Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Doctor No-Show

My brother and I watched Doctor Who religiously in the 1980s. The old BBC show carried with it more than a whiff of exoticism; British landscapes, British accents, and British terms (like "jelly babies") had not featured prominently in my childhood TV viewing. Moreover, it was pretty much the only contemporary sci-fi series on American television between the cancellation of Battlestar Galactica and the premiere of Star Trek: The Next Generation. The program's tedious longeurs, its cryptic references to old villains and story lines (some dating back to the dim dark 1960s), and the ridicule Pat and I endured from my mother and sister* only added to the program's mystique and our own devotion. What good is a religious exercise unaccompanied by bewilderment, frequent boredom, or persecution?

Dr. Who Fan Club logo, via
Given the opportunity to make a pilgrimage on behalf of our fandom, to attend an actual Doctor Who convention, Patrick and I seized it. In October 1985 we and our friend Andrew Sewell attended a Whovian festival in Fairfield, Connecticut. The con featured the Sixth Doctor, Colin Baker, as Guest of Honor. Along with the other attendees (almost all young, white, and male), we shopped for souvenirs/relics in the vendors' room, and watched two episodes rarely or never seen in the United States, "An Unearthly Child" (the first William Hartnell episode, aired in 1963) and "Revelation of the Daleks," which had aired in Britain quite recently. We enjoyed watching Baker caper on stage, and introduce himself with characteristic bombast and arrogance: "William Hartnell was the Doctor. Patrick Troughton was the Doctor. Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker, Peter Davison - they were the Doctor too. I am the Doctor!" (Applause.) His powers had their limits. One very self-assured fanboy - about 40 years old, bearded, corpulent, well-dressed - mounted the stage during Q&A to present Baker with a Dr. Who episode script he wanted made. Dr. Number Six returned it with a pained expression, saying he couldn't make production decisions. No-one in the audience, with the possible exception of Mr. Bearded Fanboy, held it against him.

The faithful must also grow used to disappointment. The Fairfield Whovian festival was technically our second Doctor Who convention; Patrick and I had traveled to New York City for an earlier con in July of 1983. Upon our arrival we found the building locked and a sign posted announcing the convention had been cancelled. We had received no advance notice and were of course quite disappointed. Our father gamely took us to lunch and to do some shopping at the old Compleat Strategist, but his comment on the cancellation proved so apt that I recall it every time I now hear of the program: "Doctor No-Show."**

* They particularly enjoyed sneering at Peter Davison's invocation of the TARDIS's cloister bell. "Oh, the TARDIS Cloister Bell is ringing!" they would cry in exaggerated British accents. In fairness, Davison himself deserved some of this abuse. 

** Patrick had, as I recall, spent his own allowance money on the tickets, and did not get a refund for several months. The guest of honor, Jon Pertwee, did send him a generic signed photo as well. I guess that's the best we could expect from Doctor Number Three.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Willoughby and I

I was quite pleased to learn of Richard Grant’s nomination for an Academy Award. While not one of Mr. Grant’s most steadfast fans, I enjoyed his lively and expressive performances in The Player and A Royal Scandal, and look forward to his part in the next installment of Star Wars.

Moreover, while Mr. Grant may remain unaware of it, I also quite enjoyed his “performance,” or rather his uncredited appearance, in Grant Morrison’s run of Doom Patrol (issues 19-63, 1989-93), the offbeat DC comic-book series. Grant’s character Withnail, the dissolute, unkempt, and unrepentant star of Withnail and I, clearly provided the model for Morrison’s modern magus Willoughby Kipling, a recurrent character in DP. When I initially read Doom Patrol I assumed that Kipling served to satirize John Constantine, and certainly the two men bear a strong professional resemblance to one another. But the resemblance to Withnail is also unmistakable if one has seen the 1987 film (as I had not done when I first read the comic). Kipling shares Withnail’s lean physique and hawkish facial features, his scruffy demeanor and general booziness, and above all his pretension of world-weariness masking deep insecurity and cowardice. Faced with otherworldly enemies spouting anagrams and gunfire, Kipling either lets the Doom Patrol handle the threat or, in one instance, suggests they offer themselves to the foe as a sacrifice (just as Withnail does with his nameless friend). Faced with even greater existential terrors, Withnail/Kipling retreats into the bottle. “I demand a drink; it’s my right as an Englishman” is one of Grant Morrison’s lines, but it’s just as worthy of Richard Grant and his most distinctive film character.

Morrison provides a further homage to Withnail and I in issue 42, in which he reveals that one of the residents of Danny the Street, an intelligent transvestite boulevard who eventually joins the Doom Patrol, is in fact Montague, Withnail’s effete, campy uncle (played by the late Richard Griffiths). Regrettably, he did not feel comfortable adding the viewpoint character from the film, played by Paul McGann, which is a pity since this would provide a two-degrees-of-separation connection between the Doom Patrol universe and that of Doctor Who.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Comfortable Dystopians and Their Comfortable Friends: An Update

A small follow-up to my January 2018 entry on Margaret Atwood: Steven Galloway, the author and (ex-) professor whom Atwood defended in the Globe and Mail, has sued the woman who accused him of sexual assault and about two dozen other people (at least some of them students or people of limited means) who supported the accuser’s claims in writing. Galloway was partially exonerated* by a 2016 legal investigation, and paid 200,000 dollars by his former employer. His current suit alleges that his accuser and critics are inflicting expensive and legally actionable damage on his reputation. Galloway’s critics argue that he is using the court filing to silence people without the financial means to contest the suit.

Perhaps. If so, Galloway has reckoned without the power of Internet-based crowdfunding. A Gofundme campaign has raised (as of this writing) over $US 67,000 to pay the defendants’ legal fees. Some of my readers may believe Mr. Galloway has been hard done by; for the rest, I offer a link to the campaign website.

* The investigator, Hon. Mary Ellen Boyd, determined that Galloway was guilty of harassment and an inappropriate relationship with a student. Others have accused him of bullying behavior and slapping a student.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Geek TV

When the HBO series Game of Thrones premiered in 2011, no-one predicted (AFAIK) its immense and enduring popularity. I figured the show would last about three seasons, make a little money, and fade out, remembered by sci-fi fans and cosplayers but not the general viewership. Instead it has become more popular than The Sopranos, bringing HBO twenty-five million viewers per episode and a billion dollars per season. According to The AV Club (h/t my brother Patrick, a fellow scifi fan), HBO, Hulu, Amazon, Netflix, Apple TV, and every other network with capital the spare has decided to fling their money at any new science fiction or fantasy series they can find. Geek TV is now the leading edge of the American media sector, with 43 new SF/fantasy series in planning or production.

My excitement about this news is tempered by my experience of many, many disappointing adaptations of genre classics, like Syfy’s amateurish Earthsea, Amazon’s boring Man in the High Castle, the bastardized film version of I, Robot, the dreary BBC Gormenghast miniseries (granted, I didn’t like the originals there), the bloodless and over-budgeted Golden Compass movie of 2007, the abominable Kindred: The Embraced series in the 1990s, and, further back, David Lynch’s hot-mess film adaptation of Dune. It is very easy to imagine the producers of any or all of these programs screwing up the transition from page to screen.  

In some cases I don’t suppose it matters much. I doubt, for instance, that The Wheel of Time or Snow Crash will ever make it to television, the former because of its unwieldy source material (2,782 characters? Yeesh), the latter because cyberpunk has become nonfiction. In other cases the original source material isn’t (IMHO) as good as the fans and critics say. Good Omens, whose TV version sounds like a done deal, is based on a middling-fair novel by two underperforming authors: Terry Pratchett never wrote a good collaborative story and Neil Gaiman was still at the start of his career. The Sirens of Titan was an amusing romp but far from Vonnegut’s best novel. The Foundation Trilogy and Ringworld have become classics, where “classic” is defined as “a book people frequently talk about but seldom read.” I agree with the AV Club writers that Asimov’s Foundation and Empire has the elements of a good story, but the rest of the series is heavy on didactic speech-making and shallow world-building. One might make a similar observation about Ringworld: the 1980 sequel, Ringworld Engineers, actually tells a better story than its predecessor, one with a greater variety of settings and alien races and an actual, y’know, plot. If the TV versions of these novels (Ringworld Engineers excepted) prove mediocre, that won’t necessarily make them worse than the original books.

All that said, I do hope the adaptation of Iain Banks’s Culture novels is done well. If the director and writers manage to incorporate the author's dry sense of humor and his love of anachronistic or steampunk-ish elements - clifftop castles, brass locomotives, cruel nobles, rusting bridges and iron warships - they could probably turn Consider Phlebas into at least as good a show as the BBC adaptation of Iain Banks's The Crow Road (1996). Read a little Douglas Adams, watch a few old episodes of Dr. Who, and I think the rest follows.