Guns and Frocks

Loving Delta and the Bannermen since 1987

In Transit

Monday, 6 March 2023

Looking along a cobbled street in an Italian town. There are a few pedestrians walking along the street. On either side of the street are the usual Italian buildings; some of them have palm trees in front of them. At the end of the street, in the distance is a wooded hill,  with a motorway running across it, supported by arches.
The main street of Salerno

A brief update.

I’m just finishing a four-night stay in Salerno, just south of the Bay of Naples and north of the Amalfi Coast. It’s mostly been about walking, reading and food, to be honest. I’ll fill you in a bit more later.

I’m checking out of this grimy hotel in just under an hour. Then a walk across town to the bus stop where I’ll be catching a bus for the 3½ hour trip to Matera.

I first learned about Matera a couple of years ago, in a house meeting organised by my colleague Caterina Rupolo. It’s a town with a surprising history and a unique geography; almost as importantly, it was one of the locations used in the most recent James Bond film No Time to Die.

My phone, AirPods and Kindle are all charged, and I’m ready for a long day of looking out the window of the bus at the passing countryside. The worst thing about travelling is the actual going-from-place-to-place part, which I’ve tried to minimise on this trip as much as possible. It makes me cross. But I’ve paid for the ticket, I’ve located the inadequately signposted bus stop, and I’m ready to go.

I’ll let you know how I get on.

Among the Ruins

Thursday, 2 March 2023

A tall stone pedestal in the middle of a roundabout. On top is a bronze statue: a figure on horseback in uniform with a massive plumed helmet. Text on the pedestal says A VITTORIO EMANUELE II MDCCCXCVI. Behind the statue are some grimy but glamorous buildings, just a few storeys high.
I would like a hat like that

The first time I came to Naples was in 2008. I didn’t stay there for long: I got off the train at Napoli Centrale, walked a few hundred metres to Napoli Piazza Garibaldi and caught a train from there straight to Sorrento. Maybe thirty minutes tops.

It was the height of the Neapolitan waste management crisis, which had started some time in the 1980s and would continue until about 2011. Pulling into Napoli Centrale, I could see hundreds of black plastic bags piled up beside the railway tracks. A beloved colleague in Grammar’s history department, David Patrick, knew that I wanted to visit Pompeii and Herculaneum and had warned me to avoid Naples at all costs and had advised me to stay in Sorrento instead.

The second time in came here, it was just for a few hours. It was a rainy day in December 2017. I walked from Napoli Centrale to the National Archaeological Museum, spent a couple of hours in the museum, and then walked back again and caught the next train to Sorrento. I didn’t see any black plastic bags, but it was all a bit filthy and run down, and for some reason I never really noticed that even the shabbiest parts of the city have a kind of faded glamour.

I’m in my hotel room in Naples now: after five nights here I will be leaving. I think I said before that Calvin had booked it for me. “Apparently it is not a good and safe area at the holiday inn,” He warned me. I was dismissive: “I’ll be okay. I’ve been to Naples before.”

I really warmed to Naples the last time I came here. It was on the school’s 2019 Classics Tour — the last time I travelled abroad before the pandemic. We stayed in a nice hotel not far from the monument pictured above and a short work from the historic centre of Naples: a maze of cobbled streets full of churches and bookshops and bars and restaurants. It’s grimy and faded and a bit run down, but it’s beautiful as well.

Vastly unlike the historic centre of Naples is the windswept and largely deserted shopping precinct that surrounds this hotel, and the train station that services it. It’s got a real Chatswood-six-months-after-the-Apocalypse vibe. Take a look.

Anyway, I’m actually going to be sorry to leave. The hotel was nice. I did my professionally mandated trips to the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum and to the National Archaeological Museum, and I thoroughly enjoyed them all. And I got to wander the streets soaking up the grimy grandeur of the place. I’ll be back, deo volente.

The Week and Pizza

Saturday, 25 February 2023

Looking out across a small harbour in the evening.  There are some small yachts in the foreground and a wooded hill  in the background. The sky is dark with blue clouds,  and the sun has just set.

I’m writing this in the Holiday Inn in Naples, in a large hotel room, in a skyscraper, surrounded by graffiti and urban decay. Calvin booked the hotel for me — using points — after I decided that I would spend my time in Sorrento just relxing and that I would start my sightseeing the following week from Naples. And although this hotel is some distance from Naples’ beautiful centro storico, it’s very close to a train station that will take me wherever I need to go.

After writing my last post, I spent a couple more nights in Sorrento, and then I caught a train to Naples and a ferry to Ischia, which I have wanted to visit for years now. (There are ferries that go directly from Sorrento to Ischia, but they don’t run during February.)

Ischia is a small volcanic island about 10 kilometres across, just off the coast of the Cape of Misenum, at the end of the northern arm of the Bay of Naples. The Romans called it Pithecusa or Pithecusae, a name that includes the nearby islands of Procida and Vivaria. In Metamorphoses Book 14, Ovid says that the island is named after the little yellow apes that were once its inhabitants — formerly a race of people, the Cercopes, whom Jupiter transformed into apes as punishment for their deceit and trickery. (Pliny the Elder says that the island is named after its clay deposits, but that is just the sort of thing that he might be expected to say.) Aeneas stopped on the island on the way to Cumae, according to Ovid, which is why it’s also called Aenaria, a name that it has passed down to a number of thermal spas and restaurants.

A hill juts out of the sea. There are walls built up the side facing us, and on top of those walls and the hill is a castle the same colour as the rock of the hill. A stone bridge leads from the bottom of the hill towards us.

It had become apparent during my stay in Sorrento that there’s nothing much open there during February. And so every night I would start wandering around at about half past five, hunting for somewhere to eat. This continued to be a problem when I arrived in Ischia. During my first hunt, I found the Castello Aragonese, pictured above, sitting atop a volcanic plug connected to Ischia by a stone bridge. When I came back to visit the castle the next day, it was closed. The thermal spas were also closed. And the restaurants were closed. The bars were open, for the locals I suppose, and so I was still able to eat bar snacks and burgers and toasted sandwiches, but I couldn’t find anywhere that served the sort of Italian food that was really my main reason for coming to Italy.

Last night, my hunt was successful. I realised a few days ago that I just needed to be more patient: restaurants here don’t really open for dinner until 7 PM, which is more than an hour after I usually eat dinner. So I held off, and was rewarded with the sort of food I had been imagining since I arrived on the island. It was at a restaurant by the port called Pane e Vino, whose owner told me that, while living in London as a young man, he had discovered that Australians are much more fun and relaxed than English people.

Anyway, the upshot of all this is that I’ve walked and read and relaxed and listened to podcasts, but I haven’t actually done any proper sightseeing. So tomorrow I’ll catch the train to Herculaneum, which isn’t closed on Sundays, and then I’ll work out what to do after that. But in the meantime, tonight, in the hotel restaurant, I will be eating pizza.

Raining in Sorrento

Sunday, 19 February 2023

A view of the marina from the top of a cliff in Sorrento. There's a long jetty jutting into the water with a ferry standing nearby. In the distance is a forested headland, closer are some large hotels perched on the top of the cliff.

I arrived in Sorrento the day before yesterday. This is my third time here. I first came here in 2008 and then again in 2017 (when I stayed for about ten days).

I like Sorrento. It’s a bit touristy, particularly on the weekends, but it’s very pretty and there’s lots of places to eat, to walk, and to sit quietly and read. And it’s close to other things, like Capri, Pompeii and Herculaneum.

This time I’m not going to any of those places. I’m here for two more nights, and I plan to take it very easy. This morning I had breakfast at the hotel, sat at a bar drinking coffee and reading, and then took a walk down the cliff to the marina, followed by more sitting and reading. But then it started raining, so now I’m back in the hotel writing this. If it doesn’t ease up soon, I might start doing some podcast or website things until I head off for drinks and dinner.

A few of the water from the top of a cliff in Sorrento. In the foreground are the red roofs of some buildings, further off in the background are some massive hotels perched on the top of a cliff.

Some random thoughts about the trip so far, in no particular order.

Picks of the day

I’m currently enjoying the podcast If Books Could Kill, in which Michael Hobbes critically revisits the dark side of some of the most famous airport non-fiction of the last few decades, including Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History, Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and Steven D Levitt and Stephen J Dubner’s Freakonomics. Hobbes is really thoughtful and funny, and he gets extra points for pushing back on Twitter against centrist dunderhead Jonathan Chait’s credulous bullshit take on healthcare for trans children, which was published in The New York Times in the last week or so.

And while we’re on the subject of The New York Times’s appalling coverage of trans issues, here’s The Onion’s take on it — the most blistering satirical article I’ve seen from them in decades.

Hm. It’s stopped raining. Off for a walk. Chat soon.

Hello world!

Thursday, 16 February 2023

A big roundabout under an overcast sky. There are some halfhearted trees growing in the middle of the roundabout and a few nondescript cars are driving unenthusiastically through it.

I’m in Slough.

Well, not Slough exactly. The parish of Colnbrook with Poyle, Slough. The Holiday Inn Express London — Heathrow T5. A boring hotel near the airport.

I’m flying off to Italy tomorrow morning, and I have to be at the airport before 5 AM. So Calvin — very thoughtfully — found this hotel and booked me a room for my last night in the UK. I’m excited about tomorrow’s flight, but I’ll be travelling by train for a few hours afterwards, and I won’t be arriving in Sorrento until the afternoon. So a boring hotel is just the sort of place I need to be to chill for a few hours. Gotta get into a state of mind where I won’t get cross tomorrow when I inevitably get lost at some point.

This is my first post, even though I arrived in the UK nearly two weeks ago. Normally I blog when I’m travelling alone, so that I have a record of the trip to read later. But the last two weeks (or so) I’ve just been too busy.

I don’t really want to write about it all yet. But I had the best time. I stayed with Joe and his partner Mark in Eastbourne: I’ve been chatting with Joe daily since October 2020, and I finally, finally got to meet him in person. We recorded 11 podcast episodes together — including the latest episode of Untitled Star Trek Project. And we just hung out — eating, wandering around, climbing up Beachy Head, watching telly, talking. And we did some touristy things too. A pilgrimage to Leeds Castle, where The Androids of Tara was filmed in 1978. A trip to the Fitzroy Tavern in London to catch up with some Who fans and podcasting friends. A hilarious last night where we went to the theatre to see the new production of Relatively Speaking by Alan Ayckbourn.

Joe wasn’t the only friend I met in person for the first time: there was also Si, Pete, and Conrad, who I’ve been podcasting and chatting with online for some time now. New people too: Steve, Chris, and Rob Valentine, who listens to FTE and who is very generous in his engagement with us on Twitter. And I caught up with some people I hadn’t seen for a long time: Colin, Angela, and Simon Catterall and his partner Majed (who I was also meeting for the first time).

Huh. I said I didn’t want to write about all this. I think that’s because I don’t think I can satisfactorily express how great it all was, and how grateful I am to everyone I got to see — but particularly Joe and Mark, who were so kind and warm and generous and so much fun to hang out with. I love you all. I can’t wait to see you again (except Colin, who will be here in a couple of hours because he’s flying to Copenhagen tomorrow and staying in this hotel tonight).

A History of the World in 10½ Chapters

Wednesday, 26 January 2022

This essay was originally published in You on Target, an anthology of essays about the Doctor Who Target novelisations, released in 2020. In it, I talk about (among other things) Malcolm Hulke’s novelisation of the Doctor Who story Invasion of the Dinosaurs.

Thank you to Christopher Bryant for commissioning it.

66 million years ago

Somehow, the pterodactyl was glad to be back. It had been a very difficult day.

Just this morning, it had been sunning itself in this sandy clearing. It must have fallen asleep, for the next thing it knew was that it was somewhere else, in a giant underground cavern. There was some kind of mammal there, a mammal with a head covered with a shock of white fur. The mammal was holding a searing bright light, which had sent the pterodactyl off screeching to the roof of the cavern. But then mammal had gone away, and the pterodactyl had settled down to wait for sunrise.

Still, that’s all over now, it thought.

But this very thought was interrupted by a loud, high-pitched buzz. The pterodactyl looked up to see two more of the brown-coloured mammals, appearing out of nowhere in a swirling eddy of light.

It couldn’t understand the ugly noises coming from the mammals’ mouths, of course, and it couldn’t admire the highly polished fingernails of one or the expensively cut lounge suit of the other. But it knew that they would attract the attention of the Monster, who would soon be along to enjoy them as a between-meals snack.

So it flew off, the tip of one leathery wing grazing the cheek of one of the mammals as it went. The Monster was coming.

Silence. A sound of thunder.

12 January 1974

At teatime today, Part 1 of Invasion of the Dinosaurs is broadcast for the first time.

(I will turn five in three months, but I don’t appear in this chapter of the story.)

Part 1 is a pretty good episode. The Doctor and his new assistant Sarah Jane Smith are exploring a mysteriously bleak and deserted London. They are mistaken for looters, and are quickly arrested. No one will even listen to their story: they are apparently powerless to escape from a rigid and tiresome military bureaucracy.

And then, at the cliffhanger, they are menaced by a roaring puppet Tyrannosaurus.

Invasion of the Dinosaurs will not become an instant classic. Last year’s finale, The Green Death, featured simple rod-and-string puppet maggots, and psychologically scarred an entire generation of children. But no one will be scarred by Invasion’s puppet dinosaurs, because they are plangently, lamentably bad. They float in mid-air, amateurishly CSO’d onto poorly-directed location footage. They burst suddenly through cardboard walls. Instead of roaring, they actually seem to be saying the English word ROAR. One dinosaur retreats out of shot, pulled by the tail by an off-screen hand. Another two dinosaurs fight, menacing each other with bendy rubber teeth. (Or are they snogging? It’s honestly hard to tell.)

Six weeks later, a man with polished fingernails and a man in an expensively cut lounge suit will vanish completely from a secret government base underneath an evacuated London.

19 February 1976

Malcolm Hulke’s fifth Doctor Who novelisation is published: a version of Invasion of the Dinosaurs called Doctor Who and the Dinosaur Invasion.

Unlike the televised story, it’s a triumph. And not just because it doesn’t include a single puppet dinosaur.

Consider how it reveals the backstory — the evacuation of London and the mysterious appearance of the dinosaurs. In Part 1 of Invasion of the Dinosaurs, the Doctor and Sarah hear about these events in some fairly unremarkable expository dialogue. But in Chapter 1 of the novelisation (London Alert!), we see the same events through the eyes of Shughie McPherson. Shughie is a young unemployed man from Glasgow, who has come down (up?) to London with some mates to see the Cup Final. He misses the evacuation because he is too tired and hungover to leave with them.

He wakes up in a London that has been completely abandoned. There’s no electricty, so he decides to leave the house, only to discover that the entire street is deserted. Terrified by the sight of the broken body of a young milkman, he falls to his knees and recites the Lord’s Prayer. And then he is attacked and killed by an unseen dinosaur.

In the televised version of the story, there is no one as interesting and skilfully characterised as Shughie McPherson. And no one like him has ever appeared in Doctor Who before.

Malcolm Hulke is brilliant at backstory and characterisation. There’s an entire chapter in Doctor Who and the Cave Monsters devoted to the odd, one-sided relationship between Dr Quinn and Miss Dawson. In Doctor Who and the Doomsday Weapon, we learn all about Jane Leeson — a character who gets a couple of minutes of screen time on television — what her life was like on a miserable, overcrowded earth, how she met her husband, and why she left to colonise the planet in whose soil she will finally be buried. And in Doctor Who and the Sea-Devils, we learn how Captain Trenchard aspires to be a hero, and how he is tragically killed by his own buffoonish incompetence.

21 June 1978

Here I am, appearing in the story at last. I’m ten years old, and tonight I will watch my first episode of Doctor Who.

A couple of weeks ago, my best friend at school showed me my first ever Target book. It was called The Doctor Who Monster Book. Somehow, Luke and I managed to spend hours of class time looking through it, when, presumably, we were meant to be doing mental arithmetic, or reading English books, or doing whatever the hell you do in Fourth Grade in primary school.

The Doctor Who Monster Book had a picture of Tom Baker on the front cover, apparently drawn by someone who had never actually seen him, even in photographs. There were sections on each of the Doctors, double-page spreads for all of the top-tier returning monsters, and even pages covering the the Zarbi, the Sensorites, and the Uxariean mining robot.

Because it was a Target book, many of the pages reproduced Chris Achilleos’s cover art for the novelisations. On pages 52 and 53, you could even see the classic cover of Doctor Who and the Dinosaur Invasion, depicting Pertwee’s Doctor, his hand protecting his face, as a Tyrannosaurus rex advances on him from behind, and a pterodactyl snaps at him with an almighty Roy-Lichtenstein-inspired KKLAK!

But the star of the books was the Daleks. Five pages were devoted to them, chronicling their exploits in every Doctor Who story of the sixties and seventies, culminating in the Doctor’s attempt to avert their creation in Genesis of the Daleks.

Tonight’s episode, Luke tells me, is called Death to the Daleks. And so I will go home after school, and announce to my family that at half past six, on Channel 2, we will be watching Part 1 of my first ever Doctor Who story.

It will change my life.

Later in 1978

At ten years old, I am already a voracious reader. Summer is hot in Sydney, and we are lucky enough to have a swimming pool in the backyard. Sometimes I come home from school and sit on the top step of the pool and read. I’m often reading a Target novelisation.

By now, I’ve got quite a collection going. I get a couple of dollars a week in pocket money, in exchange for simple chores like wiping up the plates after dinner and not coming downstairs to annoy my parents after bedtime. I use that money to buy novelisations. David Jones at Warringah Mall has a bookshop, just near the butcher. We go there every week to buy meat, and after that I choose five or six novelisations and put them on lay-by until I can save up enough money to take them home with me. I write my name and phone number on the first page of each book.

Soon I have dozens of them. They’re almost always Pertwee or Baker stories, although I do have Doctor Who and the Cybermen, starring a strange old Doctor who I have never even seen. Some of them, like Doctor Who and the Giant Robot, Doctor Who and the Hand of Fear, Doctor Who and the Seeds of Doom, I have seen on television. Others, Doctor Who and the Mutants, Doctor Who and the Sea-Devils, Doctor Who and the Dinosaur Invasion have not been on television since I started watching Doctor Who.

April 1979

I’m in an airport, in the United States somewhere. My family are here on holiday: perhaps we’re travelling across the country, from LA to New York, I think. In my bag, there is an exercise book in which I use a biro to write an account of the trip; there are also a few Target novelisations from my collection.

My edition of Doctor Who and the Dinosaur Invasion doesn’t have the cover with the pterodactyl saying KKLAK! It’s a later edition with a T. rex on the cover, based on a painting by Charles R. Knight, standing in front of a building I will later learn to identify as St Paul’s cathedral.

This is my first vivid memory of reading a Target novelisation: Sir Charles Grover, with his expensively cut lounge suit and delusions of grandeur, tells the Doctor that he is “in time to be present at the most important moment in the world’s history.” The Doctor, unimpressed as ever by the most important moments in the world’s history, replies, "On the contrary. I am in time to prevent a crime.”

I think I might be in love.

Interlude: Nathan meets Tom Baker

It’s March 1980, the last year of primary school. I’m still friends with Luke. He has told me that Tom Baker is visiting Australia, that he’s coming to Warringah Mall, and he’s making an appearance in the Grace Brothers car park.

My father has agreed to let me go. The night before, in preparation, I watch a new Doctor Who episode, Part Something of The Creature From The Pit. I also go through my collection to find a novelisation for Tom to sign. I settle on Doctor Who and the Talons of Weng Chiang: it has the best likeness of Tom on the cover. He is dressed like Sherlock Holmes, staring grimly out of the picture with his piercing brown eyes.

My mother is in hospital for the first time. Over the next ten years, she will often be in hospital. Now, in the distant future, I still remember going to see her years later, reading Doctor Who Magazine on the bus, clutching it in my hand as I go to visit her in the room where she will eventually succumb to the cancer that kills her.

That’s still ten years in the future. Right now, I’m in a long queue at the rooftop car park. Luke and his sister Rachel are with me. Immediately behind me in the queue is a boy who I will actually meet and befriend many years later: one of my co-hosts from the podcast Flight Through Entirety — Richard Stone. He has just about forgiven me for what happens next.

Many more people have turned up than the organisers expected. But we’re not very far from the front. Behind us, the queue snakes off into the distance. Ahead, I can seen Tom in the distance, wearing his costume from last night’s episode.

While we wait, I talk to Luke about my mother’s trip to hospital. I am overheard by a kindly old lady who is walking up and down the queue to keep everything running smoothly.

It takes an hour, I guess, but now we’re just about standing in front of Tom himself. An announcement is made. Tom needs to leave now, and so the people in front of us will be the last people to get to speak to him.

But the kindly lady intervenes. “This boy’s mother is in hospital,” she says, and I’m allowed to go up and speak to Tom. No one behind me in the queue will get that opportunity.

I can’t remember what I said. But I do remember Tom signing my Target novelisation and saying, “Your mother’s in hospital? Well, you know, if you ever need help, let me know. I’m a Doctor.”

His eyes are piercing and blue.

5 November 1984

In Sydney, in the late seventies, Channel 2 shows repeat after repeat of Doctor Who, four or five nights a week, at 6:30 PM, just before the news. They start at Spearhead from Space, and go up to the most recent episode with Tom Baker, and then back to Spearhead from Space again. Weirdly, they leave out anything scary, anything only available in black and white, and anything with the Master.

But tonight, they’re showing Invasion of the Dinosaurs for the first time. Part 1 is still only available in black and white — the colour version was deliberately incinerated — and so they’re renumbering the episodes to make it a five-part story. Watching Part 2, now re-branded as Part 1, is the first time I ever see the televised story, and it opens with the Doctor and Sarah inexplicably menaced by an unconvincing puppet Tyrannosaurus.

26 June 2010

I’m all grown up now. Crazily, I got rid of my whole collection of Target novelisations years ago. There were dozens and dozens of them, but I only kept one. Now the books are available in a completely new format — audiobooks. And so I start my collection up again, buying a copy of Doctor Who and the Dinosaur Invasion.

Unlike my previous copy, this has the orange cover with the pterodactyl going KKLAK! It’s read by Martin Jarvis, who played Butler in the episode.

Martin Jarvis is, of course, superb. He does great accents for poor old Shughie McPherson and his mates, and great voices for the Doctor, Sarah and the Brigadier. More impressive, of course, is his note-perfect Martin Jarvis impersonation. Butler is much kinder and more working class here than the posh and distant character he was in the televised version. Hulke has given him a livid facial scar, to help us to recognise him when other characters don’t know who he is. When Sarah taunts him about that scar, she is embarrassed to learn that he got it saving a terrified child trapped on the ledge of a high building.

Hulke has a genius for backstory and characterisation.

January 2016

And now, in the distant future, my iPhone contains dozens of audio versions of Target novelisations, even ones that I have never owned before, like Doctor Who and the Cave Monsters, tantalisingly referred to in a footnote in Chapter 3 of Doctor Who and the Dinosaur Invasion.

My favourites are always the novelisations by Malcolm Hulke. I have all of them now, except for Doctor Who and the War Games. (Why don’t I have that? Wait here a second while I go and put it on my Audible wishlist.)

And my favourite audiobook is still the first one I ever bought.

5 billion years from now

The sun expands, and the Earth is destroyed, but nobody watches it happen. The Doctor is there, with his new best friend Rose. Later, or earlier, they will go out to get chips.

Blake’s 7: The SevenFold Crown

Thursday, 1 April 2021

This review of a very early Blake’s 7 audio drama was published in TV Zone issue 99 (February 1998). I can only barely remember writing it, and I didn’t actually have a copy of it anywhere until recently, when Peter Griffiths, who had commissioned me to write it, sent me a copy of it he found a couple of weeks ago. Thank you to Peter for giving me the chance to write it and for unearthing it and sending it to me after so many years.

AVON: Are you going give it to me?
SERVALAN: How can I stop you taking it?

The SevenFold Crown is a new Blake’s 7 radio drama serial written by Barry Letts, who produced Doctor Who in the Seventies and wrote the Doctor Who radio dramas The Paradise of Death and The Ghosts of N-Space. The SevenFold Crown has just been released as a two-tape set by BBC Worldwide and will be broadcast on Radio 4 later this month, to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the first broadcast of Blake’s 7 in 1978.

When Avon’s sleep is disturbed by a fabulously silly dream in which he is being flogged and menaced by Servalan, he decides that the lady herself is responsible, and heads off to the planet Ferno to confront her. Down on Ferno, Avon and Vila discover that Servalan has one of three parts of the SevenFold Crown, an ancient alien artifact that (as usual) confers incredible Mind Powers on its wearer. Our heroes’ quest for the remaining parts takes them to the planet Torella (which has a thriving tourist trade despite its medieval
justice system and high rates of random capital punishment) and the mysterious planet of the ancient Devani.

Freed from the constraints of year-long contracts, the cast all overact marvellously. And since the dialogue lacks the clever bitchy flight-deck banter of the TV series, overacting is often necessary.

But why go into it in any more detail? The teleport keeps malfunctioning, Orac refuses to give the crew crucial information, Avon tries to abandon a crewmember, Servalan tricks the crew into teleporting the wrong person up… Honestly, everything you would expect from a Blake’s 7 anniversary special and more. Even the sound effects and the teleport music sound authentic.

All the male principals from Blake’s 7’s final year are back: Paul Darrow as Avon, Michael Keating as Vila and Steven Pacey as Tarrant. And (thank God!) so is Jacqueline Pearce as the sequinned psychopath, Servalan. Josette Simon and Glynis Barber were (ahem) unavailable, and so the remaining female crew members have both been recast. Angela Bruce (Brigadier Bambera in Doctor Who’s Battlefield) plays a reasonabiy convincing Dayna, while Paula Wilcox’s Soolin is disappointingly girly and cheerful — not at all like the laid-back hardfaced bitch Glynis Barber played in the TV series.

And, of course, everyone sounds much older. Steven Pacey has particular trouble recreating Tarrant’s growly character voice, while Servalan sounds a little huskier and a little more formidable. Paul Darrow is the same as ever, although he delivers his lines in such a macho and deadpan way he must often be in danger of dislocating his jaw.

Freed from the constraints of year-long contracts, the cast all overact marvellously. And since the dialogue lacks the clever bitchy flight-deck banter of the TV series, overacting is often necessary. For example, Avon: “I have torn out the throat of a tiger with this very hand” or Servalan, discussing Vila’s imminent execution: “Your friend’s head would make a simply ducky little souvenir for somebody, wouldn’t you agree?” (Not really.)

In fact, the script is this serial’s big weakness. The SevenFold Crown is full of stupid technobabble and laborious dialogue where characters describe to each other in detail all the exciting events unfolding before their very eyes. There is also a tendency for Letts to try to end each scene with a punchline. Unfortunately, he is not much of a comedy writer, and the lines are just not funny. “If I get shot with a hallucinatory blaster,” wonders Vila, “do I really die, or shall I just pretend?”

If you make it that far, at the end of the tape there are a few short interviews with the principal cast members. You won’t hear much here that hasn’t been said before in fanzines and programme guides, but it’s nice hearing it said in the actors’ voices. A special award for sneaky disparagement goes to Steven Pacey, who expresses “amazement” and “astonishment” at Blake’s 7’s success. And when he’s asked about Tarrant’s personality, he replies “What personality was that, then?”

Nice one. Steven. Well spotted.

Airing 17 Jan 1998. BBC Radio 4.

Written by Barry Letts
BBC Audio, ISBN 0 56338200 7
Price: £8.99
Out now

Image of this review as it appeared in Starburst Magazine

The Wrath of Conn

Saturday, 16 March 2019

This essay was first published in Outside In: Makes It So, a collection of essays published by ATB Publishing in 2017 to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the debut of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

For this collection, each author contributed an essay on a single episode or movie. My essay is based on the Series 4 episode Clues.

Many thanks to Stacey Smith? for the commission, and for her well-judged editing suggestions.

A young blond woman with striking red lipstick, seated at her station on the bridge of the Enterprise.
Ensign Gladys McKnight

Personal Log, Ensign Gladys McKnight, Stardate 44501.3

9 stone 5 lb (pathetic), alcohol units: 9 (ditto), cigarettes: 2 (stupid replicator malfunction; edgy af right now), calories: 3897 (fuck off. seriously).

Horrifically hung over this morning. Stupid Reg. He’s gotta be the most absent boyfriend I’ve ever had. Got a text from him yesterday, cancelling our date last night. “Sorry, sweetheart. Lots of work on in Engineering. Geordi’s been riding me non-stop ever since Ventax II. I’ll make it up to you.”

Didn’t believe him for a second. “Computer, locate Lieutenant Barclay.”

“Lieutenant Barclay is in Holodeck 3.”


Day off today, because that whole Harrakis V thing finished early. (No idea what we were doing there. Being tormented by some all-powerful alien entity, I imagine. At least this one didn’t want to kill off half the crew. Poor Ensign Haskell. I’m still using that stick of Maybelline Superstay 24 Color he lent me.)

The crew spent yesterday raving about their plans for the day off. Alyssa was gonna spend time with Andrew playing parrises squares. (I’ve never heard it called that before.) A whole bunch of crawly suck-ups were going to Worf’s tai-chi class, hoping to get noticed. Picard booked the holodeck for a horrific larping session with the fucking bartender. And Alyssa tells me that Dr Crusher was planning to spend the day growing moss. Wtf is wrong with that woman?

Anyway, I snuck into Crusher’s lab and replaced all her moss samples with scrunched-up sheets of pink cellophane. She’s too stupid to notice: she still doesn’t know that I broke into her quarters last month and replaced four of her wigs with those comedy Nausicaan halloween wigs Mr Mot gave me. She’s been looking like an idiot for last month. That’ll teach her to keep nagging me about emphysema and cirrhosis of the liver.

I was sneaking out of Sick Bay when I crashed straight into stupid Commander Data. He picked me up off the floor and apologised, but he refused to tell me why he had knocked me over, or even to admit that he had done it in the first place. Lying bastard. He should be cleaning tables in Ten-Forward, not patronising actual human beings on the bridge when they’re trying to do their jobs.

“Ensign McKnight. I have been looking for you all morning. There is currently an opening in the conn position on the bridge. Would you care to take the beta shift this afternoon?”

Brilliant. There goes my day off. And conn officer is the stupidest job on the ship. Eight hours of staring at a big screen pressing buttons, like a stinking virgin Gamergater. And have you seen those stupid instrument panels? The ship hits the smallest asteroid and they explode immediately. I’ll be lucky to get through the shift without a huge shard of metal embedded in my head.

Personal log, supplemental

Still alive and shardless, thank Christ. What a waste of time though. By the end of the first hour, I was basically pressing buttons at random just to amuse myself. We’re lucky I didn’t crash us into a quantum filament. Whatever the fuck that is.

I’ve snuck out for a quick fag in the loo. Shift only just started. Feels like there’s still about 24 hours left to go.

Personal log, Ensign Gladys McKnight, Stardate 44502.5

9 stone 3 lb (weight loss mostly due to hangover dehydration), alcohol units: 7 (yay!), cigarettes: 23 (broke into Reg’s quarters and stole all the isolinear chips from his replicator), calories: 2686 (no calories in Tamarian Space Vodka, right? I had difficulty understanding the label on the bottle).

Blacked out on the bridge just after that last entry. Still, not like that time I blacked out in the Observation Lounge, or the other one at the Stellar Cartography Christmas Party.

This time, everyone else went down as well. Thank God. Imagine blacking out mid-sentence during your first shift on the bridge. It would be like the time Ensign Gomez got high as a kite and plummeted off a catwalk to the bottom of the warp core. Alyssa says she’s still eating all of her meals through a straw. Silly cow.

The entire bridge crew are acting like they’ve never blacked out in the middle of a shift before. Pompous, stuck-up pricks. Worf keeps moaning about his sore elbow to anyone who can bear to listen. “Tell Crusher,” I said to him, “or stfu. Crybaby.” Troi screams every time she walks past a mirror. (Has she finally noticed the horrific cameltoe she’s been rocking for the last few months?) And Geordi looks at Data like he’s caught him in bed with the pool boy. Something about Professor Underhill and the ship’s chronometer. Nerd. No wonder he never gets laid by an actual human woman.

I’m beginning to regret breaking into Crusher’s lab now. What a fiasco.

Personal log, supplemental

It’s the middle of my second shift on the bridge. I’m hiding in the loo again. Not coming out until we leave the Ngame Nebula.

They’ve ordered me to delete these last two log entries. No idea why. Something about Troi wandering glassy-eyed onto the Bridge and doing her best Paul Robeson impersonation. Then Data gave a big long expository speech and I kind of zoned out. There’s a lot of standing around talking goes on on this stupid ship.

The upshot of the whole thing is that some poorly-characterised aliens don’t want anyone to know about them. The Paxans. They’re xenophobes, which is ancient Greek for toothless, meth-addicted hillbillies. And we’re supposed to let them wipe our memories. I wouldn’t trust them to wipe my ass.

Which is why you’re reading this. I’m using a warp core manifold to send these logs back to the early 21st century for widespread publication. By the time the 24th century comes around again, I want there to be Paxan teatowels, Paxan sitcoms, Paxan theme parks, and delicious Paxan breakfast cereals.

Make it so. Bastards.

Nathan Bottomley is a Latin teacher living in Sydney. He can be heard constantly complaining about Doctor Who on the podcast Flight Through Entirety.

Last Days

Friday, 12 January 2018

An expensive hotel living room, with a set of couches clustered around a coffee table, lamps, and behind
them a series of windows with a panoramic view of Bangkok

I’m writing this post from the Royal Suite at the Bangkok InterContinental Hotel.

It’s the largest suite in the hotel. I’m seated at a glass coffee table in the lounge; there’s a lavish entryway, a 12-seat boardroom, a kitchen, a massive bathroom with a sunken bath, a dressing room, and a bedroom larger than all of the other hotel bedrooms I have stayed in in Europe. In fact, I think this suite is bigger than all of those European hotel rooms combined. It’s definitely bigger than our house.

“It’s too big,” said Calvin as we walked in.

An expensive hotel bedroom. A corner of the bed is visible, but the most striking thing is the view of a cluster of skyscrapers through the panoramic windows. There's a couch in front of the windows, facing absolutely the wrong way.

We arrived in Bangkok on Sunday afternoon. Calvin had spent a day or two here before meeting me in Siem Reap, so he took me to dinner in a busy fluorescent-lit local eatery. It had been cool in Luang Prabang: it was hot and muggy in Bangkok. The icy beer I had with dinner was magical.

When we woke up on Monday morning, Calvin’s legs were covered in bites. In fact, he was driven out of bed at about 4 AM. Bedbugs, he said. We went up to the Club Lounge to complain, and they moved us to the next room so that they could burn the bed to the ground.

They offered us free dinner in one of the restaurants as compensation.

A wood-panelled boardroom. Part of the same expensive hotel suite.

I think I’ve only been in Bangkok once before, in 2005. (Apple’s Photos app tells me that it was 2004, but I remember having to miss some early episodes of Series 1 of Doctor Who, which means that it was April 2005. Shut up.) Calvin comes here every year or so, and came here frequently as a child; as a result, he isn’t here to do touristy things.

Instead, he’s here to eat, to shop, and to visit the family temple. We’ve been personally blessed twice — a ritual washing and another ceremony that involved a monk drawing patterns on our heads with oil, wax and some kind of powder. We’ve bought some Buddhas and candles and jewellery and had it blessed. We’ve taken the monks out to lunch. We went to a restaurant called Insects in the Backyard, which Calvin thought was superb, even though it just serves unimaginative Western food sprinkled with deep-fried bugs. And the hotel is at the centre of a massive conurbation of giant shopping centres, which we’ve wandered through for hours, eating and buying things. Bigger clothes, mostly.

A hotel bathroom, clearly decorated in the 1990s. The centerpiece is a big raised bath with steps leading up to it.

A couple of days ago, the toilet in the hotel room got blocked. I cannot honestly claim to be blameless in this matter: I’ve been giving the breakfast buffet a pretty serious workout every morning. Plumbers came to the room a couple of times to fix it, but with no lasting effect. And so they asked us to move rooms again.

Calvin was, of course, terribly annoyed. We ended up meeting some sombre and apologetic hotel managers in the Club Lounge, who told us how deeply sombre and apologetic they were, and invited us to call them at any hour of the day or night if we had any problems at all.

A tastefully dark entry hall, with pillars in the corners, a circular table in the middle, and a heavily-curtained window at the end. There is a massive chandelier hanging from the ceiling.

The toilet in our third room blocked this afternoon.

I went up to the Club Lounge to make a report, and then settled in to write a blog post. Before long, one of the sombre and apologetic managers came up to talk to me. He was dangerously sombre, to a degree that made me want to crack jokes and cheer him up. He said that we would have to move rooms again.

So here we are. I’m in the Royal Suite, writing a smartarse blog post; Calvin is wandering around complaining about the power points. Complimentary dinner tonight, hopefully followed by champagne in the bath. (Probably not, actually; Calvin is a hopeless prosaic.)

God mode

Monday, 1 January 2018

A close up of Angkor Wat's highest tower, covered in balconies and  intricate carvings, silhouetted against a bright blue sky.

I met Calvin in Siem Reap on 27 December.

It had taken me two days to get there from Athens. A flight from Athens to Dubai, which was delayed a couple of hours due to fog in Dubai; a night spent in the First Class Lounge in Dubai, since it was too late to get to my hotel; a flight from Dubai to Bangkok; a night in the Novotel at Bangkok Airport; and then a short flight from Bangkok to Siem Reap.

Calvin is clearly much better at this holiday thing than I am. He used points to arrange our first class flights, and he used points to book us into the Sofitel Angkor Phokeethra Golf and Spa Resort at Siem Reap. It’s a massive hotel, with a spa but no golf course, built in a sort of French colonial style. The staff say bonjour to you as you walk past, even quite late in the day.

A walkway across the water between the dining room and a pagoda. The trees are festooned with lights

I met Calvin at the hotel, dropped off my luggage and immediately went on an informal tour of the city. Calvin had arranged it the day before with a tuk tuk driver he met at a temple he was visiting. We spent a few hours careening around the city, had lunch, and took a boat ride up the river Tonlé Sap to a floating village on the edge of a massive freshwater lake. For dinner, Calvin had made a reservation at a famous restaurant called Haven, which is normally booked up months in advance.

For the next two days, Calvin had booked a tour of the temples around the city. We visited nearly half a dozen on the first day, beautiful ruined temples, surrounded and covered by forest, massive and complex, covered in sandstone carvings. On the second day, we spent the morning at Angkor Wat, arriving before 5 AM and watching the sun rise behind the temple, surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of other tourists.

For me, 2017 was the year of visiting temples — in Sicily, mainland Italy and Greece — and I saw a fair number of temples in Japan in 2016 as well. Angkor Wat is the most impressive temple I have ever seen. Not just the size and scale, but the intricacy of the carvings, on nearly every available surface.

We’re in Luang Prabang now. Calvin booked us a room in the Hôtel Sofitel Luang Prabang, a small resort hotel with only 24 rooms, which was the governor’s residence a hundred years ago, then government offices, and finally, a prison. The swimming pool was probably installed after that.

The front of a hotel. Wide stairs lead up to a pillared verandah. Each pillar is festooned with a coloured lamp. Above the awning, the walls are made of dark wood.

Luang Prabang is much smaller than Siem Reap — 55,000 people. It’s touristy as well, but more in a hippy backpacker sort of way. That’s slightly irritating, in so far as the streets are full of dreadlocked and tattooed young people wearing silk drawstring pants decorated with elephants. But it’s quiet and relaxing. The food is good, both in the restaurants and at the side of the road. And there are fun things to do, but not so many fun things that we’ll be running around non-stop until we leave on Friday.

Calvin organised a tour on our first day: a boat trip to visit a cave containing a thousand Buddha images, and a bus trip to a bear sanctuary and a waterfall. Today, New Year’s Day, we visited as many temples as we could possibly find, and went to the night market to watch young people buying silk drawstring pants. Tomorrow, we’ll be meeting some elephants. Calvin organised it.