Tuesday, March 22, 2011

HMS Surprise

I am, for a variety of reasons, having a bit of a clear out. Down-sizing might be the right word. Why keep all those CDs when I have all the music in iTunes and backed up in triplicate? So they're going on amazon marketplace or to the charity shops. I've weeded through the DVDs as well trying to keep just the ones that I might watch again one day, the rest go the same way as the CDs.

And then there are all those books, mostly paperbacks and mostly ones I will never get round to re-reading. It's nice to have some books in a house, something to pick up and flick through from time to time but do I need a whole wall of them? Some of the books are old and vaguely precious to me, so those will be kept. The rather nice set of the the Quatermass plays in Penguin paperbacks will stay. As will some special books that my children gave me including a signed copy of Simon Singh's Code Book from Jenny, and the hardback of The Immortal life of Henrietta Lacks from Tom.

But what else to keep? There are some books that I am replacing on the Kindle. So I will always have copies of William Gibson's recent novels and all of Iain M Banks' culture novels. Plus a copy of Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods for when I need a good laugh or a chapter on a part of America that I will never see. I have a hard copy of To Kill a Mockingbird - it's my favourite just like it is everybody else's, but I won't hesitate to get that on the Kindle when an e-version is published.

That just leaves one other series of books that I will keep. Books that I have already read about 3 times each. The Aubrey/Maturin naval novels by Patrick O'Brian. 20 novels set during an elongated version of the Napoleonic wars of the early nineteenth century. They're just fantastic. A combination of action, intrigue, humour and all laced with some Rum and a barrage of naval terms and information about sailing. The third book in the series is HMS Surprise and it may be my favourite of them all. It's also a perfect introduction to the partnership of Captain Jack Aubrey and his particular friend and ship surgeon Stephen Maturin. Maturin is also an intelligence agent and the consequences of his undercover activities propel the action in the early part of the book.

Anyway I'm keeping that rather battered set of 20 paperbacks, at least until the Kindle version appears.

Monday, March 14, 2011


As I mentioned below one of the programmes we watched for British Invaders was a TV adaptation of 1984 from the BBC in 1954. Orwell's book was adapted for the small screen by Nigel Kneale of Quatermass fame, and it starred Peter Cushing as Winston Smith and Andre Morell (who would later go onto play Professor Quatermass) as O'Brien.

It's a fantastic production. It was all done live to camera apart from a few pre-filmed exterior shots, and they were mainly used to allow the cast and crew to move sets. The whole thing has a bit of the feel of a tightly knit theatrical performance. Cushing and Morell spark off each other and the exchanges between the two are riveting. And, of course, there is the infamous Room 101 sequence which was recently featured in the 100 scariest moments from film and TV, over 50 years after its first broadcast.

What must it have been like to watch this in 1954? There was Britain just emerging from post-war austerity watching this terrifying portrayal of a rationed and oppressed society. It's no wonder that it provoked a considerable response. There were the proverbial howls of protest in the press and this led to a great story. The production was scheduled for a second performance a week later but there were calls for it to be banned. And then the Duke of Edinburgh happened to be speaking at some television event and mentioned that he and Queen had watched and enjoyed the show. At which point the newspapers had to reverse their opinions and set different critics to review the second performance. Perhaps this was why the BBC gave the go ahead for the second live performance to be recorded for posterity on expensive videotape so that we can watch it today.

You can find 1984 at the internet archive here. It's really worth watching. For more information and reviews of the show give our British Invaders shows a listen here and here.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

British Invaders

I do a podcast called British Invaders which is all about science fiction TV that first aired here in the UK. A few years ago I got involved in a little discussion about the subject in the voicemail section of the Slice of Scifi podcast. A chap called Brian Doob from Canada suggested that this would make a good topic for a podcast and a little while later he started producing British Invaders episodes. At first he did these with a chap called Xander from London but after a while Xander had to drop out due to other commitments and Brian asked me if I would help out for a while.

Well that was 3 years ago and we have been putting out shows on a monthly basis ever since. During that time we have covered some of the biggies of British science fiction TV such as Survivors, the Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, UFO and Doctor Who (of course); but we've also covered some more obscure gems like the Nightmare Man, Children of the Stones and Nigel Kneale's 1984 (of which more later).

Brian and I work out what we're going to watch then get hold of the show or as much of it that survives, which can be a bit of a struggle in some cases. We work out a rough outline of what we are going to talk about and then once a month we have a 3 hour Skype chat during which we record the show. Then Brian does all the technical wizardry of editing the recordings and adding music and some clips from the show we have watched and then putting the podcasts out every fortnight. We normally split each discussion over 2 shows.

It's a fun project which has led me to rediscover many of the shows I remember from my childhood. I think we do a pretty good job in our discussions and it's nice to find that there are people out there downloading the shows who share similar feelings about this corner of geekdom.

Please check us out if you can. All the podcast are free to download from our site at www.BritishInvaders.com. We also have a facebook group. And you can subscribe through iTunes here.

Thanks for listening

Doctor Who and the Daleks

As an introduction here is something I wrote last year for the Slice of Scifi podcast website. They were running a summer series about classic sci-fi movies that had inspired people, or turned them to the Geek side.

Anyway here is what I wrote about the Doctor Who and the Daleks movie version:

OK so it’s not canon. He’s not really the Doctor. That’s not really the TARDIS, and they’ve got Ian all wrong.
But the Daleks … well they’re real Daleks and they’re in colour!
When the BBC launched Doctor Who in 1963 it’s fair to say that even they were surprised by the audience response. It’s now well known that the Beeb had intended an educational show for families with their time travelling hero returning to various famous periods and meeting real historical characters. Interestingly this aspect of the show became less and less popular and was more or less dropped by the end of the 1960s, although it has returned in the recent re-launch. What really caught the imagination of the viewing public were the future stories with the increasingly bizarre alien races that would return to challenge the Doctor again and again. And none of these creatures was more popular than the machine dwelling Daleks with their single minded pursuit of galactic domination.
The Daleks were introduced by writer Terry Nation in the second story-arc of the first series and were an instant success. Something about their weird shape, their mechanical movement, their electronic speech or their implacable will attracted them to British children in the 1960s. Dalekmania had begun and soon the mobile pepperpots were appearing in comic books, on breakfast cereal boxes and making guest appearances on popular children’s TV shows like Blue Peter.
They were so popular that a film spin-off was probably inevitable and in 1965 it arrived in glorious technicolour. Terry Nation’s script for the first Daleks story was adapted by Milton Subotsky who was well known for his sci-fi and horror films with the Amicus studio. Subotsky and director Gordon Flemyng made several changes from the original which have irritated purists over the years. The Doctor is played by the famous British horror actor Peter Cushing (Grand Moff Tarkin himself!), however his version is not the renegade Gallifreyan Time Lord that we have come to know and love. Instead he is an eccentric English scientist whose last name is actually Who.
His appearance recalls William Hartnell’s portrayal of the first Doctor but Cushing’s version is a much kindlier and bumbling character. Susan, Barbara and Ian are all present but now both Susan and Barbara are the Doctor’s grand-daughters with Ian as Barbara’s hapless boyfriend. In fact the portrayal of Ian and Barbara is a major disappointment. The determined and brave schoolteachers from the TV show with their hinted at but restrained romance have become the comic relief, with Ian in particular being played mostly for laughs by the popular comedian Roy Castle.
Even the TARDIS has changed, it has lost the definite article and become simply ‘TARDIS’ a machine invented by Dr Who and not stolen from the Time Lords. The familiar central console has gone and been replaced by a room full of dangling wires and odd bits of machinery. It is still bigger on the inside than the out and bears its familiar blue police box design although the detail about the broken chameleon circuit is conveniently forgotten so the big blue box seems a bit odd. The film just assumes the audience knows why it’s shaped like that or that we will just accept that aspect of the myth.
The essential battle between the Daleks and the Thals remains the same but in all other respects the film has come to be regarded as that terrible thing in sci-fi geekdom: Non-canon.
So why watch it and why does it hold such a fond place in my memories? Well simply because for a long time it was all we had. Over here in the UK the BBC has a strange reputation for showing endless repeats of its TV programmes and yet re-runs of Doctor Who were few and far between. And of course there were no such things as VHS or DVD releases then. In fact as we discussed back in British Invaders 31 the BBC was actually scrapping its own copies of Doctor Who. But movies were different and were frequently trotted out by the Beeb to fill viewing slots in those long summer holidays. And that’s when I first encountered Dr. Who and the Daleksand its sequel Daleks – Invasion Earth 2150AD.
For a sci-fi child of the 1970s there up on the screen were those mythical creatures we had heard whisper of: The Daleks. We could see what all the fuss was about, and we could see them in colour. Of course with time we have been able to watch the original black and white TV originals and appreciate Terry Nation’s scripts and the performances of Hartnell et al. The originals make more sense and most importantly they are scarier. It’s easy to see why Doctor Who has gone on to be the longest running sci-fi show on TV. And like any long running story different versions of the myth emerge. Maybe we should just remember the two colourful films as simpler, gentler versions of the myth and enjoy them for what they are. They certainly thrilled me on many a wet afternoon.

What's all this then?

A place to put some random musings about TV, movies, books and stuff. Plus some postings about a podcast I do called British Invaders. Watch this space my invisible, and non-existent, cyber audience.

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