Deep Space Nine: s03 e08 – Meridian


True Love... this week
True Love… this week

Though I initially found myself enjoying this latest episode of DS9, long before the end I had come to find it tiresome, and well below the standards of season 3 thus far.

For this episode, the team reverted to the old trick of parallel plots, completely unrelated to each other, which immediately suggests that neither is really strong enough to stand up on their own. Unfortunately, the two tales were so far apart in tone, approach and physical space, they were unable to lean on each other. It was a bit like that old sketch on the BBC Radio comedy Hallo Cheeky, where the gag was that due to timing running late, three completely disparate programmes would be broadcast simultaneously, the mike cutting between the three performers to create wonderfully idiotic double entendres.

This one wasn’t funny, though.

The sub-plot certainly wasn’t, although that was supposed to be the comic story, and was led-off in the open. Tiron (the first of multiple appearances in differing roles by Jeffrey Cmbs), an alien ‘colleague’ of Quark’s, fancies himself a great deal, but he also fancies Major Kira more than somewhat, so she resorts to pretending Odo is her lover to throw him off. Thwarted, Tiron – a study in self-regarding petulance from his alien make-up onwards – demands a custom holosuite programme from Quark, starring the Major.

Much hilarity (hem-hem) ensues as Quark tries to get a holo-profile of our favourite redhead, but by the time he succeeds, Odo and Kira know enough of what’s going on to blow the deal by tinkering with the programme to give Tiron the legs of the Major (at least, I hope that was Nana Visitor) but the head of… Quark. Boom boom.

In the main, and serio-tragic part of the story, the rest of the cast is in the Defiant, exploring the Gamma Quadrant when a planet, Meridian, literally pops into existence before their very eyes. Meridian alternates between dimensions, one the corporeal universe of the Gamma Quadrant, the other a non-corporeal dimension where the diminished population, even the planet, exists as purely consciousness.

Unfortunately, something is out of balance. Meridian has been incorporeal for sixty years, but its physical state will last only twelve days before it shifts back for another sixty years. Needless to say, if you’ve only got a body for twelve days every half century, it makes things like conception, pregnancy and birth a bit dodgy, which is why the Meridianites are down to only 30, and not much of a gene pool.

One of those thirty is Teril, a widower. Teril is strong, handsome, virile and played by a young Brett Cullen, with whom I’m much more familiar for his recurring role as Nathan in Person of Interest. Teril quite clearly fancies the knickers off Jardzia, and she’s not entirely disinterested in his underthings either. But, wait, this is not merely lust at first sight (how could it be in a prime-time series from 1994?), it’s real, genuine, actual love.

Teril decides to leave to be with Jardzia, but his conscience troubles him over his people, his home, his friends. So she decides to stay with him, take leave of absence from Starfleet for sixty years. It’s a tremendous, loving sacrifice, but the problem with this story, with all such stories, is that this is part of an ongoing, prime-time TV series and it’s impossible to vest a moment’s emotion in the course of the story, because you know she’s never going to leave with him, and what’s more, this love-of-eight-lifetimes will be forgotten by as early as the next episode.

The dramatic tension is negligible.

In the end, Meridian starts to shift into phase but Jardzia doesn’t. Indeed, she’s acting like an anchor, holding the planet back and threatening to destroy it until she’s teleported out. End of story, except for Jardzia’s heartbreak. I just need time, she tells Sisko, adding sotto voce ‘sixty years’, which would be moving if it even got as much as sixty seconds before the credit roles.

This half of the story was well-made and well-formed and could have been good if it had been possible to develop any kind of investment in the possibility of Dax going with Teril. Since that was zilch, so too was the episode. There’s always next week.

 

Deep Space Nine: s03 e07 – Civil Defence


Portrait of a smug Cardassian
Portrait of a smug Cardassian

There was nothing in the least bit significant about this week’s episode of DS9, either in terms of the larger background of the Dominion threat, any sociological or political attitude, or even the standalone storyline itself. It was purely and simply a ‘bottle episode’, confined to the station itself, with no guests beyond two recurring Cardassians, Gul Dukat and Garak. Which made it an entertaining, unpretentious little delight.

The story began with Chief O’Brien and Jake Sisko working in one of the lower level processing units, attempting to reclaim it, and in the meantime wiping all the now-redundant Cardassian programmes from its computer. One programme refused to be deleted: in fact, the attempt to remove it triggered it, and it was a doozy.

Because this programme was an automated defence programme, complete with pre-recorded messages from the then-Commander, Gul Dukat, warning the ‘Bajoran workers’ who have attempted to seize control that their revolt will not be allowed to succeed.

And it escalated from there. The Chief, Jake and Sisko himself found themselves trapped down there, and having to bust out to avoid a fatal dose of neurosene gas, which triggers further fail-safes affecting the Bridge, and trapping Major Kira, Jardzia and Doctor Bashir behind similar force-fields.

Not to mention trapping Odo in his office, along with his suspicious and most unwelcome visitor, Quark.

That gave us three groups operating in isolation from one another, with the tension ratchetting up every few minutes as yet another attempt to beat the system being interpreted as further success by the mythical Bajoran workers (the Major must have been so proud) requiring yet more escalated response. All the way up initiating the self-destruct of DS9 itself.

No-one’s going anywhere, no-one’s getting anywhere, and the odds are getting slimmer all the time. Garak’s personal codes let him wander through the force-fields at will, but his attempts to beat a system keyed to Dukat’s personal codes and no other’s only accelerate the process.

Then, look what happens! A cocksure Gul Dukat teleports onto a phaser-strewn Bridge in response to a distress signal from himself, near to laughing his head off with delight at just how fucked up everything is for the Federation (and Garak). Sure, he’ll use his codes to shut everything down, in return for a minor concession or two, like official permission to instal a garrison of 2,000 Cardassian troops on board.

Of course, that’s an utter no-no. Dukat thinks he has the upper hand even though Kira is fully-prepared to let everyone on board be killed by the Defence programme rather than let the Cardassians back. He’ll just teleport back to his ship, put his feet up, wait for her to change her mind when there’s, say, five minutes to go. Except that, in a gloriously and hilariously ingenious twist, the programme interprets the attempted teleportation as an act of inglorious cowardice by Station Commander Dukat, trying to flee his post, and blocks not only the teleport but all Dukat’s codes, rendering him as helpless – and doomed – as everyone else.

In the end, it’s Sisko who saves the day (you mean, you really thought the station would buy it? There’s another nineteen episodes left in this series alone) restoring everything to normal, after forty-five minutes of harmless, inconsequential fun.

It’s a text book example on how to bring in an entertaining episode of a series at absolutely minimal cost, which is what ‘bottle episodes’ are about. A splendid time was had by all. I enjoyed it.

The Fall Season 2016: The Big Bang Theory season 10


Ahhhhh!

With The Big Bang Theory returning for its tenth season, and the last of its three-season contract, there was a debate yesterday over whether it would – or should – be renewed for an eleventh year that would place it alongside Friends and Frasier for longevity.

As you’d imagine, it was another excuse for those who don’t like the show, who’ve never liked the show or used to like it but think it’s gone off the boil to demand that it not be renewed, or that time machines be employed to ensure it never got broadcast at all.

One advantage of age, and losing your insecurity, is the wonderful ability to ignore these people completely. You don’t like, you don’t watch it. If you choose to watch it and don’t like it, it’s you, not me, who is the idiot. There are hundreds of other programmes to choose from, hundreds of which I don’t like: tell you what, I won’t interfere with your enjoyment of what you like.

Of course the show isn’t as good as it used to be, but it’s still plenty funny for me and the opening episode of season 10 gave me plenty of laughs. Much of it sprung from the unresolved ‘cliffhanger’ that rather limply ended season 9, on the eve of Leonard and Penny’s ceremonial ‘re-marriage’: did Leonard’s dad sleep with Sheldon’s mom?

The answer was no, but not before some prolonged wicked humour from Sheldon, waspish about coitus, genitals and defilement, and Beverley, Leonard’s mom, consumed with mutual loathing for her ex-husband.

And there was Penny’s family to meet for the first time: we’ve long been familiar with Keith Carradine as her father, Wyatt, but now we got to see her mother (Katy Segal) and her brother Randall (Jack McBrayer), newly released from prison at last and far more wiling to talk about his past as a manufacturer of illegal drugs than was his mother. They were brilliant.

And we still didn’t get to find out Penny’s surname!

The subplot with Howard and Raj was well below the rest of the episode and could have done with being postponed until next week. Frankly, I’d forgotten completely that Howard had apparently created perpetual motion and that the Air Force had immediately contacted him. That was built up, with more paranoia, which will hopefully work better when it has room to breathe in its own right.

I still enjoyed it, and I’m looking forward to twenty-three more episodes between now and next May. The Fall Season starts here.

 

A Very Famous Cricket Match


Humour, with some glorious exceptions, tends to be of its time, prose humour more so than film or television. The best exception to this rule is the life and works of P.G. Wodehouse, but for longevity, A.G. Macdonell’s England, Their England runs the old bean close.

The book, a comedy classic, was first published in 1933 and has remained in print ever since It’s a gently comic, affectionate, almost lovingly satirical portrait of England in the Twenties, adjusting to life after the Great War, from the point of view of that closest of outsiders, a Scot.

Macdonell’s book is semi-autobiographical in spirit if not actuality – the book is accepted as being a roman a clef whose multifarious characters can be traced back to real-life figures. He translates himself into Donald Cameron, a somewhat shy and naive young Scot, still feeling some of the after-effects of shell-shock, who is commissioned by a Welsh publisher to write a book about the English.

Overall, the book is a joy, which is obvious from its survival to this day whilst the rest of Macdonell’s output is the stuff of specialists, but it is especially worshiped by cricket enthusiasts for the classic chapter involving a cricket match between a Sussex village side and a team of literary folk: poets, novelists, publishers, and a professor of ballistics in which the decisive catch takes four pages to descend, without a wasted word!

In 1973, the book – or rather the cricket match chapter – was adapted for the BBC by Peter Draper as part of a six-part series of 50 minute programmes under the title Sporting Scenes. No information seems to have survived as to the other five episodes, and I have no recollection of even being aware of the series at the time.

But a decade after, I arrived at work, checked the paper, and mention of this episode being repeated in a 2.00pm slot. I phoned home to have it videoed. Fortunately, a new tape was in the machine so this went on at the start, because I loved it and have kept it ever since. It inspired me to go out and buy the book, and I have kept it and re-read it every few years with the same easy enjoyment.

In recent years, I have had a problem in that I still have a small number of videos, with various recordings that I want to keep, but no video-player on which to play them, nor television to hook it up to. However, I have finally stirred my stumps (that’s the Swallows and Amazons film still having an effect on me) and I have had two such items converted to DVD. And this morning, I watched The Cricket Match again, for the first time in over a decade.

And it’s still gentle, lovely and very funny.

Only a couple of the names involved are familiar. Fulton MacKay, who, only the same year, would achieve national recognition as Chief Warder MacKay in Porridge provides voiceover as the voice of A G Macdonell, whilst the minor part of the characbanc driver Perkins – a lovely, low-key lugubrious role – is played by Paul Shane, who would achieve fame on David Croft and Jimmy Perry’s Hi-de-Hi. Brian Pettifer, who would go on to play supporting roles to the present day, has a non-speaking role as a sixteen year old batsman surrounded by a ring of faces.

Draper’s adaptation adopts the structure of the book, starting (in black and white) in the trenches with Donald Cameron’s meeting with his future publisher, whilst Macdonell’s voiceover (taken in every instance directly from the book) assures us that this is not a war story.

From there, it cuts to London (and a gentle, washed out, friendly colour) to Cameron’s introduction to poet and literary editor Bill Hodge, and to his acceptance into London’s literary circles on the grounds that he can play cricket and is available on Saturday for a game against a Sussex village!

The first part of the story sets the style and tempo. The nervous, almost detached Cameron turns up at the appointed place at 10.15am, complete with cable enjoining him not to be late. He is alone. It is nearly half an hour before the first team-mate arrives, and promptly treats Cameron as baggage-master whilst he goes to have a shave. Everybody leaves their bags with Cameron, especially after it is discovered that the pubs in this part of London open at 11.00, at which point there is a general, indeed rapid exodus.

By the time Hodge arrives, it’s 11.30, the time the match should start, fifty miles away. Even his sense of urgency doesn’t change everything, especially when the charabanc journey suffers multiple halts – outside pubs, coincidentally. It’s well after two when the idyllic Sussex village, with its idyllic cricket pitch, hoves into sight.

The visitors’ first stop is the village pub, the Barley Mow. The already late start of the match is delayed further, not merely by drinks, but by the fact that Hodge’s side has only nine men. But not for long. Two locals take unfavourably to fielding for both sides and batting for neither and go home, just as Hoge’s ranks shoot up to thirteen. There is an eventual compromise on 12-a-side.

And the game rolls out exactly as described in the book. You might say that Peter Draper has had an easy job as adapter, given that there isn’t a line of dialogue, nor voiceover, that doesn’t directly come from England, Their England, but that confirms all the more the credit he deserves for recognising the quality of the England, and the humility he possesses in not presuming he can add something of equal and greater value.

The beauty of the game is that it is played out for real, on a real village pitch that has been chosen to match the specifications of Macdonell’s story. Indeed, given that the book is recognised as an amused roman a clef (Hodge’s team is based on an amateur club that exists to this day), it would not surprise me to learn that the pitch was based on a real village, and that the programme was filmed on the actual pitch intended by Macdonell. If this is so, what wonderful authenticity!

I’m not going to go over the incidents of the game, but to the cricket lover each and every one is a gem, starting with the opening ball, delivered by the Village blacksmith at great speed off a run-up that starts so far down a slanting slope that the batsman is only aware the bowler is running up when he breasts the hill about three paces from the popping crease!

Not all the cast can be actual competent cricketers, and they’d be out of character if they were, but the programme indulges in very little camera trickery – tight focus, clever angles – to disguise competence among the ranks. And John Moffat, who plays the impeccably neat, gentle and finicky boy-novelist, Bobby Southcott, was quite clearly a genuine batsman!

Though the series was called Sporting Scenes and is directly about the famous match, Draper sensibly broke up the story at the tea interval, by having a house party arrive to greet the team. This imported some splendid lines and characters from another chapter of the novel, to no harm whatsoever, rounding out the episode and extending its picture of the world and its times.

The literary men having batted first, it is the village team who have to chase an eminently gettable 69 runs: eminently gettable that is before the redoubtable Major Hawker reduces them to 10 for six wickets, and one stump broke. Unfortunately, a break in play allows the Major into the back door of the Barley Mow and, a quart and a half later, his bowling has lost something of its ferocity.

The Village eventually level the score at 69 for 8, but a splendid burst of improbable but entirely believable wickets means that it all rests on the blacksmith, laid up with a severely sprained ankle and batting with the captain as a runner, hitting the ball directly into the air.

The majesty of the shot, the comprehensive slapstick of the runners and the fielders, takes four pages in the book. The programme cannot match that but it does a sterling job. The Match is tied. peace and silence descends upon an archetypal English scene. The viewer, tickled to death, reaches for the rewind button, and starts again.

And it must also be stated that, just as with The Beiderbecke Trilogy, the casting is a thing of perfection and every one of the actors sinks into their parts as into a comfy chair, serene and irreplaceable.

I wish that there was some means of you being able to see this programme for yourself. Like the book, it deserves to be preserved indefinitely, an unshaded window into a summertime long since gone, but which lives in our hearts as an ideal of cricket that all of us who love the summer game aspire to, no matter how different our experiences have been. I am so glad to have access to it again.

The Flashman Papers 1856-1858: ‘Flashman in the Great Game’


Flashman in the Great Game is taken from the Fifth Packet of the Flashman Papers and, as both the title, and its historical proximity to the previous volume would indicate, concerns Flashman’s involvement in the Indian Mutiny.
It’s the longest book to date in terms of its history, and in order to keep the book at a manageable length and still include all the various incidents that went to make up the history of the Mutiny, Fraser has to develop a piecemeal approach, with Flashman taken out of action for months at a time, in order to elide the times when there is nothing for him to get directly involved in.
Before dealing directly with the story, I’d like first to comment on the success of Fraser’s approach to these books, which is demonstrated beautifully in both this and the preceding chapter of the Papers. By this point, Fraser is in full flow: his research is comprehensive and convincing, and his eye for stringing incidents together without undue contrivance, to place one individual in all the significant places, is operating smoothly. Flashman in the Great Game covers more than two full years, yet reads as a continuous story, in the way that Flashman at the Charge (for all its merits) fails to do.
But then, the Indian Mutiny was an enormous thing, and an enormity, and Fraser, though Anglocentric by his nature, makes sure to let us see both sides of it.
What most distinguishes this book, and which will remain uninterrupted until the end of the series, is Fraser’s wholesale mastery of Flashman’s voice. We never forget that we are reading private, and honest memoirs, told in a conversational manner by a natural raconteur. Every phrase, every sentence, is characteristic of Harry Flashman, his upbringing, his times, his thoughts and his self-obsessions. There are no ordinary, simple, declarative sentences, confined purely to fact . Every word is written to be read aloud: Flashy may be recollecting from an immense distance in time, but his memories are clear, usually impeccable, and when he walks among them, he is there in his own past.
Older and wiser Flashman may be, but even in his dotage he remains what he has always been, a cad, a scoundrel, an out-and-out bounder, and unashamed. His spirit fills every word. I doubt that any of his imitators, post-Fraser, writing series featuring the historical adventures of other members of the Flashman family, can incarnate time, place or person remotely like Fraser.
Let us then look at what befalls Flashy, both upwards and downwards, in this latest packet.
It begins at Balmoral, where Flashman and Elspeth are welcome guests: Flashy’s golden- (and empty-) headed wife is a great favourite of Victoria, whilst the shooting-obsessed Albert seems to have completely forgotten that our hero was supposed to kept his young cousin, William, from getting his head blown off.
It’s all very comfortable but trust us, that isn’t going to last, and for once – he is almost indignant in his surprise at the turn of events – it’s not Flashy who brings things down about his ears but rather the Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston. Old Pam is concerned about reports of cakes passing among Indian hands, chapattis, rather, whose appearance is linked historically to periods of unrest and a prophecy that the Raj will end on the hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Plessey – the following year.
Flashman might have put paid (temporarily) to Russia’s military schemes through Central Asia, but his old pal Count Ignatieff is still active subversively. Flashman knows Ignatieff, and he knows India, and how to go underground, where Ignatieff is working. Who better a man to go to India, ferret out the conspiracy and put Ignatieff in his place, eh?
Practically anybody but the coward Flashman, really, but there’s no point in trying to even state that case. This is not the junior officer, full of funk, but a seasoned campaigner, who has been lionised in the public eye for fifteen years now (and who has gained certain things from the experience). Flashy’s name is cemented in place: not even he could convince anyone else that he was a coward.
So, India it is to be, most unwillingly but unresistingly. But not before the horrible shock of Ignatieff himself turning up at Balmoral the next day and, during a day’s shooting, trying to mistake Flashy for a stag. Oh yes, the Great Game is afoot.
As the chapattis have started passing in Jhansi, a province now under direct rule by the Raj after shunting aside the widow of the previous Maharajah (and his son who she has adopted), Palmerston directs Flashman to Jhansi. The Ranee, Lakshmibai, is old by Indian standards (conjuring up visions for Flashy of a wizened old woman) and she’ll no doubt be persuaded to moderate her demands for restitution in the face of such a manly hero as our Flash.
Flashy is not convinced, especially as the feather-brained Elspeth has already informed Ignatieff of his destination. India is India, familiar at once, though much changed since Flashman’s early heroics here (he has been back in one of those as-yet-unexplored gaps in his memoirs, but for the reader this is a first return to familiar ground and Fraser makes full use of the contrast between the bumptious nineteen year old tyro and the much more experienced thirty-four year old Colonel.
There are direct reminders of that early time, figures Flashman met fifteen years before, who are still in India and with whom he renews acquaintance, though not without his telling us of how they will not survive the coming conflict. One who does not have this sentence of death hanging over him is Ilderrim Khan, son of a long-deposed Afghani chieftain, blood brother to Flashman from ages gone. Ilderrim has a role to play in this new drama: Flashman does not tell us of his fate so soon…
Flashy’s plan is simple: get out to Jhansi as soon as he can, get himself introduced to the army and politicals on the ground, get in to see this ancient old bint and, at the first sign of trouble, disappear underground, using his ability to impersonate Pathans and Indians to survive. He quickly prepares the ground, lightly talking about going up against Ignatieff in secret, when all he plans to do is lay low and surface when it’s safe with some suitable story about getting so close but the luck running against him.
It’s a fine, Flashy plan, but it runs up against a massive hurdle early on, when our favourite rake actually meets Rani Lakshmibai.
For, whilst Lakshmi may be old by Indian standards, that only means that she’s a luscious, haughty and altogether alluring beauty aged twenty-nine, exactly the kind of woman to make Flashman’s whiskers stand on end and his mind start to run in old, familiar grooves.
Indeed, Lakshmibai is one of the few women of whom Flashman thinks with more than mere lust: even at the end of his life, writing these memoirs, he is still faintly misty at the thought of the Rani, and his adventures with her.
Of course he’s been sent here to seduce the Rani into compliance with the dictates of the Raj, but now Flashy’s out to seduce Lakshmibai in a much more earthy manner. And being Flashy, he gets his way after weeks of patient diplomacy in which Lakshmi reveals herself as every bit as expert as her pursuer.
This is where Flashman’s problems really start. Lakshmibai is passionate about her kingdom, her people, her wealth and India’s customs, whilst Flashy is passionate about her. Whether because she’s responding like any normal woman, or out of political calculation (or both). Lakshmi manipulates Flashman into a bit of snogging and grappling, and late at night summons him to a river pavilion in which the dirty is done in exhausting fashion. And hardly has the Rani slipped out than three Thuggee killers slip in, and it would have gone ill for our hero if his blood brother Ilderrim Khan hadn’t been suspicious and followed.
Now it’s time for Flashy to go underground, and he does so with a vengeance. With Ilderrim’s assistance, he transforms himself into Makarram Khan, a former India police officer but lately despatched by Ilderrim and, to occupy his time, he joins the British Army!
This shifts the scene to Meerut City, and places Flashy on the spot for the beginning of the Mutiny itself. There is still some time before this happens, time that Flashy occupies in his regiment along with his fellow sepoys, listening and learning their concerns and the ever-advancing rumours of things being done that will ultimate lead to the uprising, things that he (privately) dismisses.
It’s a fantastic deception, but Flashman is aided by it being immediately obvious that Makarram Khan is no new recruit, and has considerable army experience. Having caught Flashman out in a small deception – which the army doesn’t care about – they are far less concerned in exposing the bigger deception.
Indeed, one of Flashy’s slips leads to his being taken up by Colonel Duff Mason and made major domo (effectively, head butler) of his home, a position that, involving kicking backsides and sleeping with the prettiest chambermaids, is up Flashy’s street. He even attracts the attention of Mason’s widowed sister, Mrs Leslie who, once assured that Makarram Khan is practically Jewish, shows an inordinate interest in the ruined temple with the erotic friezes and an enviable appetite for emulating them, one-by-one.
It all makes for a long, slow, confident build-up to the meat of the story which, when it happens, comes overnight and is horrendous on and on until the end of the story.
What it boils down to is a lack of confidence between the men and the officers. The proximate cause is a new issue of ammunition, a paper cartridge issued to the troops, which is to be ripped open and poured into their rifles. The cartridge is waxed, but the men have come to believe, immovably, that it is greased, and greased with animal fats and bones that will break their castes. Added to this a pig-headed insistence on trying to convert the men from Hinduism to Christianity, and India is ripe for a rising against their British masters.
The cartridge in the flashpoint. The doctrinaire Colonel Carmichael-Smith insists on issuing them. Ninety-five percent of his men refuse it and are court-martialled and broken. The Mutiny begins as an uprising to free the prisoners: it rapidly becomes a shocking atrocity. All the Britons – including wives and very young children – are slaughtered with terrible viciousness. Flashman, forgetting he is in native garb, attempts to assist his kind but is mistaken for a rebel, and receives a head wound that incapacitates him.
This is the first of a number of hiatuses. The injury addles Flashman’s wits for long enough to get him away from doomed Meerut and, slowly, back to Jhansi and Ilderrim’s protection, and the delay is long enough to cover the dramatically uninteresting developments of the Mutiny, until its next flashpoint, in Jhansi.
By the time Flashman reaches Jhansi, its terror has already taken place, and Lakshmi has placed herself, with finality, among the rebel leaders. Flashman refuses to believe her part in the Massacre, which equals that already experienced at Meerut, but there is nothing for him here. he and Ilderrim set off with a small band to contact the Army (though Ilderrim’s men quickly slip off to enjoy the chance to play bandit in this now lawless country).
This leads to an amusing, but at the same time extremely telling interlude when Flashman and his companion fall in with Rowbotham’s Mosstroopers. These latter are a band of civilian horsemen, under the command of the eponymous Rowbotham, touring the country and killing mutineers. They are ordinary men, with no military background, and no real discipline: just ordinary men who have seen horrors no-one should experience, and who have reacted with their own horrors.
The Mosstroopers are based off Cawnpore, which they regard as a safe stronghold, but this is a colossal delusion: their approach coincides with a night raid by the sepoys, the Mosstroopers are slaughtered, and Flashy gets behind the lines with a severely sprained ankle that would normally mean days of immobility but which here gets him fifteen seconds grace before he’s firing back. Cawnpore is under siege, and its defenders are dying by inches.
There is an immediate shock for Flashman when he recognises one of the other trapped defenders: it is ‘Scud’ East again, part of the reinforcements transferred from the Crimean area once the Mutiny began. And it is a very penitent East, seeking absolution from Flashman for abandoning him in the previous book, and confessing that, yes, indeed, he would not have cut out on Flash without the spur of hatred of the latter’s treatment of blonde and naked Valla.
This flabbergasts Flashman, and he is cold and cutting with East, despite the probability that both will soon be dead. East wants to be forgiven for something Flashman has no reason, nor intention, of forgiving him. Indeed, in his usual manner, Flashy quickly lets the encampment know that he was abandoned, left to the Russians.
Death is inevitable but, mysteriously, the Mutineer’s leader, Nanna Sahib, offers a truce, a chance for the British to leave, unharmed, their wives and children untouched. It is a suspicious offer, but Flashy strains every sinew to have the offer accepted: trusting the Mutineers is extremely doubtful, but refusal is certain death.
And the truce is a trap, a deceitful, horrific trap. Ilderrim Khan, insisting on wearing his uniform, is slaughtered before ever getting near the boats, one of many picked off by unanswerable treachery. And then, with everyone of the banks of the Ganges, the Mutineers open fire.
One of the four boats gets away, only one. Flashman is aboard, still in native dress. So too is East, but East has been bayoneted in the back, and is dying. His end is the same that Thomas Hughes wrote for him. His final words are delivered to Flashman, and they are ‘Tell the Doctor…’, but it is a doctor a long way away and no longer of this life, and whilst Flashman has no time for East or his kind, he too feels the loss of someone he knew as a weakling schoolboy, forever trailing gamely behind…
The treachery of Cawnpore, and the news of the utter massacre that followed, is another flashpoint in the story. Flashman’s escape accords with the actual events that that boatload experienced, but his reward is to spend several months recuperating in the house of a loyal Prince: recuperating mentally as well as physically, as the daily events of the Mutiny move forward, and the Army begins the long process of rolling back the rebels and restoring the control of the Raj (though this time it is of the British Government, not the East India Company, a point that Flashman (understandably) and Fraser (surprisingly) more or less omits.
He returns to the fray at Cawnpore again, after it has been recaptured by General Havelock (whom Flashy has nicknamed the First Gravedigger). It’s a time of general security for him, busying himself with intelligence and avoiding the fighting, which has now begun to swing decisively in the British favour. The hiatus is furthered extended after the Army moves on to retake Lucknow, where Flashy is laid up for months with cholera, and for once genuinely too ill to participate, or even take in what’s going on around him.
By the time he’s up and about again, typically slowly, Lucknow is under siege but, unlike at Cawnpore, awaiting relief from the main forces led by Colin Campbell, the commander-in-chief. Flashman finds himself conscripted to take part in a wholly unbelievable, but completely accurate incident where Irish Civilian  T. Henry Kavanaugh, a supposed expert on Lucknow street geography, blacks up (literally) and passes through the crowds to guide Campbell’s men in by the best route.
It’s a comic interlude of jaw-dropping fatheadedness, and all of it true, except perhaps for Flashman getting a quick screw out of it from a compliant young lady, for five rupees (provided by Kavanaugh).
But the tide has now turned with a vengeance. The Mutiny is being swept backwards: it is only a matter of time, and Flashman will be allowed to go home. But the story isn’t complete. Flashy was sent to India to deal with Lakshmibai, and at the last he still has to face that task. Leaders like Tantia Tope and Nanna Sahib can, and will, be killed or executed, but Britain wants the Rani alive. She’s young, she’s famous, and despite the intensity with which she has fought the British, there is a British squeamishness about making war on women.
So Flashman must go underground in Jhansi, and contact Lakshmi, to offer a chance to live with honour. An attack can be made, but it can be undermanned by a specific exit, out of which the Rani can escape into protective custody.
Flashy’s perfectly willing to renew acquaintance with the lovely Lady, though not under these specific circumstances, thank you very much. Nevertheless, his reputation depends on tackling the commission, and he gets in easily enough and gets a suitably cryptic message taken to the Rani. Or so he thinks, until the message is interrupted. By Count Nicholas Ignatieff.
Within moments, Flashman is being stretched on the rack, but his torment is only momentary: he has not even had chance to blurt everything out when Lakshmi herself intervenes, ordering his release, castigating Ignatieff and dismissing him, never to cross Flashman’s path seriously again. As soon as they’re alone, she’s all over our hero, kissing him, weeping on his limbs, the full works, but as soon as he’s stumbled out his message, he’s imprisoned, and held again for several weeks, wondering what the hell is going on.
Ultimately, he’s released, but he remains a prisoner, part of the Rani’s party as they use the escape loophole provided by Flashman’s plan. But there is no rendezvous with British pickets: Lakshmibai has used the pot to her own ends, going on the run with Flashman still her captive.
Not for long though. There is little room for manoeuvre: Lakshmibai releases her English captive, her may-have-been lover, freeing him to go back to the Army. Half in love with her, Flashman pleads with her to come with him, to surrender and spare herself. But the Rani cannot and will not surrender, and Flashman does not leave: the camp is attacked by British cavalry, and Lakshmi is killed before his eyes. He is holding her body when he is knocked unconscious.
Flashman wakes to find himself in the single most perilous moment of his life.  His arm is broken, and his scream of pain sees him brutally gagged, but that is far from the worst of it. In his native dress, he’s been mistaken for a rebel, and he is strapped to the mouth of a cannon at Gwalior. When it is fired, the ball will smash him to pieces.
It’s the most desperate moment of his life, but this is no longer the panicky tyro. A memory of Rudi von Starnberg helps settle Flashman’s mind into a cold calmness, and he is able to attract the attention of an officer, who halts the firing, removes the gag, and goggles at what Flashy tells him. Yet Fraser is able to end this mercifully short sequence with one of his most uproarious jokes: as soon as he is free, Flashman – who outranks everyone as Colonel – orders the other rebels strapped to cannons to be freed. This provokes a manly tear from those around, at the Colonel’s compassion: not a bit if it, Flashy says, the way things are being run around here, one of them’s bound to be Lord Canning.
It’s all but over now. Flashman has once again survived. His service is over, he’s gathered enough loot to build himself a country house in Leicestershire, and had a gushing letter from Elspeth, though that’s clouded a little by her enclosing a book gifted by the odious Lord Cardigan. Apart from that, Flashman’s not got a lot out of his Indian adventure, not when you look at the honours being handed out to all and sundry.
But that’s before a presentation from Lord Canning, the Governor-General, of the Victoria Cross. On top of which, though it’s not official until he gets back to England and is properly invested, Victoria has been tasteless enough to knight him! Two in one go: Sir Harry and Lady Flashman, hey?
All in the garden is well, but Flashman adventures don’t end like that, do they? After all, there’s that book, very popular in London it is. Which book would that be, pray? Why, none other than Tom Brown’s Schooldays, by ‘an Old Boy’. Featuring, who’s that? Notorious school bully Harry Flashman?
With a shriek of outrage over this traducing of his reputation, the fifth Packet ends.
It’s a lovely, gorgeous book, steeped in the details of the infamous Mutiny and, within and even above the limitations of Flashman’s British viewpoint and obvious prejudices, is as fair as it can be to both sides. Flashman’s lack of any real concern about anything not directly affecting him underpins his often scrupulous honesty and accuracy, and whilst I can’t see the story finding favour with a sub-Continental audience, Flashman in the Great Game wears no open prejudices on its sleeve, and is careful to point out how and where British reactions to the Mutiny could have been far less restrained than, in fact, they were.

History and Memories
This little section follows each blog. It focuses on those moments in each book where Flashman’s reminiscences touch upon periods of his career not directly related in The Flashman Papers, and those moments when Flashman’s memory lets him down and contradicts his ‘official’ record.
P14. Flashman explains the lapse of time between the conclusion of his activities in Central Asia as being down to contracting cholera from the cooking of an Afghan lover, which put him on his back for several months, bringing us to summer 1856.
p57. Flashman refers to ‘tight corners’ in Afghanistan, Madagascar, Russia and St Louis. The Madagascar reference is yet to be explained.
P126. A list of impersonations Flashman has performed includes Danish Prince, Texas slave-dealer, Arab Sheikh, Cheyenne Dog Soldier and Yankee navy lieutenant. The first two of these have been featured in the Second and Third packets but none of the others will be explained. At no point does Flashman ever get near Arabia, although the Cheyenne reference may be accounted a slip in light of the Seventh Packet. Improbable as it may sound, Flashman’s term of navy duty may be yet another element of the great and much-regretted American Civil War adventure that Fraser had no interest in writing.
P258. ‘Hellish experiences’ – Flashman ranks the Siege of Cawnpore alongside Balaclava, Kabul, Greasy Grass and Isandlwhana. The first two we have seen, Greasy Grass will be recounted in the Seventh Packet but Isandlwhana belongs to the Zulu War, only a fragment of which (excluding that experience) was written, in the title story if the Eleventh Packet.
P261. ‘the slow boom-boom of drums’ in the forest night. Flashman recalls hearing it in Dahomey, South America and Borneo. The first of these refers to the Third Packet and the last will be disclosed in the Sixth but there are no references to assist us in determining where, when or why Flashman was in South America.

Pursuing Christopher Priest: Uncollected Thoughts on ‘The Gradual’


Two years ago, I completed an initial review of Christopher Priest’s novels (excluding most of the earlier, primarily SF books) by looking at his latest novel, 2013’s The Adjacent, a magnificent book then still only on hardback. It brought together so many aspects of Priest’s body of work, immersed itself so thoroughly in his central theme of Unreality, that I said then that I would not be surprised if it were his final novel, so completely did it seem to sum up everything.
I’m more than happy to have been wrong about that, as this week Priest published yet another novel – his third in five years, which is positively prolific for him – set firmly in his increasingly dominant Dream Archipelago. The Gradual, which I have only read once and already look forward to re-reading, makes that world even more real.
For those unfamiliar with the Dream Archipelago, this concept originated as a psychological landscape, a background to a small number of Seventies’ short stories, before becoming an intrinsic, but potentially unreal setting for The Affirmation, the 1979 novel that drew attention from the literary world to Priest.
The world of the Archipelago is an Earth, a planet (though it is still very difficult to think of it in such concrete, limited terms) consisting of two continental land-masses, one in each hemisphere, separated by the broad, equatorial Midway Sea, which contains hundreds of islands of differing sizes, shapes, cultures, geographies and histories, more even than Ursula le Guin’s Earthsea.
The northern continent is divided between two nations, Faianland and Glaund, existing in a state of perpetual War, hundreds of years old, for reasons long since lost. The fighting, when the war is physical, takes place on the bare, frozen, uninhabited southern continent. The Dream Archipelago, lying between, is Neutral, by external imposition, by internal choice, by custom, preference, tradition and a strict insistence.
In The Gradual, which is in many ways the most straightforward, single-minded story Priest has ever set in this unusual existence, he introduces two new elements that form the basis of the story. The novel is narrated by Alessandro Sussken, a composer and musician and, for the first time, a native of Glaund. All previous stories have either featured natives of Faianland, exploring the Archipelago, or those native to its Neutrality.
The second element, the gradual itself, is a concept that Priest retrofits into the Archipelago, an aspect of time that has previously gone unremarked upon. What this is, as in The Adjacent, is never explained in plain words, though the reader quickly learns the shape of it when it comes to the forefront of the story, in its latter stages.
Sussken is the younger son of professional musicians, resident in Errest, a town in Glaund. He has a brother, Jacj, four years older, who is vital to the story though he is absent from it for almost its whole length. Glaund is a cold, forbidding, enclosed, wintry country, reflecting its political structure. It is a repressed, repressive country, fascist in form, though communistic in its deprivation. Midway through the story, we understand that it is ruled by a military junta that overthrew a ‘corrupt’ civilian government around the time Alessandro is born.
Life in Glaund is so repressed that Sussken is seven before he discovers the existence of the islands, and even then he can only see three dim outlines: he must build up the islands and their life out of his own imagination. Not coincidentally, given that he lives for music, they are the spark for his earliest compositions. He grows into a well-respected, and gradually well-known composer, and a successful session musician.
Indeed, Sandro falls in love with, and marries Alynna, a talented pianist.
All goes well for several years, well into Sussken’s forties. His only concern is the discovery that a minor Archipelago musician, going by the name of And Ante, is plagiarising him pretty comprehensively, converting Sandro’s music into crude guitar-based rock.
But throughout this period, Sandro’s narrative keeps foreshadowing an end to his good times, the collapse of his life, which becomes when he is invited to participate in a cultural tour of the Archipelago, with a full orchestra, singers, composers etc.
The sixteen week tour is a splendid success, though Sandro returns with a sense of guilt for sleeping with the pianist ho so beautifully interpreted his Piano Concerto on the final night of the tour. This is but a minor shadow, and one that pales against the situation he discovers when he returns. His parents are dead, his wife has vanished, he is in horrendous debt, his home and possessions about to be seized. And if this is not bad enough of itself, this situation has arisen because, though Sandro can account for every day of his sixteen weeks away, nineteen months have elapsed in Glaund.
His wife, believing herself cruelly abandoned, has found another man, and even though Sussken rebuilds his financial probity, she suspects him of things he cannot explain, unless he can explain why time has betrayed him in this fashion.
Over time, Sandro’s abilities and his reputation only grow. And Ante has turned to jazz, and is no longer plagiarising him. His main concern is with his long-missing brother, Jacj, who conscriptive duty was supposed to be for only four years but who has been gone decades. Sussken starts to search for him, by such limited means as are available to him (the internet and e-mail have reached this world but Social Networking was stomped out by Glaund before it ever got going).
When he hears that a regiment, whose number is not too far away from that of his missing brother, is due to return, Sandro heads for the docks. However, he is intercepted by mysterious officials and given a very-Kafkaesque ride that brings him to, of all things, a ceremony presided over by Glaund’s female Generalissimo, honouring him in the highest words.
Unfortunately it also brings with it a commission to write a new piece of national music, entirely of Sussken’s free composition, except, that is, for all the national and patriotic requirements that will ensure Sandro will never be taken seriously as a composer again. Despite his instant, loathing hatred of the Dictator, Sussken can’t actually refuse, so he does the next best thing: he pockets the extraordinarily generous compensation and flees to the islands.
Sandro has harboured dreams of settling there since his earlier visit, with his preferred destination the distant island of Terrill, ironically the home of And Ante(as well as Cel, the pianist he slept with). Within the confines of island bureaucracy, and the risk of pursuit, it seems a very simple thing, but it is here that Priest introduces the gradual itself, which grows to become a very complex influence on Sussken’s life entirely.
In The Islanders and The Adjacent, Priest introduced the concept of a kind of Vortex, constantly circling the Archipelago, making time travel a practical reality. Now, he draws this down from the macro to the micro level. To Travel among the islands is to not merely travel in space but in time: each island exists in some kind of subjective time that differs in relation to each other island, and travellers move up and down the gradual, or gradient.
Neither Priest nor we are interested in the mechanics of how that works. It is the explanation for the length of Sussken’s concert tour, but everywhere he goes it affects him by strange and unpredictable increments.
He is fortunate, or perhaps not, to fall under the guidance of adepts, who appear and disappear, taking him on strange diversions that correct his gradual, as measured by the strange wooden shaft all Archipelagans and visitors must carry, known as a stave. In some strange manner, the stave records and measures its holder’s temporal divergence from what seems to be Absolute Time, howsoever that is measured and wheresoever it actually exists.
By the time Sussken reaches Terrill, his personal time is back in balance. The island is no longer what he remembers, especially not as a home to musicians, and though he is reunited with Cea (and back to bed with her) she is now a jazz pianist to survive. For a moment, he questions his future, but decisions are put into suspense by massive eruptions from the island’s volcano, that spur a miraculous and unique experience as Sandro conceives and creates a tremendous musical work, out of nothing.
He also undergoes an incredible physical restoration, turned back to his late twenties bodily.
Unfortunately, Sandro discovers he is not alone in this. Cea demands he meet her father, Ormand Hall, who is equally improbably young. He is also the former rock musician And Ante. But he, like Sandro, is attuned to the beat of the island, the musical impulse. Both read it, both understand it. It is not Sandro’s creation after all. And nor is he now acceptable to Cea: she has had enough of it from her father not to take it in a lover.
Sussken’s realisation prompts the end of his life as a musician. He slips away to join the adepts, learning quickly from them how to manage people’s individual times. As he masters the gradual, he becomes uprooted in time, using it to his own purpose, going wherever he wishes, whenever he wishes, by balancing the gradual.
Until he calculates a date with great precision, a time outside the Archipelago, back in Glaund. It is the day Jacj returns and, unexpectedly, the day the Generalissimo is assassinated. When this is in time, if absolute time can be said to exist, Priest leaves unexplained. Perhaps things will become clearer on re-reading. Perhaps time is now in flux, with Sandro able to alter it at will. For Jacj is still young, and his and Sandro’s parents live. Even Jacj’s cat lives.
As I said, this is a first reading, and there will be more to come. There is more to get my head round. But Priest remains as strong and thoughtful a writer as ever. Another book will be most welcome. The Dream Archipelago remains a fascinating place to think upon.
But I’m no longer sure I would want to go there…

Writing Blues


The astute among you may have noted that, in recent weeks, there’s been a drastic slowdown in the frequency of posts on this blog. Indeed, but for our regularly scheduled Tuesday trawl through Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, there could have been weeks with no posts whatsoever.

This has been, and continues to be a frustration to me, and I’d like to think that at least some of you are wondering why you’re not getting the usual diet of opinions, attitudes and snappy remarks.

It’s been something of a difficult year for me, in a different form than difficult years usually take. This past few years, one of the few saving graces that has helped keep me on an even keel, mentally, has been writing. Most of the time, that meant books of one kind or another. But in November 2013, for that year’s NaMoWriMo, I started on a story idea that was a big variation of what I was used to writing. It wasn’t any kind of fantastic story, it wasn’t intentionally funny, it was mainly concerned with relationships, and, the biggest change of all, was that it centred upon a female viewpoint.

I successfully completed NaNoWriMo, in that I wrote more than 50,000 words, though I came nowhere near completing this novel. I carried on, with less discipline, accumulating words until I was around 100,000 and probably about two-thirds done, but by that time, my confidence was low. I wasn’t writing naturally, I was growing concerned about whether I could successfully write from a female viewpoint, and the novel slowed to a crawl, then a halt.

I haven’t been able to manage any sustained writing since, now even on subjects which fall, more naturally, into my ‘established’ style.

Of course, the increasing concentration on this blog has been in no way helpful. For four years or so, I have been concentrating on a wide variety of subjects, shorter-form essays, and this seems to have diminished my ability for concentrated, long form writing.

For a large part of this year, I have been struggling forwards with a long-planned novel, a sort of sideways sequel to the Richard and Susan trilogy. Those books were wonderful, flowing stuff to write. They gave me confidence that I had a subconscious ability to structure stories, work to an unforeseen but satisfactory conclusion. It isn’t like that now.

What is worse is that, over the last three months or so, the mental energy necessary for any kind of writing has been steadily diminishing. The concentration for longer pieces is lacking, indeed for the past couple of weeks and more, I’ve had no ability to concentrate at all.

This is frustrating in any circumstances. It has affected my ability to read, and even my concentration on DVDs. I often find myself at a loose end at home, mindlessly circling the Internet, trying to find something that will occupy time. It’s doubly frustrating at work, on those days when there are long delays between incoming calls, when normally I would have something in my head and would pursue it, often in fits and starts as duties take precedence, until e-mailing myself a thousand words or more. My head, most often, is now empty.

To take a current example. It is nearly a fortnight since I completed re-reading George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman in the Great Game, yet I still don’t even have my review piece on it anywhere near half-written. I can’t raise the concentration to progress it.

I’ve no answers to this problem. Mentally, I’m feeling tired and uninspired, and I need to grit my way through that and get my head together. This was at least relatively easy to write, and maybe it can kick start the writing part of my head to further action.

You’ll see if it does.

PS: The best part of 1,500 words on Flashman later…

The Hottest September Day for Over a Century


Today, we were warned, was going to be the hottest September day in the UK since 1961, on the strength of which, not to mention the rich blue sky in Stockport this morning, I set off for work jacket-less.

Apparently, at the time of writing this, it’s the hottest September day in the UK since 1949 (if you’re at Heathrow, that is). In Stockport, it’s dry, but the sunny promise of the morning has long since dissolved. We’ve already had dark, glouring, hee-hee, we’re going to rain dark clouds in the west, behind the building, and at the moment, at only 4.30pm, the Pennines are lining up like pale blue cut-outs – and even as I am typing this, it starts to pour, with the sound of a jetliner.

It’s vertical rain, not yet streaking the windows of our building but already hammering down with a consistency that suggests its ultimate aim is to fill the Mersey basin this afternoon.

The air has filled with grey mist, like a thin soup of rain, and I sit here in the shirt-sleeves that I will have to travel home in if this persists to 9.00pm: deep joy.

Those air conditions on the Pennines that caught my eye have vanished. It is just about possible to see as far as the church tower on the far side of the Town Centre, but anything beyond that might as well not exist. The enfilades of light that seem to lie between the distant lines of Pennines have soaked away.

Later: this is now the hottest September day in the UK since 1911, since when we have had two World Wars and I am staring at clouds built up in the west that look like armies clad in dark grey, ready to swoop down out of the hills and slaughter us all. Technically, this is still only 5.50pm but the sky is set to 3.00pm on a particularly dismal November afternoon.

Given that we’re on the fifth floor, I have requested that a cabinet of chemicals be hastily procured and set up beside me so that, when the inevitable lightning bolt strikes (and the bastards are striking thick and fast directly overhead), I can be thrown through it and turn into Barry Allen.

One of my colleagues reassures me that there are taller buildings around us, but over the course of a long life, there is little that I’ve been spared on the grounds that it was more likely to happen to someone else.

The lightning is still striking, even after the height of the storm has passed eastwards. The rain is still roaring down, like the storms in Key Largo when Edward G Robinson won’t let the locals take refuge in the hotel when the storm reaches its height. I’m wearing a white shirt, and I’m remembering an evening over thirty years ago, when Chris and I went down to London to represent our firm’s London Office cricket team.

Our trip coincided with a late afternoon cloudburst, making our coach trip to the ground, in South London, somewhat tricky. At one point, we had to go under a bridge, over a dip, where the water was so high, local kids were swimming in it.

It had stopped raining by the time we reached the ground, though the groundsman was reluctant to let us play and would only let us start if we promised to limit ourselves to 15 overs a side. It didn’t take long for the rain to return and, with the exception of the over in which I attempted to purvey slow right arm offspin, with a wet ball, and with rain running down my glasses (that’s my explanation for conceding 12 runs), I spent most of the innings in the outfield, staring down at my soaked white shirt, counting my bedraggled chest hairs through its translucency. We did win, though, no thanks to me (I didn’t get to bat).

Now it’s been raining and throwing lightning about for two hours and it hasn’t ceased once. One of my colleagues saw the entire east to north-east skyline it up by chain lightning, though I didn’t get my head up in time. On the other hand, the night sky has just seconds ago been riven, due north. My colleague Neil is convinced this is actually Ragnarok coming to pass, though I think this is just wishful thinking. That lightning could be striking in Levenshulme, and I don’t think many people will miss it.

Come 9.00pm, it was dry and I made it home without a drop falling on me, though my bus, which is supposed to go across the Town Centre and climb up Lancashire Hill, found its way blocked irretrievably by something and had to return to the bus station to start a new, completely off-route attempt, which didn’t actually join onto the official route until two stops before I got off.

Yes, the Hottest September Day in the UK since 1911. I am not impressed.

Deep Space Nine: s03 e06 – The Abandoned


A dabo girl

An interesting, if at first a little unfocused episode that made good use of the continuing issue of the Dominion, hovering in the background, but which went on to raise some serious questions as to the age-old question of nature versus nurture, and the Tolkienian problem of the Nature of Evil.

Things started unpropitiously with the usual kind of jokey open: one of Quark’s contacts blows on his earlobes and sells him a wrecked ship for only three bars of latinum, Jake’s Dabo girl girlfriend, Mardah, springs on him the surprise that Sisko has invited her to dinner the next night.

That’s the sub-plot, and it stays wholly unrelated to the main story so I’ll get back to it later on. The main story is that, when Quark inspects his purchase, he hears a baby wailing. Yes, he’s been suckered.

The ickle babby arouses Sisko’s paternal instincts again but is no run-of-the-mill, hidden-in-a-stasis-chamber, abandoned baby. Within hours, he’s grown to the age of eight, thanks to some quite sophisticated genetic-modifying that has Doctor Bashir practically drooling, but it’s not until he’s fully-grown, a couple of hours later, that the problem starts: he’s a Jem’Hadar.

Starfleet jumps at the chance of studying one of these lethal beasties, but Odo – who’s redesigned his quarters in quite spectacular fashion to enable him to stretch his shapeshifting abilities and relinquish his bucket – wants to take him under his wing. As a Shapeshifter, he feels responsible, via his people, for the lad, plus he knows full well what it’s like to be a laboratory specimen. Sisko is doubtful (the Major is more doubtful and louder about it) but agrees to contrive time for this.

Odo is out to divert his charge’s natural aggression away from fighting, killing and obeying, to teach him to respect all as equals, to control himself. It’s an uphill struggle to begin with: it is plain that the Jem’Hadar, like the Orcs, are a bred race, and with no better intentions.

Of course Odo gets a ridiculously short time in which to try to overcome the effects of all that breeding, and the moment he allows the kid to relieve his aggression in the holosuite, against computer simulations, the point is lost. The boy escapes at gunpoint, fully embracing the heritage forced on him. As we might have expected, the series only raises the question, but whilst it took things into deep water, the show was far too quick to declare a side. Odo never stood a chance because he was never going to be allowed to win.

The subplot was much lighter, enough to be virtually insubstantial. Mardah leans across the dabo wheel, displaying a cleavage that fifties film starlets would have killed to possess, but wears a plain high-necked top in Sisko’s qurters. He’s intent on breaking the relationship up: I mean, Jake’s a sixteen-year old schoolboy and if Mardah’s only twenty, that’s just the calendar talking (actress Jill Sayre, a very fetching young lady indeed, was only 19 when this episode was made, but she has the smile-lines of a thirty-year old).

But Mardah shows Sisko that he doesn’t know Jake at all, his poetry-writing, his card-hustling, so Sisko lets things develop.

See, told you it was slight.

 

Mental Acuity


Bodily, I may be only a few tram stops from the terminus at the knackers yard, but mentally I’m not exactly underperforming. I have completed today’s Guardian Cryptic crossword, which is heartening in itself, but I produced an almost unbelievable personal best, completing 24 of its 30 clues – that’s eighty percent! – on the first run through.

Ok, it’s the Monday Rufus, the certified easy one, but even so.

And then, for a second time, I completed the Killer Sudoku, the Easy one, in pen. No errors. Pure calculation.

Score one for my brain!