Doctor Who: Heaven Sent

Now THAT was a cracker! In my opinion, Heaven Sent, written by Steven Moffat, is a great follow-up to Face the Raven, the best Doctor Who episode in a long, long time, and definitely the best episode of Series 9 so far.

It was dark, scary, moody, mindbending, intelligent – it’s just how I love Doctor Who, and is the kind of episode that we’ve seen far too little of in recent years. With the exception of Chris Eccleston’s excellent single season, Series 9 is the nearest that Doctor Who has come in tone (if not quite in quality) to the Tom Baker/Philip Hinchcliffe era, by far my favourite era in either Classic or New Doctor Who. I was glued to the screen for the entire forty-five minutes, although I’m not too sure if I like the whole “I am the hybrid” idea, at the episode’s climax. If it pans out like that, it would be just a little too silly for my liking.

Peter Capaldi has taken the role of the Doctor by the scruff of its neck and made it his own, and Clara/Jenna Coleman has grown into an excellent companion. I’ll be sorry to see her go at the end of this series. Despite the multitude of rabid Clara haters I’ve seen online (fandom makes me sick at times – there are far too many total assholes out there claiming to be fans), I’m pretty sure that future critics and fans will look back on Clara Oswald as being one of the better companions in the history of either Doctor Who series.

There’s been a certain amount of moaning and groaning on Facebook and elsewhere that, if we see many more episodes like Heaven Sent, “we’ll lose the general audience”. I disagree. Fans who have grown up with NuWho, TRUE fans, and not the “flyby brigade”, who only watch it if there’s nothing better on the other channels, will still stick to the show like glue. I do agree that there has to be a certain amount of balance between the lightness and humour vs the grimness and serious stories, to vary the pace in between the individual episodes, and give us an entire range of the spectrum between extreme the dark, scary stuff and the lightweight fluffy episodes. But this kind of story is so much more my idea of what Doctor Who should REALLY be like. Others may have their own ideas of what Doctor Who should be like, but Heaven Sent is mine.

However, I do concede that there has to be a balance. But the moaners who can’t tolerate ANY heavy, serious episodes at all really get my goat up. They should just clear off and watch airhead sitcoms or soap operas, if all they want is non-stop, upbeat nonsense. We really do need these “deep” stories occasionally, to balance out the lighter, more dumbed down, all flash and no substance single episodes, that supposedly are aimed at the “general” audience and kids (who, these days, aren’t as stupid as the marketers seem to think). Thankfully, with all the two-parters, Series 9 has seen only a couple of these single episodes, and even they were linked. A big improvement on previous years, in my opinion, and I hope that this trend in favour of two-parters continues.

The David Tennant and Matt Smith eras had FAR too many of those dumb single episodes, far too much old silliness, with the totally ridiculous romance nonsense between the Doctor and human female companions, other completely irrelevant, soap-opera-ish, non-Who-ish distractions, and simply too much bad writing. The Matt Smith era, in particular, was virtually unwatchable at times, despite the fact that he himself was an absolutely AMAZING Doctor. He carried the show most of the time, to be honest, and I continued watching it just for him. In my opinion, Capaldi’s arrival, and the complete change in tone of the series, has revitalised Doctor Who, although there are still too many dodgy stories. But hell, that’s always been true of Doctor Who. Lest the rose-tinted glasses crowd forget, the Classic series also had more than its fair share of total clunkers.

It’s not 1966 any more, fer cryin’ out loud. It’s almost 2016, and modern audiences (including kids) are far more sophisticated than they were back in the 1960s and 1970s. And the show is no longer aired at 5.15pm in the evening, but a full three hours later, sometimes not ending until after the 9pm watershed. I can no longer understand the endless obsession with forcing the show into a shoebox where it has to appeal to five year-olds as well as fifty-five year olds. That approach just doesn’t seem relevant any more.

In most cases, instead of more challenging stories, in recent years we’ve ended up with far too many middle-of-the-road, lightweight “fluff” single episodes aimed at keeping kids and general viewers who are not hardcore Doctor Who fans happy, what I refer to as the “Popcorn Who” audience. Personally, given Doctor Who’s current late timeslot, and the fact that the typical modern audience is much more varied and sophisticated than it was forty or fifty years ago, I really think the series should be written accordingly today, and aimed at a similar audience to Steven Moffat’s other excellent show, Sherlock.

I know those “popcorn” episodes are for keeping up the general audience figures, but too many of them and you lose the hardcore fans (like myself). They are just too bland and lightweight, and while I can take the odd one in between the more intelligent, serious episodes, string more than two or three of them together and I’ll give up on that season as a lost cause. Thankfully Heaven Sent was way over at the other extreme, where I prefer my Doctor Who to be. I like my Doctor Who dark, scary and serious.

I’m hoping Hell Bent lives up to the quality of Heaven Sent (and that Moffat will be able to do it two episodes in a row, as this has been a weakness of his with two-parters). If it’s even half as good, it’ll be a decent series finale. And if it’s on the same level of quality, we’re in for one of the greatest series endings in modern Doctor Who.

BEYOND THE BARRIERS OF SPACE AND TIME edited by Judith Merril

This time around, we have an SF anthology. This one is an oldie, from 1955, and is compiled and edited by Judith Merril, another of my favourite anthologists. This is the first Judith Merril anthology that I’ve featured on this blog, and most certainly won’t be the last.

TITLE: BEYOND THE BARRIERS OF SPACE AND TIME
EDITED BY: Judith Merril
CATEGORY:Short Fiction
SUB-CATEGORY:Anthology
PUBLISHER: Sidgwick and Jackson, London, 1955
FORMAT: Hardback, 1st Edition, 291 pages

CONTENTS:

  • Introduction by Theodore Sturgeon
  • Preface by Judith Merril
  • “Wolf Pack” by Walter M. Miller, Jr. (short story, Fantastic, Sept/Oct 1953)
  • “No One Believed Me” by Will Thompson (Saturday Evening Post, April 24, 1948)
  • “Perforce to Dream” by John Wyndham (short story, Beyond Fantasy Fiction, Jan 1954)
  • “The Laocoon Complex” by J. C. Furnas (Esquire, April 1937)
  • “Crazy Joey” by Mark Clifton and Alex Apostolides (short story, Astounding Science Fiction, August 1953)
  • “The Golden Man” by Phillip K. Dick (novelette, If Magazine, April 1954)
  • “Malice Aforethought” by David Grinnell [Donald A. Wollheim] (short story, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Nov 1952)
  • “The Last Seance” by Agatha Christie (short story, Ghost Stories, November 1926)
  • “Medicine Dancer” by Bill Brown (short story, Fantasy Fiction, November 1953)
  • “Behold It Was a Dream” by Rhoda Broughton (Temple Bar, November 1872)
  • “Belief” by Isaac Asimov (novelette, Astounding Science Fiction, October 1953)
  • “The Veldt” by Ray Bradbury (Saturday Evening Post, September 23, 1950)
  • “Mr. Kincaid’s Pasts” by J. J. Coupling [John R. Pierce] (short story, Fantasy & Science Fiction, August 1953)
  • “The Warning” by Peter Phillips (short story, Fantasy & Science Fiction, September 1953)
  • “The Ghost of Me” by Anthony Boucher (short story, Unknown, June 1942)
  • “The Wall Around the World” by Theodore R. Cogswell (novelette, Beyond Fantasy Fiction, September 1953)
  • “Operating Instructions” by Robert Sheckley (short story, Astounding Science Fiction, May 1953)
  • “Interpretation of a Dream” by John Collier (The New Yorker, May 5, 1951)
  • “Defense Mechanism” by Katherine MacLean (short story, Astounding Science Fiction, October 1949)

This anthology is a 1st UK Edition, published in London by Sidgwick & Jackson, old stalwarts in the SF publishing field. It features nineteen stories by a wide assortment of authors, many of them pretty obscure. There is also an Introduction by Theodore Sturgeon, a Preface by Judith Merril, and a Bibliography at the back of the book.

The Bibliography erroneously lists the Anthony Boucher story (“The Ghost of Me”) as having appeared in the June 1942 edition of Astounding Science Fiction. It was the June 1942 edition of Unknown. I’ve done the usual with all of the stories that appeared in the SF&F magazines, giving their month and year of publication, and noting if the stories were short stories, novelettes, etc. But several of the stories were not published in the SF&F magazines, appearing instead in general mass media publications. In those instances, only the name of the magazine and the year of publication is listed.

Highlighting the stories from the regular SF&F publications of that era, there are a few familiar faces and stories, although many are also totally unfamiliar to me. There are some old favourites – Bradbury’s “The Veldt”, Asimov’s “Belief”, and Dick’s “The Golden Man” (an old childhood favourite of mine). There are also a bunch of unfamiliar stories from very familiar authors – Wyndham, Miller, Boucher, Sheckley, Clifton, Cogswell, Phillips, Wollheim (as David Grinnell) and MacLean. But the other stories are by totally unknown authors (to me, anyway). The stories may have appeared in the regular SF mags, but I’m afraid I’m totally unfamiliar with them and their authors (J. J. Coupling and Bill Brown).

In among the regular SF authors and magazines from that era, there are some real oddities. As I’ve already mentioned, there were several totally unfamiliar stories by unfamiliar authors, originally published in mainstream non-SF publications – John Collier (The New Yorker), J. C. Furnas (Esquire) and Will Thompson (Saturday Evening Post).

There is also a story from 1926 by Agatha Christie (“The Last Seance”), which is a strange one for an SF anthology, although many pre-1960s SF&F anthologies were often a varied mix of more cross-genre types of stories. Finally, there is another oddity which was first published way back in 1873, a story by Rhoda Broughton (“Behold It Was a Dream”). Broughton was the niece of J. Sheridan Le Fanu, and an accomplished author in her own right, although regretfully now mostly forgotten. The Bibliography completely omits the listing for this story, for some reason.

A very interesting anthology, and a bit of a strange mix. Should be a good read.

Happy 52nd Birthday Doctor Who!!!

It was on this day, fifty-two years ago, that the very first ever episode of Doctor Who, An Unearthly Child, was broadcast by BBC One, on the evening of Saturday, 23rd November, 1963. The world of television sci-fi would never be the same again.

This story introduces us for the very first time to a strange, mysterious young girl Susan Foreman (played by Carole Ann Ford) and her even stranger grandfather (played by William Hartnell), who both turn out to be aliens, from somewhere else in time and space. This strange old man would later become known to all of us as the very first Doctor, albeit a much more abrasive, alien, and less cuddly Doctor than most of his successors. We also get to meet the two unwilling new human companions, Ian Chesterton (played by William Russell) and Barbara Wright (played by Jacqueline Hill), who are to become not only the eyes and ears of the audience on the adventures with the Doctor and Susan, but also the very close friends of the two alien central characters.

The first episode of this four-parter is an excellent piece of television, and very different in tone to everything that comes afterward. To a viewer back in 1963, it would’ve been a strange story indeed, as they would’ve had absolutely no idea who the old man and his granddaughter were, what they were doing living in a police telephone box in an old junkyard, or what the hell was going on in general. The new viewer would’ve been just as curious and mystified as Ian and Barbara, as they stepped onto the TARDIS for the first time, taking a huge leap sideways into the twilight zone (if you’ll pardon the obvious pun).

We’d all have been just as shocked and confused as both frightened schoolteachers are at the end of the first episode, as they are whisked off (kidnapped is nearer the truth) into time and space on their very first adventure with the Doctor and Susan. To the jaded modern audience, all of this is probably no big deal nowadays, but back then, there was absolutely nothing like it on British television. What must it have been like watching that for the very first time? It must’ve been an incredible experience.

I didn’t get to see An Unearthly Child until almost twenty years after it was first televised, when it was first repeated on BBC Two, in November 1981. I was much too young to have seen it back in 1963, only a little nipper, really – the third episode, “The Forest of Fear”, was aired on my third birthday, 7th December 1963. It would be another two or three years after that before I would be old enough to start noticing Doctor Who on television, and my very earliest vague memories of the series come from about 1965-66. Ever since then, the show has been a life-long obsession of mine, and today I could never conceive how my life would ever have been without Doctor Who in it. But I’m so envious of those old codgers who do remember watching the very first ever episode way back on that cold November evening in 1963.

So I’d like to finish off by wishing my very favourite sci-fi series of all time a VERY Happy 52nd Birthday. And long may it continue.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY DOCTOR WHO!!!!.

Doctor Who: The Zygon Inversion

In less than an hour, at 8pm, The Zygon Inversion, the eighth episode of Doctor Who, Series 9, will air on BBC1, with the second half of what looks to be a very good two-parter, which had a very interesting start last week with The Zygon Invasion.

The Zygon Invasion was definitely a step up in pace from the previous four episodes, and on last week’s showing, this story has the potential to become my second-favourite story of Series 9, behind the excellent series opening two-parter, The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar. There were some potentially interesting plot thingies laid down in The Zygon Invasion last week, so here’s hoping The Zygon Inversion can follow through and deliver the goods tonight. I particularly liked the evil Zygon Clara, with Jenna Coleman getting her teeth into playing a nasty villain for a change, rather than her usual nice-girl companion role. With all the rumours floating around about Clara leaving the series, I’ll be watching what happens to her with interest.

The CapaldiDoc seems to be in a pretty tight squeeze right at the end of last week’s cliffhanger, but he’ll save the day, of course. I’m also wondering how Kate Lethbridge-Stewart came through her encounter with the Zygon last week, although I strongly suspect it was her who survived (again, obvious really). The Zygons seem to be pretty vulnerable in those 5-10 seconds that they take to transform from their human form back into Zygon. That’s five or ten seconds when any trained UNIT member with fast reflexes would fill said Zygon full of holes long before it would complete the transformation.

Anyway, roll on 8pm on BBC 1, and The Zygon Inversion.