Dr Who series 9: Uncollected Thoughts part 2

Actually, I forgot this was on.

I’ve watched the second episode via the i-Player. It wasn’t as frenetic as the first part, nor, quite, as silly. Instead, it was tedious and long-winded, and boring, and I only stayed to the end out of duty, which for the few of you interested in my words about Dr Who, I’m going to betray anyway.

It just wasn’t worth talking about. It was dull. And Capaldi was as hammy as a ton of hickory ham.

If Moffat ever leaves, someone nudge me. And please, please let Mark Gatiss have the major influence on Sherlock.

A Curious Economic Policy

I confess readily. I was introduced to pizzas over twenty-five years ago by a former dear love and I have no doubt eaten more of them than is right and proper. And my pizza of choice is and always has been the Deep Pan.

Given the effect pizza has on my already expansive waistline, I do ration myself: no more than one shop-bought pizza per week, and no more than one takeaway (usually eaten in, but you get the distinction) per month.

Having already diminished myself in most right-thinking people’s eyes, I must also confess to shopping regularly at Tesco’s. Morality has had to turn its head away in the face of limited income, even more limited cooking time (or ability) and the fact of reliance on public transport when transporting food home. Between all these things, the local Tesco becomes the nexus of quasi-guilty convenience.

The last couple of times I have been in when pizza has been on my putative menu, I noticed that the non-frozen pizza  section was stocked exclusively with thin’n’crispy pizzas (or rather, Thin and Tasty, a designation that some of you will no doubt wish to dispute).

Twice may be coincidence but Three times is Enemy Action, so I asked a nearby shelf-stacker and he confirmed that Tesco have, indeed, stopped making and stocking Deep Pan pizzas in this category. The reason for this is that, when they checked their records, they found they were selling more Thin and Tasty than Pan pizzas.

Being a shelf-stacker, he couldn’t provide me with any figures, but nevertheless, the economic theory behind this decision seems curious to me, and ill-founded in logic. What Tesco appear to be saying is that we are selling more of X than Y, so therefore if we stop making Y, we will sell more of X. Given that we’re talking about types of pizzas, there’s a certain amount of plausibility to the theory but it seems to me to be based on the idea that if we continue to provide people who want X with X, and deprive people who want Y of what they went, our sales of X will increase, to such an extent that they will outweigh the loss we will now make on people who want Y being denied what they want deciding instead to buy X instead, and more of it.

As opposed to doing what I will be doing and buggering off to buy Y at a store which still deigns to sell me Y, and incidentally spending there the money I would otherwise have spent at Tesco because I’m not going to be making two trips instead of one, especially with the way the busses run around here.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t it a bit dodgy to assume that by depriving someone of a product they enjoy and want to buy, they will switch to buying a product they could have been buying all along but were not buying because they actually preferred to buy something else, and now that they’ve had that taken off them, they’re going top buy the product they didn’t want in the first place in even greater numbers?

Of course, I am not an economist, so some valuable piece of knowledge may be being withheld from me (along with my non-frozen Tesco Deep Pan Pepperoni, Meat Feast, Ham & Pineapple and Smoked Chicken). But, as Morrisons do a made-in-store Vegetable Supreme on top of these other choices, my theory holds up rather better in the local economy.

The Fall Season: Gotham

The first out of the block for the superhero series, Gotham has shifted a few cast members around and re-tooled itself for season 2 with a sub-title: Rise of the Villains.

For those not in the know, Gotham is the Batman-before-the-Batman series, beginning with the street murders of Thomas and Martha Wayne, which more or less neatly coincided with the arrival in Gotham City of the idealistic, fanatically honest Detective James Gordon. Over the seasons, we will see Gotham develop into the kind of town the Batman will need to clean up.

Season 1 was always the marginal one amongst my featured series, capable of some interesting elements, especially Robin Lord Taylor’s magnificent performance as the nascent Penguin, and some real crass stupidities (anything Jada Pinkett Smith was involved in). I always found it extremely questionable to give so much time to young Bruce Wayne, if this was to be the Batman-less years.

So, season 2. As you might expect, this was something of a scrappy, rearrange the furniture effort. Pinkett Smith’s gone, leaving the scenery relatively safe from chewing, as is John Doman as the magisterial Don Carmine Falcone. Also gone are the two least relevant cast members who were so well woven into the story that they disappeared completely in the back half of the season.

Morena Baccarin gets promoted into cast as Gordon’s new girlfriend, Lesley (Lee) Thompkins and James Frain and Jessica Lucas come on board as evil masterminds building a super-villains team out of nutters broken out of Arkham Asylum. In what may or may not prove to be a good idea, these included Gordon’s ex-fiancee, Barbara, played by Erin Richards.

To be honest, my ability to take this in was severely hampered by a mis-aligned sound track, with the dialogue and sound effects arriving a good four seconds ahead of the visuals, but it left me a bit cold. Gordon was demoted to traffic cop, kicked off the force (Bullock has already quit, to become a bartender and sober person) but got back thanks to a Deal with the Devil with Penguin that has already seen him kill a man (a gang boss, to be sure, but still…)

And Bruce took the entire episode to discover the Batcave beneath stately Wayne Manor, last season’s least baffling cliffhanger.

If there’s any of the returning shows I can see myself giving up on, Gotham‘s the favourite. For now, let’s see what develops and how quickly they can get Erin Richards showing off her legs again.

New Tricks: Lottery Curse

Sasha Miller

A gently downbeat episode as we close in on the end, with not a lot of depth to comment about, and refreshingly free of the soap opera interludes that have passed for personal life sub-plots this series.

Lottery Curse started in situ with the team called out to a house where a body had been discovered under the patio, which was rapidly proved to be Cheryl Sheekey (what an odd surname to choose), Lottery winner in 1997 and disappeared, suspected murdered in 1998.

UCOS  set out to unravel a pleasantly convoluted back story involving the other members of the four-person Pub Quiz Team/Lottery Syndicate who’d scored £900K each and who’d set out to use their winnings in the differing ways that seemed best to them.

Cheryl had been the original Spend, Spend, Spend girl. Chris, the team leader, had bought a Garden Centre, with his wife Liz, who Cheryl had had forced off the team. Her childhood mate, Eleanor, had opened an Animal Welfare Shelter, and her besotted husband, Terry, had turned to drugs to cope with the strain of their suddenly public life.

Indeed Terry had been, and still remained chief suspect, though the case had ended up being dropped due to lack of evidence, especially after Cheryl’s car had been found abandoned at Dover, her passport gone.

Though he ended up back at the forefront of the investigation, Terry came over throughout as someone who’d just loved his wife too much. He’d spent seventeen years apparently convinced she was still alive, and undertaking missing persons searches trying to locate, which was an awfully big act to have carried out for someone seeking to establish plausible deniability.

But as the pieces were shuffled about, suspected affairs turned into scams by the money-greedy Cheryl, and when push came to shove, Eleanor tried too hard to frame Terry and undid herself in the process.

As I said, pleasingly low key and mostly unemotional. In the only subplot, the boys set Sasha up to get her end away with a handsome forensic scientist, colleague to Fiona, but that was at least handled with minimal fuss.

An easy way to spend an hour, but ultimately forgettable. Only two more.

The Fall Season: The Big Bang Theory

Anndddd it’s back.

The new, and busy Fall television season in America started last night with the first episode of The Big Bang Theory season 9. It’s running on Monday nights for six weeks before reverting to its usual slot on Thursday evening.

We picked up directly from the end of last season, with Leonard and Penny en route to Las Vegas to get married, and Sheldon in a state of confusion over Amy’s saying she needed time to think about their relationship. With the rest of the cast in decidedly subordinate roles, these two situations quickly played out into disasters.

To be honest, it wasn’t that funny an episode. I still love the series, but I’m not blind to the fact that, comedy-wise, season 8 was the weakest to date, and by throwing in obvious, and serious obstacles, season 9 isn’t leaving much room for the comedy to peek around the edges.

Sheldon was Sheldon, completely misreading the situation. He was completely incapable of giving Amy the time she requested to enable her to think. He turned up outside her apartment, accompanied her (uninvited) to Howard and Bernadette’s, to watch the internet broadcast of Leonard and Penny’s wedding, and spoilt the whole situation for everyone with his petulant self-absorption, eventually pushing Amy to the point of actually breaking up with him.

I found that side of it hard to laugh at, having witnessed the entire thing in real life: a friend of mine broke up with his wife and ended up blowing his chances of resolving their issues by simply being unable to leave her alone to think, though admittedly what he was trying to do was make things better, and not be snotty and superior.

The other half of the story was a crash-course slide towards disaster. All the way through, neither Leonard nor Penny looked as prepared for marriage as they said they were, but the shit hit the fan when they arrived in the honeymoon suite, lawfully wed, only for Penny to choose that moment to admit that she was struggling to get over Leonard’s revelation about kissing one of his fellow scientists when away in the Arctic.

This promptly got worse when Leonard admitted he sees her (professionally) at work. By the time they got back, they were back to different apartments.

As a story, it was a bit too obvious a contrivance. After all, we already have one happily (mostly) married couple, and it would never do to allow Leonard’s lack of self-confidence wither, would it?

The most affecting element of all this was the closing scene, of Sheldon and Leonard in their apartment, each reacting to the crash of their relationships in opposite manners: Sheldon with bombast, arrogance and selfishness, convinced he has not an atom of responsibility for any of this, Leonard utterly dejected, facing losing what matters to him most, and blaming himself for screwing things up.

Downbeat or what?

Personally, the hardest balance I’ve always recognised is to interweave comedy and tragedy. I have always found it hard to laugh at jokes about things falling apart, and the writers haven’t made a good start on this season. Add to that the obvious contrivance of creating this rift to begin with, which I predict will lead to requests for a divorce, and no reconciliation until at least episode 16.

Of course, since the series has been renewed to a further season after this, there’s nothing to keep the writers from extending the split into next year, though personally, I’d be loathe to see that. Hopefully, whatever they do, they can throw in some stronger jokes this year. I have enjoyed The Big Bang Theory  for too long to want to see it decline too badly now.

Dan Dare: The Menace from Jupiter

And then there was one. And the Dan Dare series came to its final story and its final format change, following in the footsteps of Heros the Spartan in being reduced to a single page.
Nothing about this story relates to any other part of the Dan Dare mythos. No characters, no spaceship designs, no element of the story is consistent with what has gone before. Just Colonel Daniel McGregor Dare and Spaceman First Class Albert Fitzwilliam Digby for a final ride, and even Digby doesn’t say anything that sounds like Digby until the penultimate episode. It’s the third of the stories that New Zealand fan Dennis Steeper left out when bringing Dan’s adventures into a coherent chronology in his Report of the Cryptos Commission, and there can be no complaints. Nothing, save the final page, fits.
The plot is very simple. In fact, it’s a straight-up, drastically shortened repeat of The Man from Nowhere/Rogue Planet. Stranger from space crashes from Earth and has to be rescued from the Ocean by Dan Dare. He comes to ask for aid for his people, who are being invaded by an alien race. Dan heads out there and saves the day, not militarily but biologically. Simples.
The stranger from space is Bro (no, he does not come from Harlem in the Nineties), his people are the Verans and they come from Jupiter. Yes, Jupiter, you must have noticed it, largest planet in the Solar System, big place, gas giant, which means it doesn’t actually have any solid ground, but who cares, eh? We are not Frank Hampson, we are not David Motton, the kids don’t know any better, fuck ’em.
The aliens are the Pittars, and they are giants. One head, two arms, two legs, about thirty times taller than Earthmen, nasty bunch, shoot first in order to avoid having to ask questions later.
And, actually, it’s not Dan who saves the day, it’s Digby. Digby who has hung around in the background all story, mostly doing absolutely nothing, and saying the odd perfunctory, purely functional line, turns out to have had a sniffle all along (completely unforeshadowed). In a blatant rip-off of H. G. Wells, Digby’s cold transfers itself to the leading Pittar (despite Digby having spent every second of contact with the Pittars with his spacesuit helmet firmly on: bloody clever germs these are.)
And it may be a cold to Digby but it’s horrendous death to the Pittars who, within the hour, have packed everybody off the planet, in close formation, and – knowing that they can never, ever, not even after scientific research and a couple of Beecham’s Powders taken with honey and lemon, defeat this plague – hightail it out of the System, never to return. Job done.
The art’s an improvement and, mostly, the colouring is excellent, though at this very late stage Watson undertakes a full redesign of spacesuits and space craft, presumably under editorial instruction, which makes this poor effort stand out even further. His Verans, Bro and his people, are very distinctive as aliens, almost Dalek-esque in their design, by which I mean they are a simple, duplicated form, recognisable in shape but looking completely inhuman.
We never actually see a Veran in the flash, as it were. They are squat, bulky, short-armed creatures, clad in heavy body armour, with flipper-like feet, beings that have been crunched down by Jupiter’s gravity that even they can only withstand due to body repulsors that negate gravity.
But, like the Daleks, they are unbelievable as a race that presumably have to eat, and drink, and undertake some form of gender oriented reproduction methods.
The whole story is like that, full of implausibilities that actively cross over into impossibilities. At one point, Dan and Digby are exposed to the full Jovian gravity, until the Verans can get them some body repulsors. Instead of being crushed flat, literally, they live through pressure equal to ten ton of bricks. Show me a human with ten ton of bricks piled on him, and I’ll show you a corpse, but, no.
This is the series that began by employing Arthur C. Clarke as Scientific Advisor until he gave up because he never had anything to correct. The Venus of Dan’s universe may well be as much a fantasy as this solid, inhabited Jupiter, but at the time Frank Hampson devised it, it was completely plausible by the scientific knowledge of the era.
But none of this matters. It was the end, and few would have wanted more stories if this was going to be the sort of thing we would get. The story of The Menace from Jupiter ended in conventional fashion in the last Eagle of 1966. In a final episode in the first issue of 1967, with an enormous sense of disconnection, there stood one final, giant panel. A caption announced that, a fortnight after his return from Jupiter, Dan Dare was invited to the Prime Minister’s Office and promoted to Controller of the Spacefleet.
His active days were over. What we would henceforth see of the Pilot of the Future would be his memoirs, or to put it another way, reprints. Which would still be new stories to eleven year old boys like me, but would mean not having to pay for artists and writers each week.
For one last time, everyone was there, to celebrate Dan’s promotion. There was the old Venus Expedition team, plus O’Malley and a grown-up Flamer Spry, looking extremely odd in Spacefleet green as opposed to Astral blue. No room for Spence or Cobb, but Wilf Banger and Uncle Ivor made it onto the podium whilst in the crowd were Therons and Atlantines, Thorks, Mercurians and Cosmobes, Crypts and Phants, a Treen who ought surely to have been Sondar and sharing that podium, Stripey, the bloody pooch Sir William Tell, Old Groupie, Kettle the wonky electrobot and a couple of others that might have been distinguishable if the colourist hadn’t chosen to blanket so many with some dingy brown shade.
But that was it. It was all over. It was the end.

In Praise of Pratchett: The Last Continent

In which Terry Pratchett changes publishers from Victor Gollancz to Doubleday and both Rincewind and the Faculty visit the continent of FourEcks, which no-one is particularly surprised to discover is Australia, turned up until the knobs fall off…
After all, where was it that Rincewind ended up when expelled so dramatically from Ancient China the Agatean Empire?
After the heavy subtext of Jingo, Pratchett drops any pretence of significance and comes up with a story that is just all out funny, provoking roar-out-loud laughs several times a page from beginning to end. Nor is it pointed or sharp humour, intent as much on exposure as in hitting the funny bone. Pratchett’s single goal in The Last Continent is to leave us rolling on the floor, and he succeeds gloriously.
Does that diminish The Last Continent when compared to such books as Small Gods and Jingo? Of course not. There’s merely a different end in sight, and given how difficult it is to create true humour, there’s no way I’m going to knock a book that made me laugh as hard as this one did when I first cracked its pages.
In typical fashion, Pratchett divides the actual story in two. The book begins with the McGuffin: the Librarian is ill, the Library’s running a rampage without him. Every time he sneezes, it affects his body’s morphogenetic field and he changes shape. In order to put an end to this, the Wizards want to cast a spell, but that means knowing the Librarian’s real name. The only person who knows it is his former assistant, Rincewind.
The Great Wizzard is currently bumming his way around the vast, red, dessicated deserts of Australia EcksEcksEcksEcks, the Last Continent. It’s a rainless, overheated, dangerous place to be for those who know how to cope with it, but Rincewind is thriving (to a given value of thrive). Every day he accidentally falls into a waterhole.
The thing is, FourEcks wasn’t made by the creator of Discworld. There was this wide open expanse of ocean just crying out for someone to sneak in and add a continent, but it’s a bodged together, twisted, badly-constructed continent that doesn’t properly fit, a rush job that needs twisting around like a jigsaw piece. And Rincewind is the man to do that, because he’s already done it, except that it’s because he’s done it that this disappearing kangaroo knows he’s the one who will do it, only he’s still got to actually do it. Got that? No? Good.
Meanwhile, Ridcully and the Faculty go looking for the Egregious Professor of Cruel and Unusual Geography, who seems to be spending an inordinate time in the bathroom, which could be because his bathroom is actually an idyllic South Sea island. Under the pretext of doing the poorly Librarian some good, the Faculty go on various research projects on the beach. It’s all very pleasant, especially in an Ankh-Morpork winter. That is, until Mrs Whitlock brings the Gentlemen some refreshments and, in order to climb over the sill with Respectability, removes the prop that has been holding the window open…
That the climax will depend, in some unforeseeable manner, on bringing the two sides together, even though the Faculty are somewhere about thirty thousand years in the past, is clear, and that the ultimate aim of the story is for these interlopers to bring rain to this dry, forsaken land where no-one believes in rain or even clouds, is equally apparent. That’s the architecture. All books need one, to keep the pot boiling whilst the author gets on with the serious business of joking, and Pratchett goes at it with a will.
Rincewind’s progress is the main strand, and it’s a glory. Pratchett simply throws in every Australian joke, cliché and theme he can think of, and runs Rincewind through the gamut. A couple of the gags may be a bit time-specific for younger readers, not familiar with the films of the time the book was published. The Mad Max references have recently been refreshed by the new film, but the Crocodile Dundee and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert riffs may not entirely sink home.
But no matter if they do. If a joke misses its target, there’s another dozen chasing it along, and if the reader only gets fifty percent of them, he or she is going to be sick laughing long before the end.
Everyone has their favourite moments. For me, it’s the scene at the Sheep Station, where Rinso has to shear a sheep, and insists on a chair, mirror, scissors and hair lotion before he starts…
But whilst Rincewind is running into every Australian cliché you can think of, the Faculty are pursuing a different, and slower path. Where Rincewind is continually on the move, the Wizards spend most of their time on Mono Island, a very unusual island, indeed, one might say a very singular island (heh heh), with Mrs Whitlock.
Now Mono Island is a very comfortable place, given that whatever the Wizards want turns out to grow on trees, literally. And within a couple of hours of the wish being spoken aloud. The presence of a woman does rather affect these elderly gentlemen who have spent their lives conscientiously not even thinking of women (we hope), especially the Senior Wrangler.
Indeed, of all the books featuring the Wizards to date and to come, this is the one in which I find it possible to tell the buggers apart!
There is an explanation for all this evolution gone wild, and this is possibly Pratchett’s most convoluted creation: a God. Not one of your lightning-and-thunder types, not unless he’s feeling stressed, and certainly not the manifesting kind. This is a God who doesn’t want to be worshipped, who’s limited his omnipotence to a very tiny area, without worshippers, and who’s busy with experiments that avoid repetition.
In short, he’s the God of Evolution. And think your way round the contradictions in that.
The Wizards provide a counterpart to Rincewind, a different source of humour, a change from the flow of wonderfully exaggerated Australianism. It’s also something of a showcase for young Ponder Stibbins who, despite his being half a century younger than the rest, at the very least, is more or less a full member of the Faculty. We already know him as the main figure responsible for Hex, but in this book, Pratchett develops him as a viewpoint character.
It’s an interesting distinction, and I wonder how much of it was calculation on Pratchett’s part. I’ve commented on the process in the City Watch books, mainly in the context of how Pratchett never lets us into Carrot’s mind, and only ever presents him through the eyes of the other Watchmen. Ponder is the only one of the Faculty whose thoughts we share (to a lesser extent, the same goes for the Bursar, whose last significant appearance this is, but he’s out of it for the most part, so the effect is different).
We see and hear a lot about/from Ridcully, but even when it’s not through the medium of Ponder, it’s still very external. We’re told about him by the narrator: the rest we have to apprehend for ourselves.
At the end of it, let’s come back to the most important thing about The Last Continent, that it’s one of the most concentratedly funny Discworld books. And that’s not to be sniffed at.