Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Official Doctor Who Fan Club

Doctor Who fandom goes back a long way ... much further than perhaps people realise. We did a series on the history of fandom for our fanzine The Frame many years back, and determined that there was a fan club for the very first Doctor, William Hartnell. But the purpose of this review is to look at a new book which has been self-published by Keith Miller, all about the early days of fandom in the seventies, when Jon Pertwee was the Doctor. Thus a thirteen year old boy from Edinburgh decided to write to the BBC and see if he could start such a thing ... the secretary of the Doctor Who office, Sarah Newman, agreed, and there then began what can only be described as an incredible few years, during which Miller produced newsletters, contacted merchandisers, visited the studios, and even was party to some early fan politics.

In the book, Miller reproduces all the editions of his fan newsletter, and intersperces them with the correspondence he had with all the parties. In a way it's a shame that none of Miller's actual outbound letters are here, just the ones he got back, but such was the technology of the day, that I guess there wasn't a way he could keep copies of everything he sent - and why would he think to anyway! They're probably in a musty file somewhere in the BBC's Written Archives centre though. These responses paint a fascinating picture, and moreso of Sarah Newman and her unswerving support of the young Keith Miller.

She is nothing less than a miracle worker. Arranging to have the newsletters printed and despatched by the BBC, supplying publicity photos and envelopes, agreeing to reverse charges phone calls so he could speak to her ... and all of this on top of her normal job!  In a way, if Miller had not been only thirteen, this could be a real sequence of love letters! She is encouraging and supportive, giving him advice on how to handle things, keeping the other fans away who were trying to overthrow him, and generally being the rock on which the club was built.

It's hard to believe the BBC today - or any organisation at all - behaving in this way towards an enthusiastic fan. But things were much simpler back then, and Newman must have taken a lot of risks to help Miller in his endevours.

Along the way we learn that Frazer Hines was at one point due to be in 'The Three Doctors', that Jon Pertwee smoked and was vain - complaining whenever the fan newsletter didn't, in his opinion, feature him enough - and yet despite this, made time for Miller when he visited the studios. One of the most poignant elements in the book is a reprinted letter from Roger Delgado which Miller received from him ... saying that the Master won't be around for much more ... and then of course Delgado died in a motor accident. Miller goes on in a footnote to explain how a fan visited his house and stole the original letter from his scrapbook whilst unattended - an act which is pretty unforgivable!

The process by which the Newsletter was made is archaeic by today's standards, being typed on stencils which were then Roneoed to produce the final printed sheets: the Roneo being a machine which squeezed ink through the holes in the stencil and imprinted them on the paper. There's more about the process here: I know it as my friend Owen Tudor had one in his garage and many of the fanzines that we produced in the late seventies were produced using it (Beka and Colony in Space being two that spring to mind). But Miller included art in his magazine, made by tearing and pricking the stencil with a pin - painstaking!  It wasn't until around 1977 that photocopying started to become available, and this ushered in a new age of A5 and A4 fanzines, all made with typewriter and Letraset lettering ... but this was years away from what Miller was doing.

The book is a fascinating collection of letters and information, all dated and interesting. It makes me want to dig out some of the stuff I have in files somewhere and put them together as well ... Like Miller I am a hoarder and have most of everything somewhere.

If you're interested in the early days of fandom, and are intrigued to see what the first (probably) regular Doctor Who fanzine looked like, then this is your chance. I suspect that a thirteen year old Keith Miller would have had kittens at the prospect of his work being as professionally printed as this, and with a colour cover to boot! These days we are so spoiled with the ability to print on demand ... but this takes you back to the smell of ink and oil, and to the enthusiasm of one fan to write about and share his favourite show.

The Official Doctor Who Fan Club: Volume 1: The Jon Pertwee Years is available here: 237 page, A4 book:

Saturday, June 23, 2012


Two films to discuss today, and while they were made years apart, they share a theme of spoofing and lampooning other films.

First up is something of a considered classic. Mel Brooks made Young Frankenstein back in 1974, and it spoofs the first couple of Universal films, Frankenstein, and The Bride of Frankenstein. What's interesting is that it was made in black and white and does a very good job of lampooning the originals. For me, the film is stolen by two performances. Firstly, Marty Feldman as the boggle-eyed hunchback Igor. Feldman turns in an inspired performance, with some great wisecracks, some excellent visual gags and a hunch which keeps changing sides. The other stand-out is Gene Wilder as Dr Frankenstein. As with his performance as Willy Wonka, Wilder nails it completely, and is brilliant as the somewhat bemused Doctor, trying to bring life to the dead. The monster is played by Peter Boyle, and Frankenstein's love interest by Teri Garr - who is indeed very lovely and excellent as Inga.

There's visual gags galore, including nods to the Bride's hairdo, a lovely pastiche on the Monster-meets-blind-man scenario (with Gene Hackman as the blind man), and of course a storm-wracked castle. There is a thanks credit on the film to someone having provided the lab equipment, and I wonder if it actually was the original equipment from the original films (a quick check on IMDB tells me that indeed they were).

While I enjoyed the film greatly, I feel it suffers a little from being too close to the originals ... by which I mean that some of the humour falls a little flat as it's basically just a funny retelling of the original rather than trying to do something new with the scenario ... and I guess that's the problem with comedies like this - how far do you go with the humour before you're no longer lampooning?

The second film is Vampires Suck, which is a modern spoof of the whole Twilight genre of fiction and films which are more about the romance than the horror. This is actually a pretty good and pretty accurate take on the subject. I have to admit I've not read any of the books, and only seen the first film all the way through (we could only get half way through the second film before our DVD player gave up in disgust - the film really was that bad!), however from what I remember, this pastiches the film pretty well.

Certainly the acting here is far superior to the films, and Jenn Proske as Becca is far more watchable and enjoyable than gloomy and boring Kristen Stewart in the original film. I loved the conceit of calling the vampire Edward Sullen, and generally all the tropes in the original film which were hoary and old hat there are nicely spoofed here, from the sparkling, to the superstrength through blood and werewolves. I loved that the werewolf boy Jacob has a tail and scritches his head with his foot, the endless mooning over the boys is well sent up, and the start (and end) of the film which has a group of 'Team Edward' teenage girls battling a group of 'Team Jacob' kids is hilarious. Even Buffy the Vampire Slayer checks in, as does Lady Gaga and numourous other pop references which will no doubt date the film terribly.

Given how bad the original Twilight film was, I guess that any spoof has to be better, and this is the case. It's a fun film, and recommended for a night in with some beers.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Three Horrors

Three more films to delight and entertain, but in differing degrees ...

First off, a little thing called Street Trash that we caught on the telly recently. I'd not seen this before, but had heard thing spoken of it around the melting effects on show. So Sam and I cranked it up on the Sky recorder and gave it a watch. What a pile of rubbish!

Now I'm usually quite tolerant to 'good' bad films - those which have a bit of fun and bely their lack of budget with enthusiasm, but this was painful. I'm not sure it has a plot. The central strand seems to be about a shopkeeper who finds a crate of a liquor called Viper in a sealed area in his basement, and then decides to sell it for a dollar a bottle. Luckily there's lots of vagrants who use his liquor store and so bottles get bought (or stolen). However anyone who drinks it, then melts into a technicolour goo within seconds.

I will give them that the melting effects are neat - I loved all the colours which made a change from the usual blood red gore - but aside from this, the film has nothing to offer. There's boss vagrants abusing girls and women, other people running about, vagrants picking up girls and having drunken sex ... it's all a selection of random scenes and images which don't have a common thread. Which is a shame, as with a better script it might have been half watchable.

Another film that I spotted on the tellybox and recorded was Slither. This is a great monster movie about a meteor which crashes to Earth and releases a large alien slug-thing. This infects a local man who starts to mutate and change, and he in turn infects a woman who he then keeps in his hay barn. He feeds her raw meat and she blows up to the size of a balloon before exploding and releasing thousands of little slugs which head off to get into as many people as they can.

Before you can say Zombie Apocalypse, the infected are staggering about in classic zombie fashion, chasing after a small band of people who mange to remain human. Good to see Firefly's Nathan Fillion as the local police chief trying to survive to the end. It all ends with a climactic battle against the original infected man, who has become a sort of John Carpenter Thing-like monster, with tentacles and teeth and all sorts.

We had great fun with this. It's well made and acted, and hugely enjoyable. The effects are great, and the CGI slugs are icky and nasty. A fun way to spend an evening.

The third film is an oldie by the name of Dead & Buried. I used to have the poster for this pinned to my bedroom wall as I loved the imagery, but I don't think I'd ever seen the film until now. It's another sort-of zombie film I suppose, in which a hick town undertaker is able to bring the dead back to life to populate the town. It all gets a little out of hand, and the townsfolk start actually killing strangers to add to their number, and all this gets the local sherriff (James Farentino) somewhat confused. It's got Robert Englund in it, and was written by Dan O'Bannon and Roland Shussett who also wrote the screenplay for Alien ... it's good a good pedigree.

It's a fun watch but I found it confusing - you need to have a good memory for faces to recognise that people killed early in the film reappear later on as townsfolk with no mention or pointer to this fact. But the deaths are good and gory, and there's a scene I can't watch where a poor patient in hospital gets a syringe in his eye!

Overall it's well made, directed and acted, and moreover it's an original take. I've not seen anything quite like it before (or since) and like Alien, it's testament to the originality of the authors.  I suspect we need more films like this, and less remakes of films which were perfectly good (if not classics) in their original form.

Saturday, June 16, 2012


We've just finished our Dexter Marathon on DVD, watching the first five seasons an episode a night. I'm very impressed.

Dexter is not a series I would chosen to have watched as I'm not a fan of things like the CSI series and NCIS and other cop shows like that. But Dexter isn't quite like those. Sam got the box set for Christmas, and I'm so glad I got the chance to visit what is arguably one of the best shows on television.

If you've not given it a try, then I recommend you do. Each season is 12 episodes long, something of an anomoly in American TV where usually a season has 22 or so episodes. The premise is simple: Dexter Morgan works for the Miami Police as a Blood Specialist - more specifically a Blood Splat Specialist - he can examine the aftermath of a crime and work out who was killed, by what implement(s) and how the crime was carried out by analysing the way the blood fell, pooled, spattered and trailed. He's also a serial killer himself ... but he only goes after the bad guys - those who are killers themselves and who have evaded justice thanks to technicalities in the law, poorly constructed prosecutions or soft judges. At least that's where he starts out.

The reasons for his 'hobby' are all part of the clever backstory, in which Dexter's mother was killed by criminals, and he was rescued from a pool of her blood as a baby by a policeman - Harry - who then adopted him as his own. Dexter describes his need to kill as his 'Dark Passenger' and he keeps it hidden from everyone else.

The series themselves each follow a basic arc - in that Dexter's colleagues at the Miami PD investigate some serial killer or murder, and this then develops into an often convoluted plot which gets deeper and darker as the episodes move forward. Suspects are found, sometimes they are then killed, and the real killer becomes apparent.

The first series follows a killer dubbed 'The Ice Truck Killer', the second is 'The Bay Harbour Butcher', the third is 'The Skinner', the fourth is 'The Trinity Killer' and the fifth is 'The Barrel Girls Murderer'. In each case, Dexter gets involved in the action both through his work for the Police, but also through the changes in his private life which involve his girlfriend, Rita, and her two children, getting married and having a baby himself. There's also his sister, Deborah 'Fucking' Morgan who talks like a man with Tourettes, but who has a heart of gold. The other regular characters are the other police: La Guerta, in charge of the group who is manipulative and self-serving, Angel, the cop who loves La Guerta, forensics expert Masuka who loves bad jokes, and Quinn, who develops through the series into love interest for Deb. There are others too who come and go as the episodes progress.

There is a revolutionary central performance from Michael C Hall as Dexter. He is completely believable, and his acting is flawless. This is part of the main appeal of the show, to see this character that you should dislike - he is a merciless killer - become someone you care deeply for a root for. You cheer when he offs his victims, and you don't want him to get caught. Hall plays it so well, that in the first episode of Season 5, where events cause Dexter to break down somewhat, your heart wrenches with him - Sam spent most of that episode in tears it was so effective and moving. I read that Hall won the Golden Globe for his performance and rightly so. Other standouts include Julie Benz as Rita, an incredible piece of character development from mousy shy girlfriend to strong, feisty wife. We were also very impressed indeed by John Lithgo in Season 4, playing the Trinity Killer. He is cold and complex and totally believable. A marvellous performance and, as Sam and I observed at the time, somewhat career defining, which is pretty good going for the man who made us laugh so hard in Third Rock from the Sun. Keith Carridine turned in a great role as Detective Lundy, first as the cop leading the investigation in Season 2, and then hunting the Trinity Killer in Season 4.

The series is compelling in terms of plot, acting, production and emotion. I defy anyone who has watched it all not to be moved by the opener of Season 5. It is truly a gem, full of brilliant writing, lines which make you laugh and smile, touches of humanity, and of grief, of deep seated trauma, and of people coming to terms with who they are and what they are on all sides.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Being Brood Bride

Three more films for your delectation this time ... and all fairly different in their own right.

First up is Spike Jonez's brilliant Being John Malkovich. It's the sort of film that you watch wondering whether it was written because the actor John Malkovich wanted to be in it, or whether it was written with an eye on 'insert generic actor name here' ... so it could have been Being Christopher Lee or Being Sylvester McCoy, depending on which actor eventually said 'Yes'.

The plot is nothing but insane. Craig Schwartz, an out of work puppeteer (John Cusack), goes for a job as a filing clerk in an office which exists on floor 7 and a half - the ceiling is all half height so everyone has to crouch and bend all the time when not sitting. His wife Lotte (Cameron Diaz) is obsessed with pets, and their relationship is going nowhere so he tries to start something with another office worker called Maxine (Catherine Keener). Then he discovers a strange small door behind one of the file cabinets, and entering the tunnel beyond, discovers that it leads to the brain of the actor John Malkovich, where he can watch what John is doing for 15 minutes before being deposited on the New Jersey Turnpike.

Craig realises that he can make money with this, and so sells the chance to be John Malkovich for $200 a go to anyone who wants the thrill. Lotte goes through, and Maxine finds that she is attracted to John, but only when Lotte is in his head ... so Craig decides to pretend to be Lotte and takes control of John ...

Craig/Malkovich ends up making a new career as a puppeteer with new wife Maxine ... but of course happiness never lasts forever.

This is a crazy film with a mad concept at it's heart, but I love it. At one point John Malkovich goes into his own head and finds himself in a world totally populated with John Malkoviches (even the babies and animals have his face) and they all speak a language comprised of just one word - 'Malkovich'! You honestly couldn't make this up, and I am in awe of the writer Charlie Kaufman for coming up with such a surreal concept and making it work!

It's one to watch several times I feel ...

I'd never seen the next film, The Bride, which is odd as I tended to catch most of the horror in the '80s. This is a working of the Frankenstein story and stars Sting (yes, him off of The Police) as the misguided Doctor, and Jennifer Beals (her off of Flashdance) as the Bride.

There's some great performances in the film, most notably from Clancy Brown (The Kurgan in Highlander) as the Creature who forms a partnership with David Rappaport, ending up as a circus double act. This forms the core of the film, and is a lovely partnering with brilliant work from both actors.

There is pathos and humour throughout, and it's very well made. Sting is excellent also, bringing a lot of humanity to the role of the hapless creator. It's not what I'd describe as a masterpiece, but it's watchable and interesting.

Finally, a film which I first saw as a preview showing back in the day, with director David Cronenberg in attendance to answer questions afterwards. I'd not seen it since then, but The Brood still holds a certain fascination.

Oliver Reed plays a psychiatrist who specialises in illnesses of the mind - encouraging his patients to externalise their rage and confusion. Enter Frank Carveth (Art Hindle) whose wife Nola (Samantha Eggar) is ill and in therapy.  As the story progresses so a series of attacks by strangely deformed children increases, and of course we know that these things are all somehow connected.

Eggar gives a chillingly believable portrayal of a woman on the brink, and Reed is great as the cold and clinical pyschiatrist. The deaths are nasty, and there's elements of the alleged children in Don't Look Now and Communion (aka Alice, Sweet Alice) in the yellow raincoats worn by the killers.

It's a creepy film, somewhat let down by the ending, which fails to really tie up all the loose ends, and leaves you feeling a little dissatisfied. Overall though, it's a good slice of early Cronenberg - made after Rabid, and when the director was given more money to play with!