor Who could be said to have existed as a kind of Heraclitian tradition.

William Hartnell might have been dead, but Terrence Dicks, Robert Holmes and the Doctor Who office were on hand to provide the illusion of continuity, though not, of course Continuity. Nicholas Courtney was not the only man on earth who could have played a comic English army officer. But he had been doing it for so long that he acted as a kind of golden thread from Survival back to Mission to the Unknown. There was still a torch of some kind that was capable of being passed. But once the axe fell and the dynasty dissolved what was left? A series without a lead actor, without a consistent supporting cast, without a setting or a plot; and increasingly without even a format.

But Doctor Who refused to die. When Virgin ran out of TV stories to turn into novellas it just continued to churn out novellas which had never been TV shows in the first place. The final script editor had had a vaguely interesting idea for a story arc (or as people called it in those pre Straczynski days, a masterplan) and some of that arc worked its way into some of the novellas. It didn't have much to do with the TV show, and it wasn't that original, but it was lore, and some people liked it.

Meanwhile some semi-pro fans started to hire actual ex-actors to read out pastiches of old Who scripts. Some people liked these, as well. (I did, for a while, before they overwhelmed me.) There are currently two hundred and seventy five of them, with twenty or thirty more coming out each week. For maybe six years, the Big Finish CDs and the Virgin Novels existed in more or less contented mutual contradiction. It would be a gross over simplification to say that Virgin was creating fiction and Big Finish was creating fan fiction, but I am going to say it anyway. Peter Darvill-Evans' writer's guidelines specifically prohibited writers from using lore as a jumping off point for stories. Yes, it would be possible to tell a spy story or a war story which just happened to have an old monster in it, but "What if Sgt Benton met a Draconian at Devils's End and the consequence was the Key of Time" was off limits. 

This was the view that the production team invariably took at conventions when Doctor Who was still on the telly: no, we are not planning to "bring back" the Daleks, yes, if someone comes up with an excellent story which happens to have the Daleks in it, we might well use them again. The very first Big Finish disc said "What if Colin Baker, Peter Davison and Sylvester McCoy went on an adventure together" and kept being drawn into the orbit of questions like "What if Romana were President of the Time Lords?" and "What if Davros, or Omega, or some version of the Master did something that interests fans a good deal but not really anyone else?"

At the time of Trevor Baxter's death, Big Finish had published seventy Jago and Litefoot stories on CD. 

Russell T Davies went down neither path. His reboot of Doctor Who was neither fan-friendly pastiche nor a hypothetical Season 27 that followed Sylvester McCoy and Paul McGann down unexpected narrative pathways. 

It would be tempting to say that he created a new thing that had little or nothing to do with Doctor Who. A cool but safe YA show about an asexual alpha male who had a succession of doomed courtly romances with impossible women. He told us that it was Doctor Who, and we believed him, because we desperately wanted it to be.

But maybe, just maybe, he chewed up forty years of Saturday evenings (and a few Tuesdays) and spat out the core concept. 

He travels in time and space. 

She's his human friend. 

Everything else is up for grabs. 

You could have sold the premise (of a time traveller and his platonic girl-friend) to the BBC even if Doctor Who had never existed. Hell, you could have sold the pitch without the premise because Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper made such beautiful sparks together. 

It all comes down to the sparks. If not for Tom Baker's personal charisma, we would not be talking about Doctor Who today.

William Hague will never not be the little boy who stood up at Tory party conference and told Mrs Thatcher off for not being right wing enough. Chris Chibnall will never not be the little boy on Points of View telling Pip and Jane Baker precisely what he thought of Terror of the Vervoids.

He wasn't wrong: it was shite. After Tom Baker departed, Doctor Who became a zombie show, continuing because it had to continue, running on the fumes of old memories. The Cybermen are back. The Daleks are back. UNIT is not back, but it has been alluded to. A tolerably decent Roger Delgado impersonator is appearing in practically every story. Earthshock was pretty good and Kinda was very good and Caves of Androzani was very good indeed. But everything after Logopolis -- everything after Talons of Weng Chiang -- was a bonus.

Chris Chibnal grew up in the declining years. Peter Davison was "his Doctor"; it is those zombie years that he now seeks to revive. Doctor Who is like the Ur-Ru, the Muppet Jedi mystics from Dark Crystal, endlessly repeating formulas and rituals which no longer give the slightest comfort. 

There is a card game called Flux in which the rules are endlessly redefined: the number of cards you draw, the number of cards you discard, the number of cards you may hold in your hand, the values of the cards and the end-game conditions: all are subject to change each time a card is played. I believe a game exists which takes this a stage further: the rules consist of nothing but a set of conditions under which the players can redefine the rules. 

Doctor Who doesn't even have a meta-rules. It is defined by the absence of a definition: the only thing which stays the same is the fact that it is always changing. The Doctor. Her companions. The format. The title sequence. The logo. The TARDIS (interior and exterior). The Sonic screwdriver. Not one thing about the show stays the same for more than three seasons. 

Chibnall has admitted this. He has rewritten the lore to make it a feature. We no longer have a periodically regenerating main character, but infinite iterations of the main character spread throughout Time and Space. The Doctor can now be anyone; so the Doctor is now no-one. But perhaps he never was. When everybody's somebody then no-one's anybody.

What does it matter? Why do we care?

People on the nastier fringes of the internet (hereafter "Twitter") have taken to saying that the fault lies not in Jodie Whitaker's genitals, nor in her DNA, nor even in her pronouns. The problem with Jodie Whitaker is that she stands outside the Great Tradition.

If she had been worthy to occupy Saint Peter Davison's throne she would first have familiarised herself with two thousand years of Whovian dogma. She would have watched old episodes of Doctor Who and built her characterisation out of that. The worst people say say, in so many words, that her refusal to study the sacred scriptures is evidence of her feminist entitlement. Peter Capaldi, a man, knew that he had to know about the old Doctors before he could take up their mantle. Jodie Whittaker thought that just being a woman was good enough.

This, it goes without saying, is deeply offensive bullshit. There are a lot of deeply offensive bullshitters on Twitter.

But like most offensive bullshit, it contains an interesting grain of truth, if you are prepared to get your hands filthy rummaging through it.

If Doctor Who can no longer be said to exist as a format, a character, or a production office -- and if it never was a body of lore -- then in one sense all it can be is a text. Doctor Who can only be defined as everything which has ever been published under the banner of Doctor Who. The only way to play the role of Doctor Who is to watch other people playing the role of Doctor Who and follow them, round and round in ever decreasing circles until you finally disappear up your own canonicity. 

William Hartnell was irascible. Patrick Troughton was eccentric. Jon Pertwee was patrician. Tom Baker was eccentric and patrician. Peter Davison was eccentric, patrician, irascible and had a stick of celery. Colin Baker was eccentric, patrician, irascible and had a pin on cat. The Fourteenth Doctor will have celery and a cat and an umbrella and rainbow braces and say "Fantastic" and "Fam" and "Jelly Baby". Jodie and Peter and Matt and Dave and Chris and Sly and Colin and Peter and Tom and Jon and Pat and Bill.... 

I am not at all sure I know what irascible means, but I am jolly sure William Hartnell was it. I suppose it means the same as crotchety. That is another word which no-one ever uses.

Colin Baker said that he watched videos of his predecessors , not with a view to copying them, but with a view to absorbing what he called their Doctor-ness. The Doctor-ness of the Doctor being, presumably "whatever the actors who have played him up to now have in common". The spot on the Venn Diagram where William Hartnell intersects with Tom Baker and Tom Baker intersects with Jon Pertwee. Theatricality, I suppose: a certain predilection for vaudeville and the wireless; a belief that you are a Legitimate Character Actor. Each time you add an actor, that intersection becomes smaller and smaller. The addition of an infinite number of Timeless Children takes us to a homeopathic level of dilution. What the Infinite Doctors have in common is a null-set; a mathematical point.

Jodie Whitaker's job is to say "Do you have any idea where those planets might be?" or "Hey Daleks! Over here!" in a convincing manner. Would she be better at this job if she had watched every single Tom Baker story before filming The Woman Who Fell To Earth? Is it clear that she would even do it differently?

Christopher Eccleston, by his own admission, didn't watch Doctor Who. Tom Baker didn't watch TV at all, even when he was in it. Matt Smith's persona clearly is influenced by that of his predecessors, particularly Hartnell and Troughton, but he is most like the Doctor when he is most like Matt Smith. Jon Pertwee was a radio star and reputedly asked Barry Letts which of his six hundred funny voices he ought to use. Barry Letts told him to play it like himself.

What about the people who write the words for her to say? Knowledge of the text clearly has more potential affect on a writer than it does on an actor. Someone who is "just a writer" asks "What if the Doctor met Van Gogh?" or "What if the Doctor went to India at the time of the petition?". Someone who is a Doctor Who writer says "What if there were a Dalek we could feel some human sympathy with?" or "What if the TARDIS were a person who the Doctor had a relationship with?" I don't think that lore-steeped scripts are necessarily better than those written in a vacuum: but the difference is there. Robert Holmes and even Douglas Adams didn't show much sign of caring what David Whitaker had said about the TARDIS and the Time Lords and the Daleks in the previous decade. They didn't particularly care what they themselves had said the previous week. Fans despaired; and yet the programmes was as good and successful as it has ever, ever, ever, ever been.

Fans, nasty and nice, have said that the Timeless Children amounts to a vandalisation of Doctor Who lore, which, in one sense, it definitely does. But only someone who cared about Doctor Who lore could have damaged it in that particular way. No-one but a fan boy would think it was fun to make the Morbius Doctors canon. No-one but a fanboy would know what "the Morbius Doctors" even meant.

Is the Archers written by an Archerphile who knows and cares who was staying at the Bull in October 1957? Or is it written by someone with a knack for coming up with soap opera storylines and then checked for consistency by someone who has listened to all 20,000 episodes? That approach makes sense to me: a writer writing stories and a consultant worrying about canon. But if Ian Levine had been breathing down Terry Nation's neck would we ever have had a Davros?

Who, in your opinion, should become show-runner when Chris Chibnall relinquishes his death grip?

Should it be the man who wrote Good Omens; who likes Doctor Who; who knows about rebooting moribund properties, has show runner experience and a track record for Making Good Art?

Should it be the man who created Babylon 5, who positively wants the job, and has a track record for making, er, Babylon 5?

Should it be the lady who created Gentleman Jack, who knows about smart historical fiction, the current UK TV scene, gender-fluid characters and who would presumably commission a stonking theme song?

No. Let's give the job to the guy who has already produced four and a half seasons and who was generally felt to have run out of steam by the midway through the third.

We agreed. We agreed that I would save Doctor Who, but that when I returned I could reclaim your first born. We agreed that I would be show-runner and you would be Chancellor of the Exchequer but after two years I would step down. Doctor Who is mine. My birthday present. My precious.

And so, Doctor Who is over. Again.

The endless, ever-regenerating chain of producers and show runners goes running back to one man: the one man who admittedly brought the show back from oblivion and defined what it is, but who it can now never grow beyond. New Who belongs to Russell T Davies. Its power is bound up in him and it will last only as long as he will last.

New Who has always, to some extent, been a metashow: always primarily interested, not in being itself but in being a commentary and a celebration of the old show.

From 1963 to 1987, the BBC's Doctor Who was multiple and polyvocal. It had been many different things and might have been many more things. From 2005 to 2010, we saw what that multifaceted show looked like from the point of view of one particular fan who happened to end up in the TV trade. From 2010 to 2017 we saw what it looked like from another point of view. 2018, 2019, 2020 and 2021 have given us what for want of a better word we must call Chris Chibnal's vision. And if by common consent that era has failed, then there is nothing to do but accept that RTD's vision is the only vision which matters. He will, I don't doubt, produce something entertaining and compelling and incredibly irritating. (Did I mention that It's a Sin was very good indeed?)  But it will be very hard to move on. Not in this life time. John Nathan Turner saved Doctor Who in Season 18 and killed it in Season 24. It became John Nathan Turner's show; incapable of mutation or evolution, content to lurk in it bunker and define itself as the supreme being in the universe.

So why not let it die?

Why not, at any rate give it a rest? Why not let Doctor Who go out with a bang on November 23rd 2023, and leave open the possibility of a revival, a reboot, a reimagining, a regeneration ten years down the line. Why not stop making Doctor Who until there is a good reason to start making it. Why not wait until some hot twenty something producer who watched Jodie Whitaker at the age of twelve wants to show us what Doctor Who looks like to him.

We live in an age of franchises; of cinematic universes; and reboots. Star Trek: The Next Generation followed Star Trek at a discrete interval of two decades; Deep Space Nine overlapped with it for a couple of seasons and gave way to Voyager which begat Enterprise. A simple exercise in torch passing. But since then we have had three big-screen movies, part pastiche, part parody; taking place in their own universe connected to the old one by the ghost of Leonard Nimoy. We have three season of Discovery and threats of a fourth one, spinning off into a prequel about that guy who lost out to William Shatner in the original auditions. We have a second series of a sequel predicated on the continuing youthfulness of 81 year old Patrick Stewart and a cartoon which is definitely a parody but respects the material more than the cinematic abomination. And it is all canon, unless it isn't. 

Cancel Doctor Who at sixty and there wouldn't be an absence of Doctor Who; there would be competing visions. There would be novels and comics and computer games and action figures and CDs and a Netflix series. Sit down for a moment and contemplate a world where there are two films about a Spider-Man villain, Venom, without Spider-Man. The universe itself could never bear to be without the Doctor.

So what would you have done if they had made you show-runner?