Sunday, December 31, 2017

Books read, 2017

I didn't read very much prose in 2017. Comic books bear a lot of the responsibility. The Nintendo Switch is to blame as well. And finding and moving into a new apartment in the final third of the year didn't make things any easier. But I got back on track in December, and I expect that will continue into the New Year.

Asterisks mean I was rereading something. So I only read 16 new books this year. On the plus side, only four books I spent money on in 2017 remain unfinished (and two of those are the third and fourth volumes of Caro on LBJ-- I'm still working on the third right now), so from a standpoint of financial prudence it was a pretty good year.

1. Dan Chaon, Ill Will
2. Lemony Snicket, The Bad Beginning: Rare Edition*
3. Lemony Snicket, The Reptile Room*
4. Sue Grafton, H is for Homicide
5. Lemony Snicket, The Wide Window*
6. Lemony Snicket, The Miserable Mill*
7. Lemony Snicket, The Austere Academy*
8. Lemony Snicket, The Ersatz Elevator*
9. Lemony Snicket, The Vile Village*

1. Reggie Oliver, Holidays from Hell
2. Sue Grafton, I is for Innocent
3. Georgette Heyer, The Nonesuch
4. Sue Grafton, J is for Judgment
5. Thomas Ligotti, Songs of a Dead Dreamer*

1. Joan Didion, South and West: From a Notebook
2. Joan Didion, Blue Nights*
3. Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking*
4. Joan Didion, Where I Was From*
5. Joan Didion, Political Fictions*
6. Salvatore Pane, Mega Man 3
7. Jarett Kobek, Soft and Cuddly

1. Joan Didion, After Henry*
2. Joan Didion, Miami*
3. Joan Didion, Salvador*
4. David Sedaris, Theft by Finding: Diaries 1977-2002

1. Joan Didion, The White Album*
2. Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem*
3. Robert Caro, The Path to Power

1. Robert Caro, Means of Ascent

1. Alexa Ray Correia, Kingdom Hearts II

1. Zoe Heller, Notes on a Scandal*




1. Philip Pullman, La Belle Sauvage
2. Matthew Sullivan, Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore 
3. Caitlin R. Kiernan, The Red Tree*
4. Georgette Heyer, Arabella
5. Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol*

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Books and magazines read, 2016

I read 67 books in 2016. That's got to be the lowest count in years. And a  lot of them were short. I don't know why the beginning of the year was so light, but the last few months were lost to my new iPad. I've read a lot of comics on Marvel Unlimited lately, but I'm too lazy to work out a way to list them here. I did list a few trade editions.

A little under half of the books I read this year were written by women, which is better than I've done in the past. 

An asterisk means I was rereading.

1. Augusten Burroughs, Lust & Wonder
-. K. J. Parker, The Two of Swords (Part 12)
2. Lyndsay Faye, Jane Steele
3. Jean Stein, West of Eden: An American Place
4. Dorothy Dunnett, The Disorderly Knights
5. Jo Walton, Tooth and Claw  

1. Dorothy Dunnett, Pawn in Frankincense
-. K. J. Parker, The Two of Swords (Part 13)  

1. Graham Swift, Mothering Sunday
-. K. J. Parker, The Two of Swords (Part 14)  
2. Thomas Piketty, Why Save the Bankers?
3. Anne Tyler, Vinegar Girl  

April -. K. J. Parker, The Two of Swords (Part 15)
1. Ken Baumann, EarthBound  

1. Michael P. Williams, Chrono Trigger
2. Anna Anthropy, ZZT
3. Michael Kimball, Galaga
4. Darius Kazemi, Jagged Alliance 2
5.  Jon Irwin, Super Mario Bros. 2
6. Gabe Durham (editor), Continue?: The Boss Fight Books Anthology
7. Gabe Durham, Bible Adventures
8. Matt Bell, Baldur's Gate II
9. Ashly and Anthony Burch, Metal Gear Solid
10. Nick Suttner, Shadow of the Colossus
11. See the Elephant, Issue Two  
12. Sherman Alexie, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven

1. Anne Perry, Callander Square
2. Laurie Halse Anderson, Chains
3. Simon Kurt Unsworth, The Devil's Detective
4. Laurie Halse Anderson, Forge
5. Gemma Files, We Will All Go Down Together
6. Eleanor Arnason, Hwarhath Stories: Transgressive Tales by Aliens   

1. J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone*
2. Alyse Knorr, Super Mario Bros. 3
3. Blake J. Harris, Console Wars 
4. Reggie Oliver, Masques of Satan*
5. Harper Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird*
6. Harper Lee, Go Set A Watchman
7. Lois Lowry, The Giver*
8. Sarah Langan, The Missing
9. J. R. R. Tolkien, Roverandom
10. Dorothy Dunnett, The Ringed Castle
11. Reggie Oliver, The Dreams of Cardinal Vittorini*
12. J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets*
13. Reggie Oliver, The Complete Symphonies of Adolf Hitler*
14. Reggie Oliver, Madder Mysteries*

1. Reggie Oliver, Mrs. Midnight*
2. E. L. Doctorow, Collected Stories
3. Reggie Oliver, Flowers of the Sea*
4. Lois Lowry, Gathering Blue*
5. Lois Lowry, Messenger*
6. Billy Collins, The Rain in Portugal
7. Jack Thorne, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
8. J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban*
9. J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire*
10. J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix*
11. J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince*
12. J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows*
13. Lois Lowry, Looking Back: A Book of Memories

1. Matt Bell, A Tree or a Person or a Wall   
2. Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, Mostly Void, Partially Stars
3. Rick Remender and Matteo Scalera, Black Science: The Beginner's Guide to Entropy
4. Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, The Great Glowing Coils of the Universe 
5. Stan Sakai, Usagi Yojimbo Saga, Volume 1
6. Neil Gaiman and J. H. Williams III, Sandman: Overture
7. Brian K. Vaughan and Tony Harris, Ex Machina  
1. Lois Lowry, Son*

1. Sue Grafton, G is for Gumshoe*
2. Gemma Files, Experimental Film

1. George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo
2. Andrew Michael Hurley, The Loney

Monday, December 26, 2016

The Diary of River Song, Series 2

Sometimes it's good to give in to temptation. There's an argument that pairing River Song with the classic Doctors is an obvious, fan-pleasing thing for Big Finish to do. But you know, River Song is a grandiose, goofy, wish-fulfillment action-hero character, so why not go with that and have some fun? The eighth Doctor's appearance in the first boxset was charming, but limited by the need to keep the continuity of their "first" meeting in "Silence in the Library" intact. For the second series, Big Finish has taken a route that allows her to have a much more substantial interaction with the Doctor. Or rather the Doctors, since both Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy are in this one, as River as two of her husbands get caught up in a strange temporal crisis that threatens (of course) the existence of planet Earth.

Things kick off in Guy Adams' "The Unknown." River has joined an expedition investigating a mysterious planet that has appeared in Earth's solar system. But things are going wrong. The crew's memories are fuzzy. Their tempers are flaring. They can't seem to get where they're going. And the stars are disappearing. The only hope may be the stowaway who appeared in the engine room: a funny little Scottish man.

"The Unknown" is a solid start to the set. As will be the case throughout, its strength is less in plot than in atmosphere and character interaction. River and the seventh Doctor make a nice team, though I don't think Adams' script creates as lively an interplay as it might, and even when he's giving a basically good performance Sylv apparently has to make some weird choices. This isn't exactly a horror story, but there's a definite eerieness to what the characters are experiencing, and the sound design brings that across without trying too hard to be spooky. I really liked this story on first listen; if I'm struggling to find ways to praise it now that's because the set only gets better from here.

The sole Doctor-free story in this box is "Five Twenty Nine," by John Dorney. Earth is doomed, and River doesn't know why. All she knows is that every spot on the planet is falling silent when its local time switches from 5:28 to 5:29. If she can keep herself ahead of that wave long enough, she might find a solution, and save the lives of the people she's just met. But this may the one problem River Song can't solve.

As character drama this is probably the best story in the set. It doesn't break any new ground, but like "Signs" from the first series, it puts River's determination front and center to good effect. Alex Kingston is as great as ever, and the guest cast give performances that elevate what are basically stock characters. Robert Pugh and Ann Bell are effective as a middle-aged couple, and Salome Haertel is... interesting as their synthetic daughter. I'm not sure whether Haertel is giving an excellent performance as a robot with a flat affect, or a wooden performance as a lifelike robot. The fact that the actress is Alex Kingston's daughter and has no previous experience suggests one answer. In any case, it works in the context of the play. For all that the world is in peril, there's a quiet realism to this one that gives the ending the needed resonance.

James Goss, who wrote the standout story of the first series, returns in "World Enough and Time." River has discovered that a corporation called Golden Futures has a major role in the mystery she's working to unravel, so she's taken a temporary job there to get to the bottom of things. It's easy to be sidetracked, though, when the managing director turns out to be surprisingly lovable, for a man with a bombastic personality and absolutely terrible fashion sense.

Yes, it's the sixth Doctor this time, and he and River have an unexpectedly wonderful chemistry. Colin Baker doesn't often get to play romance, and he does a fine job of it here, as his Doctor finds this new employee quite charming indeed. In contrast to the sexually charged (often tiresomely so) banter between River and the eleventh Doctor, there's a delicacy to what unfolds here that feels perfect for the character. It's not all flirtation, though: there's an evil regime to topple, and as is fitting in her series River takes the lead, discovering that the Doctor is not as in control of his own investigation as he might believe. If there's a downside to this story, it's that some of the humor around Golden Futures falls flat. Based on this story and "Harvest of the Sycorax," Goss is on-the-nose and behind-the-times as a satirist. The corporate culture jokes here are nothing you haven't heard before, to say nothing of a takeoff on the Microsoft Office assistant Clippy that is about fifteen years behind topical. But the story gets the important stuff so right that I can hardly mark it down over a few moldy gags.

Everything comes together in "The Eye of the Storm" by Matt Fitton. As the Great Storm of 1703 approaches, a far more dangerous spacetime crisis is forming. River, the sixth Doctor, and the seventh Doctor, are all on the scene, but are they the solution, or the problem? And what do ordinary Londoners Isaac George and Sarah Dean have to do with it?

This has the feel of a finale from the new series: hectic, handwavey plotting, with an emotional throughline that's supposed to tie everything together. I'm not sure it succeeds at that. The characters involved are guests rather than regulars, and thinly-drawn ones at that. But the actors do what they can, and the sound design of the climactic scene is absolutely top-notch. Anyhow, there's a lot to enjoy on the way to that moment. Each of the three leads is convinced that only he or she can stop the crisis, and their efforts to push each other out of the way are pretty funny. River was collegial with these Doctors in the earlier stories, but now the competition among them is just as enjoyable. The reason I said that I'm not sure Guy Adams gets as much out of Seven and River as he could is that Fitton has a lot more fun with them, and of course Colin Baker could have an entertaining argument with a sock drawer, never mind Alex Kingston. We also get a nice taste of the cross-Doctor squabbling that's half the fun of such stories, and it's even rooted in intelligent observations about how their characters differ.

When I realized that the Doctor was going to be in three out of the four stories in this set I worried that he would crowd River out of her own series. But that doesn't happen. The odd imprisonment aside, she's very much the one in control, as she would have to be given her responsibility to the Doctor's future and the stability of his timeline. I know some listeners will feel that the pleasure of having her meet past Doctors properly is offset by the forgetfulness that has to follow, but I think that misses the point: we remember, and more importantly so does River. However much she might want to, she can never have the genuine, open relationship she does with the later versions. The coda to this set, in which she does what she has to do, is quite moving, and fits these fleeting encounters into the larger melancholy of her relationship with the Doctor. (There's also a very funny moment that's great for the characters involved.) The knowledge that this isn't a well Big Finish can go back to again and again makes this series all the more powerful. We'll always have the Great Storm of 1703.

I'm really impressed at what Big Finish has done with River Song. I wasn't her biggest fan during her TV appearances. She was great in "Silence in the Library," but during the Smith era River was too much one of Steven Moffat's sexy quip generators and not enough an actual human being. The Diary of River Song strikes a better balance. She hasn't lost the edginess (or the sex appeal), but she also has the vulnerability and the warmth you need if you're going to be a sympathetic protagonist. Which is to say, she finally feels like someone the Doctor could actually love. Perhaps that's why I don't mind how often he's popping up in her series. I hope he's not in the next box set as much as he's in this one-- you gotta give a girl a little time on her own-- but I wouldn't him making another one-off appearance. She has yet to beguile Tom Baker and Peter Davison, after all. And if series two is anything to go by, such meetings would fully realize their potential.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

James and Lovecraft: Travelers

We're a little outside normal territory in this installment, as M. R. James takes us to Denmark and H. P. Lovecraft to the American West. The difference is that James had actually been to Viborg when he wrote about it, while Lovecraft, though he traveled more widely than his reclusive reputation would suggest, pretty much stuck to the Eastern Seaboard. Also, "Number 13" is a good story, and "The Transition of Juan Romero" is not.

"Number 13" is another example of how unusual a writer James, sometimes assumed to be a traditionalist, actually was. Haunted rooms are a dime a dozen, but the ghost of a room is something else again. And he makes it quite unsettling, to a point where the arm that comes clawing out of the door, far from being necessary, actually feels like a cheap device,irrelevant to the overall shape of the story. One of the guys on the M. R. James Podcast felt that "The Mezzotint" was weak because there was no overt threat to the present day characters, and sketched out what he thought was an improved ending where it all turns out to be the usual revenge bollocks. For me, these stories are effective because they're creepy despite containing nothing more than a changing photograph and dancing in the next room.

The opening paragraph of the story is a small masterpiece of Jamesian style. We go from the gentle description of Viborg's natural charms, to the brutal details of Erik Glipping's murder, to the ironic (and metafictional) self-deprecation of "But I am not writing a guide-book." And then, in the middle of the story, there is that very weird scrap of light poetry, as the shadowy dancer in the next becomes not ominous but amusing. And then back to ominous again, when the singing starts. The way James balances humor and horror is really quite something. It's interesting that the protagonist of the story is the narrator's cousin; there's usually more distance than that between the Jamesian protagonist and the Jamesian narrative voice, so that no emotional response is required. It's not surprising, then, that there is little evidence of personal warmth in the narrator's account: the cousin is "Anderson" and even "Mr Anderson" throughout.

One small point worth noting is the dialogue of the archivist, Herr Scavenius. Its mild syntactic quirks are a subtle reflection of his status as a non-native speaker whose English mostly comes out of books. Herr Kristensen, an innkeeper with occasional English guests, who therefore has more chance to practice the spoken language, sounds more natural. This is a level of nuance that James does not extend to English characters of the working class, and that Lovecraft does not extend to much of anyone. Which brings us, I suppose, to Juan Romero.

It's not actually a terrible story. It certainly doesn't belong in the "Early Tales" holding pen with actual early tales like "The Alchemist" and "The Beast in the Cave" and embarrassing racist, nativist tosh like "The Street." Don't get me wrong: the story is racist. "A large herd of unkempt Mexicans" is one of its politer moments. But it's not tosh, except in the sense that all Lovecraft is tosh. Lovecraft himself declined to publish it, but he did publish "The Street," so what the hell did he know?

The Western setting is a strange one for Lovecraft, who loved his gambrel-roofed New England. A couple of his revisions have Western settings drawn from the drafts and concepts supplied by his clients, but I think this is the only time a story purely by Lovecraft is set in the West. And with a British protagonist too, one who had been a soldier in India. Very jet-setting for Lovecraft, though both the West and British India are of course settings for pulpy (and racist) entertainments of different sorts. Consider the first two Sherlock Holmes novels, which trade between them on the perceived exoticism of both. A Study in Scarlet presents Mormon Utah as a sinister frontier cult, while The Sign of the Four deals with exactly the same sort of shady ex-military Englishmen as the present story.

The plot of "Juan Romero" is underdeveloped, but there's nothing wrong with it. S. T. Joshi faults the ending for being too vague, as he often does with early Lovecraft, but I think it leaves just enough ambiguity to be unsettling rather than uninteresting. For me, as for Thomas Ligotti, the formless horrors of "minor" Lovecraft are better than the cosmic aliens of the more innovative and more famous works. This, like "Dagon," is a story that you can see evolving into something significant if Lovecraft had revised and expanded it a little later in his career. As it is, it's just another quasi-juvenile curiosity. And racist. Did I mention it's pretty racist?

Doctor Who: Classic Doctors, New Monsters

A common criticism of the Russell T Davies era of Doctor Who as it aired was that it wasn't coming up with any good recurring monsters. I think that's true... so far as it goes. There aren't any good recurring monsters in that era, because the show wasn't trying to create any. It went instead for the splashy thrill of having something new almost every week, and using standards like the Daleks and the Cybermen when it wanted an old enemy. Which is perfectly acceptable practice, but makes things awkward for Big Finish's latest New Series boxset, which throws the 20th-century Doctors up against monsters created for the RTD era. Most of these aren't monsters designed with multiple appearances in mind, which has interesting consequences for the boxset, both good and bad.

We begin with a monster that, whatever the original intention, has become recurring: the Weeping Angels. Fallen Angels is basically a remake of "Blink," but with the fifth Doctor instead of the tenth Doctor, and Michelangelo instead of Sally Sparrow. Which sounds goofily high-concept, but in the broad strokes it's reasonably successful. There's some neat stuff to do with how these Angels wound up on Earth and how they're achieving their ends. The problem is that the Weeping Angels don't work on audio. The first scene is effective, but that's about atmosphere and the over-the-top villain (with an over-the-top Italian accent to match), not about the Angels. Later on, when we're supposed to be terrified that they're closing in, the repeated use of the "It moved!" sound effect from "Blink," divorced from any visual experience, becomes amusing rather than menacing. You could play a drinking game.

The other issue is that the story takes too many of its cues, large and small (and some spoilery), from "Blink." There's only so much you can do with the Weeping Angels without changing the rules, as Steven Moffat did when he brought them back to TV, but this story is too content to say, "Did you like 'Blink'? Well, here's a version set in the Italian Renaissance!" The fifth Doctor reuses a tenth Doctor catchphrase at one point, and there's even an embarrassingly nudge-nudge-wink-wink callback to That Line. Come on, writers: if you're going to invoke That Line, at least extend the joke. Don't just turn to the audience and say. "Remember that joke? That was a funny one, eh?"

Whatever its limitations of concept, Fallen Angels is well-executed. The script speeds along as a one-hour Doctor Who story must. Peter Davison is on fine form here, bantering with one-off companion Gabby Finch, who can't quite believe that she's been transported from 2015 to 1511. Diane Morgan's performance as Gabby is the high point of a guest cast in which Matthew Kelly also does solid work as Michelangelo, playing the script's stock "temperamental artist" bits without turning him into a caricature rather than a character. The characterization of Michelangelo is a good synecdoche of Fallen Angels' shortcomings, actually: it takes an established trope and simply invokes it in a particular context, rather than adding the little twists that would be necessary to give it new life.

If the Weeping Angels only seemed suited to star in one type of story, the next monster is an even tougher sell: it was barely the star of its one meaningful television appearance. But Judoon in Chains takes that into account and pushes the boat out, evolving the Judoon in an effective way that's difficult to discuss without spoilers. This is probably the story from this box that has the most dramatic potential. The trouble is, it's a tale of two halves that don't quite mesh, and the interesting half isn't the one the story's ultimately built around.

The main plot is a standard Doctor Who story about a corrupt space corporation that is soon sorry it ever crossed paths with the Doctor. It's fine, though the villain is one-dimensional and not especially menacing, and the final confrontation is thus kind of flat. In the middle of the story, though, is an interlude where the Doctor and the amnesiac Captain Kybo of the Judoon are trapped in a Victorian circus, and befriend Thomasina Thumb, charmingly played by Kiruna Stamell. There's what I can only call a gentleness to this material, a quietly sentimental focus on character as Kybo becomes something more than the average, and I wish the audio had stayed with it, rather than dumping it in favor of the usual stuff. You could actually strip the space corruption element away entirely and tell a different, perhaps more tragic version of this story. Ah, well. What we got is more than good enough.

The Sycorax are another monster that wouldn't have seemed worthy of a return: they're scary looking and all, but they exist only to be shut down by the Doctor without a second thought. He even explains why they're not much of a threat. But Harvest of the Sycorax finds a way to make them dangerous again. This is probably the closest the boxset comes to an old-fashioned Doctor Who monster story, with an invasion and a base under threat. It's also the overall funniest story, despite having a tired and tiresome satirical context.

The society the Sycorax are invading is so over-medicated that people have personal computerized assistants who can prescribe something for the least twitch of emotion. This might have felt novel in, say, 2007, when "Gridlock" showed us mood patches, but nowadays all you can see is the glibness of it. I don't think overmedication is enough of a problem to deserve this kind of satire. There are instances of it, to be sure, but I suspect that when many people (not necessarily including writer James Goss) complain about the phenomenon, there's an implication that most of those on mood medication don't need it, which is an unfair and actively damaging attitude.

Anyway. Whatever the problems with the concept, the script uses it to good comic effect, as the assistant programs chime in at the worst possible moment. Sylvester McCoy is also pretty funny here, giving a restrained performance that works within rather than against the rhythms of the script. And Nisha Nayar, who was very good in the small role of the Female Programmer in "Bad Wolf" and "The Parting of the Ways," is equally good in the larger role of quasi-companion Zanzibar Hashtag (did I mention the satire here wasn't subtle?). After a wonderfully prickly introduction in which he's quietly irritable and she's thoroughly on edge, they get up to some good old-fashioned seventh Doctor scheming. As with the rest of the stories in the box thus far, there's nothing especially surprising here on the level of plot, but it's well-made and there's a zip to it that elevates it above standard fare.

The box closes out with an eighth Doctor story set in the Time War and featuring the new Sontarans. I have to admit that I've always found the Sontarans tiresome. Alien races obsessed with honor are dime-a-dozen in science fiction, and they're almost always one-note and boring. They're not necessarily interesting as a species here either, but excellent performances by Christopher Ryan and Dan Starkey keep them entertaining as a standard lone warrior revenge story plays out. (The Sontar-Ha chant is still awful, though.) The shifting alliances among that lone warrior, the Doctor, and the quasi-companion make for a story that's talky, but in a good way, as everyone is telling the truth, though not always for the right reasons. The Time War is used effectively here, kept offscreen yet shown to be devastating in its consequences. This bodes well for the eighth Doctor Time War boxset that's coming next year.

When the first Classic Doctors, New Monsters set was announced, I thought, "Really? That's what they picked for monsters?" Then I ran through the available options in my head and added, "Well, I suppose they took the best they could get." But having heard the set, I have to commend the writers on mostly finding interesting ways to revisit monsters who were conceived as one-offs, and weren't necessarily that exciting in those initial appearances. The biggest thing that works in the set's favor, though, is the single disc story format.

There's a reason most drama nowadays is done at this length: it allows enough plot complication for stories to become involving, but not so much that they bog down, and requires strict economy of characterization. Big Finish really ought to do more in this format for classic Doctors who aren't Paul McGann or Tom Baker. It's still called the Main Range, but it's hard to deny that these days the urgency at BF is elsewhere. It's nice to see the stalwarts that are Davison, Colin Baker, and McCoy get to take part in an energetic, attention-grabbing release like this. I'm very much looking forward to a new set of classic monsters in the next boxset, including the just-announced Racnoss. Like the Sycorax, they're basically a panto villain on TV, but I hope they'll become something more in Big Finish's capable hands.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Doctor Who: The Cradle of the Snake

If you asked me to explain why I think single-disc stories are the way forward for Big Finish, I'd point to The Cradle of the Snake. Not because there's anything horribly wrong with it, but because its flaws would be much less noticeable at shorter length. The return of the Mara written by Marc Platt ought to be an instant classic, but it uses its ideas so sparsely that all the thematic layering and character potential drain away, leaving a standard Doctor Who runaround.

The Mara is still in Tegan's head. The Doctor is worried, and so are Turlough and the much older Nyssa who, at least in this story, never acts a whit different than she always did. The Doctor takes steps to remove the Mara, and if you are the world's biggest chump you will believe for a few minutes that he succeeded. If you are not the world's biggest chump, you will immediately know what the Part One cliffhanger will be, and what the first bit of potential the story's going to waste will be.

Peter Davison is very good at playing the Mara-riddled Doctor throughout the story, but there's little sense of the kind of chaos a man of his intellect might be able to sow. His plan is an obvious use of the situation he finds, and while there's one small moment where he plays a couple his companions against each other, it is only one moment, and it comes to nothing in how the plot unfolds. Eventually the Mara gets ahold of Nyssa, and Sarah Sutton is great at giving her a patronizing hauteur, but in the long run it has nothing to do with anything. The Mara is only in her so she'll have something to be doing while Tegan and Turlough save the day.

Save the day, I should note, by doing something very like what was done in a previous Mara story, but without any psychological subtext: it's just a literal [SPOILER]. There's an attempt at mystical atmosphere via a one-note spiritual wise man, but his wisdom isn't moored to anything specific that the story might be about. This script knows the words of a Mara story, but not the music. There's also what the cover copy calls an "infotainment impresario," who I guess is a satire of celebrity presenters or telethons, or something, but this amounts to a couple good jokes that aren't really taken anywhere.

I can't help contrasting this with Fallen Angels, the fifth Doctor story from the first Classic Doctors, New Monsters box, which I also listened to recently (and will eventually review, I hope). That story doesn't really work either, also because it doesn't know how to build on its source material, but it's much more entertaining, because it's allowed to get in and out in 55 minutes rather than hanging around for almost twice that long. It doesn't spend its middle 50% treading water, which makes the thinness of its concepts less obvious, and the jokes hang together rather than hanging separately. The Cradle of the Snake is never noticeably padded, but all it actually does is combine different characters in various ways, repeating pieces of information as they move from one group to another. It feels like an exercise in filling out the season, which is just not what the Mara deserves, to say nothing of the audience.

Doctor Who: The Companion Chronicles: The Perpetual Bond/The Cold Equations/The First Wave

Jean Marsh is awesome. Did you know that? You should; it's a scientific fact. Anyway, a semi-recent thing in which she was awesome was a trilogy of Companion Chronicles audios written by Simon Guerrier, in which she played Sara Kingdom from that really long 60s Dalek story. I reviewed two of them for Unreality SF, which used to have a lot of tie-in reviewers and now has the very prolific Steve Mollmann. I'm not going to link to those reviews, because I'm sure they're pretty bad, unlike this review, which is going to be almost as awesome as Jean Marsh. Who is, by the way, not actually in the audios I'm going to be reviewing here. They are by Simon Guerrier, though, and they focus on another neglected companion of the first Doctor: Steven Taylor.

Indeed, the first of this trilogy picks up after Sara Kingdom's death at the end of "The Daleks' Master Plan," with Steven and the Doctor shocked and mournful in a way they never got to be onscreen. Classic Doctor Who was not very good at letting characters respond to trauma (one recalls Tegan saying "Auntie Vanessa" exactly once, and Nyssa looking a bit mournful for fifteen seconds after her planet blows up), so it's good that The Perpetual Bond, and indeed this whole trilogy, can make all the deaths from that epic battle with the Daleks feel like they meant something. It's not that these adventures are all doom and gloom, but there's a melancholy to them that would have been out of place in the action-serial goofiness of season three.

Steven and the Doctor land back in the 1960s, in Totter's Lane in fact, and, on their way to visit Ian and Barbara they get embroiled in an alien scheme involving the stock exchange. The storyline is not enormously interesting, to be honest; if you're in the Companion Chronicles for elaborate and surprising plots, you're going to be disappointed a good percentage of the time. Atmosphere and character are the high points of the range, and that's where The Perpetual Bond delivers. There's a nice 1960s men-of-business vibe to the setting, and Steven, who is from the far future, has a charmingly offbeat angle on all of it.

Then there's Oliver Harper, a young trader whose time as a companion is one of the thrulines for this trilogy. Tom Allen plays Oliver with a youthful charm that feels period-appropriate without descending into caricature, and makes for a nice contrast with the weary, battle-worn Doctor and Steven. Oliver has a secret that is not revealed in this story but is also not very difficult to guess if you think about the time period and the ways a modern drama might comment on it. It's not much more than a narrative question mark in this first story, anyway.

The Perpetual Bond by itself is a slightly above-average Companion Chronicle, not a patch on the Sara Kingdom stories. It's in the follow-up, The Cold Equations, that things really begin to cook... or freeze. Again, the plot is not the point. All you need to know is that there's a space station in Earth orbit in the far future, and that Oliver's first trip in the TARDIS takes a pretty grim turn. What's interesting about this story is the way it turns its predecessor on its head: again it's about aliens and their business dealings, but here we have Oliver providing a charming perspective on Steven's milieu, rather than the other way around. Steven's time as a fighter pilot is vital to how things develop here, using the character's origins and history in a way that didn't often happen for classic companions. The logistics of space travel matter here, which allows Steven to play the hero in a subtler fashion than he did onscreen.

The centerpiece of this story is a long conversation between Steven and Oliver aboard a chunk of the station that's rapidly losing oxygen. They think they're dying, and Steven convinces Oliver to reveal his secret. I have mixed feelings about this secret. It seems to have been done with good intentions but with little sense of how to make it fit into the main matter of the trilogy, which is disappointing given how well Steven's characterization is integrated. But this scene, taken in isolation, is perfect. Steven's reaction is not one he would have had in other circumstances, but it allows the script to avoid some obvious and over-earnest beats that might otherwise have been felt necessary and cut to the emotional truth. The sound design and the performances really sell the idea that these characters are dying, even though you know they're not.

The Cold Equations is probably the strongest link in the trilogy, but The First Wave comes pretty close. It's another space-based story with a largely inconsequential plot. I just listened to it last night, and I've already forgotten a lot of the details. It has Vardans in it, if you like those. What makes it brilliant is how it ties together a lot of the trilogy's themes, about mortality and the value of struggling onward rather than giving up or running away. Steven and Oliver think the Doctor is dead, and for once a misunderstanding like this isn't milked for cheap sentiment or dramatic irony. The cliffhanger to Part One does something very unusual in Doctor Who that slots right into the key themes. And the last scene of the story is a gorgeous emotional grace note that really sells a plot development that might otherwise feel rushed and less meaningful than it wants to be.

Someone once observed that characterization reached such a low point around season three of Doctor Who that the show seemed to hold the companions in outright contempt. Minimal personality, immediate abandonment of personal history, Dodo not getting a departure scene, that kind of thing. This trilogy goes a long way to correcting that by building stories around Steven's stated background and extrapolating an emotional arc from the serials he's in. Peter Purves does a great job of selling it all. The fact that he's much older than he was in 1966 lets him tap into the melancholy wisdom the character has taken on by the end of The First Wave. They also help him give a decent performance as the first Doctor. It's not an especially proficient impression on a technical level, but it's enormously entertaining, conveying a gleeful good nature that contrasts nicely with the devious scheming that the Doctor gets up to at a couple points in the trilogy.

What's hardest to capture about the success of these stories is how they fit together in a lot of small ways, in points of theme and tone and characterization that are all the more effective for not being hammered home. It feels elegant in a way that's a far cry from "The Daleks' Master Plan," which looks like the kind of sci-fi melodrama they would have torn apart on Mystery Science Theater 3000. Guerrier achieved the same thing with Sara Kingdom in his trilogy about her; he's clearly the go-to guy for building on the late Hartnell era. Which is why I'm looking forward to another trilogy of his Companion Chronicles, which also focused on Steven Taylor, using a frame story involving his life after the Doctor. I know just enough about how it plays out to be thoroughly tantalized. I'm sure there'll be a review here in a couple weeks, full of similar outsize praise for tie-in audio dramas. But seriously, if you both love 1960s Doctor Who and are aware of its limitations, you want to give these stories a listen.