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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.”

Asshole.

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.

Burning Star Wars to the ground

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

Rose Tico is in a stone-walled stable looking at a  row of caged stalls. A big horse-like animal (a fathier) looks over the wall of each stall at here.

“I didn’t actually come here to free slaves.”

Qui-Gon Jinn, The Phantom Menace (1999)

Perhaps the most baffling complaint about The Last Jedi is this: the Finn and Rose subplot is poorly integrated, and could easily be cut without damaging the film. I’ve seen this complaint over and over again, even in reviews that are broadly insightful and positive about the movie. And I think it’s completely wrong. The Finn and Rose subplot is thematically central to the film.

Let’s recap. Finn and Rose need to visit a town on the Space French Riviera called Canto Bight, in order to make contact with someone who will help them break the security codes preventing them from boarding Snoke’s ship undetected.

So they leave the fleeing Resistance fleet in a shuttle and land in Canto Bight. Rose warns Finn that the people there are the worst people in the universe. It’s a wretched hive of scum and villainy, apparently.

We cut immediately to a shot of a popping champagne cork. Canto Bight is a gloriously golden deco set full of fat aliens in lovely suits drinking expensive drinks and carelessly throwing gold coins onto roulette tables. Finn is hugely impressed: these are the richest people in the galaxy. This is like nothing we’ve ever seen in Star Wars before.

Then there’s a shot of lots of lovely champagne glasses shaken, Jurassic Park style, by thunderous footsteps outside. We rush to a balcony, much like the balcony on that planet in the Hosnian system from which the Republican government witnessed its own destruction. A race is starting up, a race in which giant horse-like creatures — fathiers — are running around a track; presumably the rich fat aliens are betting extravagantly on the outcome.

While the race is going on, Rose tells Finn why she hates Canto Bight. The people of Canto Bight are rich from the profit they have earned dealing arms to the First Order. Her own planet was mined to create these arms, and then destroyed in order to test them. She doesn’t blame the First Order for this: she blames the fat aliens, the one percent, the richest people in the galaxy.

Throughout Rose’s speech, Finn is using a telescope to watch the fathiers racing. While she describes the oppression of her planet, Finn is watching the fathiers being savagely whipped by their riders: when we seem them later, they will have visible marks from this mistreatment. Then Finn moves the telescope to see one of the trainers attacking a small child, a stable boy. The fathiers and the boy become a symbol for the oppression caused by the people of Canto Bight, including the oppression of Rose’s home planet.

Finn and Rose return to the casino and spot the codebreaker, who seems to be a beautifully-groomed rich arsehole too concerned with his gambling to help them anyway. But before they can reach him, they are arrested by the police, whose job, of course, is to protect the interests of the rich fat aliens, and ensure that their conspicuous consumption should continue unmolested. We’ve never seen the police in Star Wars before: they will be our antagonists until the end of this sequence. The police tase them immediately and take them to prison.

After he rescues Finn and Rose, Benicio Del Toro will tell Finn and Rose that the fat aliens are rich not just because they sell arms to the First Order, but because they also sell arms — X-wings! — to the Resistance. “They blow you up, you blow them up,” he says. It’s not just the First Order oppressing Rose’s home planet. It’s the continual war between the Separatists and the Republic, the Empire and the Rebellion, the First Order and the Resistance. The peoples of the galaxy have been oppressed for decades by Star Wars.


No one in the Star Wars films cares about the miserable inhabitants of Rose’s home planet. (It’s called Hays Minor, as if anyone cared.) The good guys in Star Wars don’t liberate the oppressed. They blow up space stations and smash up Star Destroyers. Or they levitate rocks and ransack their desk calendars for wise sayings about detachment and balance. Even in this film, while Admiral Holdo is bravely sacrificing herself to save people’s lives, Rey is fighting Kylo Ren for possession of Luke Skywalker’s fucking lightsaber.

And that’s why no one on the Outer Rim answers Leia’s distress call from Crait, the planet salty from the tears of a million fanboys. No one on the Outer Rim gives a shit about the Resistance. Because the Resistance does nothing to relieve their oppression: instead, it actively contributes to it, only ever solving things by getting in an (expensive) X-wing and blowing something (expensive) up.


The film has two endings. The first one is the traditional tableau of our rebellious heroes, like the ones at the end of Episodes IV and VI, where the Rebellion celebrates victories that will not end up making life any better for the oppressed inhabitants of Hays Minor.

The second one is unlike anything we’ve seen in Star Wars before. Or is it? Somewhere on the Space French Riviera, the stable boy is telling the story of Luke Skywalker, a story he can’t possibly know. Like Rey, like us, he has an action figure to help him act the story out. Finn and Rose have given him a spark of hope: they released the oppressed fathiers, let them smash up the rich fat aliens’ casinos and cocktail bars, took off their saddles, and left them to run free in moonlight and long grass. Rose was smiling as she did it.

Because the Force doesn’t belong to the Jedi any more, the stable boy uses it to pick up his broom and starts sweeping. He pauses for a moment and, like farmboy Luke, he looks up into the sky. And John Williams kicks into gear.


Rian Johnson has burned Star Wars to the ground. Now we know who the real enemy is. And we know what the Resistance should really be doing. Let’s hope JJ manages to stick the landing in Episode IX.

What to expect from Season 9

Friday, 4 September 2015

With the debut of Doctor Who season 9 only weeks away, it’s time to ask ourselves what we can expect to see from this exciting new series of Doctor Who.

  1. THE DALEKS ARE BACK! For the first time in 5 years, and for the first time ever on TV in colour, the Daleks (and their gorgeous blonde secretarial staff) will explode onto our screen in a thrilling season opener. Aubrey Woods guest stars as a heavily-made up Dalek collaborator with a terrible, terrible secret.
  2. THE RETURN OF THE MASTER! We’ve all being waiting for the return of the Doctor’s nemesis since last year’s season finale, and all reports suggest that we won’t be disappointed. The renegade Time Lord will appear in no less than two stories this season, as crazy and sexy as ever (although a little thicker around the waist).
  3. PENIS-SHAPED MONSTERS! Doctor Who has a glorious history of alien menaces shaped like human genitalia, from the Brains of Morpho to the terrifying Rills — and this year will be no exception. Not even a yellow shower curtain will make this horrifying guest star look acceptable enough to take home to meet your parents.
  4. ALLEGORIES ABOUT RACISM! Nothing sends the kiddies scurrying behind the sofa faster than leaden allegories about the evils of something very obviously evil. So when the Doctor and his companion head off to the planet Solos, expect lots of dull, uncontroversial political messages about how bad genocide is. Thank God that our favourite programme has never been guilty of racism, like those shows that other people enjoy.
  5. INGRID PITT’S BREASTS! Such a shame that so few fanboys are even remotely interested.

Doctor Who season 9 will debut on BBC1 on 1 January 1972.

Dear Neato Robotics people,

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Dear Neato Robotics people,

My partner and I are the proud owners of one of your robot vacuum cleaners. It’s one of five vacuum cleaners he has bought for the house, and he really loves it. He has named it Alice. It’s something that remains undiagnosed, I’m afraid. Anyway. We soldier on.

He is particularly impressed by the design and performance of the robot vacuum cleaner, and proudly informs me that it cost him only just a little more than 1000 AUD. I’m a bit less impressed with it, I have to admit. It finds it almost impossible to cope with rugs: it snags itself on fringes and loose threads and finds itself unable to move any further. I would have thought that rugs were just the thing you might design a vacuum cleaner to be able to deal with, but what do I know? I’m a Latin teacher, not a fucking engineer.

Another sore point is this. We programme the robot vacuum cleaner to work at night, so that it doesn’t annoy the dogs, and so that we don’t kill ourselves by tripping over it on our way to the fridge. However, when the robot vacuum cleaner inevitably snags itself on a rug or a piece of thread, it is designed to inform its owner of the fact by emitting a persistent, plaintive beeping noise, which continues until the battery runs out.

Now there are reasons I might want to be woken up in the middle of the night and warned repeatedly about something. Perhaps the house is on fire, or the zombie apocalypse is underway, and everyone I have ever loved is dead. But, and don’t take this the wrong way, I just don’t need to be woken and warned because the robot vacuum cleaner is shitting itself about encountering a rug on the floor again.

Still, it’s not all bad news. My partner only needs to bring out one of the other four vacuum cleaners nine or ten times a day, and I still get to trip over it when I wander downstairs at night in order to turn the fucking beeping noise off.

Warmest regards,
Nathan Bottomley.

Guns and Frocks

Friday, 28 August 2015

This adventure was going to require a serious frock.

Paul Cornell, Human Nature, Chapter 1

It’s 18 February 1995. My friends and I are attending Tri©on, a Doctor Who convention which is being held at the Parramatta Travelodge in a suburb of Sydney called Rosehill. Mark Strickson is the special guest: he has made the 500-kilometre journey from Armidale, where he is currently studying at the University of New England. He has hilarious things to say about how stunts were performed in the studios at the BBC Television Centre.

One of the items on the programme has already been cancelled. It was called Companion Makeover, presumably in honour of Strickson, but no one is really sure who is running it or what it is supposed to be about. So the organisers have decided to replace it with an interactive panel called DonaWho, in honour of The Phil Donahue Show, which will end its 26-year run some time later in the year. Like its near namesake, this panel will feature a compere with a radio mic who will wander around the room, soliciting bracing contributions from the audience and creating entertaining conflicts among its members.

Twenty years later, I can’t remember why I was the one given that microphone.

I have already planned what I want to do. I may have worked it out on the train on the way up, if I caught the train, or perhaps the night before if I was driving there in my sprightly yellow roadster known as Carol. In any case, I have a plan. “Ladies and gentlemen”, I probably say, “today I intend to create to set fan against fan, to create a rift in Doctor Who fandom that will echo throughout the ages.”

And I mean it. Today, I will split the audience into two irreconcilable warring factions — not Rills and Drahvins, not Savants and Deons, not Daleks and Thals. This time the factions will be called Guns and Frocks.


The ‘Guns and Frocks’ thing dates back a few years now. I think it’s [Doctor Who novelist] Gareth Roberts who said that Doctor Who needs less guns and more frocks. And it became a very quick shorthand for two rough schools of writing in the Doctor Who novels: one of which was militaristic space opera books that were very serious, and took themselves very seriously; and then at completely the other end of the spectrum, very camp ones that did not take themselves seriously….

Interview with Kate Orman, 2005.

By the begining of February 1995, Virgin Publishing had released 22 original novels in its New Adventures range. The range had started in June 1991, two years after the soft cancellation of the TV series, and one month before the publication of the long-delayed novelisation of the last available Doctor Who story, Battlefield.

The New Adventures were explicitly intended to be the official continuation of the Doctor Who story. They starred Sylvester McCoy’s Seventh Doctor, reconceived as the dark and mysterious arch-manipulator we barely glimpsed in Remembrance of the Daleks, along with his companion Ace, whose soft-left politics and fascination with chemistry was inexplicably transformed into a hard-right obsession with military hardware and a fascination with killing things.

I remember being disappointed by the New Adventures at the time. Reading a New Adventure took many times longer than watching a Doctor Who story. And it wasn’t something you could enjoy drunkenly with friends. More than that, though: the New Adventures were grim and dark. They introduced uninteresting plot elements early on that demanded the reader’s memory and attention until they were unimpressively slotted into place towards the end of the novel. And they were heavy with continuity. Not fun Hand-of-Sutekh continuity: dull, leaden continuity involving Arc of Infinity or the history of the Earth Empire as established in the Pertwee Era.

There were a few exceptions. My friend Kate Orman had written a book called The Left-Handed Hummingbird, an immensely clever and well-written piece of science fiction. Paul Cornell had written two novels: Timewyrm: Revelation, which had featured a sentient church and a weird mindscape redolent of nostalgia and love for the television programme we had lost, and Love and War, which had introduced the incomparably clever, knowing and hilarious Professor Bernice Summerfield. And Gareth Roberts — who had loved Tom Baker’s Doctor and Lalla Ward’s Romana nearly as much as I had — whose novel The Highest Science had featured hilarious turtle-shaped aliens, and which would, a million years later, form the basis of the brilliantly entertaining 2009 Easter Special, Planet of the Dead.


Benny grinned at her. ‘My dear Roslyn, frocks are the purpose of life.’ She twirled, her skirt flying out around her, grabbing at her hat. ‘Frocks are what it is all about. Do try to remember that.’

Kate Orman, SLEEPY, Chapter 22

“I’m going to ask you five yes/no questions, and I want you keep count of how many questions where your answer is yes. Ready?”

They are ready, and so I ask them these questions:

  1. Has your enjoyment of a Doctor Who story ever been spoiled by what one of the major characters was wearing?
  2. Have you ever as an adult had to stop yourself from crying while watching a companion’s departure scene?
  3. Do you prefer a companion wearing high heels to one wearing combat boots?
  4. Do you think Delta and the Bannermen is seriously underrated?
  5. Have you ever, in public, in a mixed gathering, impersonated one of the following: Lady Adrasta, Helen A, Count Scarlioni, Harrison Chase, Lady Peinforte or President and Supreme Commander of the Terran Federation Servalan?

“Now I want you to get up and change seats. If you answered yes to zero, one or two of these questions, I want you to sit on this side of the room. You guys are the Guns. But you answered yes to three or more questions, I want you to sit over here. You are the Frocks.”

Fortunately, the audience splits into roughly two equal groups. Here they are, sitting in rows, staring uncomprehendingly at each other across the aisle.


[Nathan] then asked a whole bunch of Who-related questions, trying to determine if there were any real dividing factors. Most factors had people on both sides both agreeing and disagreeing, but some were dividing (opinion on Mel was amazing — the Frocks loved her and the Guns hated her).

The debate was really, really fun and there was no animosity on either side, due to the fun approach.

Stacey Smith?, The Frock Homepage, with Gun

Doctor Who is over fifty years old now. And I love it to death. As my friend and fellow-podcaster Richard once said, it can be anything, any story. An elegiac history lesson about sectarian murder. A ludicrous space opera featuring robot monsters and a megalomaniacal Bond villain. A love story across dimensions. An allegory about racism, a rollicking adventure story featuring racism, a story — many stories — in which the Doctor fights against exploitation, oppression, and villains without any sense of humour.

But there are things about Doctor Who that leave me cold. The history of the Time Lords. Harmonising the ridiculously inconsistent stories of the various Dalek factions. Explaining why the Cybermen in Attack look so much like the centuries-later Cybermen of Earthshock. And believing that watching people with guns attacking other people with guns is adult, serious and entertaining.

Here’s what I love. Billy’s sadness when he remembers how little his friends loved and understood him. Tobias Vaughn’s laughter as Zoë destroys his receptionist computer by talking to it in ALGOL. Pertwee’s time flow analogue, made of forks and corks and tea leaves. The Hand of Sutekh. Tom and Lalla effortlessly outshining the dull, unimaginative forces of evil. Beryl Reid’s tango hairdo. Melanie Bush trapped under a crocheted throw-rug, screaming at an advancing toasting fork. Sylv dancing awkwardly with Ray in Wales in 1959. And a Doctor who would “make the villains fall into their own traps, and trick the monsters, and outwit the men with guns. He’d save everybody’s life and find a way to win.”

Those are things, I hope, that both Guns and Frocks can agree on.