Archive for May, 2010

The Godlike Genius of Nicholas Fisk

Posted in Books with tags , , , , , , on May 19, 2010 by richardblandford

Nicholas Fisk, smoking a pipe, ages ago.

After my recent miserable experience reading Northern Lights by Philip Pullman, compounded by the traumatic memory of the time I found myself in a locked room with only a JK Rowling novel for company, I asked myself the question, ‘Why do people like this shit?  Surely everyone’s just being silly and got it wrong.  I remember children’s books being loads better than this when I was young.’

A children’s author I particularly remembered liking was science fiction writer Nicholas Fisk.  His books still haunted me.  Their concepts, as much as I could recall them, seemed pretty mind-blowing even after all this time.

I resolved to re-purchase all the books of his I remembered reading to see if they were indeed as good as I thought they were then.  If so, I would make it my mission to tackle Rowling/Pullman worship at every turn, and erect statues of Nicholas Fisk outside all the branches of Waterstones in the land.

Now out-of-print, the books popped through my letterbox one at a time as they arrived from various online retailers.  Excitingly, they all had the covers that I remembered them having, and some of them were the same print runs. I was even tempted to renew my membership of the Puffin Club using the coupon at the back.  Anyway, I began to read.

book cover of   Space Hostages   by  Nicholas Fisk

Space Hostages (1967) is the story of a group of kids who are sent into space by a deranged RAF pilot, hoping to save them from nuclear war.  It’s pretty darn exciting stuff, powered along by some excellent characterisation as the brainy kid and the school bully seek to win control of the spacecraft and stop them flying into the sun.  It’s also notable for having a black main character, a rare thing in British kid’s fiction back then.

Trillions (1971) tells a less coherent story, but contains a central idea which is great.  An alien race arrives on Earth that consists of tiny compatible elements.  They fit together and build structures for mysterious purposes.  It’s not often that aliens in kid’s books are truly alien, but they are here.

Grinny (1973) is, I think, Fisk’s most popular book.  In it, an alien robot infiltrates a family in the form of an elderly relative in order to gain information about Earth prior to an invasion.  I’m pretty sure they read this to us in school.  There’s a paragraph about dogs ‘mounting’ that I think they might have skipped over though.

book cover of   Robot Revolt   by  Nicholas Fisk

Robot Revolt (1981) features a charismatic religious cult leader who buys a robot servant that, in league with the leader’s children, ultimately seeks to overthrow him.  The sci-fi aspects are a bit ordinary here, but the sheer scariness of the religion more than makes up for that.

book cover of   On the Flip Side   (Flip Side)   by  Nicholas Fisk

On the Flip Side (1983) is the most interesting for me.  A strange, ambiguous tale of communication with animals and parallel dimensions, it contains some pretty harrowing descriptions of society collapsing as animals go mad and inter-dimensional beings invade.  One paragraph in particular, in which a girl telepathically communicates with her dog has stayed with me over the quarter of a century since I read it:

Yes, Duff could still fill her with loves she never felt of her own accord.  The trouble was that these heartfelt loves became sickly and left a taste.  ‘Fondest mistress, worshipful young mistress – I love you, and you love me.’ Followed, of course, by the inevitable anxious question – ‘You do, don’t you?’

Coming back to them, I can see that Fisk’s books do have notable flaws.  Although he will invariably root the stories in a child’s viewpoint, they will often get too big, and the sympathetic protagonist’s perspective will get lost amongst various scientist and military types (this is perhaps why I remember the earlier chapters the best).  Also, his conclusions sometimes feel arbitrary, and in his earlier books, girls are not presented well, interested only in attention and being like the kids on telly, while younger children are possessed by a strange logic incomprehensible from the outside.

Having said that, the books are imaginative, original, haunting and challenging, encouraging children to think about science and the role it plays in the world they are growing up in.  So, all things considered, is Fisk a better writer than Rowling and Pullman?  For me, yes he is. I am off to erect my first statue in his honour.


Don’t Be Such a Russell, Steven.

Posted in TV with tags , , , , on May 5, 2010 by richardblandford

Budget cuts have no effect on the new series of Doctor Who.

On the eve of a general election that has the potential to change the nature of British democracy forever, my thoughts naturally turn to the latest series of Doctor Who.

This series is notable, of course, for being the first since the resurrection of the programme in 2005 not to have Russell T. Davies at the helm as Head Writer and Executive Producer, and the baton passing instead to Steven Moffat.

This change was anticipated with some excitement by many fans because, although the Russell T. Davies era had many strengths, with some cracking stories, ideas and characters, the flaws were far from negligible, and inescapably the result of Davies’ storytelling style and attitude to narrative.

As Head Writer, Davies was responsible for a significant number of the episodes himself, as well as dictating the overall story arc.  The problem was that, of the excellent team of writers that he had assembled, Davies was by far the weakest.  Consequently, watching Doctor Who was often a bit like buying a Rolling Stones album only to find all of Side One having been written by Bill Wyman.

At the end of a Davies story, myself and many others would be left with the sense of violated trust.  It was as if we had placed ourselves in the hands of someone who’d promised he wouldn’t let us fall, only to be dropped from a great height.  Basic tenets of storytelling were ignored.  Leading characters would become weirdly passive, just because it suited the story for them to be that way.  Meanwhile, the character of Donna (played by Catherine Tate) had her memory wiped, meaning that all the development in her that we had followed over the preceding weeks was rendered irrelevant.  Ultimately, storytelling is all about watching people change through experience.  You mess with that, and you’re effectively sticking two fingers up at your audience.

Alongside all this, the Davies era became increasingly turgid, with David Tennant’s Doctor  so weighted down with the pain of his responsibility and guilt to the point that he was just a chore to be around, repeatedly dwelling on the same problems week in, week out.  The promise of Moffat, and with him a new Doctor, Matt Smith, seemed to be just what was needed.

Moffat came with an impressive CV.  He’d been behind the landmark teen series Press Gang, the good-if-you’re-into-that-sort-of-thing ‘British Friends’, Coupling, and the excellent horror reimagining of Jekyll, as well as some of the very best Who episodes of the Davies era.  And in many ways, his version of Who doesn’t disappoint.  The first episode felt very fresh indeed, and even the weakest story since hasn’t felt like a kick in the shins in the way that bad Davies often did.

Hand on heart, however, I don’t think I can say that he’s quite managed to provide the programme with the new direction that I and other fans deep down know it needs.  There are still some lingering issues that mar otherwise perfectly decent stories, and stop Doctor Who from all it can be.

Here are the things I feel need addressing.

1) Action set-pieces.  The series introduced the Doctor with him hanging out of a malfunctioning Tardis as it flew over London.  CGI now allows the BBC to stage scenes that would once have only ever featured in Hollywood movies.  This diminishes the character.  The key to the Doctor is that he is absolutely unique in the world of fiction.  If you can imagine anybody else doing the things he does, then the programme is not being true to itself.  You could have had a similar scene with Inspector Gadget or any other madcap character who uses technology.  Doctor Who is not Inspector Gadget.

2.  The Doctor’s awareness of his own legend.  At the end of the first episode, the Doctor scares off the alien menace by informing it of his past victories.  This is tiresome.  The charm of the Doctor Who universe used to be its very lack of coherence.  Although, logically, news of the Doctor should precede him, the fact that it didn’t meant that he always served as an unexpected factor thrown into a situation.  The bad guys should win, but don’t, because the Doctor turns up.  Take away this, and you just have another fantasy adventure series with a load of intertwining strands like Buffy, the Vampire Slayer (good though that was).  Doctor Who needs to protect its boundaries, and maintain what is unique about it.

3. Wasting good ideas in too-short stories.  Both the second and third episodes of this series suffered from this.  ‘The Beast Below’ had a fascinating future Britain on a spaceship, the intricacies of which were never explained (Why, for instance, were the fairground heads in the cases there in the first place).  ‘Victory of the Daleks’ meanwhile completely threw away its brilliant idea of the Daleks fighting for Britain in WWII.  This could have run over three episodes, with the audience waiting and waiting for the Daleks to turn bad, then all hell breaking loose when they finally do.  Instead, they revealed their evil intentions almost immediately, and the episode just ended up looking rather silly.  The audience needs to be trusted to wait for things.  And if they don’t know how to wait, Doctor Who needs to teach them.  Waiting was what much of the original series was all about, to its credit.

4. Overarching storylines crippling standalone stories.  In this weeks’ ‘Flesh and Stone’, returning villains the Weeping Angels would not have been defeated had the crack in time from episode one appeared and ate them.  This was not the story we were promised.  We were meant to be watching the Doctor defeating them using his own ingenuity.  Instead he just manouvres them into place and feeds them to the metanarrative (Even though this episode was popular, I think it was a mistake to bring back the Weeping Angels.  They would survive in the memory better if their only appearance was in the classic ‘Blink’.  There was nothing gained by elaboration.)

5. Companions fancying the Doctor.  Amy Pond’s efforts to seduce the Doctor at the end of this week’s episode were beyond painful, and not in a good way.  Doctor Who is, at heart, a children’s programme, even though it’s audience contains a healthy slab of adults, as it always has.  If it forgets it’s a children’s programme, however, it instantly stops working.

The companions, even though they are adults, are stand-ins for the child viewer, who can imagine themselves travelling through time and space with the Doctor, who is always in some way a manifestation of the original ‘grandfather’ Doctor of William Hartnell.  Unless they’re downright freaks, kids don’t fancy their grandfather, however dapper objectively they think he might look.  Instinct should tell them he’s off-limits.  Again, although it doesn’t make sense that the Doctor’s companions become weirdly asexual as soon as they step on board the Tardis, it’s another thing that makes Doctor Who itself.  If you mess with it, then the programme becomes just like other programmes, at which point it stops being interesting.  There’s no point deconstructing something if all you’re left with are a bunch of broken parts that don’t fit together anymore.

6. No Adric.  I was very upset by Adric ‘dying’ in 1982, and have never fully accepted it.  I don’t believe he’s really dead, and should be brought back forthwith, complete with his star badge he got for being really good at maths.

With all these elements fixed, I firmly believe that Doctor Who will transcend Chocky’s Children to become the best science-fiction show EVER.  Make it so.