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THE IMPOSSIBLE HAS HAPPENED: THE LIFE AND WORK OF GENE RODDENBERRY, CREATOR OF STAR TREK

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In 2016, my biography of Gene Roddenberry was published in hardback. A paperback edition (with a few minor corrections and clarifications) was published in 2017.

The title comes from Where No Man Has Gone Before, the so-called ‘second pilot’ for the show. It wasn’t the first episode shown, but it was the first one starring William Shatner that was made – those are the first words spoken by Captain Kirk (after ‘Captain’s Log’ and the stardate). Shatner said the line again when he appeared in the Where No Fan Has Gone Before episode of Futurama.

I was interviewed about the project by Apex, and there I spell out why I think my book differs from the other biographies of Roddenberry, and what I saw as the reason for writing it:

“Reading about him, it felt a little like I was getting fragments of the story, and there were a few things that didn’t quite add up. There’s a mythical history of Star Trek, where Roddenberry was a voice in the wilderness and the network didn’t like the show and no one watched it at first. I looked at that and thought “well, hang on, the network ran the show for three years, and if they didn’t like it and no one was watching, why would they do that?” The answer to that leads to some interesting insights into Star Trek, but also the way TV drama was made in the sixties.”

Josh Marsfelder’s long and thoughtful review of the book for Eruditorum then did an astonishingly good job of summing up my argument.

It was also reviewed by:

SF Crowsnest – “Overall, Parkin’s biography is a good amalgamation of sources on Roddenberry and performs admirably in perforating the myths around the man while celebrating his creative imagination.”

Starburst – “‘The Impossible Has Happened’ is as much a history of the Star Trek franchise as it is of the man who created it; a well researched and unbiased analysis told through the eyes of a self confessed fan that allows the reader to make up their own mind as to how history will remember the undeniably inspirational creator of a series that has spanned five decades.”

Geek Chic Elite – (a little negative, but I’ll take – “What Parkin does well in The Impossible Has Happened is collect a complete picture from otherwise fractured sources.  He quotes from various articles and books written about the show as well as the biographies of some of its biggest stars–including William Shatner and Nichelle Nichols–bringing several differing perspectives into one place. I managed to learn a lot about Rodenberry that I probably wouldn’t have otherwise. And while I don’t know that Rodenberry’s time working on the short-lived The Lieutenant was worth an entire chapter, Parkin’s discussion of Rodenberry’s personal life and its unequivocal entangled relationship to Star Trek was fascinating.”)

The Unheard Nerd – “‘The Impossible Has Happened’ is an engaging page-turner that could easily warrant multiple reads given the abundance of facts, trivia and relationships explored over the lifetime of Star Trek’s creator, Gene Roddenberry.”

Kirkus – “Parkin puts all of these contributions in perspective as he looks at the colorful life of its creator.”

 

Buy it here: (Amazon, Amazon.co.uk)

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE IMPOSSIBLE HAS HAPPENED (AGAIN)

The paperback version of The Impossible Has Happened: The Life and Work of Gene Roddenberry is out now, and available from various places including Amazon and Amazon.co.uk. There are a few corrections from the hardback, most noticeably the fact that I don’t call the ship from Star Trek III the USS Excalibur, a mistake I somehow didn’t spot the fifteen times I proofread that chapter, but which literally every reader of the hardback edition noticed. “The more they over think the plumbing, the easier it is to stop up the drain”.

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THE HORROR AT DET-SEN

Earth is under attack.

London is recovering from the Yeti invasion. Recent events have starkly demonstrated to Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart that the force behind the Yeti, the Great Intelligence, remains an active threat. To have any hope of defeating it again, he needs to know his enemy.

Forty years ago, the Great Intelligence occupied the Buddhist monastery of Det-Sen, high in the Himalayas. Now Lethbridge-Stewart plans to go to Det-Sen, in an attempt to scour the site for clues to the enemy’s nature and capabilities.

Rather to his surprise, Professor Travers, who was there as a young man, insists on coming with him.

They are not the only people interested in the Det-Sen monastery. A diabolical genius is keen to tap into the power of an ancient, dark god, and he has sent his henchmen across the world to collect the artefacts the Great Intelligence has left behind.

What is The Horror? Will it mean the end of the world – or are things much worse than that? And … what’s that sound? Can’t you hear it? That electronic sound? No, it’s still there. You can’t hear that? Really?

 

An unmade book, which would have been the second novel in Candy Jar’s Lethbridge-Stewart series, featuring the character who would (after a promotion) become the much-loved Brigadier in Doctor Who. I plotted it out, wrote about a third of it – 22,000 words or so – had a rough draft of the middle. It would have been a quick, fun book – both to write and (hopefully) to read. In the end, it wasn’t to be.

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Over the summer of 2014, I was approached by series editor Andy Frankham-Allen to see if I was interested in writing for their forthcoming series.  It had been a while since I’d had any fiction published, I like the character of the Brigadier, and I was in the early stages of researching my Gene Roddenberry biography, so there was room in my schedule for me to get this done, if I got a move on. It was fun to be there at the start of a new range, and I had the chance to read a draft of the first book, Forgotten Son, and offer some suggestions.

Over the course of July 2014, Andy and I exchanged a few emails. There was an idea in place for the third book before I was involved: “Given the authority to assemble a special army unit to deal with alien threats (government refuses to alert the UN at this stage). Lethbridge-Stewart is summoned by Travers to Tibet and what follows is something of a ghost/horror story featuring a haunted Det-Sen and possibly real yeti (and some alien influence). Discover something of what happened to Travers in the thirty-five years between The Abominable Snowmen and The Web of Fear, and just what did happen to his wife. (Release June 2015.)”. There was also the idea that it might involve The Beatles, or some similar characters, in a mystical retreat.

I liked that as a springboard, and I was interested in writing about the immediate aftermath of The Web of Fear.  I liked the idea of starting off very soon after that story ends. I liked the idea of seeing Lethbridge-Stewart straight after his first encounter with aliens, piecing together what he knew, seeing what other people knew. Here’s a scene where he talks to a British Government official:

 

‘I read the report. Good work.’

            Lethbridge-Stewart nodded, sensing that it meant something coming from this man, for all he looked like a colourless bureaucrat. He chanced his arm. ‘So, unlike half the top brass, you’ve read my report. Heard about anything similar?’

            The man smiled, a little thinly. ‘Yes.’

            Single word answers, was it?

            ‘Other attacks by this Intelligence?’

            Lethbridge-Stewart didn’t think the man was going to answer, but he was taking his time to weigh his words before doling them out. ‘Hypothetically, Colonel, if we’d been scouted out on a few occasions by … extremely foreign visitors, which answer would be the most reassuring: that all of the scouts were acting on behalf of the same power, or that every time it was from a different power?’

            ‘Whether I feel reassured,’ Lethbridge-Stewart told him, ‘has very little to do with it, I’d have thought.’

            ‘Excellent answer.’

            Lethbridge-Stewart smiled. ‘It would probably be reassuring, in a way, to think that the governments of the world knew exactly what it is we’re facing, and choose to keep things secret.’

‘And do you get the sense that is what is happening?’

‘No, sir, I do not.’

To me, it seemed like there was a really obvious thing that would have happened: London’s just been attacked by the Great Intelligence and the Yeti. For all Lethbridge-Stewart knows, they’re the only aliens out there. He would want to know all about them. Professor Travers had said he met the Yeti before in the Himalayas … so Lethbridge-Stewart would immediately want to go there and seek out evidence. Those are two fun characters, and so straight away there’s the potential for a sort of BBC budget version of the dynamic between Indiana Jones and his dad in The Last Crusade. Lethbridge-Stewart, young and fit and raring to go … and this slightly loony old man insisting he tagged along.

The old Travers in The Web of Fear is an inventor, the young Travers of The Abominable Snowmen was an explorer. Forty years is plenty of time for a career change, but I felt I needed to address that:

 

‘I was one of the most respected men of my day, you know? People forget that, now. There was that fool Walters, but he knew exactly what he was doing. Attack the biggest lion, don’t waste your time and energy on the cubs and the runts of the litter. There were always sceptics, but I kept proving them wrong. Until Tibet.’

            ‘As I say, Tibet is the reason – ’

            ‘Walters died in the war, you know. Oh, he wasn’t fighting. Funny story. He slipped on a paving stone and fell down a well while he was walking his dog. Doesn’t sound funny when I say it out loud.’ He laughed. ‘The dog was fine, didn’t really notice, just went home under his own steam. I always liked his dog. I was right about Tibet. That was the joke, wasn’t it? I was right about Tibet and the mechanical Yeti and the real Yeti. Didn’t matter. When I got back, my career was in ruins. Had to start again from scratch. It’s forty years later, I singlehandedly invented at least three things in every British home. You’ve got a television with a remote control?’

            ‘Actually, I don’t own a – ’

            ‘Now, unlike you, I don’t own a television, but I invented that remote control you hold every time you change channel. Made me rich. Well, rich enough to just about pay off my debts.’

 

There’s another quite interesting gap in Travers’ narrative between the two Yeti stories. The day after The Abominable Snowmen ended, Travers would have begun collecting up all the evidence he could of the Yeti. We know that he got a whole Yeti to London (we see it in a museum in The Web of Fear). What happened to all the other bits? Well, the way I rationalised it, Travers wouldn’t have had much money. So the bulk of what he collected would end up in storage somewhere – until he stopped paying the storage fees. And there was no way he’d kept up payments all those years, not with a World War and the collapse of the British Empire getting in the way. So the collection would have been broken up, or lost.

The obvious bad guys for this story would be a rival group trying to find the same artefacts – the events of The Web of Fear would have tipped them off, too.

I was very much in the ‘this thing writes itself’ stage, at this point, and I’d got that far in just a few minutes of thinking about the brief and what I was interested in writing about.

I wasn’t quite sure about the ‘voice’ of the book. The tone, the exact genre – was this a pastiche of adventure fiction, was it a light romp? A character piece? My chance to write a Terrance Dicks style novelisation? My first thought was ‘do a sort of Casino Royale thing’, where there’s this young, dynamic Lethbridge-Stewart encountering all this stuff for basically the first time. Try as I might, I couldn’t quite make Nick Courtney into Daniel Craig, and I started thinking about the late sixties, when The Web of Fear was made, and wanting to put it in that kind of setting, the Moonage and … suddenly it hit me that there was another Casino Royale option, the Peter Sellers, David Niven one. This seemed like a much better fit.

So I had the idea that the bad guys were basically Tobias Vaughn and Packer from The Invasion, but played by Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. I found that really easy to picture – the Yeti stories were made round about their Not Only, But Also phase.

I pictured Peter Cook as Drimble Wedge from Bedazzled, an aloof conceptual musician.

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Here’s their first scene:

‘Ere, Wedge, are you looking in the mirror again?’

‘What does it look like?’ came the weary reply.

‘You, I hope.’

Wedge studied the face in the mirror. ‘I can’t argue with your logic, there. It does look like me. The very first thing I see is my eyes.’

‘And I can’t argue with your logic, there, boss.’

‘Is the first thing you see my eyes?’

‘I suppose, boss, that the first thing I see is your suit.’

‘It’s a nice suit.’

‘They’re nice eyes.’

‘You think so?’

‘They burn with a fierce intelligence, sir, I’ve always thought so.’

‘Burn? I’m not sure they’ve ever really burned.’

‘Not even at Pembroke?’

‘Ah, yes, the benefit of an Oxbridge education. Not even there. There, I squandered my time. My eyes smouldered, at best.’

‘You spent your time chasing birds, as I recall, sir. Lizzy, Alison, Petra. Top totty. And you netted them all.’

‘I what?’

‘Netted.’

‘I don’t recall any netting.’

‘No?’

‘None at all. Far too busy having sex with them to do any netting.’

‘Hard to see that as squandering. Time well spent, as far as I’m concerned, sir.’

‘Do you think it was my smouldering eyes that did it, Mugley? Netted the birds?’

‘Well, sir, all I can say is that I don’t have your eyes and I didn’t catch much in my net. And I had the advantages of an Oxbridge education, too.’

‘I suppose Magdalen counts as Oxbridge. It might be my eyelashes. I quite like my eyelashes.’

‘They’re super, sir. Top notch eyelashes. You’re also tall, sir. The birds love a tall man. Or, at the very least, they loathe and despise short men, such as myself, and say things like “who’s your tall friend?”, “you’re scruffy, I like your tall friend’s nice suit” and “I wouldn’t have sex with you if this was a parallel universe where everything was the exact opposite of what it is here, and all the other men had eyepatches, I’m only talking to you because I hope to catch the attention of your tall friend Peter Wedge, who I want to have sex with”.’

‘I never thought your only problem was your height, Mugley. Your height is on the list, don’t get me wrong, but I think it’s more to do with your personality. Which, frankly, is awful.’

‘I think, sir, that even if you had my personality, you would still have your cruel, sardonic face, and those cheekbones. You exude confidence, sir, if you don’t mind me saying.’

‘You don’t exude confidence, Mugley.’

‘No, sir.’

‘I don’t see you and go “there goes a man who exudes confidence”.’

‘You have the confidence enough for the both of us, sir. And quite a lot to spare.’

‘You can’t have any of my confidence, Mugley, if that’s what you’re after. Confidence doesn’t work like that. I say that with confidence. I think what it comes down to, the key difference between us, that which marks me out as a tall man who call pull totty is that I was born at the end of the age of Empire.’

‘I’m exactly the same age as you, sir.’

‘Exactly?’

‘Exactly.’

‘Exactly! The last generation, my father’s generation, if you will … well, back then a man like me with his Oxbridge education and his smouldering eyes, I’d have been a member of the ruling class. They’d have made me a minister or an ambassador, an officer of the British Empire.’

‘And now there’s no British Empire left to speak of.’

‘We were speaking of it. Just then, we were speaking about it.’

‘In the past tense, sir. And if you’re looking for gainful employment, and my understanding of this conversation was that you were, then the past tense is no use to you. There’s simply not much call for rulers of the British Empire, now.’

‘No call for it at all, no.’

‘You could rule the EEC.’

‘Not really the same, is it? I’ve got nothing against Belgians, but it’s not exactly India, is it?’

‘The one has never, ever been mistaken for the other.’

‘No it has not. They have not.’

‘There are no Belgian elephants that you can tell apart from the African ones because their ears are smaller.’

‘An excellent point that, again, points to the historical lack of confusion around the issue of whether India is Belgium.’

‘Back in the day, sir, you’re the sort of man the British Empire would have made Viceroy of India.’

‘I am. You’re right. Ironically, of course, we’re in a part of India now that was never part of India back in the days of the Raj.’

‘You’d have been a great leader of men, sir.’

‘Yes. I rather think I would.’

‘You’d have been a brilliant Hitler, sir.’

‘You think so?’

‘Oh, you’d have been a spiffing Hitler.’

‘Thank you, Mugley. Yes, I’ve thought that myself. “I’d have made a spiffing Hitler.” Those exact words. I’d have done all the things he did, I think, but avoided a lot of his key mistakes. Zigged where he zagged. It’s nice to hear someone else say that.’

‘Glad to be of service.’

‘Even coming from a revolting, insecure little gnome like yourself, it’s the sort of thing a chap likes to hear. You’d have been a rubbish Hitler, but you’d be a more than adequate Goering, you know.’

‘I like to think so.’

‘I’m going to be honest, I’d have preferred to go with the real Goering, if I was given a choice, but I wasn’t.’

‘If you want something Goered, sir, and you’ve got a choice, then go with the real Goering.’

‘I have to play the cards I was dealt. And I was dealt you, wasn’t I?’

‘You definitely were, sir.’

‘All right, then, push off, I’ve got work to do.’

 

He’s called Wedge in that extract, but he wouldn’t have been in the final book. The idea was this: since he’d been born, Wedge had been able to hear the Doctor Who incidental music. It gave him a sort of Spidey-Sense, warning him of danger, or if someone was a traitor. He always able to judge the mood of any situation, but it was only when he started trying to reproduce the music of the spheres that he realized that he could control people with it – make them suspicious, or deflate a serious situation.

His plan is to exploit this by creating a television event, The Horror, a sort of evil version of the All You Need is Love satellite broadcast that will be shown all around the world at the same time, that opens a portal and gives him access to the secret powers of the universe.

In order to do this, he’s kidnapped the musicians of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, and taken them to Det-Sen, where they’re held captive. The monastery is full of hippies, groupies and other dropouts. It’s guarded by Yeti that he controls using musical cues.

He has no idea that the Great Intelligence exists, or that it’s a being with an agenda of his own.

The book would start in London, with Lethbridge-Stewart and Travers quickly flying out to Tehran, where they think the items Travers had in storage have ended up. They’d survive an encounter with the evil group, but the bad guys would escape with the artefacts.

Arriving in India, Lethbridge-Stewart and Travers would meet up with an old military colleague and a Gurkha. They are ready for a hard trek … and so are astonished to discover that Det-Sen’s just a bus ride away, now, part of the hippie trail.

Peter Wedge has been helicoptering in engineers and electronic equipment – all part of creating a state of the art recording studio and performance space, or so he claims. The monastery has become legendary for its parties, as Peter Wedge prepares the debut performance of his new album, The Horror.

There have been Yeti sightings nearby, though. Some of the partygoers have disappeared. While Travers finds the scene at Det-Sen rather agreeable, Lethbridge-Stewart is deeply suspicious.

That would be about half the book. Highlights of the second half would have included a fight in the snow between Lethbridge-Stewart and a Yeti.

A sample of the book, set on the flight to Iran, was published at the end of Forgotten Son.

THIS ONE WEIRD TRICK WILL MAKE YOU SEE BLADE RUNNER IN A WHOLE NEW WAY

Blade Runner looks nice, but it doesn’t make much sense. “I’m Lance Parkin. I’m a blogger. Stands for ‘Web Log’.” Oh, I’m sorry. I’ve accidentally put out the Theatrical Cut of this blog post. “I was typing words about Blade Runner when-” That’s quite enough of that.

Hang on. Before I start. OK, Blade Runner is set in 2019. Not long now. It’s the exact opposite of ‘weird’ that a movie made thirtysomething years ago, set thirtysomething years in the future is set soon. That’s how numbers work. But it is a little weird to think that the first time most people born after, say 2005, watch the movie, it’ll be set in the past.

So, OK. Blade Runner doesn’t make much sense. The entire point of this character:

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Is that someone else’s memories have been transferred into her, that they live on in android body. And the whole point of this character:

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Is that memories absolutely can’t live on, that when he dies, it’s all gone. See? Makes no sense. And the ending really is awful, overblown nonsense. But let’s look at that ending again. Perhaps something’s going on that we’ve never noticed before. In the last sequence, Roy Batty goes … well, batty. He does this:

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He sticks a nail in his hand because he doesn’t want to die. Because, as you know, sticking a nail in your hand increases your health.

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He also, for no obvious reason, takes all his clothes off.

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And suddenly, he’s holding a dove.

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And, out the blue, just randomly starts quoting Roy Batty’s monologue from the end of Blade Runner .

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None of this makes sense. Any sense. Unless. Let’s think this through. Why would Roy Batty do any of those distracting things? And the answer is ‘to distract’. So what’s he really up to, while you’re going ‘WTF? Why is he howling like a wolf?’.

Let’s start with the dove. Most of the real animals are dead in Blade Runner because reasons. The dove that Roy Batty suddenly has is an android dove. And you can transfer your memories into androids. Remember?

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Or do you really remember? Perhaps it’s not your memory, perhaps it’s Tyrrell’s niece who read the beginning of this blog and you had those memories implanted.  Anyway: so, Batty releases the dove, and suddenly dies, and the rain is symbolic of his tears, although the rain in the rest of the movie is probably just rain.

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And even Harrison Ford, in the voiceover, doesn’t get why he let Deckard live.

But it’s obvious, isn’t it? The dove isn’t symbolic of Batty’s soul departing his body. It’s his actual soul, copied over to the android dove, making his escape.

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It’s a shame the dove doesn’t go ‘Meep Meep!’ like Roadrunner, to get this point across better. But that’s it, isn’t it? All the howling and running around in his underpants is what he’s doing to hide the fact he needs a few minutes to cut and paste his soul into that android dove. And as Deckard and Rachel [do whatever they do at the end of the version you’re watching], somewhere in Los Angeles in the distant space year of 2019, there’s a dove flying around with Rutger Hauer’s soul.

Makes you think, doesn’t it? Or does it? Is it you thinking that? Aren’t we all replicants, deep down? Ooh, Blade Runner is so profound.

ACCEPTABLE IN THE EIGHTIES

Two thoughts collided for me this week, following a couple of different Doctor Who discussions. The first is that somewhere along the way, the twelfth Doctor’s original costume:

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Has clearly been ditched as a bad idea. It acted as a force multiplier, didn’t it? When Peter Capaldi delivered stern and acerbic lines, the stern and austere costume made them seem far more hostile than I’m sure was intended. Reading the scripts, he’s probably at his most misanthropic and grumpy in The Caretaker, but it comes across as comedy because he’s dressed as a caretaker (he’s not trying that hard: one of the jokes is that he’s wearing exactly the same costume, except with a different coat).

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It struck me that Peter Capaldi had probably had something like his original costume idea since the eighties. The new series has a clear line with the costumes: the ninth Doctor wore a forties U-boat leather jacket, the tenth Doctor wore suits that wouldn’t be out of place in the fifties and early sixties, and the eleventh Doctor wore the tweed and bowtie that make him look like a seventies geography teacher. The twelfth Doctor’s original costume is a bit Spandau Ballet, isn’t it? It’s a bit early eighties.

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So that was thought one.

And here’s thought two: when Peter Davison said he was leaving Doctor Who, then-producer John Nathan-Turner immediately thought of Colin Baker, a curly-haired man in (early) middle age. Davison had been twenty-nine when he was cast. All the other Doctors from 1963-89 were in their forties or fifties (Hartnell was playing at being a doddery old man, as he did in other things – he was only fifty-five when cast).

What if Davison had cemented the idea in either the audience’s or producer’s head that the Doctor was younger? Perhaps if he had stayed for a fourth or fifth season (Baker had been cast and announced and done a photoshoot before The Five Doctors, so it barely felt like Davison had arrived before he’d left).

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So … it’s the mid eighties, the producer is scouring Spotlight for actors in their late twenties. Imagine, for a moment, that the producer was casting based on watching Channel Four at 10pm, looking at people from Peter Greenaway movies, other Channel Four films at the time, or alternative comedians.
The first thing to note is that it’s possible that Peter Capaldi could have made the cut. Here he is in the mid eighties, look.

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Awwwww … I sense clickbait, so let’s do that again:

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Holy Moley, he’s cosplaying Matt Smith, look, he’s got the stupid hair and chin and everything. In 1985, Capaldi was in pretty much exactly the same stage of his career Matt Smith was when he was cast as Doctor Who, he’d have told his agent he was keen. And imagine if he had been cast … well, he’d wear the same outfit he did in his actual first season, wouldn’t he? And it would look like a style evolution from Davison’s long coat, with touches of Pertwee, and a lad in his mid twenties would look really rather dapper in that, wouldn’t he? It wouldn’t make him grumpy, it would add a bit of authority.

But he would not be the producer’s only option. There’s a whole bunch of actors who ended up either playing the Doctor or seriously considered for it when they hit middle age: Richard E Grant, McGann, Rowan Atkinson, Lenny Henry, Hugh Grant, Fry, Laurie.

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Doctor Who was popular in the Davison era, but of course it wasn’t the career stepping stone for the regular actors it is now (rather the opposite). So, yeah, sure, the immediate effect of casting, say, Gary Oldman as the sixth Doctor would be that it would have derailed Gary Oldman’s career and he’d have ended up playing Butch Dingle on Emmerdale or something (information: he was in one episode, his first wife, Lesley Manville, was a regular). But … Julian Sands, Rik Mayall, John Gordon Sinclair … Tim Roth. Yeah …

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Imagine a 25 year old Tim Roth playing the sixth Doctor, as written (but not as costumed). Imagine him in Vengeance on Varos, or opposite Troughton in The Two Doctors. A hungry, angry, dangerous young future superstar, three years after he was in Made in Britain, on his way up. A Doctor Who that takes its cues from the British film industry at the time – the Handmade Films, the Channel Four Films, and, yes, Merchant Ivory.

In that light, the twelfth Doctor’s original costume feels a little like a relic from the show where that happened, where a twentysomething Peter Capaldi’s seventh Doctor got to visit a Paradise Towers and Terra Alpha shot like Derek Jarman or Stephen Frears had directed them, stark and neon-soaked.

Um … yes, please.

YOUR COFFEE IS NOT AS NICE AS MY COFFEE, BUT I HAVE A SOLUTION TO YOUR PROBLEM

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For sake of argument, this panda’s drinking coffee.

Hello. You’re doing coffee wrong.

You’re drinking Arabica beans, probably. 80% of the coffee drunk around the world comes from the coffea arabica plant. Virtually all the rest come from the coffea robusta. Robusta has a little more caffeine, but a more bitter taste. It tends to be used as filler in coffee ‘blends’, but it’s the main coffee bean used in Vietnamese coffee. That’s (the main reason) why Vietnamese coffee tastes different.

Coffee originated in Ethiopia, all commercial coffee plants are descendants of ones from Ethiopia. But Ethiopia has far more than just two types of coffee plant. There are possibly hundreds of them, and very few of them are cultivated … abbayesii, benghalensis, congensis, dybowski, eugenoides, fadenii … there are whole alphabets of varieties. The reason not all of them are cultivated is that, well, not all of them taste very nice.

One that is very nice indeed is Liberica.

Less than 1% of coffee grown is from the liberica plant. The liberica tree is much taller than the others, its beans are larger.Here are what the various coffee beans look like:

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Source

It is grown commercially in very few places in the world – basically a handful of farms in a couple of provinces (Batangas and Cavite) in the Phillippines.

Some people don’t like the taste. There is a word for those people, and it’s very rude, so let’s substitute the word ‘wrong’. Those people are wrong.

What does it taste like? Coffee, but somehow more delicate than you’re used to, with a subtle taste that people have identified as ‘nutty’ or ‘blueberry’. In hot coffee, there’s a sort of cinnamon, spicy note to it. The taste changes as it cools.

It tastes of coffee, but nicer. It’s essentially the coffee they’d drink in Narnia.

As cold brew coffee, it tastes different again … there’s almost a whisky flavour to it.

(How to make cold brew coffee the extremely easy way: put an equal volume of coffee grind and water in a container, seal it, put it in the fridge for about 18 hours. Strain it. Put the liquid back in the fridge for at least twelve hours. You can probably make coffee from the sludge left in the sieve. The liquid is concentrated to about espresso level. When it’s ready, you can drink a shot neat, pour nearly-boiling water on it to make regular coffee, and it’s the only way to make actual iced coffee).

And here’s the time for the call to action: this coffee is so rare that the very few plantations where it’s grown aren’t sure it’s commercially viable. Unless you buy some of this coffee, now, the species may go extinct. And then, if you don’t buy this coffee, you will be as morally culpable for the extinction of a whole species as you would be if you went around strangling pandas.

So, don’t be a moral monster, do your bit for the planet, and give the ridiculously poncey coffee I drink a try. Heirloom Coffee sell it. I have not been paid by them to say that. Hmmmm … I should have asked about that beforehand, I bet they’d have thrown me a couple of bags in exchange for the plug. Damn.

Thank you.

Whoniverse Preview

whoniversepress

WHONIVERSE – OUT SOON

WHoniverse Cover

Next month sees the publication of Whoniverse, an unofficial guide to the Doctor Who universe written by me. It’s not, not, not an encyclopedia of every single planet ever mentioned in Doctor Who, or a geographical version of Ahistory. It’s a guide to the main points of interest and some of more out of the way places, with lots of lovely pictures. It hopefully wanders a little further from the beaten track than you might expect – the Marinus spread below should give you some idea of the ground it covers and what it looks like.

This is a book that I hope will square the circle of being a great introduction for new and relatively new fans; something fun for long-term fans, with plenty to argue about and what I hope are some genuine ‘what the cruk?’ style surprises as to what’s in there. It’s also a book you can hand to kids who enjoy the show, I hope.

Doctor Who is fun, the universe of the series is vast and colourful and weird, and I hope I’ve captured some of that tone. It’s released in mid-October in the UK, and the plan was to release it in November in the US, but a little bird tells me they might be able to get it out next month there, too. If you don’t find it in your local bookshop, handcuff yourself to the railings outside and say you won’t leave until they stock it.

Buy it at Amazon UK – WHONIVERSE at Amazon UK

and at Amazon US – WHONIVERSE at Amazon US

marinus

612Fx4JcfjL

AV MINUS – A PROPOSAL FOR ELECTORAL REFORM

The problems with the First Past the Post system are well-known and well-rehearsed. The main issue is that a candidate can win with a tiny overall share of the vote, if the opposition is split. The more competition, in fact, the fewer votes you need to win. One of the features of FPTP is that it magnifies slight advantages, leading to a point that, well, as we saw in this year’s election, the winning party can win more than half the seats on only around a third of the vote. For all the talk of hung parliaments and minority governments, the result in 2010 was a fluke, like a coin landing on its side, and the chance of it happening again was always remote. FPTP wasn’t ‘designed’ to create majority governments out of not very much, but it’s always tended to. John McCain was crushed and humiliated by Barack Obama in the US Presidential election of 2004, but got a higher share of the vote than Tony Blair’s Labour Party when it won its massive 1997 landslide in the UK.
The alternative system on offer, though, was soundly rejected in a referendum nearly five years ago. This was AV, and something like it is used in a number of places around the world. The basic principle is that you vote for someone, but you register a second preference. If all goes to plan, the ‘winner’ is someone acceptable to most people who voted.

Psephologists have spent a great deal of time talking through the pros and cons of AV. The arguments tended to be dry and technical. What I’ve not seen discussed very often is that a big problem with AV is that it’s based on the premise that the problem with current British politics is that there are just so many great parties and candidates that it’s really unfair to expect people to pick just one.

Is that how things feel to you? If you just voted in the UK elections, did you stand with your pen poised thinking it was so hard choosing between so many awesome, talented and inspirational candidates, and somehow deeply unjust that you only got to vote once? Did you think ‘gosh, I wish I had two votes, here, this is like trying to pick between Sgt Pepper and Revolver?’

I humbly suggest that the ballot paper did not resemble the dessert menu at the Ritz, and that instead you went: ‘Seriously? In a country of sixty four million people, this shower is the best we can do?’ That looking at the potential Prime Ministers – there were two – that your reaction wasn’t ‘my god, Ed and Dave are both titans among men’ and you probably didn’t watch the televised Leaders’ Debate, and conclude ‘I firmly believe every one of those people could lead the country to a new golden age’.

You don’t have to outrace the lion in a British general election, do you? To win, David Cameron had to look more Prime Ministerial than Ed Miliband. This is an almost proverbially easy task. In fact, I suggest that from now on we use the ‘miliband’ as a unit of measurement for whether a candidate has reached the absolute minimum level of viability. Think of it as a line on a graph, and if you’re above that line, you can be treated as a serious candidate because you are at least ‘not unelectable’. Use it in a sentence as you might use ‘rubicon’ or ‘jump the shark’. ‘Andy Burnham obviously crosses the miliband, but does he have what he takes to win in Scotland?’; ‘Jeb Bush’s statements on Iraq this week have left people wondering if he’s sinking below the miliband’; ‘the televised debate will include all the candidates above the miliband’.
So what’s the solution? Here’s my proposal, a system I call ‘AV Minus’.

  • 1. A voter gets two votes.
  • 2. As now, they place an X next to the candidate they want.
  • 3. As with AV, they also place a second vote. This, though, they mark ‘FO’, and this stands for ‘FOrgive me, sir or madam, I’m sure you are a lovely person, but I do not wish you to represent me in the House of Commons’.
  • 4. Candidates get one vote added for every X, and one vote taken off for every FO. The winner of the election is simply the candidate with the highest net total of votes.
  • 5. Here’s the best bit: when the returning officer declares the result, he turns to the candidate with the most FOs, raises two fingers at him and snarls ‘FUCK. OFF’. That person then has to walk out of the hall, like the losing contestant on The Weakest Link.

See? It’s brilliant, isn’t it?

Consider the following scenarios:

  • 1. You are a Labour supporter in a constituency where the Conservatives are ahead, but UKIP are nipping at their heels. Labour are a close third, but you really, really don’t want UKIP to win. Under FPTP, you have to vote Tory. Under AV-, you can vote Labour and go FO UKIP. The Tory may still win, but you wouldn’t have voted for them. And there may be scenarios, in fact, where the UKIP and the Tories FO each other to such an extent that Labour win.
  • 2. You’re a Tory in Wales. No, you actually live there, you’re not on holiday. It happens. You’re resigned to the fact your lot won’t win, but you don’t want Labour to win. But they’ve got a massive majority in your constituency … well, you can vote tactically: vote for whoever’s second and FO the Labour candidate. That’s basically two votes against Labour.
  • 3. You really, really hate Tories or the SNP. You’re indifferent about who wins, as long as it’s not them.
  • 4. George Galloway. I mean, seriously. Shouldn’t there be a constitutional mechanism that lets us tell him to fuck off?

It is possible, of course, to get the most FOs with this system but still win the election. This isn’t a problem – the MP knows that they won, but also that a great swathe of his constituents actively loathe him.
The only downside I see is that people might forget to put down the X, or that they might just endlessly find themselves scrawling FO next to all the candidates. Or that joke candidates might seek la lanterne rouge.
We are in an era of British politics where the electorate need a degree of damage control. We need to be able to say ‘no, not him’. Instead of the rather grubby spectacle we saw this time of parties saying ‘vote for us, that way you won’t be voting for them’, you can vote against someone without endorsing their rival.

Tony Benn always used to say that the mark of a good electoral system wasn’t that it allowed you to vote someone in, it was that it allowed you to vote them out. That has always been the problems with AV, AV+, PR and related proposed reforms – they’ve always been set up in a way that would create mushy coalitions, fosters a lukewarm centrism. There’s that old joke ‘don’t vote, it only encourages them’ – well, AV Minus squares that circle, allows you to go ‘for god’s sake, not him’. And, in the end, don’t we want an electoral system that creates stable governments and humiliates wankers?

Leonard Nimoy

spock

An outpouring of grief is highly inappropriate, of course, but Leonard Nimoy’s death is a significant event. If nothing else, we might note that the cast of the movie Boyhood recently wowed critics by essaying the same characters for twelve years, but Leonard Nimoy was Spock for fifty. And Spock, in that time, evolved as a character, grew old and died. Although not, as it happens, in that order. Spock was portrayed with care and nuance by an actor who embodied a role like few actors ever have. He had a relationship with the character as up and down, as tempestuous, as Richard Burton did with Elizabeth Taylor, and who wrote two autobiographies about that struggle.

Spock’s character was assembled on the fly, his devotion to logic, his ‘half-breed’ (it was fifty years ago, the term was used) nature, his perpetual state of comradeship and yet simultaneously utter alienation … none of these were part of the original plan. They emerged in performance, Leonard Nimoy taking on a role that saw him caked in make up and glued on ears, and somehow being the most dignified presence on the screen. The writers loved him, the kids loved him, a whole new form of love called ‘fandom’ had to be created to express the response a portion of viewers had for Spock, and characters like him.

This is, for some of us, an event with the same sort of moment as the death of a monarch, or the assassination of a President. If the internet had state funerals, then we’d be lining the route. An exaggeration, surely? Wasn’t this guy just someone from an old TV show? No. Social media today is full of responses from some of the hundreds of thousands of people who met Leonard Nimoy, talked to him, were inspired by him. Spock’s example helped them cope when they were lonely children, or inspired their studies and career, brought them into a community and camaraderie that spans the globe, or just gave them some catchphrases they could bandy around with their mates. If nothing else, it gave a lot of people who are by temperament not the emotionally expressive type a good cry at the end of Wrath of Khan.

Entertaining a billion people, inspiring millions … this is significant. There are those artistic or historical figures who will endure. The author Ken MacLeod has a nice phrase for it: ‘the names that will be remembered on the starships’. Leonard Nimoy was, to coin a phrase,  in a starship before most of us were in diapers.