Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Favourite Fictional Characters Blogathon - Would you like to contribute?

Dear all,

For no other special reason than fun, I'm hoping to soon play host to a blogathon with the theme of favourite fictional characters and so am looking for wonderful people who would like to get involved. Whether you're a blogger or not, I'd love you to get in contact if you're interested in writing a guest post for this blog on your favourite character from all of fiction. If you would like to contribute, let me know by sending an email at chalbo@outlook.com, tweet me at Chalbo100 or leave a comment below.

Thanks folks!


Saturday, 27 April 2013

Review: Doctor Who - Hide and Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS

After contemporary London, an alien world and a Soviet submarine, the Doctor and Clara fancy a bit of ghost hunting this week as they drop in on Caliburn House, where paranormal investigator Alec Palmer and psychic Emma Grayling are trying to catch themselves a phantom. The Caliburn Ghast, the Wraith of the Lady, the Witch of the Well…
As you can guess from the above description, Hide takes the timeless haunted house setting and takes it for a Doctor Who spin – it’s an episode that revels in all the familiars of this type of story; the old Victorian mansion, the candelabras, the psychic etcetera. However, it injects some good old Doctor Who humour and a perhaps surprising amount of heart; ample time is given to developing the characters of Alec and Emma meaning the episode manages to stay grounded in a story that otherwise takes us to, quite literally, the end of the earth and back.
An issue I had with the episode, however, was the identity of the ghost itself as I felt it detracted from the excellent monster – the warped, grinning Crooked Man. In concept and design he was a great creation whom I felt deserved to be more integral to the plot though the final twist in the tale was pure brilliance.
On the whole, Hide is an episode that promises us spine-tinglings and shudders aplenty but, while they are still an important element, writer Neil Cross actually delivers a touching, occasionally gently funny character drama making it much more than a straight ghost story. A love story, in fact. 

It’s been an ambition of Steven Moffat’s to show more of the TARDIS since he took over from the show. 2010’s Amy’s Choice and 2011’s The Doctor’s Wife both explored the heart and body, if you like, of the Doctor’s ship. And now there’s ‘Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS’ which finally gives us a run-around through everyone’s favourite dimensionally-transcendental police box – and makes a proper, exciting adventure of it. Having been attacked by a spacecraft salvage crew, the TARDIS is a wreck and the Doctor must trust the Van Baalen Brothers, who want the ship themselves, to help save Clara from the dangers at the heart of the TARDIS. Cue cloister bell.
The TARDIS herself obviously receives top billing this episode. Transformed from the Doctor’s magical home into a dangerous, alien labyrinth, although she is not given a voice of her own this time, her free will is felt throughout. It seems she’s a tough old girl. However, despite the TARDIS’ all-consuming star quality, the human cast are excellent too. Matt Smith and Jenna-Louise Coleman (whose 27th birthday it is today!) get to probe some of this series’ main themes which test their relationship somewhat while the Van Baalens get some good backstory. The Time Zombies are also an enjoyable and effective addition to the episode with a nice disconcerting technique used by director Mat King to signify their presence. I wouldn't like to run into them in a dark TARDIS corridor.
Forty-five minutes of wonderful, fast-paced story, ‘Journey’ twists and turns in the great Doctor Who way but never feels run-of-the-mill. It might seem somewhat less layered after ‘Hide’ but this suits the style of the episode. And, amongst the action, it does find time to remind us of our two leads characters’ own secrets. A hundred times more mysterious than the infinite insides of the TARDIS…

Nest Saturday, the TARDIS arrives in good ol’ Victorian England again as something sinister is going on in Sweetville, a factory in the faraway world known as, in Strax’s words, ‘The North.’ Will the combined forces of the Doctor, Clara and the Paternoster Gang be able to stop ‘The Crimson Horror’?

Thursday, 25 April 2013

Sherlock Holmes Pastiches You Have to Read

As a break from the Doctor Who reviews that have been consuming my blog this month like a great big soul-eating sun (sorry, that'll be the last Who reference, this post, I promise), I thought you might all like a bit of Holmes. Following on from my Sherlock Holmes Stories You Have to Read post I wrote last year, here is a sequel of sorts - a list of a few of the best Sherlock Holmes mysteries based on the canon of Arthur Conan Doyle and the wonderful characters he created. Although it is up to the author what bits of the canon he or she wishes to keep or change in their piece, I think many miss the core of the original stories and so become something too different or, alternatively, some are just poor copies of Conan Doyle's stories. However, those below, I think, get a good balance between the new and the old to make proper, good Sherlock Holmes stories. Now, I hope you all have your magnifying glasses ready as we delve into the thick fog of Holmes pastiches...

                                     Young Sherlock Holmes

Written by: Andrew Lang
What's it about: This series of young adult novels follows a teenage Sherlock Holmes as he uncovers impossible mysteries that take him around the world and to the heart of dark conspiracies. Very much inspired by Charlie Higson's Young Bond novels, these books are fun, not-too-demanding adventure stories that aim to shed some light on how Sherlock became the enigmatic, difficult individual we are all familiar with. There's no Dr Watson, Baker Street and very little London, but Sherlock is joined on his globe-trotting cases by his tutor in deduction Amycus Crowe and his daughter, Virginia (who Sherlock has feelings for), his violin teacher Rufus Stone and his roguish vagabond friend, Matty. The series is also great for villains with each one featuring a Bond-like supervillain with a madcap ambitious scheme and an odd physical attribute e.g the second novel's Duke Baltazar keeps leeches on his face due to a blood disorder. You can learn more about the series here.
If you enjoyed this: Author Andrew Lang has also written other Holmes pastiches including a Doctor Who novel, All-Consuming Fire, in which the Time Lord and the Great Detective finally meet! Yes, I know, I lied about that last Doctor Who reference thing.

                                                      A Study in Emerald

Written by: Neil Gaiman
What's it about: In this award-winning short story, Gaiman is not only dipping his toe into Sherlock Holmes but is also pastiching HP Lovecraft as the tale sees Baker Street's finest investigating a murder of a member of the royal family - who, in this parallel universe, are the big, green monsters, the Great Old Ones from Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos. The melding of these two very different fictional worlds works well at the author's skilled hand as Gaiman creates something that feels quite unique. There's also fun to be had with the adverts inserted into the story that hint at other famous literary figures being in this world too (anyone fancy some Victor's Vitae that wakes up dead limbs?). Have a read of the story here and then maybe play the board game!
If you enjoyed this: Neil Gaiman has also written a more traditional Holmes mystery, 'the Case of Death and Honey' which tries to answer just why Holmes decides to retire and become a beekeeper, as Dr Watson informs us in one of Conan Doyle's stories.

                                  Moriarty: The Hound of the D'urbervilles

Written by: Kim Newman
What's it about: This collection of short stories acts as an antithesis to Conan Doyle's works and the majority of Holmes pastiches as it follows the misadventures of  Professor Moriarty and his right-hand man, Colonel Moran, as they build their criminal empire. Each story is a parody of a Conan Doyle original e.g. 'A Shambles in Belgravia' (sounds familiar, eh? These were written before Sherlock) sees Irene Adler seek the help of Moriarty while the rousing finale 'The Problem of the Final Adventure' shows the iconic meeting at the Reichenbach Falls from the other side. Apart from spoofing the common elements of Holmes stories, Newman also enjoys crossovers with other fictional worlds such as in the title story which, as you might have guessed, welds the supernatural mystery of Hound of the Baskervilles with Thomas Hardy's classic novel. I imagine that was one of those times when the title came first.
If you enjoyed this: Kim Newman has also written a series of short stories based on the Diogenes Club, Mycroft Holmes' favourite place from the canon, as a secret organisation that deals with weird and unnatural events.

                                    The House of Silk

Written By: Anthony Horowitz
What's it about: Definitely the closest in style to Conan Doyle on this list is Horowitz' mystery novel, which, thanks to support from the Conan Doyle estate, was billed as the first new Sherlock Holmes novel in nearly a hundred years. It sees an elderly Dr Watson give us one last tale involving his dear friend that had been 'too shocking to reveal until now' - a case involving an impossible murder, ghosts from the past and secret societies. Yes, all the usual Holmes trappings are in check. There are appearances from Mrs Hudson, Lestrade, the Baker Street Irregulars and, without giving anything away, there might be a cameo by a certain criminal mastermind. Thanks to this and Horowitz' track record as a crime fiction writer, the novel feels wonderfully familiar but also gives us a winding, puzzlebox mystery that you have to stay on your toes to keep up with.
If you enjoyed this: At the moment this is Anthony Horowitz' only foray into the Holmes world however there is talk of him doing a follow-up novel. In the mean time, if all this talk of Holmes pastiche has got you in the mood, you can read my own efforts at creating an authentic Conan Doyle mystery - with the beginnings of the adventures of The Melting Man and The Whistling Room being here on the blog. I'd love to hear what you thought of them.

Saturday, 13 April 2013

Review: Doctor Who - The Rings of Akhaten and Cold War

Doctor Who’s seventh series (or thirty-third, if you will) continued after its storming  opener with the spellbindingThe Rings of Akhaten’ – an episode that is oddball for all the right reasons. It sees the Doctor take his new companion to the Rings of Akhaten, a system of seven planets revolving round one star which is home to a plethora of aliens of all shapes and sizes. And an old God who is about to wake…
‘Rings’ is a sudden shift in pace after ‘Bells’, preferring to develop its world and characters than be jam-packed with action. The Akhaten system rings out (see what I did there?) as one of the most well-realised planets of the show with its culture capably explored considering the 45 minute run-time; there’s a wonderful emphasis on music and stories, complemented by writer’s Neil Cross’ often lyrical dialogue. Clara is improving every episode, with her past further explored here. Less spiky and reckless than Amy, Clara is compassionate  thoughtful, resourceful and, most importantly, believable with Jenna Louise Coleman absolutely nailing her.
Overall, this is certainly one that will divide fans and, once again, the ending did feel rushed  but with some beautiful writing, an excellent example of alien world-building for Doctor Who and a solid heart, Rings is a terrific, idiosyncratic episode and Neil Cross is a very welcome addition to the show’s writing team.

After last week’s tonally different episode, Mark Gatiss delivers a good old-fashioned Doctor Who with ‘Cold War’, a, um, Cold War thriller set on a submarine marooned in the waters of the North Pole – with an Ice Warrior on board…
Gatiss pulls off a cracker of a script here, hitting the paranoia and panic of the time period in confident strokes but also giving us big swades of back story for those mean mean Martians. The individuals of the Soviet submarine are more or less left as outlines but we don’t care as the venerable Grand Marshall Skaldak, the Ice Warriors' most celebrated hero, is fleshed out incredibly well for a Who monster; he’s proud, lonely but also totally aggressive – we even find out about his family. The plotting is handled deftly with the premise lasting the whole 45 minutes, unlike some episodes of Who, and the suspense is also built up well throughout. A word must also be said for Douglas Mackinnon for some fantastic direction and Matt and Jenna give their usual first-rate performances while David Warner must not be forgotten as the sparkling Professor Grisenko. It’s great to finally see the veteran horror actor (he’s the guy who’s head is chopped off in The Omen) in on-screen Who and he is welcome back anytime.
Overall, ‘Cold War’ is an episode in the classic formula of the ‘base-under-siege’ story (which Doctor Who has been doing well since it was born) but still packs a few surprises along the way.  A rollocking adventure that plays it straight, it’s quite simply Mark Gatiss’ best written episode since ‘The Unquiet Dead’ back in 2005. Gatiss has said that he hopes to do more with the Ice Warriors now they are back, and, on the evidence of this episode, I would most certainly look forward to it.

Next up, things are going to get chillier than the North Pole as the Doctor and Clara travel to a proper haunted house – they're  going to catch themselves a ghost. Tune into BBC One next Saturday evening for a spine-tingling… 

Monday, 1 April 2013

Review: Doctor Who - The Bells of St John

The hype around this year of Doctor Who has been like no other. As it is the 50th anniversary of the show – it is the longest running sci-fi drama in the world, I’m sure you know – the pressure was on the show to be at its best, to celebrate its illustrious past but to also look to the future and where the series will go next. I, for one, breathed a sigh of relief on Saturday night when Steven Moffat’s series opener (come on, it is!) ‘The Bells of St John’ did exactly that.

Whereas last year’s half of Series Seven had a slightly varying quality, ‘Bells’ carries on from the Christmas special ‘The Snowmen’ as first-class Who. Similar to that story, Moffat pulls off a belter of a plot at top speed and interweaves some time for the Doctor to get to know his new companion.
With hints of previous episodes - there’s a feel of ‘Partners in Crime’ and lashings of ‘The Idiot’s Lantern’ – ‘Bells’ carries on the ‘movie-a-week’ motif from last year, being labelled an ‘urban thriller’ – and it certainly is thrilling. As you can tell by its fantastic central conceit alone – there’s something living in the wi-fi and it’s eating your soul...

Great fun as the plot is the most important thing about this episode is the chemistry between Matt Smith and Jenna-Louise Coleman which, as we've seen from her previous two appearances, is top notch. Coleman plays the genius, compassionate Clara like she’s been in the role for years and you utterly buy hers and the Doctor’s budding friendship. The brush strokes for her character are finer than the previous versions of the character and she now feels like proper companion material. Also, Clara’s prominent flirting of ‘Asylum’ and ‘Snowmen’ has been toned down, making it feel less like another River Song relationship and more like a good friendship with hints of attraction which suits the Doctor and his companion much better. The ‘snogbox’ is a good name for the TARDIS though.

As it is a big old series starter featuring the proper introduction of a extremely enigmatic character it’s not too surprising that there’s a fair bit of mystery and unanswered questions that we'll have to ponder over for the next few weeks. Just why is the Doctor in a 13th century monastery at the beginning – and surely there’s a wider significance to those bells? There’s several more sprinkled through the episode – some more obvious than others. How does Clara have the Doctor’s number? What is that ‘client’ up to? And just why can’t Clara compute the number 23 (watch the episode again if you missed this the first time)?

With all this plus Celia Imrie as the scheming Miss Kizlit; a classic Who villainess, echoes of Sherlock in the direction and that wonderful blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Pond Easter egg there’s much to love here. Though the climax does feel a little rushed Moffat is at the top of his game here delivering a fresh new start to the show but retaining that uniquely Doctor Who feel. A fantastic start to the biggest year yet of Doctor Who


It is official! The Tenth Doctor and Rose are set to feature in the 90 minute anniversary special episode to be shown on the 23rd November, the show's fiftieth birthday. It's great news for fans as it leaves the door open for other previous Doctors and companions to return. As for these two, it might be tempting to visit their character after we last saw them; Rose trapped in the parallel world with a duplicate Doctor, but I think it might be more fun if we got to see the Series Two versions of them, still hurtling round the universe. But who knows what Moffat's got up his sleeve...
Also, it has been confirmed that respected British actor John Hurt (the wandmaker Ollivander in Harry Potter, the voice of the dragon in Merlin etcetera) is to appear in the special too. I'm already theorising that he's going to be some sort of future Doctor. Well, we'll see how I did in my predictions in a few months' time. Until then tune into 'The Rings of Akhaten' by Neil Cross this Saturday on BBC One/ BBC America!

Monthly Mini-Reviews: March

March has been a busy month - what with the final episode of one of my favourite series, Being Human and the first episode in a new series of Doctor Who! Aside from them, I've consumed a fair few number of entertaining fictions over the past few weeks. Here's a handful...

 Oz the Great and Powerful

In this partial sequel to the 1939 classic, James Franco is Oscar Diggs, a talented magician who dreams of greatness but is trapped in a travelling circus - until he is caught in a twister and taken to the jolly old land of Oz.
The film, directed by Spider-Man's Sam Raimi, seems to have divided people but I fall into the category of people who enjoyed it. Its flaws - such as pacing issues and  dodgy character development - are obvious and it certainly does pale in comparison to Wizard. However, viewed on its own terms, it's an enjoyable enough, visually-gorgeous way to spend a couple of hours.

Neverwhere Radio Series

I've been highly anticipating this one for a while; a radio adaptation of Neil Gaiman's fantastic urban fantasy novel featuring a top-flight cast including James MacAvoy, Benedict Cumberbatch, Sophie Okenedo, Bernard Cribbins - and Christopher Lee! Thankfully, the series delivered, being an funny, touching and fast-paced version of the story terrifically played by the cast. Special kudos goes to MacAvoy for playing everyman protagonist Richard Mayhew with such realism and likeability and, of course, Cumberbatch for imbuing the Angel Islington with a chilling edge. If I did such a thing - which I seem to be here - it would be my pick of the month!

Gaslight Arcanum: Uncanny Tales of Sherlock Holmes 

The best Holmes pastiches, I find, are the ones that pitch the highly-rational detective against the forces of darkness - so I obviously found this anthology of supernatural-tinged Holmes stories a treat. Including tales concerning the devil's footprints, an ancient Egyptian curse and an encounter with Count Dracula, the writing styles vary but invariably capture Conan Doyle's timeless creations throughout. Oddly, my favourite of the bunch may be the least 'uncanny'; the anthology's opening story which details a young Holmes loosing his first love. It's a twisting-turning story that packs a real emotional punch as it aims to get at the steely heart of our Holmes.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer - Season Six

I've been working my way through Joss Whedon's seminal genre series on-and-off for many months now - and have finally arrived at its sombre, penultimate series. Following on from the climax of Season Five, this series begins as Buffy's friends bring her back from the dead to continue fighting the force of evil in their hometown of Sunnydale. It's a bit of a mixed bag, this one, with several good quality episode alongside some mediocre ones. Downsides include less Anthony Head as his character Giles leaves the main cast but a positive is more of Alyson Hannigan's Willow as her dependence on magic leads to some dire consequences over the course of the series. It's not the best of seasons but it's also not the worst - sorry, Season Four - and has lots to offer. Particularly the musical episode 'Once More with Feeling' which everyone should watch!
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