Doctor Who reviews: The Lovecraft Invasion

The audio play Doctor Who: The Lovecraft Invasion was released by Big Finish in late July. However, given some of the subject matter, with Halloween right around the corner, now is certainly an appropriate time to discuss it.

Written by Robert Valentine and starring Colin Baker as the Doctor, The Lovecraft Invasion begins in medias res, with the Doctor and companions Flip Jackson and Constance Clarke, accompanied by bounty hunter Calypso Jonze, fleeing through the corridors of Titan Base in the 51st Century. As always, the Doctor and friends reach the TARDIS just in the nick of time, but they have a formidable task ahead of them. The Somnifax, a mind-parasite capable of turning its host’s nightmares into physical reality, has escaped Titan and is fleeing simultaneously into the solar system and back in time.

The Doctor tracks the Somnifax to Earth, specifically Providence, Rhode Island in January 1937. The parasite has entered the mind of weird fiction writer Howard Philips Lovecraft, drawn to him by both his fantastically bizarre imagination and his virulent xenophobia. The combination of these two elements will enable the Somnifax to manifest unspeakably destructive nightmares with which to wipe out humanity.

Jones, who has been tracking the Somnifax, has technology that temporarily inhibits the Somnifax’s ability to manifest Lovecraft’s fantasies, but unless the parasite voluntarily leaves there is no way to trap it. The Doctor and Flip utilize Jonze’ technology to enter Lovecraft’s mind and fight the Somnifax in the mental landscape.

H.P. Lovecraft (August 20, 1890 to March 15, 1937) met with very limited success during his own lifetime, but posthumously became one of the most hugely influential figures of 20th Century horror and science fiction. Lovecraft’s so-called “Cthulhu Mythos,” with its eldritch abominations, ancient forbidden texts and themes of existential cosmic horror, has served to inspire innumerable writers and artists over the past 70 years.

That being said, Lovecraft is also a very problematic figure. Throughout his correspondence he regularly espoused extremely racist views.  Within his fiction the repeated threats of humanity being physically and ideologically corrupted, of being replaced by “the Other,” is heavily influenced by his own personal fears of miscegenation and immigration destroying the Anglo-Saxon race and culture in Europe and North America.

As this story itself points out, Lovecraft is one of those writers who people often discover in their teenage years, enthusiastically devouring his works, only to subsequently learn of his reprehensible real-world ideologies.  Such was my experience. Reading Lovecraft’s stories in middle school, I found them both brilliant and terrifying. My enthusiasm for him was later dampened when I learned more about the man himself.

I read the hell out of this book when I was 14 years old

The Lovecraft Invasion feels like a very timely work, and not just in addressing the reprehensibility of racism.  It delves headlong into the question over whether or not it is possible to separate the writer from his or her writings.  The Lovecraft Invasion was recorded by Big Finish on 29-30 January 2020, at which point the debate over Cancel Culture was already raging, but in subsequent months it greatly intensified due to such occurrences as Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling making remarks that many regarded as transphobic.

Within the audio play itself, the Doctor offers his own (fictional) example of disenchantment, relating how in later life he learned that one of his favorite childhood authors went around blowing up entire planets for a hobby, and afterwards the Doctor found he was unable to revisit the books he had once enjoyed.  Awareness of the author’s real-world activities had forever poisoned those books for the Doctor.

I do not know if there is a definitive answer to be had to this debate.  I think probably it needs to be left up to the individual to decide for himself or herself whether, having learned unpleasant facts about a creative individual, they can still enjoy the works of art that person created.

While I do appreciate how vehement and well-articulated the Doctor’s rebuttal of Lovecraft’s bigotry is, I wonder if perhaps the story is a bit hard on the man. It could have been observed within the story that even though Lovecraft’s views were reprehensible, he was hardly an outlier. The unfortunate fact is that he was actually very typical of his time, and a great many Americans in the 1930s possessed strongly racist and anti-Semitic beliefs.

Nevertheless, Valentine’s script does not make Lovecraft a wholly unsympathetic figure. He is shown to be a man haunted by the fact that both of his parents died in an insane asylum, and terrified that he is destined to follow that horrifying path himself.  And in the end Calypso realizes Lovecraft is a figure not to be hated, but rather pitied.

Like it says in the Necronomicon, “Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn” … nope, sorry, Google Translate hasn’t got a clue!

One aspect setup of The Lovecraft Invasion feels that Robert Valentine drawing a deliberate contrast against both the real-world figure of Lovecraft and his fiction. There were practically no female characters in Lovecraft’s fiction, the majority of his protagonists being middle-aged conservative, celibate scholars.  In this audio play the Doctor is traveling with two women, Flip and Constance. A third woman, Calypso Jonze, joins them.

Coming from the far-distant future of circa 5000 AD, Calypso identifies as a mixed race, pansexual, trans, non-binary individual with extraterrestrial ancestors. Valentine acknowledged that he created Jonze to embody literally everything which terrified Lovecraft.

So, while the Doctor and Flip are exploring Lovecraft’s subconscious mind, in the real world Constance and Calypso, two assertive, independent women are left to look after him, and to challenge his attitudes towards both race and gender.

Miranda Raison, Colin Baker and Lisa Greenwood

The cast of The Lovecraft Invasion all do good work. In the past I have often commented on how much I liked Colin Baker’s underrated portrayal of the Sixth Doctor on television, and how I have really enjoyed him in the Big Finish stories, where he has been given high-quality scripts with which to work.  Once again Baker turns in a powerful, passionate and entertaining performance as the Doctor. It is absolutely a joy listening to him.

Miranda Raison and Lisa Greenwood are good as Constance and Flip.  This is the first time I’ve listened to a Big Finish story with this particular TARDIS team, but I enjoyed it, and I think I will download some more adventures with this cast. The contrast between Flip, a teenager from 2010, and Constance, a war widow and member of the Women’s Royal Naval Service from Britain in 1944, is interesting, and it allows for some dramatic interactions to occur between the two women, as well as in their interactions with the Doctor.

The Sixth Doctor has a brash, forceful personality, and so the idea of pairing him with two female companions is a novel idea.  I think it allows for a slightly more equal power dynamic than you see when this Doctor is traveling with just one companion.

Robyn Holdaway as Calypso Jonze is more difficult to judge, since this is the character’s first appearance, and introduced mid-story it’s difficult to get too much of a feel for background or motivation. I do think Calypso has potential, and I would not be surprised if she, um, I mean they appear again. (Sorry, those non-binary pronouns take some getting used to. No offense is intended.)  I bet Calypso Jonze and Jack Harness would get on like a house on fire.

Alan Marriott voices the dual roles of Lovecraft and his fictional creation Randolph Carter within the mindscape. It is generally agreed that Carter was Lovecraft’s fictional stand-in for himself, a more heroic, handsomer, athletic version of the man. Marriott does a good job performing Lovecraft and Carter as very similar but nevertheless distinctively different.

British musical theater actor Jonathan Andrew Hume voices the Somnifax within Lovecraft’s mental dreamscape, giving a rich and sinister vocal performance.  The Somnifax assumes the guises of the malevolent elder gods Nyarlathotep and Cthulhu, allowing Hume to really chew up scenery of the audio landscape.

The cast of The Lovecraft Invasion… and their good friend Cthulhu!

Although not perfect, The Lovecraft Invasion is definitely a well-written, atmospheric, thought-provoking and enjoyable audio play with several strong performances. Valentine’s script certainly offers a distinctive and unconventional way of having the worlds of Doctor Who and the Cthulhu Mythos cross over.  Rather than simply importing the Elder Gods et all, the mechanism devised by Valentine allows for the story to effectively utilize Lovecraft’s creations while offering commentary on both the man and his writings.

Writing is difficult

I haven’t done any blogging in the last few weeks. For those who have actually been wondering what the heck I’ve been up to, here’s the nitty gritty…

Back in January 2016, when David Bowie passed away, I blogged about how his death had motivated me to finally start working on a horror / sci-fi novel I’d been planning out in my head for the previous few years. Well, I had a lot of trouble staying focused on it, and I ended up only writing about 50 pages over the past five years, which is a really horrible pace at which to be going.

The problem I kept experiencing was that when I was planning this novel out in my head the scenes played out like a movie.  However, whenever I sat down to write, I had a tremendous amount of difficulty finding the right words.  The sequences that followed effortlessly in my mind were excruciatingly difficult to type out in the word processor.

I guess that I kept expecting that if someone was a good writer it would go like this…

And for me, instead, it has always been like this…

So what happened?  Well, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died on September 18th, only a month and a half away from the Presidential election. I just knew that I was going to be waking up to an absolute shit-storm on the internet.

I finally sat down and started working on my novel again on September 19th because was desperately trying to avoid the news and social media. I already had all the info I need to vote, so I didn’t see the benefits of getting extremely depressed by things that are totally beyond my control. I thought if I focused on my writing I could get out of my head and try to accomplish something for myself.

That morning it took me about three and a half hours to write five pages. I felt so slow. I’ve been told that I am a good writer, but it doesn’t come easily to me. Usually it’s like pulling teeth. So I went on Facebook and posted about this, asking if any other creative types have this problem.

I was reassured when a lot of people responded with encouragement, including several published writers with impressive lists of credits to their names. They assured me that, yes, writing can often be very difficult, and writing five pages in under four hours is actually very good.

Most people encouraged me to try to work on my fiction every day, to write something, even if it was only a few sentences. I’ve been trying to do that, and except for one day I’ve been successful. I’ve managed to write a little under 40 pages in the last two weeks, which is definitely much better progress.

So that’s what I’ve been busy with. As my friends advised, some days the writing comes very easily, and others it’s extremely difficult. But I’m trying to stay in that daily routine. I have no idea if what I am writing is any good, but at least I am making the effort.

Remembering Doctor Who writer Terrance Dicks

British writer Terrance Dicks passed away on August 29th.  He was 84 years old.  Dicks worked on such varied projects as the spy-fi series The Avengers, the soap opera Crossroads, and the BBC’s Sunday Classics series of literary adaptations.

However it is for his lengthy association with the science fiction series Doctor Who that Dicks is best remembered.  He first became involved with Doctor Who in 1968 and worked on various incarnations of the show right up until the time of his death.

Terrance Dicks

As Dicks himself readily admitted in his humorously self-effacing style, becoming the assistant script editor on Doctor Who in 1968 was as much a case of him being in the right place at the right time as it was his abilities as a writer.  He came onboard during the show’s fifth season, Patrick Troughton’s second year as the Doctor, during the production of the serial “The Web of Fear.”  Dicks’ enduring memory of that story was the production team’s futile efforts to make the robot Yetis’ roars sound less like a flushing toilet.

The first story Dicks was actively involved in commissioning was “The Krotons” by Robert Holmes.  The sixth season of Doctor Who was beset by various commissioned stories falling apart late in the day, leaving co-producers Derrick Sherwin and Peter Bryant scrambling to find usable scripts.  “The Krotons” was one such last-minute replacement.  For years afterwards Dicks would refer to the Krotons as one of Doctor Who’s silliest monsters.  At the same time, though, the scripts by Holmes were solid, and as Dicks himself was always quick to point out, Holmes would very quickly go on to become arguably the best writer to ever work on Doctor Who.

As script editor Dicks was also the uncredited co-writer of the six-part Brian Hayles serial “The Seeds of Death.”  Due to the ongoing production problems the serial was only in a draft state, needing a significant amount of work before it could go in front of the cameras.

Doctor Who The KrotonsBut it was the final serial of the 1969 season that truly saw Dicks’ baptism of fire.  Those aforementioned production problems led to the simultaneous collapse of the four-part and six-part serials that were to end the season.  In desperation Sherwin instructed Dicks to write a single 10-part serial to close out the year, with the provisos that series regulars Patrick Troughton, Frazer Hines & Wendy Padbury all be written out at the end, that the Doctor’s previously-unrevealed people the Time Lords be introduced, and that the Doctor be exiled to present-day Earth.  Oh, yes, and Sherwin needed Dicks to write those 10 scripts ASAP.

An understandably frantic Dicks corralled Malcolm Hulke, the writer who several years earlier had helped him get his foot in the television door, and with whom he had co-written several episodes of The Avengers. Working at a furious pace, the two of them somehow managed to crank out the scripts for all 10 episodes in less than a month.  Despite the absolutely insane circumstances under which “The War Games” came to be written, it went on to become a well-regarded serial.

The seventh season of Doctor Who saw even more changes and challenges for Dicks.  Sherwin and Bryant both departed, but not before making the aforementioned decision to exile the Doctor to Earth to become the scientific advisor to Brigadier Lethbridge-Stuart and the UNIT organization.  This was Sherwin’s desperate cost-saving measure for a show with declining ratings that the BBC was seriously considering canceling.

Fortunately several things took place that would guarantee Doctor Who’s future.  Jon Pertwee was cast as the new Doctor, the show switched from black & white to color, Barry Letts came onboard as the new producer, and Dicks became the full-time script editor.  Pertwee was a perfect fit for the Doctor, the color production also brought new attention to the series, and Dicks & Letts instantly clicked, becoming not just close collaborators but lifelong friends.

Doctor Who RobotIt was Dicks & Letts who devised the Doctor’s arch-nemesis the Master.  Dicks observed to Letts that the Doctor was very much like Sherlock Holmes, and the Brigadier was like Watson.  So why not introduce a Moriarty for the Doctor?  Letts immediately took to the suggestion, and right away suggested actor Roger Delgado, who he had worked with in the past, for the role.  Delgado was indeed a brilliant casting decision.  Pertwee and Delgado had immediate chemistry as the rival Time Lords, which further energized the show.

Dicks was the script editor for Pertwee’s entire five year stint on Doctor Who.  In that capacity Dicks was basically the uncredited co-writer for the entire Third Doctor era of the series.  In 1974 when Pertwee decided to depart, Dicks and Letts also made the decision to move on, but not before casting Tom Baker as the new Doctor, a decision that would eventually result in the show becoming even more popular.

Dicks also finagled the job of writing Baker’s debut story “Robot,” crafting a four part serial that was simultaneously thought-provoking and humorous.  It contains one of my all-time favorite lines of dialogue from the series, with the Doctor attempting to stop a computer from triggering the simultaneous launch of the world’s nuclear weapons while breezily observing:

“The trouble with computers, of course, is that they’re very sophisticated idiots. They do exactly what you tell them at amazing speed, even if you order them to kill you. So if you do happen to change your mind, it’s very difficult to stop them obeying the original order, but… not impossible.”

Dicks would write several more television stories for Doctor Who.  Robert Holmes became the new script editor, and commissioned Dicks to write “The Brain of Morbius.” Regrettably, due to technical issues Holmes had to do significant rewrites.  As Dicks later recounted:

 “I was furious when I read the rewritten scripts for ‘The Brain of Morbius’. I rang up Bob Holmes and shouted at him down the telephone. Eventually, I said ‘Alright. You can do it, but I’m going to take my name off it’ – the ultimate sanction! Not because it was a bad show, but because it was now more him than me. He asked ‘Well what name do you want to put on it?’ I said ‘I don’t care. You can put it out under some bland pseudonym’ and slammed the phone down. Weeks later, when I saw the Radio Times, I noticed it was ‘The Brain of Morbius’ by Robin Bland. By then, I’d cooled down and the joke disarmed me completely.”

Dicks also wrote ”The Horror of Fang Rock” for Holmes in 1977, and “State of Decay,” which was broadcast in 1980 during Tom Baker’s final season.  “State of Decay” was somewhat revised by the then-current script editor Christopher H. Bidmead.  In that case I personally feel the blending of Dicks’ and Bidmead’s very disparate approaches to the show actually resulted in a much stronger story, one where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  Dicks’ final contribution to the television series was in 1983, writing the 20th anniversary special “The Five Doctors.”

Doctor Who Auton InvasionAlthough he was no longer working of the TV show itself, Dicks remained a key part of the world of Doctor Who via his prose writing.  Back during his time as script editor he had been commissioned by Target Books to write novelizations of the show’s various serials.  The first one Dicks wrote was Doctor Who and the Auton Invasion, adapted from Robert Holmes’ scripts for Pertwee’s debut story “Spearhead in Space” and published in January 1974.

Dicks was the unofficial editor of the Doctor Who book line.  He would attempt to get the original writers to adapt their own scripts.  Malcolm Hulke and former script editor Gerry Davis each wrote several of the novelizations, as did actor-turned-writer Ian Marter.  However, due to the low pay, most of the time Dicks ended up to writing them himself, and eventually he would pen over 60 of them.

To truly appreciate the impact of these novelizations on Doctor Who fandom, you need to understand the time period in which they were published.  In the 1960s and 70s the BBC would typically air Doctor Who episodes once, with perhaps an occasional repeat of a serial at the end of the season or during the holidays.  If you missed seeing an episode when it first aired, chances were good that you were never going to see it.  There was no home video or DVDs or DVRs or streaming or anything like that.

On top of that, due to videotape being expensive, and film taking up a great deal of space, the BBC routinely wiped videos of older shows, and junked the film copies they made to sell their programs to foreign countries.  Doctor Who was one of many series to be affected by this policy.  By the end of the 1970s nearly all of the Doctor Who episodes from the 1960s were missing from the BBC archives.  A decent-sized chunk of Pertwee’s five year tenure was also absent.

Doctor Who Carnival of MonstersSo, if you were a fan in the early 1980s, between the paucity of reruns, the non-existence of home media, and the seeming destruction of many of the episodes from the first 12 years of the show, the novelizations by Terrance Dicks & Co were literally the only way you could experience older stories.  If you wanted to discover the show’s past, the novelizations were absolutely invaluable.

Fortunately a lot of those missing stories have since been recovered, and a handful of the still-missing episodes have been recreated via animation.  Nevertheless, there are still certain serials that are partly or completely missing where the novelization is a way in which you can experience the story.

I well remember exactly how much the novelizations affected me as a Doctor Who fan.  I started watching reruns on the PBS station WLIW in 1984, when I was eight years old.  I came in at the tail end of Tom Baker’s run, and then saw the Peter Davidson stories.  The stories sometimes referenced the show’s past, and these were tantalizing hints of an exciting history that I had no way of experiencing.

Then one evening at the Galleria shopping mall in White Plains NY, at the Waldenbooks, I came across an entire display of Doctor Who novels.  To my young, excited eyes there were dozens of them, with colorful, exciting covers, featuring aliens and giant monsters and dinosaurs and spaceships and other weird, exciting sights.  (The covers to The Auton Invasion and The Carnival of Monsters by artist Chris Achilleos seen above are good examples of the sort of covers that appeared on the Target novelizations.)  I immediately wanted to buy one… but my father wouldn’t let me.  I don’t know why, but he seemed convinced that I wasn’t going to actually read it.  But over the next week or so, I begged & pleaded.  My father finally gave in, and the next time we went to Waldenbooks he let me buy one.  I finished that book in just a few days, and was soon asking my parents to let me buy another.

Doctor Who Power of KrollNow here’s the humorous part of the story.  That first novelization I got was Doctor Who and the Power of Kroll, written by Terrance Dicks, based on Robert Holmes’ script.  I had never seen the TV story, and I bought it because it had Tom Baker’s Doctor with a really weird gigantic monster on the cover.  Reading the book by Dicks, I became convinced that “The Power of Kroll” had to be an absolutely amazing TV story. A few years later I was certainly in for a rude awakening!

This was the first, but certainly not the last, time this would happen to me with the novelizations.  The benefits of the prose format was that it allowed Dicks and others to work with an unlimited budget, to not worry about dodgy special effects and cheap sets and rubbish costumes.  Within the imagination of readers such as myself everything was real.

The prose format also allowed Dicks and the other adapters to get into characters’ thoughts, to expand certain scenes, to restore moments that had been left on the cutting room floor, and to fill in plot holes that came about during the series’ always-rushed production schedule.  There were several times when I read novelizations by Dicks before I got to see the actual episodes, and almost inevitably the book versions were better than the original television episodes.

As I discussed in my review of the 1972 serial “Day of the Daleks,” in his novelization Dicks did a superb job of expanding, and improving upon, the television episodes.  Another example that comes to mind is his adaptation of the debut story of the Master, “Terror of the Autons.”  The book improves upon the broadcast version in several ways.   Certainly the cyclopean octopus-lobster hybrid form of the Nestine Consciousness described in the book is a much more formidable menace than the blob of energy we saw on TV screens.

Doctor Who Terror of the AutonsIn the early 1990s Doctor Who had been cancelled and the majority of the serials had been novelized.  The decision was made to begin publishing original novels.  Several of the writers who have worked on the revival of Doctor Who launched in 2005 got their start on these novels.  And also present was Terrence Dicks, who wrote several novels over the next two decades.

It’s interesting to contrast the approaches of the younger writers with Dicks.  Most of the younger writers were very experimental, writing books that were part of larger arcs, and having catastrophic stuff happen to the TARDIS, and making the companions the main characters who drive the plot forward, and showing the Doctor acting as this Machiavellian cosmic chess master.  Obviously this laid the groundwork for a lot of what was subsequently done in the television revival.

Having said that, sometimes it got a bit tiresome, and you wanted to read a novel where the TARDIS just landed somewhere randomly, depositing the Doctor and his friends in the middle of an exciting adventure.  That was the approach favored by Dicks, and he tried to utilize that more traditional story structure in his novels.  Occasionally his books could become too heavily referential to past continuity.  But on the whole they were fun reads.  Certainly I enjoyed his 1995 novel Blood Harvest, which was a sequel to his serial “State of Decay.” I think it contained a nice balance between the new direction of the novels and a more traditional story.

Doctor Who Blood HarvestAnother book by Dicks that really stood out in my mind was Players, which was published in April 1999.  Dicks did a great job writing the Sixth Doctor and Peri.  I’ve made no secret of the fact that I feel Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant were given some underwhelming material to perform when they were on the show.  Reading the novel Players led me to wish Dicks could have worked on the show during the Sixth Doctor’s all too short tenure.  As I said, Dicks loved to reference continuity in his novels, but at the same time he was usually cognizant that you absolutely needed a strong story on which to anchor all of those tie-ins to past adventures.

Dicks continued to write Doctor Who prose fiction after the 2005 revival.  He penned Made of Steel and Revenge of the Judoon, a pair of “Quick Read” novellas starring the Tenth Doctor & Martha Jones, and he did a novelization of “Invasion of the Bane,” the debut episode of Who spin-off show The Sarah Jane Adventures.  A final short story, “Save Yourself,” is scheduled to be published posthumously later this year in the anthology Doctor Who: The Target Storybook.

A gifted raconteur, Dicks was an enthusiastic participant in the Doctor Who DVD audio commentaries & behind the scenes documentaries.  He was a popular guest at conventions.  I had always wanted to meet him.  Unfortunately when he was at the Doctor Who convention on Long Island in 2014 I was unemployed & short on funds, so I was unable to go.

Everyone who knew Dicks spoke warmly of him, and the tributes that have been written over the past week have all been heartfelt.  He certainly was an important and influential figure in helping to make Doctor Who the ongoing success that it is.

Preview: Go To Sleep, Little Creep by David Quinn and Ashley Spires

Writer David Quinn is a versatile and imaginative creator.  Although he is best-known for co-creating the adult horror comic book series Faust: Love of the Damned, and for writing Doctor Strange for two years at Marvel Comics, Quinn has written a wide range of material over his 30 year career.

Quinn’s newest project is in collaboration with illustrator Ashley Spires.  Go to Sleep, Little Creep is a rhyming picture book about baby monsters and their monster parents who are trying to get them to go to bed.

Go To Sleep Little Creep cover

Quinn was kind enough to e-mail me a preview copy of Go to Sleep, Little Creep.  It was a very charming read.  Quinn’s prose is sweet and humorous.  Spires’ wonderful illustrations are adorable and funny.  The designs of the baby monsters are wonderfully sweet.

By the way, as a huge fan of both cats and scary stories, I think the Mummy Cat, the pet of the Baby Mummy, is very cute.

Go To Sleep Little Creep Baby Mummy and Cat

Go to Sleep, Little Creep is for children ages 2 to 5, although I honestly think older readers, and even adults, will find it charming.  It is scheduled for release on July 24, 2018 through the Crown Books for Young Readers imprint of Penguin Random House.

Previews and behind-the-scenes info can be found on David Quinn’s blog, In Walked Quinn, where he discusses the conception and development of the book.

I definitely recommend Go To Sleep, Little Creep to genre fans, both those with and without children.  No matter how young or old you are, it is an enjoyable read.

Go to Sleep, Little Creep, Published by Crown Books for Young Readers

On Sale Jul 24, 2018

ISBN 9781101939444

Copyright 2018, David Quinn

Illustrations copyright 2018 Ashley Spires

For more information and to pre-order

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 brawl 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 of 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.