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Archive for January, 2010

Doctor Who: Creatures of Beauty (2003)
Nicholas Briggs
Big Finish #44
Starring: Peter Davison, Sarah Sutton

In the last release, Doctor Who and the Pirates, we saw Big Finish taking risks: they turned Doctor Who into a musical. In Creatures of Beauty, from Big Finish head honcho Nicholas Briggs, we see further experimentation. There are no songs here, but the chronological structure of this story is jumbled, deliberately, so instead of following an adventure, the listener is forced into evaluating what happened, choosing a side, and is left after one brutal kick in the teeth. Creatures of Beauty is that rare thing: an involved, dark tale, in which nothing is as it first seems and which lingers long afterward.

The story begins near its end, and then begins to move backward and forward in its narrative. The listener must piece together what happened from this jumbled chronology. When he first read the script, Peter Davison is supposed to have asked Nicholas Briggs if he cut the script up and put it back together without any thought of form. His comment, though, betrays how simple all this is to follow: the audio cues, the music and the tone easily suggest when and where we are. It is because of Big Finish’s production that it works as easily as it does, though I suspect Briggs’s script was just as simple. After all, everything must be on the page first.

The plot in correct order is something like this (not entirely, for I do not wish to reveal the last moments of this script): The Doctor, stopping to repair the TARDIS, detects the atmosphere of Veln is laced with a dangerous substance, and decides the people must be warned of its dangers. While there Nyssa comes across a young woman who kills herself, but Nyssa is arrested for the murder. The Doctor, then, must rescue his friend and solve the mystery of what an alien race, the Koteem, are doing on a planet that should be otherwise out of bounds to them.

It is a story of ecological disaster, of responsibility, perception and genetic disease. Even if all its parts of clear by the end, one feels the mysteries of Veln will live on, for what Briggs has achieved is create a tangible troubled world, and one that will suffer the consequences for time to come as it begins to heal and look towards an uncertain future. With Creatures of Beauty Nicholas Briggs has produced one of the most challenging and interesting Doctor Who stories in the Big Finish range yet.

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Doctor Who and the Pirates or The Lass that Loss a Sailor (2003)
Jacqueline Rayner
Big Finish #43
Starring: Colin Baker, Maggie Stables & Bill Oddie

And so Big Finish truly begin to experiment. Doctor Who and the Pirates is, as one can easily guess, about Doctor Who meeting some pirates: namely Red Jasper, played with vim and maniacal energy by Bill Oddie, perfectly cast, who is seeking a treasure hidden on some nearby islands. The story is framed through a story told by Evelyn Smythe to one of her students: only they keep interrupting the pirate story to highlight its flaws, errors and lies. Is the story of the pirates true? And just what has happened to this young woman? Whatever your theories as you listen, they are all out of the window by the time the singing starts. Yes, the singing. This is Doctor Who: The Musical.

The pirate story is as you expect it: one-legged pirates, rum, walking the plank. It is every cliché in the book but deliberately so. The pirate story is to distract the young student from her own pain, the loss that she has suffered. Evelyn, who is narrating the tale, lets slip that one of the characters in her tale will die a horrible death, and this leads to much discussion on the nature of storytelling. The Doctor suggests only musicals have truly happy endings, and so almost the entire third part is in song. It appears The Doctor has a thing for Gilbert and Sullivan. This third part is amongst the best things Big Finish have yet done with the Doctor Who range – but with one caveat: it is so only of you like musicals.

Doctor Who and the Pirates then is a risk. If the cast failed to rise to the challenge none of it would work. Gladly I can report they do: Colin Baker, while not the greatest singer, invests his songs with energy – “I am the very model of Gallifreyian buccaneer!” – and with supporting chorus, and genuine humour, there is an enormous joy here. Even Bill Oddie gets to sing.

The framing device at first seems a little disconnected to what we presume must be the main story, but the ingenuity with which the two stories become entwined is a masterstroke: and proof that musicals are not always the happy things they first appear. Darkness can simmer under the surface. Also, I must comment upon the girl that plays Sally: what a voice. That girl can sing!

So to surmise this story: by its end you will remember the songs, you will remember that it is sadder than it first appears, and you’ll be hoping Big Finish continue to take risks. And you might need a new lung having laughed your own up.

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Literatura nazi en América (Nazi Literature in the Americas) (1996)
Roberto Bolaño
Translated by Chris Andrews
Picador, 259pp

Following the success of Roberto Bolaño’s later novels (2666 and The Savage Detectives), Picador have become committed to releasing much of his back catalogue. Literatura nazi en América (or Nazi Literature in the Americas) was published almost concurrently with Distant Star (though afterward, as Distant Star was an expansion of one entry in this volume) and for those who think Bolaño’s work is all styled like 2666 there will be disappointment here. This book is a collection of encyclopaedia entries of thirty or so writers, predominately based in South America, that share leftist principles (and some of whom are directly connected to the Nazi Party) – they are all fictional characters that mingle with our reality: one is seen refusing the advances of Allen Ginsberg, for example.

Bolaño’s novel, then, teeters on the edge of satire, but Bolaño keeps hold of his material, and slowly, through this entries, a picture of the writing life and of writings commitment (or lack thereof) to political ideologies becomes clear. Nazi Literatre in the Americas, like much of Bolaño’s other, later works, hums with intelligence and thought. More than in any of his other works, though, in this we can see Bolaño the novelist evolving. Hiding just behind this text is the shadow of the murders that will inspire 2666, the formal structure that will inspire The Savage Detectives, and the basic plotline for Distant Star. Though not quite the Rosetta Stone for Bolaño’s work that we need, it certainly opens up and sheds new light some of the later works.

As usual, Chris Andrews’ translation is superb. He catches the lilt of Bolaño’s Spanish majestically: we can hear the authorial voice reading these entries, and in the final more personal entry (in which Bolaño himself appears), the work takes on a deeper resonance. Bolaño clearly thought this work through, and I can imagine future readers picking it up not realising that the people that inhabit its pages fictional, for the majority it has an air of authenticity. The only thing that counters this is that some of the personages in its pages are not yet dead – their deaths are to come, in 2017, 18, at some future date – and I wonder if Bolaño is saying that this ideological commitment amongst writers will be as prescient as it was in the 1940s as it will be in the 2010s, or the 2660s.

Nazi Literature in America, then, a playful game, certainly bibliomaniacal, imaginative and further proof (if such were needed) that Roberto Bolaño was one of the greatest South American writers – nay, one of the world’s great writers. I await with baited breath the next volume from his archive, The Skating Rink, published later in 2010 by Picador. (I know it is out in the US, but I’m enjoying Picador’s branding of his works that I cannot wait to see what they come up with next.)

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The Voices of the Children (1947)
George Ewart Evans
Library of Wales, 176pp

George Ewart Evans was born in Abercynon, South Wales in 1909, and became a school teacher, settling Norfolk. It is in Norfolk that he began work on the volumes that would make his name: Ask The Fellows Who Cut The Hay, finally published in 1956, had a rocky road to publication, but once out there, its collection of oral history of Norfolk farmers became a bestseller. Evans produced more volumes, collecting more tales of vanished and vanishing ways of life; he became a documenter of the changing values and traditions of rural Britain. It is this knowledge of the ancient and forgotten that infuses The Voices of the Children, his semi-autobiographical work, written before his major successes, and telling the story of the small mining community in those post-First World War years.

The Voices of the Children, handsomely presented by the Library of Wales, and with an introduction from the artist and writer George Brinley Evans, who describes this as “a book full of stories of childhood, the uncertainty and excitement that comes with growing up.” The world of Abercynon is created here with a light but dextrous touch. His prose, appearing initially simple, recreates the voice and sight of the child with skill. He captures the voices of the children wonderfully. Take this comment at a cold mountain stream: “Ginger Williams got down on his knees and, cupping his hands, took a mouthful of water. ‘Lovely,’ he said, ‘only it’s cold enough to freeze your old granny.’” These little details, the syntax of Ginger’s sentence, the authenticity of it, create a bold tableau. It reveals Evans as a prodigious writer of children, and of lost worlds.

Sometimes, and often happens with the literature of the nostalgic, the haze of refracted memory can soften up the image, blur the edges and the cruelty, or it can exaggerate it, overdramatize events into the absurd. Evans manages to – mostly – maintain the balance between these two poles. Only in a few sequences does he allow the romance to overwhelm – such as near the end when our young hero falls for a girl for the first time, and they run hand-in-hand across the fields. But we allow him this romance, because it seems necessary and because it reveals the boy to us fully: despite the poverty, he can still dream. Despite the path laid out, there is another way.

The Voices of the Children is no more than a mere novella, a collection of tales that illustrate what life was like in the Welsh valleys all those decades ago. There is no real plot, just a collection of incidents – though we do see characters, such as his sister’s Dinah’s courting by John Prosser, their engagement, marriage then parenthood in the corners of our hero’s tale – and he does learn some life lessons: that babies aren’t as bad as they seem, that he can survive in the world – The Voice of the Children works best when it isn’t focussed on any details of its ‘plot’. Where it works is in the recreation – of shop life, of farming life, of village life, all long gone. The travelling gypsies, the locals with their nicknames: Jack Ragtime, Mrs Wilkins Checkweigher that tell us more about them than any other description could (such nicknaming is common in Wales, often to the point of one’s real name not being known; I once heard of a councillor losing his first election because he used his real name, not his nickname, so nobody knew who he was). It is this manner of thing that Evans captures best.

George Ewart Evans’s reputation might have dimmed over the years – the interest in the oral history of the Welsh mining villages, and Norfolk farms may now be of interest only to local historians – but it is refreshing to see a publisher taking a chance on republishing such material.

As a side note, Matthew Evans, or Baron Evans of Temple Guiting CBE, a Labour politician, one-time director of Faber & Faber and governor of the British Film Institute, is George Ewart Evans son.

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Doctor Who: The Dark Flame (2003)
Trevor Baxendale
Big Finish #42
Starring: Sylvester McCoy, Sophie Aldred, Lisa Bowerman

Four acolytes of Evil. Three mad scientists. Two companions. One Doctor.

The Cult of the Dark Flame has long been dead, or so the universe thought. The Doctor, and Ace, receiving a distress call through the TARDIS’s telepathic circuits, from an old friend, completing research on Marran Alpha. Soon their old friend is dead, stabbed through the eye, and the Cult of the Dark Flame are threatening to tear the very universe apart. So just another day for The Doctor then.

That last glib line sums up The Dark Flame: while its story is fun – walking skeletons, crystal skulls, Hamlet jokes – and all is played well (Michael Praed as guest star! Bernice Summerfield returns!) it does all feel a bit, well, blah. We’ve been here before. As either Ace or Benny comments somewhere in the middle of this adventure, cults like The Dark Flame are a dime a dozen, and they all end unsuccessfully, as we know this one will. The tension is missing: for example, at the end of the first episode, when Benny is supposedly dead on the planet’s surface, we know she won’t be and can work out well ahead of time what has happened. We’ve been here before, many times. When Doctor Who works well, it does because the writer has subverted or inverted the form, denied expectations, taken a risk, and in this, his debut script, Trevor Baxendale simply takes no risks. This is Doctor Who played safe. Not his fault – Big Finish would never allow a newcomer to take risks with the property (even if the newcomer is known in Doctor Who circles for other things).

The Dark Flame then rises and falls on its characters: Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor is absent for a large part of the story in the middle, as is Ace, and so it falls to Bernice Summerfield – I’ve only come across her a few times in the Big Finish range (there is apparently a lot more of her in other Doctor Who ranges), and I think she’s mean to be some wise-cracking Lara Croft-esque character – and she does get some good one liners here and there, but after awhile her glib attitude began to wear: somehow it dissipates the tension, that she is so jovial in the face of imminent death. It makes her one-dimensional.

I wish there were some kinder comments I could make about this story, but I must damn it so: it is not a great story, nor is it a particularly bad one, it is simply dull. I heard the first part and could not listen to the next three for a number of days: I was not excited about the return. I may have even been subconsciously delaying it. A shame, then, as I like McCoy and I like Aldred – and would like to have known more about Ace during this time, when she becomes action-Ace, rather than the haunted Ace we have had of late.

Next up in Doctor Who though: pirates! Gilbert and Sullivan puns! And Evelyn’s back!

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