Monday, October 24, 2016


I've come across the diaries of Elizabeth Firth on the universal repository of everything that is the internet. She was a woman of no particular significance, and her diaries are quite literally the dullest things ever written, but they're still of interest to people because Patrick Bronte (father of the famous writers) proposed marriage to her in 1821. She turned him down, sensibly enough - she was young and fairly wealthy, he was twice her age with no money and six small children - but that gives her enough of a connection that her brief scribbles documenting which of her neighbours came to tea that day can still be enthusiastically pored over by fans of that kind of thing.

I would quite like to be famous one day for having been vaguely acquainted with someone notorious. I really hope that somewhere in this last decade of drivel I've subjected my blog-readers to, there's a passing comment about someone who in the distant years to come will be considered really cool and important. I can just imagine people of the 23rd century looking back on this and writing inaccurate footnotes to explain what I'm referring to in blog entries either side of the one where I said I was hanging out with the cool and important person.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Remember memory?

I haven't written enough about memory stuff just lately. The upcoming competitions are all taking shape, whenever I get a moment to spare to arrange things about them - I've got next week off work, more because I needed to use up another five days before the end of the year than because I particularly had to be off, but it'll be nice to spend the week alternately loafing around and finalising all the details for the championships.

Also in memory world, I might well be appearing on a very cool programme, on British TV no less, before too long. I was just thinking to myself "I haven't been on British TV for yonks..." when I got the message about this one - am I one of those people who always dreams of being on TV, even at my advanced age and satisfactory levels of semi-fame? Or was it just perfect timing? Whatever the reason, I said yes straight away, so fingers crossed, it'll be fun for everyone!

Sunday, October 16, 2016

By the horns of the prophet Balag, it's episode 3 of The Pirate Planet!

An anonymouse asked me to write a blog about episodes of Doctor Who written by Douglas Adams. This is a very impressively random request, and I'd like to see more of that kind of thing, please!

Now, there are actually only four episodes of Doctor Who with the credit "written by Douglas Adams" - the four episodes of the serial "The Pirate Planet" (September - October 1978). He also wrote the vast majority of the serial "City of Death", which was credited to BBC stock pseudonym 'David Agnew', and the serial "Shada", which was partly filmed but then abandoned and never broadcast due to a strike. And he was the script editor for series seventeen (1979-80), which included the latter two stories and four others, all of which he contributed a fair bit of writing to. But if you want to be picky and write about episodes 'officially' written by Douglas Adams, you're basically stuck with The Pirate Planet.

As it happens, episode 3 of The Pirate Planet was aired on BBC1 on my second birthday, Saturday October 14th, 1978, at 6:20pm (in between Noel Edmonds' Lucky Numbers and Larry Grayson's Generation Game). I probably didn't watch it. You never know, though, my parents might have had it on in the background and plonked me down in front of it for half an hour before bedtime in the hopes of keeping me quiet while they dealt with my four-month-old baby brother, but I think it's unlikely.

The Pirate Planet was the first thing Douglas Adams wrote for Doctor Who, and still one of the first things he wrote for television, though he'd chipped in bits and pieces here and there for a few years beforehand. He'd previously submitted a script called "The Krikkitmen" to the producer of Doctor Who, which was rejected and eventually recycled into his book "Life, the Universe and Everything", with the Doctor replaced by the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy crew - similarly, large parts of "Shada" and even "City of Death" ended up in "Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency", many years down the road. The Pirate Planet also has a Hitchhiker's connection - very shortly after being commissioned to write the Doctor Who scripts, Adams was given the go-ahead to write the radio series that made him famous. He made that his number one priority, it's fair to say.

The writer's TV inexperience shows. The script to The Pirate Planet calls for a very large number of sets, costumes and characters - even after being rewritten extensively by script editor Anthony Read to make it possible to do it on a BBC budget - with the inevitable consequence that the sets and costumes look very very cheap and tacky, and the acting is pretty uniformly awful. No highly-paid big-name guest stars in this one, although apparently one actor insisted on and got a pay rise because she was required to play the part without her false teeth.

I've got the video - or at least my brother has, and his video collection is crammed into one of my cupboards - so I can happily watch it now and describe it on my blog. But before I do, let's travel back in time a little way, before the internet came along, before videos of old Doctor Who adventures came along, and let's settle down in the 1980s and look around ourselves. As a young Doctor Who fan, I can't just go out and buy a DVD or even a video cassette of the Doctor Who story of my choice. I certainly can't go on the internet and watch it on YouTube or illegally download it from somewhere. The only way I can experience the history of Doctor Who is by borrowing the books from the library.

There were novelisations of nearly every Doctor Who story ever made, going all the way back to 1963. Nearly all of them were written by Terrance Dicks, and all of them were fun, exciting and just awesome to this young fan! But there were just a few Doctor Who stories that weren't available as books - the ones written by Douglas Adams. He wouldn't give permission for anyone else to novelise them, and he wasn't prepared to do it himself for the paltry amount that Terrance Dicks got paid, either (or, to put it more charitably, he was too busy with his many other works). So while I had read and enjoyed the rest of series sixteen (the "Key To Time" year), The Pirate Planet was a fascinating mystery to me. What happened in it? Was it a good story? I didn't even know the title (even reference books were few and far between back then), so I couldn't even speculate whether it was about a planet full of pirates. Would I ever know?

Watching the video, after all that build-up, was something of a let-down. It's not that great. But now let's travel back a bit further, imagine ourselves on my second birthday, October 14th 1978, and tune in our television set (you don't need to tune in a dial, it's a swanky modern TV set with pre-set buttons, hired for a reasonable fee from Radio Rentals) to BBC1. Sit back and enjoy tonight's episode!

The opening titles at this point in history are a sort of rectangular pattern of swirling colours - the TARDIS appears in the middle of it as the theme tune plays, and moves closer towards the viewer, before fading away to be replaced by a wavy tunnel with a circular light at the end, which the camera chases down... then it fades into a picture of Tom Baker's face, which is in turn replaced by the diamond-shaped Doctor Who logo, which recedes down a diamond-shaped tunnel and eventually disappears as the story title "THE PIRATE PLANET" appears on screen, followed by "BY DOUGLAS ADAMS" and finally "PART THREE"

Tom Baker is in his fifth year as the Doctor now, and still going strong. We recall that this year (we're in the second four-part story of the latest series), he and his robot dog K-9 (voiced by John Leeson) have been joined by new companion Romana (played by Mary Tamm), a fellow Time Lord. They've been tasked with retrieving the six segments of the Key To Time, and it's become clear that each story this season will involve them searching for a particular segment, somewhere in time and space, and getting drawn into a largely unrelated adventure.

We start straight off with the ending to last week's episode - in a very poorly-lit underground cavern (really, it's hard to see anything happening), the black-uniformed soldiers of the Captain are chasing the Doctor, Romana and their new friend Kimus (who wears the stylish costume of the people from the planet Zanak). They run into the creepy robe-wearing Mentiads - "Doctor, we have come for you!", the leader ominously intones. That's where we left them last week. Close-up of the Doctor's face, complete with scar on his lip (Tom Baker was bitten by a dog just before filming started!) that is in various stages of healing throughout this story, playing havoc with continuity.

If we stretch our memories, we can remember that the Doctor and his companions thought they were arriving on the planet Calufrax in search of the second segment of the Key, but found themselves instead on Zanak, a planet commanded by the insane piratical Captain and populated by affluent and docile people. It has turned out that the planet Zanak itself is hollow, and can be teleported around the universe, materialising around a smaller planet and draining it of its precious minerals and jewels. Extremely cool concept!

One of the Mentiads pulls back his hood, and Kimus is surprised to see that it's his friend Pralix. It turns out that "We have come for you" is open to interpretation - the Mentiads are nice, and use their mental powers to create a force-wall protecting the heroes from the soldiers. They take the Doctor and his friends back to their base, where K-9 already is, along with another new friend, Mula. She's also surprised that the Mentiads have turned out to be nice.

Back at the Captain's headquarters (the Bridge), he reacts badly to a soldier reporting that the Doctor has escaped again. He unleashes his robot parrot (excuse me, his "polyphase avitron" - classic Douglas Adams stuff) to kill the hapless messenger. The costumes, sets and acting around the Captain are the worst of a bad bunch in this serial.

The Mentiads explain that they're opposed to the Captain, steadily recruiting new people to form a telepathic gestalt to resist him. The Doctor fills them in on Zanak's nature and activities. The Captain rants a bit more to his head scientist, Mr Fibuli. Bruce Purchase, as the Captain, goes too far with his overacting, I think - even though it's part of the script that he's a blustering fool rather than a real leader. His nurse, the real power behind the throne, does a very good job of remaining silently in the background.

The Mentiads fill the Doctor in on the history of their planet - it was ruined by wars instigated by Queen Xanxia, and returned to prosperity when the Captain arrived and took over. The Doctor gets Romana to explain why draining the "life force" of planets affects the telepathic Mentiads, in a way that's very technobabbly and really not as funny as you might expect from Douglas Adams - Doctor Who had recently moved away from a phase of deadly-serious adaptations of classic horror stories and into more light-hearted and silly directions (a good thing, on balance; the 'gothic' era is wildly overrated), but this one doesn't go anywhere near as far into comedy as it could.

The Captain and Mr Fibuli give the viewer a bit of exposition by telling each other what they already know, and don't add anything very significant to what the other characters have already said. He laments being trapped on the planet, and vows to kill the Doctor. The nurse approves.

Then we get our first look this episode at the astonishingly cheap model of the city, because the Doctor and Kimus have gone back to the surface since we last saw them. They lure the pilot of an air-car away with a trail of licorice allsorts, but it doesn't work, and they're captured. Mr Fibuli explains that they've identified the next planet for their piracy, rich in the mineral they need to fix their transporting equipment - turns out it's Earth.

K-9 has been left in the air-car - he hotwires and steals it (well, he extends the sucker thing out of the centre of his head, anyway - you have to use your imagination with K-9, it's not a very complicated prop), while Romana, Mula and the Mentiads walk through the wilderness, and the Doctor wakes up to find himself chained to a wall and confronted by the Captain. Actually, they're not chains. The BBC couldn't afford chains. They're very clearly car seatbelts, in fact. He goads the Captain into releasing him.

The Captain shows the Doctor the little bits of rock that are the remains of the worlds he's plundered. They're compressed in a way that worries the Doctor - it's one of those things that would destroy the universe if it goes just a little bit slightly wrong. The Mentiads are approaching the Bridge, and the Captain makes ready to resist them. He has a machine, powered by crystals from all the plundered planets, that can kill them or something - Kimus is infuriated and wants to attack the Captain. The Captain sets the polyphase avitron on him, but luckily, K-9 arrives just in time!

And... oh dear... there's a fight scene between the two robotic animals. On a shoestring budget. It's one of the stupidest-looking moments in television history. The Doctor and Kimus understandably run away from it and find themselves in a chamber with an old woman, frozen in time. It's Queen Xanxia (no false teeth or anything), suspended in the last few seconds of her life. Outside the door, the nurse is unusually impatient as the guards try to break in.

K-9 joins the Doctor, having killed the parrot. Sending him and Kimus down to sabotage the engines, the Doctor goes back out to see the Captain. He sentences the Doctor to die by walking the plank. "You can't be serious," the Doctor says, sounding more irritated than anything, probably because the cheap set doesn't at all convey the idea that the plank is supposed to be sticking out of a window over a thousand-foot drop. But the guard shoots at his feet, and the Doctor falls! Cliffhanger ending! The credits roll (Tom Baker is credited as playing "Doctor Who", as was always the case, even though in the episodes themselves the character is always just referred to as "The Doctor"), and we'll turn the telly off and put two-year-old me to bed, then settle down to watch Larry Grayson.

So there we have it - it's not a particularly great episode, certainly not by the standards of Douglas Adams, but it's fun and watchable. Far from the worst thing Doctor Who ever did, anyway, and quite worth watching if you're in the right mood. But if you're looking for classic Adams stuff... well, there's a reason he was never famous for writing Doctor Who, I'm afraid.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Signed and delivered

Today's randomly-chosen comic from my collection is number 1010 - Hellions #3, from 2005! Let's see what the next next next generation of mutant superheroes was up to, at that moment!

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A brief history of the X-Men comics is necessary at this point. The X-Men first appeared in 1963 - a comic about a team of teenage mutants at Professor X's school. It was a little bit lost among the many other superhero comics Marvel launched at that time, revolutionising the whole concept of superhero comics and remaining popular to this day, fifty-plus years later. The comic was cancelled in 1970.

It was relaunched in 1975, with a mostly all-new team, adults now (the originals had grown up in a slightly ambiguous way, but weren't teenagers any more at any rate), and became very, very, very popular. The coolest comic in the world, in fact, and so ripe for spin-offs, although at first Marvel were concerned about diluting the concept, and so kept these to a minimum.

The one they did allow, in fact, was New Mutants - a 1982 comic about a small number of teenage heroes who became the adult X-Men's students, and had adventures befitting the next generation of superheroes. There was a rival school of teenage mutants, more evil, called the Hellions and run by Emma Frost, the White Queen. The New Mutants carried on for a while, eventually embracing the gritty, tough, cool trends of the early nineties, changing their name to X-Force, carrying great big guns around and so forth.

In 1993, Marvel launched a new series with a whole new bunch of teenage mutants. This one was called Generation X, and they were, I suppose, the next next generation of mutant superheroes. They had a school too, separate but allied to the X-Men, and one of their teachers was Emma Frost, now on the X-Men's side but still basically the same evil person she's always been. They were cool, for a little while. The 'Generation X' thing got old quite fast, though...

In 2000 came the X-Men movie, which decided to go with the Hogwarts approach and depict the X-Men as having a school catering to hundreds of teenage mutants with cool superpowers (if anyone's wondering who copied whom, the movie came before the Harry Potter movies, but after the first few Harry Potter books), and before long the comics followed the movie's lead, and the X-Men now had a school full of the next next next generation of mutants!

After just being in the background of the grown-up X-Men's comics for a while, the students got their own comic, confusingly called New Mutants (although nobody referred to the characters by that name) in 2003. It focused on a small group of friends at the school, and was very slice-of-life rather than superhero-action - they went to classes, had dates, had arguments, had love triangles, and so forth. Then in 2004 the whole thing was shaken up a bit, the comic was renamed New X-Men: Academy X (in the hope that having "X-Men" on the cover would sell more copies), and the stories got a lot more superheroey - the students were split into squads of six, each under the supervision of one of the older X-Men, and they used their powers a lot more, in cool tests and training challenges. The comic focused on the six heroes, a squad called the New Mutants (that's right, as soon as the title stops being "New Mutants", the characters in it start being called "New Mutants") supervised by one of the original New Mutants, Moonstar; with their antagonists being the Hellions, supervised by Emma Frost.

That brings us up to 2005, when the Hellions were given their own four-issue limited series, and it just shows the problem with 'next generation of superheroes' comics - the previous generations aren't going anywhere! The original X-Men are still around, as young and active as they've always been! The New Mutants are still there, in a sort of uncomfortable no-man's-land of not being quite as grown-up as the X-Men but still being sort of more grown up than they used to be. Generation X are shunted off into limbo, because nobody knows what to do with them. How can we thrill to the adventures of this latest generation, knowing that we can't really see them grow and develop into adult superheroes in their own right, because of the classic superhero-aging problem? (And guess what, it's now 2016, and of course there's a next next next next generation of mutant superheroes out there now...)

So let's turn our attention to the Hellions. This comic has a helpful first page, telling us who the characters are and summarising the story so far - the kind of thing that was badly needed but missing from a lot of comics in this era of paperback-size stories chopped into six issues, but isn't at all necessary for this one, which follows the traditional superhero comic style; the characters mention in dialogue who they are and what's happened until now, they have a self-contained adventure in each issue, building up on sub-plots along the way, and ending with a nice cliffhanger leading into the next. Still, for the purposes of this review, the first page is very helpful:

 photo Hellions 2_zpstlqgx0cq.jpg

(It does seem to promise us Doctor Octopus, who doesn't appear in this comic at all, though...)

The first page doesn't have the creator credits, which come a bit later on - it's written by Nunzio DeFilippis and Christina Weir (a husband-and-wife partnership), pencilled by Clayton Henry and inked by Mark Morales with (in smaller font) Jay Leisten and Rick Ketcham. When you see a penciller and three inkers, it usually means the artwork is a panic-to-hit-the-deadline kind of job, but this one actually looks very nice, all the way through! A lot of panels don't have backgrounds, but the characters all look good, detailed and consistently the same, the poses are a little bit stagey but quite acceptable, and the whole story flows very nicely. I like it a lot.

Colours are (particularly well done) by Wil Quintana, letters by Dave Sharpe, and the editorial board consists of assistant editor Sean Ryan, associate editor Nick Lowe, editor Mike Marts, editor in chief Joe Quesada and publisher Dan Buckley.

The Hellions, it turns out, work perfectly well as protagonists of their own series! They're not just a stereotypical group of bullies at all, even in the parent comic - Brian is a nice guy who just happens to be Julian's best friend; Sooraya is perfectly okay, just a bit unsociable and stand-offish; Kevin is the tortured loner who longs to touch other human beings but never can. This series lets us get to know them a little better, and it's very very well done, too.

We open in the research facilities of Genetassist, in the California Desert. Paladin and Diamondback, two long-established minor Marvel characters who work as mercenaries, generally on the side of good, are at work here, stealing "the sample" and deleting all the data on it from the computer files, while fighting off other people who are after it too. All the major players will be out to get it, Diamondback observes, so they'd better hurry.

Suddenly, the case is snatched - Cessily has slithered her way through the laser beams, as shown on the cover, and nabbed it! The mercenaries are confronted by the full lineup of Hellions - "Didn't anyone teach you that stealing is wrong?" Julian quips.

Then we flash back to two hours previously, with the team discussing the cool things the Kingmaker has done. Cessily is selfishly upset that Kevin can touch anyone now - she fancies him, so it was really quite good when she was the only one he could touch. She and Julian (the most self-centred and unpleasant pair on the team) have a really nice brief heart-to-heart about it, before the Kingmaker calls them in to the meeting room and tells them it's time to sign their contracts. They've had their wishes, now he takes Kevin's cure back, won't bring Sooraya's mother to America and so forth, until they agree to do a favour for him. Reasonably, he even agrees to tell them what this favour will be.

The relationship with the Kingmaker is nicely done, too - even Julian, who's always so cocky and confident around his fellow schoolchildren, looks a lot more nervous and teenagery in the company of a big, assured adult, He shows them Genetassist, explains that they've just completed a major project, and that the Hellions' job is to "stop it being stolen, and bring it to me." He explains that Paladin and Diamondback, among others, are after it. Most of the squad are happy to sign contracts straight away, Cessily needs a little more persuading, but eventually signs.

Back to the present moment, it's time for the big fight. And it's a good one, too - Paladin and Diamondback are outnumbered and don't have any particularly cool powers (they're normal humans with fancy but low-level technology), but they have the advantage of long experience in the superhero game. They both take the attitude that the kids are the ones who are outclassed, and it shows in the first part of the fight.

Brian takes the simple approach and "tags" the briefcase, making the mercenaries run away, but as soon as Diamondback gets out of range, she spins and throws one of her diamonds at his head, knocking him out and cancelling his powers. While Kevin laments that he's useless in this situation (his powers are still turned off by his last dose of the cure, even if he could find a way to use them in the fight), Santo and Cessily go on the attack but are taken down by the pros. Sooraya follows, but not before the mercs have pointed out that the Hellions are stealing a weapon, not doing whatever they think they're doing, Julian's more of a problem - his telekinesis stops him being harmed, and he can just smash Paladin and Diamondback into the walls by exerting his will (he'd probably have done that right at the start, but he was busy getting the unconscious Brian out of the way in case he got hurt). Unimpressed with Diamondback's insistence that she's one of the good guys,  he shuts her up.

 photo Hellions 3_zpsrgiydtpr.jpg

The squad fly away with the case (Julian can fly, and he telekinetically carries the others behind him). The others are uncertain whether they're doing the right thing, and Julian rattles off a succession of valid explanations in a single speech bubble (I love this speech - he's uncertain too, so he's babbling, but the things he says do all make some kind of sense) "Even if they were with SHIELD, where were the agents? Why mercs? They were stealing it, too! You really trust the government any more than the Kingmaker? We made a deal, guys. Signed and delivered."

Back at the Kingmaker's base, Kevin's still not happy and doesn't want to hand over the case. Julian does, Brian agrees with him, but Santo steps in and insists he wants to know what's inside too. So does Cessily, and she can easily use her powers to pick the lock. Sooraya, characteristically, stands back and doesn't get involved. But the case turns out to contain some kind of canister, and the Hellions are none the wiser, until the Kingmaker comes along and tells them it's a biological weapon that could kill millions of people. And yes, it doesn't belong to him, his client "didn't want to have to pay them for the weapon, and he didn't want the government to get it." He insists that the team hand it over, and Julian snatches the case back from Kevin, and does so. A deal's a deal. Cliffhanger ending!

It's a really fun story, I'm glad I got the nudge to go back and read it again. Marvel never did enough with these characters - poor Brian and Kevin have been killed off since this series (though that's not such a permanent problem with Marvel characters as it is with most people), the other four are sort of hanging around in the background among all the millions of other X-Men and not doing much. But they all really shone for a little while in 2005...

If you'd like to see another random comic, give me a number between 2 and 3333! Thanks!

Friday, October 14, 2016

You invited everyone

Mid-Life Krysis is a song by Travis, from their 2003 album "12 Memories", which was full of protest songs about the Iraq war that were very worthy and admirable but nowhere near as good as their previous albums of non-political but much more musically appealing songs. They were probably having a mid-life crisis at the time they wrote it. I was never sure why they spelt it 'krysis' instead of 'crisis', but now I realise that it was an impressively ahead-of-its-time reference to 'Krysis', the latest episode of Red Dwarf, in which Kryten celebrates his birthday and has a mid-life crisis.

It sort of made me wonder, what with it being my 40th birthday, whether I should have a mid-life crisis. It might be fun, but on the other hand, it just seems like too much effort. Besides, I'm not mid-life. Since I'm not planning on ever dying, it follows that I'll never reach the mid-point of my life either, so I'll just plod along as I have been doing until I get bored with it.

I really must unsubscribe from those recruitment agencies, though - look at this one I've just got: "There is a chance to manage a small but busy team also so if you have not managed people before, this is your opportunity to add this to your CV. This company offers flexible working hours so great for anyone who works hard but who wants to finish early on a Friday or to get to that gym class mid week. "

What kind of person do they think I am? Adding important management experience to my CV by day, dashing off to that gym class at night? If they send me an email about a job that will encourage me to watch Red Dwarf and eat cake, well, then I might just be interested.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

I'm turning 40 tomorrow

Could someone do something about that, please? Because I'm sure there must be some mistake.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Northern exposure

Do I count as 'northern' any more? I'm something like twenty miles south of Birmingham nowadays. Well, I'm not southern, anyway.

I get regular spam emails from all the recruitment agencies I've ever registered with, informing me about all the thrilling accountancy jobs out there that would suit someone of my qualifications and experience. The funny thing about it is that all of them come with a paragraph from the agency saying that this job would be a great thing to add a specific kind of experience to my CV.

Add to my CV? I'm (very) nearly forty years old. Even when I was in my twenties, I never looked for a job that I could add to my CV and use as a stepping-stone to some mythical future better job, further down the line. Who does that? Who cares so much about their career development that they apply for a job with the intention of later applying for another job and boasting that they worked in the first job? This is probably why I'm not a financial director.

It's the same with my sort-of career as a memory man. Someone really did once offer me some kind of memory performance gig (I forget what it was) and tell me it would be "great exposure" for me. This is showbiz talk for "not going to pay you" and I was quite thrilled to get it - it means someone, somewhere, thinks my memory tricks are the kind of thing I expect to get paid for!