Book Review: Christmas on a Rational Planet by Lawrence Miles

Author: Lawrence Miles
Title: Christmas on a Rational Planet
Publication Info: London : Doctor Who Books, 1996.

This is the first Doctor Who novel by Lawrence Miles, who would later go on to be one of the leading writers of the Eighth Doctor Adventures, introduce the Faction Paradox, and co-wrote the history of Doctor Who series About Time.  But in this first novel, Roz is trapped in a town in New York in 1799, Chris is trapped in the TARDIS with someone trying to kill him, and secret socities are worshipping Satan and the like.  The book is interesting at parts, but also just weird in ways that makes it hard to follow.

Rating: **1/2

Book Review: Alcatraz Versus the Dark Talent by Brandon Sanderson

Author: Brandon Sanderson
TitleAlcatraz Versus the Dark Talent
Narrator: Ramon de Ocampo
Publication Info: Recorded Books (2016)

Previously Read By the Same Author:  Alcatraz Versus the Evil LibrariansAlcatraz Versus the Scrivener’s Bones, Alcatraz Versus the Knights of Crystallia and Alcatraz Versus the Shattered Lens

The fifth and possibly final Alcatraz book picks up where the previous one ended with Alcatraz having destroyed all of his family’s talents.  Now he must ally with his mother – an evil librarian – to stop his father, a Free Kingdomer whose desire to give every one on Earth a Smedry Talent which could have disastrous consequences.  Smedry and his team go to the Evil Librarian’s Highbrary – a.k.a The Library of Congress in an alternate universe version of Washington, DC.  Unfortunately, Smedry’s friend and defender, Bastille remains in stasis for the better part of the book.  Smedry and Bastille’s love/hate chemistry when they are together is one of the best part of the series and this book suffers from its absence (although when Bastille finally makes her entrance, it’s spectacular).  The book has the usual clever wordplay – including a chapter of delicious puns – but it feels like Sanderson’s heart is not really in it anymore, and it is the weakest book in the series.  Or it could be Alcatraz, who obstinately states this is the last part of his biography after an uncharacteristically dark ending to the book.  But Alcatraz is an unreliable narrator who has lied to us before, and there are clues that this is all just a big cliffhanger leading to yet another book.

Rating: ***

Book Review: Just War by Lance Parkin

Author: Lance Parkin
TitleJust War
Publication Info: London : Doctor Who Books, c1996.

The Seventh Doctor makes frequent visits to World War II: The Curse of Fenric on tv, Colditz on audio, Timewyrm: Exodus and this book in the Virgin New Adventures. We begin this book with one of this Doctor’s great manipulative plans.  Roz and Chris are working with British intelligence in London, Benny is undercover with the Resistance in Guernsey, and the Doctor is seeking a particularly genius Nazi scientist.  Things go horribly wrong, of course, and as happens all to often in the New Adventures, it leads to a companion getting tortured. The book features a strong narrative though, one of the most easily readable New Adventures, with great character moments for Benny, Roz, and Chris.  It’s also close to being a pure historical, with The Butterfly Effect and the Doctor’s hubris being the main antagonists outside of the Nazis.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Early Riser by Jasper Fforde

AuthorJasper Fforde
Title: Early Riser
Publication Info: [New York] : Viking, [2018]
Other Books Read by Same AuthorThe Eyre Affair, Lost in a Good Book, The Well of Lost PlotsShades of GrayThe Last DragonslayerThe Song of the QuarkbeastOne of Our Thursdays is Missing, and The Eye of Zoltar.

I’ve been a fan of Jasper Fforde ever since my now defunct book club selected The Eyre Affair way back in 2002.  He generally pumps out his humorous, clever, metafictional, and totally original novels about once a year, but this time Fforde Ffans had to wait FIVE WHOLE YEARS for his new book.

Early Riser is unrelated to any of Fforde’s previous series of novels, although it shares some elements of the classic Fforde style. Every Fforde novel, while comical, is set in a dystopia and Fforde’s dystopia of choice is the Bureaucratic Hell.  In this novel, the alternate universe Earth is beset by long, brutal winters, so humanity survives through hibernation.  The Winter Consuls, a police force of sorts, stay awake to protect the rest.  Charlie Worthing, a Novice Winter Consul, narrates his first winter in this dangerous job.

One challenge is that Morphenox, the drug that helps people hibernate, has the side effect of putting people in a state of narcosis.  Sometimes they can still perform menial tasks, but if they get hungry, they may also try to eat people.  (And if long winters and zombie-like creatures make you think of A Song of Ice and Fire, there are some tangential similarities).  Charlie also has to contend with a woman who, dolphin-like, sleeps with only half of her brain at time, and has completely different and conflicting personalities.  Then there are dreams that are going viral among the sleepers and even becoming dangerous. And there’s a mythical creature called The Gronk, who loves Rogers & Hammerstein musicals and folding laundry, but will also eat peoples’ fingers (I doubt Fforde is aware of the New England Patriots football player, but its funny all the same).

Fforde novels tend to be high-concept, and Early Riser was the most difficult one for me to comprehend in the early going what exactly are the parameters of this world and getting past the jargon that’s sprinkled liberally in the text.  I eventually cottoned on.  The book is funny, but it feels more grimdark than other Fforde novels.  There’s an obvious parody of climate change in the novel, but there’s also the darkness of people’s’ souls in their willingness to exploit others for a little gain.  Early Riser is a challenging read, but ultimately a worthwhile one, and a worthy addition to the Fforde oeuvre.

Recommended books: Passage by Connie Willis.
Rating: ****

Book Review: The Also People by Ben Aaronovitch

Author: Ben Aaronovitch
TitleThe Also People
Publication Info: London : Doctor Who Books, 1995.

The Doctor takes Benny, Roz, and Chris on vacation to the Worldsphere, a world populated by the technologically advanced, utopians society of The People.  In addition to the advanced People – who can change their shape and gender – the Worldsphere is populated with sentient artificial lifeforms, including God (who got its name as a joke from watching over the Worldsphere), ships, drones, and even tables, bathtubs, and parachutes.

Because The People are so technologically advanced they have a nonaggression treaty with the Time Lords that prevents them from developing time travel.  The Doctor and God are friendly but also don’t trust one another and dance around a lot of tensions.  And despite saying the visit to the Worldsphere is a holiday, the Doctor also has ulterior motives involving an old frenemy, and a difficult decision for Benny.  When a drone is murdered, the Doctor also volunteers to investigate the crime, and Roz is key in using her skills in the procedural story.

The Also People is inspired by a science-fiction series called the Culture by Iain M. Banks.  I’m not at all familiar with Banks’ work, but it does appear to be another example of Doctor Who crashing into another genre and making another story.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001)

TitleAtlantis: The Lost Empire
Release Date: June 15, 2001
Director: Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures

One of the most under-the-radar animated film releases in recent Walt Disney Pictures memory, Atlantis: The Lost Empire pretty much stands alone as a Jules Verne + steampunk + Indiana Jones action-adventure story with science fiction and fantasy elements.  Milo Thatch (perfectly voiced by Michael J. Fox), a scholarly cartographer and linguist, is recruited to join basically a military expedition to find the lost continent of Atlantis in 1914. Their inevitable discovery of a surviving civilization puts the noble and idealistic Milo at odds with the exploitative mission of the rest of the task force. He also befriends Kida, the princess of Atlantis (portrayed by Cree Summer), who is a criminally underdeveloped character who is drawn in ways that seem designed to appeal to the male gaze.

It’s stunning that this movie was released just a year after The Emperor’s New Groove which was saturated in the ironically-detatched pop culture of its era.  Atlantis, by contrast, is disarmingly straightforward and sincere in its storytelling in a refreshingly old-fashioned way.  Unfortunately, old fashioned means that Atlantis is derivative and predictable in all of its plot beats.  I can’t put finger on it exactly, but this movie comes so close to being great, and again and again fails to do so.  Everything looks good and all the pieces are there, but it just lacks the Disney magic that brings it all together.  I wish this movie had succeeded because there’s an opening for a solid animated adventure classic in the Disney canon.

Rating: **

Movie Review: Blade Runner (1982)

TitleBlade Runner
Release Date: June 25, 1982
Director: Ridley Scott
Production Company: The Ladd Company

It’s 2019, so it’s time for me to finally watch the 1982 movie that’s set in 2019, Blade Runner.  I should note that on the advice of a fan, I didn’t watch the 1982 release, but the Final Cut released in 2007 (and the last of seven different versions of the movie released).  This means that I  got to watch the movie without poorly written voice-overs and a happy ending that many viewers feel marred the theatrical release.

The story focuses on Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), a police investigator tasked with finding renegade replicants (synthetic humans designed to work on Earth’s off-world colonies) and “retire” them (kill them).  In this instance, Deckard has to track down four replicants who have come to Earth seeking the secret of elongating their lives beyond the four years programmed into their DNA, and in the process Deckard meets an even more advanced replicant named Rachael (Sean Young) who is initially not aware she’s not human.  Deckard and Rachael form an awkward relationship, while Deckard hunts down the other four and eventually faces off against the renegade replicants leader Roy (Rutger Hauer).

With it being 2019, the predictions of the future are largely inaccurate, but interesting nonetheless (I’m particularly amused that Blade Runner, like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Until the End of the World, features video payphones but didn’t foresee portable devices).  The vision of 2019 in this film is of a dark, claustrophobic, yet lonely world. Blade Runner imagines the deteriorating inner cities of the 1970s and 1980s simply left to rot while monolithic buildings for corporations and the wealthy are just built above them.  The set dressing features an incredible amount of trash and dirt which the camera lingers on to make the point. Ironically, American cities like Los Angeles are tidier and shinier than when the film was made for the most part.  Omnipresent advertising lights up the sides of buildings and from looming airships floating low above the city, in one of the more accurate predictions of the real 2019.  This movie must’ve hired armies of extras – or expertly filmed the same packs of extras from clever angles – to fill the set’s streets with the people Deckard must elbow through.  And the people come from all over the world – Chinese predominately, even in the advertising – but I heard a whole lot of languages spoken.  The great achievement of Blade Runner is so thoroughly creating a world that feels real and lived in.

I found the movie very uncomfortable to watch, which is not a bad thing since it is definitely designed to discomfort with its dystopian view of the future and examination of humanity.  It’s good that I did NOT watch this back in the 1980s, because it would’ve totally freaked out my younger self.  Despite having accrued a lot of cultural knowledge of the story over time, there were a lot of WTF! moments that caught me off guard.  I’m particularly haunted by J.F. Sebastian’s “toys” which just plain creeped me out.  Of course, I probably didn’t need to wait until I was 45 to get around to watching this movie for the first time.

Blade Runner is a movie that impresses, although I can’t say that I love it.  There’s definitely some good acting from the three leads and of course the sets and visuals are remarkable. But the story leaves me a bit cold, although I’m not sure if it’s missing something, or if I just can’t cogitate the dystopian themes yet.  Nevertheless, I think I will have to revisit it at some point and perhaps check out some of the alternate versions.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Original Sin by Andy Lane

Author: Andy Lane
TitleOriginal Sin
Publication Info: London : Doctor Who Books, 1995.

There’s a lot going on in this sprawling Doctor Who New Adventures novel.

    • First, it introduces a pair of new companions, Roz & Cwej, a pair of Adjucators (basically, cops) from Earth in the far future.  Roz is the grizzled veteran whose partner/mentor died and Cwej is the cheerful, ambitious rookie. In addition to these buddy cop story tropes, they find themselves uncovering a conspiracy!
    • The setting is the Earth in the far future when cities like London have been build up as spaceports with the wealthy living in gleaming towers, while the rest live in the dark, decaying Undertown (a concept that was later used in the tv story Gridlock).
    • The Earth is part of a dystopian society ruled by a Divine Empress who controls the galaxy (or at least the solar system, not sure).
    • Also featuring in this story are the Hith, a species of large, slug-like creatures who.  Berenice’s befriends a Hith whose death actually prompts her and the Doctor to visit future and get involved in this story.
    • There’s an imprisoned serial killer who the Doctor calls upon for advice, very much modeled on Hannibal Lecter.
    • Finally, the big reveal is that the Big Bad behind this all is Tobias Vaughn from the 1960s tv story The Invasion, who has managed to live thousands of years as a cyborg.

It’s a very busy story with a lot of weirdness, such as Cwej spending part of the narrative resembling a teddy bear, for fashion.  It also has the New Adventures’ trait of introducing lots of characters in new places and expecting the reader to remember them. That is, when the author actually mentions the names and is not doing that trick of keeping their identity secret.  It’s rather annoying and makes this book more of a struggle to read than necessary, but otherwise it’s entertaining.

Rating: ***

Virgin New Adventures

Movie Review: Tommorowland (2015)

Title: Tommorowland
Release Date: May 22, 2015
Director: Brad Bird
Production Company:Walt Disney Pictures

Brad Bird, writer and director of animated films like the Iron Giant, The Incredibles, and Ratatouille, brings his utopian vision to live action films. The basic gist is that a group of creative geniuses make an alternative reality called Tomorrowland which is an amalgam of the optimistic views of a space age future that were common in culture circa the 1950s-1980s (it’s never explained how this alternative universe works).  The major characters are George Clooney as an older man who has been exiled from Tomorrowland, Britt Robertson as a teenage scientific enthusiast who is the latest recruit for Tommorrowland, Raffey Cassidy as the Audio-Animatronic who recruits new members, and Hugh Laurie as the villain who desires to make Tommorowland exclusive, and ultimately destroy the real world.

The movie is full of fantastic visuals and great ideas.  But ultimately, it feels hollow at the heart of it.  There’s a preachy vein that we should feel bad about giving up on our optimistic vision of tomorrow, but never gives a reason why, especially since the effort to get to Tommorrowland is full of violence and a Libertarian idea of some people being naturally better than others.  There’s a lot that’s good about this movie, from the acting to the visuals, that it’s doubly disappointing that it misses the mark by so much.

Rating: ***

TV Review: Doctor Who (2018)

TitleDoctor Who
Release Dates: 2018
Series: 11
Number of Episodes: 10

This is going to be tough because I love this show so much, yet I’m going to have to state some unpleasant truths.  This was not a very good series of Doctor Who. The baseline of competency was met again and again, and no episode was truly awful, but this series never seemed to aspire to anything beyond sheer competency.  There are a lot of people involved in creating a television series, but I believe that a lot of the blame for the failures of Series 11 can go to the showrunner Chris Chibnall, who scripted 5 of the 10 episodes, and co-wrote another.  I had concerns about Chibnall going into the series based on his previous work for Doctor Who and Torchwood, but had also admired his work on Broadchurch, at least the first season.

Compared with the previous showrunners, Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat, who each contributed numerous innovations to Doctor Who storytelling, Chibnall did not seem interested in taking many risks in that area.  I should note though, that there was some risk-taking in this series.  For one, this is the first time a woman – Jodie Whittaker – was cast in the role of the Doctor, and while that shouldn’t be risky in 2018, it was nevertheless, controversial.  The consequence though is that Chibnall and company appeared not to want to make any further waves and wrote the Doctor as a very passive character, to the point of criminal indifference, which is not something you want to see paired with your female representation.  The optimist in me thinks that now that the writers have seen how Whittaker performs the Doctor, and with one season under their belt, that they will be willing to take more risks with her character next series.  At the very least I hope they cease writing dialogue where Whittaker is forced to just describe what is in front of her much of the time.  These writers need to heed the advice to show not tell.

Another big risk is that Chibnall chose to cast three different companions, creating the largest Tardis Team since the Fifth Doctor also traveled with three companions in the 1980s.  It was also the first time that 4 major characters were introduced in the same episode since the premiere of the series in 1963.  The consequence of this risk is that there was very little time to develop four new characters and tell new stories at the same time.  Yaz was particularly effected by the crowded Tardis in that the audience never seemed to learn much about her despite her having the potential to be the most interesting character as a foil to the Doctor.  She’s also the most competent character, so her quietly getting things done didn’t leave much time for interesting character beats.  Ryan and Grahams were served better as they had the theme of there growing familial relationship as they mourn Grace to carry them through the series.

Chibnall took risks in how the series is presented.  Since the return of Doctor Who in 2005, a series has had 12-to-13 episodes, 45 minutes in length, plus a Christmas Special.  Chibnall cut the total number of episodes to 10, but extended the length of individual episodes to 50 minutes.  The problems of character development may have been better addressed with 2 or 3 more stories.  While previous series usually had some two-part episodes, and at least a semi-serialized nature where the series built on a story arc or theme, Chibnall chose to have all the episodes of series 11 be stand-alone stories, with the exception of an episode 1 villain ineffectively returning in episode 10.  The structure of a Doctor Who episode was modeled on the procedural drama genre of television for the first time.  I can’t criticize that choice because Doctor Who should be able to function in any genre, even if it didn’t work for other reasons.

The series was a commercial success with better ratings than Doctor Who has had in some time.  The argument can be made that more straightforward, stand alone episodes attract a larger number of viewers who can pop in to watch an episode without having to know a lot of the details behind the story.  I’m pleased that Doctor Who is succeeding, even if it’s not the type of Doctor Who I enjoy.  But I would also contend that television viewers – including children – are more sophisticated viewers than they were a generation or two ago and can handle more complex stories and serialization.  Not the least because a large percentage of people who end up viewing this show will do so by bingewatching on streaming services rather than watching each episode as it airs.

Despite my heavy criticism of the show, there was a lot I enjoyed about it.  Whittaker was excellent in portraying the Doctor as funny, compassionate, and a strong leader.  She deserves better material to work with.  I also love all the new companions, they are great characters and each bring something to the team. The production values were excellent for the most part including cinematograpy, sets, costuming, and music.  It was a pleasurable program to look at the vast majority of the time.  While the politics of the show seem to be moving rightward overall, it’s also important to recognize the representation in this series.  Women and people of color are appearing in the show, as well as writing and directing, more than ever before, and telling stories previously ignored in the previous 36 seasons.

Here are my thoughts on an episode by episode basis with links to full reviews.  The number in parentheses is a rating on a scale of 10.

  1. The Woman Who Fell to Earth (7) – A good introduction, that swiftly brings together our new Tardis Team with good character beats for each, and keeping Jodie Whittaker on her toes as she resolves both the problem and her new identity.  Sure, the villain is rubbish, but monsters are only secondary to this story and we’re never going to see Tim Shaw again, right?  The biggest downer is that Grace, one of the most compelling characters and a natural for the companion role, dies just as we’re getting to know her.
  2. The Ghost Monument (5) – The first episode introduced all of our new characters, while the purpose of this episode is to reunite the Doctor with her Tardis.  Along the way, the new companions get their “wow, we’re on another planet” moments.  The plot seems only incidental and is discarded once the Tardis is found, setting a pattern of Chibnall-authored stories that are unresolved.
  3. Rosa (7) – The first historical of Series 11 is set in 1950s Alabama and does a great job of capturing the period and the pervasive nature of Jim Crow racism.  The message of the show, that social change occurs only when great individuals like Rosa Parks take small actions (and that they will suffer to achieve incremental changes) seems out of touch with what audiences need from Doctor Who in 2018, though.
  4. Arachnids in the UK  (6) -The return to Sheffield episode does a good job of introducing us to Yaz’s family and setting up an adventure involving giant spiders, and even make us sympathetic to the monsters.  The story once again ends with a feeling of loose ends untied.  And while Doctor Who certainly can’t depict the overthrow of Donald Trump, they could at least offer consequences to a Trump surrogate.
  5. The Tsuranga Conundrum (7) – I seem to be alone in liking this space adventure, and certainly think it’s the best Chibnall-authored script of the season.  For one, it actually tells a complete story with beginning, middle, and end.  And the other, all the characters – regular and guest – play a part in the story and have significant character moments.  It’s also funny.  I guess people just don’t like cute monsters.
  6. Demons of the Punjab (8) – This Yaz-centered story travels back in time to visit her grandmother in 1947 during the partition of India and Pakistan.  The personal story of one family set against tragic historical events is definitely the best story of the season.
  7. Kerblam! (5) – Honestly, this story is not as bad as it’s rating.  It’s well constructed and entertaining, and I suppose a good example of Right Wing Science Fiction.  But it loses points because the Doctor being not only indifferent to, but tacitly supporting, the suffering and exploitation of labor is counter to everything I know about the Doctor.
  8. The Witchfinders (8) – Another entertaining historical with Alan Cumming guest starring in a wonderfully hammy performance as King James I.  The Tardis Team have come into their own and work together to solve the problem.  And Whittaker’s Doctor, for once, isn’t hopelessly passive, taking action even when it may be changing history.
  9. It Takes You Away (6) – A strange, entertaining story with a few twists, and a talking frog.  I didn’t think the story was the best, but I did enjoy the bonkers quality of it, and the sign that Chibnall-era Doctor Who was recognizing the previous 10 series of Doctor Who and finding new ways to build on it.
  10. The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos (4) – A total bummer of a finale that seems only to function as a sampler of the worst aspects of Series 11.  The rest of the series looks worse in retrospect because one could no longer believe it was building to something meaningful.

If you have time and desire to read more about Series 11, check out this excellent post from the Movie Blog.

Okay, now we move on to the New Year’s Day Special!  I have high hopes.

Series 11 episodes ranked:

  • Demons of the Punjab (8)
  • The Witchfinders  (8)
  • The Tsuranga Conundrum (7)
  • The Woman Who Fell to Earth (7)
  • Rosa (7)
  • It Takes You Away (6)
  • Arachnids in the UK  (6)
  • The Ghost Monument (5)
  • Kerblam! (5)
  • The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos (4)

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