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.

Comic Book Cats highlights

I did 100 entries of The Daily Comic Book Coffee on the Comic Book Historians group at Facebook. I decided to switch things up after that, and began posting Comic Book Cats. Each day I post cat-centric comic book artwork by a different artist.

Comic Book Cats is being archived on First Comics News. But here are 10 highlights from the first 50 entries.

Steve Ditko

Ghostly Tales #85, drawn by Steve Ditko and written by Joe Gill, published by Charlton Comics in April 1971, and Speedball #10, plotted & penciled by Steve Ditko, inked by Dan Day, scripted by Jo Duffy, lettered by Jack Morelli and colored by Tom Vincent, published by Marvel Comics in June 1989.

Steve Ditko drew a number of stories with cats throughout his lengthy career.  Here is artwork from couple of them.

The first page is from “The 9th Life,” one of the best stories that Joe Gill wrote for Charlton’s horror anthologies.  Ditko did really good work illustrating Gill’s story.

Michael Holt rescues a stray black cat and takes it back to his apartment in the slums.  Michael is depressed about the state of the modern-day world.  The black cat is apparently a shape-shifting witch named Felicia, and she offers to transport Michael back to the past.  Michael agrees, but soon discovers the “good old days” were not so good, with tyranny and disease.  Returning to the present day, Michael realizes that he needs to actively work to make the world he lives in a better place.  He is reunited with Felicia, who joins him on his path of fighting for a better world.

The second page is from the last issue of the short-lived Speedball series.  The laboratory accident that endowed Robbie Baldwin with his kinetic energy powers also gave those same powers to Niels, a cat who belonged to one of the scientists at the lab. 

A subplot running through the Speedball series was Robbie’s repeatedly-unsuccessful efforts to capture Niels.  Getting a hold of a normal feline who doesn’t want to be caught is difficult enough as it is; give a cat bouncing superpowers and the task becomes nigh-impossible!

Dwayne Turner & Chris Ivy

Sovereign Seven #7, penciled by Dwayne Turner, inked by Chris Ivy, written by Chris Claremont, letter by Tom Orzechowski and colored by Gloria Vasquez & Rob Schwager published by DC Comics in January 1996.

I spotlighted Chris Claremont’s Sovereign Seven in a couple of Comic Book Coffee entries.  It was a fun series, so I’m happy to take another look at it.

In this issue Finale of the Sovereigns is caught in the middle of a struggle between international mercenary Marcello Veronese and his fugitive quarry.  Pursuing the sword-wielding fugitive, Finale enters a doorway, only to find herself in the Crossroads Coffee Bar & Inn on the opposite side of town.  Crossroads once again lives up to its name, serving as a portal to different places, dimensions & times.  Greeting the stunned Finale is Lucy the cat, who is apparently dressing as Supercat for Halloween.

I purchased the original artwork for this page from Chris Ivy at New York Comic Con in 2015.  The close-up panel of Lucy on the original really demonstrates Ivy’s very detailed and delicate inking.

David Mazzucchelli & Richmond Lewis

Batman #406, drawn by David Mazzucchelli, written by Frank Miller, lettered by Todd Klein and colored by Richmond Lewis, published by DC Comics in April 1987.

I must have read the Batman: Year One trade paperback a dozen times in high school.  To this day, it remains one of my all-time favorite Batman stories.  Many of the images from this story have burned themselves into my consciousness.  So as soon as I decided to do Comic Book Cats, I just knew I was going to spotlight this page. 

A pre-Catwoman Selina Kyle, her roommate Holly, and their menagerie of cats being awoken at 5 AM by the GCPD’s corrupt, trigger-happy swat team attempting to kill Batman by dropping bombs on him.  Of course the cats now want to be fed, even though it’s much too early!  I’ve always thought David Mazzucchelli did an especially good job on this page.

This is actually scanned from the trade paperback, which was re-colored by Richmond Lewis.  As has been astutely observed by colorist Jose Villarubia, newsprint has a different texture from the paper used in TPBs, and the result is that coloring done for the former will not reproduce accurately in the later.

Batman: Year One is apparently one of the very few times when the original colorist was asked to do new coloring for a collected edition.  Lewis’ work for the Year One collection is outstanding, and I’m grateful that for once DC Comics actually went the extra mile.

Rachel Dukes

Frankie Comics #3, written & drawn by Rachel Dukes, published by Mix Tape Comics in November 2014

Rachel Dukes’ mini comic Frankie Comics is absolutely adorable, a really cute look at quirky cat behavior.  I met Dukes a couple of times at Mocca Fest, where I picked up copies of the first and third issues.  I still need the second one.

In this two page sequence Dukes demonstrates that Frankie has a very cat-like approach to “helping” out his humans.

Dukes showed me a photo of the real-life Frankie, who looks very much like one of my two cats, Nettie Netzach.  Judging by the antics Dukes portrays in her comic, they also act alike.  Michele suggested they could be long lost sisters. You never know.

Bob Brown & Don Heck

Daredevil #109, penciled by Bob Brown, inked by Don Heck, written by Steve Gerber, lettered by Artie Simek and colored by Petra Goldberg, published by Marvel Comics in May 1974.

This is not technically a cat page as it does not feature any examples of Felis catus, aka the domestic cat, but I am showcasing it anyway.  Because, honestly, the dramatic arrival of the stunning Shannah the She-Devil accompanied by her pet leopard and panther is a pretty damn impressive cat-related image.

Bob Brown is one of those good, solid artists from the Silver and Bronze Ages whose work often flew under the radar, but who you could always count on to turn in a professional job.  Over the years I’ve developed more of an appreciation for Brown’s work.  He is effectively inked here by Don Heck, another talented, underrated artist.

Rachel Smith

Doctor Who: The Tenth Doctor #13, written & drawn by Rachael Smith, published by Titan Comics in August 2015.

I’ve been a fan of Doctor Who since I was eight years old.  Over the decades a few different cat-like aliens have shown up on the British sci-fi series, as well as in the various comic book spin-offs.

Several issues of The Tenth Doctor comic book series contained a humorous back-up strip featuring the Doctor and his cat Rose by Rachael Smith.  Yes, the Doctor named his cat Rose; he really was hung up on Billie Piper, wasn’t he?  In this installment Rose convinces the Doctor to try speed dating.  Of course, this being Doctor Who, things go horribly, hysterically wrong.

British artist Rachael Smith has also written & drawn several creator-owned graphic novels.

Joe Staton & Freddy Lopez Jr.

Back Issue #40 cover drawn by Joe Staton and colored by Freddy Lopez Jr, published by TwoMorrows Publishing in April 2010.

Back Issue is a magazine edited by Michael Eury that takes an in-depth look back comic book from the 1970s, 80s and 90s.  Each issue has a theme, and BI #40 spotlighted “Cat People,” i.e. cat-themed characters of the Bronze Age.  One of the characters examined in this issue was, of course, Catwoman.

The cover illustration of Catwoman and her black cat prowling the alleys of Gotham City is by one of my favorite artists, the incredible Joe Staton, who had previously penciled two key Catwoman stories, DC Super Stars #17, the origin of the Huntress, the daughter of Batman and Catwoman on Earth 2, and The Brave and the Bold #197, which revealed how Bruce Wayne and Seline Kyle fell in love and married.

Staton has drawn a few cats in various stories throughout the years.  I’ve always liked how he rendered them, with his cartoony style always giving them genuine personality.  That’s certainly the case here with Selina’s feline companion.  Freddy Lopez Jr’s coloring is very effective, as well.

Back Issue, along with many other great magazine & books, can be purchased through the TwoMorrows Publishing website.

Dan DeCarlo

Josie and the Pussycats #54, drawn by Dan DeCarlo and written by Frank Doyle, published by Archie Comics in April 1971.

“The Cat Woman” is drawn by Josie and the Pussycats co-creator and longtime Archie Comics artist Dan DeCarlo.  This story sees the scheming Alexandra becoming convinced that her cat Sebastian is being taken by Josie as “bait” to lure in handsome Alan M.  After all, Alexandra deduces, that is exactly what she would do if the tables were turned.  Tsk tsk, jealous people are always projecting like that!

It turns out that the real reason why Sebastian keeps wandering over to Josie’s house is because she has a wall calendar with a photograph of a beautiful female cat!

DeCarlo always drew cute gals, and as seen here he also did a good job with cats (the actual four-legged furry kind, as opposed to the kind who play musical instruments) investing Sebastian with a lot of personality.

John Gallagher

Max Meow: Cat Crusader, written & drawn by John Gallagher, published by Penguin Random House in 2020.

In the great city of Kittyopolis, aspiring feline journalist Max Meow takes a bite out of a giant meatball from outer space and gains super powers.  Donning a costume, Max becomes the heroic Cat Crusader, who protects Kittyopolis from menaces such as giant killer cheeseburgers.  However, being a hero is not as easy as it might appear, something that Max must learn the hard way.  Will Max save the day, or will the Cat Crusader be defeated by that rotten rodent, the despicable Agent M?

Max Meow: Cat Crusader is a funny, adorable graphic novel for younger readers by John Gallagher, who previously worked on Buzzboy and Roboy Red.  He is also he is art director for Ranger Rick magazine, published by the National Wildlife Federation.  As explained on the Max Meow website:

“John learned to read with comics, so he is more than excited to share the magic of reading, fun, and imagination with the young readers of the world.”

Curt Swan & Stan Kaye

Action Comics #266 cover penciled by Curt Swan and inked by Stan Kaye, published by DC Comics in July 1960.

Curt Swan was the primary artist on the various Superman titles from the mid 1950s to the mid 1980s.  It’s inevitable that at some point or another during that lengthy period Swan would be called upon to draw Streaky the Supercat.  Here is Swan’s cute rendition of Streaky zipping through the sky, along with Superman, Supergirl and Krypto the Superdog.

The inks are by Stan Kaye, who had previously been the regular inker over Wayne Boring’s pencils on Superman for a decade and a half.  Swan and Kaye were often paired up in the late 1950s and early 60s, drawing numerous covers for Action Comics, Adventure Comics, Superman and World’s Finest.

The identity of the colorist for this cover is probably lost to time, which is too bad, because whoever it was did a really nice job.

I hope you found these interesting and informative. Please remember to check out First Comics News for the rest of the Comic Book Cats entries, as well as for the Daily Comic Book Coffee archives.

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.

Peter Wyngarde: 1927 to 2018

Well-regarded British actor Peter Wyngarde, whose career spanned half a century, passed away on January 15th. He was 90 years old.

Peter Wyngarde 1993

There is some dispute regarding early details of Wyngarde’s life. It is known that his father was a British diplomat stationed in Asia before World War II.  When Shanghai was invaded by the Japanese in 1941, the fourteen year old Wyngarde was sent to an internment camp along with hundreds of other British citizens.  The next four years were brutal ones.  Wyngarde suffered from malnutrition, and at one point his feet were broken by his Japanese captors.  One of the few concessions the Japanese accorded their prisoners was allowing them to stage plays in the canteen.  This was the beginning of Wyngarde’s lifelong love of acting.

When the war ended Wyngarde was able to return to Britain. It took him some time to recuperate from his harsh ordeal, but afterwards he was determined to make a living as an actor.  He began appearing in theatrical roles in 1946, starting with bit parts and as an understudy, gradually working his way up to more significant roles over the next decade.  Beginning in the mid-1950s he also worked in television.  His breakthrough role was playing Sidney Carton in the BBC’s 1957 adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.

Continuing his theater work, and occasionally acting in movies, Wyngarde also made several noteworthy guest appearances on British television. He twice played villains on The Avengers starring Patrick Macnee & Diana Rigg.  In the memorable 1966 episode entitled “A Touch of Brimstone,” Wyngarde portrayed the sadistic Sir John Cartney, the head of the kinky, hedonistic Hellfire Club, who were plotting an overthrow of the British government.  A year later he returned to the series in the episode “Epic.” This time he played Stewart Kirby, a washed-up Hollywood star involved in an audacious plot to film the murder of Emma Peel.  The role involved numerous costume & make-up changes for Wyngarde, and he approached it with over-the-top gusto.

In 1967 Wyngarde guest starred on The Prisoner, Patrick McGoohan’s cult classic psychological spy drama. He assumed the role of the Village’s sinister Number Two in the episode “Checkmate.”

Peter Wyngarde The Prisoner

Wyngarde best-known role was the suave, womanizing Interpol investigator turned novelist Jason King. He originated the part in the ITV series Department S, which ran for 28 episodes between 1969 and 1970.  The character of Jason King proved very popular with viewers, and was spun off into his own series, which aired from 1971 to 1972.

Wyngarde was gifted with a deep, smooth voice and a striking presence. Portraying the sophisticated, charismatic Jason King, he was often clad in fashionable, impeccably-tailored suits.  All together this resulted in Wyngarde becoming both a sex symbol and a style icon in the early 1970s.

In a 1993 interview Wyngarde explained that he put a great deal of himself into the character…

“I decided Jason King was going to be an extension of me. I was not going to have a superimposed personality. I was inclined to be a bit of a dandy, used to go to the tailor with my designs. And my hair was long because I had been in this Chekhov play, The Duel, at the Duke of York’s.

“Jason King had champagne and strawberries for breakfast, just as I did myself. I drank myself to a standstill. When I think about it now, I am amazed I’m still here.”

Although Department S and Jason King had made Wyngarde famous, he subsequently chose to return to his first love, the theater. In 1973 he co-starred with Sally Ann Howes in a production of The King and I that ran for 260 performances.  This was followed by a number of other stage roles.

In 1980, in the campy Dino De Laurentiis-produced Flash Gordon movie, Wyngarde played Klytus, the gold-masked henchman to Ming the Merciless. Wyngarde also appeared in the Doctor Who serial “Planet of Fire” in 1984, turning in a subtle, memorable performance.  The late 1980s and the 90s saw further work on the stage, as well as occasional television guest roles.

Peter Wyngarde Flash Gordon

It is a testament to how iconic a figure Wyngarde was that his likeness was immortalized in print in the early 1980s in the pages of the X-Men comic book series by the creative team of Chris Claremont, John Byrne & Terry Austin.  The Avengers television episode “A Touch of Brimstone” inspired Claremont & Byrne to introduce their own version of the Hellfire Club, a cabal of ruthless mutant industrialists manipulating politics and the economy to their benefit, in the now-classic X-Men storyline “The Dark Phoenix Saga.”  One of the members of this Hellfire Club was the X-Men’s old adversary Mastermind, now in the guise of the evil, seductive “Jason Wyngarde,” modeled, off course, on Peter Wyngarde’s performance as Jason King.

As a younger viewer I was passing familiar with Wyngarde from Flash Gordon and Doctor Who. However, it was in the 1990s via the internet that I first learned of how Claremont & Byrne had paid homage to the actor in their X-Men run.  The full Jason King series was finally released on DVD in 2007 here in the States, and I enjoyed it tremendously.  I subsequently viewed episodes of Department S, which was also an enjoyable show.

I was definitely a fan of Wyngarde’s work; he had such a wonderful presence on screen, and a rich, memorable voice.

Peter Wyngarde Mastermind
Peter Wyngarde as the suave sleuth Jason King, side-by-side with X-Men villain Mastermind in his guise as “Jason Wyngarde” as rendered by John Byrne & Terry Austin in “The Dark Phoenix Saga”

Following Wyngarde’s passing last week his agent and manager Thomas Bowington declared:

“He was one of the most unique, original and creative actors that I have ever seen. As a man, there were few things in life he didn’t know.”

Wyngarde was a private man, and wary of the press. He seldom gave interviews.  Last year he spoke at length to Tina Hopkins for The Official Peter Wyngarde Appreciation Society blog.  It is an informative and insightful piece that goes into the details of Wyngarde’s life & career.

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.

Steve Dillon: 1962 to 2016

This year has been awful. Too many incredibly talented people have died much too young in 2016.  Sadly yet another name has just been added to the list of creators who left us too soon.  British comic book artist Steve Dillon passed away on October 22nd at the age of 54.

preacher-by-steve-dillon

I first encountered Steve Dillon’s work in the mid-1980s when the back-up stories he had drawn in Doctor Who Weekly for Marvel Comics UK were reprinted here in the States. Two of the strips he worked on had lasting impacts on Doctor Who fandom.  “Throwback: The Soul of a Cyberman” ran in Doctor Who Weekly # 5-7 (1979) and “Abslom Daak: Dalek Killer” ran in # 17-20.  Both stories were written by Steve Moore.

“Throwback” introduced Kroton, a being who despite being converted into one of the ruthlessly logical Cybermen somehow retained his emotions. Kroton was a tragic character, neither human nor Cyberman, trapped between two worlds.  This was some of Dillon’s earliest work.  He had a tendency to draw characters crouching in overdramatic poses or gesticulating wildly.  But even at that point Dillon showed genuine potential.  He certainly possessed the skill necessary to give emotion & pathos to the physically expressionless metal form of Kroton.  The bottom three panels of that final page from Doctor Who Weekly #7 always give me an emotional punch in the gut.

doctor-who-soul-of-a-cyberman

“Dalek Killer” featured the debut of Abslom Daak, a thoroughly unpleasant career criminal. Having been found guilty on multiple counts of murder & piracy, Daak is given two choices: execution by vaporization or Exile D-K.  The sneering Daak rejects vaporization because it’s quick & painless, and instead chooses Exile D-K, which involves being teleported to a world in the heart of the Dalek Empire to wage a hopeless one-man guerilla war against the mutants from Skaro.

Armed to the teeth, Daak is beamed to the planet Mazam, newly conquered by the Daleks. Despite his fervent death wish, the ruthless & brutal Daak manages to survive, in the process liberating Mazam from the Daleks and winning the heart of its ruler Taiyin.  Tragedy strikes, however, when a lone Dalek survivor kills Taiyin.  The grief-stricken Daak’s suicide-run is now supplanted by a mission of vengeance, as he vows to “kill every stinking Dalek in the galaxy!”

Dillon’s artwork on this serial was amazing. This is only a year after “Throwback” and he had already improved tremendously.  Dillon succeeded in humanizing the thuggish, menacing Daak, making him a character both comedic and haunted.  That final page, with Daak carrying Taiyin’s lifeless body, is incredibly powerful & tragic.

abslom-daak-dalek-killer-pg-16

Abslom Daak proved to be tremendously popular, and he has made numerous return appearances in Doctor Who comic books, most recently in The Eleventh Doctor series courtesy of Si Spurrier, Rob Williams & Simon Fraser. Daak even made it into the Doctor Who television series itself when his mug shot was seen in the 2014 episode “Time Heist.”

In the mid-1980s Dillon was a regular artist on the weekly British anthology series 2000 AD, drawing a number of stories featuring Judge Dredd and Rogue Trooper. He also worked on the short-lived but influential anthology series Warrior.

Beginning in 1990 Dillon began working at DC Comics, illustrating Tom Veitch’s offbeat stories in Animal Man. Two years later Dillon worked with writer Garth Ennis for the first time on the DC / Vertigo series Hellblazer, chronicling the dark supernatural adventures of  chain-smoking occult detective John Constantine.

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I recall that when I was in high school reading Animal Man and Hellblazer, I found Dillon’s artwork to be rather odd.  It was so very different stylistically from the tone of the flashy, ultra-dynamic work that had become prevalent in mainstream superhero books.  I really don’t think I even realized at that time that Dillon was the same artist who had drawn those Doctor Who comic book stories.  Nevertheless his work stuck in my head because it was so distinctive from ninety percent of what was out there.  It had what I would have to characterize as a starkness to it.

After wrapping up their run on Hellblazer, Ennis & Dillon collaborated on the Vertigo series Preacher, which ran for 66 issues between 1995 and 2000. Dark, brutal, sardonically humorous, and gleefully sacrilegious, Preacher became a critically acclaimed hit.  Underneath all the cynicism and gore, the succession of freaks, degenerates and psychopaths, Preacher was at its heart the story of the relationship between Jesse Custer and Tulip O’Hare.  Dillon ably illustrated all the sick weirdness that Ennis wrote, but he also brought to life Jesse & Tulip, made us believe in their love for one another.

preacher-12-pg-23

After Preacher wrapped up, Ennis & Dillon went over to Marvel Comics, taking over the Punisher. The pair transformed the then-moribund series into a ultra-violent black comedy.  Ennis also worked on a number of other Marvel titles, most notably a two year run on Wolverine: Origin with writer Daniel Wray.

I have always found Steve Dillon to be an incredibly effective comic book artist. As a non-artist it is perhaps difficult for me to articulate why this is so, but I am going to attempt to do so…

Dillon had a very straightforward, unvarnished style. He did not rely on overly-complex layouts.  He did not utilize excessive amounts of detail.  Dillon’s layouts and sequential illustration were crystal-clear and highly effective.  He absolutely knew how to create drama and tension.  Dillon could illustrate a multi-page sequence featuring nothing more than two characters sitting around taking over a beer and make it the most dramatic thing you could possibly imagine.

Dillon often illustrated stories that featured extreme violence. I think that its often the case that when an artist possesses an exaggerated or hyper-detailed style, violence comes across as cartoony or unrealistic or even glamorized.  Dillon, however, had a style that was very much grounded in reality, and so his scenes of violence and gore were starkly, shockingly brutal.

wolverine-origins-4-pg-7

I was fortunate enough to meet Dillon on a couple of occasions. The first time was in 1999, when I was traveling around Britain.  There was a big comic book convention in Bristol, England.  Dillon was one of the guests.  That whole show seemed to revolve around the bar, and most of the guests either had drinks at their tables or were actually doing signings at the pub.  As I recall, Dillon was at one of the tables in the pub drinking a pint.  He was kind enough to autograph an issue of Preacher for me, and to chat for a couple of minutes.  I commented to him that the “Until the End of the World” storyline that ran in issues # 8-12 has seriously freaked me out.  He smiled and responded, “I drew it, and it freaked me out, too.”  I had to laugh at that.

Years later, in 2009, I met Dillon again when he did a signing at Jim Hanley’s Universe here in NYC. Once again he struck me as a nice, friendly guy, and he did a sketch for me of Herr Starr, one of the villains from Preacher.

I was genuinely sorry to find out that Dillon had passed away. He was a tremendously talented artist.  Judging from the comments on Facebook from people who were friends with him or worked with him over the years, he was much-loved by those who knew him.

Remembering David Bowie

I was both shocked and saddened by the news that musician David Bowie had died on January 10th at the age of 69 from cancer. While I would not say that I was a huge fan of his, I definitely enjoyed listening to his music.

David Bowie

“Visionary” is a word that gets thrown around with great frequency; “unique” is another. But in the case of David Bowie those two descriptions very much applied.  He wrote and performed numerous amazing songs over a career that spanned nearly half a century.  Bowie also devised so many incredible, bizarre, innovative looks for himself throughout the years.  He was undoubtedly one of a kind.

My girlfriend Michele is a longtime fan of Bowie. She created a very nice tribute to him on her own blog.

For me, on Monday my thoughts kept returning to Bowie’s awesome 1995 song “Hallo Spaceboy,” the lyrics and tune playing in my head. Co-written by fellow music pioneer Brian Eno, the song features a collaboration between Bowie and the duo of Neil Tenant & Chris Lowe, aka the Pet Shop Boys.  I cannot recall if I’ve mentioned it here before, but the Pet Shop Boys are one of my all time favorite music groups.  So it was a genuine thrill to hear them performing with Bowie, a bona fide rock god.

Of course, I would be remiss if I neglected to mention another collaboration of Bowie’s, namely “Under Pressure” which he recorded with Queen in 1981.  Bowie and Freddie Mercury singing together was magnificent.

A good example of the massive cultural impact that David Bowie had can be seen in the Doctor Who universe, of all places. Last year in the comic book series The Eleventh Doctor, writers Al Ewing & Rob Williams and artist Simon Fraser introduced a character who was very much an homage to Bowie.

The Doctor takes his companion Alice back in time to London 1962 to see the debut performance of John Jones, a legendary rock star. Much to Alice’s dismay, Jones turns out to have zero stage presence and even less charisma.  However the drab wannabe-musician ends up accidentally joining the Doctor and Alice in the TARDIS.  As the year-long story arc progresses, Jones is majorly influenced by all of the strange, otherworldly places he visits with the Doctor and Alice.  By the time he returns back to 1962, Jones is ready to embark on a revolutionary music career.

Doctor Who Eleventh Doctor 3

Of course, in real life David Bowie was even cooler than that. He didn’t need to travel through all of time & space in order to come up with his amazing music and cutting-edge looks.

Despite his illness, Bowie was active right up until the very end. Blackstar, his twenty-fifth and final studio album, was released on January 8th, his birthday, a mere two days before his death.

Bowie’s passing has gotten me thinking. At 69 years he wasn’t exactly young, but neither was he very old.  It’s a sobering reminder that you never know how much time you will actually have.

For a few months I’ve already been considering devoting my energies towards writing fiction.  I dabbled in it when I was in my early 20s.  Over the last three years I’ve been working out an idea for a novel in my head.  Maybe now is the time to finally commit.  After all, I’m going to be 40 years old in June.  It just doesn’t seem like a good idea to keep procrastinating at this point.  I’ll still keep this blog going, perhaps switching between it and my fiction on alternate weekends.  I just don’t want to put off my dream until it’s too late.

In any case, my thanks go out to David Bowie for all of the wonderful music he created. He will definitely be missed.

Doctor Who reviews: Face The Raven, Heaven Sent and Hell Bent

Here’s my write-up on the Doctor Who Series Nine three episode conclusion. “Face the Raven” was written by Sarah Dollard and directed by Justin Molotnikov.  “Heaven Sent” and “Hell Bent” were written by Steven Moffat and directed by Rachel Talalay.

Yeah, it took me a while to get around to this… although fortunately not nearly as long as it took the Doctor to escape from the Confession Dial!

Face The Raven

1) Familiar faces

It was really nice to see the return of Rigsy (Joivan Wade), who was introduced last year in “Flatline.”  Our intrepid artist has gotten married and is now a father.  Unfortunately his past association with the Doctor and Clara has put a target on his back.

I expect that by the end of “Face the Raven” the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) had come to regret saving the life of Ashildr (Maisie Williams). Especially as Ashildr’s manipulations had once again gone awry, this time resulting in the death of Clara (Jenna Coleman).

2) Death becomes her

I admit that the whole concept of the death mark tattoo being transferable from one person to another was awfully convenient.  The raven and the tattoos controlled by Ashildr were much too supernatural-type elements for my liking, as well.

Nevertheless, Clara did get a good, well-written death scene in “Face the Raven.” Coleman certainly played it very well.  The only thing that kept me from total shock & mourning was the fact that there were two more episodes left to Series Nine, and I was really left questioning if we had truly seen the last of Clara.

Heaven Sent

3) Solo act

Aside from the Veil, the figure of death that incessantly stalks him throughout the “Heaven Sent,” the Doctor is the sole character in this episode. Peter Capaldi completely blew me away with his performance in this.  Casting him as the Doctor was such a masterstroke, and that is amply on display here.

I loved the insights into the Doctor’s character and his thought processes. It was interesting to see how his so-called miraculous escapes are really the result of him retreating into a mental space in his head (represented by the TARDIS console room) and working though all of the variables and possibilities.

The direction on “Heaven Sent” by Talalay was amazing. She previously did superb work last year on “Dark Water” and “Death in Heaven.”  It was great to have her back again to close out Series Nine.

Interesting fact: early in her career Talalay was a production assistant on the John Waters movie Polyester, and the producer of his next two films, Hairspray and Cry-Baby. So, yes, Talalay has worked with John Waters and directed Doctor Who, which officially makes her one of the coolest people ever.

4) Repetition is good for the soul

There was that moment towards the end of “Heaven Sent” when it’s finally revealed that the Doctor had been repeating the same sequence of actions over and over and over again, hundreds of thousands of times, as he attempted to break through that twenty foot thick wall, wearing it down ever so slightly, before dying each and every time. There’s that awful instant when you realize that every single one of those skulls at the bottom of the lake belongs to the Doctor, each one of them the result of another cycle, another death.  It’s a genuinely chilling moment.

How many times did the Doctor have to die and be reborn within the Confession Dial before he finally broke through that wall? It seems that it couldn’t have been more than a week for each sequence.  There are 52 weeks in a year.  The Doctor was imprisoned for approximately 4.5 billion years.  Very roughly speaking, that comes to 234 billion times.  And now my head hurts.

5) Drawing a conclusion

Mike Collins is the artist who storyboarded “Heaven Sent” and several other recent episodes. When trying to figure out how many times events had repeated for the Doctor, I e-mailed Collins to ask if he knew how long each go-round was.  He responded that he didn’t recall a specific length being mentioned in Moffat’s script.

In any case, Collins is a very talented artist who has been involved with the Doctor Who comic books for a number of years now. Given his obvious fondness for the series, it’s wonderful that he now has the opportunity to work on the actual television program.

Hell Bent

6) A masterful plan

While inside the Confession Dial, the Doctor refused to divulge what he knew of the Hybrid, the entity that “will unravel the web of time, and destroy a billion billion hearts to heal its own.” We discover in “Hell Bent” that the reason why the Doctor kept this knowledge was because he needed a bargaining chip, something with which to manipulate the Time Lords into providing  him an opportunity to rescue Clara.

And, yes, she’s back… sort of. Takes from an instant in time from right before her death, Clara is neither alive nor dead.  The Time Lords are afraid that an attempt to undo Clara’s demise, a fixed moment in time, has the potential to cause massive, horrific damage to reality.  But the Doctor, having spent literally billions of years pounding against a wall, is in no mood to listen.

In the end, the mystery of the Hybrid is more a McGuffin to propel the story along than it is a question to be answered. The Hybrid could be the Doctor, who might just be half-human after all.  Or perhaps it could be Ashildr, an immortal half-human, half Mire.  Ashildr herself, still alive at the very end of time, suggests another possibility, one did not even occur to the Doctor…

Ashildr: What if the Hybrid wasn’t one person, but two.

The Doctor: Two?

Ashildr: A dangerous combination of a passionate and powerful Time Lord and a young woman, so very similar to him. Companions who are willing to push each other to extremes.

The Doctor: She’s my friend. She’s just my friend.

Ashildr: How did you meet her?

The Doctor: Missy.

Ashildr: Missy. The Master. The lover of chaos. Who wants you to love it too. She’s quite the matchmaker.

The Doctor: Clara’s my friend.

Ashildr: I know. And you’re willing to risk all of time and space because you miss her. One wonders what the pair of you will get up to next.

7) Time Lord Victorious

I’ve previously hypothesized that the Doctor and the Master were once very much alike, but over the centuries they developed in extremely different directions. Certainly it has been suggested on more than one occasion that the Doctor, if he is not careful, if he disregards morality and ethics, has the potential to become someone quite like the Master.

The Doctor Who novel The Dark Path by David A. McIntee was published in 1997. It revolves around an encounter between the Second Doctor and a fellow Time Lord, an old friend known as Koschei, the Master before he became the Master.  Koschei is at this point not evil, but he is arrogant, as well as quite ready to utilize violence as a first resort, rationalizing that the ends justify the means.  He is in certain respects much like the Doctor was when we first met him in “An Unearthly Child.”

Koschei’s carelessness accidentally causes the death of Ailla, a young woman who is traveling with him. Consumed by guilt, Koschei attempts to utilize an ancient artifact known as the Darkheart to rewrite history and undo Ailla’s death.  In order to do so, he uses the Darkheart to destroy the home planet of the Tereleptils, killing millions of sentient beings.  This horrifying act sets in motion further tragedies, all of which place Koschei on the path to becoming the Master.

Doctor Who The Dark Path

I do not know if The Dark Path is considered canonical, but it certainly offers an interesting possible explanation for how the Master came to be. And there are undoubtedly parallels between McIntee’s novel and Moffat’s script for “Hell Bent.”

The Doctor, the man who never carries a gun, uses one to shoot the General (who was actually more or less on his side up until that moment) in cold blood so that he can escape with the retrieved Clara. The Doctor argues that he didn’t really commit murder because the General is a Time Lord and that he will regenerate.  But that sounds like a very self-serving justification indeed.  Certainly the fact that the Doctor is willing to resort to violence, that he is ready to gamble on the stability of reality itself, and that he wants to wipe Clara’s memories in order to keep her “safe” all leaves her aghast.

Finally, seeing Clara’s reaction to everything that he has done, the Doctor is at last forced to step back and look at acknowledge just what he is doing, what he is becoming…

“Look how far I went for fear of losing you. This has to stop… I went too far. I broke all my own rules. I became the Hybrid.”

8) The restaurant at the end of the universe

I’m not sure how I feel about the idea of Clara and Ashildr traveling through time & space in a TARDIS stuck in the shape of a 1950s American diner. Obviously at some point Clara needs to return to Gallifrey so that she can be sent back to her proper time to die, allowing history to continue uninterrupted.  But that might be in five minutes, or five years, or five centuries.  That’s really open-ended.  Besides, the whole crisis caused by the Doctor’s actions was supposedly predicated on the notion that the longer Clara is removed from her timeline the more danger reality is supposed to be in.  And I’d hate to think that down the line someone uses all this as an opportunity to somehow undo Clara’s seemingly-inevitable death.

Still, it was pretty cool to see a TARDIS console room with the “default” setting, just as the Doctor’s own TARDIS originally appeared back in the early 1960s.

Anyway, however they turn out, Clara is now off on her own journeys. The Doctor has had his memory wiped of all the specifics of who Clara was.  So this appears to be the end of their time together, which is a good thing.  Coleman did a very good job portraying Clara, but the character was sometimes inconsistently written, which was frustrating.  And after three years I think many viewers are ready for a change.  Hopefully the Doctor’s next companion will prove to be very different.

Doctor Who reviews: Sleep No More

I’m finally caught up on my Doctor Who viewing.  Here are a few thoughts on the episode “Sleep No More” written by Mark Gatiss and directed by Justin Molotnikov.

1) Found footage

I am generally not a fan of so-called “found footage” movies.  I found The Blair Witch Project to be one of the most overrated pieces of $#!+ that I have ever seen.  On the other hand, I did enjoy Paranormal Activity, although part of that may have been due to not having very high expectations in the first place.

You can imagine how I felt when I started watching “Sleep No More” and realized that it was that type of story.  Fortunately this was actually a good episode.  Gatiss wrote a scary, unnerving script that made very good use of the format.

Molotnikov did very solid work directing.  Rather than the confusion and motion sickness that Blair Witch left me with, “Sleep No More” with its cutting back-and-forth between security cameras and character POVs resulted in, for the most part, genuine suspense.  While there were chaotic moments of storytelling, for the most part those contributed to the atmosphere of the story, since the audience was left just as uncertain about what was going on as the characters.

Sleep No More poster

2) In space no one can hear you sleep

Humanity once again manages to make a mess of things.  Yeah, leave it to capitalists and scientists to get together for the oh-so-brilliant idea of cramming people’s need for eight hours of sleep into a mere five minutes, leaving us able to work non-stop for almost an entire day.  I’m sure that in the real world there are people actually attempting to find a way to do just this, all in the name of greater profits.

Of course, since this is Doctor Who, things inevitably go pear-shaped.  The Doctor falls into his standard role of calling out humanity on its arrogance and short-sightedness.  Due to the format of this episode Peter Capaldi only has a couple of short monologues regarding the foolishness of the Morpheus program.  Nevertheless, in these few brief moments he invests them with both a genuine sense of outrage at humanity’s audacity and a philosophical contemplation of the value of sleep.

3) Enter Sandmen

The Sandmen are, when you come down to it, a ridiculous concept.  Fortunately the episode moves at such a fast clip that you aren’t left considering for too long that a bunch of people-eating monsters have been formed from “dream dust.”

The low lighting and herky-jerky camerawork also, for the most part, results in the Sandmen not being seen too clearly.  Good decision, since from the few good glimpses we get of them they look very much like humanoid lumps of oatmeal.  I expect that it a well-lit room they would appear quite silly.  Molotnikov did a pretty good job filming the Sandmen in an effective, menacing manner.

Sleep No More promo image

4) Universe building

If you ever watched any of Doctor Who stories made in the 1960s and 70s that were set in the future, for the most part everything was very white and very British.  That began to change a bit in the 1980s, and since the show returned in 2005 we really have seen a number of future eras occupied by different ethnic groups.

Gatiss had an interesting concept in “Sleep No More” for how in the 38th Century India and Japan combine into a massive superpower with colonies throughout the solar system.  It gave “Sleep No More” a distinct flavor and backdrop.  As with the best universe building, Gatiss mostly leaves these as background elements and hints of a larger culture.

5) To be continued?

“Sleep No More” appears to end on a cliffhanger, which left me believing that this was another example of the two episode structure that has occurred throughout Series Nine.  So I was a bit surprised when I then watched “Face the Raven” and it was completely unrelated, the first installment of a three episode season finale.

I wonder if at some point the dangling plotlines of “Sleep No More” will be picked up in a future episode.  After all, the character of Nagata, played by Elaine Tan, survives.  She heads off with the Doctor and Clara in the TARDIS to Neptune, where they hope to shut down the Morpheus program.  Or perhaps we really are going to be left with the episode’s final unsettling minutes, kept in the dark as to exactly how things worked out in the 38th Century.

Doctor Who reviews: The Zygon Invasion and The Zygon Inversion

Yesterday I watched the recent two episode Doctor Who story “The Zygon Invasion” and “The Zygon Inversion” written by Peter Harness and Steven Moffat.  It was a pretty good pair of episodes.  They were not perfect, but certainly entertaining and well-made.  This was another one of those stories that I needed to think over for a bit before writing about.

Zygon Invasion poster

1) You say you want a revolution?

The dangling subplot of the Zygons from “The Day of the Doctor” was picked up here.  We learn that humanity and the Zygons did manage to reach an agreement that enabled 20 million Zygons to secretly settle on Earth in human form.  Unfortunately a splinter group of militants has formed made up of Zygons who do not want to live as humans, who wish to embrace their alien heritage.  They regard humans as the enemy and assimilated Zygons as traitors.

I realize that these episodes were written & filmed months ago, and even aired prior to the terrorist attacks in Paris earlier this month.  But the parallels here are interesting.

Those attacks, and numerous other atrocities around the globe in the last several years, are the work of the Islamic State, a fanatical doomsday cult of Muslim extremists.  They wish to create a “caliphate” based upon their idea of a “pure” interpretation of Islam in preparation for the arrival of the End Times.

The actions of ISIL have led to anti-Muslim paranoia in the Western world.  Many in the United States want to ban Syrian refugees from entering the country out of fear that militants could be hidden among them.  This actually plays right into the hands of ISIL, who want to stop the refugees to find a safe haven, and who perceive the Islamophobia as the perfect recruiting tool.

Harness and Moffat pointedly avoid any mention of religious motivation among the Zygons.  However, the revolutionaries, led by a Zygon known as “Bonnie,” are motivated by the dream of a society that is totally free from both the presence and ideology of anything that is not Zygon.  They are willing to commit horrible acts of violence to achieve this “perfect” world.

Bonnie intends to cause the Zygons who have assimilated to return to their original forms, realizing this will create massive panic among humanity.  This will force the assimilated Zygons to join her group solely to survive the inevitable human violence.  Bonnie even recognizes that realistically 20 million Zygons do not stand a chance against six billion humans, but she would rather die on her feet in pursuit of her goals, taking as many humans with her as possible, than live on her knees.

UNIT, in turn, faced with millions of shape-shifting aliens who have the ability to infiltrate all levels of government, to assume the identities of friends and loved ones before they strike, are ready to wipe out all of the Zygons, guilty and innocent, in order to prevent more violence.

INVERSION OF THE ZYGONS (By Peter Harness and Steven Moffat)

2) Working class Zygon

Bonnie forces one of the assimilated Zygons, a man named Etoine played by Nicholas Asbury, to transform back to his actual form, recording it on her cell phone and posting it on the internet as a start to sowing xenophobia among humanity.

Etoine is horrified; he was perfectly happy with his new existence as a human, and now that has been destroyed.  Harness and Moffat make in very clear that this Zygon is apolitical, just someone trying to get on with their life…

Etoine: I’m not part of your fight. I never wanted to fight anyone. I just wanted to live here. Why can’t I just live?

The Doctor: We are on your side.

Etoine: I’m not on anyone’s side! This is my home!

Seeing no way out, Etoine commits suicide in front of the Doctor.  It’s a heartbreaking scene, with a sad, moving performance by Asbury.  It really demonstrates the suffering that ordinary people endure because self-important revolutionaries prize ideals more than they do actual lives, when fanatics believe that the ends justify any means.

3) Capaldi and Coleman

Both Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman are amazing in this pair of episodes.

Capaldi is well on his way to becoming my favorite Doctor ever.  He is such an amazing actor.  In the second episode, the Doctor gives a powerful speech to Bonnie…

I don’t understand? Are you kidding me? Of course I understand. I mean, do you call this a war? This funny little thing. This is not a war. I fought in a bigger war than you will ever know. I did worse things than you can ever imagine. And when I close my eyes… I hear more screams than anyone would ever be able to count!

Capaldi totally owns the episode at this moment.  I could not take my eyes off of him.  He was amazing.

Even when it comes to silly stuff like the Doctor claiming that he has question mark underpants, referring to himself as ‘Doctor Disco” and “Doctor  Funkenstein,” or alleging that his real name is “Basil,” Capaldi delivers those lines with such a wonderful irreverence.  Things that might sound daft coming from a lesser actor are quite witty and almost self-deprecating when Capaldi delivers them.

I know that at this point a number of viewers, myself included, are experiencing a bit of Clara fatigue.  The character has been around for a while now and, as with other companions, the quality of writing given to her has been somewhat inconsistent.  Given that, I think it can become easy to overlook Coleman.  But she actually is a great actor.

This is ably demonstrated when Bonnie takes on Clara’s form for the majority of these two episodes.  Bonnie is a completely different character from Clara, and Coleman plays the part perfectly.  It definitely demonstrates her versatility.

THE ZYGON INVERSION (By Peter Harness and Steven Moffat)

4) Osgood lives

Despite having been murdered by Missy in “Death in Heaven,” Osgood (Ingrid Oliver) returns.  It transpires that since the events of “The Day of the Doctor,” there have been two Osgoods, one human and one Zygon, the living embodiment of the peace treaty.  We don’t find out until the end of “Inversion” which one this is, human or Zygon.  But since they both have the same memories and personality, in a way both of them were real.

When I first heard Osgood was returning, I did feel it cheapened her death.  However it’s made clear that the death of one Osgood very much affected the other, that they had become as close as twin sisters.  Osgood certainly seems a more serious, somber individual here than in the past, no longer a goofy teenage but an adult dealing with great responsibilities.

5) Pod people

There is a tone to these episodes very reminiscent of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” a menacing undercurrent of paranoia.  Is this person a human, or are they actually a Zygon?  Who can you trust?  At times it is quite unnerving.

The difference here, of course, is that the Doctor is hopeful that he can cut through the fear & distrust to find a peaceful solution.  He desperately wants to find a way for the two races to co-exist.

6) Five rounds rapid

Kate Stewart (Jemma Redgrave) comes across much better than she did in her previous appearance in the Series Nine opener.  Yes, it’s obvious that Kate is still very much in over her head.  This time, however, we see that she nevertheless remains as rational and level-headed as one can under extremely difficult circumstances.

Kate is obviously much less idealistic than the Doctor.  Like her father, she is willing to use violence as a first resort.  But these episodes do demonstrate that her approach is not all that unreasonable…

Kate: You left us with an impossible situation, Doctor.

The Doctor: Yes I know, it’s called peace.

As much as I appreciate the Doctor’s noble intentions, it’s easy for him to negotiate a peace treaty and then fly off in the TARDIS.  Kate was left with the difficult job of actually making it work, of ensuring that humans and Zygons peacefully co-existed.  Just as Ashildr pointed out in the previous episode, the Doctor is always interfering and then running away, leaving others to deal with the consequences of his action.  All things considered, Kate appears to be doing the best she can.

While it is unfortunate that Kate had to kill several Zygons, if she had not done so then she herself would have died, just as many other members of UNIT did in this story.

Zygon Inverson Kate Stewart

7) Let’s let Zygons be Zygons

The Doctor eventually convinces Bonnie to give up her crusade.  He also forgives her for her crimes.

I was left wondering if Bonnie got off easy.  After all, she and her followers killed a great many people, both human and Zygon.  Many would argue that she was deserving of some form of punishment.

Perhaps this can be seen as the lesser of evils.  If Bonnie had been killed, it likely would have turned her into a martyr, inspiring her followers to continue her fanatical path.  If she had been locked up, she could have remained an unrepentant enemy waiting for an opportunity to escape and resume her terrorist activities.

By convincing Bonnie to reconsider her views, the Doctor has diffused the threat she and her organization presented.  At the end we see her devoting herself to maintaining the peace treaty by permanently taking on the form of Osgood.  It can be argued that she is making amends for her crimes by working to heal the rift she created and prevent others from following in her footsteps.

This is an issue that continually plagues humanity.  What is more important, enacting retribution or ending the circle of violence?  Do you let crimes go unpunished if it will prevent future violence from occurring?  There definitely is no easy answer.

As I’ve observed before, a quality of science fiction which I appreciate is that thru its lens it enables us to gain different perspectives on contentious real world issues. Obviously these two episodes of Doctor Who gave me a great deal to consider.