Shada

Longtime readers of this blog know what a huge fan I am of classic Doctor Who. I grew up watching it at a time when my local syndication channel only had the rights to air Tom Baker’s first four seasons, from “Robot” to “The Invasion of Time,” on a seemingly endless loop. (Later, by the mid-1980s, PBS would acquire the entire run of the show and I would finally get to see what came before “Robot” and after “The Invasion of Time,” the prospect of which often filled me with more excitement than the episodes themselves, especially if we’re talking about the early black-and-white years. Or the Colin Baker years. Or the Sylvester McCoy years. Okay, so basically I was only really into Tom Baker and Peter Davison, with a handful of Jon Pertwee serials, like “The Daemons” and “Day of the Daleks,” thrown in for good measure. In hindsight, something tells me this parenthetical aside will be utterly meaningless to quite a few of you!)

One thing I enjoy doing is blowing the minds of fans of the Doctor Who revival who aren’t familiar with the classic series by informing them that from 1979 to 1980, for the show’s 17th season, Douglas Adams was the script editor. The very same Douglas Adams who wrote The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and its sequels. His fingerprints are all over the episodes of that season in the form of his instantly recognizable sense of humor. Fans’ eyes go even wider when I tell them that Adams also wrote three serials for classic Who: 1978’s “The Pirate Planet” (the highlight of the “Key to Time” season-long arc), 1979’s “City of Death” (arguably the greatest Doctor Who serial of all time), and 1980’s “Shada,” legendary for being the only Doctor Who serial that never aired.

Hobbled by the 1980 BBC strike, “Shada” was supposed to be the six-episode crowning achievement that brought the 17th season to a close, an uneven season starring Tom Baker as the Doctor and Lalla Ward as his companion Romana, a Time Lady from his home world of Gallifrey and one of the best companions in the history of the program. Season 17 started off promisingly with “Destiny of the Daleks,” which saw the long-awaited return of Davros, the creator of the Daleks, and the aforementioned “City of Death” before plummeting into a triumvirate of downright awful episodes: “The Creature from the Pit,” “Nightmare of Eden,” and “The Horns of Nimon.” A lot was riding on “Shada” to bring the 17th season back up to snuff. Unfortunately, only about half of the scenes were shot before the serial was scrapped by the strike. “Shada” became the stuff of legend after that, whispered about at conventions by fans who dubiously claimed to have seen it and talked endlessly about how brilliant it was, until a dozen years after it was supposed to air the BBC released “Shada” on videocassette, with the filmed segments linked by Tom Baker’s narration. It was…not as good as everyone had hoped.

Still, it was classic Douglas Adams. Word play. Absurdist humor. Terrible puns. Not one, not two, but three different iterations of the teatime joke, “One lump or two? Would you also like sugar?” Before Adams’ untimely death in 2001, there had been a longstanding rumor that the only reason there was never a novelization of “Shada” the way there’d been for every other serial was because Adams wanted to write it himself. We waited, and we waited. He never wrote it. Or rather, he did, sort of, but he changed the plot — jettisoning everything except kindly old Professor Chronotis, his time machine (no longer called a TARDIS), and the St. Cedd’s university setting — and renamed it Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency.

Enter Gareth Roberts, a scriptwriter for the new Doctor Who (among others, he wrote “The Unicorn and the Wasp,” the one where the Doctor and Donna meet Agatha Christie, which is one of my favorites). Working from the most complete version of the “Shada” script, Roberts has written the delightful, if rather cumbersomely titled, Doctor Who: Shada: The Lost Adventure by Douglas Adams. More than a straightforward novelization, Roberts has done an admirable job of writing the novel as if it were penned by Douglas Adams himself, employing Adams’ same style of word play, caustic asides, and confused artificial intelligences. If you didn’t know better, you really would think you were reading a Douglas Adams novel. The result is charming, nostalgic, and, at nearly 400 pages, somewhat tedious. There’s a reason the Hitchhiker’s books are so short, and with numerous scenes here extended to unnecessary lengths so the characters can say “What?” a lot in order to set up a bad joke or pun, I started to remember why I outgrew Douglas Adams.

But those moments are few and far between. In all, Shada is a joy to read. It does suffer from the same padding that most classic Doctor Who serials longer than four parts do — in particular there’s a lot of running back and forth between Professor Chronotis’ chambers and the university chemistry lab for the first 150 pages or so, and the human grad student Clare gets sidelined something awful in the way that a lot of the female characters in classic Who do (though I think she’s actually given more to do here than in the original TV version) — but Roberts brings it all to life quite enjoyably. And to his credit, he does expand on the subplot of Clare and Chris, the other human grad student, so that there’s more to them than just asking what everything is. He even lets some of the more newly established mythology from the new Who play a small role here. (On the downside, in one scene he has Romana state explicitly that she and the Doctor are just friends, which I only didn’t like because I think the Doctor and Romana should be more than friends.)

Recommended more for fans of classic Doctor Who than fans of Douglas Adams who aren’t familiar with the TV show, or fans of the new Who who don’t know the classic series, Shada is a bit like dipping into your own childhood love of Doctor Who again. Warm, comfortable, and just a little bit embarrassing.

Doctor Who: “A Town Called Mercy”

The third episode of season seven, “A Town Called Mercy,” is, in my opinion, a step up from the previous two episodes, but ultimately it’s still nothing special.

Mild spoilers ahead!

“A Town Called Mercy” is the first Doctor Who episode to take place in the Wild West since 1966’s “The Gunfighters,” in which the Doctor, in his first incarnation, finds himself at the iconic shootout at the O.K. Corral with Doc Holliday, Wyatt Earp, et al., a full two years before Star Trek did their own version with “Spectre of the Gun.” But because these are the Moffat years, and because for some reason Moffat thinks the Doctor is hilarious in silly hats, it’s not long before the Doctor once again dons a stetson. Cue every possible Western movie cliche imaginable, from the dirty looks in the saloon to the dying sheriff making our hero the new sheriff to the climactic showdown at high noon. (All that’s missing is a hooker with a heart of gold named Miss Kitty, though I’m certain she would have been integral to the story if this were Torchwood.) Throw in a touch of The Terminator — the cyborg gunslinger’s targeting scanner thingy even reads “terminate” when he’s about to shoot someone — and you have a mishmash that probably works better than it ought to.

I did appreciate that the two ostensible villains in the story were more complicated than the usual kill-everyone-and-take-over-the-universe baddies. As if to drive that point home, the Doctor name-checks the Master and the Daleks. What I didn’t appreciate was the Doctor pointing a gun at someone. That’s just not something the character would do. He rails against guns and other weapons constantly, and prides himself on using his smarts to get out of sticky situations, not violence. In fact, he gives quite an important speech about the pitfalls of answering violence with violence just a few minutes later in this same episode. The Doctor pointing a gun at someone was an off moment.

Kahler-Jex, the strangely Caucasian, British-accented alien from a distant world, recognizes that Amy is a mother, and it’s the first time in a long time Amy’s sorrow and anger at what happened to her daughter is even referenced. I liked that, but alas, it was dropped almost immediately, much like the whole plotline was last season. I really do think it needs to be explored more, or at least made known more through Amy’s choices and behavior, but she and Rory are only in two more episodes before they leave so I don’t think it’ll happen. That’s too bad. The stolen baby plotline could have really ramped things up and completely transformed Amy and Rory’s characters, but instead Moffat basically ignored any emotional or plot ramifications. Why follow through on something interesting when you can put the Doctor in a silly hat, right?

Also of interest, in this episode the Doctor now claims to be 1200 years old. Since he was only 1100 at the end of last season, he has apparently been traveling, on and off with Amy and Rory, for another 100 years subjective time since then. I suppose that’s where he met folks like Nefertiti and Riddell from “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship.” (Seriously, they need to bring back Riddell. He would have been awesome in this episode. Instead, we have Rory, who gets to stand around and shrug a lot.)

All in all, “A Town Called Mercy” is a serviceable episode without too many plot holes and with a smidge of genuine emotion, which I’m starting to think is the best we can hope for from Doctor Who these days.

The Fall 2012 TV Season; Or, Read Any Good Books Lately?

In looking over the slate of new TV shows for the fall 2012 season, your faithful TV Nerd is forced to make an uncomfortable realization. There just isn’t that much on anymore that interests me. After a couple of seasons of bland, lackluster new shows, most of which were summarily and immediately canceled, this season’s new fare doesn’t seem any more exciting. I can remember not that long ago how I used to have to make sure I had my DVR programmed — or a tape in my VCR ready to record! — because there was so much on I wanted to see, often in simultaneous time slots, that I didn’t want to miss anything. Now? Not so much. So here’s what my rather sparse viewing schedule will look like this fall, day by day, broken down into returning and new programs.

Sunday

Returning programs: The SimpsonsFamily Guy, and The Cleveland Show (all Fox) remain on my list, though each is noticeably aging. I think The Simpsons had a bit of a creative resurgence recently, and for a show that’s well past twenty years old now it’s still pretty funny, but yeah, it ain’t what it used to be. I would watch The Mentalist (CBS) on this new night, too, if CBS would pull its head out of its ass and allow the show to stream on Hulu, or anywhere for that matter (I no longer have cable and don’t watch TV programs immediately upon airing anymore). Alas, I may just have to let The Mentalist go. Not a huge loss, but I did enjoy the show. I’ll be tuning in again to The Walking Dead (AMC), too, in the hopes that this season is a little more active, and makes a little more sense, than last season.

New programs: 666 Park Avenue (ABC) might be fun, or it might be ridiculous. I’m willing to watch the first episode and see. I suspect it’s going to be something like Fantasy Island, where some new schmoe makes a deal with Terry O’Quinn’s devil every week and then gets sucked screaming into the apartment building’s walls, only with recurring characters who also live there and eventually attempt to investigate the weirdness around them, all in a glitzy, chic, upscale New York City setting. So, Fantasy Island meets The Devil’s Advocate, I guess.

Monday

Returning programs: I’m a new convert to How I Met Your Mother (CBS) and am eagerly awaiting the new season, which might be its last (just tell us how you met her already!). There’s also Bones (Fox), which I can take or leave but Alexa is big into. Me, I don’t understand the characters at all. Especially Booth. He’s such a whiny baby. And of course it’s not Monday night without Castle (ABC)!

New programs: None.

Tuesday

Returning programs: None.

New programs: I caught a sneak preview of The Mindy Project (Fox) and thought it was cute and surprisingly frank about the main character’s self-damaging romantic preconceptions, so I’ll keep watching it until it gets inevitably retooled into a boyfriend-of-the-week rom-com disaster.

Wednesday

Returning programs: Gotta have me some Modern Family (ABC). Can’t wait for big fan Ann Romney to cameo! Until then, there’s also American Horror Story: Asylum (FX). I’m intrigued by the brand new setting for the second season, and by the idea of using many of the same actors from the first season in new roles like some kind of stock troupe, a concept I resisted at first. Now I’m eager to see what they do with it. Plus, Jessica Lange.

New programs: Okay, so call me a fool, but I’ll give Arrow (The CW) a try. I’m not a huge fan of DC’s Green Arrow or anything, but I still have mostly fond memories of Smallville, despite its last couple of seasons, and I suppose that’s translating into interest in Arrow. Part of me is already convinced it won’t be any good, though. We’ll see.

Side note: I saw a sneak preview of Animal Practice (NBC), a new sitcom about doctors at an animal hospital, and barely made it to the first commercial break. It’s one of those comedies that tries so hard to be zany (the main doctor has a precocious pet monkey! HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!) that all the jokes just feel flat and forced. Avoid.

Thursday

Returning programs: I’m all confused, because Thursdays used to be about my NBC comedies. But now they’ve moved Community to Fridays for some reason. Also for reasons I don’t understand The Office is still on the air, even though half the cast is leaving — the ones that haven’t left already — and it hasn’t been funny in at least two years. But at least my beloved 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation are still on! Yay! Alas, it’s been announced that this will be 30 Rock‘s final season. Booo! I’m going to need a new prescription from Dr. Spaceman to deal with that.

New programs: Elementary (CBS) is yet another new take on Sherlock Holmes in a field already crowded with them (the Robert Downey, Jr. movies; the BBC series with Benedict Cumberbatch), and it’s already handicapped in my mind by moving the quintessentially British detective across the pond to New York City, but I’m just intrigued enough to give it a try.

Friday

Returning programs: So yeah, this is Community‘s (NBC) new night. It’s like they’re trying to kill the show quietly or something, except they already fired the creator and showrunner in a manner that went public — and viral — very quickly, so maybe the “quietly” thing is wishful thinking. It’s a shame. I’ve really grown to love this show. Inspector Spacetime forever!

New programs: None.

There are 104 new shows premiering this fall, and only 4 of them look appealing to me. That doesn’t bode well at all. I get the feeling that one day soon your faithful TV Nerd will have to change his title to the “Remember When There Was Good TV?” Nerd.

How about you? What, if anything, will you be watching this fall?

Straubathon: 5 Stories

Not as immediately rewarding as Houses Without Doors or Magic Terror, Peter Straub’s third collection, 2008’s 5 Stories, is comprised of tales that blossom upon reflection. None of the stories collected here are about what they appear to be. The name of the game in 5 Stories, as it is in so much of Straub’s work, is subtext.

The first two stories do away with any semblance of linear storytelling altogether, choosing instead to play with form and structure. “Little Red’s Tango,” ostensibly about an eccentric record collector living in New York City, gradually transforms into an almost Biblical gospel of the tribulations and miracles of Red’s life, culminating in a letter from an acquaintance to someone who has never met Red that is the equivalent of a Pauline epistle. “Lapland, or Film Noir” is another story of a young boy going through something traumatic at a movie theater (see The Throat, “The Juniper Tree,” and “Bunny Is Good Bread”). Here, a young, sensitive boy sits through multiple features of fictional films noirs, all of which seem to occur in a place called Lapland. The implications of that name, given what happens to little boys in cinemas in Straub’s fiction, is shuddersome. Bits of the films are missing, replaced only with ellipses, perhaps an indication of the terrible things happening to the boy that he wishes not to remember, and that have caused him to miss bits of the films. The story culminates in a visit from the ghost of Alan Ladd, Hollywood hero, who like a guardian angel reassures the young boy that whatever happened back there in the movie theater, whether it was the violence onscreen or the violence done to the boy in the dark, is not his fault. (It took me a long time to wrap my mind around what’s happening in this story because it’s not written in a recognizable narrative form, and I may have interpreted it wrong, but I’m satisfied with my interpretation.)

The remaining three stories are told in a more traditional narrative form. “Donald, Duck!” is a fun noir tale of a gold digger targeting a rich family, only they’re all Disney characters. “The Geezers” may be my favorite story of the bunch. In it, a group of old friends — old in both senses of the word — react to the death of another, newer friend. The story is entirely one of implication, with just enough clues about what might have happened sprinkled throughout to put the pieces together afterward. (Straub, to his credit, refrains from doing it for you.) “Mr. Aickman’s Air Rifle,” the only story in the collection one could rightfully call horror (despite the fact that 5 Stories won a Bram Stoker Award!), is a masterful ghost story, cherry-topped with an absolutely gorgeous visit from the dripping corpse of Virginia Woolf, though the revelation at the end may not come as a surprise to savvy readers. Then again, it’s always about the journey, isn’t it, not the destination?

5 Stories is a slim volume at 125 pages, but the tales it contains aren’t Straub’s most accessible. While I’d happily recommend it for longtime Straub readers and lovers of his work, I wouldn’t recommend it as a good place to start if you’re new to his oeuvre. Consider 5 Stories part of the advanced course.

 

 

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