15 August 2006

I Feel Like a Newman

By an only slightly strange coincidence, I've recently read two unrelated books by horror novelist, media critic and occasional TV pundit Kim Newman. Although not up to the standard of such inspired works as Anno Dracula or the excellent Life's Lottery, both of them were readable, diverting and fun.

The first was The Night Mayor, Newman's out-of-print first novel which I spotted and picked up in a secondhand shop a couple of months ago.

It's easy to see how it comes from the same imagination as Anno Dracula and its sequels -- set as it is in a consensus fictional reality belonging to a very specific historical period and genre (in this case 1940s and 50s film noir) -- but it reads as a dry run for that novel. Where three years later Newman would be confident enough simply to assert the reality of Count Dracula, Dr Jekyll, Mycroft Holmes and (many, many) others in his late Victorian era, here he feels the need to justify his fictional world as a virtual reality in the context of a rather perfunctory cyberpunk future.

(There might be interesting points to make, incidentally, about cyberpunk's obvious indebtedness to the conventions and tropes of film noir, as observed by every film student who's ever watched Blade Runner. However, The Night Mayor doesn't make them, being much keener to revel in its subsidiary world.)

There's a hardboiled detective narrative, and plenty of postmodern play with genre conventions. One aspect which, though disconcerting at first, quickly becomes fascinating is that all the characters (except the handful of "real" people who wander in from the outside world) are referred to by the names of contemporary actors: thus the villains include Claude Rains and Otto Kruger, who has Peter Lorre as his sidekick ("Yiu keelled heem!" he wails at a climactic moment).

This is taken to deliberately silly extremes with Nazis who follow "the Führer Anton Diffring" [*], and historical artifacts like "the longbow with which Errol Flynn had driven the Normans out of Sherwood Forest" -- but mixed up irritatingly with in-universe references to historical / mythical figures like George Washington and Sir Lancelot.

The plot, too, is a rather perfunctory "defeat the bad guy in his own world by turning its rules against him" story of the kind that was already becoming a cyberpunk cliché. The book is, as I've said, good fun, but unless you're a real aficionado of the period it's evoking, its main interest is as a prelude to Newman's very worthwhile later fiction.

The second book -- which I've had for a while, but read as a preparation for braving James Chapman's much more substantial Inside the Tardis: The Worlds of Doctor Who, was BFI TV Classics: Doctor Who -- a necessarily cursory critical history of the 1963-89 series, with excursions into the 1996 TV movie and 2005- update.

I admire Newman's fiction very much -- including his own contribution to the Doctor Who mythos, his novella Time and Relative -- but as a critic he sometimes misses the mark, and this book contains a high proportion of examples. The things he has to say about 1960s Doctor Who are often very interesting, but his comments on the later episodes are hampered by lazy nostalgia and a glib adherence to fan consensus.

To be fair, he acknowledges the possibility that his perception -- essentially that Doctor Who went rubbish when K-9 arrived and didn't get better until the 2005 revival -- may be connected with his age (he was born the year Delta and the Bannermen is set, whereas many fans of the current series weren't even born when it aired).

It's still annoying, though, to see such aged fan platitudes as Davison being "blander than his predecessors" [p98] given the full majestic backing of the British Film Institute.

Newman's "bland" may be my "subtle and nuanced performance avoiding the comedy mugging and cartoon mood-swings of his immediate predecessor", but that's just standard critical disagreement. Unfortunately, he also shoots himself in the foot with poor research leading to factual inaccuracies.

It's perhaps understandable that he's confused about Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart's rank on his first appearance, twice calling him a Major [pp54, 66]. He was in fact a Colonel (as I could have told Newman when I was about ten). But his (overly caustic) footnote on Who fans and their attitude to the show's "canon" [p125] is fatally sabotaged by his inability, first to remember what year Bishop James Ussher's studies of the Bible led to him to claim that the world was created (it was 4004 BC, not 2004 BC -- real-world fact, not Doctor Who universe fact)... and then, distressingly, to even spell "Apocrypha" correctly (preferring to give it, rather fittingly, a terminal "er").

Even in Newman's dismissive paragraphs about the show's last years ("Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy need not trouble us long" [p100]) there are worthwhile moments -- I was interested, for instance, to learn that he agrees with me about McCoy's best performance being in the generally derided Battlefield. But the book is sadly compromised by a stubborn refusal to compare sixties and eighties episodes on an equal footing, and a reliance on received opinion that I wouldn't have expected of a critic of Newman's stature.

Fortunately, like The Night Mayor, it is at least accessible and enjoyable to read. It's a decent brief introduction to the subject, provided you remember not to take the author's opinion as anything but that.

Having finished those -- and started the aforementioned Chapman tome -- I'm also reading British Summertime and Ada or Ardor. The Cornell is decent, if a little reminiscent of his earlier Something More, but I have to admit the Nabokov has me struggling a bit. I must be out of practice.

[*] OK, so perhaps the two books aren't entirely unrelated.

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