Saturday, 29 October 2011

Seven Decades of Science Fiction Books: The Eighties

The eighties, now this is when I started reading sci-fi, so there are going to be some real favourites here. And it was a pretty good decade to get the sci-fi bug really. As well as new books we also had new sub-genres, which is a sure sign of rude health.

Firstly the graphic novel really came of age during this decade. Perhaps they should have their own category, but personally I'd rate Alan Moore's V for Vendetta (1982-5), The Ballad of Halo Jones (1984-6) and Watchmen (1986-7), and Neil Gaiman's Sandman (1989-96) as up their with the best novels.

Given how visual the graphic novel is it's a bit of a surprise that the film versions have only been mediocre, but I suspect perhaps that's because people underestimate the subtlety of a good graphic novel. They may have pictures, but they still require you to have an imagination, whereas cinema doesn't.

A genuine new sub-genre was Steampunk. It's difficult to say when this began, but the novel that brought it to my attention was The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers. A menagerie of weird and wacky ideas including sinister stilt walking clowns and an attempt to catch a body-swapping werewolf by opening a hair removal clinic. It really has to be read to be experienced.

Then there was Cyberpunk. I suppose an unbiased list would give this decades award to the book that begins "The sky was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel." Not really my genre but still, great book. And those of us who've grown up with the Information Revolution sometimes forget how new ideas like this are. When I were a lad sci-fi computers were, at best, avatars of HAL from 2001. The one in the original Star Trek seems little better than a Sinclair Spectrum. Arthur C Clarke may have said that sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, but it took William Gibson to show us how close we were to that point. This may not have been the first cyberpunk novel, that may have been Bug Jack Barron by Norman Spinrad, serialised in New Worlds in 1969, but it in the book that popularised the genre.

Another novelty was in Bob Shaw's The Ragged Astronauts , about a binary planet with shared atmosphere, hence interplanetary travel could be accomplished in a balloon.

Rather more complex was Gene Wolfe's The Shadow of the Torturer. Set in a future where the galaxy has been colonised but the earth has slipped back into medieval barbarism, the titular hero is a Journeyman of the Guild of the Seeker After Truth And Penitence. The layers of deception laid down by the author are Byzantine in their complexity and nobody is as they seem.

Another almost winner is a novel in an unlikely location for a science fiction story; a wood in Kent. This is Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock,a place that is it not only bigger on the inside than the outside, but also a place where myths take physical form.

I read the book whilst living in the woods of Newbury during a record cold winter, which probably increased its effect on me a touch, but it is a magnificent and thoughtful book. Alas I have to admit that although you could make an attempt at explaining all this by means of Relativity and Jungian archetypes, I have to ultimately classify Mythago Wood as fantasy and not sci-fi.

Gosh that's a lot of worthy winners, and I haven't had time to mention Carl Sagan's Contact, Margaret Atwood's The Handmaiden's Tale, Greg Bear's Eon, Frank Herbert's Dune and many others.

Instead I'll skip straight to the winner; Consider Phlegas by Iain M Banks, the first of his Culture novels.

It is difficult to describe how much I love these books. Firstly here is top notch space opera, lasers, battles, robots, The Works. Secondly we also have something that has largely disappeared from the silver screen - an optimistic, liberal future.

Banks's Culture is a strange beast. It is not only Post-Scarcity, it's also post-human. The Dictatorship of the Proletariat has been ditched in place of the Dictatorship of the Artificial Mind. It clearly works, because Banks says it does, but does beg some interesting questions. Do the controlling Minds really have the best interests of human being at heart?

And what do those humans (and not quite humans) actually do? Banks describes their spaceships in details. Communist from the inside and Anarchist from the outside, they skip merrily about his stories. However as we only ever get to hear about how the Culture interacts with other civilisations we don't learn alot about the daily lives of its less adventurous denizens. Oodles of sex and drugs are clearly on the menu, but its not clear how they avoid the pointless debauchery of Brave New World.

But most of these questions are for the future for in Consider Phlegas we are catapulted into the middle of the best space war since Bob Heinlein passed on as the Culture takes on the Idirans, a bunch of space faring warriors who make the Klingons look like a bunch of boy scouts.

We have not yet seen a film version of any of these books, which is probably fortunate, but thanks to his non-sci-fi output Banks has at least received the critical acclaim he deserves, and which previous writers have been denied. As a book of the decade Consider Phelgas could well mark the high point of the genre.

Winner: Consider Phlegas by Iain M Banks (1987)

Seven Decades of Science Fiction Books: The Seventies

In the sixties the sci-fi novel had managed the quantum leap to serious literary style, but still nobody took them seriously. Still it was a strong decade for the genre.

In 1970 Larry Niven gave us Ringworld, an artificial habitat the size of three million earths. Unfortunately it's an idea bigger than his imagination and instead of a thriving civilisation of several trillion people we land in an almost abandoned desert, which is a bit of a disappointment.

Another big concept novel is Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C Clarke, a welcome return to top form by the British master. Once again though the idea is bigger than novel and once it's all over we are not much wiser about Rama or its designers.

One writer who could take the Big Concept and run with it though was Philip José Farmer, who in 1971 gave us To You Scattered Bodies Go, the first of his Riverworld series. Here we had everyone who had ever lived brought back to life and youth for some unknown reason on a specially made planet whose surface is a 20 million mile long version of the Mississippi.

Eventually pretty much everyone would turn up in Riverworld, from Herman Goering to Jesus. Framer himself even has a cameo under pseudonym. The series would run to five books and an anthology of short stories and although such high concept stuff often disappoints in the final real, Farmer does a pretty good job of bringing it to a conclusion. Basically the Buddhists were right.


Meanwhile back in Blighty John Brunner had two more classics left in him. Sheep Look Up gives us a vision of environmental apocalypse with corrupt corporations, a compliant legal system and a President chosen because the "public obviously wanted a figurehead who'd look good and make comforting noises."

Then he wrote Shockwave Rider, which looked at the social effects of technology. A natural disaster reveals the truth, quickly suppressed by the authorities, that people are actually happier with less gadgets. The hero then sets out to destroy the corrupt system by means of a computer program that reproduces itself - the first computer virus in sci-fi. I'd dearly love to give Brunner an award, but I will once again have to pass him over.

Another writer from the sixties still knocking them out was Philip K Dick, and this decade he produced A Scanner Darkly and Flow My Tears The Policeman Said. The latter is set in a future police state in which a television star wakes up an finds he no longer exists. Boy, aren't there a few people I'd like that to happen to in real life.

Another author I feel guilty about not manging to give a winners medal to is Ursula Le Guin. Having started strongly in the sixties, in the seventies she gave us The World for World is Forest, which is Avatar for grown ups. She also wrote The Lathe of Heaven , a moral tale about being careful what you wish for, and Eye of the Heron, a feminist view of both men who oppress by violence and those who choose to get themselves beaten up by opposing them.

Best of all she wrote The Dispossessed, a political novel that compares a planet split between capitalism, with the anarchists who live on its moon. It's clear where the author affections lie, but fair play to her she gives her opponents a fair hearing and her capitalists are environmentally friendly whilst the authoritarians do seem to actually be trying to be a Dictatorship of the Proletarian. However its the anarchists who are the interesting ones. Two hundred years into their experiment centripetal forces are threatening to create hierarchies and everyone is still dirt poor.


But my winner is neither a grim prediction of the future or a meditation on political realities, but something completely differnet. Douglas Adams's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is really a radio show, but it turns into a decent book (or decent pair of books really as it makes very little sense without The Restaurent at the End of the Universe.

I started my review of the decade by discussing authors who went for the Big Concept, and you don't get many bigger questions than the Answer to Life, the Universe and Everything. You also don't get many better answers than 42.

Winner: The Hichhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams(1979)

Seven Decades of Science Fiction Books: The Sixties

Now its getting really hard. Heinlein, Clark and Asimov were still busy, the former writing his best stuff. But there were new kids on the block, and a very new style of writing.

At the heart of this revolution was a British magazine called New World's, especially after Michael Moorcock took over editorship in 1964. It never made any money, and was funded by the success of the Elric books (and apparently by the regular sale of dirty jokes to Playboy magazine written by Christopher Priest), but it helped launch a whole galaxy of sci-fi greats; J G Ballard, Brian Aldis, Harlan Ellison, George R R Martin, Norman Spinrad, John Brunner and Philip Jose Farmer. However when it comes to the best book of the decade I'm torn between three Yanks and a Brit.

Firstly there's Kurt Vonnegut, maybe not Slaughterhouse 5, but the rather better Cat's Cradle. Having survived the fire bombing of Dresden whilst a POW and then been sent to search for survivors using candles made from victims of the death camps, Vonnegut has a certain view on life. However he leavens his grim stories with ironic humour. He also introduced us to the world's best science fiction writer, Kilgore Trout, but unfortunately he's fictional so can't win.

Then there's Ursula Le Guin. Best know for Earthsea, her science fiction books are at least as good. Her debut novel, Rocannon's World, gave us Lord of the Rings in space, and The Left Hand of Darkness, and everyday tale of life on a planet of gender-shifting humans in which the king gets pregnant.

The final American is Philip K Dick. Drug addled and by the end of his life arguably clinically insane, his books resemble the decade as a whole: brilliant and revolutionary, confusing and conservative all at the same time. Unlike some of the space operas and nuts-and-bolts sci-fi stories his tales of warped realities and fractured identities have aged well and are as unsettling and believable today as when they were written. His stand out stories of the decade include Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the book that became Blade Runner, and The Man in the High Castle, an outstanding alternative history (or is it an alternative reality?) story.

The token Brit is the scandalously underrated John Brunner. He wrote a lot of mediocre storied for money, but he also wrote four absolute classics and in the sixties these were Jagged Orbitt and Stand on Zanzibar . The first gave us a twenty-first century America where arms manufacturers and racial tensions had stoked an arms race in personal weaponry, whilst the second gave a grim vision of the world in the year 2010. This is a planet straining under the weight of 7 billion people, a place characterised by random spree killings, anti-technological eco-terrorists, an obsession with cosmetic beauty treatments and powerful corporations.

Picking a winning out of these is going to be tough.

Whilst I was planning this blog I was sure Stand on Zanzibar would be the winner. If sci-fi is about predicting the future then the winner has to be Brunner.

However he is typical of the decade only in so far as he represents that strand of the New Left who still clung on to rationality whilst everyone else went to discover themselves by meditating in an Ashram in California.

But if sci-fi really reflects contemporary themes then it's got to be Philip K Dick. Picking his best book is difficult, but my personal favourite is The Man in the High Castle. Alternative history, life in fascist state, five overlapping sub-plots, a book-within-the-book and a meditation on the nature of reality, Philip K Dick shows us why this was the decade that the sci-fi book grew up and became serious literature.

It was also massively ahead of it time. Psychedelia, opposition to the Vietnam War and the whole counter-culture thing were years in the future in 1962. So Dick isn't just a product of his time, he is, as much as Jack Kerouac and the Beatniks, a foretaste of the wackiness and rebellion that was to come. And it was to be quite a trip.

Winner: The Man in the High Castle by Philip K Dick (1962)

Seven Decades of Science Fiction Books: The Fifties

Now it's getting hard.

The fifties was when sci-fi really took off. The age of the Atom Bomb and the Space Race people were split into believing we were on the verge of curing all the world's ills, or else that we would blow ourselves to oblivion. In the end we did neither, but we did write a lot of good books.

This was the decade that defined sci-fi, and for me four authors stand out.

Firstly there was Bob Heinlein, an all American right wing individualist nut job, but a first rate writer. Starship Troopers is scarily fascistic, but pretty much gave us the well known Star Trek future of minimal states with massive navies as well as Avatar-style power armour.


Then there was Ray Bradbury, who this decade wrote The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451. Bradbury though was more of a stylist than an ideas man, so he only gets the bronze medal.

So this leaves the two giants of the fifties to battle it out: Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke. It's a tough choice, in no small part because both have written an awful lot of guff over the years.


Asimov gave us the big picture, the fall and rise of space empires in the Foundation Trilogy , time travel in The End of Eternity, space opera whodunnits in The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun and robots by the bucket load.

Clarke, the man who invented the communications satellite, eventually became the master of the 'nuts and bolts' style of realistic near-future stories. However in the 50s he was writing about broader topics and his great books of this decade are The City and the Stars, Childhood's End and the short story The Sentinel - which eventually turned into 2001 A Space Odyssey.



It's a close call, and I'm tempted to give the award to Asimov's Foundation for the breadth of its vision. However the sheer 1950ishness of a space empire with atomic powered spaceships and a filing system based on microfilm lets it down and, to be honest, it's not that well written.

So maybe it's just patriotism, but I'm going to give the award to the Englishman for Childhood's End. Clarke not have predicted the future of space travel, but he did predict the future of sci-fi as he gave us giant alien spaceships hovering over our cities and the world's children being rounded up to give to the aliens fifty years before District 9 and Torchwood: Children of Earth.

Winner: : Childhood's End by Arthur C Clarke (1953)

Seven Decades of Science Fiction Books: The Fourties

Funnily enough there weren't all that many great sci-fi books written in the 1940s.

Partly his was because H G Wells died in 1946, a year after the war he predicted had been brought to an end in a flash of heat rather similar to a Martian death ray.

The winner then is rather obvious. It is of course George Orwell's 1948 taster of what life might be like during the Cold War - Nineteen Eighty-Four.

A sombre book made even darker by the fact that Orwell died just after finishing it. It appears to be his last will testament, a pessimistic look back at his life's futile struggle against totalitarianisms from Barcelona to the Blitz.

But of course he didn't mean to die when he did. "Don't let it happen" was his motto, and he certainly didn't want anyone who read his book to give up and let Big Brother take over. Optimists have even seen hope in the essay on Newspeak at the back of the book. It's written in the past tense, so does that mean it was written after the time of Big Brother?

Neither was he sure that English Socialism would mutate into IngSoc. His near contemporary essay The Lion and the Unicorn sets out a curious vision of a post-war England after the Revolution in which the judges still wear wigs and the pubs still serve warm beer.

Compared to Huxley's globalised world of trivial hedonism and slick advertising, the world of Big Brother seems rather old fashioned. Doublespeak is mere crude propaganda compared to the delights of the Feelies. But Orwell still packs his punch.

Maybe the future of 1984 came crashing down with the Berlin Wall, but maybe not.

We are still Airstrip One, 'Compassionate Conservatism' and 'Blue Labour' show Doublespeak is alive and well but today called Triangultion. Rupert Murdoch does a good line in Prolefeed and despite the Credit Crunch the Ministry of Plenty is still trying to convince us we've never had it so good. Perhaps today we call the Ministry of Truth Fox News, Room 101 Guantanamo Bay, and as for English Socialism? Well, it has clearly been to see O'Brien and now thinks two plus two equals five.

Winner: Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell (1948)

Seven Decades of Science Fiction Books: The Thirties

Sci-Fi is primarily a literary medium as frankly the pictures are better, so having done Sci-Fi films I thought I'd have a look at books. I've started 20 years earlier as literary sci-fi is at least a decade or two ahead of the cinema.

Had a started this list earlier the thirties would have been the first decade since the 1880s not to be won by H.G. Wells, but it would be a close call. Wells published The Shape of Things to Come in 1933, his last great book, in which he predicted a devastating world war beginning in January 1940, and ending with the world run from an air base in Basra. Hmmm.


There was also Olaf Stapledon who in 1930 published Last and First Men, a history of the entire future of the human race over the next two billion years and which included in its predictions the prominent death of a British Princess in Paris. He followed that in 1937 with Star Maker, a history of the entire universe. He didn't exactly do kitchen sink drama, and his books aren't exactly easy to read either, but they are dizzying in their perspective.

A slightly left field choice would be pulp horror writer H. P. Lovecraft's Shadow Out of Time. Loecraft may have been possibly insane, potentially a Nazi and certainly a bit of a weirdo, but he could write. Most of his work is clearly fantasy or horror, but this book, whilst set in the Cthulhu Mythos universe, can count as sci-fi as its the one about the body swaping, time travelling Great Race of Yith. The final scene where the hero, now back in his own body, discovers an ancient manuscript in his handwriting would make a pretty good Doctor Who scene.

However despite the stiff competition I will, rather predictably, give the prize to Aldrous Huxley's Brave New World. The idea of a future that is trivial, uniform and soulless must have seemed pretty boring compared to the grand adventures of Wells and Stapledon. But lets face it - this is what we've got.

Huxley was a strange chap, and although always described as a dystopia, I suspect he was rather ambivalent about the future he created, at least when it comes to the sex and drugs. His later utopia, The Island, quite a lot of both as well.

But that's not the main point of the book. Instead Huxley looked at how industrialisation had changed the workplace, and imagined those forces being set to work on society. He realised that the best best way to hide the truth was not to ban books, but to deluge us with trivia.

Huxley released that the prison we need to really fear does not have walls made of the things we hate and fear, but bars forged from the things we crave and desire. The book is hilariously funny in places, but also unrelentingly grim as Huxley describes a world that is shockingly familiar to us. When the hero finally hangs himself, you can see why.

Winner: Brave New World by Aldrous Huxley (1932)

Six Decades of Sci-Fi Films

Nothing dates like the future, as you can see by this trawl through the best of sixty years of science fiction films.

We were going to travel to the stars, be devoured by aliens, replace ourselves with replicants, disappear into cyberspace or be landed with a ship load of space refugees.

Instead the shuttle has been paid off, the aliens are silent, the clones don't work, cyberspace crashes if you move too far from the base station and if we don't do something about Climate Change the refugees will be us.

But lets ignore grim reality and look to back at the future as presented on the silver screen.

The Fifties: The Forbidden Planet(1956)



Well you know you're in the the fifties when you watch Forbidden Planet. Spaceships that look like flying saucers, computers the size of tower blocks, and women relegated to housework.

But what a great film this is. Having grown up int he seventies watching corny CSO special effects on Doctor Who, I couldn't believe a film that looked this good could be made so long ago. As a prediction of the future it is probably pants, but as a vision of how we hoped the future would turn out, it's fantastic. Great style doesn't date, and neither does the look of this film.

As a take on Shakespeare its interesting too, with the Krell's supersized superscience replacing magic and a bit of Freud creeping in for good measure to impress pseudo-intellectuals like me.

And yes, that is a young Leslie Nielson of Police Squad! as the romantic lead.

The Sixties: 2001 A Space Odyssey (1969)



The first time I watched this film I couldn't make head nor tail of it. I then read Arthur C Clark's novelisation and realised it was obvious. I then watched the film again and thought, hang on a minute.

And that's what's fantastic about Kubrick's film. He took Clark's nuts and bolts sci-fi story of heroic space exploration and benevolent aliens and turned it inside out. Now the aliens teach the ape-men to make clubs that turn into orbiting nuclear bombs, and the shiny future is full of charmless, corporate yes-men who lie to the public and miss their daughter's birthday.

And then there's Freud again. I mean, look at the Discovery One, swimming towards the black hole and then giving us the Star Child.

True, you need to be on pot to really want to watch a film this pretentious, this long and this slow, but then this is the sixties and most of the audience apparently were.

The Seventies: Alien (1979)


If you were expecting Star Wars then you're reading the wrong blog. Alien is the genre defining film of this decade.

Now you could argue that the genre concerned is the slasher movie, but it is a sci-fi movie really. Here we have space not as mysterious and exciting, but as the boring, everyday workplace of a bunch of interstellar truck drivers.

Apparently J.G.Ballard was approached to write the novelisation of Alien, but he looked at the monosyllabic dialogue and turned the offer down, only to realise his mistake when he saw the film. You can see where he went wrong though. The script is okay, but it's Ridley Scott's direction and H.R.Giger's designs that make it a classic.

And of course Freud is there in bucket loads too, as this alien doesn't just eat you, it impregnates you and you give birth to its off spring. Yuck.

The Eighties: Blade Runner (1982)



Blade Runner almost gets my vote as best movie of all time.

Almost, but not quite, and the reason is a rather annoying one.

Everyone knows the debate about whether Decker is a replicant. It seems fairly clear director Scott intended him to be, and every time they retouch the film and release a new version this becomes clearer. But, and its a very big but, no matter how they tweak it they can't get round the fact that Harrison Ford was clearly not trying to play a replicant. It's not a bad performance by Ford, but that' part of the problem. His Blade Runner is too human.

But Ford isn't the star of th show. That is clearly Rutger Hauer. This is Mr Guinness's finest moment. He is handsome, noble and menacing throughout the film, in the way that only Robert Shaw could equal. He murders his father (Freud again, need I say) bumps off the nice J.F. Sebastian, is really mean to Decker, and then ends the film with one of the best soliloquys in cinema.

Ultimately Blade Runner may not amount to a hill of beans, but so well made, well acted and well designed is this dystopian classic that you'll come away thinking it was more profound than Proust.

The Nineties: The Matrix (1999)



In the nineties computerised special effects arrived and the only limit to what could be shown on screen was human imagination. Unfortunately that turned out to be a fairly serious limitation, and mostly we just got superhero stories, but we did get the Matrix.

Okay, so the sequels have reduced the concept to utter silliness, and the idea (and the name) were both nicked from a Tom Baker Dr Who story (1976's The Deadly Assassin), but it was still a jaw dropping film when it came out.

Not that it's an optimistic film, along with the runner up for this decade, Terminator II, it shows a pretty grim future. Alien and Blade Runner may have shown that the future doesn't hold much for those at the bottom of the social ladder, but these films suggest that the only things that can look forward with optimism are our PCs.

The Noughties: District 9 (2009)



The special effects continued to get better, but whilst this has revitalised the fantasy genre and TV sci-fi, in the movies it was largely the same backward looking stuff, as epitomised by that vapid rubbish Avatar, which re fought the Vietnam war with ten foot high smurfs three and half decades after everyone else moved on.

There were a few exceptions though, and chief amongst them was District 9, a stunningly original South African film. The hero who becomes more humane as he becomes less human, and the alien racism analogy had been done before, although possibly not done better. However the invasion by crap aliens was new. Previously First Contact was either a Very Bad Thing or a Very Good Thing. Here it's just a hassle, another problem for the UN, another opportunity for the evil corporations.

Summary

So what have we learnt in sixty years of sci-fi films? Well, if this list is anything to go by the optimism has certainly gone.

In the fifties and sixties we looked forward to boldly going in search of adventure and excitement, admittedly in the service of some sort of quasi-fascistic state.

In the seventies and eighties it became apparent that this Brave New World wasn't for everyone, and that there'd be a lower strata of workers either to be used as alien-fodder for the corporations or abandoned on a dying earth whilst the elite moved to Mars.

Then in the nineties the future was given over to the machines, and any aliens we met were in a worse state than.

All said, I think I wish I was back in the fifties.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

The Best of Doctor Who: The Eighth Doctor

Well this should be easy. Paul McGann, the Doctor for one night only. What's his best story then?

Well, I could cheat and consider media other than TV, in which case I'd go for the animated version of the Douglas Adams story Shada that he voiced.

But no, I'll have to play fair and nominate the story known only as Doctor Who The TV Movie. This was an attempt to revive the series by setting it in the USA, something it notably failed to do.

It's not so much that the story is actively bad, it just has a complete absence of anything good in it. This is Doctor Who by numbers with lines such as "Would you like a jelly baby?" (groan), "Don't mind him he's English" (cringe) and "I'm half human" (roll around on floor going 'nooooooooo!').

Eric Roberts makes a passable villain, although he's clearly not The Master, and Daphne Ashbrook makes a passable companion.

There's certainly been worse stories on US television, but is it Doctor Who? Only just. Yes there's a blue box, but where is the multi-layered plot, the monsters who turn out to have hearts of gold, the moral dilemmas etc etc.

But enough of the plot, what about McGann? Well, before I answer that lest have a quick recap of the debut stories of the various Doctors. William Hartnell was of course perfect from the word go, Patrick Troughton's first outing is, alas, lost forever whilst Jon Pertwee spent most of his first story out cold in a hospital bed. Tom Baker left us for a while in the TARDIS leaving Sarah Jane to carry the story whilst Peter Davidson spent most of his debut in a box. The less said about the intial appearances of Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy the better.

So you'd have to say McGann's debut performance was probably the best since The First Doctor's thirty three years earlier. He was The Doctor straight out of the box. Debonair and romantic, he could have been the best of Doctor Who. Instead he will remain a one hit wonder.

The Best of Doctor Who: The Seventh Doctor

If any actor who played the Doctor has grounds for asking for his money back its Sylvester McCoy.

Originally recruited to clown around with Bonnie Langford in a series of embarrassingly bad episodes, it seems he'd been taken on by an out-of-touch production team to see out the twilight of the series in some pre-CBBC slot for adolescents who haven't the energy to change channels. It was so bad you really did want to hide behind the sofa.

But then Andrew Cartmell took over as script editor. He couldn't save the write off that was McCoy's first series, but for the show's 25th anniversary series he got to work on his Master Plan. Out went the comedy Time Lord and Bonnie Langford, and in came a darker Doctor and a companion with a back story.

Now you can argue that if you were going to do this you wouldn't really want to do it with actors of such limited range as McCoy and Sophie Aldred, but that's what happened and, to be fair to the two leads, they did their best and, if nothing else, their genuine affection for each other did show through.

McCoy's second season began with a bang with Ben Aaronovitch's Remembrance of the Daleks, which took us back to Foreman's Scrap Yard in 1963, gave us duelling Dalek factions in league with the National Front and introduced us to UNIT's forerunner The Intrusions Counter-Measures Group.

The series then went off the rails a bit before coming back strongly with the pointless, baffling but wonderfully surreal Greatest Show in the Galaxy. Don't ask me what it's about, but menacing kites and a killer bus conductor work for me.

McCoy's third series though was his best. Four top notch stories and not a bad episode amongst them. The show had been throwing up at least one utterly cringe worthy script a year since Tom Baker hung up his scarf, so this was the best series since the Key to Time.

First there was Battlefield, a welcome return for UNIT and the Brigadier as they fight an honourable foe in the form of Jean Marsh's Morgaine and her dimension shifting knights. Fortunately UNIT are all tooled up with their new ass-kicking female Brigadier and a range of bullets for all eventualities.

Then there was Ghost Light, which was very much in Sapphire and Steel territory being set in a Victorian mansion populated by strange characters and evolutionary throwbacks.

Next we had The Curse of Fenric, set in Northumberland in World War II and featuring code breakers, a Viking curse, Russian commandos, vampires, Nicholas Parsons as a consience troubled vicar, and lots of hints that the Doctor is now 'more than just a Time Lord'. Okay, so it was a vampire story film during the day due to technical limitations, but it really was on location in the north of England (Yorkshire standing in for Northumbria).

Finally there was Survival, in which Anthony Ainsley as The Master finally stops doing a poor impersonation of Roger Delgado and becomes the feral predator I suspect he always wanted to play.

And that was that. Literally. The BBC canned the series and it was all over.

So what's the best Seventh Doctor story then? Well I'd have liked it to have been Battlefield, but the pacing is a little uneven thanks to it being stretched from three episodes to four episode and the knights look cheap (because they were). Still it was nice to see old Lethbridge-Stewart doing all right, married to the previously invisible Doris and living in a huge mansion. How he paid for it I've no idea. Maybe he pocketed a few of the gold bullets.


So the winner has to be The Curse of Fenric. Had it featured a more iconic Doctor and a more iconic monster it would be a contender for the best ever story, I'm sure. Watching it now I realise that thanks to Cartmell the jump from the old series to the new wasn't that great after all.

With a contemporary theme (pollution), the Doctor hovering in the background letting his companion do all the work and poor old Ace gets put through the emotional wringer, this could have been an RTD script. But whereas the new series likes to paint it characters in black and white, here we are in shades of grey again and there is no Ghost in the Machine ending, but instead a complicated denouement that I would explain to you if only I could remember it.

Shortly after broadcast Doctor Who was no more, but at least the old series went out on a high.

The Best of Doctor Who: The Sixth Doctor


Colin Baker - he was the crap one right?

Wrong. He was the loud one, the fat one, the one worst served by the BBC in terms of stories and production values, but he was a pretty good Doctor. Egotistical, boastful, verbose, unpredictable and occasionally violent, he was a bit different from his predecessors.

Colin Baker got the role on the basis of a scenery chewing performance in Blake's 7 and a speech at a wedding. The costume is, admittedly, a disaster, but that was imposed on Baker by John Nathan-Turner, a producer who had really lost the plot by this stage.

So dressed like a wally Colin Baker had to navigate some of the worst Doctor Who stories ever written. Is there any point in watching?

Well yes, because of all the actors who flew the TARDIS, none could deliver a comic line better than Colin Baker, and given some of the guff he was asked to act in, you need a good laugh.

However if I want you to love Colin Baker there's no point in going over episodes like The Two Doctors, in which the welcome return of Patrick Troughton and Frazer Hines was ruined by a dull script, or Timelash in which Paul Darrow from Blake's 7 returns the favour to Baker by putting in an OTT performance, but looses the battle against risible sets and dire special effects.


Instead lets go straight to the highlight of Colin Baker's brief tenure; Revelation of the Daleks.

Like all the best Dalek episodes, the metal dustbins are kept in the background for most of the story. Instead we have a complex series of at least five overlapping subplots, set around a cryogenic storage facility for the dead rich.

Davros is secretly making a new Dalek army from bits of dead humans (hmm, so that's where RTD got the idea from ...). Meanwhile we also have Orsini and Bostock, an errant knight and his squire on their way to assassinate Davros. Then we have the to rival Dalek faction out to get Davros too and whilst all this is going on we have bodysnatchers, some dodgy food production, power struggles in the management structure and a loopy DJ.

An idea of what we have in store is given when one of the characters comments on recently departed client "I hope we're on time, she's already beginning to froth." After that the killer lines come fast and furious. The founder of Alternative Comedy, Alexi Sale, plays the DJ, but it's a credit to the rest of the cast, who deliver the blackest of lines with deadly seriousness, that he isn't the funniest.

The best double act of all though is the Doctor and Peri. Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant always sparkled when together. Take the fob watch scene - you have to see it to appreciate it - which shows how good they are at spinning out even the weakest of puns.

The only down side to putting Revelation forward as his best adventure is that he's barely in it. There's so much going on that he's periferal to most of the story, and in the end Davros's empire more or less falls apart under its own contradictions, rather being brought low by some inexplicable special ability of the Doctor and/or the TARDIS. But that's another reason I like the story - it's realistic, that's how Dictatorships usually end.

If every Sixth Doctor story had been this good we'd all be singing the praise of Colin Baker as one of the great Doctors.

Alas they weren't.

However the Sixth Doctor has gone on to a long and productive second lease of life in books and audio releases, and Colin Baker has had the pleasure of being voted the best audio Doctor of all. He has even, thanks to the animated webcast Real Time, obtained a costume worthy of his character. All of which must be some compensation for being so diabolically treated by the BBC.

The Best of Doctor Who: The Fifth Doctor



We're now in 1981, and properly into the John Nathan-Turner years.

Now before I go on I should saw that Doctor Who fans owe a considerable debt to the man who produced the series for the whole of the 1980s. Without him the show would probably have died a death shorty after Tom Baker hung up his scarf, and if that had happened it's hard to see the show eventually coming back in the way that it did.

However what Nathan-Turner actually did with the show was not good. By executive order he removed all elements of magic, myth and horror, banned his actors from humour or ad-libs, disintegrated the sonic screwdriver, reduced the Doctor to a rather helpless victim of events, and extracted the show from its regular Saturday teatime slot. So with everything that made the show good expunged, I switched off.

So Peter Davidson isn't my favourite Doctor then. A good actor, Davidson might have made a great Doctor had he been a little older, served with better scripts, and been allowed to play the character the way he wanted to. Choosing the best of the Fifth Doctor stories then isn't going to be too hard, as there are only really two I'll watch again.

I suppose in passing I should mention Kinda, very meaningful but don't ask me what it means, and The Black Orchid, very atmospheric but a bit ridiculous, but as I've not watched either in nearly thirty years I can't really say more.

I'm tempted to give the award to The Five Doctors. The plot isn't great. It couldn't be otherwise really as Terrance Dicks had to cram in so many Doctors and Companions that by the end the latter are reduced to doing nothing more than standing around and shaking hands with each other. But it does have a sparkling performance by Patrick Troughton, an enjoyable turn by Jon Pertwee and Richard Hurndall in the role-of-his-life as the First Doctor. It also has Tom Baker who, even in some out-of-context footage from the aborted Shada, easily out Doctors his successor.

The story can also claim what may be the best battle scene in the old series, when the Raston Warrior Robot obliterates a cyberman patrol - Doctor Who isn't usually remembered for squirting innards and severed limbs. The cyberman are otherwise total crap in this episode, as they are throughout the 1980s, but they do at least die spectacularly well.

Considerably better is The Caves of Androzani. Robert Holmes again comes up with interesting characters and Peter Davidson actually has some acting to do, possibly because Homes didn't understand his Doctor and wrote as if for Tom Baker.

Davidson starts off in typically wimpish form with lines like; "What do we do now?" - "Surrender." and "How do we get out of this?" - "I really have no idea." And he has to be rescued from his own execution by a villain of all people. However by episode three he seems to have grown some balls and manages to eventually rescue Peri and save the day.

But even better is Enlightenment. I've had my doubts about including Special Editions with new effects, but as in this case all they've done is replace first rate model work with second rate CGI the difference isn't huge. Enlightenment takes what the BBC can do well, acting and historical sets, and runs with it. There are no planet invading monsters just the enigmatic Celestials and - unfortunately - the Guardians. 


Lynda Baron (nurse Gladys Emmanuel from Open All Hours) flirts with Turlough whilst wearing thigh length boots and Tegan is only mildly irritating. The result is enigmatic and interesting, something Doctor Who rarely managed during the eighties.

The Best of Doctor Who: The Fourth Doctor

Ah, the Tom Baker years, and Doctor Who reaches heights never attained before or since.

And depths too, to be honest, but we'll forget about that.

The curly one started off with a few earth based stories left over from the Pertwee years, then blasted off into space for a series of Gothic horror film remakes that are amongst the best of the series. He then said good by to the earth and ditched his last human companion to search for the Key to Time.

Then things started to go a bit wobbly. They gave the job of script editor to a zany comedy writer - a very brave move. The seventies then came to an end, Douglas Adams left to become a demi-god, and a new script editor was appointed to vowed to end all the "late sixties hippie ideas derived form Third World cultures" which had infested the series. Arguably it was all downhill from there.

But back to the highlights, and what a lot there are.

There's Terror of the Zygons with its atmospheric Scottishness, although it does have a terrible CSO monster and the Brigadier in kilt. Not good.

Then there are the best of the horror remakes; The Pyramids of Mars and The Brain of Morbius, both of which also have the incomparable Sarah Jane.

Another near-perfect story is The Robots of Death. Agatha Christie in space with a claustrophobic setting and wonderfully scary Regency-style robots.

The Talons of Weng Chiang, a tribute to the best of Victorian noire is another near winner. A collection of cliches from swirling fogs to inscrutable Chinese, giant rats in the sewers and sneaky oriental assassins, it also has some of Robert Holmes's most sparkling dialogue, not just from the Doctor and Leila, but also from a great cast of supporting characters. Brilliant stuff.

The Key to Time was an interesting concept for the next series. Alas, it didn't produce any classic episodes, but Mary Tamm looked superb and easily gets the prize of best dressed companion. If her Ice Maiden costume doesn't tickle your fancy, then just look at her mock-Medieval outfit for The Androids of Tara. personally I think Tom Baker (and Richard Dawkins) married the wrong Romana.

The Douglas Adams years tend to divide fans, and I'm not completely in the camp that thinks he was the best thing that ever happened to Who, but The City of Death is very funny, very stylish thanks to being shot in Paris, and actually a very original idea.

Shada doesn't count as it was never broadcast, but I also suspect it wouldn't have been as great as many fans expect. I mean, it includes the Doctor on a bicycle being chased by a flying globe. How rubbish would that have been?

As I've said, Tom Baker's last season was a bit uneven, but there's he no doubt he went out on a high. Logopolis is an interesting story, as The Doctor comes up against his most deadly enemy to date, namely entropy. Baker acts his socks off here, and the final fall from Jodrell bank is a fittingly dramatic way for it all to end.

So what's the best of the Fourth Doctor then?

Well it was almost The Genesis of the Daleks. Here we have Doctor Who at its peak: Tom Baker, Liz Sladen, Ian Marter, a Terry Nation script, the Daleks, Davros, the camp chap from Allo Allo in a minor roll, they're all there.

Why doesn't it win? Partly I suppose I've watched it so many times it's lost some of its fizz, partly its a touch too long, partly I have my doubts about the point it's trying to make - is genocide really that bad when we're talking about the Daleks?

Mainly though its because I prefer dark humour to deep thought.

So my vote for the Best of the Fourth Doctor goes to The Deadly Assassin, Robert Holmes's deliciously satirical political thriller set on Gallifrey.

The Time Lords had been on the periphery of the Doctor Who universe for a while. We'd had sneaky peaks in The War Games and The Three Doctors, but now we were going to find out the whole truth. All seeing, all powerful and supposedly all good, they could have been stupefyingly boring, but not in Holmes's capable hands.

Instead of the vaguely Buddhist ascended masters hinted at before, here we had a bunch of old fuddy-duddies who can now barely work the technology they have inherited and who now care more for status and tradition that science and art. No wonder there are so many renegade Time Lords.

The set design is spectacular, the acting first rate and then there's The Matrix, an idea so good someone else had to make a film about it.

But most of all what makes it great is the script. With ideas nicked from The Manchurian Candidate and Porterhouse Blue, and contemporary references to Harold Wilson's resignation and the Kennedy assassination Holmes created a masterpiece leavened with his inimitable dialogue.

Then there's the ending. The Master is defeated, Gallifrey is saved, so what do the Time Lords do? The embark on a cover up of course. Delicious, simply delicious.

A classic episode from a classic Doctor.