23 December 2016

The X-Mass (1955)

THE X-MASS (1955)


It starts with a voiceover – male, of course, American, a voice precision-honed by decades of whisky and cigarettes. Solemn, faintly awestruck, its speaks over a still image of a star.
‘Imagine, if you will, a chance encounter. A meeting between a so-called “cosmic ray”, originating from some far-distant star, and a cell of the human body.’
The visuals are changing now, a montage of photographs of stars and the night sky.
‘The X-ray is invisible, silent, intangible. It has passed through the universe for aeons to reach us. It would slide through your skin without giving you the slightest sensation. Yet when it touches this one cell, this microscopic cog in one human machine, it makes a change. A shift, a mutation into something new and unknown.’
The stars fade into images of cells under a microscope.
‘Let us further suppose that this cell is a germ cell, the cradle and crucible of human life. A seed from which a new life might grow. This cell has not yet been awakened – should not have been for many years. Yet now it is touched by the hand of the cosmos.’
More and more cells become visible.
‘See how it begins to multiply and grow, into a shape which that inhuman hand has helped to create. This mass of cells may come to form a life – a life that is itself, perhaps, no longer altogether human.’
* * *
We are in the home of the Elvey family, in Santa Mira, California. The living-room is decorated for Christmas, and a clock and calendar tell us that it is 10 p.m. on December 24th. The Elveys’ twenty-year-old daughter, Virginia, is pleading tearfully with her fiancé George – who, it seems, plans to leave her.
Their conversation is awkward and oblique, but if we are sufficiently attuned to the embarrassments and evasions of the times we will understand that Virginia has discovered that she is pregnant, and that George knows all too well that the baby is not his.
‘Please, George,’ Virginia insists, her face streaked with tears. ‘There’s no-one else. There’s never been anybody else!’ But George won’t be played for a fool. Resisting Virginia’s last-minute attempts to cling to him, he pushes her onto the sofa and leaves. As soon as he’s gone, her parents rush in, demanding to know what’s going on.
As she tells them, though, their faces harden. They are a respectable couple, pillars of their community – Mr Elvey a prominent businessman and city councillor as well as George’s employer, Mrs Elvey the chairwoman of the local bridge club – and they have no room in their family, their lives or their house for a daughter of poor judgement and worse morals.
Before long we see Virginia wandering the streets, disconsolate, eventually arriving at the door of her bohemian schoolfriend Josie and her eccentric menagerie of animals. It’s clear that Virginia is reluctant to turn to Josie, who wears polo-neck sweaters, spends time with unsuitable men and reads inadvisable books – who is, in short, exactly the kind of woman Virginia’s parents fear she has become – but in Virginia’s current state Josie’s the only person who she’s sure will take her in.
* * *
Time passes, represented in the traditional way with pages flying from a calendar. We hear a baby’s cry. Virginia’s son has been born.
In Josie’s basement flat, the baby lies in a crib next to Josie’s well-fed cats. Virginia is singing to him. There is a commotion at the door, and her father arrives with George. It is the first time she has seen either of them since December 24th. She goes to talk to them, leaving the baby with the three cats.
Mr Elvey has come to make Virginia an offer. He and Mrs Elvey are willing to welcome their daughter back, and he has persuaded George, against his better judgement, to reinstate his offer of marriage – but the baby must go. ‘Oh, but you can’t mean that, father. He’s your grandson,’ Virginia reminds him. ‘I’ve called him Alexander, after grandfather. Oh, do come in and meet him.’ But Mr Elvey is implacable: the child must be put up for adoption.
Josie intervenes at this point, coolly observing that Mr Elvey is taking more of an interest in his daughter’s living arrangements now he has announced his candidacy for mayor of Santa Mira. An ugly scene follows as Mr Elvey determines to take the child by force if necessary, and he and George force their way past Josie and Virginia into the living room.
There is no baby there – just an empty crib and four plump cats.
Mr Elvey demands to know where the child has been hidden, but Virginia is as confused as he is. Eventually he leaves, vowing to return, and a frantic Virginia hurries back to look for baby Alexander – only to find him lying in the crib as before, gurgling happily at the three cats Josie actually owns.
* * *
Years pass now, the escalation acknowledged in a montage of shots of juxtaposed seasons, and we find Virginia living in a house on the edge of town, kissing her new husband Frank Eckers hello as he returns from work as Professor of Poetry at UC Santa Mira. Outside, two Labrador dogs bound across the yard, playing riotously together.
Frank has brought home some colleagues for dinner: Dr Casper, a biologist, Dr Millicker, a physicist, and Dr Beltzer, a chemist. As they are greeting Virginia, the dogs in the yard race for the kitchen door and inside – but only one dog enters, accompanied by ten-year-old Xander Elvey. Dr Millicker obverves the transition, and is astounded and disturbed.
(Xander arrives in the kitchen fully clothed, of course: any idea that such a state of affairs is not utterly to be expected would be as alien to this feature presentation as allowing Virginia to stay living with Josie rather than normalising her as definitely heterosexual. Whatever uncanny metamorphic powers the cosmic rays that spawned Xander have granted the cells of his body, they evidently extend to the fabrics he wears and the contents of his pockets.)
‘Hey, Ma!’ Xander cries. ‘Rover showed me a new rabbit-hole he’s found. He wanted to chase the rabbits, but I wouldn’t let him. I went inside and Ma, there are baby rabbits! Gee, it was neat.’
‘That’s great, honey,’ Virginia replies, unfazed.
Dr Millicker insists on quizzing the boy. Virginia is uncomfortable, but Frank points out in an aside to her that his position at work is precarious, partly because of Mayor Elvey’s campaign against certain elements in the town who, according to him, are more than likely sleeper agents for communist Russia. Frank needs the support of Millicker and his other colleagues, which was why he brought them home in the first place.
Meanwhile, Xander has guilelessly demonstrated his abilities for them until all three astounded scientists are convinced no trickery is involved. Frank explains to them that the boy is a sport of nature, and has no father.
Jovial Dr Casper is intrigued. ‘Then I don’t understand why he’s a boy at all,’ he frowns. ‘We know that each cell in the human body has twenty-six chromosomes, of which two determine the person’s sex. A child with an X and a Y chromosome is a male, a child with two X chromosomes is a female. That’s just how nature made us. Now you tell me this boy has no father, yet your wife must herself have two X chromosomes. Which makes me wonder – where did this boy’s Y chromosome come from? It’s incredible enough to imagine a child born without a father, but all biological science tells us that that child should not be a boy, but a girl.’
‘But Dr Casper, I can be a girl,’ Xander replies – and we see that he has indeed transformed himself into a girl, a pretty one with pigtails and a fetching lacy dress.
Dr Millicker is more perturbed than ever by this new transformation, and speculates aloud as to whether Xander is human at all. ‘Yet what if some thing… some unknown, alien mass… gained the ability to mimic humanity, as predators camouflage themselves to creep up on their prey unnoticed? How could we tell that it was not human at all, but an infiltrator intent on subverting our society for its own sinister purposes?’ He denounces Frank and his household as communist spies and saboteurs, and storms out.
Xander wants to know what communists are. ‘Ah kiddo, there aren’t any real communists,’ Frank sighs. ‘Not in America. Your granddad wants to scare people so they’ll keep on electing him, that’s all. It’s just our bad luck he’s decided they should be scared of people like us.’
* * *
Soon afterwards, though, with the connivance of Mayor Elvey, Dr Millicker has Frank dismissed from his position at the university, and Xander insists on probing further into the tensions in the town.  Soon his mother and stepfather have told him all about US-Soviet relations, the Cold War and the Bomb. The boy is appalled by the idea that the world might be plunged into a destructive war at any moment over a question of ideology.
‘Say, though,’ he muses. ‘I bet someone like me could do something about that. If someone could look like all the generals, the scientists, even the President… well, they could find out where all the Bombs are kept, and learn all the secrets of how to stop them working. If neither side had Bombs they could use, and all the new ones they built stopped working too… why, they couldn’t ever go to war at all.’
Dr Millicker is at work on a less peaceful project, however. Correctly deducing that Xander owes his existence to cosmic X-rays, he has hastily invented a machine which can end that existence, by bombarding the subject with a barrage of man-made X-rays. (The logic of this is opaque at best – after all, there would be just as much reason to suppose that the child would thrive on them. But ‘X-rays created this monster, and X-rays will destroy it!’ is all the explanation we’re likely to get.)
Shortly afterwards, on a Christmas shopping trip into town, Virginia loses sight of Xander. By now she is used to his ways, and looks for him among the town’s animal population, before she notices a commotion in front of the town hall. A stranger, a grown man, is denouncing the Mayor and his campaign of fear against the peace-loving people of Santa Mira – in much the same terms as Frank and Virginia used when giving Xander his crash course in politics. The man pauses to wink at Virginia, and she – and we – realise that this man is Xander himself.
‘You’re so busy fearing one another,’ he insists to the townsfolk, ‘– your neighbours, the Russians, invaders from outer space – that you never see that the real enemy is yourselves. Your hatred, your suspicion, your closed minds and your fearful hearts. You can free yourselves from all of these fears.’
Dr Millicker, though, has other ideas. He arrives in the town square with the X-ray beam weapon mounted on a military truck (by this point he has, somehow, enlisted the aid of the United States armed forces against this small boy) and turns it on the impromptu orator. Being an X-ray weapon, it is of course formed in the shape of an X, the diagonal cross picked out in light bulbs which pulse brightly as the X-rays are emitted.
The speaker writhes in pain and his form begins to shimmer and change – reverting first to a terrified ten-year-old boy, and then to a Labrador which tries to escape through the crowd, but is cut off by the soldiers. Virginia struggles to fight her way through the crowd to her son, but Dr Millicker has turned the beam on him once more. He begins to grow, losing human form entirely and eventually becoming a giant, amorphous, pulsating blob which Millicker calls ‘the X-Mass’. Virginia tries again to reach him, but is held back by her ex George, still unmarried and still her father’s loyal henchman, who insists that she will only endanger herself. ‘I still care about you, Virginia,’ he insists creepily.
In the background, the attentive cinemagoer may see a second Labrador fleeing the square.
* * *
The rest of the third act follows a predictable trajectory, with Millicker and the military pursuing the unspeaking, glowing blob through the evacuated town. The Mayor is cornered by the X-Mass, but rather than flow over and smother him it turns back and risks another assault by the X-ray beams. Only Virginia, who has succeeded in escaping the evacuation, witnesses the Mass taking refuge in a shopping  mall, whose schmaltzy Christmas decorations are quickly augmented by electrified wire and landmines.
Virginia tries to reach Xander, but can’t get past the electric fences. She’s there when, called in by the President at Dr Millicker’s urging, USAF planes arrive overhead and drop an ominous payload on the mall.
From the distant vantage point where Millicker and the soldiers are observing the town, we see the Bomb fall, the mushroom cloud rise… and then immediately reverse itself, collapsing back into nothing. The mall is destroyed along with its monstrous occupant – but Virginia, cowering just around the corner across the square, survives.
* * *
Virginia returns through the miraculously fallout-free city to her empty house, where she finds a note waiting for her.
They wanted to see me dead, so I gave them what they wanted. I broke off a part of me, and sent it to the mall to die. The rest of me’s left town along with everybody else.
I can’t come back, though – not even for you, not even a bit of me. If they catch me, men like Dr Millicker will study me, and maybe find a way to kill me better next time. A way I can’t come back from.
I’m going away – maybe to Washington, maybe Moscow. Maybe both. You remember my plan, to save the world from the Bomb? Well, it’ll work a whole lot better if I can be lots of people at once. I didn’t know I could do that before, but I can. I can break myself up into lots of bits – maybe lots of people, maybe lots of tiny bits that can get in people’s heads and change the way they think.
If everyone who could launch the Bomb isn’t themselves at all, but me… well then, the Bomb will never fall again.
I love you, Ma. I hope I can save you – and everyone else.
The note is signed, of course, with an X. (An initial? A kiss? A statement of anonymity? Or perhaps simply a cross, to show that Xander has graded the work of the human race and found it disappointing.)
* * *
The final shots are of crowds on a city street – not Santa Mira, though. Maybe New York, maybe Los Angeles, maybe neither. Somewhere anonymous, where hundreds of ordinary people are going about their daily business. The camera lingers on their faces.
The  voiceover artist is back from his whisky and cigarette break:
‘And so a new era in mankind’s history begins. One where any face you see could belong to this new being that walks among us. Your neighbour, your teacher, your doctor, your President – any one of them could belong to this great collective, this new movement of humanity towards a greater goal. Moved by a spirit that, while perhaps inhuman, still has the interests of humanity at heart.
‘The spirit… of the X-Mass.’
Roll credits.
* * *
(The 1958 sequel, Night of the X-Mass, is disappointing. The less said about the 2008 remake, X-Mass: Presence, the better.)

24 January 2016

End of Days

It's taken me a while to get my thoughts about the announcement of the new Doctor Who showrunner in order. (NB: This is just what I reckon, yeah? If you're an old-school internet pedant, you may want to imagine this prefaced by a gigantic 48-point flashing ‘IMHO’.)

I can quite see why the BBC have appointed Chris Chibnall to take over from Steven Moffat. He’s an experienced showrunner, with a wide-ranging record that includes the widely respected Broadchurch, the less widely-respected Camelot and... well, seasons 1 and 2 of Torchwood, which built up a dedicated international fanbase and climbed the ladder of channel popularity from BBC3 to BBC1. He has history with Doctor Who, having written four stories including a two-parter, and lots of Torchwood episodes set, at least in theory, in the Doctor Who universe.

The fact that the episodes of Doctor Who he’s written took five years to clamber up from profoundly bad (42) to largely-just-about-competent (The Power of Three), and that seasons 1 and 2 of Torchwood were, from an artistic if not a commercial point of view, a horrific mess, is only going to be an issue for a handful of discriminating fans, and is unlikely to affect the vast demographic that is the series’ core audience. From an industry perspective, Chibnall is self-evidently a safe pair of hands to keep the series steady for a few years until the next one comes along.

As a discriminating fan, though, I feel I have legitimate concerns about what the series from 2018 onwards is going to look like. When they took over as showrunners, both Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat had considerable credit in the goodwill bank. RTD was a massively respected TV dramatist who wanted to bring back Doctor Who – in itself a remarkable boost for the series’ status – and had two respected children’s fantasy series (Dark Season and Century Falls), a complex and clever adult fantasy (The Second Coming), a series about a Doctor Who fan that was an absolute masterclass in character and plotting (Queer as Folk), and a startlingly bleak Doctor Who novel (Damaged Goods) all under his belt. Moffat also had a successful young adult series (Press Gang) and an adult fantasy series (Jekyll) on his CV, as well as a number of sitcoms including the excellent Coupling, and had written some of the very best episodes of the series since RTD revived it. Both had impressed us all with what they could do before they started in the job, and both excited me hugely with their visionary perspectives on what Doctor Who should be like.

In Chibnall’s case, there are certainly some viewers who appreciate his past work -- fans of Torchwood and Broadchurch in particular. Good luck to them: I genuinely hope they enjoy what’s coming as much as they assume they will. I suspect even they, though, would struggle to find a clear vision for Doctor Who in Chibnall's past episodes, in the way that Davies clearly believes it should be emotionally literate, people-driven melodrama and Moffat cerebral, child-focussed science-fiction horror. 

More than this, though, both RTD's and Moffat's work – and here we’re getting into 72-point ‘IMHO’ territory – suffers a distinct drop in quality once they become regular showrunners, responsible for commissioning, editing and bringing to fruition 14 episodes a year, based in wildly differing settings each requiring its own prop, set and costume design and distinctive location work, with all the necessary liaising with directors, casting consultants and BBC controllers -- quite apart from continuing to write their own scripts, and devise and impose an overall narrative schema across the season and the future direction of the show as a whole. Nobody in the TV industry has experience in doing this except Davies and Moffat themselves, because no other series makes the same demands on its writers and producers as Doctor Who.

This takes an understandable toll on the showrunners' scripts. Davies had had years to think about how he’d bring back Doctor Who, and it worked gloriously in 2005: he had one year to think about how he’d follow it up with a second series, and in 2006 it shows. None of his later series approach the crystalline perfection of the Eccleston series, and by the time he leaves they’re rapidly approaching incoherence.

Moffat's scripts, too – though still having much to commend them – take a minor nosedive once the realities of commissioning and production properly set in. A few stories during his early years as showrunner (The Eleventh Hour, A Christmas Carol) are on a par with his scripts for RTD like The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances or The Girl in the Fireplace, but most suffer by comparison. It’s only with The Day of the Doctor and the 2014 and 2015 Capaldi seasons – when he’s been in the position longer than Davies and got his second wind – that we see a true return to form. 

(I quite understand, of course, why he’d want to leave, but I’d personally like to have seen several years more of his witty, clever and cheerily terrifying version of Doctor Who before that happened. We’re getting one more year, of course -- even if it is, inexplicably, 2017 -- and let’s hope it’s a thoroughly spectacular one.)

Of course, RTD and Moffat are such outstanding writers that a small trailing-off isn’t really an issue: from 2006 to 2013 they still, for the most part, turned out great scripts. With Chibnall, though, a drop in quality from his previous standard is an alarming prospect.

I think we can expect a few good things from the Chibnall showrunnerate, even so – they just won’t have much to do with his own scripts or the series' overall narrative direction. For instance, I don’t need to have actually watched Broadchurch (to be clear I haven’t, and have no interest in doing so) to see that casting is one of its major strengths. Since Chibnall will clearly be casting the 13th, and quite likely the 14th, Doctors, that’s reassuring. I suspect he'll be disinclined to take the more radical kind of casting decision Moffat has been slyly preparing the way for in his Capaldi stories, but we can probably assume that whichever 30-to-50-year-old white men he casts in the part will be pretty good at acting. His seasons of Torchwood also saw some interesting commissioning choices in the script department: PJ Hammond, Noel Clarke and Catherine Tregenna were all names that would have been unlikely to crop up (at that time, and in that capacity) in mainstream Doctor Who, and all created unusual episodes with distinct and interesting features. The best thing Chibnall brings to Doctor Who may well be his address book. 

So -- amused though I was when a well-known author of my acquaintance responded to the news on Facebook with a picture of the Hindenburg crashing into the Titanic -- this isn't an unmitigated disaster. Even the worst eras of Doctor Who (NB If in doubt refer back to the opening disclaimer) have produced individual stories of substantial interest – The Androids of Tara, for instance, or Revelation of the Daleks  – and I’m sure that, from 2019 or so, The Black Archive will be covering selected stories of the Chibnall era with keen enthusiasm. It's the overall arc story, and the several scripts a year written by the showrunner to further it, which I worry may be turgid, incoherent and banal, and occasionally startlingly offensive.

I’m prepared to be proved wrong. But then I'm prepared to be proved wrong on all kinds of issues, from the demise of Elvis to the non-existence of fairies.

And as for the Controller of BBC1’s idea that we don’t need any Doctor Who in 2016 because we’ve got some football and the Olympics… well, don’t get me started. It may make perfect sense from an industry perspective, but it’s naive in the extreme to expect viewers to agree.

Which rather brings us back to where we started.

19 December 2015

Mummers and Poppers: A Devices Story for Christmas

Another imminent Christmas means another Christmas story, and another all-too-rare update to this all-but-abandoned blog. Except that what I sent out with my Christmas cards last year was a tie-in story to my Devices Trilogy novels, and has already been published on the Snowbooks website. Still, I don't have another one for you, sorry.

This story is set between The Pendragon Protocol and The Locksley Exploit.

A Devices story for Christmas

If thee will leave thy tanning trade
and bide in greenwood with me,
my name’s Robin Hood, and I swear by the wood
I will give thee both gold and fee.’

The Kempsford Mummers’ Play

         As Christmases go, this is a weird one. Weirder than normal for the Green Chapel, I mean, because I realise sleeping in draughty tents in a forest, wearing several layers of thermal underwear inside your sleeping-bag and having to break the ice on the communal water-butts before you can have a wash in the morning wouldn’t be most people’s preferred way of spending the festive season.
         It’s all down to the allies – the ‘devices’, as our opposite numbers in the Circle insist on calling them. The living mythic archetypes of Britain have been kicking up a fuss, to say the least of it, ever since open warfare was declared among their human representatives, between the modern avatars of the Knights of the Round Table and Robin Hood’s Merry Men.
         That sort of thing puts the collective psyche of the whole nation under strain, and – though they’re nothing compared with what we’ll be facing later in the year – there’ve been some unusual manifestations emerging. Criminals from armed robbers to drug-dealers have been getting ideas that are strangely similar to stuff in myths, and those of us who live routinely with the influence of legendary figures are getting a bunch of very odd ideas turning up in our heads. The allies don’t dictate anyone’s behaviour, but they can introduce impulses which it’s quite difficult to control.
         So, for example, at the Circle’s Fastness – as Merry Wendiman’s learnt through her remaining contacts there – a bunch of the more credulous Knights are expecting a sign at Christmas, like the sword in the stone appearing on that day in the Morte D’Arthur, which will presage the long-awaited return of the ever-absent Pendragon device. The Seneschal’s doing his best to discourage the rumour, but every Knight who hasn’t been detailed to a quest elsewhere is sticking close to London till the New Year, just in case.
         This gives us a slight respite: recently we’ve been having to decamp and move every week or so, as the Knights come sniffing at our metaphorical door. The current thinking among those who do our decision-making is that the Chapel’s going to have to split up and go to ground – some of us camping, but scattered; others in squats in major cities where that kind of thing goes unnoticed; others kipping on friends’ floors across the country. It’s a long-standing contingency plan, but it’ll be the first time it’s happened in our recent history.
         It’ll be a worrying time for us all… but, thanks to the Knights’ temporary bout of greater-than-usual insanity, probably not until New Year or so.
         In our own ranks too – if ‘ranks’ is the word for the members of an anarchist cell – there’ve been some worrying midwinter manifestations. The other day, two young kids who’d been hiking in the forest and got separated from their parents turned up at our camp, all panicked and tearful. A search of the woods was the last thing we needed, so Zara (the Bosnian ally of Robin Hood’s Saracen pal) and Rev Cantrell (Friar Tuck’s ally and the Chapel’s holy man, for a certain very lax definition of ‘holy’) undertook to reunite them with their family.
         Citing a concern, and on the face of it a perfectly reasonable one, that their descriptions might lead the Circle to us, they insisted on going in disguise. Watching them leading the children away into the woods – Rev, bewigged and compulsively adjusting the generous padding needed to fill out a dress a good many sizes too big for his skinny frame, and Zara, in shirt and trousers with a false moustache, slapping her thigh with a nervous and entirely assumed bonhomie – was our first hint that the pressure of the schism between Chapel and Circle might be forcing the allies to manifest in unaccustomed and frankly disturbing ways.
         The absence of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight can’t be helping, of course. This is the time of year when those two traditionally slug it out with axes, enacting a mythic ritual thingy of decapitation and rebirth that presumably symbolises the death of the old year, vegetation, sunlight and so forth, and the return of all of the above in the forthcoming spring.
         According to Merry at least, that would have provided some much-needed release for all this pent-up devicial energy – but there is, of course, a problem. The ‘Green Knight’ is what the Robin Hood ally used to be called before there was a Robin Hood, and what the Circle still call it. It’s something the Chapel’s been noticeably missing since the death of Shafiq Rashid a month ago at the Circle’s hands.
          Which brings us to our guest, Jory Taylor – or ‘Dan’, as we’re all still calling him. Shaf’s friend, Merry’s boyfriend and the former bondsman of Sir Gawain among the Knights of the Circle, he’s been moody ever since we rescued him from his own people on his way to their private psychiatric prison, and despite the fact that most of us consider him the heir apparent to the Robin Hood ally – Merry being our own Maid Marian, after all, and someone we trust implicitly to choose well – he’s yet to show much sign of leadership.
         Indeed, with the possible exception of Merry herself when they’re in private, he’s not been saying much to anyone at all.
         It won’t be till later that I’ll realise that Jory, who used to bear the device of Sir Gawain and is now being expected to take on the mantle of the Green Knight, might be experiencing quite a bit of inner conflict around this time of year.

* * *

         This year’s Midwinter Day is bright, crisp and clear – the sunshine actually warming at times, though not enough to make you take off any of your extra layers. A white Christmas is clearly out of the question, but the moss in the shadows under the trees surrounding our communal clearing still bears the night’s frost as late as lunchtime.
         Which is when Ahmed becomes the latest of us to start acting strangely. Without any obvious provocation, the young Somali – the ally of the relatively obscure Merry Man Arthur a’Bland, and normally the sweetest guy in the world – starts insulting Jory, calling him among other things an arrogant, muscle-headed English idiot with unadventurous taste in food. You can tell he doesn’t get much practice being abusive, but he seems in a genuinely belligerent mood about it.
         Jory, who’s been quietly reading next to his and Merry’s tent, looks confused and a little hurt. Merry seems more concerned. While some of us try to tell Ahmed not to be such a prat, Merry unships her laptop and fires up the 4G.
         ‘Relax kid, there’s no need for any of this,’ Rev points out reasonably.
         ‘Aye, Dan’s a big guy,’ grunts Scar, Will Scarlet’s ally and Zara’s girlfriend. ‘You take him on, it isn’t gonna end well.’
         ‘I don’t care. That swine has had it coming,’ Ahmed inexplicably insists, and tries to launch himself in Jory’s direction. Scar and Zara grab an arm each.
         ‘I honestly don’t know what your problem is, Ahmed,’ Jory tells him sincerely, ‘but I don’t want to fight you. Let’s drop it, shall we?’
         ‘Ah, so you’re scared of me, you coward?’ Ahmed sneers. Jory starts to look justifiably irritated.
         ‘Hold on, hold on,’ says Merry, standing up. She’s scanning her laptop screen rapidly. ‘It looks like this is another of those seasonal things. Ahmed, calm down, your ally’s riling you up deliberately. It’s trying to act out the plot of a traditional Christmas mummers’ play. Well, one set of variants anyway. You’re going to end up getting knocked unconscious at the very least.’
         Ahmed doesn’t seem in much of a mood to listen, so Little John’s ally Big Jack Bennett steps in. ‘Listen, pal,’ he says, ‘Dan’s our guest here, aye? He doesn’t need you in his face, acting like a pillock.’
         And at this point, his ally obviously too stoked-up to be held back any longer, Ahmed breaks free of the women and hurls himself, not at Jory but at Jack.
         ‘Bugger,’ mutters Merry. ‘That’s in the script too.’
         I try to skim the text of the play over her shoulder. It does indeed look like a free adaptation of the ballad ‘Robin Hood and the Tanner’, where Arthur a’Bland, the Bold Tanner, turns up and needlessly antagonises Robin Hood, but ends up fighting Little John.
         With reality mimicking drama now, there’s only one way that’s likely to go. Jory may be bigger than Ahmed, but Big Jack must be twice the Somali lad’s body-weight, and has probably been brawling longer than he’s been alive. It doesn’t take an especially epic bout of fisticuffs before the big guy punches Ahmed’s lights out.

* * *

         ‘So what do we do now?’ I ask, as we all gaze down at Ahmed lying, nose bloodied but looking kind of peaceful, on the chilly grass.
         Merry’s frowning. ‘I think, now we’re here, we just let the scenario play itself out,’ she says. She flicks through the script. ‘We’ll need a doctor to cure him.’ (I’ve never looked much into mummers’ plays, but I know that bit isn’t in the ballad.) ‘Preferably a drunken, boastful one. My doctorate’s in psychology, so I’m not sure if…’
         ‘Hey, I’ll give the kid first aid.’ Rev shrugs. ‘No doctorate maybe, but I qualify on those other grounds.’ He lopes off to his tent to get his things.
         ‘Well, I don’t recall this happening before,’ I say, as we wait for him to come back. As the bard of the group, Alan a’Dale’s human ally, I’m supposed to be intimately familiar with the Chapel’s oral history. ‘Anyone else?’
         There’s a general shaking of heads. Even old Brian – the sole survivor of the ’60s version of the Chapel, whose Friar Tuck was a failed guru on the run from creditors in Bradford and whose Marian was a drag queen called ‘Marion Repent’ – says he’s never seen the like.
         Rev hurries back. ‘Hold this a minute,’ he says to Jack, handing him a small glass vial. He bends down to hoick Ahmed into the recovery position.
         Big Jack gingerly unstoppers the bottle and sniffs it. He reels back and stumbles over a guy-rope, sprawling backwards into a tent which immediately collapses. A squeal of protest emerges from its compressed occupant.
         ‘Apparently the doctor’s pretty much the only constant in these plays,’ muses Merry, as Zara tuts and retrieves the vial. ‘Apart from the slapstick,’ she adds as Big Jack sits up groggily and finds himself entangled in a cat’s cradle of guy-ropes. ‘The combatants are more usually St George and either the Dragon or a Turkish knight, but someone always ends up getting brought back to life. I’m guessing the tradition originated as a midwinter death-and-resurrection drama, but so watered down now it’s practically homeopathic.’
         ‘You mean like the Gawain-and-the-Green-Knight story?’ I wonder. Then: ‘Oh, I get it. You reckon this was, what, filling in? Little John and Arthur a’Bland as understudies for the big two?’
         ‘I suppose they were the best alternatives available,’ Merry agrees. ‘We’ve got a Saracen, but no St George.’
         ‘I think you loosen his clothing enough now, Rev,’ Zara observes neutrally, passing Cantrell the vial. ‘What happen next, Merry, in this play?’
          Behind her Big Jack uses another guy rope to pull himself upright. A nearby tent falls over under his weight, disgorging an indignant semi-clad couple.
         ‘Well,’ sighs Merry. ‘The best way of bringing the whole thing to a dignified close would probably be to have Old Father Christmas turn up and suggest everyone has a feast instead. Although I’m not sure how much significance Father Christmas would have for Ahmed.’
         Suddenly Ahmed sits up with a gasp. ‘What was that?’ he asks, grasping Cantrell’s wrist. Rev’s been waving his vial underneath the lad’s nose. ‘What’s in that bottle?’
         ‘Ah… just a little something I had about the place,’ says Rev evasively. ‘Let’s just say it acts as a pick-me up.’
         ‘You just gave Ahmed poppers?’ groans Scar. ‘Jesus, Rev.’
         ‘Amyl nitrite,’ I explain helpfully to Jory, seeing his puzzled look. ‘It’s a gay scene drug. Ahmed will be on a short-lived high right now.’
         ‘Hey, you expect me to have smelling salts lying around?’ Cantrell asks defensively. ‘What am I, the vicar in a Jane Austen novel?’
         I realise we haven’t resolved the Father Christmas issue, but Jory steps in at this point. ‘Hey, Ahmed,’ he cries, ‘You’re feeling better! We need to celebrate! What do you say to a good old Green Chapel party, eh?’
         For a moment Ahmed simply looks confused, then a wide smile spreads across his face. ‘My friend, I like your attitude! Yes! Yes, I’m in a party mood!’
         ‘Someone get some music on, for God’s sake,’ snaps Merry, and there’s a general scurrying to set things up for a shindig. Someone produces some finger-food, someone starts dragging out the homebrew, and someone even finds a box of party poppers – the kind that go bang this time.
         A couple of minutes later – which, from what I gather, is about when one might expect Ahmed to start coming down – everyone’s happily grooving away to Claxton and the Ranters.

* * *

         ‘I didn’t like being cast as Robin Hood,’ Jory confides, half an hour later when a few of us get a chance to chat at the makeshift bar. ‘I’m not sure I’ll ever be comfortable with that, to be honest. I just can’t see myself as a leader. If I have to be Santa Claus to avoid it, then so be it.’ He grabs a beer and wanders over to where Burn, our street-conjurer-in-residence, is doing tricks for the kids. A girl called Finn is claiming stridently that she saw exactly where that coin went.
         ‘Hell, if I’d known the part of Santa was available, I’d have passed up the doctor,’ Rev tells us. ‘Fat, jolly, holy, drinks far too much sherry? Sounds like my kind of guy.’ Collecting a drink of his own, the scrawny man heads back for the impromptu dance floor, where Ahmed’s cheerfully boogying arm-in-arm with Big Jack.
         That leaves just Merry and me. ‘There’s something, isn’t there?’ I ask her. ‘I saw your expression just then, and earlier too. Dan perking up suddenly like that… that means something.’
         The smile that comes over her face doesn’t quite avoid being smug. ‘I think it does,’ she says. ‘You see, Old Father Christmas… he isn’t Santa. The whole gift-giving thing came much later. The traditional British personification of Christmas is older than St Nicholas.’
         ‘Who is it, then?’ I ask.
         She’s definitely smirking now. ‘Well, he wears green. Holly and ivy leaves, too. He turns up at Midwinter, and invites people to a feast where he plays host. He represents the bounty of spring and of the vegetation, the hope of renewal persisting through the winter. He sounds, you know, an awful lot like…’
         ‘Ah,’ I say, looking over to where Jory’s cheerfully handing round the cheese straws. ‘Yeah, I see.’
         It looks like the Green Knight’s paid us a Midwinter visit after all.

‘Here come I, old Father Christmas.
Christmas comes but once a year,
but when it comes it brings good cheer,
roast beef and plum pudding.
A little money in our pockets, ladies and gentlemen?’

The South Cerney Mummers’ Play
A very merry Christmas to anyone who's still reading.

08 November 2015

Announcing The Black Archive

Launching in March 2016 from Obverse Books, The Black Archive is a series of book-length looks at single Doctor Who stories from 1963 to the present day.

The series will publish six titles each year, in simultaneous digital and print editions.  Each title is a twenty to forty thousand word study of a single televised Doctor Who story, drawing on all eras of the series’ history.

Authors confirmed for 2016 include Hugo-nominated editor, critic and podcaster L M Myles (Chicks Unravel Time, Companion Piece, the Verity! podcast), biographer and Doctor Who scholar Lance Parkin (Whoniverse, AHistory, Magic Words: The Extraordinary Life of Alan Moore), and film critic and occasional scriptwriter James Cooray Smith (Kaldor City, various Virgin Film titles).

The series is overseen by author and editor Philip Purser-Hallard, who explains the premise of the series as follows:
Doctor Who is endlessly fascinating, a powerful storytelling engine about which many millions of words have been written over the years. There are certain stories, though, from all eras of the programme’s history, which are exceptionally deep and rewarding – whether because of their unusually powerful writing, rich symbolism or complex themes. Stories like The Massacre, KindaGhost Light, Midnight or Vincent and the Doctor demand to be explored at greater length and in more depth than a website review or entry in an episode guide will allow.
‘With this series of critical monographs, these Doctor Who stories can receive the detailed treatment that they so eminently deserve. Our primary emphasis is on the stories as stories, rather than the behind-the-scenes history which has been covered in admirable depth elsewhere. While we aim to make an authoritative and significant contribution to the overall critical conversation about Doctor Who, we intend each of these books to be entertaining as well as of academic interest.’
The Black Archive will launch with four titles in March 2016, covering Doctor Who stories from William Hartnell’s tenure as the Doctor to that of current incumbent Peter Capaldi:
Jon Arnold has edited fanzines including Shooty Dog Thing: 2th and Claw, and is a major contributor to Hating to Love: Re-evaluating the 52 Worst Doctor Who Stories of All Time. James Cooray Smith is the co-author of Who’s Next: A Guide to Broadcast Doctor Who, and has contributed production notes to a number of BBC DVD releases. L M Myles contributed to Chicks Dig Time Lords before co-editing its Hugo-nominated sequel Chicks Unravel Time, and has written Doctor Who prose and audio drama for Big Finish. Philip Purser-Hallard holds a doctorate in English literature, specialising in science fiction, and has written prose fiction for Doctor Who spinoff ranges as well as original novels.

Further titles will follow at two-monthly intervals during 2016:
Confirmed contributors for 2017 include Doctor Who novelist Kate Orman and Magic Bullet producer Alan Stevens.

Ebook and paper editions of all titles, along with yearly subscriptions, will be available through the Obverse Books website.

24 July 2015

Furthest Tales of the City

You (Yes, you over there! Pay attention!) will be pleased to learn that the fourth anthology of City of the Saved short stories, Furthest Tales of the City, is due for release some time in late 2015.

The blurb goes like this:

Even the secular afterlife created for humanity by the Secret Architects has its limits – and there will always be those Citizens who chafe against those limits.  Environmentally, culturally, biologically, cosmologically, politically, experientially, some will always seek to go further. 

For instance…

A group mind facing the troubling truth of resurrection.  A comatose giant with human inhabitants of its own.  A civilisation re-enacting an impossible apocalypse.  A woman with negligible human ancestry out on the dating scene.  A cult who inhabit the deep infrastructure underlying the City.  A fictional adventurer starved of the risks his narrative craves.

These are their tales.

And here's the lineup of stories:
Salutation – Philip Purser-Hallard
Weighty Questions – Juliet Kemp
Sleeping Giants – Elizabeth Evershed
Driving Home for Atonatiuh – Lawrence Burton
The Smallest Spark – Paul Hiscock
The Places Above, Between and Below – Louise Sellers
We Only Live Twice (But the City Is Not Enough) – Helen Angove
God Encompasses – Philip Purser-Hallard
Juliet, Liz and Helen are all returning contributors to the City of the Saved, having written stories for the first Tales of the City in 2012. (Liz also wrote for Tales of the Great Detectives in 2014, meaning that she's written more City of the Saved fiction than anyone other than me.) Lawrence Burton is new to the City, but will be familiar to regular Obverse readers as the author of the Faction Paradox novel Against Nature and the Señor 105 novella The Grail, or Señor 105 y el Pueblo del Gobernador Demente, as well as being the regular cover artist for the Faction Paradox books. Paul Hiscock was a contributor to The Obverse Book of Detectives, while Louise Sellers's fiction is published here for the first time.

All of their stories are, in their different ways, marvellous -- variously exciting, weird, thought-provoking and hilarious.

Sharp-eyed readers may notice that a short story called 'God Encompasses' has been up on my website for a while now: this is indeed an updated version of that story. 'Salutation' is a new companion piece. Even more insightful readers may realise that both stories are, very approximately, named after pubs.

I'll update this blog, and my website, when further information -- cover, publication date, that sort of thing -- starts to make itself known.

16 February 2015

Meet the Martians

Iris Wildthyme of Mars
In the event, only one reader entered the competition to identify the types of fictional Martian mentioned in my short story "Green Mars Blues", and that was in fact another of the contributors to Iris Wildthyme of Mars.

I said that I thought there were nineteen types of Martian in the story. I have to admit it depends heavily on how you count.

From the beginning...

1. The Green Man (first appearance p227): A Green Martian from Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom sequence.
2. Jenah Pharis (p229): A Red Martian from Barsoom.
3. The Tripods (p232): Obviously, the war machines from H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds.
4. The Coy Stripper and Her "Snake" (p234): An adult and juvenile of the species described in Philip José Farmer's short story "My Sister's Brother".
5 & 6. The Fake Charlatan and the Incompetent Ghost  (p234): One of the telepathic Martians, and one of the slightly different shapeshifting telepathic Martians, from Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles.
7. The Locusts (p236): The evil insectile Martians from Quatermass and the Pit, with accompanying aerial psychic projection.
8. The Angels of Pavonis Mons (p238): The Eldila from C.S. Lewis' Out of the Silent Planet.
9, 10 & 11. The Spindly Men, the Otters and the Froggy Things (p238): The Sorns, Hrossa and Pfifltriggi from Out of the Silent Planet.
12. The Blue (or Possibly Green) Giants (p240): Either the Argzoon from Michael Moorcock's Kane of Old Mars sequence, or the Ice Warriors from Doctor Who.
13. Great Octopus Things (p240): From Men, Martians and Machines by Eric Frank Russell (though other answers would probably have been acceptable).
14. Merpeople (p240): From Doctor Omega by Arnould Galopin.
15. The Blue Lightning (p240): A Fire Balloon from The Martian Chronicles.
16. The Christmas Visitor (p240): Either Dropo from Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, or the Alien Super-Being from Christmas on Mars.
17. The Flashing Eyes in the Dark (p241): The Man from Mars in the Blondie song "Rapture". (The biggest clue's in what he eats.)
18. The Laughers at Potatoes (p241): The robotic Martians from the 1970s Smash adverts. (I wouldn't have thought of including these Martians in the story without the input of Andrew Hickey, to whom thanks.)
19. The Armoured Reptile (p250): Definitely an Ice Warrior.

For bonus points, the title of Marcie's proposed talk "Grokking Vulthoom: The Role of Indigene Legends in Modern Cult Formation" (p242) references Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land and "Vulthoom" by Clark Ashton Smith.

To his credit, our entrant Simon Bucher-Jones identified twelve of those (fourteen including the bonuses). He also pointed out several texts that identify Jesus (mentioned on p226) as a Martian, and made a valiant effort to name eighteen works which include Martian tripods (on the basis that Marcie has encountered eighteen variants of the story). Simon wins the signed copy of The Pendragon Protocol by default, but it's certainly deserved.

05 February 2015

Here's the thing

Today I was sent a link to a forum post where someone speaks enthusiastically about how much they've enjoyed some books of mine (among a number of others), and offers to share the ebook versions with other forum users for free.

I don't know how certain people so consistently fail to understand this, but here it is. Books (including ebooks) are as good as they are, and cost the amounts they do, because a lot of people's time -- authors', editors', illustrators', publishers' -- goes into creating them. You're not paying for the paper and ink that make up the book, or the server space the ebook is held on, you're paying for the time -- sometimes months or years -- that people have spent lovingly working on this thing you've enjoyed reading. To then distribute that work for free -- thus ensuring that the publisher's sales and income remain low and that the money they have to compensate their authors, editors and illustrators remains limited -- shows a degree of thoughtlessness and contempt for those people and their work that's simply staggering.

Other people's work is worth your money. If you won't pay, you don't deserve the benefit of the work. It's that simple.