English and Drama blog

3 posts categorized "Science fiction"

28 November 2013

Fifty Glorious Years! Doctor Who and the Invasion of Dusty Victorians

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Doctor Who and Henry James are rarely mentioned in the same sentence. Now, admittedly there are many excellent reasons as to why that should be the case. The author of The Portrait of a Lady and The Wings of the Dove tended to move in rather different circles to those occupied by the splendid chap (all of them) who to this day travels through time and space in something that, on the outside at least, resembles a police box. I can't imagine, somehow, that James would have had too much time for alien invasions, time travel and mad scientists (let alone K9, the talking computer designed to look like a dog - a most un-Jamesian idea if ever there was one) but all the same, there is a link between the two and as Doctor Who celebrates its fiftieth anniversary perhaps now is as good a time as any to explore the debt the Doctor owes to Henry James, and indeed to a whole array of 19th- and 20th-century novelists.

Tardis 2

The TARDIS. There are probably dozens of Victorian novelists hiding behind it right now

Mary Whitehouse famously disagreed but the golden age of Doctor Who was often at its best when it doffed a cap to the great works of Gothic fiction. The Tom Baker era for example, when the programme's ratings were at their highest, rummaged cheerfully through assorted dark cupboards positively stuffed with literary Gothic horrors. The Brain of Morbius (1976) for instance was a variation on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, complete with a brilliant but wayward scientist and a monster cobbled together from spare parts. The Talons of Weng-Chiang (1977) cheerfully mixed Gaston Leroux's The Phantom of the Opera with Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu books while adding a dash of Sherlock Holmes. Tom Baker even wore a deerstalker in the story and the programme featured a giant rat (which, for all we know, may have had links with Sumatra - and if that means nothing to you then please read Arthur Conan Doyle's 'The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire' immediately). The Masque of Mandragora (1976) gave a cheery wink to Edgar Allan Poe's  'The Masque of the Red Death', even down to the macabre dance at the end while Planet of Evil (1975) reworked Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and added a dash of antimatter misbehaviour for good measure. The Hand of Fear (1976) meanwhile borrowed from W.F. Harvey's story 'The Beast with Five Fingers'. It was all brilliantly Gothic stuff and to their credit the show's producers, directors, cast and script-writers took their ideas from the original novels and ran with them in dazzling and inventive new directions. Mary Whitehouse, rest her soul, may not have been punching the air with enthusiasm but the rest of the country lapped it up.

So where, you may ask, does Henry James fit into all this? Well, since its reboot in 2005 Doctor Who has continued to borrow from and reinvent classic tales of the supernatural. The Crimson Horror (2013), with its setting in Victorian Yorkshire and its weird, creepy red parasite comes across like the bizarre literary lovechild of Elizabeth Gaskell and Bram Stoker. Charles Dickens himself (well, sort of ...) appeared in The Unquiet Dead (2005) and the great man's A Christmas Carol loomed large behind the 2010 Christmas special titled ... umm ... A Christmas Carol (the literary heritage of that one was, admittedly, not obscure). The following year witnessed a bit of borrowing from C.S. Lewis for The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe and then, best of all to my mind, we had the 2012 Christmas special - The Snowmen. Ah yes, now that's the one that owes a great deal to Henry James.

Henry James

Henry James, perhaps pondering whether to introduce killer snowmen with sharp teeth into 'The Turn of the Screw'

Henry James's 1898 novella 'The Turn of the Screw' tells of a governess; her two wards - Flora and Miles - and the ghosts of her predecessors Peter Quint and Miss Jessel who, while they certainly exist within the governess's mind may not exist anywhere else. The parents of the children are both dead and their uncle, around whom the governess weaves romantic fancies, is remote and distant. In The Snowmen we have a governess (definitely one with a bit of mystery about her), looking after two children haunted by nightmares in which her predecessor returns from the dead. The children's mother is also dead and their father, in a neat 21st-century twist, weaves romantic notions around the governess ('Such wisdom in one so very, very pretty ... I mean young ...'). All of this, as with the Henry James novella, takes place in Victorian England in an isolated mansion. Then there are the murderous snowmen ... Okay, so these do not appear in the Henry James version but the nods and winks to the past continue. Matt Smith's Doctor even claims to be Sherlock Holmes at one point while the investigative trio of Madam Vastra, Jenny Flint and Strax owe more to Arthur Conan Doyle (as Richard E. Grant's character actually observes) than to Henry James. All of which goes to show how the influence of Victorian literature, and Gothic Victorian literature in particular, is frequently present throughout Doctor Who. To my mind the show is all the better for it so long may it last. Indeed, here's to the next 50 Gothic-flavoured glorious years.

20 September 2013

Scientists Behaving Badly

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In his current television series, Science Britannica, Professor Brian Cox argues that real-life scientists receive something of a bad press. They are, he argues, regarded with undue suspicion by the public, frequently seen as either dabblers meddling with forces they don't understand or else as out-and-out madmen trying to play God. He does, undeniably, have a point although I fear it will ever be thus. Cox cites the example of the Italian physicist Giovanni Aldini whose work on galvanism and its medical applications stands in a direct line with the development of today's defibrillator devices. Aldini, however, is now best remembered (and even that possibly erroneously) as the inspiration for a much more famous scientist - the less than ethically rigorous Victor Frankenstein. Aldini may have made dead limbs twitch under the application of an electric current but Mary Shelley's Victor Frankenstein made an entire stitched-together body come to life only to somewhat irresponsibly abandon his creation at the first sign of trouble, allowing it to engage in a murderous rampage across the countryside. Here, perhaps, is the beginning of a whole new level of scientist-bashing. Scientists may receive a bad press at the hands of the general public who misunderstand their aims and methods but in the hands of the literary establishment they quite frequently receive nothing less than a glossy makeover into the realms of nightmare. The trouble is, as a literary device, when it comes to providing a potential for villany and chaos on an epic scale the mad scientist is terrifically hard to beat.

Of course Science and the Humanities do have previous. Like two children squabbling over the same toy they rarely manage to play nicely together. C.P. Snow's famous 1959 lecture 'The Two Cultures' argued that science teaching had been unfairly and dangerously neglected due to an exaggerated emphasis on the arts and humanities. Ideally the two disciplines would be granted an equal weight but somehow an air of distrust always lurks between the two as though they are on opposite sides, rather than two components of a balanced whole. Nowhere was this more obvious than during the Victorian fin de siècle. Scientists such as T.H. Huxley were hugely respected in real life but in the pages of fiction readers were presented with one misbehaving lunatic in a laboratory after another. Famous examples include Dr Moreau, conducting experiments into accelerated evolution on his island via means of vivisection; Dr Jekyll, unleashing the beast within as he explores the darker implications of evolutionary theory; Dr Griffin, conducting a murderous spree as his experiments into invisibility leave him isolated and insane and Dr Ledsmar from Harold Frederic's brilliant The Damnation of Theron Ware, living in his isolated house up on the hill, experimenting upon his collection of lizards and dosing his Chinese manservant with vast doses of opium merely to observe the effects. Amoral, arrogant and brilliantly twisted Dr Ledsmar is a horror. He is also terrifically good fun to read about. The well-behaved considerate scientist acting responsibly under an impeccable moral and ethical code would, on the other hand, be something of a bore.


(Above: A scientist - if he's late-Victorian and in a novel chances are that whatever he's up to it isn't going to end well).

The 1880s and 1890s witnessed the conclusions - both good and ill - of Darwinism being thought through together with their possible implications for religion, humankind's place in Nature, evolution and degeneration. Fears about the heat death of the universe haunted the final pages of H.G. Wells's The Time Machine while up and down the county debate raged about the need and usefulness of animal vivisection experiments. Science was achieving brilliant things in medicine, communications and engineering but it was also unveiling some depressing possibilities for humankind. Respect for the scientist, and fear of what may be unleashed as a result of scientific research went hand in hand. Literature held a mirror to the potentially dark side of scientific endeavour. I suspect, for better or worse, it will always be so. Misbehaving scientists simply make for brilliant and cautionary stories .

04 July 2013

Ken Campbell is alive and you are dead

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On 31 August 2013 it will be five years since the death of writer, performer, director and general one-off theatre legend Ken Campbell.

In the Guardian's obituary, theatre critic Michael Coveney described Campbell as 'a perennial reminder of the rough-house origins of the best of British theatre, from Shakespeare, music hall and Joan Littlewood to the fringe before it became fashionable, tame and subsidized.'

The multifarious products of Ken Campbell's profoundly anarchistic theatrical imagination included his 24-hour long production of Neil Oram's The Warp at the ICA in 1979 - decreed by no less an authority than the Guinness Book of Records to be the world's longest play - and his production of Douglas Adams's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy - performed inside a hovercraft - also at the ICA, later that same year. In the later part of his career he was perhaps best-known for his solo shows of fantastical monologues detailing all manner of odd experiences and arcane knowledge.

In 1977, the opening attraction of the National Theatre's new Cottesloe space was the full-cast stage adaptation by the Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool - co-founded by Campbell with Chris Langham the previous year - of Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea's Illuminatus! trilogy. The British Library made an audio recording of the full 9-hour show and continued, throughout the 1980s and 90s to record Campbell's (usually solo) shows at the National. These included Furtive Nudist, Pigspurt, Jamais Vu, Violin Time, The Pidgin Macbeth and The History of Comedy: Part One: Ventriloquism.

Campbell was happy to have his shows recorded for posterity, his only stipulation being that he was not informed of the date the recording would be happening.  


As well as unique live recordings, the Library has tried to acquire any commercially circulated recordings of Campbell: from the CD 'Wol Wantok' (King Mob, 1999), in which Campbell advanced the case for Pidgin English as a new world language, to the DVD edition of G. F. Newman's TV series Law and Order, in which Campbell had a rare straight acting role, as a crooked lawyer. He later described his performance in Law and Order as an example of 'tie-acting' (the actor tucks in his chin and mumbles into his tie).

The Library does not have any unique audio documentation of The Warp but it does have a copy of the video version (on six videotapes) purchased from writer Neil Oram a few years back. This is still available to purchase from Neil here, now in DVD format.

If you would like to hear (or view) any of the material mentioned in this blog post you can do so free of charge at the British Library. You will need a British Library Reader's Card however and you may need to book an appointment.   

 Listen to Ken Campbell introducing his Pidgin Macbeth in 1998 (excerpt)