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Travels in Space and Time (Without Leaving the Sofa): Reflections on a Life Lived in the Company of Doctor Who, a guest post by author Mike A. Lancaster

Illustration by Meryl Lancaster
1. First Contact

      In my earliest memories he’s there: The Doctor.

     That renegade Timelord who spends his days battling evil across the universe armed only with a sonic screwdriver.

     The lunatic in the blue box.

     The alien being who saves earth again and again.

     My first memory of The Doctor is from 1969, so I’d be about three years old at the time.  Memories are not date-stamped though, and I lived a huge part of my childhood not knowing the exact year.  It was only much later that I got to see again the episode of the TV show that it belonged to.

Anyway, 1969.

     In the box in the corner of the room a man was in peril, trying to get through a door, reacting in horror as some weird kind of foam bubbled up around him.

     Would it envelop him before the door opened?

     I didn’t find out, because the show ended, and I was left with a cliff-hanger and an unearthly theme tune to rub that fact in.

     Now, admittedly, foam might not sound like a particularly scary threat, but the man the foam was threatening to swallow up sure made it seem very scary indeed; he look terrified.

     The man was Patrick Troughon; the character he was portraying was The Doctor; and it was an episode from the Doctor Who serial “The Seeds of Death.”

     And, yes – I found out later – he got through the door.

     Of course he did.

      My second memory of Doctor Who comes from 1970.

     Again, it’s little more than an image, hazy and devoid of context until I read the novelization a few years later.  There was a row of shops, and one of them was selling clothes.  Shop window dummies – mannequins – suddenly started moving, jerking into life.  They smashed their way out onto the street, and their hands were hinged and concealed guns, and suddenly they were attacking the passers-by, shooting at them, killing them.

    If the foam had been scary, this scene needed a whole new adjective.  This was flat out terrifying.  This was peep-out-from-between-fingers stuff.  This was happening somewhere that looked a lot like my hometown, the shop window dummies – Autons: living plastic, receptacles for the Nestene Consciousness – were mowing down shoppers on a street just like the one I had to walk down to get sweets.

     Of course, it was Doctor Who again, “Spearhead from Space”, but I don’t remember The Doctor even being in the episode.  I don’t remember anything but those dummies.

     But I, like thousands of others, did see the glass break as they smashed their way out, even though it didn’t.

     Do you know something?

     I discovered a couple of important – I’d go so far as to say life-changing – things because of those two dimly remembered episodes of Doctor Who.

     First up, the show scared me.

     Hot on the heels of that: I really liked being scared.

     Needless to say: I was hooked.

2:  Travels Through Tea-Time and Space

 

My dad loves sports, and that’s why I love Doctor Who.

     Let me explain.

     On Saturday afternoons in the 1970s, on BBC One, there was a grueling schedule of sports programming lumped together under the banner Grandstand.

     Me, I hated sports, but Grandstand was always on, whether it was horse racing; teams of men chasing a leather ball around a field; golf; athletics; rowing or bowls.

     How does this explain a love of Doctor Who?

     Well, when Grandstand ended, and the final scores of the day had been read, Doctor Who began, and the TV stayed on because the News was on afterwards.

     I got to see, and fall in love with, Doctor Who.

     It was Jon Pertwee, the third Doctor, and his adventures were almost exclusively earthbound.  Rather than the traditional get-in-Tardis-end-up-somewhere-with-monsters set-up before and after him, this Doctor had a broken Tardis and had to wait for the alien threats to come to Earth.

     Which, luckily for us, came frequently.

     Weekly, even.

     With the Brigadier and his UNIT troops, an assistant called Jo Grant, and a yellow roadster called Bessie, The Doctor fought monsters and villains and giant maggots.  He faced off against the evil Timelord called The Master time and time again.  He fought the Sea Devils, the Daemons, the Axons and the Daleks.  He even found time to confront some of earth’s very real problems – environmental, social and technological – and the issues the show addressed became issues that I grew to care about.  He was a wise, but somehow impish, figure, who knew a spot of Venusian martial arts, and possessed that weird other-worldly charm that defines a great Doctor.

     Then, after meeting up with the previously mentioned giant maggots, Jo Grant was gone, and she was replaced with a new assistant, Sarah Jane Smith.

     Now I’d like Jo a lot, but Sarah Jane was something else entirely.  She was more than just a person for The Doctor to info dump to, or to scream her lungs out when the horrible thing of the week started shuffling, wheeling, crawling or creeping towards her.  She was feisty, clever, and wasn’t afraid to speak her mind.  She was a thoroughly modern woman who was as strong-willed and opinionated as The Doctor himself.

     The passing of the torch from Jo to Sarah should have prepared me for that thing that was – unknown to me – looming in the near future.

     But it didn’t.

     The Doctor had been fighting the giant spiders of Metebelis Three, and the energy feedback from the final battle had taken its toll upon him.  He arrived back at UNIT HQ injured and dying.

     And then . . .

     . . . he died.

     My beloved Doctor.

     Dead.

     I remember waiting for him to jump again.  I also remember him steadfastly refusing to do so.

     The episode ended with something happening to The Doctor’s body.  He was laying there and then there was light and . . . and suddenly he was someone else.  Someone else who looked nothing at all like The Doctor.

     I waited months for the next episode – Wikipedia tells me that it was between June and December of 1974 – and when it returned, Tom Baker was now The Doctor.  It took me a whole four parts of his serial “Robot” to warm to him, and even then there was an odd mixture of suspicion and regret that wasn’t totally dispelled until Genesis of the Daleks.  Then the unthinkable happened.  The idea of regeneration that gives the show its longevity – by allowing a new actor to play The Doctor, so the show can outlive the people who play its main character – worked.

     I accepted this new Doctor as THE Doctor.

3: The Long Absence and The Triumphant Return

Lives change.  So do priorities.  Sometime in the Peter Davison era, life got in the way.  I’d catch the show whenever I could, but it had somehow become less of a must-see event.  If I heard the Daleks were coming back, or the Cybermen, or the Silurians, then I’d try to be there to see them.  The Doctor changed his face again, then again, but somehow I no longer saw his continuing adventures as vital to my life.

     Diminishing quality in scripts and effects probably didn’t help, but nor did the science fictions books I was reading that made the struggles of The Doctor seem a little too soft for my liking.

     I have gone back and caught up with everything that I missed since, and find them oddly charming, occasionally brilliant, and am still surprised by the odd episode, but to be brutally honest I can see why the BBC finally dropped the show from its production schedules.  I thought that Sylvester McCoy had at least been taking the role into new territory, but too many bad choices were being made from him to survive for long.  It needed a whole new direction, a total overhaul, but instead it was allowed to die.

     I missed the show when it was gone, of course I did.

     When Doctor Who was gone, it seemed like a light had gone out on British TV.  It wasn’t just the end of an era, it was the end of all possible eras.  Television – at least our home-grown shows – seemed pale and dull.

     I tracked down old episodes, read the New Adventures, got crazily excited by every rumor of a return and preposterously disappointed when the rumor turned out to be false.

     The Paul McGann film, flawed though it was, offered the merest glimmer of hope – and a tantalizing glimpse of what a tremendous Doctor McGann would have made – but when it was gone it looked like Doctor Who has breathed its last.

     And then the impossible happened.

     It came back.

     Under the sublime leadership of Russell T. Davies it thrived.  Stephen Moffat has taken Who even further forward.  Suddenly the show that died of apathy is culturally important.  People who profess to have no interest in sf still tune in.  Even my mum, who was never a great Who fan, eagerly embraced this latest phase of the timelord’s adventures.

     Now I get to watch Doctor Who with my own kids – not as an after-the-sports afterthought but as a family event – and the announcement of Peter Capaldi’s casting as the new Doctor got a cheer in our house louder than any we’ve ever given for a sporting event.

     The Doctor, by regenerating, is able to transcend death, and so is the show.

     It speaks across age boundaries and social boundaries, it sweeps across this crazy planet of ours, showing us that our need for heroes is universal, that human beings – with all their flaws and greed and stupidity – are wroth saving.

     Even by a madman in a blue box.

     Who’s not even human himself.

     And with the 50th anniversary fast approaching, it seems a good time to celebrate the unique power of a TV show to capture our imaginations and make permanent impressions on our minds, so here, in no particular order, are my top 10 favorite Doctor Who stories:

Genesis of the Daleks

The age-old question “if you could go back in time, would you kill Adolf Hitler?” is given a delicious spin in this Tom Baker six-parter.  Of course, it’s not Hitler the serial deals with, it’s the Daleks, but the moral choice is well-handled – and superbly acted – and the fascist society that births the Daleks is chilling.  The addition of Davros to the Dalek myth is a very welcome one.  Simply great TV.

The Doctor’s Wife

Seeing Neil Gaiman’s name on the credits of a Doctor Who episode was exciting enough, but the uber-talented scribe pulled off a master-stroke by making a character of the TARDIS, and delivered a heart-breaking tale that redefined the relationship of the timelord to his blue box.

The Curse of Fenric
The Doctor at his darkest and most enigmatic. Coldly manipulative; secretive; grouchy and willing to go to any lengthseven breaking Aces trust in him by calling her a social misfit and an emotional crippleto secure victory. Sylvester McCoy was magnificent as the Seventh Doctor, and we caught a glimpse of where Doctor Who might have been headed if it wasnt for its cancellation.
Claws of Axos
A spaceship full of gold-skinned humanoid aliens stops on earth for fuel, and the Axons offer in return a miraculous new thinking molecule that can copy any substance you want it to. Or make frogs grow bigger. But something is not right, and the Doctor suspects darker motives for the Axons. Or should that be Axon? For the ship and everything on it are just parts of a single, gestalt organism, as is the gift of Axonite, and its a hungry space vampire looking for a planet-sized snack. Throw in the Master, an old man driving his bike into a frozen lake, some darned creepy monsters, stir, and youve got a classic John Pertwee story.
A Good Man Goes to War
A true Doctor Who epic packed, almost unbelievably, into fifty glorious minutes. This, for me, is one of the jewels in the crown of New Who, and of Stephen Moffats tenure as show runner. It starts off strong and just keeps going, with The Doctor assembling an army to launch an assault on Demons Run, the secret base where Amy Pond is being held whilst her baby is delivered. Cue mayhem, action, revelations and headless monks, and an exercise in Doctor Who done just right.
Rose
To reboot The Doctor there needed to be a pretty special opening episode. It needed to please the die-hard fans and the folk discovering Doctor Who for the first time; it had to address the shows history, as well as pointing a course into the future; and it needed a new Doctor for a new wave of viewers. Christopher Eccleston was the perfect man for the job, and watching the first series again one can only imagine what heights he would have reached if he had signed on for another series.
 
Pyramids of Mars
The Tom Baker years gave us a few gothic horror serials, of which Pyramids of Mars is my particular favorite. Perhaps its the Egyptian mummies, the Hammer(ish) production design, the always surprising storyline, or the fact that the Doctor looks like he has truly lost this battle before plucking victory from the jaws of defeat in typically ingenious fashion.
 Oh wait, its definitely the mummies.
City of Death
Tom Baker again, in a witty and surreal script that had Douglas Adamss fingerprints all over it.  Set in Paris, and featuring some of the best Doctor and Companion chemistry in the entire run of Who old and new, the farcical elements divided the fans. But for me it remains the perfect example of how the show can adopt different tonescompare and contrast with Genesis of the Daleks”—and you see that as long as it is done well, and with total commitment, there really is nothing that the show cant pull off.
The Eleventh Hour
Few Doctors grab you from the very first moment you meet them. Its the investment in their predecessor, I guess. It took up until This new hand? Its a fightin hand for me to be sold on David Tennant, but Matt Smith had me from the very first moment, seeming both human and utterly alien at the same time. And he had a great story to shine in; imaginative, clever, tense and paced to perfection. 
The Green Death
Giant maggots. Writhing, squelchy, green-death-exuding giant maggots. Jo Grants swan song. Claustrophobic coal mines. Hippy scientists. Serendipity. Oh, and did I mention the giant maggots. Okay some of the FX shots look terrible today; okay the BOSS computer subplot, and those awful headphones look horrible, but this was a rollicking adventure.
            With giant maggots.
            Giant. Maggots.
            Still freaks me out.

Source:

Mike Lancaster lives in Cambridge with his wife, kids, dogs, cats, horses, the Leopard Geckos, and somewhere in between the zoo-keeping he writes stories.  He is the author of Human.4 and The Future We Left Behind, both of which Karen thinks are gloriously good sci fi and great reads for Doctor Who fans.  Both titles are published by EgmontUSA.

Human.4
Kyle Straker volunteered to be hypnotized at the annual community talent show, expecting the same old lame amateur acts. But when he wakes up, his world will never be the same. Televisions and computers no longer work, but a strange language streams across their screens. Everyone’s behaving oddly. It’s as if Kyle doesn’t exit.

Is this nightmare a result of the hypnosis? Will Kyle wake up with a snap of fingers to roars of laughter? Or is this something much more sinister?

Narrated on a set of found cassette tapes at an unspecified point in the future, Human.4 is an absolutely chilling look at technology gone too far. 


The Future We Left Behind
Thousands of years in the future the divide between humanity and technology has become nearly unrecognizable. Each thought, each action is logged, coded, backed up. Data is as easily exchanged through the fiber-optic-like cables that extend from fingertips as it might be through ordinary conversation. It’s a brave new world: A world that the Straker Tapes say is a result of many human “upgrades.” But no one is sure whether the Straker Tapes are a work of fiction or an eerie peek into an unimaginable past.

Nearly sixteen-year-old Peter Vincent has been raised to believe that everything that the backward Strakerites cling to is insane–an utter waste of time and potential. Since his father is David Vincent, genius inventor of the artificial bees that saved the world’s
crops and prevented massive famine, how could Peter believe anything else?

But when Peter meets Alpha, a Strakerite his own age, suddenly the theories about society-upgrades don’t sound quite so crazy, especially when she shows him evidence that another upgrade is imminent. And worse, there may be a conspiracy by the leaders of the establishment to cover it up. A conspiracy spearheaded by Peter’s own father.

Gripping and full of unexpected twists, The Future We Left Behind takes the unsettling questions raised in Human.4, and flips them entirely. What if we knew that the very way we live was about to be changed in an instant, and we could stop it? And what if everything we are sure we know is entirely wrong?

Take 5: True Confessions of a Sci Fi Reader with Maria Selke

I’ve always been a science fiction reader.

Well, “always” if you count the fact that there wasn’t much science fiction available for younger readers when I was a kid. I got my start in fantasy with Narnia. I ventured into science fiction with A Wrinkle in Time, and never looked back. I continued to read fantasy and historical fiction, of course, but I also gobbled down science fiction like cyborgs were about to take over the earth. 

Recently, though, I realized that my passion for science fiction felt very past tense. Almost everything I read and reread was published before the dawn of the 21st century. The more I talked about my love for the genre, the more people came to me for reading suggestions. While Bradbury, Clark, and Herbert are fabulous, it was time to hit the books and update my repertoire.  I gave myself a SciFi Summer challenge.

I started by trying to express why I think science fiction is such an important genre. It really boils down to this – science fiction is the genre that helps us envision and create a better future. We may read about environmental catastrophes and plot a way out of the path of destruction. We may shiver in fear as humans turn on each other, and turn instead to compassion.  We may read about marvelous science that sparks our desire to cure or explore or explain. I’ve gone into more detail about “Why Sci Fi” on my blog, if you’d care for a more in depth discussion. http://www.mariaselke.com/2012/04/why-sci-fi-power-of-what-if.html

Since the start of June, I have read thirty-seven books that I classified as science fiction. While I’m trying to find newer titles, I did succumb to the lure of a Fahrenheit 451reread after the passing of Ray Bradbury. Let me tell you, that book is just as relevant today as it was when it was published. If you haven’t read it, or you haven’t read it lately, be sure to get a copy! It’s available as a graphic novel adaptation as well, but that doesn’t hold a candle to the original.


Science fiction is for everyone. It can be filled with adventure. It can include flirtation or outright romance. The protagonists can be male, female, both, or neither. There can be mysteries to solve. No matter what other elements it includes; the best science fiction lets us peer into the future. Science fiction can appeal to anyone, of any age, with any interest.

Eye of the Storm by Kate Messner

 

Stormy weather got you down? Are you in the mood for a near future climate science adventure? Eye of the Storm will hit the spot. Kate Messner’s tale of a world of terrifying storms seems even more likely after the past few months.

 Black Hole Sun by David Macinnis Gill


Hankering for a trip to Mars after watching all the Curiosity Rover news? Black Hole Sun is quite a rip-roaring adventure tale, with just a hint of romance. I liked this book on a lot of levels. I enjoyed the Mars setting, and the hints at the history of the terraforming that has occurred. I enjoyed the repartee between the characters, especially between the main character and A.I. that lives in his head. It had the science fiction as well as a western feel to the tale. Since I am a huge fan of Firefly, this worked beautifully for me. 


Wishing you’d gotten another glimpse into The Matrix? Here are few great choices that keep the focus on computer technology.

Human.4 by Mike A. Lancaster

 

Kyle’s story is presented as almost an archaeological find, with his tale narrated on a series of analogue audio tapes. The futuristic society that discovered it jumps in with commentary and explanations as Kyle’s story progresses. I don’t want to give away any plot points, but this one had me wondering if I had taken the blue or the red pill. Great for middle grade on up. Even better news? There is a new book out this month!  (Karen’s notes: 1) I told her to read this book so bonus points for me.  2) The sequel is The Future We Left Behind and it was released last Tuesday.)

 Insignia by S.J. Kincaid

 

Imagine a world without war. Or at least, without war on Earth itself. Instead, combatants have been implanted with neural processors to allow them to control ships in distant space. How much technology can we inject into our brain structures and still remain human? The teenagers tasked with championing each side of World War III that is waging will soon find out.

Across the Universe by Beth Revis

Longing to get away from it all? I mean reallyfar away? How about sleeping for three hundred years while you travel to a distant world to begin a new human colony? The first few pages honestly almost made me ill. Not a terrible thing – the description of being prepped for cryo sleep were just exceptionally detailed and traumatic. There’s also mystery and romance; the perfect trifecta to appeal to many teenage readers.  

I can never get enough science fiction, and I plan to keep reading and reviewing for as long as my eyes hold out. I try to mix it up by hitting a variety of interest levels and spicing it up with some science nonfiction. Join me (most) Fridays at Maria’s Mélange for my Sci Friday feature or hit me up on Twitter -@mselke01.

Sequel Preparedness: Human.4 by Mike Lancaster

Later this year, in November to be exact, the world as we know it will change – again.

It began with a quiet little book titled Human.4 by Mike Lancaster.  Human.4 is a classicly creepy science fiction tale that immediately brought to mind some of the best episodes of The Twilight Zone.  The best part: it is incredibly creepy but appropriate for readers of all ages.

We begin by zooming in to a small town.  Not a lot happens here, as it the case with most small towns.  But every year there is an annual talent show.  It is here that the world as we know it changes for everyone.  Well, everyone except for 4 individuals who happened to be hypnotized at the moment the change occurred.

Kyle didn’t mean to volunteer for his best friends hypnotism act, he was more surprised than anyone to see his hand go in the air.  But the biggest surprise of all – it seems to have worked.  When Kyle and the other 3 volunteers awake from the hypnosis everyone in the audience – perhaps the whole world – is completely still.  And when they do start moving again, they are very, very different.

With very precise steps, Kyle begins wandering around his town and noticing those subtle changes and realizes that things are not what they seem.  Even though the people in his town are still there – they’re not exactly THERE.  More disturbingly, they don’t seem to notice that Kyle is there.  He no longer seems to matter, or be quite visible.  The realization of what has unfolded, and what it means for Kyle and the .4, is a spectacularly interesting science fiction twist.

One of the best parts of Human.4 is the storytelling technique.  It is presented as a study from someone in the future analyzing a series of cassette tapes left by Kyle with the admonition they should “please remember us.”  There are even little interjections where scientists discuss the implications of what Kyle is saying.  It was such a creative way to tell this creepy tale.

Like I said, this book packs a powerful, creepy punch in a very traditional way.  No gore, no gimmicks – just a slowly building creep factor that sucks you in.  5 out of 5 stars and appropriate for middle grade and teen readers (and adults!) of all ages.

Check out Mike Lancaster’s web page – analogue signals – for updates and a book trailer for the companion novel, 1.4.