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The Doctor's Wife

Monday May 16, 2011 in doctor who | neil gaiman

I’m a madman with a box without a box. I’m stuck down the plughole at the end of the universe in a stupid old junkyard.

It’s likely that Neil Gaiman has always had it down as one of his ambitions to write a classic Doctor Who. It’s taken a long time, and The Doctor’s Wife was teasingly held back from last year’s season, but I’d say he’s achieved it. This was an outstanding episode that easily the best to date from season six. Maybe one of the best from any season.

What was so captivating about this episode was how Gaiman managed to effortlessly embrace elements of Time Lord lore to create a wholly original tale, albeit one that slips in rather well with the current story arc. Steven Moffat’s current disgruntlement with spoilers being leaked online makes me uncomfortable about sharing the plot too much. Even after the episode airing. All I’ll say is that Suranne Jones was an excellent addition to the cast with her fleeting appearance as the mysterious Idris, a Time Lord’s wife in perhaps a very original interpretation of the term. The Doctor’s Wife explored a theme so obvious that it’s ultimately surprising that it hasn’t been explored before: the relationship with The Doctor and his Tardis. Much of the dialogue and suggestion was sublime, in particular the theme of the Tardis stealing the Doctor to see the delights of the universe rather than it being the other way round. This was neatly set in the backdrop of a junk yard, harking back to the William Hartnell era and 1963.

still from The Doctor's Wife

If I didn’t know that this was by Neil Gaiman would I have been able to guess? Possibly. The idea of the planet full of junk, with the patchwork inhabitants of Uncle, Auntie and the Ood nephew was in keeping with his oddity which often mixes humour with an underlying and more macabre agenda. The time boxes, remnants of lost and murdered Time Lords, were also products of one of the more imaginative Who fixated minds ever to be handed the keys to a story.

Was it really that good? Well, whilst the episode also offered a rarity in showing some of the Tardis interior, the seemingly endless corridors wandered by Amy and Rory brought to mind parts of Star Trek: The Next Generation. I’d heard that the fabled swimming pool was originally outlined for inclusion in this story but proved too expensive, which is a shame, although the dull passageways did add to the sense of horror in this part of the episode, the murderous graffiti echoing what we saw two weeks ago in Day of the Moon. Are we meant to make something of this, which leads to other patterns already emerging in this season. There’s already (although I haven’t really looked – I just feel it’s out there) much debate on the challenging themes from the first two episodes. The apparent demise of The Doctor, little girl and who she is/was and the pregnancy/non pregnancy. I’m not going to think about any of that just yet… and save it for the next post.

But a question. Has the “rest” of the Tardis been featured before? I recall a Sontaran being lost in the corridors many years ago? Did I dream this – or is he still there?

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Stories

Wednesday June 23, 2010 in books read 2010 | neil gaiman

I began to comb picture morgues and newspaper files, turning up hundreds of photos with similar figures in them. Most depicted disasters or near disasters; I began to notice that the number – and demeanor – of the figures often depended on the amount of destruction that surrounded them. Their faces glowed with pleasure in ratio to the amount of mayhem and carnage. This was by no means a strictly quantifiable thing, but the correlation, in general, seemed to exist.
Al Sarrantonio, The Cult of the Nose

Stories anthologyStories is the much talked about anthology edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio, featuring 28 new tales by a variety of authors. Although not all of the writers featured are known for Gaiman’s home genre of fantasy with a dash of horror, this is the general theme that runs through the book. in some cases it works very well, for example Roddy Doyle’s Blood is very out of character for him but nevertheless outstanding.

Other stand out stories include Jodi Picoult’s Weights and Measures, which is a subtle and eerie tale. Kurt Anderson provides an old school slice of science fiction with Human Intelligence. Gaiman’s own contribution, The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains, is as good as expected. By far the best, however, is Al Sarrantonio’s The Cult of the Nose . This is a disturbing story that plunders the depths of obsessive madness. It demands more than one reading.

I have to admit that I found many of the stories disappointing, and the editing could have been better (for example Fossil-Figures by Joyce Carol Oates and Wildfire in Manhattan by Joanne Harris both deal with a similar subject – twins – and are clumsily presented back to back). In general there appears to be an over readiness to please Gaiman, writing the type of story that might pander to his wishes. Not the dream anthology it could have been.

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Stardust

Monday October 26, 2009 in books read 2009 | neil gaiman

cover of Stardust by Neil GaimanStardust is the most charming of reads in the build up to Hallowe’en. Although a long time admirer of Neil Gaiman I have put off reading this for a while, perhaps waiting for the memories of the film to subside. Whilst the translation of Gaiman into cinema can be excellent, for example with Coraline, I didn’t find Stardust on screen much more than a fairly enjoyable romp. Its problem is that it is a little too safe, and the novel does what a fairy tale should do best – offering heaps of menace.

Like all good fairy tales Stardust is built upon a task with all the odds piled up against it. Here, a young man sets out to find a shooting star on the promise of love by a young woman. He sets out on an unlikely quest, leaving behind his home of Wall to cross into the weird and dangerous Faerie world, meeting an extraordinary array of characters all with quests of their own. His adventures end with a rather satisfying change of fortune.

The Faerie world of Stardust is an excellent companion piece to Susanna Clark’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell and The Ladies of Grace Adieu. Like Gaiman, Clark can create a wonderful sense of danger in her imaginary world. Gaiman does this brilliantly at the start of the book with an innocent seeming fair, innocent at least until you have a closer look at the stalls, where one – alarmingly – trades in eyes. Like Clark, Gaiman keeps this unsettling theme running through his narrative, the world with odd rules and even odder consequences of apparently innocent actions. There is also a bizarre logic to the rules of Faerie that keeps his fantasy firmly rooted to the familiar world; Stardust is a well constructed and logical piece.

Although Stardust might appear attractive to children, there are moments that tear it away from children’s fiction – becoming just a little too adult, although this is what ultimately makes the novel far superior to its cinema version. One reservation I have is in the novel’s brevity; there just seems so much room for Gaiman to explore, and so much appears left out or truncated. For example many of the best characters, such as Lord Primus, are never fully developed. Stardust was published in 1999, and Clark later took the lead with Mr Norrell, a very lengthy and complex work which took Faerie to another level entirely.

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Coraline

Sunday May 17, 2009 in 2009 cinema | neil gaiman

It’s official. The beauty of Neil Gaiman’s imagination has at last been realised in Coraline. The film is visually stunning, witty and most of all strangely moving; I haven’t enjoyed a film for children this much in a long time.

What worried me was that the young audience I was part of were not so appreciative. This isn’t a film for the very young, and maybe not even for the impatient adult (as I left the cinema I overheard a child asking her mother what long winded meant). Although only 100 minutes in length Coraline did appear as quite long (I think animated films are just more exhausting), and the ten year old film critic that accompanied me appeared oddly deflated. Perhaps it was the element of scare in the movie. Perhaps I had built it up too much. Perhaps Neil Gaiman is a matter of acquired taste.

still from Coraline

But I loved it. Coraline is visually breathtaking, perhaps the best animated film I have ever seen. It isn’t just the level of technology; I found the effects weren’t just there to be showy and always complimented the story perfectly. Because Coraline is essentially a fairy tale, there’s a fairy tale logic to everything that happens. It’s very tight, and for all my scrutiny I could find no holes in the plot. Director Henry Selick (responsible for the vaguely similar James and the Giant Peach) does a very accomplished job. Probably both in 2D and 3D – the 3D version of the film we saw today doesn’t, I suspect, add too much. It’s just a great experience without the extra bells and whistles.

Those familiar with Gaiman’s work will already know the story of Coraline. A girl who briefly escapes her dull new home, where her parents spend most of their waking hours with their backs turned, to visit a half dreamlike alternative world where her mum and dad appear exciting and, most importantly, interested in her. Appear is the key world here, as the people in this “other” world have buttons for eyes. Something isn’t quite right because, quite rightly, buttons for eyes are the stuff of nightmares.

So unfolds the brilliant fairy tale. The animation realises it superbly, from button shadows covering the moon, to performing mice, a very wise cat and an eerie tunnel between the two worlds (pictured) that brought back the worst memories of Hellraiser from the corners of my memory. Best of all is how Coraline slowly realises that horror is around her and that she must act. Dakota Fanning (from Charlotte’s Web) is fantastic in the role, totally believable throughout. As I’ve said, it’s also moving; especially the scene when Coraline loses her real mum and dad and creates her own pair of button parents to prop beside her in the empty double bed.

The rest of the cast are also wonderful. Teri Hatcher is very impressive as both of Coraline’s mothers, Ian McShane plays an eccentric neighbour and Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders turn up as two rather odd sisters to provide some humour. Unlike many animated films, however, Coraline never knowingly assumes it can go over young heads, although the trade off I suspect is the very young, who just aren’t ready yet for this sort of sophistication. Unwittingly, this film may be just too advanced for much of its intended audience.

My pals on Twitter will already know that I’ve given this a nine out of ten. I’m sticking with that, but I feel that there was so much in this film that I need to see it again. It’s so lovingly made, and that’s a rarity these days in children’s cinema. This is quality, real quality. So hats off to this film, and even a bow; the best film I’ve seen this year.

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Road to Neverwhere

Thursday November 6, 2008 in books read 2008 | neil gaiman

‘Young man’, he said, ‘understand this: there are two Londons. There’s London Above – that’s where you lived – and then there’s London Below – the Underside – inhabited by the people who fell through the cracks in the world. Now you’re one of them.’

Those bored with Neil Gaiman reviews look away now! Neverwhere is Gaiman’s novel based on the tv series written for the BBC in the mid-90s. But more than a simple tv tie-in, this is a fuller and deeper reworking, allowing Gaiman, as he reveals in his introduction, to fully explore ideas restricted by BBC time and budget. I’m not bored with Gaiman just yet, and I really enjoyed this novel. It creates an eerie yet fascinating underbelly to London, a flipside to the city that’s a dangerous tail to the comparitively safe head of the capital city we know. Into it slips Richard Mayhew, falling from his dull and uneventful office life and through the cracks deep into this world.

Neil Gaiman: Neverwhere

Gaiman manages to span the bridge between both his novels and stories for children and for adults. There’s the rich imagination always found in his shorter fiction coupled with his often somewhat darker side, although Neverwhere is much closer to the more mainstream Anansi Boys than say the ultimate darkfest that’s American Gods. As you would expect, the book is full of memorable characters. Take for example Mr Crump and Mr Valdemar, a double act of vicious killers who always claim their prey. Then there is the enchanting but equally dangerous Velvets, Goth-like temptresses who’ll literally suck the life out of you, and a wealth of enigmatic female characters including protector and protected Hunter and Door. In fact Gaiman succeeds in creating stronger females than males; whilst Crump and Valdemar are fun they are simply the stuff of nightmare – the girls are far more rounded and he’s content to get more mileage out of them.

Gaiman also creates vividly memorable situations; the shifting market in this mirror world, the gap (“mind the gap” comes the familiar warning at underground stations, although this is a gap that really bites), the king and his courtiers living on a tube carriage, a bridge where those who cross risk their lives and, in the best storytelling tradition, Mayhew’s own particular initiation through a deathly task that no-one has ever completed before…

So as I’ve said, I enjoyed it very much, and probably the only thing that irked me was Gaiman’s insistence on pleasing an international audience, so London’s inhabitants shop in stores and he feels compelled to explain the most obvious of London’s landmarks, for example Oxford Street. But I forgive him, and I also admire him for not falling into the sequel trap, where lesser authors would have easily wallowed in an entire Neverwhere series.

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