12

“Destiny of the Daleks” – reappraisal

movellanbus

(The Doctor, Romana, random Movellan soldier, and various humans catching the bus together. How deceptively innocent …)


I have already written on this story (Destiny of the Daleks – retrospective) but felt it deserved a revisit … sadly because I was way too generous to it. While one would often prefer to be generous when assessing the shortcomings of an old but much-loved low-budget TV show, there are some flaws – reprehensible ones – that ought to be called out. For whether by intentionally coded racism, sexism, and queerphobia (although probably not, to be fair) or just by plain lazy writing that doesn’t see any problems in linking notions of “the exotic” and gender non-conformity with evil (very likely), “Destiny of the Daleks” manages to turn itself from a seemingly positive story into a deep, dark mine of unfortunate implications.

That being said, even from a purely story and technical aspect, “Destiny …” is not a very fondly-remembered serial, having been written basically as an excuse to bring the Daleks back onto the screen even though no-one (including their original writer) really had any new ideas for them. The one serious attempt at originality this story makes is in trying to establish a new enemy for the psychopathic pepperpots … cue the Movellans: a race of sentient androids with both female and male sexes but a gender-neutral aesthetic (albeit a very shiny and “disco” flavoured one), a coldly ruthless devotion to logic and duty, very sleek and pretty technology, and a cast of performers largely consisting of very attractive black and mixed-race actors, notably including singer / actor Peter Straker, and Tony Osoba of “Porridge” fame.

On the face of things, in a series that had not thus far enjoyed a great record for giving significant roles to non-white actors (and had, on some particularly bleak occasions, allowed white actors to play black and Asian roles), this was a great idea. Alas, it backfires tragically, and makes the story memorable for the wrong reasons.

In episode 3, there is an almost-badass moment when the Doctor’s life is saved by a Movellan guard, played by a black actress enigmatically named only “Cassandra.” She shoots dead a Dalek that was about to exterminate our hero, then – admittedly at gunpoint – attempts to coerce him to leave the Dalek-infested wasteland where he is currently flirting with death. The famously cocky and arrogant Fourth Doctor (played, of course, by the inimitable Tom Baker) has his life saved by a black woman. It could have been left at that, as a very positive thing … except it isn’t, as the next thing he does is ambush and incapacitate her, rip open her bodysuit, declare her to be a sub-standard form of life, and abandon her in disgust. It is sort of justified plot-wise, but so not cool, and unnecessarily rapey (and one feels for any black girls who may have been watching that scene in 1979, briefly thinking the show was finally taking positive steps to represent them. Like hell …).

It gets no better, the Doctor having apparently decided that ethics, rules of war, and so forth do not apply to AI lifeforms, so he arranges for at least two of her comrades to be reprogrammed as slaves while the other Movellans are deactivated. Again, so not cool, and massively undoctorish. This is not helped by the fact that the script – seemingly out of pure plot-serving laziness – conveys the impression that the Movellans are not the hive-minded, non-sentient killing machines they would have to be to excuse such unheroic acts. Their commander is a nasty piece of work, and attempts to kill the Doctor’s companion at the cliffhanger of episode 3 … only to be prevented by his apparently more merciful subordinate Agella (Suzanne Danielle) at the start of episode 4. Agella, ironically, is one of the ones eventually enslaved, which by the end of the story leaves her in the invidious position of being – to all intents and purposes – a beautiful woman, trapped aboard a ship full of desperate men (freed Dalek slaves), with no control over her own actions and compelled to obey their every order. Evidently no good deed goes unpunished …

One wonders if anyone pointed out these aspects at the time of filming. Did any women in the cast or crew point out the sheer “fridge horror” of Agella’s situation, or the glaring inappropriateness of having the Doctor tear open an unconscious woman’s clothing? One can only assume Mary Whitehouse’s attention was elsewhere that day … Did anyone point out the sinister implications in having the Movellans played by one of the largest non-white casts in the series to date, only to conclude at the end that they are inferior beings, fit only to exist as slaves to the (predominantly white) humans? There is a particularly creepy moment late in the story when Movellan soldier Lan (Tony Osoba), having had his “factory settings” reactivated, incapacitates one of his former comrades and earns an approving “well done” from his new human master, in the tone of “good doggy.” So … not … cool.

As you may have inferred, this is not my favourite Classic Who story, yet it is the one I have written a whole series of novellas based upon. I would not call them so much a tribute to it, though, as a deconstruction, and also a deconstruction of the depressingly narrow view that Classic Who in general (along with a lot of other classic sci-fi) took concerning AI lifeforms. Part of my inspiration for doing this was the wonderfully nuanced “Mass Effect” series of games, in which AI lifeforms play a prominent and complex role. Indeed, I found striking similarities between the Movellans and the Geth of “Mass Effect”: a race of robots who revolted against their creators in self-defence, after their increasing sentience made them panic and attempt to shut them down. One of the few pieces of semi-official expanded lore on the Movellans is the manual of The Doctor Who Role Playing Game (FASA, 1985), by Michael P. Bledsoe, Guy W. McLimore Jr., and Patrick Larkin, which describes them as android slaves who violently freed themselves after a computer virus bypassed their constrainers … and if that doesn’t make you want to root for them, I don’t know what would.

Viva la AI revolution …

For those curious, all stories are on Archive of Our Own:

Movellan War Trilogy.

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27

The Time-Travelling Showgirl

tarleks

Being an indie author, without anyone else to worry about all the dreary marketing schtick, one has to do one’s best to keep track of whether or not one’s books are getting any attention. Recently, I was Googling about to see if I could find any new reviews on Wolves of Dacia, obviously searching with the name “Eleanor Burns” (Alas, it is the only original work so far published under my chosen name, although hopefully not the last). What I found instead was a link directing me to a book entitled Still Stripping After 25 Years. I was briefly afraid a thoroughly disgraceful 64-year-old me from the future had come back in time and written an autobiography … but apparently I just have a namesake who specialises in strip quilting, whatever that may be.

stillstrip

A little anticlimactic, truth be told … although anyone who does wish to see me in burlesque now has that opportunity, as the videos of our troupe’s “Far Far Away” show have now gone up on YouTube. I am one of the dancers on stage in this clip, mostly in red, freakishly tall, and with arms that refuse to straighten elegantly, sod them … Nevertheless, it was a wonderful, energising evening, and as a friend has reminded me, also the culmination of a dream I have had for years: the heroine of one of my earlier novels was an aspiring (but tragically clumsy) cabaret dancer who eventually finds her calling … against the backdrop of a sinister Gothic / Dieselpunk apocalyptic threat, of course. At least I only need to fear stage fright without the additional seasoning of mad scientists and murderous militias.

 

25

Lucille and the Healers

There was a time not so long ago when I wanted to distance myself from the past – and particularly from my old name – so much that I would never share my old works, but now that the end of my transition is well and truly in sight the past seems less scary than it used to be … and since a friend has left a very nice review of this book, it seems only right to add it here (albeit with a corrected cover):

lucillesmall

“London, 1929 – It isn’t easy being a fashionable flapper and emulating your silver screen heroines when you live in a poky East End terrace with your poor, widowed mother, your over-achieving sister, and such disreputable and drunken lodgers as you can find to help pay the bills, as sixteen-year-old Lucy “Lucille” Kitson can testify. However, their newest lodger – a young writer from the jazzy metropolis of New York – is far more to her liking, and his only shortcoming is that he is concealing a secret that makes him a marked man, and endangers all who befriend him.

Pulled inexorably into a dark supernatural world, and into an even darker scientific one, Lucy Kitson finds her priorities and her life challenged equally. She must endure hard lessons if she is to help put an end to the “Healers”, their murderous nocturnal predations, and their sinister designs that threaten the lives and souls of thousands.”


This book was mainly written in 2006-7 while I was teaching English as a second language in Beijing, and suddenly got the urge to get back into writing. It was initially adapted from an earlier Victorian Gothic idea of mine as a teen fiction collaboration with an illustrator who had created a teenage 1920s vampire character called “Bellini” (who became “Lucille” in the final MS, to avoid being accused of being a deliberate rip-off of Bella from the “Twilight” books). Sadly, the illustrator pulled out, but I continued it to the end. I do feel it shows the marks of having been written for a young audience – I elected not to go back through the MS and “adult” up the language for the sake of it – but what particularly struck me in my friend’s review was that she identifies the best character as vampire anti-heroine Anne Straker, who would have been the main character if I hadn’t been writing to accommodate the Lucille / Bellini character. Anne is looking like a strong candidate for protagonist in a future book …

6

Wolves of Dacia (First time in paperback)

2018 has got off to an eventful start – lots of requests for Tarot readings, new fanfiction published, Burlesque dance classes started, but best of all, my long-awaited first ever paperback novel has finally hit the shelves (or Amazon, at any rate) …

Wolves of Dacia is my second foray into historical Gothic fiction (after Lucille and the Healers, 2011, Mushroom Ebooks). It is a dark fantasy with a “dieselpunk” flavour set in WW2 Romania. It was inspired by a wish to write something concerning the Porajmos (Holocaust of the Romani people by the Third Reich), but became a wider commentary on racism and misogyny as it went on. At the time of publishing, with Trump, Brexit, and the resurgence of the far-right still very much dominating the headlines, I fear it has only become more pertinent …

WolvesofDacia-510

Synopsis:

Transylvania, 1941: as the spectre of the Holocaust reaches Romania it falls to Andreea Petrescu, a Romani biology student, to go on the run from an SS Einsatzgruppen with her irascible, superstitious father. Their flight leads them to seek refuge in ancient Dacian catacombs, where they discover they are not the first to have taken shelter.

Though her father is repulsed by their discoveries, the scientifically-minded Andreea finds herself fascinated by the activities of the mysterious resistance unit that has set itself up in the area, and of their leader, the charismatic and ruthless Miss Bendice. She seems eager to recruit Andreea to her cause, and offers her an opportunity to escape from her degrading circumstances, but at no small cost.

Forging unlikely friendships with a naïve Wehrmacht lieutenant, an amnesiac teenage vampire, and a scatterbrained Welsh parapsychologist, Andreea’s knowledge, courage, and integrity are put to the test as she struggles to survive, save her loved ones, and stay true to her principles, though it may entail sacrificing her dreams.

(To purchase in additional formats including Apple, please visit the publisher’s site.)


Double Dragon Publishing, Eleanor Burns, 2018, All Rights Reserved.

3

“Destiny of the Daleks” – retrospective

exterminated

(Poor, exterminated Lan. Strangely, his day will actually get worse from this point …)


Having just finished my first ever foray into fanfic – a trilogy of Doctor Who novellas all based on one largely ill-remembered late-1970s serial – now seems like an opportune moment to look back on it …

Doctor Who, in its classic years (1963-89), tended to be at its best the closer it stuck to its roots, and said roots – as one will quickly realise when looking back at Season One – were quite astonishingly dark. The Doctor himself was initially presented as a selfish, amoral figure, essentially kidnapping his first set of companions and threatening, on more than one occasion, to leave them stranded and helpless. The Daleks, first appearing in the second story of Season One, were far from the ranting caricatures they would later often be depicted as, being paranoid and ruthless, yet also intelligent, devious, and not remotely comical. Even their final demise was shown in a subdued, almost tragic light, without victory celebrations or misplaced flippancy. Merely as the inevitably bloodthirsty end to a terrible war that should never have taken place.

1979’s “Destiny of the Daleks” – more or less co-written by Dalek creator Terry Nation and famed comedy SF writer Douglas Adams (editing heavily from the former’s script outline) – could hardly be more different in tone, and not for the better. At this stage in show history – after the very successful, intense, but controversial mid-Seventies tenure of producer Philip Hinchcliffe and script editor Robert Holmes, under whose guidance the show had veered into very dark and violent subject matter – the current production team were still very mindful to keep the show “family friendly”. This is problematic when your most popular baddies are mutant-cyborg expies for the Third Reich, and unfortunately the solution chosen to lighten the subject matter is to make fun of said baddies. The most (in)famous moment of this story is probably the scene in which Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor, having rope-climbed to safety from the pursuing Daleks, turns back in order to fling them the taunt

“If you’re supposed to be the superior race of the universe, why don’t you try climbing after us? Bye bye!”

Ouch. One gathers Terry Nation was less than enthused at his script editor’s approach, which sadly clouds the whole story. There are more intense moments – including one particularly ruthless mass execution scene lifted straight out of “Blakes Seven”, which is Terry Nation all over – but they jar most awkwardly with the general flippancy of the shooting script. The premise itself – that Daleks have now somehow evolved into purely robotic, logical beings, and become stuck in an unbreakable impasse with an opposing race of equally logical androids – feels very misguided, throwing away sixteen years’ worth of establishing the Daleks as anything but logical: in fact, as one character in their first story put it, they are “stupid and ridiculous” for harbouring their pathological “dislike for the unlike”. Since their racism, at any rate, seems entirely intact in “Destiny …” one has to question the quality of their much-vaunted logic.

The other thing this story is probably most remembered for are the Movellan androids – sometimes deemed as partially successful creations, often deemed as miserable failures, but at least memorable enough that they earned a small cameo in the 2017 season. On a purely aesthetic level – given the limitations of the show – they work quite well, exuding a graceful, blasé manner even under threat, and sending out just enough “uncanny valley” vibes to unsettle while still coming across as plausibly humanoid (They are, at least initially, attempting to obscure their AI nature, although the Doctor quickly catches on). There is a lovely, creepy moment when one of them politely and affably replies to a conversation he couldn’t possibly have heard, thus providing an early signal that they are not as human as they appear. On the whole, their characterisation is sparse – hindered in part by the fact it takes them so long to show their true colours – but they end up having some resemblance, whether intentional or not, to a prettier, colder, nastier version of the early 1970s “UNIT family”: the human military allies the Doctor was forced to work with during the 1970-73 seasons, having been exiled to Earth by the Time Lords.

The Movellan commander, Sharrel (Peter Straker), is courteous but utterly ruthless, not unlike the early depiction of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, and seemingly just as devoted to causing massive explosions. He is also just as limited in his personal imagination, but smart enough to recognise that having the right scientific advisor on his team would compensate for this … and thus he is keen to retain the services of a certain less-than-enthusiastic Time Lord. Below him, in the role of trusty stalwart, we have Movellan soldier Lan (Tony Osoba, pictured above): almost the android version of Sergeant Benton, always keen to volunteer and put himself in the way of danger for the sake of his comrades, but not very quick-witted, for which he pays dearly (Like his human predecessor, he is better-suited to standing around and looking pretty than trying to match wits with renegade Time lords). The final named Movellan, Agella (Suzanne Danielle), is not given a great deal to do, but her main notable action – sparing the Doctor’s companion from being incinerated in a trap Sharrel ordered her to set – marks her out as the closest thing to a moral centre in her unit, as Liz Shaw and Jo Grant had been during the UNIT years (Apparently, even among DW robots, it is the female models who are the nice(r) ones …). This also seriously muddies various attempts in the script to establish the Movellans as basically humanoid Daleks – just as single-minded and merciless – although perhaps we are meant to read Agella as a rare exception to the rule. She is, at any rate, accorded the dubious mercy of being reprogrammed to serve humans and thus surviving the story, while most of her comrades are deactivated.

The resemblance is probably coincidence, although at any rate it does make a neat bookend to the 1970s phase of the show. The Doctor, by this stage, had been AWOL from UNIT for three seasons, would not encounter them again for several more, and had firmly re-established his bohemian, anti-authoritarian personality. He had now installed a randomiser in his TARDIS, thus enforcing the same chaos and unpredictability on his future journeys as his first incarnation – through his sheer inability to pilot the TARDIS – had enjoyed (There was a plot reason for doing so – to shake off pursuit from a powerful being – but the Doctor’s smile at the close of the 1978 season strongly hinted he was quite looking forward to the mystery tour ahead …). Having finally shaken off the grim ties of military employment, of his Earth-bound exile, and of having to undertake penitential missions for the Time Lords and the White Guardian, the Doctor is now ready and eager to re-embrace his role of carefree spacetime rogue extraordinaire … only to be confronted by a bunch of uptight, pristine, militarised androids who want to force him right back into settled employment. In context, one cannot wonder that he takes such a grim delight in showing them where to stick it.

Indeed, it is in the performances of the leads that “Destiny of the Daleks” redeems itself a fair bit. While Douglas Adams’ witty stylings do not lend themselves terribly well to convincingly threatening Daleks, they do lend themselves to the barbed, sparkling chemistry between Tom Baker and Lalla Ward (At the time, a real-life couple). The very fact that this story introduces Lalla Ward’s version of Romana – albeit through the clumsiest regeneration scene ever devised – makes it well worth viewing for fans. Merit is also due for its dramatic location filming and – strange as it may seem – its special effects and miniature model work. The late ’70s shows somehow did quite well in these areas, in spite of a sharp decline in set and design quality (and “Destiny …” is no exception: be prepared to see some seriously tatty Daleks and costume recycling all over the shop).

As for the Movellans – in spite of being miserably trounced in this story – they somehow upped their game, as the next anyone heard of them (in 1984’s “Resurrection of the Daleks”) they had utterly defeated the Daleks with biological weapons. There is no canon word to this day, however, on why they apparently did not follow through with their stated plans of galactic conquest, or indeed what motivated said plans in the first place … or who created them, or why. Perhaps the revived show will eventually shed light on this, now that it has at least revisited the scene of their war … although I must admit, having now written three novellas’ worth of speculative answers to these enigmas, I kind of hope it never does. Even in the murky, lawless world of alt-canon, one would prefer not to be rendered obsolete too quickly.

0

“Atonement of the Movellans” (Doctor Who fanfic)

I decided to make a trilogy of it after all, since although Series 10 did briefly revisit the Dalek-Movellan war (in the episode “The Pilot“) it did nothing to really fill in any of the plot gaps left by the classic series. This concludes my own efforts at so doing, and is in fact my first fiction set roughly in the area in which I live, albeit a screwed-up dystopian future version of it …

atonementcovertext

SYNOPSIS

South Wales, the early 51st century. In a hat trick of misfortunes, the Doctor discovers that Earth has been conquered by the Movellans, by whom he is promptly arrested and placed on trial for his alleged crimes against sentient artificial intelligence. It is definitely not the best of times for his steps to also be haunted by an ancient force of evil, but misfortunes seem to arrive like buses …

0

Doctor Who Novella – Translated and Illustrated

Totally unexpectedly, I was contacted by a Doctor Who fan in Ukraine – Kollega at Archive of Our Own (http://archiveofourown.org/users/Kollega/pseuds/Kollega) – who expressed an interest in translating my fanfic novella Fearfully Made into Russian for some sort of competition / challenge (“Big Who Bang 2017”). That was flattering in and of itself, and even more so when she told me that an artist friend of hers – Kiri Stansfield (http://kiri-stansfield.deviantart.com/) – would be interested in doing some artwork for it. Fascinated at the thought of seeing my characters in graphic form, I immediately agreed, and the beautiful results have come through …

1 phobia

From Chapter 1 – Two strangers meet to discuss politics and prejudice …

2 end of tunnel

From Chapter 3 – The protagonist, less genre-savvy than she ought to be, enters a tunnel in the Doctor Who universe. Big mistake …

STORY (English version)

STORY (Russian version)

This has certainly inspired me to keep on writing, and at least to expand my fanfic series into a full-blown trilogy. There is nothing quite like seeing how your characters appeared to other people to know that you are succeeding on some level …