Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Review: The Essential Terrance Dicks Vol 1 and Vol 2

I doubt there is a Doctor Who fan alive who doesn't know the name of Terrance Dicks. He is synonymous with the show ...

If you don't know who I'm talking about: Terrance Dicks was a writer on Doctor Who (and other popular TV shows like Crossroads and The Avengers) in the late sixties. In 1970 he worked as Script Editor on the show, writing many episodes himself, and he continued to write for it after he left as Script Editor in 1974. In 1973 he was approached by Target Books to pen some novelisations of the show for them, and he ended up writing over 60 of the books! He was also a prolific children's writer in many other fields.

Many Doctor Who fans cite Terrance as the man who got them to read books, and he is universally loved and praised for his work.

I was lucky as a young fan back around 1976, to make Terrance's acquaintance through a fanzine I was starting up, and also a friend (Paul Simpson) who had already made contact with Terrance and who invited me along with him to meet the author! Thus began a life-long friendship with Terrance. I would pop over and see him and Malcolm Hulke (who lived in the next street) regularly, chatting about his work and Doctor Who. Terrance came to events that I organised and spoke and met other fans: he was a gracious and friendly man, always willing to chat and to share advice.

As I grew up and started work, so my Doctor Who projects became ever more professional, with books coming out from the BBC and Virgin Publishing ... then I had my own publishing house, Telos Publishing, and more Doctor Who projects followed. Terrance was always there, always at the end of the phone to help and chat about the obscurest of Doctor Who trivia ... he would call me sometimes with questions he had been asked, knowing that I would have the answer.

And then on the 29 August 2019, the phone stopped ringing. Terrance Dicks had sadly passed away. And an era came to an end.

Spurred by the love that the fans had for Terrance, or 'Uncle Terrance' as they termed him - I think 'Uncle Terrance' was seen to be trending on Twitter as news of his death spread! - the BBC ran a poll among fans as to which of his many novelisations were the favourites ... and these two new hardback titles from BBC Books are the result.

Containing ten of his most loved adaptations of Doctor Who adventures, the books collect some of the best writing that there has ever been related to the show. Terrance had a knack, a love of the material, and a deft way with words, which transformed the scripts into thrilling adventures on the page.

Opening the first volume, which includes Doctor Who and the Dalek Invasion of Earth, Doctor Who and the Abominable Snowmen, Doctor Who: The Wheel in Space, Doctor Who and the Auton Invasion, and Doctor Who and the Day of the Daleks, you are greeted by the opening line: 'Through the ruin of a city stalked the ruin of a man.' A superb and evocative opening which shows Terrance's skill with brevity. He can sum up in a sentence what others might take pages to describe. It's a rare talent!

The first volume contains a Foreword by Frank Cottrell-Boyce, perhaps a strange choice for the book. Indeed, the text itself provides no clue as to who he is at all - there is a short biography of Terrance on the back cover flap, but nothing more in the book itself. Checking Wikipedia reveals: Cottrell-Boyce is an English screenwriter, novelist and occasional actor, known for his children's fiction and for his collaborations with film director Danny Boyle. He has achieved fame as the writer for the 2012 Summer Olympics opening ceremony and for sequels to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang: The Magical Car, a children's classic by Ian Fleming. Ah ... and he also wrote a couple of episodes of Doctor Who in 2014 and 2017.

The second volume of novelisations contains Doctor Who and the Genesis of the Daleks, Doctor Who and the Pyramids of Mars, Doctor Who and the Talons of Weng-Chiang, Doctor Who and the Horror of Fang Rock, and Doctor Who: The Five Doctors. The Foreword here is by Robert Webb, at least a name known from his television comedy work, but again there's no information in the book as to who he is. He also played a robot voice in a 2012 episode of Doctor Who

It's a shame there's no longer tribute or biography of Terrance within the two books, and no surrounding matter to support the reprints of the novelisations putting them into context (for example The Auton Invasion and Day of the Daleks were both written early on in 1974, while The Wheel in Space was a much later book in 1988). This seems something of a missed opportunity to me.

If you just want the stories, then at £25 a book, this is perhaps an expensive way of reading them - cheap paperbacks can be picked up online all the time (except perhaps for The Wheel in Space which is very hard to find). But as a tribute and celebration of Terrance Dicks and all that he brought to the many worlds of Doctor Who they are a lovely collection. 

Friday, August 06, 2021

Review: Doctor Who: Team TARDIS Diaries: Paper Moon

Team TARDIS Diaries is a new series from BBC Books/Puffin, and initially there are two to be bought (the other one is called Ghost Town by Susie Day). They are an interesting concept, in that the book tries to be interactive with the reader - not in a 'make your own adventure' way, but more in the way the storytelling progresses. They use a conceit that the book is actually printed on psychic paper and so can tell the thoughts of whoever is holding it ... thus as the story progresses it passes from a straightforward narrative to Ryan, to Yas and to Graham (with a nice sequence of the Doctor holding it towards the end) and you see the story unfold from the different viewpoints.

The 'issue' here is of course that the book is aimed at and written for 7-9 year olds, and yet I do wonder how many 7-9 year olds are actually watching and enjoying/understanding Doctor Who on television ... some of the ideas and concepts seem far above that age group to me ... especially the latter part of season 13 ...

As a short read, it's therefore typically simplistic and one-note ... The Doctor and her 'Fam' receive an invite to the death of one of the psychic trees who go to make the psychic paper ... and there they run into some pirates ... the illustrations are nice and are scattered through the book in the current style of works by David Walliams and similar and it's so light and fluffy that the book almost floats!

This current incarnation of Doctor Who just doesn't know what it wants to be. The BBC seem to want the show to be current and edgy and ticking all the right boxes as far as race and sex and 'right on' correctness are concerned ... they also seem to think it's aimed firmly at kids as far as the books and merchandise is concerned ... But then they present simplistic stories with a cute alien dog-like creature (Pting) which eats anything and everything (perfect for 7 year olds) alongside tales of machinations by the Master using creatures from parallel universes and attempts to combine cyber-history with Time Lord history which are so complex that even die-hard fans of the show have trouble putting it all together! Or tales of Dalek invasion which look at politics and possession of a very adult and disturbing kind ...

But then you have a jokey, smiley, quipping Doctor who dashes about with her 'Fam' in a TARDIS which looks cold and alien and certainly not a friendly home-space ... she grins and talks a lot, but does very little and has no gravitas ...

It's a strange dichotomy ... books for 7 year olds who have probably never watched the show, and if they did, then they probably might recognise the 'fam', but as to being able to follow the stories ... probably forget it ... and a show which seems to be made to deliberately alienate any fanbase it might have had, in the hope of finding a new one ... somewhere ... somehow ... but with no apparent plan or aim underpinning that hope.

As books for kids, though, these are great!

Sunday, August 01, 2021

Review: The Water Margin

Everyone of a certain age probably remembers The Water Margin ... it was an hourly serial shown on Saturday nights around 1976, and immediately before BBC2's popular double bill of horror films ... 

I suppose it's popularity arose out of the fever for 'Kung Fu' and all things oriental around that time ... popularised by the films of Bruce Lee, and David Carradine as Cain in the TV series Kung Fu ... but this was something slightly different.

Indeed, this was a 1973 Japanese production of a 13th-century Chinese epic by Shih Nai-an of a group of 'knights' who rose up against a corrupt government and overthrew it ... The original Japanese series was picked up by the UK, and translated into English by David Weir ... but not subtitled ... no, the original cast were dubbed into English ... and what was clever, was that they didn't worry about an exact translation. They looked at the lip movements and tried to match English dialogue to it, so that the whole thing came across as more naturalistic than a direct over-dub ...

It was wildly successful, and the series lived on in the memories of all who saw it. Now the whole series is available on DVD ... and it's the English dub that we all know and love ...

'Do not despise the snake for having no horns,' says Bert Kwouk at the start of each segment. 'For who is to say it will not become a dragon!' ... and thus the story is told.

Basically it's the tale of Lin Chung (Atsuo Nakamura), a captain in the Emperor's Guard, who is disgraced by the scheming Kao Chiu (Kei Satō) as he wants Lin Chung's wife, Hsiao Lan. And so he has her, and then banishes her also. Lin Chung is dragged off in chains across the desert, and eventually winds up at Liang Shan Po, a watery district far to the south of the Capital city. There he finds friends and starts to build a community which will eventually rival the government.

Along the way there are others who join the fight. Legend says there are nine dozen heros - 108 - who will fight ... and we follow the paths of some of them as the series progresses. Chief among them is Lin Chung, but also the female warrior Hu San-Niang (Sanae Tsuchida), Lu Ta (the Priest) (Isamu Nagato), Yang Chih (Blue Face), Wang Lun (Yoshirô Kitahara), Wu Sung (Tiger Hunter) (Hajime Hana), Shih Chin (Tattoed Dragon) (Teruhiko Aoi), Chu Wu (Ryôhei Uchida), Sung Chiang (the Good Judge) (Takeshi Obayashi), Li Kwei (Black Whirlwind) (Hitoshi Omae) and others ... all have parts to play in the drama. The cast is all over the place online with spellings different to those on the box set ... so please excuse me from not crediting them all!

What is good about The Water Margin is that it never gets boring ... everything moves along at pace and there are fights and battles along the way, and characters you like and can relate to. Lin Chung is essentially a good man, a man of peace, and so even at the end of the second series, he is reluctant to just kill Kao Chiu, preferring to let 'nature' have it's way ... but the series still ends on a good note ...

As enjoyable television, the show is superb, combining some great performances, both on-screen and verbal, amidst fast and furious action. The music is great also!

The English cast are mostly uncredited, but here is what I have been able to discern:

Michael McClain (Lin Chung), Miriam Margolyes (Hu San-Niang), Peter Marinker, Sean Lynch, David Collings, Simon Lack, Elizabeth Proud, Michael Kilgarriff and Trevor Martin. David Collings is fairly easy to spot as he also provided the voice for Monkey in the similar series of the same name, but others less so.

Here's a piece on the dubbing process: https://www.bbc.co.uk/archive/dubbing-the-water-margin/zvmft39

And that brilliant theme and titles: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TVVRMBWGBqw