Tuesday, January 16, 2018
Blake’s 7 – Cygnus Alpha
Forty years ago tonight, the third episode of dystopian BBC sci-fi Blake’s 7 was broadcast. For me, Cygnus Alpha is both where Blake’s 7 becomes Blake’s 7 and where it definitively spoke to me.
This article is a mix of review of that episode and personal perspective on Blake’s 7. A tale of religion, freedom and BRIAN BLESSED. Of how human nature has to embrace a lot of contradictions while totalitarian systems have to deny them. And of Richard and me, and Stockport and London.
Blake’s 7 is remembered after all these years because it opened more bleakly than any other TV sci-fi and finished more bleakly still. But along the way, it’s somehow still immensely enjoyable. If you’re not familiar with the series, here’s the story so far:
The Way Back opens on a future Earth under a drably authoritarian Administration like 1984 slogging on to centuries later. Roj Blake is an apparently ordinary person who finds his life is a lie, his memory is a lie and the whole system is a lie, which then lies about him in the most horrible way to destroy his credibility as a political threat. From suddenly awakened political activist to convicted criminal, he’s transported to prison world Cygnus Alpha with, well, a bunch of criminals. In Space Fall, their prison freighter London encounters en route a mysterious abandoned spacecraft and prisoners Blake, Jenna and Avon board and take it, but this crew won’t be a clean-cut bunch in starched uniforms. No, the people in uniforms are the ruthless galactic Federation Blake’s fighting, while his allies are thieves and murderers who don’t necessarily share his revolutionary ideals. Cygnus Alpha sees him get used to his spectacular ship the Liberator – while Avon and Jenna have to decide whether it’s going to be his ship. And taking the Liberator to future-Botany Bay Cygnus Alpha itself in search of new recruits to his crusade, Blake finds from the start that even the most desperate won’t necessarily flock to his cause…
Cygnus Alpha and Omega
“Come. Follow us. God has prepared a place for you.”
There are at least a dozen episodes – as early as The Way Back, as late as Blake – that you could point to and say, ‘There. That’s it. That’s what makes Blake’s 7 really Blake’s 7’. Of all of them, while it may not be the most dazzling, the most deep or the most distinctive, the most practical single point at which Blake’s 7 comes together as a series is Cygnus Alpha.
Cygnus Alpha is where it all came together for me, too, and not just for the obvious functional reasons that by the end of the story Blake has in place a dysfunctional crew, a super-functional ship and a messianic mission statement, ready to start.
I had started watching Doctor Who aged three, at the beginning of 1975 and the beginning of Tom Baker (with 1963 and 2005, one of the three perfect moments so far to join the series). It captivated me instantly and has shaped an enormous amount of my life, from learning to read, to my politics, to introducing me to the man I love. So when three years later another BBC science fiction series came along, a little bit later in the evening, a little bit more grown-up, I was determined to see it. Wasn’t I twice as grown up now, and allowed to stay up a little bit later too?
I can still see in my mind’s eye – perhaps wholly hallucinatory, after four decades of unreliable memory – the grubby, grim Radio Times picture of Gareth Thomas and Robert Beatty on a tower block roof or car park to promote the series’ first episode, and remember wondering what it would all be about. My other most vivid memory of The Way Back was also one that involved Robert Beatty’s character, but with absolute certainty: a brutal massacre that both thrilled and shocked me, and provided at the time the most compelling answer to what Blake’s 7 would be all about. That, and the nature of the charges framing Blake, tell me in hindsight that my Dad watched the opening episode with my brother and me while my Mum was listening to the radio in the kitchen. Had she come into the living room for either detail, there would have been the inevitable cry of “The things you let them watch!” (my Mum’s superpower in my childhood being to sense the most ‘unsuitable’ moment of anything on the TV to make her entrance) and that would have been the end of it. Though, despite her disdain for all science fiction, I do remember Mum positively choosing to come through for a couple of minutes each week after that to see what frivolities Jenna was wearing.
Aside: I wrote the passage above about the Radio Times picture back in 2014. Since then, I’ve at last seen again what was almost certainly the original entry that my memory mangled over the years. It’s actually of Gareth Thomas and Michael Keating, which makes more sense, but I can understand how I’d have watched the first episode, been enthralled, and put the two most important characters in it together, even if one of them was quite unlikely to be a continuing cast member by that point.
The photo isn’t even in a particularly identifiable setting, but I was born in 1970s Stockport with plenty of concrete and car parks around and clearly read ‘vaguely urban and like the places I know’ into the shot. After many years away, since I wrote the original version of this article I’ve also been living back in Stockport again – though the way back was less hard work than Blake’s. I moved back there with my husband Richard, who (unknown to each other at the time) was also watching Blake’s 7 all those years ago, and not that far away…
One of the absurd moments in Cygnus Alpha comes when, faced with the alien technological marvel of matter transmission, Blake and Avon immediately grasp it because – by an unbelievable coincidence – they had both worked on the same failed Federation “Aquatar” teleport project. “Small world.” They didn’t meet each other then. “Large project.” Not until the start of this series, with both of them on the prison ship London. I remember scoffing at two people with such different skillsets and backstories both having worked on the same useless project, never meeting, just so that years later the concept could come in so expositionarily useful in understanding technology that no-one on any world they knew had ever mastered. Absurd! A decade and a half after we each watched Blake’s 7 as boys, Richard and I found each other through our fluency in that series, Doctor Who and other tongues while I happened to be staying for a few weeks (or so I thought) in the East End. Our ‘Aquatar moment’ came not on the Liberator but on the almost as shiny and exciting Docklands Light Railway. What an absurd coincidence it would be for us to have both grown up in the same town but only to find each other in… London.
The Radio Times picture was posted by the quite extraordinary Twitter account @MakingBlakes7, which is the most brilliant continuing documentary project I’ve ever seen on Twitter. You can see that Radio Times Tweet by clicking here.
“Prisoners? New souls for the Faith.”
For this episode, it helps that it all looks rather stylish. I’ll admit that I often find something of the ‘that’ll do’ about Vere Lorrimer’s direction in his later work for the series, but here the night filming is striking and the projected backgrounds (yellow moon, forbidding citadel) as fantastic an effect as the series ever delivers. But it’s my Mum and Dad’s influence that really primed me to love Cygnus Alpha, though they’d roll their eyes at quite why. They’re both deeply religious, and I grew up going to two churches every Sunday, Catholic and Baptist. Add two competing versions of the same faith and a bright boy who read a lot, and I became steeped in religion, but at the same time asking a lot of questions and curiously open-minded about different flavours that all claimed to be the one true faith. Perhaps that’s why I was just as happy with two ‘rival’ sci-fi shows.
Doctor Who had gone through a year of dark religion that’s still to this day my favourite just before Blake’s 7 came along, and Cygnus Alpha spoke to me in just the same way. This was my world! Religion in all its scary but fascinating glory! My strange personal mix of free-thinking and immersion in dogma meant I was always more compelled by terror in the pews than Yeti in the loos. So, as much as day-after-1984 dystopia had grabbed my attention, it was Cygnus Alpha that was speaking my language and told me this was absolutely my sort of series.
“My word is law. My followers obey without question.”
For all that the Federation, like communist regimes of the time, has banned religion, Cygnus Alpha’s theocratic society is the Federation in miniature (though distinguished by a greedily ambitious figurehead rather than a faceless bureaucracy, Vargas prefiguring über-villain-to-be Servalan). The script is full of parallels between them, from the cruder version of Blake’s show-trial in this world’s “SO PERISH UNBELIEVERS” to the subtler point that, for all his cowardice, it’s Vila who’s still by nature the most wary of going along with authority, whatever form it takes – or clever juxtapositions like “the place of rebirth” and “Berthing sequence automatic”.
Perhaps the unambiguous connection of this theocracy with that already established totalitarianism is what gives the attack on religion such force. Even by the standards of science fiction using other worlds to get away with social critiques that would provoke too many complaints in a modern-day setting, this one pulls no punches (though the institutional child abuse was the Federation rather than the Faith). It’s not a case of using religious trappings to save on money or world-building, using historical window-dressing to tell a different story. One of the reasons this so appealed to little religious me was, ironically, what I’d expect to offend other believers most. It was about the ideas, not just the imagery. Underneath all the monk-like robes, the blasphemous crucifixion, the cruel crusader bust, the Inquisition torture imagery and echoing chants familiar from Gothic horror films, the script really is making a bitter attack on the very concept of organised religion.
“So you and those before you built your power on fear and ruled them with it.”
We saw back on Earth that the Administration maintain their power by surveillance and brute force, fear and drugs, suppression of ideas and the Big Lie. That mirrored totalitarian regimes of the time; now this mirror of the Federation in turn mirrors religious power. If there’s ever a daytime on this world, we don’t see it. Cygnus Alpha is symbolically in the Dark Ages, and for generations its people have been kept in the dark of ignorance. Just like Earth under the Federation, on Cygnus Alpha under the Faith you are always watched. Literally by guards in both, but where the Administration uses cameras everywhere, the Faith uses its God, explicitly invented as a tool of social control.
My husband Richard points out that the constellation of Cygnus is also known as the Northern Cross: both a religious allusion in itself and a reflection of the Southern Cross which is the symbol of Australia, a striking setting for a theocratic space-Botany Bay.
This mini-Australian mini-Federation doesn’t just swipe at religion in general but, true to its Gothic trappings, is as specifically anti-Catholic as any fevered Gothic text. It’s not just taking the fear of an invented death for the fear of an invented hell and proclaiming that the Faith is your only salvation. The Saruman-like hand is one of the production’s few symbols that isn’t obviously Christian, perhaps deliberately to make you focus on a fictional symbol and not on the words and their meaning: “Only from this hand comes life” coupled with a priest handing you a small, round, white thing to swallow that claims to be salvation but is in fact nothing at all? Could it get any more blatant? To look at the “life” held out and see a Trebor mint is to miss the point, but perhaps the very cheapness and obvious solution helps distract and avert complaints. Later dystopia V For Vendetta offered one poisonously satirical communion wafer, but this is a gob-smacking polemic against the whole idea of transubstantiation.
And the Curse of Cygnus (a near-homophone for ‘sickness’) catechised as divine punishment on every wretched inhabitant of Cygnus Alpha – all deserving it as either criminals in their previous life or descended from offenders by birth – from which they can only be saved through the Faith? That’s Original.
After this story’s impact, there’s no real follow-up to the theme; Blake’s 7 is never this savagely critical of religion again. It’s background colour in a few more stories, but they don’t have anything that feels so real. Cygnus Alpha does act as a prototype for more generic Blake’s 7 stories, such as generally the Liberator turning up at a planet of the week and bringing down the regime (or, in this case, leaving it in chaos and having to run away) or more particularly the primitive planet with a primitive people and a twist about something more advanced, usually involving a quarry and a more interesting B-plot in which the crew bitch at each other. Modern BBC sci-fi watchers might call that the ‘Utopia style’, though Russell T Davies’ Blake’s 7 homage brought an altogether rougher beast for its second coming. Perhaps the real thematic legacy of this episode isn’t equating the fierce religion of Cygnus Alpha with the totalitarianism of the Federation, though. Fittingly for my own complicated view of religion as both good and bad, there’s a parable here that’s closer to home.
“The architectural style is early maniac.”
These days I wonder if the whole thing’s not a great big warning about Blake.
If aged six, getting into the series, Cygnus Alpha confirmed that it was my sort of show, I was delighted by how it grew when watching the whole TV series right through again in 2014, aged forty-two. It wasn’t an episode I often chose to watch when I felt like a bit of Blake’s 7 (though I always loved it more than I expected when I did), but I’d thought it was one of the ones I had the clearest picture of in my head: the end of the beginning, fabulous Pamela Salem and Brian Blessed, evil religion plot with a different tone to the rest of the show, entertaining but a bit cheesy. It may well be all those things, but with a more critical brain and knowing the show well enough to put the whole thing in context, I suddenly felt there was a lot more to it.
Blake’s the hero and Vargas is the villain, so they must be opposites, right? Except that it doesn’t play that way at all. If the society of Cygnus Alpha is a mirror of the Federation, the extent to which its leader was not a contrast to but an explicit counterpart to Blake seems so striking that it’s hard not to see it as deliberate (with all the implicit consequences should Blake ever get into power that that entails). Blake getting a messiah complex in Series Two? This story more than any other reads like he’s been off on one since the beginning. Vargas and Blake face off, Brian Blessed and Gareth Thomas with similar intensity, their demands incompatible because the two of them both want the same thing: souls as currency to spread their belief, the power of their word, across the galaxy. Blake takes up his special handgun for the first time; the first to use it? Vargas. Avon’s warning to Jenna about Blake? “He’s a crusader.” Vargas rules by the Big Lie and forced ‘conversion’; Blake tells his followers they have a free choice, but keeps the truth from his first, sceptical disciples (“Did you see anything while you were down there?” “Not much”) and like Vargas gives the next batch of converts the choice of his way or death:
“Only from this hand comes life.”Three different characters this week all state that the prisoners have no choice, and in the end they don’t – whoever they follow, they’re still going to be followers.
Back on the London, Blake was willing to sacrifice himself so that his followers might live. Now we see the flip-side of that: if you’re not with him, you’re against him. He’s come to find new converts, but when they deny him in fear of the rival Faith, he rages at them instead: “You’re pathetic! …slaves! …I’m better off without you.” For all his rhetoric of freedom, Blake demands a positive choice to follow him – a leap of faith. Offering salvation to his own followers is one thing, but rather than sacrifice his messianic ideals he’ll let everyone else die. Vargas and Kara had watched the Liberator in the sky – a light in the darkness. They called it a sign, and it’s a guiding star heralding the new messiah, but we all know who that is, and it’s not the Blessed One whose hard certainty will be driving death after death in this series.
“A little more practice, we should be able to put you down with precision.”
In the context of the whole series, Avon’s appeal to Jenna that Blake would only use all the ship’s treasures to fight the Federation – though it turns out that Blake is never bright enough to realise how effective wealth would be as a weapon, and Avon is bright enough never to tell him – seems like foreshadowing.
“And he can’t win. You know he can’t win. What do you want to be – rich, or dead?”From almost the very beginning, you can see in hindsight warnings, prefigurings, fetches of much later events in the series, and perhaps it’s appropriate that this religious episode seems the most prophetic. Avon even aims his gun at Blake first chance he gets (though it’s only once he’s become a believer that he’ll fire). But Avon needn’t have been foresighted enough to see Blake coming down the road. I realise this time that he could just have watched where Blake’s been, already fighting to the last drop of their blood. Consider…
- Blake’s first rebellion, the series’ backstory: everyone else gets killed and he has his brain knackered.
- Blake’s second rebellion, the series’ opening: he only has to turn up out of vague interest and everyone else is massacred (while several children have their brains knackered).
- Blake’s third rebellion, last week: everyone’s rounded up and several of them get shot though, remarkably, most of them live. In chains.
- This week, Blake’s fourth rebellion: they’re only up against knives and knuckles on Cygnus Alpha, but he still manages to be one of only three survivors who leg it.
- Never mind the “Curse of Cygnus”; Blake is such a jinx that he only has to express a passing interest in a particular rebellion and 99% of them will die. On which subject, tune in next week…
“It didn’t answer any of your questions. More than that – it deliberately ignored them.”
There may be a certain irony in my having gradually given up belief in religion but gained a passion for politics in my teens, but I remain a free-thinker and just as ready to question my leaders as I was scriptures, and unlike Blake I’m more than wary of imposing my beliefs on others. For me, there was nothing like seeing how two competing church hierarchies that theoretically professed the same beliefs were both much more obsessed with control of individuals than individual belief to tip my own beliefs towards Liberal individualism, if not a hint of anarchism in observing that the best way to kill a belief is to set up a rigid structure to enforce it.
Though I wrestled with the theology for years afterwards, it was perhaps inevitably a confrontation with church authority which precipitated my eventual teenage crisis with religion. The surprise might be that it turned out to be with the smaller ‘free’ church rather than the more top-down hierarchy; the ‘Cygnus Alpha’ Baptists rather than the ‘Federation’ of Catholicism. Aged eighteen, I was teaching Sunday School for the kids; one Sunday I came in with a noticeable bruise and, asked what had happened by one boy, replied with the truth: I’d been walking down the road with my boyfriend and someone had hit us. The next week I found I wasn’t teaching Sunday School any more and that a tight-lipped “You know why” was the only explanation. My own moment of liberation came in realising not my fear, but theirs in their own repression; that they couldn’t bring themselves to talk to me, nor even do what a decent human being would do and ask if I was all right after I’d been attacked. The truth shall set you free, indeed, but not in the way they or I had expected it. That was the moment I lost all respect for that particular church because, after all, what was there to respect? And, fortunately, it wasn’t such a long walk back.
“That would have been very disarming if I didn’t know that you meant it.”
Zen and Jenna offer an intriguing alternative here, both a different angle on (explicitly non-Christian) religion and on what the series might have been had each of them kept such significant roles. How much does each affect the other when enigmatic ship’s computer Zen gets into its new pilot’s head? Jenna’s “to be completely known. It’s like – innocence” is more like a revealed religious experience than anything else in the episode, and without it, would she have hesitated to head off with Avon? Zen is characterised as a superior and evasive oracle with less obvious reactions – except one – but, taking its name and the ship’s from Jenna’s thoughts, does it make itself in her image?
“Wisdom must be gathered; it cannot be given.”Zen is a very different religious text to the certainties of Vargas and Blake, but how much of Zen’s resistance to direct is inspired by its pilot’s resistance to being dominated, as “the Liberator” it plucks from her desires suggests?
The best piece of bitching among the crew is an understated one from Zen, as it says in turn to the three of them:
“Welcome, Jenna Stannis.”It’s a masterclass in how to be an oracle while making it absolutely bleedin’ obvious what you think; Avon only gets a neutral reply when he prompts it. Clearly, it’s read his mind last week and Jenna’s here and decided it’s not going to like him well before he starts saying it’s “just a machine”. It’s a shame that Zen’s telepathy is lost to another crewmember long before it loses prime spot as ‘bitchy super-computer’. The series also swiftly drops this week’s attempts to pretend they know what they’re talking about on scientific ideas – Aquatar, negative hyperspace, the anti-matter interface – which is no great loss. It feels much more Blake’s 7 when the crew don’t know what they’re talking about, like Blake stumbling on using the teleport because he’s not used to it.
“Welcome, Roj Blake.”
That is all.
I do feel a little wistful about some of the other interpersonal dynamics that the story appears to set up: judging by Cygnus Alpha, there are now going to be three charismatic leads setting the direction, Jenna being the swing vote, with willingly violent killer Gan and his little friend Vila as wild cards, but it doesn’t work out that way… You can see here that Jenna has so much potential. Blake’s 7 began broadcast just as Star Wars first opened in Britain, so it’ll take a while for the film to start having any impact on the series, but compare and contrast even from the first the clean versus the dirty-handed rebels. One of this series’ great lost opportunities is still that its ‘Han Solo’ is a woman – which may be why she gets elbowed out of the way. But, still to come, Blake’s 7’s ‘Tarkin’ figure will be a woman too – and once she appears, their ‘Darth Vader’-equivalent won’t stand a chance.
“You’re a free man.”
In 2014 I watched Blake’s 7 right through with my beloved Richard. But much as we enjoyed the series all over again, we’ll always remember 2014 for something much more significant to our lives together. We went back, not to the Dome – there’s one just across the river from our flat in London – but to Stockport. On our twentieth anniversary together, we got married at Stockport Town Hall.
I’d say that this was my personal triumph of freedom over dark religion, but freedom won for me so long ago that religion was barely a footnote. Though I still find stories powerful when they make strong use of religion, for good or ill, it’s only as I write this that I realise Stockport Baptist Church is a couple of minutes’ walk from the Town Hall. It’s not something that crossed my mind on the day (though I probably quoted Blake’s 7 at some point). When we made the most important decision of our lives, we were surrounded by believers in several kinds of politics and faiths and in none, including my very proud and happy Mum and Dad, but we chose each other and we chose all the people we invited for love and belief in ourselves.
The Apocrypha: Trevor Hoyle’s Blake’s 7
“Hands reached up and pushed back the cowl to reveal Kara’s evil, haunting beauty – a face that was disfigured by a kind of lustful greed… a smile that was rapturous and yet somehow obscene…”
There’s another alternative world of Blake’s 7, and of Cygnus Alpha. I was already a voracious reader when Blake’s 7 turned up, but though my memories of Cygnus Alpha are thoroughly entangled in Trevor Hoyle’s first Blake’s 7 novelisation (like the first VHS release, compressing the first four episodes), I didn’t return to it as nearly often as Target’s Doctor Who range. Wondering why, I accompanied my 2014 rewatch by buying the audiobook versions, with this part now read by Paul Darrow… And, yes, I can understand why; Hoyle’s writing style tries to be hard-boiled and usually just about hits pedestrian. The CD readers liven him up, but the main interest is the differences from the TV versions – it seems that the first book is from early drafts of the scripts, and without having seen most of the actors, while the Liberator is described backwards. My guess is that these are unadulterated script writer Terry Nation, before script editor Chris Boucher came along; there are notably fewer sharp one-liners and a much smaller part for Avon. The biggest point of interest, unexpectedly, may be his take on Time Squad, for a very different backstory to both Gan and the assassins (though Zen is far less intriguing); the biggest wasted opportunity that Hoyle seems to stick too rigidly to the scripts rather than, say, establishing Arco and Selman with roles in the London rebellion now the actors don’t need paying for an extra episode.
The very ’70s stylistic tic that most sticks out today, though, is that suddenly we’re plunged into an alternate version of Blake’s 7 where (speaking of adultery) every woman is there to be leered at. Men get sexually neutral or ugly descriptions – let’s hope he’d not seen poor Michael Keating when Vila’s a “gargoyle” – but every woman is objectified at length and, if they’re baaad girls, all the more titillating! I suspect this may have put me off when I was a boy, but hearing Gareth Thomas and Paul Darrow having to read all this first made me wince, then laugh. Though I’ll give Hoyle the benefit of the doubt that there’s an earlier Gareth Thomas series in-joke in there, I did actually laugh aloud as Paul Darrow purred:
“Avon casually looked round and then sat up straight, his eyes popping out of his head. His first thought was to wonder how a beautiful and sexy star maiden had managed to get aboard the Liberator and it took all of ten seconds to realise that it was Jenna, attired in the most magnificent – and rather revealing – space-age costume.”Or, ‘Why, Miss Jenna, you’re beautiful!’
Avon follows this by swallowing in “goggling admiration” and “real appreciation”, her with “impish seductiveness” as she’s “coyly” “posing for him”. Later, Cally will be a “young”, “stunning-attractive girl”, “incredibly beautiful”, “athletically supple”, and Blake will be unable to fathom why a “beautiful girl” should be wearing combat gear. Dear [ Blessed ]GOD![ /Blessed ] She will also have amazing eyes the like of which Blake has never seen but which the author won’t describe, so they might boggle out on springs for all we know. At least Blake won’t actually ask her what she’s doing in a place like this.
But where Hoyle really gets excited is the female villains, who are beautiful – but evil, but sexy – but evil! What a mix. And a minx.
“His companion turned towards him… and in the flickering firelight it was a face of evil, the lips twisted in a rapacious snarl, yet even so with a fascinating, hypnotic beauty.Oh, put it away. The strangest thing is that the Terry Nation draft of the script forgets about her at – forgive me – the climax, and so bizarrely does Mr Hoyle. You’d think he’d have been faster to write her an unconvincing last moment than the one Chris Boucher seems to have stuck in. ‘Only the love of a good violent criminal she’s kissed once could free her from being the Sexy Nun of Evil…’
“‘New souls for the Faith,’ said Kara in a throaty whisper, her eyes alight with sly rapture.”
Paul Darrow clearly enjoys all this schlock too, as well as capturing Gareth Thomas’ intensity rather well for Blake and compensating for half Avon’s part not having been written yet with a compelling emphasis on his own character’s lines that makes his every. Word. Twice. As. Avonnn. The whole thing is hammy as hell but very entertaining, and far more so than the prose deserves.
So it’s a good job that the TV version was so absolutely perfect – not perhaps entirely perfect as a piece of television, but perfect to broadcast directly into my six-year-old world and open up a new one.
“Let’s all go! Er… No, on the other hand, let’s all stay.”
Last year I found that I couldn’t bear blogging any more. I wish I could say that, with the pressure off, I’ve been able to write plenty of articles for my own pleasure and that this is the herald of more to come. I’m sorry. I haven’t. It isn’t. So this is perhaps a coda – something I’ve not previously published, but which isn’t technically new.
Cygnus Alpha and Omega was first published in 2015 in the book Blake’s Heaven, a collection of personal perspectives on every episode of Blake’s 7. I was delighted to be a part of it and surprised I managed to write something, though that delight has since been marred by the horrible circumstances in which the book has been withdrawn and which I don’t want to think about. But with the fortieth anniversary of the series this year, I re-read my contribution and decided it was worthwhile enough not to go to waste. It’s more personal than most of my writing, and I found as I was putting it together the first time that how resonant the themes – and some of the coincidences – were to my life. Well, bits of it.
I’ve spent a ridiculous amount of time re-reading, re-watching and re-writing in tiny perfectionist polishes preparing for tonight, some of it no doubt procrastinating to avoid having to make the decision whether or not to put something else on my blog. I have. I hope you enjoy it.
I am, at least, enjoying Blake’s 7 all over again. For what it’s worth, though Cygnus Alpha has its own special place for me, my particular highlights of the series are:
- Rumours of Death
- Star One
- The Way Back
I’m sorry this isn’t my way back to blogging. For something cheerier, you might look up another great piece of BBC sci-fi; first broadcast on TV thirty-seven years ago this week – though, like this article, it had already done the rounds in other media – I find myself thinking of The HitchHiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Episode 3. Magrathea doesn’t properly revive from its long slumber, merely turning in its sleep to put a new spin on a previous work, but that too is about religion and, for all that I know how badly everything turned out, that it’s a cosmic joke and that the new beginning isn’t going anywhere, there is a moment at the end of that episode that still moves me more than almost any other piece of television. This piece of writing is nothing like that. But I am quite fond of the crinkly bits round the edges.
Thursday, September 14, 2017
Is That It?
Or, my mind robber.
On this day in 1968, The Mind Robber was first broadcast – one of Doctor Who’s most gorgeous, weird, brilliant adventures. Once upon a time, that’s how I might have opened a review of a favourite story. It’s been a long while since I’ve been able to write reviews; now it’s hard even to watch the stories.
This is the story of why I’ve turned my blog back on, but won’t be posting anything else to it. Because my mind robber isn’t fun and, to borrow from another great Troughton, this is the final end (…?).
I’ve loved writing for almost as long as I can remember, though for exactly as long, I’ve never written anything like as much as I wish to. Whether through laziness or distraction or the ever-present gnawing fear that what I write isn’t any good backed up by the procrastination of infinite note-making, I’ve always been a painstakingly slow writer and never got on with deadlines. From blogging series that I never completed, back through a failed academic career than zig-zagged between high marks for the essays I completed and zeroes for the ones I never quite started, all the way back to remembering ‘the first sentence I ever wrote’, at primary school – and that I didn’t finish it.
That’s the tension my writing had always lived with. But it was still a joy and always something to look forward to – even as ‘forward’ for any one piece of writing might always be moving ahead into a hypothetical future I could never bring myself to catch up with. My blogging’s never been prolific, but I did write some pieces along the way that out of that tension finished up pretty well.
It’s now four or five years since I last managed to complete and publish the sort of in-depth review I really want to, while even the blogging I’m not really satisfied with has trickled away to nothing, and that’s not just down to procrastination.
My physical health has been poor and getting worse since my mid-twenties. That is, I was often sickly when I was younger, too, but then I’d get better. For the last twenty years or so, nothing ever goes away once I’ve got it, and ‘better’ is at best a relative term. I carry impairments like cabbages on Crackerjack; I carry photos of four pages of regular prescriptions on my phone and can reel off the bits of me that don’t work literally from head to toe (usually worst in the middle) in what’s almost a ritual chant whenever a specialist asks if I have any other medical history they should know about.
My mental health has been on a similar downward trajectory for many years. Clinical depression and chronic physical ill health are not good for each other. Or, rather, they’re great for feeding each other but no good for me. Both mean in different ways that on many days I can’t get out, or wish that I hadn’t if I try. Both are humiliating. And both make me so bloody tired all the time, but so unable to rest (and of all my many pills, it’s always a choice whether to take the antidepressants, because one of the side effects is that they knock me out so heavily I’m going to sleep about twelve hours a day, let alone the muzziness when I’m ‘awake’).
Spending rather too much of every day either asleep or aiming at sleep and missing, I tend to dwell on things in a swamp of fear and loathing. Whether it’s all my many failures or that life is ticking by without anything in it. The worst of the past haunts me, even thinking about some of it can paralyse me into wreckage for a day, and I can’t remember the last time I was able to look into the future. I’ve mostly lost the ability to make small talk; how do you answer ‘How are you?’ when you’re like this, or ‘What have you been up to?’ when you’ve not worked and can’t think of anything you’ve achieved for more than a decade? And that makes it harder – though I do sometimes try, and it even sometimes works – to talk to people I actually care about. They’re so much worse. Because I can’t just wing it with them and I’m just ashamed. It’s difficult to explain how although in theory I have endless stretches of time, my functional time each day is vanishingly small. And the days when I do make the effort and put on a front and get through some sort of sociability and even maybe enjoy spending time with someone – the total collapse for days afterwards. Or the days when something else loads on that I have to cope with and I go from just ‘not coping’ into gibbering catastrophe. Last couple of weeks every other day it’s end-to-end panic attacks.
I hit perhaps my worst crisis about two months ago. That was when I simply turned off this blog because I couldn’t bear it any more.
How do you find joy in writing when you’ve lost the knack of finding joy in anything?
And so it all came tumbling down.
For years I’ve made long lists of things to do and pieces to write to give myself the impression of having some control over my life or some illusion that one day I will write the things I wish to write. Even as some of those lists have had dates for the most appropriate publication that have simply had the year changed over and over rather than being written. Something finally just turned over in my head in early July. I was updating the lists at the start of the month, as I’d done for so long, and suddenly it no longer made any kind of sense. There was just so much that I’d been turning over for so long, and it was all gibberish. Like a flicked switch, they all became accusations rather than comfort blankets. Just as seeing my threadbare blog staring back at me became an oppressive record of failure and I couldn’t face anyone being able to look at it.
I hoped that by switching it off for a while it would take some of the pressure off and give me respite to recover some mojo. It hasn’t. But a couple of people have asked me to make what I’ve previously written available again. Tonight I’ve returned the settings to public, but I can only cope with this by facing up to and sealing it as an historical document. If I put an end to it then it’s no longer a burden.
At least, that’s the hope. It’s unlikely to work, but I have to try and cut off this particular gnawing despair somehow.
I can recognise that I’ve written some really good stuff in the past. There are articles I’ve written on all manner of things where I’d be happy with the turn of phrase, the insight or the argument. I would be happy – but that I can’t do it any more makes it that much worse. I can get briefly animated by something and type in reams of notes, but try to assemble it into something someone else can read? I don’t know how to make any of it make sense any more. I don’t know how to construct an article. And most of all, I just don’t know how to enjoy it.
A few people had asked me in the last couple of years to write for them. With some I foolishly said yes, because I’d love to, it’s what I’ve dreamed of. But could I? Two struck lucky: with their final deadlines looming they pressed me that either I write or they had to ask someone else, and somehow that galvanised me and I delivered. It’s a mark of how unable I am to focus that you can buy something I’ve written in a book, but I’ve been completely unable even to write an introductory paragraph to publish it on this blog. Others I’ve failed completely by telling myself and them that yes, just give me a little longer, it’ll pass, I can do it, just another month, or year, but it’s only postponing the inevitable letting people down. One article that should be the easiest thing in the world for me: I made the pitch and knew exactly what it should be; I’d known and loved what it was about for decades; the file I was working in for a two-thousand-word article had over eighty thousand words of notes in it. Easy. But impossible. A year and a half after the first deadline I admitted to the editor that, absurd as it seemed, I just would never be able to write it.
It’s not just lists of things to write. It’s lists of things to watch, or read. I can’t even do that. I end up with deliberate distractions: half-watching and skim-reading things that I wouldn’t choose to but actually because I don’t enjoy them much. Because there are few things more depressing than experiencing something that you should enjoy and it no longer giving you any pleasure, or can’t concentrate on it or even look at it. So Twitter, rubbish telly, comfort eating, any way of trying to find a micro-stimulus that I can get through the day with rather than risk something good that’s turned to ash. It’s not that there are never flaring sparks of fun – but the downer of disappointment is worse than the unexpected joy. I can remember trying to write one of my ‘Ten Reasons to Watch’ lists early in the year on one of my very favourite Doctor Who stories, the one I’ve long thought of as the most entertaining piece of TV ever made. I had to stop even watching it because the deadness was spoiling everything about it. I tried again a few months later and found it was the first thing I’d really enjoyed watching in ages. I didn’t write about it; I burst into tears.
While not being able to take pleasure in things depresses me, politics just tends to send me into angry despair. Brexit, Trump, my countries spiralling into fascism and my party into irrelevance. Some articles I’ve started to write and broken off because they fall into the category of ‘not helpful’ (goodbye Tim, hello Vince); others I’ve written practically all the way through but are just too splenetic to put out there. And when I’ve tried to look on the bright side – well, those articles make me look fondly on tooth extractions, which at least were briefer experiences and had an end to them.
Hundreds – thousands? – of articles I’ve caught in my head in a plan and a line or two. Certainly hundreds that exist in part in a jigsaw of impossibly long notes. Even dozens that I’ve written and could publish with just half an hour’s polish that will never come. I’ve even got sets of photos that only need stringing onto Tumblr, yet utterly paralysed. That speech I literally typed out in full for last year’s Lib Dem Conference and declaimed to the hall – eve of a year later and can I bring myself to publish it or even put it on YouTube? No I can’t.
I’ve tried so many strategies to write almost by sidling up to it so I won’t notice I’m doing it. Blog side projects! Which just make for extra emptier blogs. Because I know I put off and overcomplicate and will write so much that I will never finish, several times I’ve set myself goals made up of easily defined short steps, only to sabotage them by bloating the idea into something overambitious enough that failure will be inevitable. That series of great Doctor Who scenes that I never finished? Just one scene at a time, how could I possibly stretch those to breaking? I found a way. Then Ten Reasons To Watch one story at a time – I planned the lot, and I could tell you the bullet points for any one of them at any given 3am while trying to sleep. Could I write them? Of course not. I even published the ones I’d written at the end of 2015 all over again in late 2016, to give myself a run-up (I can still remember the last thing I ever wrote that was any good. It was Ten Reasons To Watch Rose, and it was even better but far angrier and just, just managing not to tip over into despair in the repeat). I even struggled on with them through hospitalisation last December because I didn’t want that to beat me. Then in January there were the results that some of the damage was permanent, and whole new physical problems that I had to fight, and I just couldn’t even pretend to do it any more.
I teetered on the edge of pieces on half a dozen stories that so very nearly but so very far from getting back into writing. I watched one Who story early in the year that wasn’t on the list – The Curse of Peladon – and was so apoplectic at the Brexitty shittery of its villain that I resolved on the spot to write it as a bonus (and that before Alpha Centauri turned up again on the telly). It was almost all done! But never more than almost. I read Doctor Who: The New Adventures – Damaged Goods, I wrote reams, I annotated the entire text, I tweezered apart the Post-Its that Richard stuck on it in 1996 and transcribed those, I listened to the audio adaptation, I wrote a complete article coming at that from an oblique angle, I did so very, very much and all before the perfect day to publish. July 27th, fiftieth anniversary to the day of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in England; thirtieth anniversary to the day of the main events of the novel; twenty-third anniversary to the day of the first time I saw Richard, was completely wowed by Richard, utterly bottled introducing myself to Richard. At the far end of all that effort, no actual proper writing came to party, and the Twenty-seventh of July passed. And all the while trying to deny to myself that all trying to write – or even hoping to write – was doing was making me more wretchedly miserable.
Over the last couple of months I’ve bizarrely managed two long Twitter threads that of course, of course should have been blog posts, but they absolutely never could: one was even written on the train and posted as I went along, which may have made it incomprehensible to the reader but just published before I could stop myself. You can if you like read what, on the spur of the moment, I made of Wagner’s complete Der Ring des Nibelungen having never watched an opera before (scroll up), or why you can’t fight crime by making certain groups of people ‘illegal’ (scroll down). So it’s possible there will be such random times when writing will spew out too quickly for the terror to pull it back.
I am so fucking tired and even being so tired is such hard bloody work.
I feel more alienated, useless, powerless, more of a bobbing spare part than ever now that I’ve accepted the end of writing. I have no direction over my life. But the hope was just torment. I can’t do it any more, and wanting to made it worse, and when it came to a crisis I just couldn’t keep doing that. This is defeat. So this is trying to cut off fantasies of the future and hope that’s less unbearable.
I realise this is not a jolly read. There are things that get me through the days. Well, one thing, mainly, and that is Richard, who somehow copes with me while doing a gazillion things and more of those than ever before, and supporting me in every way, and to whom I’m pathetically grateful and very much love. I have no idea how he does it and he still completely wows me. But I wish – not least for his sake, because it’s a bit of a weight on him – that I could find my way back to more. It can’t be this.
Labels: The End
Tuesday, June 06, 2017
A Liberal Britain. A Brighter Future. My Hope.
I’m a Liberal and I want a brighter future.
This General Election hasn’t been about that. I’m sick at heart of the Theresa May—Jeremy Corbyn—Brexit bad trip to a meaner past.
But the hope of a Liberal future keeps me going.
My vote on Thursday will not be just to stop the Conservatives / stop Labour because though both are s**t I’m marginally more afraid of one than the other. I can’t vote to make Britain just a bit worse.
I’ll vote positively.
Here’s my hope of a future worth voting for.
Do you want a brighter future?
Because if you do, then I should warn you – it’s going to take all sorts of things. Making society be for everyone, so everyone can be free. Finding long-term funding for the NHS and schools. And not being afraid to reconsider when things go wrong.
It won’t be easy answers, fear and blame.
But I’ll tell you what it could be…
Britain, 2030. A Liberal Democrat government, and a decade since Britain voted against the mayhem of a disastrous bad Brexit deal and changed Britain’s future.
The biggest change was the one no-one expected. It was Brexit that broke Westminster. The Prime Minister no-one elected ordered everyone to obey. The government without a plan grabbed for more power than ever. But the more they tightened their grip, the more people slipped through their fingers. Their extreme Brexit mess brought Britain to the brink of disaster, yet they never took responsibility for their own incompetence and they still tried to stop anyone having a say. Labour just split four ways and fought each other. But with popular pressure (and all those Lib Dem gains), even MPs rebelled. A new hope. When Britain had another choice, we threw out the idea of government control too.
The Liberal Democrat government came to power to bring everyone together, admitting they wouldn’t always know best and promising to listen all the way. Principles first, then consulting people, testing plans out to make sure they work, building consensus – that’s how changes happen now. The age of imposition leading to massive screw-ups is over.
It’s much easier to be heard and make a difference. Britain’s nations, regions, cities and counties took back control from one-size-fits-all Westminster. With real power distributed, economies across the country are stronger. Fair votes mean you get what you vote for and can hold them to account. With the end of safe seats, some Labour and Tory MPs gave up, but now all parties have to work harder and listen more. And whether the best place to use power is locally, nationally or internationally, the most important place to take decisions is you taking power over your own life.
The NHS has the money it needs and now treats mental health as urgently as physical, but it’s also helped by preventative health and reducing pollution.
Schools have the money they need, but they’re also helped by tackling child poverty. Better education, training and apprenticeships enables everyone to have opportunity to realise their potential, whatever their background, whatever their choices.
At last there’s a government willing to tell it like it is. That people want to come to Britain because it’s a brilliant country with British values of tolerance, freedom and standing up for the underdog. That there’s no way to stop that without tearing down so much that’s good about Britain. And why should we want to? Openness and compassion have always made Britain a brighter country for everyone. And for the people for who still want Britain smaller and meaner, if you want the economy to thrive to support our NHS and schools – if you want the people to work in our NHS and schools – then we have to welcome migrants too.
At last Britain’s leaders are in tune with Britain’s bigger values. It’s made such a difference to have a government valuing diversity and inclusion, refusing to find groups to blame. The Liberal Democrats set their mission as freedom for everyone from poverty, ignorance and conformity. They tackled inequality and prejudice, saying whatever your sex, race, class, sexuality, gender identity, disability, belief or background, you were part of society, the barriers stopping you getting on must go, and we should all look out for each other when we need it. That was the turning point against the rise in hate crime a decade ago.
There’s more freedom and less crime. Everyone has the liberty to live their lives as they choose (without harming others) after scrapping victimless crimes that waste people’s lives, waste public money and waste police time. Now police get to chase the real crooks, far fewer young and ethnic minority people get criminalised, and the Cornish economy’s booming on the cannabis crop.
Remember when governments always acted like people were simple and taxes had to be complicated? That was the wrong way round. Now everyone pays their fair share and can see where the money comes from, and small businesses flourish because the wealthiest can’t find loopholes.
Britain is becoming more respected again in the world. It’s been hard work. After decades of shouting insults instead of wanting to make Europe work, a lot of our European partners were just fed up with us. But it helped that there was relief all round when Britain voted not to keep trying for a much worse deal than we had to start with by leaving, and instead at last to get stuck in and change the EU for the better. Making it more democratic, decentralised and open. Encouraging both free and fairer trade in and beyond the biggest single market in the history of the world. Standing up against racism and intolerance. And young people feel like they’ve got their future back.
Above all, Liberal Britain has turned to the future. Innovation and enterprise are getting results. Green jobs are leading the economic revival as internationalist Britain becomes a leader in zero-carbon technology to tackle climate change. With environmental and economic responsibility at home, we’ve stopped leaving problems for the next generation to tackle, and started addressing intergenerational equality.
Not everyone’s happy. For bullies, busybodies and bigots it’s much harder to push others around. But life’s better for most people who want control over their own lives, not control over everyone else’s.
A Liberal Britain by 2030 isn’t a certainty. It’s a choice. And you always have more choices. You can stay back and let things happen. You can complain there isn’t a better yesterday. Or, every new day, you can decide to get stuck in and help make a better future.
Why I’m Looking Forward To Britain In 2030
If you’re wondering why this isn’t totally on-message, it’s partly because I never am, partly because the election’s had naff all vision in it so I wanted to say something I felt, and it’s partly because although it’s about the future, it’s one I prepared earlier.
My health has been almost as crappy as the election campaign and I’ve not been able to do much. And the election’s not cheered me up, to put it mildly. I’ve not had the mojo to write.
But this January the inspiring people at Your Liberal Britain ran a competition to imagine what a Liberal Britain might look like by 2030, and I wrote something for them then. Here it is.
I hadn’t been expecting a General Election, either.
You might have recognised some of the words, some from unexpected places, but not from our Manifesto. The way I’m most on-message, it turns out, is that the Lib Dem Manifesto is Change Britain’s Future and the party’s been campaigning for a Brighter Future. What I’ve published above was almost all written in January, but after using “better future” a lot in mine I’ve decided that I like “brighter” better. So I changed a few of those.
The Your Liberal Britain competition asked for 500 words. I wrote nearly a thousand in one big rush and, having left it until the deadline, was hacking bits out all evening to try and reduce my word count. I remember deleting one paragraph at five to midnight just because it was the right length. I didn’t much like what I slashed down to 500 words, and I didn’t win with my 500 words. Now I come to share my words, I’ve kept the ones I liked.
More Liberal Democrat Values
Every day in the 2015 General Election, I chose an inspiring Liberal quote from a wide range of people. You can see all the variety of Lib Dems Believe here.
Me on video in 2015: Liberal Democrats Believe
Me on video this year: Another Vote – Another Disappointment?
Your Liberal Britain: all sorts of goodies, and worth coming back to after the election for more inspiration and more consultation. I’ve not had the spoons to do all the Lib Dem philosophy I want to over the last couple of years. I’m thrilled these new members have been doing way more than I ever could.
And of course the official version – the 2017 Lib Dem Manifesto Change Britain’s Future, free to download in a range of accessible formats.
Now, please, if you found any of this moving, or inspiring, or just some hope, go out and vote for it.
Sunday, June 04, 2017
Somehow I Doubt A Lib Dem Government Might Negotiate the Acceptable Face of Brexit
One of the many ways in which beloved husband is doing an amazing job right now as Liberal Democrat candidate for Macclesfield is answering approximately a gazillion emails a day. Some, by this stage, literally in his sleep.
I’m long past ever standing as a candidate again, not least with this year’s catastrophically unhelpful health getting in the way even of helping Richard anywhere near as practically as I’d like.
So imagine my surprise and delight on receiving my own email enquiring about an urgent issue of Liberal Democrat policy which must be worrying people up and down the land: with Lib Dems committed to a referendum on the terms of the Brexit deal, if we form the new government on Thursday, who would negotiate a deal we were bound to oppose?
To B and How To B, That Is the Question
Here’s the question I was asked:
“…if you propose a second referendum for people to decide on the deal, assuming a Lib Dem government was in office, how would this happen in practice? Considering the party’s historic support for EU membership, who would conduct the negotiations for a Brexit deal for us to vote on? Would the responsibility for negotiations be devolved to the Civil Service or some other external body?”
And here’s the main part of my reply:
“In practice, of course, whatever party is in government, the vast majority of negotiations are conducted by civil servants: they are huge and vastly complicated and require a vast team of people and a lot of hard work. Even if David Davis isn’t doing any of it.
“The answer is to be found in the first chapter of the Lib Dem Manifesto, in effect – that doesn’t just set out the party’s policy around a third EU referendum, this time on the terms of the deal, but the party’s priorities in Parliament for setting the terms for the negotiators. The primary one is of course to remain in the Single Market, which virtually all the leading No figures led people to believe before last year’s referendum and then swerved into such a damaging far right isolationist position afterwards.
“Should there be a massive political earthquake and the Lib Dems form a majority government next week, I would be delighted and I have to admit a little surprised. However, there’s no doubt that would mean Britain’s centre of gravity on Brexit would have shifted markedly, so I would expect to see a choice between remaining as a full member or an exit deal based on a much closer relationship than Theresa May, Jeremy Corbyn and Paul Nuttall’s – one, as the likes of Farage or Johnson said before the referendum rather than what they’ve said since, similar to the relationship the EU has with Norway or Switzerland. Ironically, that means that the Brexit deal would be much closer to the one voters were told about in advance.
“As I say, the party’s aims for mitigating the disaster of Brexit in negotiations are set out in detail as the first chapter in the Manifesto, which you can download for yourself here.”
With the election constantly framed as a ‘choice’ between two parties offering two identical destructive chaotic Brexits and neither offering to talk about any of the detail – because they’re dumb, but they’re not that dumb – and the Lib Dems mostly failing to get a word in edgeways, I wish the question of exactly how Foreign Secretary Nick Clegg would lead Brexit negotiations come the glorious Lib Dem landslide this week were one that was keeping me awake at night.
Still, in the happy daydream in which the Liberal Democrats sweep to power on Thursday, imagine the Lib Dem government, with painfully honest commitment to its manifesto pledge, negotiating a liberal Brexit. Come the day of the deal referendum, instead of being offered destructive chaos, loss of British power and influence, rights stripped away, food riots and catastrophic collapse in living standards by the Theresa May—Jeremy Corbyn—Paul Nuttall Brexit alliance, which the majority of Britons would be likely to look at go ‘No thanks,’ the Brexit choice is instead a middle way, keeping most of the goodies but being able to say we’re not quite in. And so only a Lib Dem Government’s positive negotiations could save Brexit by producing a deal which the majority could swallow and go on to win the deal referendum for (mostly) out!
What an irony, eh?
No, somehow I can see a few steps along the way that I don’t quite believe, either…
What Should Negotiations Try To Keep (but probably won’t)?
What certainly will happen after Thursday’s result, whatever it turns out to be, is that Liberal Democrats in Parliament will stand up for British voters to have the final say on the final Brexit deal. The Conservatives and Labour will both deny that. They’ve both already voted to stop people having a say. And as the negotiations proceed into the long and complicated reality and away from back of a fag packet insult your intelligence slogans, Liberal Democrats in Parliament will stand up for these priorities and more:
- Protection of rights for EU citizens and UK citizens
- Membership of the Single Market and customs union
- Freedom of movement
- Opportunities for young people
- Defending social rights and equalities
- Maintaining environmental standards
- Law enforcement and judicial co-operation
- British business and jobs
- Science and research funding
- Travel and tourism
- Respect for the interests of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and the people of Gibraltar
I really should’ve put these in my email, too. Sorry to the person who contacted me. Replying set my mind going, and it probably should have been the other way round.
The more Liberal Democrat MPs are elected this Thursday, the more votes there will be in Parliament to press for these priorities in the Brexit negotiations.
The more Conservative and Labour MPs are elected, with their Leaders’ identical commitment to a disastrous Brexit, the more certain it is that Parliament will throw all those priorities in the bin.
There probably won’t be any UKIP MPs elected on Thursday, but with Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn following UKIP Brexit policy to the letter, that won’t make any difference.
Lib Dem voices in Parliament will probably only be able to make things a bit better unless we romp home. But a bit better is better than nothing. Why vote for parties that have promised to make everything worse?
I have a terrible feeling that all those priorities and so much that’s good about Britain will be thrown in the bin. And that the scale of what – to pick only the latest prediction I’ve seen – Will Hutton calls “an epic act of national self-harm” will only become clear not even when the details have been published but only once it’s all actually happened, everything’s wrecked and it’s too late to go back.
Which means that only after the economy has crashed utterly and Britain’s divided and unhappy will a Liberal Democrat government be voted in as the last resort to do the impossible job of fitting the broken pieces together. Tried a bit of that seven years ago. Can’t say we enjoyed it and were greatly thanked for it…
Wednesday, April 19, 2017
Another Vote – Another Disappointment?
Time for another video…
Here’s what I say in it:
So there’s going to be another General Election. Maybe you’re not that excited. Maybe you’re still disappointed by the last one.
In a democracy, you get choices. So you expect the people who made a different choice to be disappointed.
But the great about democracy is that if you wanted something different, you can always keep putting another point of view, and there will always be another vote.
Wanting to silence dissent or saying one vote counts for ever is sticking a knife in democracy.
We’ve had two really big votes in two years, the General Election, then the referendum. Now we’re to have another one, think about something that’s strange about them.
It’s not just the losers who’ve been disappointed. Even the winners aren’t happy. What happened?
The Conservative Party
At least usually if you voted for the winning party, you’re satisfied for a bit. And the winning party’s quite happy for a bit.
Well, it didn’t happen this time.
Even though most people voted against them, two years ago the Conservatives won by that much. But they’ve been behaving as if they rule the world ever since.
That’s disappointed a lot of people who voted for them last time.
Because a lot of people said they liked David Cameron. He seemed like a moderate and not the nasty, arrogant sort of Tory.
And the Conservative Party promised that voting Tory meant two things above all: stable government and economic success.
That’s all gone, never to return.
Literally the day after the last election, they shut down support from disabled people getting into work. Just because they could. Nasty.
All the way up to today, with the Tories hell-bent on inflicting the most damaging hard Brexit they can. Arrogant.
In between, they’ve messed around with our schools. They put the NHS in crisis. Because their far right hate the environment, they’ve cut green energy so the Tories went from hugging a husky to tilting at windmills.
But above all, this Tory Government has meant utter political chaos and instability, and economic disaster.
The worst of it’s in one word: Brexit.
First the Prime Minister went.
Then none of them had a clue what happened next.
But they’re still behaving as if they rule little England.
Now inflation’s rising, jobs are falling, companies are moving out of Britain, they’re throwing away the biggest Single Market in the history of the world. And Britain is getting smaller, meaner and nastier. A terrible disappointment to everyone who believes in British values.
And still no-one has a clue what happens next.
I bet one person does. Because in Britain we have General Elections every five years. The only reason not to is if a weak Prime Minister is in a total panic and does a massive U-turn. Theresa May has called an election before it’s even half-way time. It must be because she’s panicking. She’s seen some secret figures of how bad it’s going to be and is making a run for it before total disaster.
The most unstable government in decades. The economy thrown in the bin. Now there’s only chaos. Mayhem.
What can the Tories say to the voters they’ve let down? All the Tories stand for now is hating foreigners and bossing people about.
And it’s not just Tory voters who are disappointed.
Tory MPs have actually resigned from Parliament and left politics because they’re so fed up.
Even David Cameron did it! How much of a disappointment do you have to be for the guy who’s just been Prime Minister to say, that’s it, I’m sodding off?
And since the local elections a year ago, in the by-elections every week where people vote for new councillors – the Tories have lost 21. They must be disappointed with that.
The Labour Party
Now, I’ve never been a Labour supporter either. But even I can see that you need a strong opposition to hold the Government to account when they’re in such a mess. Well, there’s no such luck. If you voted Labour last time, well, you’d have been very disappointed they didn’t get in. But they failed by a mile. And since then, they’ve just got worse.
The one reason the Tories look like grown-ups after all their Mayhem is – the Labour Party.
Corbyn and Labour MPs and members who are even more at war with each other than the Tories are. When the country really needs someone to force the Tories to account, all you’re getting is the worst opposition in living memory, who are only interested in fighting themselves.
But the thing that’s really disappointed people is the one you’d never expect.
The most far left Labour leader ever votes with the Tories on everything – he’s given the Tories a blank cheque to do whatever they want on Brexit in every single vote in Parliament. And Labour are boasting they want a harder Brexit than the Tories. A harder Brexit than UKIP!
So there are Labour MPs who’ve resigned from Parliament too, and left politics too, because they’re so disappointed.
And since the local elections a year ago, in the by-elections every week where people vote for new councillors – Labour have lost 13. What a disappointment for what a let-down of an opposition.
Then there’s UKIP. At the last election they got one MP. Just one MP.
Guess what happened?
He’s left the party because they all spent so much time fighting him.
Since they got their dream result in the referendum they’ve gone through four leaders. One of them twice. All they ever had was hate, and now they’ve got no-one else to hate but each other. They’re just falling apart.
No MPs. Very few councillors. And you can guess what’s been happening since the local elections a year ago, in the by-elections every week where people vote for new councillors – they’ve lost another 7, probably all they were defending. They must be disappointed with that. But nobody’s even paying any attention any more.
The Liberal Democrats
And then there’s the Liberal Democrats.
Everybody knows at the last General Election we had a terrible result. The worst since I’ve been alive. We all worked hard, we were all disappointed, and our voters were disappointed.
But that’s not where it finishes.
Two years ago we had over forty thousand people still working hard as Lib Dem members. And we didn’t give up.
We went up.
Within a week of the last election, we had more than fifty thousand members.
And still more people joined.
And when the referendum went Leave by that much, more people joined.
By a couple of weeks ago we’d doubled our membership to eighty-five thousand.
On the day Theresa May panicked and ran for an election, Lib Dems surged to more than ninety thousand members.
We’re still growing every day.
Because Britain is better than this, and there is only one party that is fighting against the disappointment.
Because standing up for a better future inspires people. Being a proper opposition. Standing up for working together. For trade and peace and prosperity and the environment and education and our NHS.
And our MPs have actually gone up instead of quitting. One of those brand-new Lib Dem members was determined to make a difference, and she did. She won voters over and overturned a huge Tory majority when she was elected MP for Richmond Park in December.
And since the local elections a year ago, in the by-elections every week where people vote for new councillors – Tories down 21, Labour down 13, UKIP down 7.
People have voted in 33 new Lib Dem councillors.
You don’t have to give up.
You do have a choice. You can change direction. You don’t have to live with disappointment.
There is always a new day.
We’re in league with the future. Join us.
If you want the choice to stop Brexit, if you want Britain to be the open, tolerant, outward-looking country we can be proud of again, if you believe in freedom, fairness and a better future, join the Liberal Democrats.
Theresa May has called a panic election at a time she thinks is best for her to fix the result. But we have a choice.
Mrs Mayhem – prepare to be disappointed.
*Local by-elections results May 2016 to April 2017 from Political Betting, April 8th 2017
Monday, January 02, 2017
Doctor Who 52: 07 – Ten Reasons to Watch The Rescue (SE)
Introducing Doctor Who – The Rescue…
A poor orphaned waif with a forbidding guardian, waiting to see if their ship will ever come in. The sinister figure that terrorises her while claiming to be her protector. This is Doctor Who at its most Dickensian – set on an alien world four hundred years in the future, first on TV fifty-two years ago today. Time for New Year stress and resolution in this 1965 tale that’s small but perfectly formed at the length of a 2017 episode. Maureen O’Brien debuts as the series’ first ‘new companion’, comforted by William Hartnell’s Doctor at his most delightful and menaced by Sydney Wilson’s dastardly Koquillion…
I’m anxious but excited. As chance would have it, a story from exactly fifty-two years ago marks the turning point in my Doctor Who 52. I initially started offering an exciting variety of Doctor Who stories in an idiosyncratic order to run through the year, one every week, inspired by the fifty-second anniversary in November 2015. When my health collapsed beyond even its usual state, that all juddered to a halt. I started again in November 2016, only to end up in hospital soon after. I’m still in a lot of pain, I’m still very unhappy about it, and my health has still yet to recover anywhere near pitiful Alex-normal. But not wanting to be beaten, I somehow buckled down and have now very nearly caught up to where my calendar tells me I should be (Ten Reasons and one Extra still waiting). So far, most of the blog posts I’ve published in this series have been ones that I originally wrote a year ago, which I’ve re-read, rewritten and republished as
The Rescue is available on DVD and through BBC Store. Read on here, or just press Play. If you’ve never seen it but my first few reasons to watch it entice you, then, really, press Play. And while usually I’d take the DVD over BBC Store like a shot (extras, picture quality, not seizing up and needing a restart every time you pause it…), one very good reason simply to press Play this time and one advantage BBC Store has by missing something is the DVD menu. Usually the menus on Doctor Who DVDs have a mix of tantalising moments from the story, like an ambient trailer; that’s how the main menu works here, but the Special Features sub-menu is just one continuous clip of the climax. There are some preposterous decisions elsewhere in the range, but this probably wins the ‘What were they thinking‽’ award for most random and complete spoiler. So when I say there are spoilers lower down my list this time, I mean it…
Ten Reasons To Watch The Rescue (warning: spoilers lower down the list)
1 – It’s the ideal Doctor Who for New Year.
The Rescue is a bit of a new start, but not too much. It’s not too complicated, but has a refreshing twist. It’s small and manageable both in the scale of the action and in lasting just fifty minutes across two snack-sized episodes. And even our heroes get to sleep some of it off.
While The Rescue didn’t start a new season, it was first broadcast on January 2nd, 1965, and it’s perfectly pitched for new viewers to jump on board with the new companion. We see the TARDIS materialise – literally a beacon of light throughout – before we see within, always crucial in making us appreciate that it’s bigger on the inside than the outside, and the small cast gives us much more time with all the characters. Most of all, we get to know newcomer Vicki, and we get to know the Doctor all over again. Written by original Doctor Who lead writer David Whitaker, this is quietly the series’ first relaunch. Of course, the honest New Year Doctor Who would be Resurrection of the Daleks (massive overindulgence followed by regret and resolutions that you’ll break immediately and double down instead) then The Twin Dilemma (the awful hangover)…
“We can travel anywhere and everywhere in that old box, as you call it. Regardless of space and time.”
“Then it is a time machine?”
“And if you like adventure, my dear, I can promise you an abundance of it.”
2 – Vicki is the first new companion.
…And the story goes as far as it can to make that easy on the viewers – or, rather, to make us go easy on her. When we first met the Doctor, it was through his granddaughter Susan, a mystery for her schoolteachers Ian and Barbara to follow. But Susan fell in love and out of the TARDIS in the previous story. How would the Doctor take to someone else? How would we get used to a new teenage face in the show? And what could bring her on board? She’s not another relative, and while the Doctor effectively kidnapped Ian and Barbara, that was bundled up with the role-reversal on teachers who know nothing, and not something a kinder, gentler Doctor could do to a teenage girl. The producers nearly brought on board a gutsy young freedom-fighter from the previous story, but instead chose to go quite the other way. They pull out all the stops to make us feel sorry for her and want her looked after.
Vicki seems, to begin with, much younger and less capable than Susan. Maureen O’Brien – here beginning an impressive career, though thanks to a forgotten early work of Andrew Davies’ I grew up thinking of her as an evil witch-nun – plays her with huge eyes, a waif-like form and outfit, and just enough pluck that she doesn’t make the audience wonder why on Dido she’d want an abundance of adventure after spending every scene cowering. Today Vicki is easy to read as abused or at least crushed by her multiple bereavements and oppressive semi-guardian – she’s young and full of hope that’s ever cowed, he’s dark and brooding and rains on every parade – and to see how after being adopted into a friendlier sort of family she’s going to gain the self-confidence of a cheeky teen anarchist (though inconsistent writing – or PTSD – will give her wild mood swings between the two as her stories continue).
But for now, Vicki sets a template that will often be repeated for new companions, and which I once sarcastically labelled ‘Daddy was a lord, but he’s dead now’. Her mother has died, so her father takes her away to make a new home on a colony world. But their ship crashes on the inhospitable planet Dido, so they don’t get to their new home. And then her father dies too. Not just him, but a massive explosion that takes out every other person she knows, except one. And he doesn’t like her. So there is literally no-one on this planet who loves and will look after her. She seems the most thoroughly orphaned person possible (until the show eventually takes this to extremes with Nyssa), and the Doctor and his friends spend most of the story getting to know and befriend her, so by the end of the story there can be no possible objection to her choosing – and she is very carefully given a choice and time to choose it – to leave on the TARDIS. Just to make sure we get the point that she is utterly and totally destined to be the new companion, she even introduces herself to Barbara twice. The second time spelling out her name, letter by letter.
3 – The Rescue reintroduces the Doctor too.
Even more effectively than it introduces Vicki, The Rescue gives us fresh angles on the Doctor. In a subtly reworked role that retains all of William Hartnell’s intelligence and authority but allows him to be kindlier and funnier, suddenly the Doctor twinkles. This is a great place to start for Mr Hartnell, showcasing just how versatile the Doctor could be and will be from now on – stern, affectionate, vulnerable, incisive, embarrassed, and often comic here, too. People often dismiss the youngest Doctor – the one looking like the oldest man – as a grumpy old thing, not least because when we first see him he’s terrific but not kind in running rings round his companions. He takes a while to warm or warm to, and longer to seem trustworthy. Yet I can’t think of another Doctor with more facets. This story doesn’t so much soften the Doctor’s character as give him a chance to shine in many different ways, not least as the only person who sees everything that’s going on in the story. I love Billy for his speeches and his passion, and there’s plenty of that here. At the climax of the story, he follows previous ‘courtroom’ triumphs with a stunning confrontation in a majestic Hall of Judgement. But by then he’s already charmed budding companion Vicki with his understanding, then been chuffed to bits overhearing how much she already likes and trusts him. He promises her he’ll be diplomatic… Which last about ten seconds before – though he’s the last Doctor of whom you’d expect it – he picks up a girder to use as a battering ram and determines on breaking a door down.
William Hartnell turned a powerful acting presence learned as the stern sergeants and ruthless crooks of his film career into the perversely authoritative anti-establishment Doctor… But he also had great comic timing, and his vulnerability in a character role inspired producer Verity Lambert to make him the Doctor. Both are on full display here. The show needs us to move on from Susan, but the Doctor can’t forget his granddaughter just yet; rarely do we see the Doctor so quietly hurt as when he starts to ask her to open the doors here, and falters, Barbara gently offering help instead. Before long he’s showing he’s sharp as ever to Ian, then wondering if he can get away with pretending he landed on Dido deliberately before remembering that he did it in his sleep, playfully undercutting the danger of his becoming a know-it-all. On the surface, The Rescue may be designed to repair the ensemble cast by introducing a replacement fourth member, but compare it with a year earlier and it’s not just the teenager who’s changed, nor even the Doctor’s character that’s evolved – it’s not an ensemble any more. He’s the Doctor. The ‘new companion’ makes it clear that the others are just that: his companions. If there was ever a doubt who was the star, there isn’t now.
4 – Alien Design.
This is a small, cheap story, but designer Raymond Cusick – who created the series’ first alien world – carefully chooses where to put detail that fills in a civilisation. Though his big alien beastie here isn’t a patch on his Daleks, the various stylised representations of it are fabulous. Massive carvings draw your attention from bare rock walls; pillars give shape and purpose to the Hall of Judgement, transforming it from a big empty space to the eerie, majestic heart of the story, aided by smoke and (reused but atmospheric) musique concrète. And the alien figure of Koquillion, all leering tarantula-faced bristles and tusks with the manner and mendacity of a wicked Dickensian stepfather, is decidedly creepy every time he comes to call and tell Vicki not to go far from the crashed ship, or he might not be able to protect her from his people…
5 – The Doctor’s sympathy versus Barbara’s exasperation.
One of the biggest changes in the Doctor since the series started a year before is that he’s now much more concerned for and tactile with his companions, no longer just with his departed granddaughter. In their first scene together here, the two teachers are worried; she’s noticed that the vibration of flight has ceased, meaning that for the first time, the Doctor’s slept through a landing. They rouse him and he comes to, embarrassed but charmingly tactile with his friends, pretty much giving each of them a hug, so when Barbara breaks his flow to try and tell him what’s happened, he jumps wonderfully to the wrong conclusion and clasps her hand to his breast in concern and delight. Then he’s more embarrassed when he realises what she actually meant…
“Oh, but Doctor, the trembling’s stopped.”
“Oh, my dear! I’m so glad you’re feeling better. Hmm!”
“No, not me – the Ship!”
“Oh, the— Oh, my dear, I’m so sorry.”
6 – The Doctor’s knowledge versus Ian’s exasperation.
Ian and Barbara have developed since the of the series, too. This time, everyone’s favourite Coal Hill Schoolteachers go off exploring, while the Doctor dozes in the Ship. But when they’re menaced by Koquillion, Barbara’s toppled from a cliff and Ian caught in a rock fall, the Doctor springs out to help… Only to wind Ian up by knowing considerably more than he does, despite as far as Ian is concerned having only been outside for a moment while he was out risking his neck exploring.
“Oh, there was this – thing, this repulsive thing with a – hideous face.”The Doctor gives him a quick glance up and down and tells him no bones broken, but somehow Ian doesn’t seem to mean it on thanking him for “The most thoroughgoing medical I’ve ever had.”
“With hands and feet like claws?”
“Yes, that’s it. How do you know?”
“Well, this is the planet Dido. I’ve been here before. I know them very well.”
“They’re very friendly people.”
“Oh! It wasn’t friendly to us.”
“…This thing. Was it armed?”
“No, no, it wasn’t. Wait a minute… It was carrying – some sort of – jewelled club. About so long.”
“With a big head? Resembling a spanner?”
“I don’t know why you bother to ask.”
Though the Doctor gets an exasperated moment of his own later, as the two of them clamber across a narrow rock face in the dark and then, as if that wasn’t enough to put up with, hear a roar from ahead of them. Ian sticks the torch right in the Doctor’s face.
“What was that?”
“Well, it’s not me, is it? Shine the torch down there!”
7 – Making you think about time travel (and tact) for yourself.
Charmed by the Doctor, Vicki has started to bond with Ian and Barbara, so they start to exchange confidences: Vicki about her loneliness, and the two teachers about their travels. Ian tells Vicki that their spaceship travels through time as well. Barbara tells her that they left in 1963, instantly regretting it.
“1963! But that means you’re about – five hundred and fifty years old!”The camera lingers first on Vicki calculating, then Barbara trying not to look monstrously offended – in the fragile moment of still feeling very in the wrong just after Vicki’s forgiven her – while Ian covers his mouth and chokes with laughter in the background. And all neatly reintroducing the series’ concepts, and letting the viewer go, ‘Hang on – no – that’s not right – let me work it out…’ while Babs is writhing in embarrassment and elbowing her long-term companion in the ribs, before Vicki drops another clanger on the contemporary audience, too:
“Well, yes, I – I suppose I am. Yes, it’s a way of looking at it, but I’ll try not to look at it too often.”
“They didn’t have time machines in 1963. They didn’t know anything then.”The same conversation gets one of my favourite moments in the book, similarly making us think:
“‘Oh, come on, you’re imagining things, Barbara Wright,’ Ian laughed. ‘You’re as bad as that awful little Tracey Pollock in 3B!’
‘Tracey Pollock . . .’ Barbara murmured. Coal Hill School suddenly seemed a million miles away. In fact it was a great deal further and long since buried beneath the Metropolitan Disposal Plant.”
8 – The double (or single) entendre.
Ian Chesterton at one point calls the villain “Cocky-lickin’”. I suspect it’s only that William Russell seems so sober and respectable and that Ian is written as the most reassuringly ‘straight’ of all the Doctor’s companions that he ever got away with it. It’s almost as bare-faced as one of the stories in the first ever Dr Who Annual, published the same year, being titled The Fishmen of Kandalinga. In later years The Rescue was also described by one infamous guidebook as being set on the planet “Dildo”, which I knew people were finding funny some time before I understood why. But it’s Ian Marter’s novelisation that’s mostly likely to make you gasp. It was the book he was writing just before his untimely death, and I can’t help but wonder if he inserted some passages as a gag, expecting his editor to take them out, and then the editor didn’t want to change any of his last book. Right on the first page, a character sniggers at the script’s time-reading of “sixty-nine” flying hours until they reach Dido, which was so blatant that I spotted it even as a surprisingly innocent teenager, while in Chapter 5 there’s so much manipulating of oily, lubed rings that when I re-read the novel later in life I immediately re-re-read it back again to be sure those were really the words.
9 – A very Doctor Who moral: don’t judge by appearances.
The Doctor and Ian struggle to avoid a howling Sand Beast at the cliffhanger (both episodes end with pretty much literal cliffhangers). We see a Sand Beast staring at Vicki with its big shining eyes on stalks as she innocently goes about finding shrubs to eat, then lumbering forward. And Barbara sees that too. So she seizes the crashed ship’s flare gun and runs out of the wreck to blast it in the head (which Ian Marter’s novelisation describes tastefully as a “smouldering toffee-like blob”, after cheating rather in the build-up). Its keening death wail is rather distressing for the viewer, but worse for Vicki: “Sandy” was herbivorous and her only comfort as a pet, and now this becardiganed murderer has killed him! Alien-looking doesn’t mean nasty, human-looking doesn’t mean nice, Barbara and Vicki between them have to learn both lessons, then poor Vicki is slowly brought to understand and forgive her by the Doctor listening to and trusting the orphan to make her own choices. You can see her realising how much better an alternative guardian he’d make…
10 – The two-faced guardian.
And finally, the big twist. The Rescue is sometimes described as a whodunnit, but of course the point is that it only becomes that once you know who’s done it. You don’t even think of it like that when you can see the monster Koquillion played, as always, by a man in a monster suit all the way through. The glowering Victorian authority figure, the only other survivor after the wicked alien natives killed all the crew at a feast of welcome – but somehow managed to kill all their own people in the explosion too – had murdered a crew member on the voyage and everything else was his attempt to rescue himself. Vicki was ill in her cabin and didn’t know, so he dressed in Didoi robes made from local animal skulls to menace her as Koquillion, personification and maligner of the beastly natives, setting her up as witness to Dido’s cruel, murderous and conveniently unable to answer back inhabitants for when a ship arrives from Earth to rescue them both. It’s an entertaining dual performance from Ray Barrett – double-credited behind a portmanteau pseudonym of Sydney Newman and Donald Wilson, two of Doctor Who’s co-creators – though outshone by William Hartnell. The Doctor’s been enchanting right through the story – but now he sits like a marble statue in the Hall of Judgment of a slaughtered people to wait for the killer. And while the murderer made me think of Dickens throughout, the Doctor’s intellect and the plot he unmasks reminds me of Conan Doyle’s The Norwood Builder.
There are few scenes in Doctor Who that make me sit up and pay attention so keenly as when the Doctor, not turning but eyes racing as Koquillion enters the Hall, calls for him to come in. The atmosphere’s already electric, and then – casually, conversationally, because both of them know, so there’s no need to announce it, and because that way the audience is all the more likely to go ‘What? What did he say?’ – the Doctor informs him by his real name that such robes are only for absolutely ceremonial occasions. And from then on everything about the scene is relentless.
The Doctor doesn’t shrink from the ‘alien’, but he backs away as something far more sinister – an evil man – closes in on him. A betrayer, a cruel tormenter, a genocidal mass murderer, a rotten heart of darkness. Someone who always finds the ‘other’ to blame to cover up his own foulness, who exploits the person he poses as protecting and terrifies them into siding with him, who will throw aside anyone at all for his own gain. Under the pretence, this is someone horribly familiar. Though ironically the man in a monster suit looks far more effective than the monster of the week, fans have often speculated why, in a later story, the Doctor’s visions of past monsters as part of his inner fears should include an image of Koquillion, because he wasn’t even a monster. I wonder if they’ve ever watched it.
What Else Should I Tell You About The Rescue?
I’ve always thought The Rescue a lovely little story, not quite one I’d put in my ‘best of’ countdowns but played, written and directed so neatly that I can’t help enjoying myself more every time I watch it. It was only the second William Hartnell story I ever saw – brought along by an older friend to a bootleg showing by some university club in Manchester – and it opened my eyes to how endearing a character he was. I still remember falling in love with his comedy scenes at the start, and his shy delight on overhearing Vicki talking about him. There are a couple of moments that don’t work – a monster that tries to break up the human form and really doesn’t succeed, and the Didoi being defined as another ‘Planet of the Hats’ people who all think the same way – but it’s a neatly-formed story, well-told, and gently relaunches the Doctor and the series while handling its first big change, all at the length of a modern Doctor Who episode, a rarity in the Sixties. You can buy it in a double-DVD set with the more comedy-toned The Romans which I’ve heard called, but which you sadly won’t find labelled as, ‘Veni, Vidi, Vicki’.
Ian Marter’s novelisation has a very different flavour to the TV version – where 1965’s The Rescue is a small-scale story with an innocence that’s marred by one terrible betrayal, 1987’s reworking takes place in a much more cynical universe and expands the action considerably. The rescue ship is very of its time, going from an occasional voice on the radio to scenes on an explicitly American spacecraft – a “heap of Reaganium” – whose crew are shaken by the TARDIS and snap, “Don’t press my button!” It all makes the subtext of the damage done by ‘settlers’ to Native Americans much more the text, linking it to gung-ho ’80s US military clichés and, with the author seizing on the original serial’s New Year broadcast dates, giving a bitter festive commentary on the show’s hopeful ending. Not all the humour is so black – the Tracey Pollock moment always makes me smile, and the Doctor gets several new entertaining lines, particularly an incisively bitchy comment on the villain’s story and at the TARDIS’ next destination – while Dido is given a feel of ruined grandeur and horror at the end of a civilisation well beyond the TV’s budget. The science is rather dodgy, but the main flaw for me is that the structure falls down badly in the second half; as with the innuendos, I suspect Target Books’ editor didn’t want to alter the text of Ian Marter’s final book, but when the story comes to a head and the climax is then deferred for forty pages of sub-sub-Tolkien ruins and giant beasties, it could have done with another draft. You can buy it on audiobook, read by Maureen O’Brien in a warm, intimate style, with a vulnerable Vicki and an endearingly querulous Doctor.
And, if you need one, my score:
If You Like The Rescue, Why Not Try…
The Evil of the Daleks, utterly marvellous, another script from David Whitaker, introducing the exemplar of the companion as Victorian orphan innocent of her sinister sort-of-guardian. And much more. Voyage of the Damned, another Christmas hangover with an ill-fated ship and a blatant companion audition piece, with a twist. The Ambassadors of Death, another tale of aliens who aren’t really hostile being used as cover by scheming humans. Dragonfire, a refreshing change to the timid Victorian orphan companion trope and another fearsome monster concealing something unexpected. But to stay with something short for the New Year…
The Sontaran Experiment. Another brisk two-part story set on a rocky wasteland of a world where the population’s extinct – or is it? – and we meet the survivors of a destroyed spaceship, one of whom is not what they seem, all of which is later greatly extended by an Ian Marter novelisation.
The Christmas hangover’s not quite over yet – but assuming I go back to finish a couple of still-tasty leftovers, and with the still bigger assumption that I manage to go on writing…
Another new companion is caught up in a whodunnit that’s not really a whodunnit and finds both that humans can be more alienating than the aliens and that stepping on board the TARDIS and leaving it all behind was only the start of her problems.