Remembering Victor Pemberton

British writer and television producer Victor Pemberton passed away on August 13th. He was 85 years old. I was a fan of Pemberton’s work, and over the past several years I had corresponded with him via e-mail.  Based on his e-mails, and on interviews he gave, he appeared to be a warm, intelligent man.

Victor Pemberton Fraggle Rock

Victor Pemberton and Sprocket

Pemberton was born on October 10, 1931 in Islington, London. His experiences a decade later, living through the terrible events of the Blitz during World War II, were a formative influence.  Decades later Pemberton wrote a series of 15 historical novels set in mid-20th Century London.  He described these books as, at least in part, “an attempt by me to exorcise those terrible times from my mind.”

One of Pemberton’s earliest successes as a writer was in 1966, when he penned The Slide, a seven part science fiction radio drama broadcast weekly by the BBC from February 1 to March 27, 1966. This eerie, atmospheric drama starred Roger Delgado and Maurice Denham.

In the newly developed English town of Redlow, several earthquakes have occurred. This in itself is odd, as the area is considered geographically stable.  Things become considerably more unusual when a mysterious greenish-brown mud begins to ooze out of the fissures in the ground.  Not only is this mud highly acidic, it seems to have a life of its own, spreading out across flat ground, and even creeping uphill.

Called in to investigate these mysterious phenomena is Professor Josef Gomez, a South American seismologist portrayed by Delgado. Gomez previously encountered similar earth tremors in the nearby English Channel.  Assisted by local scientific authorities, the Professor makes a startling discovery.  The mud, it turns out, is not only a living entity, but it is also sentient.  And it  has the ability to telepathically influence certain individuals, driving many of the residents of Redlow to madness and suicide.  Gomez and his colleagues find themselves in a race against time, struggling to halt the lethal mudslide before it destroys the entire town.

Like so much other television and radio material from the 1960s, the master copy of the radio play was purged from the BBC archives. Fortunately, Pemberton himself recorded all the episodes of The Slide during their original broadcast.  Decades later, he discovered the tapes in his garage.  This stroke of luck allowed the BBC to restore the recordings and release them on CD in 2010.

The Slide

In 1967 Pemberton became involved with the Doctor Who television series. He acted in a small part in “The Moonbase” and served as Assistant Script Editor on “The Evil of the Daleks.”  Pemberton was then promoted to Script Editor on the next serial, “Tomb of the Cybermen,” which was written by Kit Pedler & Gerry Davis.

Among his contributions to “Tomb of the Cybermen,” Pemberton scripted a scene in the third episode which showed the character of Victoria Waterfield, who had joined the TARDIS crew at the end of the previous story, adjusting to her new life.

THE DOCTOR: Are you happy with us, Victoria?

VICTORIA: Yes, I am. At least, I would be if my father were here.

THE DOCTOR: Yes, I know, I know.

VICTORIA: I wonder what he would have thought if he could see me now.

THE DOCTOR: You miss him very much, don’t you?

VICTORIA: It’s only when I close my eyes. I can still see him standing there, before those horrible Dalek creatures came to the house. He was a very kind man, I shall never forget him. Never.

THE DOCTOR: No, of course you won’t. But, you know, the memory of him won’t always be a sad one.

VICTORIA: I think it will. You can’t understand, being so ancient.

THE DOCTOR: Eh?

VICTORIA: I mean old.

THE DOCTOR: Oh.

VICTORIA: You probably can’t remember your family.

THE DOCTOR: Oh yes, I can when I want to. And that’s the point, really. I have to really want to, to bring them back in front of my eyes. The rest of the time they sleep in my mind, and I forget. And so will you. Oh yes, you will. You’ll find there’s so much else to think about. So remember, our lives are different to anybody else’s. That’s the exciting thing. There’s nobody in the universe can do what we’re doing.

It is a beautifully written scene which is wonderfully performed by Patrick Troughton and Deborah Watling.

Pemberton decided to leave the Script Editor position after only one story in order to concentrate on his writing. He quickly produced the scripts for the six part Doctor Who serial “Fury from the Deep,” which was broadcast in 1968.  Regrettably only a few short clips from the story are known to still survive, along with the complete audio soundtrack and some behind-the-scenes footage taken during the filming of the final episode.  Nevertheless older fans of the series who saw “Fury from the Deep” when it was first broadcast have very fond memories of it.  Eighteen years later Pemberton had the opportunity to novelize the serial for the range of Doctor Who books published by Target.  When I read that book at the tender age of eleven, I found it to be incredibly scary.

“Fury from the Deep” is also noteworthy in that it contained the debut of the Doctor’s now-iconic sonic screwdriver, which was devised by Pemberton. The serial also saw the tearful farewell of Victoria from the show.

Pemberton would write for Doctor Who on one other occasion. In 1976 he scripted “The Pescatons,” the very first Doctor Who audio adventure.  It starred Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen.  Pemberton had the opportunity to novelize “The Pescatons” for Target in 1991.

Doctor Who The Pescatons

After he left Doctor Who, Pemberton went onto a long & prolific career working in British television and radio.

In 1983 Pemberton became involved in the British version of the Jim Henson show Fraggle Rock. The series was about a group of funny and bizarre creatures, the Fraggles, who lived in a vast, wondrous subterranean civilization.  The Fraggles and their neighbors, the diminutive builders known as the Doozers and the giant bad-tempered Gorgs, were all brought to life by Henson’s amazing Muppet creations.

Fraggle Rock was broadcast in a number of foreign countries, and different framing segments involving a human character and his dog Sprocket (a Muppet) were recorded for each market. In the original American version, the human was the eccentric inventor Doc.  As a writer on the first season of the British version, Pemberton devised the human character of “The Captain,” a lighthouse keeper in Cornwall.  Pemberton became the producer of the British version from the second season onward.

When I e-mailed Pemberton in 2010 asking him about his time on Fraggle Rock, he had fond memories of his time working with the Muppets:

“It was a great fun series to do, with a lot of talent involved, something one always got from the late, lamented Jim Henson and his team. Needless to say, Sprocket, as in every version, was my hero of the show, mischievous and lovable to the last!”

One of Pemberton’s most acclaimed works was a trilogy of radio plays for the BBC based on the lives of his parents. The Trains Don’t Stop Here Anymore was broadcast in 1978, with the next two installments, Don’t Talk To Me About Kids and Down by the Sea, airing in 1987.  These three radio plays would form the basis for the first of his historical novels, Our Family, published in 1990.

Our Family by Victor Pemberton

Our Family was a wonderful book, and I made sure to let Pemberton know how much I enjoyed it. He appreciated my kind words.  In his response he noted:

“A few years ago, an historian referred to my novels as ‘archives of true family life during the London blitz of the Second World War’. I hope that’s true, and that, through the simplicity of the stories, current and future generations will have the opportunity to understand what it meant to live through those times.  After all, without knowing about the past, there can be no genuine future.”

In the later years of his life Pemberton retired to Murla, Spain. He was kind enough to autograph copies of his two Doctor Who novels which I mailed to him in 2010.  I consider myself very fortunate that I was able to correspond with Pemberton over the last several years.  He was a wonderful writer, and will definitely be missed.

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In Case You Missed It

I am very grateful to Hannah Givens for linking to my blog in her recent In Case You Missed It post on her excellent blog Hannah Reads Books. Hannah is a very intelligent, insightful blogger, and I have always enjoyed her writings.

I will let Hannah explain how In Case You Missed It works…

So, that’s the idea of the ICYMI (In Case You Missed It) Tag: Go through the past two years of your blog and pick the five posts you most want people to read. Then tag your favorite blogs to do the same — people you’ve lost touch with, new discoveries you’d like to get to know, however you want to do it. Feel free to link back to me, I’d love to see it spreading!

Great idea, Hannah! I’m definitely happy to participate.

In Case You Missed It

Here are five blog posts I’ve written within the last two years with which I was very satisfied:

  1. Our Family by Victor Pemberton – I wrote this piece shortly after my girlfriend Michele’s mother passed away. Pemberton has written a number of excellent historical novels examining family life in England during the first half of the 20th Century. Michele’s mother enjoyed his books, which reminded her of her childhood in Liverpool.
  2. Batman Co-Creator Bill Finger – A brief look at the life & work of legendary comic book writer Bill Finger, who in late 2015 at long last received official recognition as the co-creator of Batman.
  3. Star Wars: The Force Awakens – My review of the much-anticipated first Star Wars movie to be produced by Disney.
  4. Black Lightning Strikes Twice – I take a look at the long-awaited trade paperback reprinting the original Black Lightning comic book written by Tony Isabella and penciled by Trevor Von Eeden in the late 1970s, the first DC Comics series to star an African American superhero.
  5. Celebrating Chanukah with The Thing – Diversity in comic books is important. I examine this from a personal perspective, as I look back at how Ben Grimm, the Thing from the Fantastic Four, was finally revealed to be Jewish.

Here are the excellent blogs that I am tagging:

  • Witches Brew Press – My girlfriend Michele Witchipoo’s wonderful blog about art & music.
  • The Unspoken Decade – Dean Compton’s enjoyable look at the comic books of the 1990s.
  • the m0vie blog – Darren Mooney writes fascinating reviews that examine moves & TV shows within the wider cultural context.
  • Three Cat Yard – The wonderful adventures of housecats in suburbia, with many beautiful photographs.
  • iBLOGalot – J.R. LeMar looks at comic books , TV shows and movies, as well as political & social issues.

I hope everyone will check these out! If I’ve posted a link to your blog, I hope you will also be able to do your own In Case You Missed It post.

 

Our Family by Victor Pemberton

My girlfriend Michele’s mother passed away yesterday morning. This post is being written in her memory.

May Alley was born in Liverpool, England in the 1930s. As a young girl she lived through the horrors of World War II, as the Nazis inflicted their terrifying Blitz upon Great Britain. Following the War the UK experienced a severe economic depression, and May came to the United States in the 1960s to look for work.  Living in New York City she married and eventually gave birth to Michele.

Michele and I have been a couple for almost eight years now. I was fortunate enough to meet May on a number of occasions during this time. She was a very sweet woman.

I was often reminded of May when I read the historical novels of London-born author Victor Pemberton.  I initially knew of Pemberton from his work as a writer and script editor on Doctor Who in the late 1960s.  In fact, Pemberton has had a very diverse career in television, radio, and documentary films.

In 1978 Pemberton wrote the ninety minute radio drama The Trains Don’t Stop Here Anymore, which starred Nerys Hughes and was broadcast by BBC Radio.  It was inspired by the lives of Pemberton’s parents.  The play was followed up in 1987 by two additional installments, Don’t Talk To Me About Kids and Down by the Sea.  In 1990 Pemberton was asked to adapt this trilogy into a novel. That book, Our Family, became the first of 15 historical novels, which Pemberton refers to as his “London saga.”

Our Family by Victor Pemberton

Our Family opens in London during the First World War.  Letty Edgington meets Ollie Hobbs, a soldier recuperating from wounds sustained on the French battlefield.  Letty and Oliver fall in love and, despite their very different socioeconomic backgrounds and the objections of their families, marry.  The novel follows their lives over the succeeding decades, through both good times and bad.

Pemberton invests his characters with real humanity.  They are very much living, feeling individuals.  No one among them is all good or all bad; Pemberton succeeds in finding redemptive qualities in even those people who at first glance would seem completely unlikable.  He delves deep into the minds and souls of Letty, Ollie, their families and friends, revealing what motivates their actions, giving us a real understanding of who they are.

For me, one of the most striking aspects of Our Family was the chapters set during World War II.  I am Jewish, and so when I was growing up I learned about the Holocaust.  Additionally, in college I minored in History.  From my classes on European history, as well as outside reading, I gained some knowledge of the events of the War.

But, truthfully, I never truly understood the terrible experiences on the Home Front in Britain until I read Our Family.  Pemberton’s depiction of the Hobbs family’s struggles to survive through five long years of almost-daily air raids by the Nazi Luftwaffe and subsequent rocket attacks on London, seeing their beloved city turned to rubble, watching innocent civilians die in the terrible bombings, is incredibly powerful.  Pemberton communicates all of this in a way that the matter-of-fact text and still photographs of a history book can never achieve.  I was left with a profound admiration for the British civilians who endured half a decade of the horrors of war.

I also came away from Our Family with a realization of what Michele’s mother went through as a young child as Liverpool was bombed, and an understanding of how decades later May could still be traumatized by those events.

Pemberton chronicles the story of Letty, Ollie, and their children through to the late Twentieth Century. When I reached the end of the novel, it was a sort of bittersweet experience. Throughout the course of the book, I had gotten to know the characters so well, and I was reluctant to part with them.  I almost felt like I knew these people personally.

In 2011, after reading Our Family, I e-mailed Pemberton with some of my thoughts concerning the novel, particularly the chapters set during the War. He was kind enough to respond to my missive:

“As I’m sure you have gathered, I myself lived through the horrors of the London blitz, and it is a period in my life that I shall never forget. In many ways, writing those fifteen saga novels, most of them set during that war, has been an attempt by me to exorcise those terrible times from my mind, but the memories still linger, especially the dark moments of sudden death in one’s own family, and the appalling destruction wreaked on the civilian population.

“Yes, Our Family is basically the story of my own family through the ages, Letty and Oliver were my own parents, and Mick is me. Ninety-eight percent of the story is true, and I look back at it with a mixture of affection, bewilderment, amusement, and sadness, the same, I imagine, as with so many other families.”

Pemberton’s novel is a stirring narrative that left me deeply moved. I highly recommend it.

Our Street by Victor Pemberton

The second book in Pemberton’s London saga, entitled Our Street, is also a very heartfelt work. The novel chronicles the friendship between Elsa, an elderly German Jewish refugee, and Frankie, a teenage boy (a fictionalized version of Pemberton himself), in 1940s London.

Although it is not quite as easy to find a copy of Our Street here in the States, it is worth tracking down, as well.  A number of web sites have used copies for sale.

By accident I purchased two different copies of Our Street through used online booksellers. I gave one of them to May, who was a voracious reader. Michele subsequently informed me that her mother had enjoyed the novel, and that it reminded her of her own childhood. I hope that I was able to bring her some small measure of happiness with that gift.

It has been a few years since I read both Our Family and Our Street. I hope to have the opportunity to read them again in the near future. Pemberton’s rich writing is well worth experiencing a second time.

Star Wars reviews: Splinter of the Mind’s Eye

With Star Wars: The Force Awakens arriving in theaters this December, I’m examining some of the Star Wars comic books and novels of the past.  Today’s post looks at the very first entry in what is now referred to as the “expanded universe.”   Splinter of the Mind’s Eye was written by Alan Dean Foster and published in February 1978, eight months after the debut of the original movie.

Splinter of the Minds Eye novel cover

Foster’s novel opens shortly after the events of A New Hope.  Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia Organa, accompanied by the droids R2-D2 and C-3P0, are traveling to the fourth planet in the Circarpous system.  They hope to convince the inhabitants of Circarpous IV to join the Rebel Alliance.

Before they can arrive at their destination, Leia’s spacecraft develops a malfunction.  They are forced to head towards the fifth planet, Mimban, an inhospitable swamp world.  A sudden electrical storm causes both Leia and Luke’s ships to violently crash-land.  After days of slogging through treacherous swamp, the two Rebels and their droids come across a human settlement. Unfortunately it is an Imperial installation; the Galactic Empire is secretly mining the planet’s mineral wealth.

Stealing mine uniforms, Luke and Leia visit the town saloon.  They meet Halla, an elderly woman who possesses a slight affinity for the Force.  Halla is seeking the Kaiburr Crystal, a red jewel that “increases one’s perception of the Force.”  The crystal is thought to be a myth, but Halla has acquired directions to the ancient native temple where it is supposedly located, as well as an actual shard of the crystal (the eponymous “splinter of the mind’s eye”).  Luke touches the shard, and his connection to the Force confirms that it is genuine.

Halla makes a deal with Luke and Leia: if they assist her in locating the Crystal, she will help them steal a spaceship to escape Mimban.  Before plans can be made, Luke and Leia get into a brawn with a group of drunken miners and are arrested by Stormtroopers.  The two are brought before the planet’s Imperial overseer, Captain-Supervisor Grammel.

While suspicious of their claim to be criminals fleeing from Circarpous IV, Grammel is intrigued by the crystal shard Luke and Leia possess.  He orders them locked up and contacts his superior, Governor Essada, who possesses some knowledge of crystals and minerals, hoping to obtain an assessment of the splinter’s value.  Essada unfortunately recognizes Leia from the security photo Grammel sends him, and the Governor orders the two to be held until someone can be dispatched to interrogate them.

Luke and Leia are placed in a cell with two large hairy aliens known as Yuzzem.  Hin and Kee have been jailed for drunk & disorderly conduct, having caused a major ruckus after they realized they were unable to get out of their indentured servitude to the Empire.  Luke convinces the angry, hung-over Yuzzem that he and Leia are also enemies of the Empire.

At that point Halla pops up at the window of their cell.  She combines her minor Force abilities with Luke’s, and the two of them levitate a food tray between the bars, using it to activate the switch for the cell door.  The prisoners make a break for it, with Him and Kee causing tremendous destruction.  They rendezvous with Halla and the droids, steal a swamp crawler, and flee the settlement.

Heading out in search of the Kaiburr Crystal, the seven fugitives encounter numerous dangers in the swampy wilderness.  Luke eventually realizes that they face another fearsome adversary: Darth Vader has arrived on Mimban searching for the Rebels.  The Sith Lord also recognizes the significance of the Crystal and seeks it to augment his dark powers.

Splinter of the Minds Eye TPB cover

Alan Dean Foster was involved in the Star Wars universe from very early on.  When the first movie was still in production he was hired by George Lucas to ghost write a novelization based on an early draft of the script.  Foster was also contracted to write an original novel that could serve as a sequel.  Lucas was uncertain if Star Wars would be successful, and he instructed Foster to devise a story that could be shot on a small budget, using as much of the existing props and costumes as possible.  From this directive Foster devised Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, with its relatively small cast and its setting on a dark swampy planet.

Of course, as we all know, Star Wars was a gigantic success, and Lucas was able to make a very ambitious sequel, The Empire Strikes Back.  Nevertheless, although Splinter of the Mind’s Eye was never filmed it is still a good read, an interesting link between the two movies.

Even working within the constraints given him, Foster writes an entertaining novel with exciting action sequences.  There is a cinematic quality to Foster’s writing that definitely brings these scenes to life.  The novel culminates in a riveting lightsaber battle between Luke and Vader in the ruined Temple of Pomojema for possession of the Kaiburr Crystal.

Written as it was in 1977, there are inevitably a few aspects of the novel that don’t fit the later canon too neatly.  There’s no indication that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father.  Some of Foster’s dialogue for Vader seems a bit off, at least considering how the character was subsequently scripted in the next two movies.

Foster includes sexual tension between Luke and Leia, as this was well before Lucas revealed (or perhaps even decided) that they were brother and sister.  Commenting on this in 1996, Foster stated “the tension in the book between Luke and Princess Leia works even better in hindsight, now that they can be seen as squabbling siblings ignorant of their true relationship.”  I suppose you could argue that.  At least Foster didn’t show the two of them actually kissing, unlike that now-unfortunate smooch on Hoth a couple years later!

On the other hand, Splinter of the Mind’s Eye actually forecasts certain elements of the series.  I wonder if Lucas was influenced by it when writing the sequels and prequels.  Mimban is very much like the planet Dagobah.  During the battle in the Temple, Vader uses something similar to the “Force lightning” later utilized by the Emperor.

An interesting thing occurs towards the end of the novel.  When the group arrives at the Temple, Luke leaves R2-D2 and C-3P0 outside to keep watch.  Later, when Vader appears, surprising them, the Sith explains “As for your ‘droids, they are conditioned to obey orders. I had them turn themselves off.”  When Luke reactivates them, a panicked C-3P0 tells him “We couldn’t escape him. He knew all the proper code words and commands.”

The first time I read Splinter of the Mind’s Eye in 1989 this was puzzling.  How could Vader possibly know how to shut down R2-D2 and C-3P0?  Of course, once the prequels came out, this made perfect sense, as we found out that C-3P0 was built by Anakin Skywalker, and R2-D2 was his astromech droid during the Clone Wars.  So of course decades later Vader would know how to deactivate both of them.  Again, I wonder if Lucas got the idea of tying Anakin / Vader to the two droids from Foster’s novel.

One of the weak points of the original Star Wars was that we never saw the events of the movie having any sort of lasting impact on Leia.  The way that Lucas filmed the scene setting up Leia’s interrogation by the Empire, it is very strongly implied that they are going to do something horrifying to her.  But the next time we see her she is seemingly unharmed and defiant.  Likewise, the destruction of Leia’s home planet of Alderaan is almost shrugged off by Leia.

Foster addresses this in his novel.  Leia has been hardened by her experiences.  Luke is aghast at the carnage and bloodshed of their battles with the Empire, but the more cynical Leia grimly accepts it as an unfortunate necessity.  While imprisoned by the Empire on Mimban, Leia finds out from Grammel that an Imperial Governor will soon be arriving to question her.  Her immediate reaction is uncontrollable panic as she flashes back to her ordeal on the Death Star.  Leia soon recovers her composure, but it is apparent that she still carries psychological scars from that experience.

The cover for Splinter of the Mind’s Eye was painted by Ralph McQuarrie, the artist who played a significant role in devising the look of the Star Wars universe, designing many of the characters and sets for the original trilogy.  His atmospheric rendering of a stunned Luke and Leia witnessing Vader’s arrival at the Temple of Pomojema is now an iconic image.

Splinter of the Minds Eye TPB pg 32

In 1996 Dark Horse published a four issue comic book adaptation of Splinter of the Mind’s Eye written & inked by Terry Austin and penciled by Chris Sprouse.  The miniseries was collected in a trade paperback with a cover by Duncan Fegredo.  Alan Dean Foster contributed an introduction.

It’s interesting to observe the choices Austin made in adapting a 300 page prose novel into a 97 page graphic novel.  A certain amount of condensing of scenes and dialogue was required.  Austin did a good job at keeping the important plot and character elements while working within a smaller length.

Austin took advantage of the fact that he was working in 1996 to add a few elements from subsequent movies.  Darth Vader is given a couple of short scenes that precede his original introduction more than three quarters of the way into the original novel.  In these Austin gives glimpses of Captain Piett, the flagship Executor, and an Imperial shuttlecraft arriving on Mimban.

Sprouse does wonderful work bringing the elements of the novel to life.  His designs for Halla, the Yuzzem, the giant swamp worm Wandrella, the native tribe of the Coway, and the Temple are all very effective.  Sprouse has always done good work on sci-fi / pulp-themed series, most notably Legion of Super-Heroes and Tom Strong.  That makes him a great fit for the Star Wars universe.

Austin is, of course, one of the all-time greatest inkers / embellishers in comic books.  As good as Sprouse’s penciling is on the Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, Austin’s inking makes it even more amazing.  Their styles mesh very well indeed, and their adaptation of Foster’s novel is wonderful.

Monsters Who’s Who

It can be a mixed experience revisiting a piece of your childhood, equal parts joy and surprise.

I’ve been a fan of science fiction and horror and monsters ever since I was a kid in the early 1980s.  As I’ve mentioned before, I was definitely a geek.  I didn’t have many friends; instead most of my free time was taken up by books and movies and cartoons.

The school library at Davis Elementary in New Rochelle had a handful of books about monsters, the kinds from movies, the ones from myth, and the supposedly-real creatures hiding just out of sight.  These were a real pleasure for me, a momentary escape from the tedium of homework and book reports.

One of the books from the library was Monsters Who’s Who, published in 1974 by Crescent Books.  It was a huge illustrated encyclopedia containing profiles on a diverse selection of strange, scary beings… at least that’s how I remembered it.  I hadn’t seen that book in literally decades, but last week on a whim I decided to see if it happened to be on Amazon.  Much to my surprise there were quite a few used copies available dirt cheap.  I ordered one for a mere 84 cents… plus $3.99 shipping & handling.  You have to laugh when postage is more than four times what you’re paying for the book!

I was working in the lab late one night when my eyes beheld an eerie sight...

I was working in the lab late one night when my eyes beheld an eerie sight…

The book arrived in the mail, and with it were a couple of surprises.  The first was that it had a completely intact dust jacket.  I’d never seen the cover before; the school library copy was missing the jacket.  It’s actually a rather nice illustration.

As for the second surprise… hey, wasn’t this book much bigger?!?  When I was a kid Monsters Who’s Who seemed immense!  My memory of it was that it was a huge, thick volume.  Instead the reality is that it measures 11 by 8.5 inches and is only 122 pages.

Oh, yeah, after all these years I’ve finally learned just who wrote Monsters Who’s Who.  Seriously, there’s no author credit inside the book itself.  But the front flat of the dust jacket reveals that it was penned by none other than Dulan Barber!  Um, wait… who?!?  That has got to be a pseudonym.

Okay, putting aside my unreliable 30 year old memories of Monsters Who’s Who, it actually is a neat book.  I’m not at all surprised that I was so interested in it when I was a kid.  It contains a really diverse selection of subjects.  Yes, the write-ups are for the most part extremely short.  But the photos & illustrations are great.

Among the absolutely-fictional entities profiled in Monsters Who’s Who are such iconic figures as Dracula, Frankenstein, the Phantom of the Opera, King Kong and Godzilla.  A variety of mythological creatures including the Chimera, the Hydra, Medusa, the Sphinx and the Unicorn are also found in these pages.  Third, there are the real and possibly-real beings, such as dinosaurs, the Loch Ness Monster and the Yeti.

Some of the profiles of mythical beasts are accompanied by very old artwork.  Very few of them are credited, regrettably, but they are certainly beautiful.  And occasionally you have an odd piece like this one…

Who's a good doggie? Who's a good boy?

Who’s a good doggie? Who’s a good boy?

This might have been the first occasion when I heard of Cerberus, the fearsome three-headed dog that guards the entrance to the Greek underworld.  Even at eight years old I found this illustration to be not so much fearsome as forlorn.  All three of Cerberus’ heads wear a sad expression, as if they want nothing more than to receive a nice tummy rub!

There are also a few comic book characters, specifically from the pages of Marvel Comics.  I had forgotten that Monsters Who’s Who was the first time I ever learned of the oddball Incredible Hulk character known as the Bi-Beast.  The Hulk himself also has a profile in the book.

Actually, the writer plays very fast & loose with the term “monster.”  The Fantastic Four and Spider-Man (spelled as “Spiderman”) have entries in this book.  Admittedly this does make a certain amount of sense.  The early Marvel universe devised by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko was definitely a weird, unsettling place populated by strange beings which did not neatly fall into the categories of “good” and “bad.”

Made it, Ma! Top of the world!

Made it, Ma! Top of the world!

There were also a few profiles of Doctor Who monsters!  Seriously, the timing of me discovering Monsters Who’s Who in the school library was perfect.  I’m not totally certain, but I think it was in 1984 when I was eight years old.  I had just started watching Doctor Who on PBS station WLIW Channel 21 only a couple of months before, first seeing the final season of Tom Baker and then the beginning of Peter Davison’s run.  Finding this book right on the heels of that helped me understand that the show had been around for quite a few years, and that the Doctor had fought some interesting monsters in the past.  I remember wondering if any of them would ever show up in the episodes I was now watching.

It must have been only a week or so later and I was at home one weeknight watching Doctor Who.  The TARDIS had landed in some dark caves.  A bunch of soldiers armed with ray guns were searching for something, not realizing that they were being hunted by these two mysterious androids.  Next thing you know the soldiers had come across the Doctor and his companions.  After the usual misunderstanding where they assumed the Doctor was their enemy, they joined forces when those androids showed up and started shooting.

And then the episode came to a completely shocking cliffhanger ending when the beings controlling the androids were revealed… at which point my eyes jumped out of my head.  Silver robot-like creatures with handles on the sides of their heads?  There’d been a photo of them in Monster Who’s Who, hadn’t there?  Oh, how I wished I had the book beside me at that moment!  The next day at school during lunch I broke land speed records getting to the library, grabbed Monsters Who’s Who off its bookshelf, and flipped rapidly through it.  Yes, it was them!  It was the Cybermen!

Destroy them! Destroy them at once!

Destroy them! Destroy them at once!

That was my very first Doctor Who related geek-out.  Obviously it left a major impression on me to remember it so vividly 32 years later.  I know I was equally thrilled when that night episode two of “Earthshock” aired on WLIW and contained actual clips from old Doctor Who stories.

I think that in the 21st Century we often take for granted the immense amount of information that we have at our fingertips.  Just hop on any computer, or turn on your smart phone, and within minutes you can Google any subject or look it up on Wikipedia.  You can download old movies and television shows with little effort.  It’s very easy to forget how things were in the pre-digital, pre-internet age, when discovering a book like Monsters Who’s Who was like unearthing a geek goldmine.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to start with one of those “when I was your age” tirades.  I am not that bad.  Well, at least not yet!  Nevertheless it is nice to recall some of my more pleasant childhood memories.  Just me and some monsters taking a stroll thru the past.

John Waters gets Carsick

I did not become a fan of the work of writer & director John Waters until about seven years ago.  Shortly after I began dating Michele in 2008, I finally watched some of Waters’ movies from the 1970s.  Michele is a long-time fan of the so-called “Pope of Trash” and she showed me his cult classics at the first opportunity.  I found his work both shocking and hysterical.

Last month Waters was doing a talk and signing at The Powerhouse Arena in Brooklyn to promote the paperback release of his latest book Carsick.  I immediately jumped at the opportunity to meet the famed (or should that be infamous?) filmmaker.  Michele had already met him several years before at a previous book signing but she was happy to come along.

Carsick is subtitled John Waters Hitchhikes Across America, and that is exactly what it is about.  In 2012 the then 66 year old Waters came up with the oddball idea of thumbing rides from Baltimore to San Francisco, to see what sorts of people he’d meet & experiences he’d have, and then to write a book about it.

John Waters Carsick cover

In addition to recounting his actual experiences, Waters indulges in quite a bit of fiction.  Prior to starting his journey west, Waters wrote the first two parts of Carsick, entitled “The Best That Could Happen” and “The Worst That Could Happen.”  He hypothesizes about what would be the ideal cross-country journey, as well as pondering the most horrible things that could possibly take place.

In that first part Waters effortlessly finds one ride after another and each driver is the epitome of awesome: a millionaire pot dealer, a contestant in a demolition derby, the world’s coolest bank robber, a traveling carnival, and so on.  Conversely, in the second installment the absolute most awful events occur as Waters get picked up by a succession of freaks, among them an alcoholic, a demented fan of his movies, a serial killer groupie, a militant vegetarian, and a fanatical animal rights activist.

It amazes me that a few people asked Waters if any what occurred in these parts actually took place.  He explained in his foreword that the first two thirds of the book are fiction, but I suppose some readers could have skipped that part.  However, you’d think that they would have realized that this was made-up right around the point where Waters gets abducted by a spaceship full of horny homosexual aliens!

These two segments of Carsick feel very much they could be from an unproduced screenplay.  Waters is still a brilliantly twisted writer, with a real ear for memorably offensive dialogue.  I think that perhaps the tone of his screenplays meant that they were very effective in his underground films of the 1970s and early 80s.  In contrast, Waters’ more recent movie, the over-the-top, sexually explicit A Dirty Shame (2004), did not come together as well because the larger budget, well-known actors and slick production values seemed decidedly at odds with his subversive, irreverent sensibilities.

Keeping that in mind, Carsick actually works better than some of Waters’ latter forays into motion pictures.  His wit is still sharp, his imagination as warped as ever.  Reading the book I easily pictured in my mind’s eye his vignettes as being filmed fast & loose on a shoestring budget, just like in the old days.

Anyone who has ever seen Waters’ movies is undoubtedly aware that he delights in putting his characters through all manner of weird, obscene, and just plain awful experiences.  It’s interesting to discover that he’s willing to put his fictional self through exactly the same sorts of misadventures and humiliations.  For all his namedropping and self-promotion, Waters also undoubtedly possesses a very self-deprecating wit.

John Waters Carsick photo

The third and final part of Carsick is titled “The Real Thing” and, yes, it recounts what actually took place when Waters was hitchhiking.  Real life is never all-good or all-bad, so Waters’ journey is somewhere in-between the exciting adventures he envisioned in “The Best” and the terrors he conjured up in “The Worst.”  He ends up waiting long hours at a time for rides, often while stuck in torrential downpours or stifling heat.  The drivers who do eventually pick him up are not the awesome oddballs of his fantasies, but neither are they the criminally insane motorists of his nightmares.  They were for the most part nice, friendly and normal.

So in the end Waters met some interesting people from across the country and had a once-in-a-lifetime experience.  He definitely does an entertaining job recounting his journey.

If you are a fan of Waters’ movies then I expect that you will find Carsick to be an enjoyable read.  It is funny and offensive and at times surprisingly sentimental.  It has some of the feel of Waters’ early classics such as Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, Desperate Living and Polyester.  One of my favorite lines from Carsick is “My asshole is doing a duet with Connie Francis!”  That should give you a pretty good idea of the tone of the book!

By the way, the cover artwork for Carsick is by Kagan McLeod, whose work I’ve previously seen in comic books and a number of magazines & newspapers.  It’s a nice piece.  McLeod captures Waters’ likeness as well as his larger-than-life personality.

Doctor Who: Let’s do the Time War again

“You weren’t there in the final days of the War. You never saw what was born. But if the time lock’s broken, then everything’s coming through. Not just the Daleks, but the Skaro Degradations, the Horde of Travesties, the Nightmare Child, the Could-Have-Been King with his army of Meanwhiles and Neverweres. The War turned into hell. And that’s what you’ve opened, right above the Earth. Hell is descending.” – The Tenth Doctor, “The End of Time”

When Doctor Who returned to television in 2005, viewers were informed that the Doctor was apparently the last of the Time Lords.  All the other members of his race had apparently died fighting the Daleks in a vast, apocalyptic, realty-rending conflict known as the Time War.

Truthfully, the basic function of the Time War was to sweep the decks of the mountains of continuity that had accumulated during the original run of Doctor Who on television from 1963 to 1989.  It enabled showrunner Russell T Davies to start with a clean slate.  He was able to streamline things without having to resort to rebooting the series from scratch.  It worked elegantly in that regard.

The Time War also allowed Davies and his collaborators to offer a new perspective on the character of the Doctor.  The time traveler was now a haunted, battle-scarred figure suffering from survivor’s guilt and the knowledge that in order to save existence he had been the one to finally bring an end to the carnage of the War.

Of course inevitably viewers were curious to know what exactly had taken place during this infamous Time War.  Hints and allusions to the events were peppered throughout various episodes over the next several years, but we never actually saw any part of the conflict itself.  I believe that at one point Davies joked that he’d have needed a one hundred million dollar budget to bring the Time War to television screens.

Besides, much of what the Doctor mentioned, such as his recitation of the myriad horrors of the Time War in“The End of Time,” sounded like the sort of abstract, surrealist nightmares that would probably have been impossible to convincingly depict on TV.  When we were finally granted a glimpse of the War by Steven Moffat in “The Day of the Doctor” it was presented as a more straightforward conflict, with a billion Dalek spaceships laying siege to Gallifrey.  Which, of course, was still pretty damn dramatic.

We eventually learned that a previously unrevealed incarnation of the Doctor portrayed by John Hurt, the so-called “War Doctor,” was the one who fought in the Time War.  The conflict had apparently spanned centuries, during which the War Doctor became a weary old man.  Barring the use of archival footage of Hurt as a younger man, it would be impossible to show most of the War Doctor’s experiences.

Having said all that, I’ve often thought that the Time War would be perfect to present in comic book form.  After all, the only limit on what can be shown in comic books is the imaginations of the writers & artists.  I even thought of the perfect creative team: Grant Morrison and Richard Case, the writer and penciler who crafted many bizarre, nightmarish, reality-twisting stories during their run on Doom Patrol from 1989 to 1992.  Just imagine the creators who brought us such peculiar menaces as the Brotherhood of Dada, the Painting That Ate Paris, the Scissormen and the Candlemaker depicting the freakish, horrifying events of the Time War.

Engines of War

However, it never did occur to me that prose fiction would also be another medium in which to recount the events of the Time War, at least not until I spotted the novel Engines of War by George Mann for sale at Forbidden Planet.  I immediately grabbed it off the shelf, bought it, and started reading it.

Engines of War is told from the point of view of Cinder, a 21 year old freedom fighter from the human colony of Moldox.  Her name comes from the color of her hair, and from the fact that she was found among the burning embers of her home 14 years earlier after her entire family was wiped out by the Daleks.  Moldox and the other worlds in the Tantalus Spiral have been conquered by the Daleks, the majority of the colonists either exterminated or captured to serve as slave labor or experimental subjects.  Cinder is one of the few humans to have remained free, eking out a hard-scrabble existence among the ruins, fighting a hopeless guerilla war against their conquerors.

Then, very unexpectedly, the Doctor comes into Cinder’s life, his TARDIS shot down during a space battle.  Much like Cass from “The Night of the Doctor,” Cinder is initially angry at and frightened by him, believing the Time Lords to be just as bad as the Daleks.  However, her desperation to escape the desolation of Moldox is so great that she tentatively lowers her guard when the Doctor offers to take her out of the warzone and to safety.

Mann does excellent work developing the character of Cinder, and writing her interactions with the Doctor.  Contemplating the idea of something other than the day-to-day struggle for survival against the Daleks that has consumed much of her existence, Cinder starts to recognize the possibilities that life might offer.

For the War Doctor, so long involved in the war against the Daleks, Cinder is apparently his first extended interaction with humanity since his regeneration.  At first he is hesitant to take upon himself the responsibility for her well-being.  Like Cinder, the Doctor had resigned himself to the role of a warrior in a seemingly-endless conflict.  Now, once again traveling with a companion, however reluctantly, he begins to let down his guard, to care.  Cinder offers him an opportunity to reconsider his conviction that he no longer has the right to call himself “Doctor.”

The style of Mann’s prose reminded me of Terrance Dick’s work on the numerous Doctor Who novelizations.  Mann’s writing seems directed at the teenage reader, but it is certainly sophisticated enough that adults will also appreciate it.  Early on he succinctly describes the awesome, incomprehensible scope of the conflict:

Cinder had heard that in simple, linear terms, the war had been going on for over four hundred years. This, of course, was an untruth, or at least an irrelevance; the temporal war zones had permeated so far and so deep into the very structure of the universe that the conflict had – quite literally – been raging for eternity. There was no epoch that remained unscathed, uncontested, no history that had not been rewritten.

Of course, considering that it is set amidst the Time War, the book offers up plenty of examples of what Mystery Science Theater 3000 once described as “good old fashioned nightmare fuel.”  There is some really dark stuff between these covers.

A War Doctor's Tale courtesy of Simon Hodges  / Doctor Who Sidebar Covers

A War Doctor’s Tale courtesy of Simon Hodges / Doctor Who Sidebar Covers

Before the Doctor can take Cinder to safety, he needs to learn what the Daleks are up to on Moldox and the other worlds in the Spiral.  Reluctantly the young human guides him to the nearest occupied city.  The Doctor is horrified to discover that the Daleks have harnessed the energy of the Eye of Tantalus, a vast temporal anomaly contained within the Spiral, and used it to create weapons that erase their victims from history.  Not only will an army of Daleks be equipped with the dematerialization guns, but the Eye itself is to be turned into a single massive weapon which will be used to wipe the Time Lord home world of Gallifrey from existence.

The Doctor travels to Gallifrey to alert the High Council to the Daleks’ plans, bringing Cinder with him.  Through her eyes, we see just how much the conflict has affected them.  The Time Lords had always been aloof, arrogant figures.  Now, driven to desperation by their war with the Daleks, the Doctor’s people have become utterly ruthless.  When the Lord President Rassilon is informed of the danger in the Tantalus Spiral, he immediately decides to utilize a stellar engineering device known as the Tear of Isha to neutralize the Eye.  The Doctor, however, realizes that this will wipe out all life in the Spiral, including the billions of humans imprisoned by the Daleks.

Cinder felt her heart lurch in her chest. She felt suddenly nauseous. They were going to do it. They were really going to murder every single living thing on a dozen worlds.

“Rassilon,” said the Doctor, clearly exacerbated. “You’re condemning a billion souls to a terrible death. More. How can you even consider it?”

“What are a billion human lives to us, Doctor?” said Rassilon. “They are but motes of sand on the breeze. They breed like a virus, infesting every corner of the universe. Where some die, others will take their place.”

There are several scenes in the novel featuring the Doctor and Rassilon sparring verbally.  Reading them, I was left longing for an actual live-action version of Engines of War.  It would be brilliant to have John Hurt and Timothy Dalton acting opposite one another, reciting all of this wonderfully dramatic dialogue.

Doctor Who Rassilon

The Doctor and Cinder realize that not only must they stop the Daleks, but also the Time Lords.  With both sides of the conflict in opposition to them, the odds seem near-insurmountable.

There are a number of excellent moments throughout Engines of War.  Even though the hierarchy of the Time Lords has become inured to the violence, to the cataclysmic loss of life, Mann indicates that the citizens of Gallifrey are genuinely frightened by the War.  At one point, looking over the landscape of the Time Lord capital, Cinder observes hundreds of tiny lights drifting up into the night sky.

“What are they?” said Cinder. “Paper lanterns?”

The Doctor shook his head. “No, although the principle is the same. Those are memory lanterns.”

“Memory lanterns?” echoed Cinder.

The Doctor glanced at her. “They all think they’re going to die,” he said. “All those people down there think the Daleks are coming for them, and that they’re going to be exterminated.” He sighed, and the weariness in his expression spoke volumes. “So they’re recording all of their thoughts and memories into those lanterns, and scattering them through time and space. It’s the last act of a desperate people. They’re terrified that they’re going to be forgotten, so they’re seeding themselves into all the distant corners of the universe to be remembered.”

I am curious about how much knowledge Mann had of the work that Moffat and his co-writers were doing on Series Eight when he was penning this novel.  There are certain parallels.  In “The Caretaker” the Doctor expressed his disdain for soldiers.  In response, Danny Pink declared “I’m a soldier. Guilty as charged. You see him? He’s an officer!”  Indeed, when we first see the Doctor in Engines of War, he is piloting his unarmed TARDIS, leading a large assembly of heavily-armed Battle TARDISes in an engagement with a Dalek fleet, organizing strategy, calling out orders to his fellow Time Lords; he is very much an officer.

At the end of Series Eight, in “Death in Heaven” Danny bitterly commented of the Doctor, “Typical officer, got to keep those hands clean.”   That is a theme that also runs throughout Engines of War.  Despite the fact that he has ostensibly embraced the role of warrior, the Doctor carries no weapons, only his sonic screwdriver.  On both Moldox and Gallifrey he relies on Cinder to destroy Daleks and knock out Time Lord security guards.  At one point, Rassilon’s obsequious lackey Karlax subjects Cinder to brutal interrogation by the Mind Probe, as much to verify the Doctor’s story as to fulfill his own sadistic glee.  Cinder barely survives…

She gasped for air.  “He’ll kill you,” she said, between shallow breaths. “He’ll kill you for this.”

Karlax laughed. “Oh no, not the Doctor,” he said. “The Doctor and I are old playmates. He doesn’t like to get his hands dirty.”

Mann also addresses the suggestion made by Davies that “Genesis of the Daleks,” when the Time Lords dispatched the Doctor back in time to abort the creation of the Daleks and he hesitated at committing genocide, was actually the first shot fired in the Time War.  Early on, seeing the horrific loss of life on Moldox, witnessing the atrocities being committed by the Daleks, the Doctor is burdened by the knowledge that if not for his indecision on Skaro many years before he might have prevented all this from occurring.

Towards the end of the novel, the Doctor and Cinder come face to face with the Eternity Circle, the group of Daleks tasked by the Emperor with developing the temporal weapons.  The head of the Circle explicitly refers to the Doctor’s presence at the birth of the Daleks

“Ah,” said the Dalek. “The beginning of the Time War. The moment that you, Doctor, taught the Daleks their most valuable lesson of all —  that emotion is a weakness that must be eradicated. That mercy has no place in victory.”

“Not a weakness,” said the Doctor, “but a strength.”

“If it had not been for your hesitation,” said the Dalek, its tone derisory, “for your inability to do what was necessary, then the entire War could have been prevented. The Daleks would have ceased to exist.”

Engines of War is very much concerned with explaining exactly how the Doctor arrived at the point seen in “The Day of the Doctor.”  What was it that finally drove him to solemnly declare, “No more,” to decide to utilize the Moment and wipe out the whole of the Time Lords and the Daleks?  What was it that convinced him that there was no other choice?

War Doctor

Mann shows us a Doctor who, as the story opens, is already burned out, bone-weary from an unending nightmare conflict.  And then he is faced with further horrors as both the Daleks and his own people pile atrocities upon one another, and each side reigns down scorn & mockery upon him for his perceived weakness and lack of resolve.  When the novel finally comes to a close with the Doctor experiencing yet another soul-rending loss, you can fully imagine that this is a man who just wants it all to end, who will do anything to stop it, who will tell the Moment Interface “I have no desire to survive this.”

If there is a weakness to Engines of War, it is that perhaps it references the history of the series a little too heavily.  It is inevitable that any novel set during the Time War is going to require allusions to a number of past events.  Nevertheless, the nods to specific televised Doctor Who stories do come quite frequently.  While for the most part Mann is able to fit them in seamlessly, on occasion they do feel superfluous.  By the time a character starts playing the Harp of Rassilon, well, I couldn’t help but feel that Mann was overdoing it just a bit!

Well, aside from that, and from events jumping back and forth between the different settings, Engines of War is a good read.  Mann effectively delves into a previously little-explored period of the Doctor’s life.  He is successful at not just conveying the cosmic scope of events only previously hinted at on the television series, but at utilizing them to explore the character of the Doctor.  Mann also examines how a conflict that rages across myriad planes of reality would affect the average mortal person on the ground, viewing the staggering events of the Time War through Cinder’s eyes.

As I indicated earlier, for a variety of reasons it is very unlikely that we will ever be provided an in-depth look at the Time War on our television screens.  Nevertheless, that conflict provides a rich backdrop against which to tell engrossing stories in other mediums.  Engines of War by George Mann undoubtedly proves that potential.