The Red Lines Page

December 3, 2010


Filed under: Articles,drwho — Peter A @ 10:19 pm

The editors of Time, Unincorporated asked whether they could reprint some of my Doctor Who book reviews in one of their volumes. Which was nice. Unfortunately, the articles were scheduled for Volume IV, and the publishers have cancelled that. Which is a shame.

So here’s one of the articles. It’s a review of Paul Magrs’ The Scarlet Empress. I wrote it in September 1998, and it first appeared  on an internet newsgroup.

To the picaresque life

After about twenty lines of this post, spoilers start to appear. Quite big ones, actually. Caveat lector.

There’s much to enjoy about The Scarlet Empress, and as others have suggested here [in the newsgroup], its discursive and picaresque nature mean that it ends up as more than the sum of its parts. Much of the discussion has been about its difference to the rest of the BBC Books – indeed, its difference to much of the rest of published Doctor Who fiction. And while you can argue that it isn’t a particularly radical piece of new fiction qua fiction, it is still the most stylistically innovative Doctor Who book since Sky Pirates!

At the time, of course, I seem to recall I said that I didn’t on the whole enjoy Sky Pirates! I’ve revised my view since then, because (a) I recognise it tried to make a difference, (b) Dave Stone reads the newsgroup, (c) Dave Stone is bigger than I am, and (d) there is no (d).

The Scarlet Empress is a melange of styles, much more so than a book like The Left-Handed Hummingbird with that book’s occasional experimental sections in different tones or voices. This narrative variance encompasses video diary (p22), non-sequential narrative (p 129 and following), first person narration (p275), third person omnipotent narration (p45), third person internal monologue (p 31), reported diary (p32), third person within one POV (for example, Sam’s on p97 and p257), folk tale (p 98), and mock heroic verse p242). At one point (p241), there’s a juxtaposition of the same story told by two narrators (Bearded Lady Angela and the Mock Turtle) as they recall how they explored the Scarlet Empress’s rooms, with a jarring novelistic intrusion (“Back to the narrative at hand”) joining the two. There’s even that familiar element (well, familiar from some of the more studiously avant garde Virgin novels), the one-page chapter.

I’m not sure what the motivation is for many of these changes of tone, but they are diverting and amusing. I suppose they reflect the way in which much of the story is composed of discursive set pieces, ad hoc narratives, or narrative exemplars. So if you’re looking for a densely-plotted, character-driven book you’ll be disappointed. Settle down instead for a pot pourri of events which blow kisses to various Doctor Who pasts — or, if you’re more pedantic about your canon, blow big raspberries at the accepted wisdom of the BBC range to date.

Now that’s not to say that there is no plot or characterisation in the book. The quest to find the Beaded Lady, the Cyborg Duchess, the Alligator Man, and the Mock Turtle is the thin line throughout, while a secondary thought about Iris’s desire to be healed from her disease by the Scarlet Empress is another thread. And while it’s characteristic of the book’s cheerfully casual adoption of Doctor Who history and continuity that the Mock Turtle turns out to be part-Chelonian (reference to Virgin continuity), we never feel the need to question why Iris would undergo such a complex and arduous quest. Plausibility in the book is (acceptably) secondary to the meandering nature of the narrative.

So we don’t ask ourselves why Iris, whose life matches the Doctor’s in so many ways, wouldn’t go to Karn to use the Elixir (she has, after all, met Morbius, and knows the Doctor’s life better than he does). Nor do we feel it necessary to ponder, for example, why Iris drives her TARDIS bus around Hyspero instead of vworp-vworping her vehicle in a wheezing-and-groaning fashion directly to the venues.

Both descriptions of the TARDIS noise appear, of course — the book is an eclectic mix. You can find the televised series (myriad punning references and paraphrased summaries), the TV Movie (Puccini), Virgin (Chelonians), comics (Kroton the Cyberman), Target (several people have capacious pockets) and the metalanguage of the programme’s production history itself (JN-T’s “Memory always cheats”).

So internal continuity is less important than the references to Doctor Who. On a couple of occasions, Iris’s TARDIS is used to speed the story along, and it makes a helpful reappearance after being conveniently absent for a period of time — but it’s a narrative device, not a piece of plausible technology. Otherwise, we’d worry about why it appears to allow the wind and cold in (and has a broken window) at one point, but then turns out to be completely watertight later in the book.

Internal logic is secondary to the set pieces, too. This isn’t a criticism, merely an observation about the book’s style. In fact, where there are a couple of continuity items (the bee djinn reappearing to helping the Doctor with the fresh honey, and the Kestheven birds’ attack on the Kristeva), it’s unexpected and actually rather odd.

On the other hand, the motivations of the characters is interesting and consistent, particularly the Doctor and Iris. However, Sam is largely unrecognisable from any other novel, and we have little insight into her until the end – but see later on. We trust Iris’s insights when she’s talking to us directly, rather than to other characters, but I do wonder why she tells the Doctor that the Aia’ib is very important to the Scarlet Empress, but then find this is never mentioned again. Like much of [this newsgroup], perhaps, this is a thread which is not adequately explored later — indeed, it’s ignored in the finale.

On the other hand, Iris is finally motivated to release her current incarnation and regenerate because of her interaction with the eighth Doctor — she argues with him, she tricks him, she blames him, she still loves him. He is younger, more carefree, less organised and intense than she remembers him (and she has met all of his previous incarnations). And since she knows what her own next incarnation will be (because of a Five Doctors style adventure of her own), she knows she too will become a younger model. (And in what I suppose could be a nod to The Power of the Daleks, Castrovalva, and Destiny of the Daleks, her clothes appear to regenerate at the same time!)

A propos of this jokey allusion to continuity, Iris observes (p234): “If you don’t mess up your own continuity, there’s always some other bugger who’ll do it for you… I don’t even pretend to be consistent.” This seems to me to be a declaration of intent for much of the book.

Things I enjoyed a lot: the Doctor listening politely when the Mock Turtles says things like “If you stay inside here long enough, you could even meet yourself. Imagine that!” I enjoyed the Steigertrude creature (but wish that several pages later there hadn’t then been a recollected story about Gertrude Stein). I love the idiosyncratic descriptive flourishes (in the Fortalician section, you can even hear the authentic voice of Tom Baker, from his autobiography, narrating the story of Our Lady the gardener who has “a particular talent for pomegranates”. And I enjoy the fact that the chapter titles are almost invariably lifted from characters’ dialogue, but that’s a personal thing I suppose. Back to the review in hand.

Sometimes the metatextuality of the narration becomes awkward and overt. After the deaths of the Fortalician Executioner and Librarian, for example, they “would have to find their own way out of this particular ontological and epistemological rubble.” (Many of the casual readers of the EDAs will have to find their own way through that sentence’s etymological and circumlocutory rubble, I think.) There’s another mouthful on p233: “It forces you to keep yourself in line. In an epistemological sense, at least.” Well, up to a point, Mock Turtle.

There a lovely description of Our Lady’s “scandalously ripe” fruit (p99), so the repetition of this striking word on p233 (“scandalously long neck”) makes you wonder: am I supposed to imagine the Mock Turtle (speaking on p233) was narrating the section on p99? You may guess this, since he’s supposed to be observing everything using his low-level telepathy while trapped in the ice for most of the book. Or is it just a coincidence of wording? (In any other book, mind you, one would not be attempting to deconstruct the text on such flimsy evidence — so make of that what you will.)

There is a short section which amused me, and which sounds like snippets from a conversation in a Doctor Who convention bar at a table where Martin Wiggins, Thomas Noonan, Alec Charles and Tat Wood are all talking. The Doctor and Iris are arguing about the Seventh Doctor’s compulsion for setting universal wrongs to right, policing the timelines in a plot-driven male way. “Time’s Champion my arse,” she sneers. The Doctor retorts that Iris wants to be “the great feminist reinterpreter of patriarchal Gallifrey” who pleads “the endless polymorphous perversity of time and possibility”. Early twentieth century psychological allusions to infantile sexual tendencies aside, we do get a great insult in response from Iris as she characterises the Master as the embodiment of the male ago: “that pitiful, deluded, phallocentric dope.” Makes you look at the Tissue Compression Eliminator in a whole new light, doesn’t it?

Now, much as I enjoyed The Scarlet Empress, I did have quite a struggle at times with the way that point of view (POV) seemed to meander. Maybe it’s for a reason, but I can’t discern why it happens. For example, a section which is explicitly (and characteristically) narrated by Iris on p200, and which discusses her Gallifreyan nature after about a page, by p202 contains a line “Iris looked thoughtful” and then ” ‘So Do I,’ put in Iris.” (In other words, we’ve left her first-person narration and entered third person.) Later in the same section, we discover we’re now in Sam’s POV: “She saw that Iris…” Or is it Iris, because after a line of her dialogue we start a paragraph “She was staring at the alligator man…” Then the same paragraph ends with omniscient third person narration “all of them had their private suspicions”.

This rollercoaster through different POVs could partly be rescued if we assume a typo on p202, and that Sam’s POV is assumed to start after Iris’s line “A terrible sailor, me.” But it isn’t the only place in the novel where this odd change between POVs seems to occur. Maybe I’m just an old fuddy- duddy to expect consistency. Check out the section starting on p207 in the Bearded Lady’s POV. It becomes a sort of omniscient (or at least distanced) POV with “It had been Angela the Bearded Lady who…”, which is quite a nice stylistic device. But then by p209, “suddenly she looked very small (someone else’s POV of her), and then on p210 we learn “The ten eyes of the Duchess surmounted the original faceted eyes of the spider like a cluster of bright jewels” which must be someone else’s POV because Angela is blind — which the next paragraph reminds us of: “Even without being able to see this new being, the Bearded Lady knew exactly what had happened.” This whole section ends with the internal thoughts (POV) of the new creature hearing the Scarlet Empress’s instructions.

Well, maybe this is all the free-indirect narrative that the Doctor tells us (personally) in the following chapter — albeit by using the first-person narrative mode. I suppose I have to accept that Paul Magrs will reply, like Iris (on p131): “I can write exactly what I want.” And I will have to accept, like the Doctor immediately after this: “He could see that he wouldn’t get any further with this one.”

Ah, the Doctor. What fun the novel has with him. I think my conception of the eighth Doctor is very much like Paul Magrs’, which is “engaging simplicity… no more all-knowing prophet- like… content to blunder into things, and let himself meet fabulous characters in that sweetly picaresque, eighteenth- century way of his” (p282).

The “Afterword” aside, however, there’s a smashing pen portrait of the McGann Doctor on p123 — which you may think sounds closer to the kind of wording you’d expect from a set of BBC guidelines, but which in the specific context on the narration is entirely appropriate here: it’s an analysis by Iris, confiding in us, and after all she knows all the Doctors and, in the novel, therefore has a uniquely informed POV. Indeed, as it’s established that the Doctor can’t remember his previous lives with any great precision, she has the unfair advantage of knowing him better than himself. Just like a fangirl asking awkward questions of her favourite actor at an interview panel — no wonder Paul McGann’s afraid to go to conventions, eh?

Elsewhere in the book, I’m delighted to hear the Eighth Doctor confirm my belief about his character’s view on life: “Ordinary life is where everything is a struggle and muddle and you can only do your best.” We’re still offered a bit of mystery (he doesn’t reply to the statement about him and Iris that they are “both Gallifreyans”. And there’s a nice nod to the Sam/Doctor backstory when new Empress Cassandra says to the Doctor “No wonder she loves you” and the Doctor explains to Sam that Cassandra is referring to Iris loving him (implication: not Sam loving him). And in his first-person conclusion to the book, the Doctor confides in us that he loves… the sight of the vortex.

A central metaphor in the book appears on p236, where the Doctor gives an account of himself. It does start with an observation which is dangerously close to Pseud’s Corner (or Novelist Luvvies): “My job is rather like a doctor in a hospital, or a novelist’s… in that I try to keep people alive.” But it develops a little more plausibly: Life is not like a plotted book, not tidy, not genre. The Doctor’s job is to avoid “the trap of genre-death”. To him, the interesting parts are “the parts where life just goes on. It’s just to the sides of the big adventure. The bits that overstep the boundaries of convention.” A bit like this book, you’re saying, no doubt fumbling with phrases like “objective correlative”. When the Doctor says this, Paul Magrs observes: “He seemed pleased with that.” Well, I suppose Paul Magrs was, too.

The Doctor describes his adventures as a “bricolage. A large and teeming compendium with all sorts of alternatives.” And that seems to be a sound aspiration for the BBC Books series, particularly when there has been so much discussion on the newsgroup about whether the books should be all like this or all like that, rather than a splendid variety of styles. On page 236: ” ‘If we had a bottle of something,’ said the Doctor, ‘we might have a toast. To the picaresque life.’ ”

I’ll drink to that.

September 30, 2010

Dalek design

Filed under: Articles,friends,Uncategorized — Peter A @ 10:05 pm

Today’s Daily Telegraph runs a story “DIY Dalek blueprints from 1970s published online”. They refer to correspondence republished by Shaun Usher that the BBC sent out to people asking for construction details.

What the article doesn’t reveal is that the “blueprints” were reproduced from their original source using a revolutionary technique known as “photocopying”. The construction instructions came from a Radio Times Special published in 1973 to commemorate that year’s tenth anniversary of Doctor Who. The production office simply made a copy of those and posted them out to people who asked.

Interesting to see that something published 37 years ago is a story worth repeating today. As my pal Jonny Morris (no, not that one, the other one) tweeted, “The ‘Dr Who newsworthiness’ threshold is set pretty low nowadays, isn’t it?”

The original blueprints

But no need to rely on the Telegraph’s heavily abridged instructions. Here are scans of the original article from my own copy of that 1973 Radio Times Special.

My own design

I’m a bit of a Dalek designer myself, as these splendid examples clearly demonstrate. Well, if I’m honest, I had a bit of help from my son.

However, any serious Dalek designer should not miss the opportunity to look at Project Dalek, which describes itself as “an online information resource aimed at anyone interested in building a Dalek”. It contains showcases, plans, and references that would make Davros weep.


And speaking of Davros, has anyone else noticed the worrying similarity between Johnny Morris (no, not that one, the other one) and Davros?

July 11, 2010

Now and again

Filed under: Articles,drwho,writing — Peter A @ 4:27 pm

Charles Norton interviewed me as part of an article he wrote for Sci Fi Now Magazine. Inevitably, there’s always more to the interview than gets published. The article itself appeared in the magazine earlier this month, and I commend it to you — it features other interviews with Doctor Who people. For a flavour of how these things get constructed, here is the original Q&A for my bit.

Charles Norton: Gary Russell told me that he felt that Doctor Who was the kind of programme that encourages its fans to work in the media. Star Trek fans tend to become scientists and astronauts. However, Doctor Who fans tend to become writers, directors and producers. Doctor Who seems to get people interested in the mechanics of TV and story-telling. Has it been like that for you? To put it another way, do you think that Doctor Who made you want to write?

Peter A: I enjoyed writing as a child, whether for my school essays in English or History, or for my own interest. Doctor Who was an early childhood enthusiasm, so it certainly featured in my writing then, or the games I acted out,or the films I made on Super 8. Followed by fan magazines. Followed by the chance to get published professionally.

CM: How do you feel that that the past five years has seen Doctor Who change? Is it still the same show? Does it matter if it isn’t?

PA: Television has changed since the “classic” series was last on the the late 1980s, its entire context — multichannel broadcast, acting styles, editing and cutting conventions, and the whole panoply of alternative media that surrounds contemporary TV programmes. Doctor Who plays into that really well.

Classic Who was a very splendid product of its time. The new series is a fabulous modern version. It’s all the same show. A whole generation never knew Classic Who and, for the most part, that won’t bother them in the slightest, any more than today’s Coronation Street fans would worry that they’ve never heard of Ena Sharples and Minnie Caldwell.

CM: What different disciplines does writing a Doctor Who story now demand, as opposed to five years ago?

PA: Depends on the story. The media is more varied, so with audios you have to work with the expectation that families listening to it on the car CD player have it as a shared experience like watching the telly, and aren’t going to skip back a few tracks to work out what happened, whereas with a novel it’s a solitary experience that you can scan back over if you wish. You can see a greater variety of styles and tone (yet paradoxically all still “true” to the TV series) in things like the Doctor Who Magazine comic strip and the Doctor Who Adventures one, or the tie-in novels and the “Darksmith” stories, or the short stories in the annuals.

CM: The return of the TV series has brought Doctor Who much greater public attention, but do you think that there’s been any down sides? Do you feel that giving the series a new future has come at the expense of remembering its past? Has the old become sidelined by the new? I’m thinking particularly about the BBC’s decision to axe the ‘Past Doctor Novels’.

PA: I think that’s a bit parochial. There is hugely more tie-in merchandise than ever before in the show’s history, and the Beeb are very conscious that it’s a huge hit and so needs to meet the needs of a mass market, and quite right too. There are some niche things (do they still do those wildly expensive Doctor Who chess sets?) You only have to look at the “Monsters and Aliens” type books that include Classic Series monsters, or the BBC website that meticulously lists information and reviews of the old stories, or William “Yikes! He’s old” Hartnell pictures in Doctor Who Adventures, or listen to the Big Finish CDs or the Eighth Doctor on BBC Radio 7, or the Fifth Doctor on Children in Need, or all the Doctors appearing on screen in Matt Smith’s debut, to spot that the Classic Series undeniably isn’t forgotten. So I am entirely phlegmatic that they haven’t got round to publishing some more Past Doctor Books. I notice that they haven’t done any new Weetabix cards since the 1970s, either, but that doesn’t mean Nabisco are snubbing the show.

CM: Through people like yourself, Doctor Who kept on going throughout the wilderness years, even without a TV series to support it. If the BBC were to axe Doctor Who again and take the TV series off the air, do you think that it would still somehow manage to stay alive? Would it come back again? Will Doctor Who ever truly end?

PA: I can’t see it ever stopping completely, in one form or another. It’s the show that comes back. But I don’t really stop to think about that. Why worry about it? Be in the moment. Enjoy it wholeheartedly for what it is while we’ve got it, right now. The glass isn’t half empty. It isn’t half-full either, it’s spilling right over the edges.

CM: One last, really obvious cliché of a question, but do you have a favourite period of the show? Is there an era or set of stories that never fails to enthuse you? Perhaps you’re an Andrew Cartmel fan or a big follower of William Hartnell.

PA: I love it all. For example, the Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker years were really important parts of my childhood, and I’ve loved that the Eccleston and Tennant years have been important to my children. But I loved being part of the group of writers working on the Eighth Doctor novels, too. And now I’m relishing the chance to write for Peter Davison, Colin Baker, and Sylvester McCoy, because that reminds me of when they were the Doctors. Plus, we’ve got all new Who with Matt Smith! What’s not to love? You can’t ask someone which of his kids is the best looking!

January 15, 2010

Patently obvious

Filed under: Articles,Grumbling,IBM,press — Peter A @ 9:25 pm

Last year, IBM published one of my inventions and another where I was a co-inventor. I was quite pleased, even though they were published, not patented. Then I saw a churlish article in The Register about IBM’s patents — prompting this grumbly personal blog response.

In 2009, the US Patent and Trademarks Office granted IBM more patents than any other company in the world. This was the 17th straight year  that’s happened, though it didn’t stop The Register‘s Gavin Clarke reporting this as “each year for nearly a decade”. (The IBM press release makes this obvious to most of… er… the press.)

Mind you, some of The Register’s other calculations were inaccurate too. And I think they missed a more interesting analysis of  the figures that they were handed on a plate by the various source documents.

For example, The Register claims that a company called Hon Hai Precision grew fastest on USPTO patent awards, but then refers to a table of data that shows Hon Hai was up 39% year-to-year whereas Microsoft was up 43%.

When Gavin’s article was first published earlier this week, it also asserted: “the number of patents granted to Microsoft  almost doubled, growing 43 per cent over 2008 to hit 2,903.” Wouldn’t “almost doubled” be “almost 100%”? And even doubling their impressive 2008 haul would still have kept Microsoft in second place to IBM in 2009. [Subsequently, this calculation gaffe has been quietly removed from the article.]

On trends, the article says: “if IBM and Microsoft continue at the same pace, Microsoft should slide into the number-two spot behind IBM. Then it’s just a matter of time and filings before Microsoft deposes IBM at the top.”  It fails to make a connection with another observation in the article that “the size of portfolio is the currency that you use to trade to another company”.

So how many years on current trends will it be before Microsoft amasses the same amount of total patent “currency” as IBM, Samsung, Canon, Sony or others? Especially as some new patents derive from that existing  intellectual property, and those other companies have been amassing thousands every year for many years… in IBM’s case, for decades. Maybe that’s why in 2003 Microsoft hired Marshall Phelps, the former IBMer who Newsweek said turned IBM’s patent portfolio into a $2 billion business.

In addition, Gavin snorts: “There you have it fanbois: Those who think IBM walks on water because of the patents and IP its generously given to Linux and open-source, the mask as finally slipped. Patents to IBM are a currency it uses to get what it wants.”

But why can’t companies — IBM or otherwise — do different things for different kinds of patents? And if the article’s questioning IBM’s accumulation of intellectual “currency”, perhaps it could have admitted something else made plain in the press release: IBM also had nearly 4,000 additional technical inventions in 2009, but published them directly instead of seeking patent protection, thereby making the inventions freely available to others in a public database of prior art. Including mine. Fly, my pretties, fly!

Companies like IBM, Samsung, Canon, Sony and (increasingly) Microsoft have a big portfolio of existing patents on which they can develop new intellectual property; and IBM also freely publishes thousands of new technical inventions that others can build on.  There you have it, fanbois.

I suppose  journalists prefer to write a story about “the Beast of Redmond breathing down everyone’s necks” or “Big Blue’s mask finally slips after nearly a decade”. (Or is it 17 years? Let me check that press release again.)   And that’s easier to do if you get the basic maths wrong, selectively quote the data, and if you don’t bother with much real analysis of the underlying trends. That much is patently obvious.

January 2, 2010

Mail Fail

Filed under: Articles,drwho,press,twitter — Peter A @ 9:23 pm

Daily Mail gets things a bit backwardsTwo suspiciously-similar articles appeared in the press this week, both grumbling that David Tennant was in too many BBC programmes at Christmas. One was in the Telegraph, and the other in the Mail. Both asserted that he appeared in 75 programmes.

To get to 75 appearances, they had to count over a period of three weeks. Now, I know Christmas starts earlier every year, but that seems a bit extravagant even by the Mail’s standards. Well over half of these appearances were Doctor Who (including the cartoon series) or other repeats; two of them were among the biggest-rated shows of the season (the two-part Doctor Who finale); and several others were news or documentary appearances as publicity for the finale. On that basis, the press will presumably be getting in a tizzy about the number of appearances by people in soap operas or the next time Britain’s Got Talent has its run.

The Mail article contained well below 500 words, plus a programme listing that could have been copied straight from the Radio Times. It took three journalists to write that. It contains several errors, which are helpfully explained to the Mail journalists in the many reader comments. They quoted two people from the many on their own comment boards to support the complaint about “overexposure”. Unfortunately, they selectively quoted one of those from a comment that was actually saying the complete opposite, and the original author had to correct them in the comments and reveal why she “really, really resented” their “pathetic” article. The Mail hasn’t apologised or corrected the published article.

This didn’t stop Conservative MP Nigel Evans complaining that this was evidence that the BBC was “freezing out young acting talent”, that the BBC should “name their big earners”, and that “200 channels of David Tennant doesn’t seem to be much choice.” He doesn’t explain how 75 appearances could make 200 channels, but fortunately he sat on the Culture Media and Sport select committee, and not one like the Treasury Select Committee that might require numeracy. Being a former committee member means he probably ought to recognise a non-sequitur, though. Note that he doesn’t sit on the committee any more — one of the errors that none of the three authors spotted in their article, possibly because they think retyping something is easier than checking the facts.

Speaking of which, moon-faced miserablist and Mail regular Jan Moir subsequently regurgitated the whole story in the paper, using the information in the article but conveniently ignoring all the corrections helpfully provided by readers of the previous article. She probably doesn’t think much of readers’ comments, after there was a record-breaking number of complaints to the UK Press Complaints Commission about her nasty article about the death of Stephen Gateley. Charlie Brooker described that fiasco rather better than I could, however – read his response here.

Other recent articles by the same Mail authors include:

  • Ross: “Jonathan Ross angers BBC bosses after slamming television schedule”, another in the Mail’s continuing attacks on Ross, in which no BBC bosses are actually quoted  (either on or off-record), the entire piece being based on a single tweet by Ross’s revealing his uncontroversial opinion that “BBC has shite on occasionally” compared with even worse on ITV.
  • Pope: “Pope has a pointy hat”, a piece about Vatican dress code that speculates whether the papal headgear is an attempt to distance the Pope from his Nazi past, and featuring the comment “puts the Rat into Ratzinger” and a photo of an infallible condom featuring the Pontiff’s smiling face
  • Rage: “’We want to wipe the smug grin from Simon Cowell’s face”, an article whose true Mail agenda is revealed by the website URL “BBC-backing-Rage-Against-The-Machine-sour-grapes-X-Factor-beating-Strictly-says-Simon-Cowell.html”
  • Fat: “Dawn French uses a floral walking stick”, containing the breathless assessment “It is not known whether her injury was linked to her weight, however it is well-known that heavier people tend to have more problems with mobility”, and a series of quotes from a “Harley Street diet expert” lambasting the injured woman.
  • Pug: “Kelly Brooks’ dog has a pink body warmer”, a feature piece containing photos of her, the dog and her rugby-player boyfriend, plus the words “amazing pert boobs”.

I made up one of those five stories — only four were written by those journalists. If you feel like doing a quick web search to work out which is the one I invented, then you’ll have worked harder on ascertaining the facts than the Mail journalists did on some of the facts in their David Tennant article.

PS: For the full effect, you need to imagine that I hand-wrote this blog post in full capitals on lined paper with green ink.

PPS: The Telegraph journalist has previously reported on MPs’ expenses, the war in Afghanistan, and the Jersey child abuse investigation. Must have been a slow news day for him, eh?

June 7, 2009

Klein bottle

Filed under: Ancestor Cell,Articles,drwho,Novels,writing — Peter A @ 9:09 pm

File:Klein bottle.svgThe idea of a Klein bottle intrigues me, so my co-author Steve Cole and I incorporated the idea into The Ancestor Cell as the “bottle universe” that had first appeared in previous books. Some reviewers grumbled that the bottle was never a Klein bottle, but when one rereads Interference I don’t believe that anything in it makes that impossible, or even implausible, as a subsequent development. And “it was never intended to be a Klein bottle” is irrelevant. The Doctor Who books build and develop within a shared universe.

In the fictional world of the novel, Steve and I proposed that the extrapolation of a stoppered Klein bottle into a three-dimensional rendering could create an  enclosed space, and that such a three-dimensionally-rendered container could be “filled” in the very process of its conversion into that rendering from a higher dimension – i.e. from its non-orientable (and theoretical) fourth-dimensional rendering.Drinking Mug Klein Bottle Simple, eh?

Acme make a Klein stein (buy one for yourself at if you wish).  It plays similar games with the idea. One could consider this a three-dimensional rendering of a four-dimensional object, in which to exist in a three-dimensional space it has to make the physical concession that its surfaces intersect, and so the mug doesn’t leak – and you can put a lid on it, like a stopper in a bottle, so that your beer can’t leak out at all. It’s not four dimensional at all, of course, but (horrors!) they call it a Klein bottle. And yet the trading standards people aren’t asking them to recall all units because they patently are not closed nonorientable surfaces with Euler characteristic zero!

Now extrapolate that a “real” Klein bottle might have been part of the “methodology” for enclosing a universe in the first place – and if there’s a science for how one does get an entire universe into a conventional bottle, then it’s one that my own research failed to throw up – so let’s presume that a “methodology” may be postulated. One could conduct the “capture” in a fourth or higher dimension and then “snapshot” it down to the three-dimensional rendering in which the physics of that lower dimension “traps” the contents. (I’d show you how to do this, but I’ve left my notebook in a higher dimension.)

File:Möbius strip.jpgAn analogy for this might be the (reverse) rendering of a two-dimensional artefact into a three-dimensional artefact. I can trap a column of two-dimensional ants in an endless route march by enticing them onto a two-dimensional strip of paper, and then when they’re all aboard I twist and join the ends into a Möbius strip. Now they cannot get off, because these two-dimensional creatures can’t go over the “edge” and can only march endlessly along the single plane.

The problem is that this confines only two-dimensional creatures. The analogy for The Ancestor Cell‘s “Klein bottle” is that it cannot confine four-dimensional creatures; the bottle “leaks”. And in the narrative of The Ancestor Cell, that leakage is caused when the Time Lords cast it into the Vortex – which, the novel implies, is a catastrophe along the lines of casting it into the fourth dimension where the three-dimensional snapshot rendering no longer applies.

The novel doesn’t go into such detail, of course; it’s an action adventure novel, not a PhD thesis. But for what it’s worth, that’s the thinking behind calling it a “Klein bottle”. We extrapolated imaginatively in speculative fiction without feeling hidebound by the general machinery of algebraic and differential topology.

Could we have chosen to call it something else? Yes, but we thought it was more fun to pick a name that the general reader would recognise from “popular science” (rather than because it was something a Maths postgrad student would quibble about). I imagine most folk would think of this animation as the familiar two-dimensional rendering of the three-dimensional animation of a Klein bottle. There is also a “figure eight” Klein bottle (animated here) which is rather less visually appealing for the purposes of The Ancestor Cell.

My current favourite image of a Klein bottle is this one, a Lego version! I was going to ask my kids to make one for me, but there’d be no end of complaining. (Geddit?!)

A mathematician called Klein
thought the Möbius strip was divine.
He declared: “If you glue
the edges of two
you can make a strange bottle like mine.”

Now, here’s an experiment you can do for yourself at home. My analogy is “stoppering a bottle” not “creating an intersection” or “severing a contiguous surface”. In this sense, a stopper touches the surface, it does not break it. I think I’ve explained the fictional logic for rendering a Klein bottle in three dimensions above. And the “Klein bottles in a three-dimensional environment” (like those links above) can, indeed, be stoppered.

If you take a pair of scissors to a Möbius strip and cut it, you may get a piece of paper (long or otherwise) with a twist in it – because you’ve cut across from “side to side” and severed the strip; and subsequently, if you wish, you can deform it without making any further intersections by simply untwisting it and laying it flat (i.e. reorienting it within the third dimension). But a different single cut may instead result in another single-loop strip. Try this yourself: try cutting a Möbius strip right down the middle parallel to the edge.

Now do the same thing again… and again… you have now made three cuts, and you still have something more than just “a piece of paper with a twist in it” – and what’s more, you cannot reorient it in the third dimension to get a single strip of paper lying in one plane, unless you make a further intersection.

A mathematician confided
that a Möbius strip is one-sided.
And you get quite a laugh
when you cut one in half,
for it stays in one piece when divided.

There are multiple other variants of the first cut, by the way, each of which depends on where the cut starts and ends and almost all of which just create a slit in the strip. Now cut along the whole length of a similar strip that has two twists in it to start with (i.e. it’s not a Möbius strip) and see what you get.

Now, analogously, imagine taking a pair of scissors to a Klein bottle (theoretically speaking, and in four dimensions – for Doctor Who fictional purposes, you may prefer to use Noel Coward’s pair from Mad Dogs and Englishmen). You may get a Möbius strip or something entirely different; it depends on the nature of the imaginary intersection, and in which dimension(s).

The Ancestor CellIf you split a Möbius strip you get another single joined-up loop… but if you theoretically join a Möbius strip edge to edge, you get a Klein bottle. What’s going on there, eh? Putting a stopper in a Klein bottle rendered in three dimensions is not the same thing as cutting a Klein Bottle or cutting a Möbius strip. If you put a stopper in a “Klein bottle rendered in three dimensions” you get an enclosed space. To “stopper” a Klein bottle rendered in four dimensions, you’d need more than just a three-dimensional “stopper”. And this is the basis of one plot point in The Ancestor Cell.

Note also that to create the Klein bottle you need a fourth dimension. As mathematicians have noted, this doesn’t mean it has to be “the fourth dimension” (i.e. time) which is the game we play in The Ancestor Cell.  We didn’t go into great detail in the novel, because we thought that would be… well… a bit dull.

Three jolly sailors from Bladon-on-Tyne
sailed off to sea in a bottle by Klein.
As all of the sea was inside of the hull
they found the whole voyage exceedingly dull.

June 5, 2009

Face facts

Filed under: Articles,drwho — Peter A @ 10:56 pm

Whose were those faces in The Brain of Morbius“? (Non Doctor Who fans may roll their eyes and look away now.)

Faces of the Doctor before Hartnell -- spot Robert Holmes in a funny hat

Today, there’s post-Morbius evidence from the transmitted programmes that David Tennant is playing the tenth incarnation of the Doctor. There also continues to be a popular cultural conception that reinforces this, whether that’s in pub quizzes about the show, or newspaper reports that have mugshots of the actors from Hartnell through Eccleston as “previous Doctors” where the reporter or picture editor doesn’t feel the need to list Richard E Grant, Richard Hurndall, Adrian Gibbs, Peter Cushing, Trevor Martin, Robert Holmes in a funny hat, Joanna Lumley, or (presumably, since last Christmas) David Morrissey. Such a non-diegetic influence on the show is not inconsiderable: if you don’t think that non-diegetic influence matters, think how long after Remembrance of the Daleks it took to lay to rest the myth that Daleks can’t negotiate stairs. In the quiet corner of an unfunny comedian’s set somewhere, they still can’t.

The evidence that Tennant is Tenth is pretty overwhelming. There were nine previous faces in the flashbacks in The Next Doctor. Now one could construct an argument that there are only ten faces shown because that data is based on what the Daleks knew about the Doctor, and they hadn’t met him before the Hartnell incarnation. But The Next Doctor is a story, in part, about who the true Doctor really is. That scene is at the heart of that discovery, and it’s a conscious acknowledgement by the current production team of who the non-fan public will recognise as the Doctor(s). It would therefore be an odd “reading” of that scene to suggest other than that it reinforces the current status quo. In fact, to do otherwise would be like arguing away the “Goodness, so there are five of me now” from The Five Doctors because it wasn’t actually Hartnell who said it: recasting the First Doctor was just a production convention, and it was the intention of the production team that it really was the First Doctor, and not some impostor.

What’s been revealed in Time and the Rani, The Five Doctors, etc. plus the continued non-diegetic reinforcement outside the programme makes this the current status quo: there are ten Doctors, and Hartnell was the first.

The problem is that fans who want there to be a “whole cloth” for the transmitted programmes need to revisit Brain of Morbius to integrate those eight “mystery” faces into the current status quo. To do that means intepreting that 1976 sequence in a way counter to the intentions of the author/editor, the producer, the director, the costume designer who dressed the previous Doctors, and the contemporary logic of the scene as transmitted. And to reinterpret all of that is a post hoc rationalisation. The evidence of the 1976 programme is that the faces are the Doctor, pre-Hartnell.

The production team either didn’t know or didn’t care that there was a one line in the entire show’s previous history (The Three Doctors, three years earlier) that suggested otherwise. And when people like me saw The Brain of Morbius on its first transmission, we thought “ooh, he has more than three incarnations”. A few were a bit cross: “Gasp! That contradicts The Three Doctors!” What I don’t recall was any strong feeling that those were Morbius’s faces. The contemporary status quo (whether one liked it or not) was that they were the Doctor’s faces. It’s the context of those subsequent stories that invites people to reinterpret the 1976 sequence as transmitted, or even to impute unspoken motivations to the production team. My favourite of those that I’ve ever heard is: “the director didn’t like the idea after all, and so directed it to undermine the theory”. No he didn’t. Justin Richards and I interviewed director Christopher Barry and producer Philip Hinchcliffe for our In-Vision issue about The Brain of Morbius. (My second favourite silly theory, incidentally, is: “You wouldn’t catch Supreme Ruler Morbius wearing a hat with a feather in it”.)

It’s hard to explain now what it was like to see that pre-Hartnell Doctors sequence for the first time in 1976, without all the hindsight we have nearly 33 years later that informs or affects our reactions to it.

There’s nothing especially baffling about the way the transmitted scene plays. The picture editing shows a definite sequence, entirely within the conventions of mid-70s multi-camera TV drama. There’s a cutaway from the faces for a reaction shot on Sarah, which does not suggest that the battle sequence has been reversed or that the Doctor is regaining lost ground. It’s a tense, well-directed, nicely-framed set of shots that doesn’t play games with non-sequential logic — when there’s a reversal, you see the reversal (as with Morbius’s “fight back”). For the director (or editor) to subsequently omit a sudden dramatic reversal in the Doctor’s favour seems to me quite implausible.

The dramatic and emotional logic of the scene is that the Doctor’s gamble has failed, and that Morbius must now surely win — until the fault in Morbius’s plastic headgear, flagged earlier in the story by Solon, (literally) blows Morbius’s mind and sends him careering mindlessly away to be driven, like a beast, over the cliff by the Sisterhood. Morbius’s downfall (literal, again) is a delicious combination of:

  • The Doctor’s self-sacrifice in exploiting Morbius’s self-pride; we know that’s the kind of thing he would do, because two stories before we’ve seen him facing down Sutekh, another foe much more powerful than himself
  • Morbius’s imperious overriding of Solon’s advice about the headgear; we recognise that from earlier in the story, so it’s a physical flaw that echoes his mental fragility
  • The Sisterhood’s first journey out of their clandestine hideout; hitherto they have controlled things on- and off-planet with their mental prowess, and now they finally face their enemy in person, as the Doctor has been doing.

Furthermore, Morbius’s dialogue during the duel reinforces the Doctor’s losing streak, and there’s no dialogue and no reaction shots of Sarah or the Doctor to suggest otherwise — neither that Morbius is somehow an unreliable commentator on the scene, nor that the Doctor has any other recourse during the latter stages than simply to survive. The Doctor’s brave gamble pays off, but it seems to be at the cost of his own life, until the elixir (also flagged earlier in the story) is able to save him — a just reward for him earlier bringing the flame back to renewed life.

The Doctor suspected this Time Lord hero had feet of clay, tooThat’s the contemporary intention of the scene, as written, as directed, as performed. And I think it’s how most viewers would have viewed it (whether it pleased them or made them cross) at the time.

Had the production team, or subsequent producers, built on that intention, one wouldn’t need to reinterpret the sequence. Instead, we’d be finding a way “around” that one line in The Three Doctors. Maybe that was the “first” or “earliest” Doctor that the Time Lords knew about, or the first/earliest that they could reach back to with their limited power, or some other inventive excuse. And excuse it would be, of course: The Three Doctors, as much as any previous story, was informed by the extra-diegetic view that there were, as it says on the tin, three Doctors who travelled in time and space who surely must meet up at some point. It’s an overt 10th Anniversary celebration of the show itself: there have been three, and here they all are.

But the production teams didn’t subseqently follow-up on the pre-Hartnell Doctors. What they did was to ignore it. In the case of the Hinchcliffe/Holmes and Williams/Holmes production teams, plus the Williams/Read/Adams production teams, they neither confirmed nor denied it over the next three years. In the case of the Nathan-Turner production teams (variously script edited), they flatly contradicted it on a handful of occasions over the subsequent decade. Yet even when contradicting it, they didn’t explain away those pre-Hartnell faces in The Brain of Morbius. I think that would have been an unnecessary (and dull) story interlude, even in John Nathan-Turner’s continuity-fascinated era of Doctor Who. And the extra-diegetic reinforcement of “Hartnell was the first Doctor” with each new regeneration added weight to that.

  • 1976 status quo: there are incarnations of the Doctor before Hartnell, and we see them on screen
  • 2009 status quo: there are only ten incarnations of the Doctor to date.

In the presence of this contradiction but the absence of an explanation, there’s literally nothing in the programme that makes explicit who those Brain of Morbius faces are in terms of the current status quo. We have to find our own interpretation, and select and interpret (and sometimes selectively interpret) contradictory evidence to suit our personal preference.

What a quandary! The answer, it turns out, is that there is no single answer. It remains a matter of fannish interpretation. Meanwhile, the current status quo is: there are ten Doctors, shortly to be eleven. When Matt Smith was announced as the new lead actor in the show, he was acclaimed as “the eleventh Doctor” by the majority. Including me, though I’m one of those who says that those are the Doctor’s faces in Morbius. It doesn’t bother me; I can stand the confusion in my mind, and it doesn’t make my brain pop and fizz inside its plastic headgear.

May 17, 2009


Filed under: Articles — Peter A @ 3:09 pm
Tags: , , , only good fiddling recently was by the shouty boy who won the Eurovision Song Content while surrounded by the Norwegian push-ups team. The other type, involving UK Members of Parliament, was clearly a Bad Thing.

Yet the contrarian in me ponders the context:

  • The Telegraph seems to have fingered as many as six dozen bad apples, which would be six dozen too many. But does that mean the rest of the barrel of well over 500 MPs are all tainted too? The implication is that they’re struggling to find more people like Kelvin Hopkins who are exemplars of good practice. But is absence of evidence also evidence of absence?
  • Is the reporting as thorough as you’d expect? Some of the more exaggerated Telegraph claims suggest that innuendo is common currency. Such as their feeble opening salvo on the PM (he repaid his brother for a shared cleaner, shock horror) or the less-than thorough analysis of the claims by Norman Baker?
  • Quite how helpful is a level of analysis that reveals one MP was legitimately reimbursed for a 75p Scotch egg?
  • Do people understand the difference between allowances and expenses?
  • There’s an odd implication that MPs who happen to be rich shouldn’t be making any claims. So millionaire Geoffrey Robinson is somehow more virtuous than millionaire Chris Huhn because he doesn’t claim something to which he’s entitled. This apparent  redistributive fervour seems particularly odd coming from the Telegraph.
  • Why wouldn’t the Telegraph respond to repeated questions on Radio 4’s Today programme last week about whether it paid a substantial sum of money to procure the information? In my opinion, that would be a little closer to corruption than a leak from a publicly-motivated whistleblower. (Apparently the  question was merely “a distraction”… so that’s all right, then, let’s ignore it. That’s what a politician would do, eh?)
  • And if the Telegraph is getting worked up about whether the spirit of the law is being met when people stay within the letter of the law, what does it have to say about the “tax exile” Channel Islands arrangements of the owners of the Telegraph? Perhaps that’s a distraction, too.

I don’t want MPs who fiddle their expenses or abuse their allowances; some of it is clearly indefensible. Parliamentary reluctance to publish the information sooner and more thoroughly has created a febrile atmosphere and public anger. The implication in the Telegraph and elsewhere is that other parties will benefit from “alternative voting” in the forthcoming elections, without much analysis that those other parties aren’t immune themselves from previous investigations into embezzlement of funds and electoral fraud, which resulted in arrests.

A more thorough analysis of the context suggests there’s more than meets the eye here about the Telegraph investigation itself. Until that’s clearer, I’m suspicious that it’s not just Norway whose fiddling has an element of Fairytale about it.

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