Tuesday, 24 April 2018

REVIEW: Grandma Guignol

Bafflegab Productions have just finished an eight-epiosde run of their new podcast, Grandma Guignol. Well, it's not entirely new; the podcast is a new format for the audio series The Brenda and Effie Mysteries, written by Paul Magrs and based on his successful series of novels. As the series was criminally overlooked, Bafflegab have given it a new lease of life, and it is now available here on iTunes. You can download the episodes or get them up on your podcast app or however you like to listen to them.

If there was ever a series that deserved more recognition, it's this. The story of the Bride of Frankenstein, now running a B&B in sleepy seaside town (and goth capital) Whitby, and her best friend, the aged witch and antiques dealer Effie. The story of ancient mummies, the story elephantine descendants of the London Monster, the story of the dreaded Crispy Cat! All told with Magrs's signature wit and aplomb.

The series stars Anne Reid as both Brenda and Effie (Last Tango in Halifax, Upstairs Downstairs, Coronation Street, A Close Shave, and multiple roles in Doctor Who, including a vampire, meaning she need only play a werewolf to round out the classic movie monster trifecta). Telling the story from Brenda's point of view, it is initially focused on her new life in Whitby, but by the final episode drifts back along Brenda's long and varied life. She's had periods working as a maid to Magrs's C. S. Lewis counterpart Reg Tyler (from The Fellowship of the Ink and Doctor Who: Mad Dogs and Englishmen), a spell as the headline act in a freakshow (palling around with Joseph Merrick) and much more besides.

There are guest roles for the likes of Dan "Strax" Starkey, Chris Pavlo, Alex Lowe and Stephen Critchlow, but this is Reid's production. She gives a wistful performance as Brenda, losing herself in her memories and granting them just as much life as her nocturnal escapades with Effie. In spite of the bizarre Gothic goings on, the stories spend as much time on everyday concerns and idle gossip as they do on supernatural mysteries. Brenda never misses the opportunity to comment on the quality of her lunch or pass busybody judgment on Whitby's eccentric inhabitants.

Anyone who has dipped into Paul Magrs's world with his Iris Wildthyme or Phoenix Court novels, or his many Doctor Who stories, should definitely check out Brenda's adventures, and any fan of magic realism, cosy supernatural stories or old-fashioned adventures should give it a try. Halfway between Hammer Horror and Alan Bennett, you'll find Grandma Guignol. Hopefully it will be popular enough to warrant a second series.

Image copyright Paul Hanley

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Time Shadows available again

Both Time Shadows and Time Shadows: Second Nature are now available for a limited time as ebooks (in ePub, Mobi and PDF formats) with all proceeds going to literacy charity Code NGO.

Order links for both books can be found here.

The second volume includes my own story, "Time-Crossed," featuring the first and eleventh Doctors.

Thursday, 5 April 2018

Beyond the Farthest Star

Astronomer have announced the detection of the farthest individual star so far observed. The star, a blue supergiant (so very luminous indeed), lies over nine billion light years away. This means that the light from the star detected was emitted around 4.5 billion years after the Big Bang, according to the current model.

Now, this might sound like the star is pretty young compared to the Universe itself, and indeed, galaxies have been observed which are estimated to be almost 13 billion light years away, so we are seeing as they formed only hundreds of millions of years after Event One. However, this is the farthest, oldest star that has been detected individually. As with the farthest galaxies, the star has been visualised using gravitational lensing - space-time has been severely curved by high mass objects passing between us and the location of the star (in this case, a galactic cluster, with the lensing compounded by an unknown other mass). This magnifies the star making it bright enough to be detected at huge distances. However, the star is now long dead - blue supergiants have an estimated lifespan of a mere ten million years, a thousand times less than our own sun.

This is an amazing discovery, a combination of great luck and ingenious technique. One thing that does puzzle me is the name, though. Like most astronomical objects, the star has a catalogue designation (MACS J1149+2223 Lensed Star-1, the MACS prefix standing for MAssive Cluster Survey) but has been nicknamed Icarus. It's a nice name, but Icarus is famous for flying too close to the sun. It's a strange choice for the star that is farthest from the sun.

Link for more info

Thursday, 29 March 2018

WHO REVIEW: The Thing from the Sea

BBC Books are now adding to their prodigious range of novelisation readings with some original audiobooks for classic series Doctors. We're long past the days of Missing Adventures and Past Doctor Adventures so new releases for the original seven are a rare treat. We have Big Finish, of course, with their huge library of adventures, but there's a different quality to an audiobook than there is for an audioplay. Then there are the hybrid versions, with limited casts and a mix of narrative reading and character acting, such as the Companion Chronicles.

Another series that began with this strange hybrid style was the Nest Cottage series, written by Paul Magrs and starring Tom Baker as the fourth Doctor. Indeed, it was the initial run, Hornet's Nest, that coaxed Baker back to the fold, and without this BBC commission, it's unlikely he'd be performing as the Doctor for Big Finish today. The following series, Demon Quest and Serpent Crest moved back towards a full-cast play approach, but there was something about the narrative style that suited the fourth Doctor, particularly with Paul's eccentric and lyrical prose style.

The first of the BBC's new past Doctor range is this new follow-up to the Nest Cottage adventures, The Thing From the Sea. It's read by Susan Jameson, from the point of view of her character Fenella Wibbsey, the Doctor's out-of-time housekeeper. There's a little exposition at the beginning to bring listeners up to speed with the events of her previous appearances in the above sets, but it's actually easy enough to just drop in and begin here (although I would recommend listening to the Nest Cottage series - they're often broadcast by BBC Radio 4Extra). Poor old Wibbs has been left tending to the cottage, while the Doctor has returned to his adventures in time and space. The Doctor returns with more pomp than warning, dressed in his burgundy ensemble (suggesting a late adventure in his fourth lifetime).

The Doctor whips Wibbsey into a gothic adventure in an historical Italian settlement, with a mysterious, charming count ruling a sickly populace. The perfect set-up for a Doctor Who adventure, and that's before the Thing from the Sea washes up on the beach. At just over an hour long (which seems to be the standard for these new audiobooks), this is a brisk, entertaining experience with a nice mix of the fantastic and the science fictional, all tied up with Paul's trademark weirdness. No one else creates worlds quite like him, and his turn of phrase makes it all the more enjoyable. The only slightly clunky moments come from scenes that are from the Doctor's point of view, which requires Wibbsey to recount what the Doctor apparently filled her in on later, but overall having the story told from her point of view works well. Paul Magrs has a special affinity for uncanny old ladies.

On that note, I also recommend listening to this new podcast from Bafflegab Productions, Grandma Guignol. These podcasts are making available for free the audio series The Brenda and Effie Mysteries, formerly the stars of Paul's successful novel range. Despite getting rave reviews and picking up awards, the audio series didn't get the popular attention it deserved. So Bafflegab have made it available this way. You can listen to it on iTunes, and be sure to subscribe to avoid missing any installments. I'll look at reviewing it once the series is complete.

The Thing from the Sea is available from BBC Worldwide, Audible and all audio and book stockists. Adventures for the first and third Doctors are set to follow.

Wednesday, 28 March 2018

Things I'd like to see in Discovery season two

Classic Starfleet characters

The Enterprise appeared at the very end of the final episode of season one, with Captain Pike name-checked. It's pretty clear we'll be seeing more of the Enterprise and its crew in the second season, at least during the opening episodes. It will be incredibly disappointing if we don't get to see some familiar characters. Pike is one of my favourite captains in Trek - both Jeffry Hunter and Bruce Greenwood versions - and I'm stoked to think we'll get him back on TV. I'd say getting Greenwood back is a great idea, but it's more likely that we'll have a recasting. It's even possible that we'll see Pike command the Discovery, being that it's without a captain at present, although this seems unlikely, at least in the long-term.

There's also the enigmatic Number One, the first officer played by Majel Barrett in "The Cage." We know so little about the character that any further exploration of her would be fascinating. Number One occupied the logical second-in-command spot later occupied by Spock. With her Vulcan-like demeanour, she could make an interesting foil for Burnham - and perhaps she's due for a promotion? Could she become the captain of the Discovery? Then there's Spock. It'll be tricky recasting such an iconic character for the second time - it's highly unlikely Zachary Quinto will be involved - but having both Sarek and Burnham onboard, en route to Vulcan, and then stumble across the Enterprise basically demands Spock appear in some aspect.

Failing all that... Yeoman Colt? Please?

Getting to know the Discovery crew

We spent a lot of time with Lorca, Saru, Tyler, Tilly, Stamets and above all Michael Burnham in season one. Barring an appearance from his Prime Universe self, Lorca isn't showing up again, and we've been promised plenty more time with Saru and Burnham. But lets be honest, the characters we had the most fun with were Tilly and Stamets, and when they were paired together they absolutely sang. I'd love to see more science adventures with the two of them - perhaps even some away missions to give Tilly some command experience.

Beyond the core crew, there are a number of crewmembers who only were only explored briefly. The final few episodes gave the likes of Detmer, Owosekun, Bryce and Rhys a little more time in the limelight, but not much at all. An episode or two that takes the focus away from the main stars of the series could be really interesting. Plus, we all want to know more about Airiam, the mysterious cyborg crewmember, whose job so far has been to manage the spore drive. She'll need some new duties in the next season and I'm dying to learn more about her.

New worlds, new civilisations

One thing the creators of the series have mentioned is that season two will involve more exploration than the first. This is promising; a second season about warfare and survivalism might get very oppressive. We only got some brief visits to completely new worlds, and the only episode that revolved around exploring one (episode eight, "Si Vis Pacem Para Bellum") was pretty disappointing. We had some very intriguing additions to the Trek universe, though, from Saru's antelope-like people, the Kelpiens, to the gigantic spacefaring organisms the gormangander and the alien tardigrade. I'd really love to see more of this - bizarre new aliens, interesting new cultures, allegories for our own world's contemporary problems. We're also promised some more exploration of Saru's background, and there's certainly a lot more we could learn about the mysterious commander.

Revisiting alien races

On the other hand, one thing a Trek fan always loves to see is a classic alien species. Discovery did some interesting things with its depictions of well-known alien species. The Klingon redesign was very controversial with fans, although I've come to really like the new, more alien version of the famous warrior race. The Vulcans were visually the same as before, but we learned more about the more fractious side of their culture, building on elements introduced in Enterprise, as well as new sides to their psychic abilities. We also saw three classic series races: the Andorians, Tellarites and Orions, the former two redesigned but very much in keeping with how their look developed from TOS to ENT, and the latter, rather wonderfully, just people painted green. Other references make it clear that TNG-era races such as the Betazoids and the Trill are known in this period. There's a lot of scope to explore familiar races further, or to just pepper the series with fan-pleasing cameos.

One species I would absolutely love to see is the Cardassians. We don't know when the Federation made first contact with the Union, and while they're clearly not a major player in galactic politics until the 24th century, that's not to say they aren't initially contacted earlier. Could we perhaps see the first contact with this fascinating civilisation, perhaps enjoying a more prosperous earlier period of exploration? The idea of a Discovery redesign of the Cardassians is hard to resist. Other species that could appear as antagonists without damaging continuity include the Tholians, the Sheliak and the Suliban.


Some serious stuff happened in season one. Major Starfleet and Federation figures condoned the extermination of the Klingon people and the destruction of Kronos. L'Rell took control of the Klingon houses by holding them to ransom. Tyler/Voq left to join her, possibly offering a sort of link between the Klingons and humanity. Starfleet became intimately involved with its Mirror Universe counterpart, leaving Mirror Georgiou running around somewhere in the Beta Quadrant. The Federation survived a war that involved swathes of it territory being occupied by Klingon forces. This stuff has to have consequences, and while we need to see new exploration in the second season, it can't just carry on like none of this happened. The showrunners have also been talking about making it clear how the events of Discovery so far fit into the established timeline, something that looks like will be quite a difficult job.

Section 31

A recently released extra scene (that you can see here) shows nasty Mirror Empress Georgiou hanging around on Kronos after the events of the final episode, where she is approached by a mysterious operative of Section 31, Starfleet's secretive dirty tricks department (who's pretending to be a Trill, for some reason). Given how dark the events of Discovery season one were, it's no surprise that a lot of fans surmised that Section 31 were involved, perhaps even that they were directing the Discovery's mission. Given that Starfleet are openly in support of the Discovery and Lorca was actually acting on his own agenda, this now seems less likely, although it's not impossible they had a hand in it. After all, being secretive and undercover is their MO. In any case,it looks like Section 31, probably along with Georgiou, will be involved in season two.

More time travel

The best episode of season one was the largely stand-alone time loop episode "Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad," which saw Rainn Wilson's more sinister take on Harry Mudd repeatedly murder the Disco crew. As well as being a tremendously fun episode in itself, it proved there's still mileage in Trek for timey-wimey episodes. With both the past and the future of Discovery's timeframe already mapped out in significant detail, there's plenty of potential exploration to be had of the Trek timeline, and a visit to the present day could be very interesting in a series that's not afraid to pull its punches.