Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Victorian Fantasy: George MacDonald's "The Princess and the Goblin"

After a dire calamity (or possibly Real Life) caused last month's meeting of the Victorian Fantasy group - which was to be a discussion of William Morris's proto-fantasy novel The Water of the Wondrous Isles - we reconvened last Wednesday to natter on about George MacDonald's 1872 children's novel The Princess and the Goblin.

In the book, eight-year-old Princess Irene - forthright, honest, and brave, and wise beyond her years - meets her great-great grandmother, a woman of seemingly magical powers whom no one else can see, while escaping the clutches of goblins, who have vowed to seek revenge on humans for perceived mistreatment. We also encounter young Curdie, a miner's son (and a miner himself), who rescues the princess, discovers the goblins' plot, is captured and rescued by Irene, and helps save the day when the goblins finally make their move on the king and his court. (And for those who didn't get enough of Irene and Curdie, MacDonald penned a sequel, The Princess and Curdie, to continue their adventures.)

Dame Kghia noted that some critics believe the story to be a religious allegory, with the (generally unseen) grandmother as a Christ figure, Irene as a true believer, Curdie slowly converting from a non-believer to a believer, and Irene's nurse, Lootie, a foolish woman incapable of belief in what she cannot see.

I was grateful that the novel was a fairly quick read, as I had forgotten about the meeting until after I returned from vacation, a mere two days before the group met. At least the material was fresh in my mind!

We had a small but spirited group to discuss the book:

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Sir JJ Drinkwater

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Dame Kghia Gherardi

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Miss Herndon Bluebird

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Mr. Roy Smashcan and Miss Sanchia Bumblefoot

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Miss Silvermane Trefusis

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Your humble scribe

Next month we will cover J. M. Barrie's 1904 novel Peter Pan.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Review: Doctor Who, Destiny of the Doctor series

For the 50th anniversary year of Doctor Who, Big Finish Productions commissioned 11 stories, each featuring a different incarnation of the Doctor, tied together with an overall story arc. (Some of this is guesswork, as the last few stories have yet to be published.)

Each story is about an hour and most are narrated by one of the Doctor's companions. In each story, the Eleventh Doctor sends a message to his earlier self, making a request related to the story at hand. It seems clear that the Eleventh has problems of his own.

The stories are:
1. Hunters of Earth - Carole Ann Ford narrates the story, set in Totter's Lane and the Coal Hill School in 1963, and features Susan and the First Doctor.
2. Shadow of Death - Frazer Hines narrates and reprises his role as Jamie in this Second Doctor story (also with Zoe) set on a planet in the orbit of a pulsar. Hines does an uncanny imitation of Patrick Troughton.
3. Vengeance of the Stones - Richard Franklin narrates and is featured as a young Lieutenant (not Captain) Yates as he meets U.N.I.T. and the Third Doctor for the first time. The story is set in and among various standing stones of northeast Scotland.
4. Babblesphere - Lalla Ward is the narrator in this story, featuring the Fourth Doctor and Romana II, set on an Earth colony that is in ruins. The residents are so addicted to social networking that they've allowed themselves to become enslaved by the network's computer.
5. Smoke and Mirrors - Janet Fielding narrates the Fifth Doctor tale, with Tegan, Nyssa, and Adric joining Harry Houdini in an old fairground.
6. Trouble in Paradise - Nicola Bryant narrates and stars as Peri in the Sixth Doctor story in which Six gets a message from his future self, directing him to find and save an Omniparadox, which "contains energies capable of turning reality inside-out". I quite enjoyed the interaction between the Doctor and Peri.
7. Shockwave - Sophie Aldred narrates the Seventh Doctor story and plays Ace. The two arrive in the 49th century on a space station in the process of being evacuated from an oncoming shockwave. The Doctor has contrived to get them on the last spaceship out because, naturally, he has an ulterior motive.
8. Enemy Aliens - India Fisher narrates and plays Charley Pollard in the Eighth Doctor story.

Not out yet, but scheduled for release in September, October, and November, are:
9. Night of the Whisper, with Nicholas Briggs
10. Death's Deal, with Catherine Tate
11. The Time Machine, with Jenna Coleman.

Some of the stories are more compelling than others. I particularly liked the Third Doctor story. While I enjoyed the Fourth Doctor story, it needed more Doctor to it (and would have been great if Tom Baker had voiced the Doctor but, alas, none of the "Destiny" series uses any of the actors who played the Doctor). Nonetheless, they're all interesting stand-alone stories so far, and have whetted my appetite for hearing how the individual pieces relate to the final story.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Review: Doctor Who, "Season 27"

When the televised series of Doctor Who was <s>put on hiatus</s> cancelled after 26 seasons, plans were underway for season 27.
At the time production of the original series was cancelled, work had already begun on Season 27. Both McCoy and incumbent companion Sophie Aldred (Ace) have stated that they would have left during this season. Storylines would have seen Ace joining the Time Lord academy on Gallifrey, and the introduction of a cat burglar as the new companion. Script editor Andrew Cartmel had already begun work on four loosely connected stories which would have comprised the season: Earth Aid by Ben Aaronovitch (a space opera featuring insect-like aliens), Ice Time by Marc Platt (set in 1960s London, featuring the return of the Ice Warriors and Ace's departure), Crime of the Century by Cartmel (a contemporary story featuring animal testing), and Alixion by Robin Mukherjee (in which the Doctor is lured to an isolated asteroid to play a series of life-or-death games). Ahead of the new companion's introduction, Ice Time would have featured her father, a criminal named Sam Tollinger, who was intended to be a recurring character. Alixion would have seen the Doctor going insane after facing a psychic enemy, with mental rather than physical strain being the cause of his regeneration at the end of the season. [citations omitted]
Big Finish Productions, in their range of "Lost Stories," resurrected many of these ideas for a four-story "Season 27," released in 2011. Andrew Cartmel oversaw the season, which consisted of Marc Platt's "Thin Ice," Cartmel's "Crime of the Century" and "Animal," and "Earth Aid," co-authored by Cartmel and Ben Aaronovitch.

"Thin Ice" is set in 1967 in Moscow and London. The Doctor seeks Ice Warrior technology that has been stored in Moscow, primarily to keep its destructive power out of the hands of humans, but both the Russians and the Ice Warriors themselves are after the same technology. The story introduces Markus Creevy, an English grifter and his lover, Russian Lt. Raina Kerenskaya, who become the parents to future companion and cat burglar Raine Creevy. One of the subplots involves the Doctor's efforts to induce the Time Lords to accept Ace into the Academy on Gallifrey (much to Ace's displeasure when she finds out what the Doctor had in store for her). Because Ace continued as a companion in the audio dramas, the Doctor's bid was unsuccessful.

"Crime of the Century," though set in 1989, is a direct sequel to the previous story. Raine, now a young woman, is a cat burglar. We find her robbing a house safe, only to find the Doctor inside, waiting for her. At the same time, following the Doctor's instructions, Ace tracks down Raine's father, Markus, to ask him to use his connections with the underworld as she travels to a Middle Eastern country (Afghanistan, but not named Afghanistan) at war with Russia. There, Ace and the Doctor encounter warrior "demons" - the Metatraxi, who will play roles in the subsequent two stories as well.
Raine: Why does the prince need to do business at all? He's wealthy beyond the dreams of avarice.
The Doctor: In my experience, dreams of avarice extend surprisingly far.
In "Animal," the Doctor, Ace, and Raine go in search of a robot from the previous story and find themselves in 2001 at Margrave University. There they encounter U.N.I.T., headed by Brigadier General Winifred Bambera (who was also heading U.N.I.T. in 1989's "Battlefield" on television). Ace and Raine go undercover, posing as students, to infiltrate a shadowy animal rights organization intent on sabotaging a research facility. Inside the facility, the Doctor encounters a carnivorous plant.

Seriously: the aliens are called the "Numlocks"? Was Cartmel stuck for a name for the aliens and found inspiration staring at his keyboard?

The season's conclusion, "Earth Aid," is the most lighthearted of the stories. It opens with Ace as the captain of the starship Vancouver, escorting a grain ship to a planet experiencing a famine. The Doctor is the ship's physician, and one of the bridge officers has a Russian accent. What's more, Ace seems to have learned everything she needed to know about captaining a starship from Star Trek, including her favorite phrase: "Make it so." (I was almost surprised when the grain ship was not filled with Tribbles in its quadratriticale.) And no, there's never an explanation for how the Doctor managed to place Ace as the captain of a starship. Boarding the grain ship, they find all but one of the crew missing. (The remaining member, Victor Espinosa, is played by Paterson Joseph, who was Rodrick, the game show participant on "The Weakest Link" with Rose in "Bad Wolf" and "The Parting of the Ways" during Eccleston's season as the Doctor.) As another ship approaches the Vancouver, the Doctor and Lt. Baraki cut open an equipment storage compartment. Inside is a safe. The Doctor cracks open the safe to find... Raine. Ace is in seventh heaven as she gets to fire missiles.

The Doctor is sentenced to "Death by taunting." "Well, that's original, I suppose," he replies.

There's an amusing reference back to "Survivor" when the Doctor, searching for an analogy for spaceships, tells Ace, "Think of it this way: you're a cheetah." Ace replies, "I almost was, once."

The tone is lighthearted all the way through, except for an annoying lecturing tone at the end, as though listeners can't be expected to get the message otherwise. The story resolves the plotline of the Metatraxi in an unexpected way.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Review: Doctor Who, "Love and War"

This double-length audio drama, based on the Paul Cornell novel from 1992, is a marvelous story that provides an emotional journey for both the Seventh Doctor and Ace. It also is young Ace's exit as a companion and introduces archaeologist Bernice Summerfield (Lisa Bowerman) as a new companion.

The plot has a number of different threads and a detailed summary would give away too much of what should be experienced. However, the Big Finish summary describes it as follows:
On a planet called Heaven, all hell is breaking loose. 
Heaven is a cemetery for both humans and Draconians - a final place of rest for those lost during wartime. The Doctor arrives on a trivial mission - to find a book, or so he says - and Ace, wandering around Joycetown, becomes involved with a charismatic Traveler called Jan. 
But the Doctor is strenuously opposed to the romance. What is he trying to prevent? Is he planning some deadly game connected with the coffins revered by the mysterious Church of Vacuum and the unusual Arch that marks the location of a secret building below ground? 
Archaeologist Bernice Summerfield thinks so. Her destiny is inextricably linked with that of the Doctor, but even she may not be able to save Ace from the Time Lord's plans. 
This time, has the Doctor gone too far?
The story takes a while to develop and for the listener to understand how the different plot threads come together, but ultimately leads to a satisfying conclusion. The double-length format allows for both multiple plot lines and a little more examination of each of those plot lines than in shorter Big Finish drama, though less so than in a full novel.

Once again we see that the Seventh Doctor is willing to do whatever it takes - manipulating friends, enemies, and innocent bystanders alike - to resolve a situation to his advantage. Sophie Aldred's performance as Ace is one of the highlights of the production.