Sunday, April 29, 2007

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Predictions

I popped into an actual bricks-and-mortar bookstore yesterday (I don't visit them often these days since I get dozens of free books to read and review through the mail, or else I empty the library of their books !) to get a book for someone, and I ended up having a conversation about what I think will happen in the final HP book - the bookseller had a poster up saying "How will it end?" My response of "In death, mayhem and tears" was met with a look of shock from the young bookseller. I then proceeded to make some detailed predictions - and I thought I'd post them here, for future reference - and to invite responses from anyone else who wants to join the Predictions "game" - or argue with me over my predictions (*grins*)

1 - Voldemort will be finally defeated, but Harry won't be responsible for killing him. Peter Pettigrew (Wormtail) probably will be involved in defeating Voldeort, thereby repaying his debt to Harry for saving his life in The Prisoner of Azkaban.)

2 - Harry, Ron and Hermione will all live. And Harry is NOT a Horcrux...

3 - Percy and Fred & George Weasley may all die, Percy after belatedly realising his parents were right about the Ministry of Magic and making a foolish sacrifice.

4 - Snape will die protecting/saving Harry, thereby proving Dumbledore's faith in him was not misguided.

5 - Draco will redeem himself or be rehabilitated, without necessarily joining the side of the Good.

6 - Aberforth Dumbledore, barman at the Hog's Head, will be discovered to have the missing Slytherin Locket that's one of the remaining Horcruxes. (Mundungus was caught by Harry with a lot of stuff from Sirius' house in Hogsmeade and he's known to frequent the Hog's Head pub in Hogsmeade.)

7 - Neville Longbottom may die.

I'm going to be reading Who Killed Albus Dumbledore? and What Will Happen in Harry Potter 7? in the next week or two, so I thought I'd get my predictions in before those books can influence me !

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Circle of Nightmares - Malcolm Rose

Malcolm Rose's Circle of Nightmares caught my eye in the library because of the title. It looked intriguing, so I borrowed it and found it lived up to its promise.

17 year old Jodie Hilliard's begun investigating the scientific research station at which her father works and she doesn't like what she's finding. Strange experiments are being conducted and the two scientists who previously held the job her father now has, both died in mysterious circumstances and in quick succession. At the heart of the mystery that surrounds the research station is an ancient stone circle which lies within the grounds of the lab. It's been the site of some bizarre local rituals for centuries now and whilst it's become the testing ground for the station's latest device (an incredibly powerful electronic weapon with the potential to stun or even kill people as well as animals), the locals are decidedly unhappy. They've reformed an old society, known as the Hell Fire Club, which outsiders are definitely not welcome to join. One outsider, who has been a resident of the village for a good many years, Ryan, knows all about the society (and much other local history) and he tells Jodie what he knows. She, in turn, shares the knowledge she's gleaned from her Internet researches, hacking and illicit eavesdropping on mobile phone conversations.

She decides to confront her father about her discoveries and although he, initially, is reluctant to listen to her concerns, having his own reasons for wanting the station's device to be tested and proved effective (Jodie's mother was killed by a terrorist bomb), he finally takes note and goes to confront his boss. Unfortunately, his boss is less than interested and Jodie's father is killed, as are three members of the Hell Fire Club who'd gone to the stone circle to cleanse it. Jodie's left an orphan and although her elderly maternal grandfather comes over from Australia, she realises that he's not up to becoming her guardian, having already lost his daughter. Since she's four months short of her 18th birthday, Ryan's parents agree that she can go and stay with them. but the Director of the research station knows that Jodie and Ryan were in the vicinity of the station when her father and the three members of the Hell Fire Club were killed in the weapon's test, so he sends his security men after them. A bomb is planted in Ryan's parents' house, but Jodie's wolfhound, Wolfie, wakes her up and alerts her to its presence. Ryan's dad, who knows about explosives from his work in a quarry, sends the teenagers and his wife outside whilst he attempts to defuse the bomb. Unfortunately he's killed and now Jodie is set on a major collision course with the Director of the Research Station. Can she and Ryan publicise what the Director and his staff are doing? Can they stop them from developing the weapon any further? The book has a nail-biting finale which, despite this being a spoiler review, I'm not going to reveal.

What really surprised me about this book is the fact that it was published in 1997. Its plot is so up-to-date, you'd be forgiven for thinking it came out last year.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Doctor Who Season 3 - "Gridlock"

This week's episode is from the pen of chief writer, Russell T Davies, and it is, frankly, bonkers - but still good fun. The Doctor has relented a little on his decision to only take Martha on one trip in the TARDIS, and decides she can have one trip to the future and one to the past. With that in mind he takes them off to New Earth, although Martha is rather keen to see his home planet. He says he doesn't want to go home (liar!) although he does tell her a little bit about how it looked (whilst omitting to mention that Gallifrey is no longer there).

They arrive in New New York (giving David the chance to rattle off his "New, new, new (15 times) York" line again). It's raining which fails to impress Martha. The Doctor yanks the arrow (shot at him by one of the 16th century soldiers of the Queen in last week's episode) from the TARDIS door and discards it, before chiding her for moaning about the rain and insisting that seeing the city from down below is more interesting. Martha complains it looks like Earth on a Wednesday afternoon as the Doctor checks out a computer terminal to see exactly where they are. When he mentions that "we" saw the view he shows Martha on the screen "last time" (of the hospital from "New Earth"), Martha ask if he came here with Rose. He says yes and she comments on the fact he's taking Martha to the same planets to which he took Rose, and makes a snide comment about "rebound" (which I thought was rather unnecessary - given the Doctor's not in a relationship of any sort with Martha. He freely admits later on that he barely knows her because he's been too busy showing off to her - and that he'd lied to her).

The two of them walk down an alley and find themselves accosted by three dealers of mood patches. Then a pale young woman turns up, wanting some "Forget" as her parents have gone on the motorway, and she believes (rightly) that they'll never return. Before the Doctor can sort out why that might be, she's attached the patch to her neck and forgotten about her parents. She wanders off and then Martha is abducted at gunpoint by a man and a woman who are babbling about needing a third, whilst madly apologising to both Martha and the Doctor. The Doctor tries to persuade them to let Martha go, offering to help, but they're not interested. They bundle Martha away to their waiting "car", give her some "Sleep" and then drive off to the motorway, requesting access to the Fast Lane as they now have three adult passengers on board.

It turns out the motorway in the undercity of New New York is entirely enclosed and suffers from a traffic jam that makes even the M25 look like an easy Sunday drive. Some citizens have been stuck on it for over 20 years (that's definitely one of the more bonkers bits of the plot). The Doctor tries to go after Martha and is picked up as a hitch-hiker by Thomas Kincade Brannigan, a cat man (played magnificently by Ardal O'Harlon), and his wife (a regular human), who, along with their children (a group of impossibly cute kittens, whom even the non-cat-person Doctor can't resist petting). They explain the problems with the motorway to the Doctor, who contacts the New New York police, only to be put on hold. He tries to persuade Brannigan to take him down to the Fast Lane, so that he can go after Martha, since they now have three adult passengers, but Brannigan and Valerie both refuse to endanger their children. After a brief "Contemplation moment" (in which the traffic news system plays "The Old Rugged Cross"), the Doctor decides to take things into his own hands, and lets himself out of the bottom of Brannigan's car (after leaving his coat, given to him by Janis Joplin, with Brannigan), then drops in through the roof hatch of the car below. (Two of the best lines in the show are Valerie's response to the Doctor's action: "He's completely insane!" and Brannigan's response "That and a bit magnificent!")

Eventually the Doctor reaches the last car above the Fast Lane and does some jiggery-pokery with the wires in the car to clear away the exhaust fumes below so he can discover just what's down there that has eyes and makes weird noises. Turns out it's the Macra - a bunch of super-sized crabs that like to feed on gases, the dirtier, the better. They used to be the scourge of the galaxy but now they're just lurking about in the enclosed motorway (don't ask how they got down there), living off the gas and attacking cars in the Fast Lane (presumably for sport or out of a general antipathy towards humans and human/hybrids). Just as the Doctor's discussing this with the businessman car owner whose car he dropped into, someone else drops in (prompting the Doctor to claim he's invented a new sport) - the someone being a cat woman, formerly Novice Hame of the New Earth hospital where Cassandra (the "bitchy trampoline") managed to transplant her brain into both Rose and the Doctor - prompting some truly magnificent campness from David Tennant that was just the right side of outrageously silly. Hame's come to fetch the Doctor to meet an old friend - the Face of Boe (who had contacted the Doctor via his psychic paper, thus prompting him to visit New Earth with Rose in the first place).

Hame reveals that the Face of Boe is finally dying (he was supposedly dying in "New Earth", hence his desire to see the Doctor) and that the Senate of New New York are all dead after being killed by a virus that was part of the new "Bliss" patches. The people who are in the motorway are the only survivors. The Face of Boe kept them alive by wiring himself into the system but there isn't enough power to let them out of the motorway. Fortunately the Doctor is able to do some more jiggery-pokery and with some power from the Face of Boe, he's able to unlock the motorway and get everyone out. He tells Martha's kidnappers to bring her to the Senate building and introduces her to Boe, who's really dying now. Before he goes, however, he reveals his big secret - that the Doctor is not alone, although he is the last of his kind. Which leaves the Doctor confused and somewhat angry. However, he reclaims his coat from Brannigan and heads back to the TARDIS. Martha, however, wants some answers from him, and she picks up an old chair and sits down, refusing to go another step until the Doctor talks to her. They hear the people of the city singing "Abide With Me" and he finds another chair and sits down. He then reveals that he'd lied to her, and explains that Gallifrey was destroyed in the last great Time War, against the Daleks, and he begins to describe it to her, as the camera pans upwards away from them, and the hymn continues...

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Doctor Who Season 3 - "The Shakespeare Code"

Gareth Roberts, writer of this week's episode, has written a lot of "Doctor Who" fiction, but this is his first full-length episode - if you've going to start somewhere, start in the best place possible: with Shakespeare. OK, I admit it, I'm "mad about the Bard", and not everyone is, but this episode is fantastic. The Doctor, at the end of "Smith and Jones" offered Martha the chance to take a one-off trip in the TARDIS as thanks for saving his life after the Plasmavore nearly killed him, and so he can road-test his new Sonic Screwdriver (having fried the previous one in an attempt to stop the Plasmavore's Slab minion). So off they pop, in the TARDIS, and land (bumpily - causing Martha to ask the Doctor if he needs to take a test to fly it - yes, he says, but I failed it!) in 1599, not far from Shakespeare's newly built Globe Theatre, London. Martha's already asked how the TARDIS travels in time (she must be the first Companion to ask this - at least in a long while, if ever), then after they step out of the TARDIS, she worries about whether it's safe for them to move around. What happens if she steps on a butterfly (an allusion to Ray Bradbury's short story A Sound of Thunder), or kills her grandfather (known as the "grandfather paradox") - a question that seems to baffle the Doctor, but given the effects of Rose's intervention to save her father's life in "Father's Day", it's not an entirely foolish question! Then Martha worries she might be carried off as a slave, since she's "not exactly white", leading the Doctor to remark that he's "not exactly human" and to advise her to just walk around as if she owns the place, "it always works for me" he says.

Having established when and where they are, the Doctor invites "Miss Jones" to go to the theatre with him, and she replies that she'd love to - calling him "Mr Smith" (the pseudonym he'd used when he met Martha). I liked this as it's a reference back to Martha's insistence that the Doctor has to earn his title from her (the trainee doctor). I hope she continues to call him that at least for a little while longer. The two head off to the Globe to see Love's Labours Lost, which they seem to enjoy, although Martha's impatient to see the genius himself, Will Shakespeare, and starts shouting "Author! Author!" (she asks the Doctor if people shouted that then, but her cry has already been taken up by the audience, leading the Doctor to observe laconically "Well they do now.")

In the meantime, there's a beautiful young woman up in one of the galleries who's working a spell on Shakespeare via a voodoo-style puppet. She provokes him into announcing that the following night will see the premiere of his sequel to the play "Love's Labours Won". Which puzzles Martha and the Doctor, because no copies of it exist in Martha's time, although the Doctor acknowledges it's mentioned in contemporary lists of Shakespeare's plays. He decides they'd better investigate before he takes Martha back home, and they go to chat to Shakespeare, who's not interested in talking to the Doctor, but when he spots Martha's eager face peering around the Doctor's shoulder, is immediately entranced and invites them to join him.

The young woman from the gallery is now working as a serving girl at the inn ("The Elephant") where Martha and the Doctor have gone to see Shakespeare, and when the Master of Revels arrives, demanding to see a copy of the script of "Love's Labours Won" in order to approve of it, Shakespeare reveals he hasn't actually finished the play. Lynley insists that the play will not go ahead and tells Will that's he off to issue a banning order. The serving girl immediately pulls out her puppet and uses it to kill Lynley, causing him to drown (she fills his lungs with water). The Doctor realises that witchcraft is at work, and tries to work out how it's being worked. He and Martha are lying on a bed in the inn at this point - she's trying to flirt with him, but he totally ignores that, focusing on trying to work out what's going on. He says that Rose would have said exactly the right thing at this moment to make him realise what was staring him in the face (at that point, Martha!), and Martha's face falls. When he reminds her that he'll be taking her back home in the morning, she blows out the candle in annoyance. But they're not going to get a quiet night - the woman (Lilith) with the puppet is back and armed with a potion which she uses to influence Will so that he will write a "spell" into the end of the play, which will set Lilith and her "sisters" (a race of aliens called the Carrionites) free from their eternal imprisonment - the 14-sided Globe working to amplify the power of Will's words (Lilith's spell) to break them free.

What I loved about this episode:

- Shakespeare - Dean Lennox Kelley plays him as a Rock-star genius, which works very well (I've never found Shakespeare dull, anyway!);
- the many, many references to Shakespeare's plays (the Doctor keeps using phrases from Shakespeare's plays, which Will then says "I'll have that" (the Doctor refuses to let him "have" Dylan Thomas' line "Rage, rage, against the dying of the light" however);
- the fact that Shakespeare can't be fooled by the psychic paper (the implication being he's too much of a genius to fall for it);
- the various references to Harry Potter - including Martha saying at one point "It's all a bit Harry Potter", which prompts the Doctor to say that she'll love the seventh book and it made him cry;
- the Doctor referring to the film Back to the Future (my favourite film trilogy of all time) in order to explain to Martha that if the Carrionites' plot works, she will fade from history, as will the rest of humanity;
- Will flirting with Martha, calling her a "dark lady" (an allusion to the "Dark Lady" Sonnets) - and when the Doctor tries to hurry them both up saying "We can all have a good flirt later", Will asks "Is that a promise Doctor?" The Doctor sighs and says "57 academics just punched the air" - a meta-reference to scholarly debates about Shakespeare's sexuality;
- the fact that the Doctor never actually uses his brand new Sonic Screwdriver, despite the trip being made, in part, to road-test it (though he does pull a toothbrush from his inside jacket pocket when Martha comments she doesn't have one with her for their overnight stay in 1599);
- the FX and the wonderful scenery (the Globe theatre scenes were shot at the real Globe, the 16th century street scenes were shot in Coventry).

What didn't work so well:
- the Doctor's use of Dylan Thomas' line doesn't actually fit the death that had occurred - and though I love the poem, it's a bit naff, because it's just an excuse for the Doctor to tell Will "you can't have that";
- the Doctor's reference to Rose knowing the exact right thing to say to him when he's trying to work out what's going on (totally crass - I know he loved Rose and is missing her, but it's still crass!) and his "Oh I hate starting from scratch" comment when Martha asks what psychic paper is (he ought to be used to starting from scratch by now, the number of Companions he's had during 10 lifetimes!)
- the cackling of the three witches was so raucous at times that it got my nerves;
- the business of the Carrionites wanting to cross into our world and destroy humanity was a little too similar to the situation with the Gelth, in the Season 1 Dickens-centric episode, "The Unquiet Dead".

Overall, though, I loved this episode - it's gone straight into my Top Ten of New Who episodes (and may even oust my all-time-favourite from Season 2, Steve Moffatt's "The Girl in the Fireplace" - another historical story about a very clever person).

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

A Hat Full of Sky: Book Group Discussion

Terry Pratchett's A Hat Full of Sky is my favourite of the "Tiffany Aching" series of Discworld novels for children. If anyone hasn't managed to read the first story in the series, The Wee Free Men, there's a review over on my main Blog. 11 year old Tiffany Aching, a young witch-in-training is about to begin her first apprenticeship to an older witch named Miss Level. Miss Level is rather unusual, even for a witch, in that she has two bodies that share one mind. Unfortunately, just before she leaves the Chalk (where she lives), Tiffany attracts the attention of a "hiver", a bodiless creature that likes to inhabit strong minds until the owners of those minds go mad and die. Despite the fact that she's no longer their Kelda (ie. Queen), several of the Nac Mac Feegle go after her, disguising themselves as a human by dressing up in stolen clothes (and a stolen beard) so that they can get the stagecoach up into the mountains. (Nac Mac Feegle are a Faerie race of mostly men who are 6 inches high and who love to fight, drink and steal. Female Nac Mac Feegles are very rare and they're commonly understood to get all the brains whilst the males get all the brawn.)

By the time the Nac Mac Feegle arrive, however, the hiver has already possessed Tiffany's mind and they find themselves forced to go after Tiffany (being otherworldly creatures, they're able to enter Tiffany's mind via her dreams) in order to help her to rescue herself. Tiffany manages to free her mind from the hiver, but it hangs around, wanting her power for itself and in the end she is forced to take it on and deal with it.

Things I love about this story:

1 - The remarkably mature way in which Tiffany deals with the hiver. Instead of trying to destroy it, she helps it to find peace, taking it into Death's Kingdom, giving it a name and telling it a story of how humans are made up of many aspects of their ancestors.

2 - Terry's comments about reading and writing being odd hobbies that aren't apparently much good for anything, although they do help to transmit history and experience to future generations.

3 - The reference, right at the beginning of the first chapter, to the secret fear that all witches have, of turning into their stereotype of a cackling, power-crazed old woman who cares nothing for anyone else.

4 - The way that Terry gives us philosophy with humour (in Chapter 11), making it non-didactic (Tiffany tells the hiver that humans know when not to listen to the monkey, which puzzles the hiver):

The old bit of our brains that wants to be head monkey, and attacks when its surprised. [...] It reacts. It doesn't think. Being human is knowing when not to be the monkey or the lizard or any of the other old echoes. But when you take people over, you silence the human part. You listen to the monkey. The monkey doesn't know what it needs, only what it wants.

5 - Tiffany's respect for Granny Weatherwax and her refusal to try to outdo Granny Weatherwax during the Witch Trials, and her understanding that Granny Weatherwax is tough on others because she's tough on herself.

So what did you think of A Hat Full Of Sky ? What worked for you, what didn't ? Did you like it enough to want to read the third book in the series (Wintersmith) ? Did anyone read this book without reading The Wee Free Men first ?

Monday, April 02, 2007

Doctor Who Season 3 - "Smith and Jones"

In fairness to anyone who intends to watch Doctor Who's third season and hasn't seen "Smith and Jones" yet, for whatever reason, reviews of the episodes will be here on the Spoiler Zone.

Season Three of "Doctor Who" opened with the breath-taking "Smith and Jones", a rattling romp of a tale which introduced 23 year old medical student Martha Jones to the 900+ year old Time Lord. She didn't get a nice easy introduction to the Doctor's eccentricities like Rose Tyler did! Martha was on her way into work at the hospital when a strange man bumped into her (literally), removed his tie, said "Like so" and walked off, still carrying his tie. A short while later, doing the ward rounds with Mr B Stoker the consultant, she sees the Doctor sitting up in bed, complaining of feeling "Bleugh". She's instructed to check him over and comments on him running around outside earlier, which he flatly denies. Then she listens to his heart and discovers he has two ! She doesn’t comment, even when he winks cheekily at her. By lunchtime that day, there's a localised major thunderstorm going on over the hospital – and then the rain starts falling upwards, whilst the Doctor's roaming around the hospital in his pyjamas and blue dressing gown. Moments later the hospital appears to be struck by an earthquake, but when everyone finds their feet, they discover instead that the hospital has been transported up to the moon. One quick change of clothes later (here's the first appearance of his blue suit), the Doctor's commending Martha's intelligence (whilst getting impatient with her fellow student who insists they can't be breathing on the moon when they obviously are !) and inviting her to come outside onto the veranda with him to see what's what. He warns her "We might die" and she promptly answers "We might not!" in a slightly don't-be-so-negative tone, which earns a "Good" from him. It's quite clear that the Doctor's testing Martha, measuring her potential as a Companion – and it's quite clear that she's up to the job as she not only continues to make intelligent comments, but also re-focuses his attention when he starts nattering on about the hospital having a shop (shades of "New Earth", the season 2 opening episode), and she's more concerned with the Space-Rhino-police force (the Judoon) that's turned up at the hospital and were apparently responsible for the hospital's forced removal to the Moon (they have no jurisdiction over the Earth under Galactic Law, but the Moon is neutral). Martha doesn't quite believe the Doctor is an alien (despite the two hearts), but goes along with him since he seems to have at least some idea of what's going on.

There's some brilliant FX work in this episode (loved the Judoon spaceships) from the Mill and excellent Prosthetics work from Neill Gorton and his team on the Judoon Captain (played by the chief "monster" actor, Paul Kasey). There's a scene where the Doctor uses an X-Ray machine (on which he's turned up the setting to a lethal level) to kill one of the henchmen of the female villain (a Plasmavore, who's an internal shapeshifter) – and when the X-Ray machine goes off, you can see the Doctor's skeleton through his clothes - a brilliant detail ! Then the Doctor has to get rid of the excess radiation he's absorbed – and he forces it all into his left shoe, which results in him doing an odd hopping "dance" (I'd love to know how many takes it took !)

With the Plasmavore defeated and the Judoon on their merry way again, the hospital gets transported back to Earth and Martha goes off to her brother Leo's 21st birthday party, where a full scale family row ensues (her dad has a much younger girlfriend, having left his wife, which is causing a good deal of acrimony between her parents), and who should turn up, leaning on the corner of a building, giving Martha a speculative look, but the Doctor? She follows him and finds him standing in an alley, leaning against the TARDIS. He more or less seduces her into taking a trip with him – disappearing off in the TARDIS momentarily to prove that he can travel in Time (he comes back clutching his tie, so that opening moment makes sense now!) And she agrees – then proceeds to tease him about kissing her ("a genetic transfer", he insists), the fact that he travelled across the universe to ask her on a "date" and his tight suit ("Stop it!" he says, completely alarmed). He insists he prefers travelling alone, but he occasionally has guests, the last of whom was named Rose, but Martha's not replacing her. "I never said I was," she retorts. But you can tell, watching them, that she's smitten with him (despite her assertion that she only goes for humans).

This was a corking opening episode - fans agree it's the best season opener we've had so far, and a fun introduction to Martha Jones. I already love the character (who shares some similar charadteristics to the Companion I've created in my own Who fan fiction). Next week's episode is "The Shakespeare Code" and sees Martha making her first trip in the TARDIS, to 1599 when Will Shakespeare was at the height of his powers.