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.

Doctor Who Series 9: Uncollected Thoughts

Go away. Please. Just go away.

Well now, that was embarrassingly bad, wasn’t it?

After the announcement that Jenna Coleman was leaving Dr Who, thus removing from the series its single, most glaringly awful annoyance, I made the last-minute decision to rescind my personal ban on watching the series. That was an awful mistake.

‘The Magician’s Apprentice’ was a perfect example of Stephen Moffat’s increasing tendency to throw it a lot of brightly coloured bits of jumble, whirl them around a bit and pretend that the outcome was a coherent story. So, we had, in short order, a fourteen year old boy wandering into an explicable war scene, the Twelfth Doctor all set to help him out of a forest of hand-mines (so much effort for a very weedy, nonsensical pun) and learning that freckle-face’s name is Davros, some guy sliding around on roller skates under a monk’s cowl, looking for the Doctor, Missy freezing aircraft all over the world to attract UNIT’s attention, the Doctor partying in 1128AD with an electric guitar and more anachronisms than you could shake a stick at, a conversation with a very low-key, non-shouty Davros who’s due to die in the morning and the Daleks destroying Missy, Clara and the TARDIS.

That none of it made the least amount of sense, and will make even less after part 2 finishes the story off next week, is exactly why Moffat has, with unbelievable rapidity considering how well he handled the Fiftieth Anniversary, fallen out of the bottom of the dustbin and needs to be removed from control of the show. It has already become unwatchable, and that’s without Clara.

Take Missy’s return. When last she was seen, the Doctor was killing her, permanently, no regenerations, no flowers by request, so as to ensure that Clara, who was intent on doing it out of revenge for the death of Danny (you remember, the guy who got run over by a car when she announced her undying love by mobile phone whilst he was crossing a busy road: talk about Displacement) wouldn’t have to live with blood on her hands.

Nobody believed for a minute that that was the last we’d seen of the erstwhile Master. So, how do they get over this hurdle? What ingenious little story lies behind this latest resurrection? Six words: ‘Not dead. Back. Get over it.’ with one might bound, Moffat frees himself from the curse of rationality forever. He can do anything he wants, and then just flip it without explanation. The last link to reality is this shattered and Dr Who becomes literally meaningless.

Then there’s Clara. She’s in the classroom, teaching badly as always, Jane Austen, brilliant writer, and totally great kisser, and then suddenly, without anyone batting an eyelid, she’s shooting off to UNIT HQ at the Prime Minister’s personal request (which no-one finds in the least bit strange), and it’s not because she’s the Doctor’s current official companion, it’s because UNIT, and Kate Stewart, desperately need Clara’s superior knowledge and understanding of A) how to recognise an alien invasion when you see one and B) what to do about an alien invasion.

Seriously, I am not kidding. Moffat has gotten so totally involved with his jumped-up companion – who is so fucking ignorant she actually tells the Daleks, the Daleks, that they can’t destroy the TARDIS – that he thinks he can sell the idea that a 29 year old teacher knows more about planetary defence than the whole of UNIT.

After that, the bit with the Doctor in the Twelfth Century was basic-level inanity, and not even Clara being exterminated could raise a smile because we know it won’t take.

What made everything exponentially worse is that this fifth-rate, amateurish tripe was based on a supposedly serious idea. Admittedly, it’s a very old idea, one that was explored back in Tom Baker’s day and, what’s more, taken directly from dialogue of a higher standard that this dog.

We saw it all a very long time ago in ‘Genesis of the Daleks’, the moment when the Fourth Doctor held up two bare wires that, it touched together, would destroy at source the entire Dalek race, removing them from history before they entered it. It was a moral dilemma of epic dimension. Moffat even had the conversation replayed, as Baker posed the question of what if you had the life of a young boy in your hands that, by snuffing him out, you could avoid untold dearth, destruction and carnage?

That’s exactly what the opening scene did. And the Doctor, the Twelfth Doctor, left Davros where he was as soon as he learned the boy’s name.

The cliffhanger is that the Doctor returns, directly from Skaro, where he’s seen Clara evaporated, mad with grief, toting a Dalek exterminatory arm and ready to save Clara’s life by exterminating Davros to little pieces.

Cheap, inane, moronic. I shall submit myself to watching next week’s second part, then wash my hands of things until Moffat walks. Please, please, please let this colossal abdication of writing standards not have crept into Sherlock as well.

The Infinite Jukebox: The Who’s I can see for miles

Keith Moon

What do you call someone who hangs around with musicians? A drummer.
An old joke, though one that’s usually intended for the rock and pop world rather than jazz, where the drummer has a more creative role in a trio on a regular basis.
It’s not a joke that could ever be applied to Keith Moon, late of the Who. The Mad Moon, Moon the Loon, the explosive force at the centre of the ‘Oo, the ‘Oo, the ‘orrible ‘Oo.
Moon is, for me at any rate, the best rock drummer I have ever heard. he is loud, explosive but also brilliantly controlled, a master of his kit. He’s certainly the only drummer whose style I can recognise, without prompting, and though there are many, myriad examples of his talents spread around the Infinite Jukebox, the best of these, for me, is ‘I can see for miles’.
As a record, it marks a point of transition. The Who had been mods, they had been art rock, they had been pure energy burning on wax, but in their leader, Pete Townsend, they had a writer of imagination and ambition.
Townsend had already driven the Who towards more complex compositions. Their second album, A Quick One Whilst He’s Away was named after the title track, a ten minute quasi-rock opera, telling a story via a succession of half a dozen segued mini-songs. Townsend had repeated the exercise in miniature on The Who Sell Out on the two part album closer, ‘Rael’.
‘I can see for miles’ is the hinge, the moment of transition between the early, simple Who and the sprawling epic of Tommy. And it’s Moon’s song from, start to finish.
There’s no orthodox beat, no orthodox tune. You couldn’t in any way dance to it. Daltrey croons, showing the first hint of the hard-throated rocking style he would develop in the Seventies, Townsend slices chords into spikes and bursts of sound, and Moon, out in front, hammers his drums into explosions of percussion, driving on a song of paranoia.
There are love songs about love gone bad, but this was a more paranoid version than any that had gone before. in a way, it’s a foreshadowing of Sting’s ‘Every Breath You Take’, because Daltrey is watching his woman, only he can watch from wherever he is, he doesn’t need to stalk, he can see for miles. He can see anything and everything.
Daltrey makes it plain from the start. He knows she’s deceived him, and the surprise is on her, because he knows that she has because he’s got magic in his eyes. He can see for miles and miles and miles and miles and miles, he sings, with Townsend and Entwistle echoing him, and there’s a final, solitary ‘Oh yeah’, half triumphant, half defiant, wholly adolescent (the echo of ‘so there’ is inescapable).
It’s not just magic, it’s positively superhuman, Daltrey claims. On clear days he can see the Eiffel Tower and the Taj Mahal, so what has he actually seen his errant girlfriend doing? He’s seen her holding lots of other guys, and now she’s got the nerve to say that she still wants him! that’s as may be, but she’s gotta stand trial, because of how far he can see.
Let’s hold on to that thought for a moment. She’s ‘holding’ lots of guys, but what is out context here, what is the detail? What exactly does this holding entail? Dancing? handjobs? Full-blown kneetremblers? Is this reticence Sixties’ sweetness and innocence that has to express itself through code words, or is it adolescent flailing, mere paranoia unable to imagine itself into anything more detailed? He’s not about to reject her out of hand, despite what he ‘knows’, but she’s got to go on trial before he’ll decide whether to keep her (and is she really sure she wants to be kept, upon such terms?)
There is no end, no resolution, just like there is no tune, as such. The music churns and boils, the guitars clash, Moon pulses, in highly staccato bursts, heartbeats rising and falling, the rhythm of Daltrey’s paranoia that, ultimately, we will never understand fully whether it is real and justified, or merely the feverish fears of an overactive, overimagination.
But we suspect. Oh how we suspect, and Moon’s seemingly erratic drums pound that suspicion into us with every colossal beat.

This is the band playing the song. It’s no coincidence that, in defiance of every convention there is, the drummer is out in front:

Dan Dare: “Give me the Moon!”

Frank Hampson, being watched closely by his masters

At least Watson’s artwork, for the most part, was back up to its usual standard, and the colouring was once again meticulous, but in all other respects, “Give Me The Moon!”, Dan Dare’s penultimate story, was a crock.
It starts off adequately, with the Tempus Frangit‘s landing after two and a half years in space, on the Vega expedition (a veil had better be drawn over the length of time Dan and Co have been away). The crew are met by Major Spence who, as we shall see in this story, has very much gone up in this world, if not in rank. Spence, who has transformed from the fussy, prim, nervous administrator of before into a hyper-competent, extremely confident controller (different writer, I’ll swear to it) dedicates himself to briefing the crew over the changes the world has seen in their absence, which primarily consist of new, automated, crew-free, faster, bigger load-bearing food transports from Venus.
It’s an odd return to the theme of the very first Dan Dare story, and in all the years between, not only is Earth still dependant upon food shipments from the planet of the Treens and Therons, it is still desperately close to famine and disaster if they are in the least disrupted.
And disrupted they are, by a mysterious terrorist organisation going under the name of Fist. And Fist has a demand in return for giving up its campaign of terror, destruction and world-wide starvation: it wants the Moon.
Fist: we are so in the James Bond Sixties, aren’t we?
A story like this stands or falls on its basic premise, and even as a ten-year-old boy, I knew that there was something fundamentally dodgy about the idea of Fist demanding the Moon. What was it going to do with it? Especially when the Government still had the Earth. It was just a flashy, big, dumb, daft idea, and it’s lack of plausibility was made explicit in mid-story when, with the terrorist organisation at the height of its campaign, someone actually asks what they want with the Moon when they’ve practically got the Earth?
That’s a case of being too clever by half. Fist – which has appeared out of nowhere, with World Security completely unprepared – is too big and too strong. It has resources everywhere, men and machines setting up attacks all over the globe, it can vanish at a moment’s notice, abandoning the organisation’s entire superstructure and not be weakened, it can create a projection of solid light cones that enables an entire spacefleet invade the moon, and this monstrously overwhelming, secret organisation is controlled by a single mind, and a mind with a day job: he’s doing all this in his spare time!
It’s beyond the least bit of credibility, and even the boy I was could see this.
That criminal mastermind spends most of his time in the story flitting around Spacefleet HQ, where he holds the important post of Commissionaire. Dan looks at him with curiosity on his return from Vega, and Spence names him as ex-spaceman Benny Clark, injured in the battle with Xel and the Tritons, restored by plastic surgery and given heavyweight, coloured lens glasses that compensate for his enforced blindness.
But he’s really Laszlo Romanov, the supposedly-dead head of ‘Big M’, an engineering empire inherited from Magnus Romanov’s ‘Magnus Group’. Laszlo, who was born blind, is supposed to have died in a Mars spacecraft accident, after which ‘Big M’ was broken up. Funnily, almost every piece of equipment recovered from Fist is derived from ‘Big M’.
In a way, the notion of Fist’s commander hiding out in so humble a role is very clever: a lowly official, forever on the scene in his menial role, his presence taken for granted, he is ideally placed to eavesdrop. But, like Fist itself, the amount of information – truly sensitive information – he picks up is far too great for plausibility.
And to have his headquarters disguised as a water tanker on the roof of the apartment block in which he lives stretches credulity to the point where it just goes twang!
As for the telling of the story, it’s in much the same mode as The Singing Scourge, all disasters and cliffhangers and colossal bangs. Watson is given a final shot at calling up past characters as Lex O’Malley – still captaining Poseidon – is found in charge of food supplies in the South Indian Ocean and becomes, for a time, part of a triumvirate of chiefs responsible for combating the threat of Fist to the world’s food.
I say for a time for, about two-thirds of the way through, O’Malley drops out of the story, completely forgotten, as Banger and John F. become the troubleshooters who finally track down Clark/Romanov and his secret HQ.
That’s not the only sloppiness about this story. At one point, a list of possible intelligence leaks from Spacefleet HQ is produced, with Clark’s name at the very top. But Dan, who has seen the Commissionaire gun down two unimportant Fist hirelings, swears faith in Clark, insistently so, heading off any actual investigation. Then, several weeks later, when Fist is starting to look more and more like a Laszlo Romanov operation, suddenly Dan’s staking his whole belief on Benny actually being Laszlo, without a word to prepare us for such a volte-face.
The worst moment of all relates to Digby, however. He and Dan, in Anastasia, go out to investigate the Fist satellite, only to be paralysed, like the ship, by electrical defences. Digby is captured and taken on board the satellite to be put to death: his spacesuit is ejected from an airlock.
There’s no two ways about it, Digby has been done for, and here are stiff expressions of regret from Lex, but not Dan. And the Wigan Wonder is out of the story for weeks until, Dan having decided to trick Fist into coming out into the open by actually giving it the Moon, there’s an off-hand reference to Fist, as a goodwill gesture, giving Digby back, alive.
It’s nonsense, utter nonsense, being written by someone who can’t be bothered to give the story the remotest element of consistency or plausibility. If this is indeed the work of Frank Pepper, then it’s negligible: less meant to last for five minutes and then be forgotten, than written in half that time and forgotten twice as fast. The Earth-Stealers was dire, but that was simply bad: it wasn’t done with anything like this level of underlying contempt for the intelligence of its readership.
I’ve already said that Watson’s art, and the colour palette both improve distinctly from the longer part of The Singing Scourge and it’s necessary to point out that John F.’s skin colour and his features go back to their original distinctiveness, though Watson – due to editorial direction? – does to his best to avoid showing the American’s face too clearly most of the time.
But really, “Give Me The Moon!” demonstrates just how rapidly downhill things were going. And then there was only one left.

Dr Who: Ok, then, maybe…

With the new series of Doctor Who coming up on Saturday, I have been busy avoiding any trailers or spolilers, though not for the usual reason of wishing to watch the actual broadcast without knowing what to expect: you know, as a drama.

No, this time I’ve been ignoring the programme because of Clara Oswald.

However much of a minority I may have been in, I rapidly grew to hate the Doctor’s current companion the longer series eight went on. Stupid, self-willed, convinced of her own righteousness, cheating and lying and avoiding responsibility for her actions, she was not what I wanted to see in the programme. When you spend roughly a third of each episode screaming at one character’s bone-headedness, one of two things has to give: her or you.

And when the exceedingly risible end to the Xmas Special made it plain that Clara wasn’t going, I decided I had to.

Until just this afternoon, when it was announced that Jenna Coleman was leaving, and before this year’s Xmas Special, because she’s going off to play Queen Victoria.

That doesn’t mean to say that things will be any better this forthcoming season, nor that her eventual replacement will prove to have a brain between her no doubt pretty ears, but I can at least try the series again, knowing that instead of screaming at the screen, I can keep repeating, “this too shall pass, this too shall pass, this too shall pass…”

New Tricks: The Russian Cousin

Danny Griffin

It’s looking increasingly clear that, having decided that this will be the final series, the BBC has told the team behind New Tricks to forget all about this ambitious stuff and settle for going out in a blaze of carpet slippers. There are few things more annoying in any form of the arts than to watch potential being deliberately ignored.

‘The Russian Cousin’ was slightly better than it might have been in taking, as one of its underlying stories, the issue of a very decent, very brave man, dying of cancer, deserving of both respect and sympathy, victim of a crime that had robbed both himself and the daughters on whom he doted, of financial security, of hope, and revealing him to be the murderer in the latest cold case.

Having him played by Dean Andrews, Ray Carling in Life on Mars/Ashes to Ashes, was an astute piece of casting, designed to bring the audience alongside for the whole episode and even through the revelation that he was the killer of private investigator Mike Hooper. Even at the end, the viewer was led to accept Barry Warnock as a good man, who would be spared prosecution for his crime because his cancer was so far advanced that he could not be tried before his impending death.

Where the episode fell short on what could have been an excellent episode was in loading the scales too heavily on Barry’s side. In order not to threaten the audience’s respect for the man, his victim, Hooper, was retrospectively revealed as an out-and-out bastard, crooked, double-dealing, cheating his own client.

The Russian Cousin of the title was a very rare and valuable stamp, of which only twelve were known to exist. Warnock had inherited it from his Grandfather, and kept in with a box of the old man’s letters, diaries and memorabilia. At first he pretended not to know the worth of the stamp but later it transpired he did indeed know it was a ‘nest egg’.

The box was stolen by some no-mark toerag in a spate of burglaries and sold to a pawnbroker in ignorance. Later, it had come on the market in mysterious, ooh, alright, dodgy circumstances and been bought by an Internet billionaire in full knowledge that it was stolen and complete confidence that the Police would never find anything that small, no matter how many Search Warrants they obtained.

But the ultimate point was that, after Warnock had hired Hooper to find the missing stamp, it was Hooper who bought it from the pawnbroker and masterminded the sale to private collectors. It was his working pattern, he had done the same with the red herring suspect who’d stolen £30,000 off his girlfriend and vanished: Hooper found him and demanded money to keep quiet.

In making Hooper an utter shitbag who’d double-crossed a decent man with a terminal condition, the episode played it safe and easy, and missed its chance to navigate deeper waters. If Hooper had been someone equally decent as the unfortunate Warnock, the episode would have been far better, grappling with the moral ambiguity, but it wouldn’t have been so easy to write. Last year’s New Tricks was in the frame of mind to tackle things like that.

Otherwise, the soap opera elements of the series bimbled along. Ted was resisting going to the Doctors for a health test in connection with Life Insurance renewal, which concerned Danny greatly: Ted’s family was genetically prone to a rare heart condition and he was resisting the risk of learning he had it. But he didn’t.

As for Steve’s money issues, this week he tried renting his flat out as a Shortstay, £300.00 for 48 hours to a pair of Italian ladies who turned out to be scam artists planning to strip the place. But a nosy neighbour tipped Steve off, so no harm was done there either. Typical.

So, with only three episodes of its life left, New Tricks has eschewed the possibilities it showed and reverted very thoroughly to being Insubstantial Airfill. Which was what I originally praised it for being: decent, inoffensive, modestly entertaining. Once upon a time, that would have been sufficient to see things through, but after seeing what the programme could be, when it put its mind to it, all it can be now is disappointing.

In Praise of Pratchett: Jingo

The bigger the subject, the bigger the book. In Small Gods, Terry Pratchett dealt with Gods and Religion: in Jingo, as I knew from the moment I heard the title long in advance, his subject was War, and his chosen vehicle in which to approach it was Sam Vimes and the City Watch.
I don’t know how familiar people are, nowadays, with the word Jingoism. It’s been in currency for over a century and a half, but I get the feeling that it’s now becoming obsolete – the word, that is, not the sentiment is expresses. It came out of the bellicose attitude of the British public towards war with Russia over the Crimean Peninsula, which represented itself in a popular Music Hall song: We don’t want to fight but, by jingo, if we do/we’ve got the men, we’ve got the arms, we’ve got the money too.
Jingoism: the overwhelming enthusiasm of people to get stuck into a war in which other people will be the ones being shot at.
In Jingo, the cassus belli is the island of Leshp, suddenly re-emerging in the middle of the Circle Sea (with appropriately Lovecraftian designs all over its seaweed shrouded buildings) and of immense strategic importance to both Ankh-Morpork and Klatch (a suitably Arabian/Muslim kind of desert-based empire).
Once Leshp re-appears, even though it’s worth bugger all in practical terms, war is in the air, especially among the ordinary people of Ankh-Morpork and the aristocracy, as represented by Lord Rust, who are naturally the ones who will conduct this violent clash on a basis of outdated assumptions, open racial prejudice and innate, deep-lying utter stupidity.
The whole thing worries and frustrates Sir Samuel Vimes, Watch Commander and reluctant Gentleman, especially when he starts getting dragged into diplomatic meetings with Prince Khufurah and his right-hand man, 71-Hour Ahmed. Vimes decides not to be diplomatic, since he suspects that it’s all a front by extremely clever adversaries to deliberately play along with assumptions and under-estimations, and Vimesy is dead right to think this way. Right up until a nearly-successful assassination attempt on the Prince, which precipitates the conflict everyone’s been anticipating and wanting.
Military Law under Rust displaces the Patrician, not that Lord Vetinari has any intention of letting that cramp his style, heading off to Klatch in a submarine with its designer, Leonard of Quirm, and two specially selected impressed assistants, Sergeant Colon and Corporal Nobbs.
Meanwhile, Vimes resigns when the watch is superceded, only to return at the head of his own private Army, composed of the City’s Watchmen. Indeed, when Angua is taken, in wolf-form, by 71-Hour Ahmed, Vimes gives way to his inmost instincts and sets off in pursuit, precipitating the Ankh-Morpork invasion of Klatch.
But there are wheels, and wheels, and yet more wheels, as the various forces go to a very unusual War, which only seems to end when Vimes reaches the apotheosis of his career and arrests both Armies, and their Commanders, for Breach of the Peace!
Needless to say, the true victor in this turns out to be the Patrician, who calmly outmanoeuvres everyone to bring Ankh-Morpork out on top, with the minimum of bloodshed.
There is so much to admire and relish in this book. Pratchett introduces the Trousers of Time to illustrate the two, competing futures that could apply to this stramash.
To be perfectly honest, whilst I appreciate the concept, and whilst Pratchett manipulates it to great effect in this book, culminating with a steady, and steadily intensifying list of deaths of Watchmen – up to and ending with Captain Carrot – that is utterly horrifying and claustrophobic, I do not and never have accepted the name. At the time Jingo was published, I was still avidly collecting Robert Rankin with the same fervour as Pratchett, and all my instincts tell me that the Trousers of Time are a Robert Rankin concept: the words just do not feel right for Discworld.
Be that as it may, there is so much in Jingo to admire, to amuse and to enthuse over that, to properly look at all of it would require a review at least as long as the book, and considerably less interesting. Just go and read it, which I expect the vast majority of you already have.
I’d simply like to turn back to Vimes, at this stage. He’d always been the centre of the City Watch books, but in Jingo he shows the first signs of breaking away from the pack, as it were, and coming to dominate the series individually, a process that would be almost made formal by the next City Watch story. Here, he is quite plainly Pratchett’s voice, confronting the idea of War, the idea of deliberately planning to slaughter great numbers of men with that mix of anger and incredulity that is Vimes’ own and which he takes directly from his maker.
Though he’s a nominal gentleman, by Lord Vetinari’s creation, Vimes simply does not understand the mentality of gentlemen surrounding him, least of all the supercilious, condescending Lord Rust. And yet, though he cannot comprehend them from the inside, he understands them only too well from the outside. And, being Vimes, he is only too wily and too happy to subvert their mores by following the rules, a walking reductio ad absurdum.
But, as I’ve said, Vimes’ notion of War remains that of the Policeman. He is, from his very core, a Thief-taker, and thief-takers are and must be civilians. For the people, but most of all of the people.
In other aspects of this book, Angua’s ambivalence over her relationship with Carrot is still in evidence, though she is much more settled, perhaps resigned, to her love for him. Pratchett takes the opportunity to reinforce our external impressions of Carrot by separating the pair at an early stage in the narrative, leaving the role of commentator to Vimes himself.
It’s something I haven’t had an opportunity to make much of in these reviews, but Carrot is an extraordinary creation, and his performance – and especially his ability to so rapidly become intimately a part of any environment, however alien, whilst simultaneously rising above it – is in full flow here, especially in the desert sequences, where Pratchett’s Holy Innocent practically becomes a D’Reg overnight. It’s a subtle reminder that Carrot is the perfect King, and by implication an example of the danger he himself stated in an earlier book, the absolute danger of a Good King.
Elsewhere, I’ve nominated Night Watch as the best Discworld book, and that’s an opinion I will never vary from, and which I will expand upon once we get to that point. It’s number 1 in a Top One, but I’d be on much less confident grounds trying to formulate a Top Five.
For what they say that is beyond the simplicity of humour, Jingo would have to join Small Gods in any such list. Especially if you accept Carrot’s maxim that Personal is not the same as important.