Review: Devil in the Smoke eBook

The Devil in the Smoke cover
The much adimr’d work…

Ah, with days to go to the Christmas special, who isn’t looking forward to the triple-whammy of a new TARDIS, a new companion, and the return of the best characters from A Good Man Goes To War? And if you can’t wait, the BBC would be delighted to offer you a prelude story, for around £1.99 or thereabout, for consumption on your new-fangled electronic reader device.

Devil in the Smoke is a short, snappy pastiche of a Sherlock Holmes adventure, starring our Paternoster trio of Madam Vastra, Jenny Flint and Strax. The three are deeply bound up in a story that starts with two young street urchins (as stock street urchins as you’d expect from a Victorian pastiche) discovering a woman’s body within the snowman they’ve just created. Whats follows is a mix of detection, adventure and comedy in the Victorian style, with Richards’ close imitation of fiction of the day making for a slightly awkward read on occasions.

It’s very much in the mould of the previous eBook-only release, Doctor Who: The Angel’s Kiss, which was an effective prelude to the Angels Take Manhattan, explaining River’s involvement in the story, prior to her running into her father. Rather unfortunately, that prelude was published after the episode in question (leading many to assume it was the book featured in the story, not a prequel to it). This release hits the same notes: a short literary pastiche, some misdirection as to its links with the episode it supports, but managing to convey a complete story, while leaving threads that run into the broadcast episode.

Vastra and Flint come off as surprisingly bland in the story, given the power of their presence on screen.  That’s a tribute, perhaps, to the charisma of Neve McIntosh and Catrin Stewart in the parts. That leaves the star of the book as the former Sontaran nurse, turned general factotum, Strax. He wonders perilously close to being a purely comic figure, with the single joke of his viewing everything through an inappropriate military lens always staying just the right side of wearing thin, but that’s neatly counter-balanced by some genuine moments of heroism later in the story. This is, without doubt, Strax’s book – and I’ll be intrigued to see if he’s as successful at stealing the show on TV.

The plot rolls along at a decent pace. My guess is that we’re seeing the setup of the villain from the upcoming episode, with this story serving as its early days on Earth, and explaining the involvement of the Paternoster trio. It’s the sort of thing that would be covered in a couple of lines in the show, but works passingly well as this short prelude.

For the price of a couple of quid, it’s a fun read that whets your appetite for the main event on Christmas Day. It feels a little like paying for a trailer, but the story is a complete mini-adventure, that fairly clearly leads into the beginning of the TV episode, without actually spoiling it. If Hazel were older, I could easily imagine reading a few chapters of this to her each evening, ready for the big event. And, as an adult, the Strax material is just fabulous, so I wouldn’t begrudge the process.


Amazon UK

Doctor Who: Devil in the Smoke


Doctor Who: Devil in the Smoke

TARDIS dresses materialising cultural shifts?

A TARDIS-based dress
Not a lot of breathing room in that…

I’ve been a Doctor Who fan a long time. Long enough, certainly to have realised that my fannish inclinations in the late 80s and early 90s were a hinderance to my dating aspirations. You see, back then, Dr Who fandom was a largely male business. Nowadays, well, there’s a market for skin-tight TARDIS tube dresses. How the heck did that happen?

The above dress, by Black Milk Clothing, has been all over the Doctor Who blogs in recent days – and has completely sold out. There’s clearly a marked for women’s Who memorabilia. And there are now female fans who are not only willing to buy dresses like this, but to post photograph of themselves wearing it:

A Dr Who fan wearing a TARDIS dress
Proof that bow ties may well be cool.

This is not a completely uncomplicated thing. There are male gaze issues here. That’s a very clever bit of non-licensed merchandise (although I believe the BBC now own the rights to the Police Box design). But something has clearly changed. Something like this would not have sold in the 80s, when Dr Who was last on. So what’s happened?

Is it a general societal shift toward geeky acceptability? A mainstreaming of formerly niche cultural values? Some inherent set of values within the revised show that make it more broadly appealing? Or has the arrival of the internet allowed a broader set of fans to emerge, who can find more like-minded (and same gender) fans, than they could have via the male preserves of 90s fanzines and conventions?

Is this the triumph of the geeks, or just the uniting effect of the internet?

RIP Mary Tamm, the first Romana

Mary Tamm playing Romana in Doctor Who
Mary Tamm as the first Romana

I woke up to shocking news this morning – Mary Tamm, who played the very first Romana, has died at the painfully young age of 62.

Romana – this Romana – was my second companion. I have memories of the Leela era of the show, but the first series I really remember well, and in its entirety, was the Key to Time sequence. I remember playing Doctor Who with friends in our back garden in Scotland, with our home-made tracer. I was only 6 when the series started.

Mary’s portrayal of Romana made a big impact on me. She was like the Doctor – knowledgeable, wise and often witty. But she was more naive, with plenty still to learn. A sense of fun lurked under an often haughty exterior. For all the modern series’ claims to making companions more equal to the Doctor, here was one companion that genuinely had the ability to be his equal – and could sometimes out do him. She gave my young self a sense that life was a journey, than you developed and became more than you were. It’s a good lesson to learn when you’re six.

Rewatching that series with adult eyes, you can see the great ambitions for the character in the early episodes, and the slow erosion of her by the later ones. It’s a shame, and for all the fun of the second Romana, you can see someone who is less directly a threat to the Doctor’s authority. Those early episodes, though, are still a joy to watch.

For all the recent losses of great figures of Doctor Who’s past, this one has hit me hardest – this is one of the first figures from my Doctor Who to die. Liz Shaw, The Brigadier, Sarah-Jane Smith – these were all characters I learnt about through Doctor Who Weekly, not the TV itself. But Mary Tamm was a figure that helped defined my Saturday nights in the autumn and winter of 1978 and 1979. A little piece of my childhood has gone.

Still: we have seven new adventures in the company of The Doctor and the first Romana to look forward to. Earlier this year, Mary and Tom Baker recorded seven audio adventures for the Big Finish range, that go on sale in January. I have them pre-ordered, and hope I’ll be able to find my inner-six year old to enjoy their adventures as I do over 30 years ago.

To Mary: my thanks for the entertainment and wonder you brought me as a child. To her family: my best wishes and thoughts at this difficult time.

The first official photo of the 11th Doctor and his new, un-named companion played by Jenna-Louise COleman

The Doctor and his new companion: first official photo

So, here we have it: the first official photo of the 11th Doctor and his yet-to-be named companion, played by Jenna-Louise Coleman.

My thoughts:

  1. The 11th Doctor’s costume is steadily becoming more “traditional” – waistcoat, jacket? Very classic series.
  2. What’s with that red bag?
  3. Is the companion trying to sneak a choccie into her mouth?
  4. Oh, no. This is the first companion I look at and feel vaguely paternal towards, rather than vaguely lustful. I’m officially old.

So, what was the Doctor up to at the beginning of The Impossible Astronaut?

Months ago, I suggested in a discussion about the opening episode of series 6 of Doctor Who that the Doctor’s historical antics at the beginning of that episodes might yet have a significance. This view was not warmly welcomed.

And now, we have this:

“It’s [set] 200 years after The God Complex – for the Doctor, anyway,” Roberts explained. “All the stuff you saw at the very beginning of The Impossible Astronaut, with him waving to Amy through all time and space, he’s been doing that.

I wear a smug now. Smugs are cool.

The Silence of Series 5?

The Silence from Doctor Who
The Silence

Much blogging about The Impossible Astronaut to come, but here’s a spooky link and a half. Do a chunk of odd, unexpected moments in Series 5 revolve around the Silence? Have our heroes been seeing them for a while – and forgetting all about it?

Victory of the Daleks – Near the end after the Daleks escape, the Doctor moves slowly backwards, as he gets near to the green framed window/doorway he looks to his left with a shock. The camera then switches to Amy and Churchill who both stare to the Doctor’s left with a look of shock before Amy continues on as normal with the line “Doctor, it’s OK you did it, you stopped the bomb.”

The Lodger – At 21:47 for a couple of shots Amy looks in the distance or at the screen and gasps, then shouts for the Doctor’s attention but he doesn’t listen. She looks away and shakes it off.

Check them all out in a forum post.

He’s Back. And it’s about time.


Doctor Who's Team TARDIS at the beginning of series six


In 1997, when Doctor Who made its brief, American return to the world, the BBC advertised the TV movie with the catch line:

He’s back. And it’s about time.

It was good: a clever double meaning, that had only one real catch: Doctor Who wasn’t really about time travel. Oh, sure, time travel is in the show, but it’s never been more than an excuse to have every adventure be somewhere or somewhen different. It was a storytelling conceit, rather than a critical part of the narrative.  Indeed, the classic series seemed to avoid doing any sort of interesting things with time travel quite strenuously. A brief flirtation with crossed timelines in the 5th Doctor’s era and some cheating by the 7th Doctor aside, time travel was never part of the story itself.

The new series, though, has made that ever less the case. It started with Father’s Day, as overlapping and changing timelines became the very centre of the story. And then, that thread continued through the Moffatt stories: Girl in the Fireplace saw the Doctor hopping into a person’s life repeatedly at intervals, Blink saw all sort of wibbly wobbly timey wimey stuff with two eras apparently talking to each other, and the Silence in the Library introducing us to River Song, a character who was meeting the Doctor for the last time, just as he was meeting her for the first. Even the Time Crash Children in Need sketch presented us with a paradox: a solution that was never invented, but remember in an endless loop than had no point of creation.

And that, I think, is what has made all the difference for me in the new era of Doctor Who. Just as Russell T. Davies took the traditional format of the show, and reinvigorated it by adding character development and relationships in ways we’d never seen before (and I really must blog about Mickey at some point, as I think he was one of the most interesting characters from that era) Steven Moffat has pushed things on even further with the layering of a meta-narrative over his seasons, one that has time travels and its bizarre consequences at its heart. His scripts take all the old series’ conservatism about time travel and throw it out of the window, in joyous, playful storytelling that doesn’t let the fact that some of the time twists he introduces seem to violate the laws of cause and effect completely. Time travel, he seems to suggest, violates cause and effect, so why shouldn’t that have an impact on the stories?

It’s this mix of intellectual and emotional engagement that he’s brought to the show that makes it so much fun for me to watch now.

And that’s why I’m eagerly awaiting an Impossible Astronaut.

An exciting blog in time and space

When I was eight, Doctor Who seemed liked the most important thing ever. The week was defined by the constant countdown to the next episode, to the moment that haunting theme tune assaulted our ears, to the moment Tom Baker appeared on our screens once more. I remember saving up my pocket money to buy Target novelisations of old episodes, and the moment my Dad came home with the very first ever issues of Doctor Who Weekly.

Times change. People grow up. By the early 90s, Doctor Who was finished on TV, and I’d moved on. I made sporadic attempts to keep up with the novels that continued the season, and enjoyed Paul McGann’s brief appearance in the role. But by the early 2000s, I’d largely forgotten about Doctor Who. My old Target books went to a charity shop. My memorabilia was mouldering in an attic somewhere.

When the series restarted in 2005, I was in a pub, in Devon. I didn’t see it until a few days later. And I enjoyed it. And I watched the rest of the season, when I could. But I couldn’t always do so. And I didn’t mind. By the time the Dalek two-parter in series 3 rolled around, I remember being slightly bored by the show. We were in a hotel for a wedding, and my wife was washing while the episode was on. When she emerged, she asked if I’d enjoyed the episode. “Not, really,” I repilied. “In fact, it was a bit dull and predictable.”

Once in a while, something would catch my attention enough to blog about it, but Doctor Who became something I watched when I could. I didn’t even buy the boxed sets.

The Eleventh Hour changed everything. I ended up watching it on iPlayer, on my laptop, sat at my mother-in-law’s, after a family Chinese meal. And it blew me away. From the line “You’re Scottish. Fry something.” I was in love with this new regeneration of the programme. Season five had its strengths and weaknesses, and my wife has heard. At length. The thing is, my wife would rather be watching House, or Caprica, or The Walking Dead than Doctor Who. While she enjoys odd episodes, on the whole, it just doesn’t work for her.

And so, if for no other reason than sparing my wife my constant babble and theory around Doctor Who, I Wear a Blog Now. Blogs are cool.