Review No.118 – Talon

Talon – Janet Lee Carey

Faber and Faber, 2007

Rosalind is torn between the promise of a prophecy and the shame of a curse – she is the princess prophesied to bring peace and glory to her long-estranged branch of the Pendragon dynasty, yet all her life has been bound by the secret of a terrible birthmark that would see her burned as a witch were it ever to become known. As the ambitions of her mother become ever more unyielding and her future increasingly uncertain, Rosalind becomes determined to shed her curse. But the words of prophecies are never quite what they seem…

This book was something of a mystery. Neither my library’s catalogue nor Goodreads had a single summary or review of it, so my only preconception was formed from the blurb, which was very misleading and gave away half the plot. The book was written in a medieval style that was reasonably consistent, with some interesting ideas and a very complicated, intriguing character in Rosalind’s mother. It did feel very aimless though – I didn’t feel like it really got moving until two thirds of the way through – and the love story was completely unconvincing. It would have been improved by more dragons. This review will be cross-posted at Goodreads, so next time someone goes looking they’ll have an answer.

UPDATE: Well, that’s peculiar – last time I checked there were no reviews, now there are a few hundred odd. Either the universe is messing with me or there was something very wrong with my access to Goodreads at the time. I’m posting the review anyway and hope it is not similarly devoured.

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.68 – The Maiden Without Hands

In this Grimm fairy tale, a miller falls on hard times, his resources dwindling until all he has left is the mill and the apple tree that grows behind it. With a wife and daughter to support, he takes to cutting wood in the forest nearby, and one day while he’s working a stranger appears at his side. “There’s no reason you have to torture yourself by cutting wood,” the old man wheedles. “I’ll make you rich if you promise to give me what’s behind your mill.”

What’s an apple tree to untold riches? The miller agrees on the spot. In writing. This is not a clever man we are dealing with here. Promising to return in three years time to collect his side of the bargain, the stranger departs, and the miller goes home to tell his wife of their good fortune. Turns out, she already knows. “Tell me, miller, how did all this wealth suddenly get into our house?” All the chests and boxes of in the mill have been magically filled and she is rightfully suspicious about it. When the miller explains, her fear turns to dread. It wasn’t an old man, it was the devil – and it’s not the apple tree he has claimed, either. It is their daughter, who was sweeping behind the mill when the contract was signed.

So it’s a terrible mistake, but an understandable one. When the devil shows up to collect three years later, the girl washes herself scrupulously clean and takes refuge inside a chalk circle that he cannot cross. When they say cleanliness is next to godliness, they really mean it. Furiously, the devil orders that water be kept from her so that she cannot wash, but her tears bathe her hands and still he can’t touch her. Her father, however, can. “Chop off her hands,” the devil tells him. “If you don’t do it, you’re mine, and I’ll come and get you myself!”

And he does it. Not only does he mutilate his own daughter to save himself, he does it knowing full well she’s to be taken by the actual devil as a direct consequence. But her tears fall so fast that the stumps, too, are washed clean, and the devil loses all claim to her. Her father tries to atone for what he’s done by promising her wealth and security, paid for with the blood money, but she refuses to stay and sets off into the world alone.

I approve of the sentiment, not the execution; she is more or less helpless and after a long day walking nowhere she finds herself hungry, exhausted and miserable outside a royal orchard. The fruit is torturously close, on the other side of a moat. Luckily for her, all that piety and suffering has paid off – when she falls to her knees praying, an angel shows up and parts the waters so that she can cross to the fruit trees. Could have shown up a little earlier, angel! Just saying!

The miller’s daughter eats a pear direct from the branch and hides in the bushes to sleep, unaware she has been observed by a gardener and mistaken for a spirit. When this tale is brought to the ear of the king, he decides to see the mysterious thief for himself and brings along a priest for a night’s stakeout in the orchard. Sure enough, the girl returns and the priest rises from hiding to question her. “I’m not a spirit,” she explains, “but a poor creature forsaken by everyone except God.” “You may be forsaken by the whole world,” exclaims the lovestruck king, “but I shall not forsake you.”

Aww. You’re a king, sweetie, the stats are against you, but it’s a nice thought.

So he takes her home to the palace and marries her. He even has a pair of silver hands crafted to replace the ones chopped off by her cowardly father. After a year of marriage, however, war breaks out. Placing her under the care of his mother, he rides away.

Not long afterwards, the girl gives birth to their first child. The king’s mother writes to tell him he has a son, but the devil’s not done messing up the girl’s life yet; he intercepts the message, so that by the time it reaches the king it tells him the young queen has given birth to a changeling. The king is of course upset, but his answering instructions are that the queen and her child should be cared for and protected. He really did mean that thing about not forsaking her! That isn’t at all the reaction the devil wanted, so he switches messages again. The reply the king’s mother receives commands her to kill his wife and child.

To her credit, she doesn’t believe that for a minute and sends more messages to her son in the hope of different orders. Instead, she is told to not only kill them, but keep the girl’s tongue and eyes as proof. Accepting that her son has turned into a murderous lunatic, the old queen acts to protect her daughter-in-law and grandchild as best she can, putting away the tongue and eyes of a doe instead and sending the young queen out into the world with her boy strapped to her back.

The devil has his forgery scheme, but the queen has an angel on side, who reappears in her life in this hour of need and leads her to a free lodging house run by a second angel and part-time wet-nurse who is delighted to look after both queen and child for as long as necessary. Good thing too. Over the course of seven years, probably as the result of prolonged celestial contact, the girl’s hands grow back like fingernails or something. As exiles go, this is pretty nice.

The king, on the other hand, comes back from almost a decade at war expecting to see his wife and child and is instead met with the righteous rage of his disillusioned mother. When she sees that he is really distraught, though, she tells him that the young queen is still alive. Probably. “I shall go as far as the sky is blue, without eating or drinking, until I find my dear wife and child,” the king declares. “That is, unless they have been killed or died of hunger in the meantime.”

Oh dear, I really don’t think you’ve thought this through?

Well, his search takes SEVEN MORE YEARS, and he doesn’t eat or drink at all during this time, but apparently the will of God is enough to keep him alive, though not enough to give him directions. Eventually he stumbles across the cottage where the queen, her son and the lodging-house angel of mercy have been living for the past fourteen years. The young prince is half-grown and known by the name of Sorrowful. When she thinks the king is asleep, the queen takes Sorrowful to see him and tries to explain their relationship. During the boy’s questioning, the king wakes. He cannot be sure at first that the woman in front of him is really his wife – the thing with the hands is a tad peculiar, after all – but hey, he’s survived on guilt alone for seven years, so whatever. They all go home to live with his mother, the king and queen marry again, and presumably somebody gets that poor kid some counselling.

Well, that makes a change. For once, the king is not only not responsible for the disasters that befall his family, he actively seeks to remedy them. This is a macabrely funny story with a memorable cast of characters; an angel who runs a lodging-house in the middle of nowhere, the devil so desperate for something to do that he resorts to petty forgery, and the excellent mother in law who has both feet squarely on the side of justice. I read this story expecting to be outraged, but it actually gives the female characters a better fate than many others I could name.

 

“You Watch Us Run” – 50 Years of Doctor Who

The universe is big. It’s vast and complicated and ridiculous. And sometimes, very rarely, impossible things just happen and we call them miracles.

– Doctor Who, ‘The Pandorica Opens’

Not many television programmes have the stamina to still be going strong fifty years after they first screened, but then not many have the spectrum allowed by Doctor Who. This is a show that spans all of time and space, equally at home on alien planets as it is on a London housing estate; a show that can change its lead actor eleven times and he’s still the same character. Change is the key to Doctor Who’s success, and change it most certainly has.

When the first episode screened on the 23rd of November, 1963, it introduced us to an enigma: a cantankerous old man, clearly not of this world but unable to return to his true home, intellectually brilliant, morally ambiguous, wrapped up within layers of distrust and cynicism. He had no especial fondness for Earth. At times, he seemed to actively dislike it. The only reason he came there in the first place was as a favour to his granddaughter. He took a long time to warm to his companions, frequently insulting them, and while he did miss them when they left, he was in no hurry to invite anyone else aboard. This was an era of stowaways, orphans and accidental intruders. Once a part of the TARDIS crew, your odds of getting home again were almost non-existent. For all the Doctor’s bluff, it was obvious he didn’t really know how to manage the TARDIS. He wouldn’t even admit it was more than a machine.

A lot can happen in fifty years.

In 2013, the Doctor has never been more alien and yet never more human. We know now that he is a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey, that he has two hearts and is more than a thousand years old, that when he dies he regenerates into a brand new body. His TARDIS is so, so much more than a machine – and more often than not she’s the one managing him.

These days, companions are welcomed aboard with open arms. Joining the TARDIS doesn’t just mean exploring other times and planets, you get a key of your own and a complementary mobile phone upgrade. Whereas companions of the classic era had to leave their old lives behind, or struggle constantly to reclaim them – think Barbara and Ian’s dogged quest to return to 1960s Earth, and Tegan’s roundabout arrival at Heathrow Airport – New Who companions deal with a much messier juxtaposition. They have families and jobs and relationships outside the TARDIS, and those responsibilities don’t go away just because the world needs saving every other day.

That’s a balance only made possible because the Doctor has learned to compromise with the TARDIS. In the past it was a case of hope for the best and bluff like mad (“we’ll go that way and we’ll call it north!”) – now, the Doctor has a lot more control over where and when he goes, though if he wants a beach it’s almost inevitable he’ll end up somewhere else. The TARDIS doesn’t do beaches.

The companions aren’t the only ones feeling the consequences of this newfound flexibility. The past three Doctors have all been guardian figures to their friends, held accountable for all failures, traumas and deaths. Amy summed up this attitude when, thinking she’d lost Rory, she turned on the Doctor demanding “what’s the point of you?” Because it’s not enough he be a friend, helping out here and there as he can. He has to fix EVERYTHING.

That’s an exceptionally unhealthy set up for any friendship. Also, it’s not sustainable. The Doctor has seen the rise and fall of countless civilisations – he has outlived almost everyone he’s ever known, and to expect that not to affect the way he relates to people is absurd. Why is he expected to keep up with all of his companions after they leave the TARDIS? Why is he condemned for moving on, when that’s probably the only thing that’s kept him sane? His perspective must inherently be different from your average human being, and this is not a bad thing. It’s all right he’s not human! It’s all right he isn’t always 100%, unequivocally on our side! When Harriet Jones, in ‘The Christmas Invasion’, commits an act of genocide in order to safeguard Earth, she doesn’t feel she has a choice. And she’s right. The Doctor may not always be there when he’s needed. But it raises the question, for him: what’s the point of his helping if that’s the result? It’s a moment when nobody can be right. I’d love to see New Who acknowledge more of those moments.

I would also like to see a change in the narrative treatment of the Doctor’s friends. Classic era companions had a right to resentment; they rarely got the option of stepping off the TARDIS rollercoaster, and sometimes didn’t even choose to come along in the first place. In New Who, however, every second episode seems to take place on 21st century Earth. If a companion wants to leave, all they have to do is say so. They are all legal adults. They all have responsibility over their own decisions. To pretend otherwise, as many recent storylines have done, is not only undermining the Doctor’s character, it’s a denial of his companions’ personal agency. That does no one any favours.

So what is it exactly that I want? I’d like the Doctor to start calling people on their unrealistic expectations. I’d like to see him being unashamedly alien again. Over the decades, his companions have been overwhelmingly straight white British girls in their late teens and early twenties, and while this definitely does not make them all alike – each is an individual to be taken on her own merits – there’s a homogeneity there that needs challenging. I want to see some more diversity. I want more companions of colour, of alternate sexualities; companions from the past and the future. I want children growing up in the TARDIS and middle-aged adventurers running off to explore space and time. What about companions with disabilities? How would that work? I’d love to find out.

I want ALIENS. Not aliens being at the root of all things, which is what we’ve got right now and a pattern I’m getting rather tired of – humans are quite capable of creating killer robots and blowing up the planet on their own! – but aliens as official companions. It wouldn’t even be that hard; we have the glorious handwavery of perception filters and Shimmers, now, so why not?

Because that, to me, is the question that has always been at the heart of this show. Not who, but why. Why not? Why shouldn’t a sun burn cold? Why shouldn’t a spaceship look like a police telephone box? Why not run away with a Time Lord?

I have been watching Doctor Who for most of my life, so to celebrate the 50th anniversary, I  spent eleven months watching and reviewing an episode from each Doctor’s era, and if there’s anything it’s made me realise, it’s how much I love this show. It’s an integral part of my cultural DNA, as it is for so many people of so many different ages. It revels in the strange, the eccentric, the absurd and the fantastical. It challenges and charms. It is a show that can be about really anything at all. Next stop, everywhere.

We need a show that can do that. I think we always will.

You watch us run.

Reviewing Who – The Eleventh Hour

Doctor: Matt Smith

Companion: Karen Gillan

Script writer: Steven Moffat

Producer: Tracie Simpson and Nikki Wibbs

Executive producers: Steven Moffat, Piers Wenger and Beth Willis

Director: Adam Smith

Originally aired: 3rd April 2010

This is how you do not fly a TARDIS: during mid-regeneration, while it is on fire, while you are hanging onto the door frame for dear life, or all of the above. While the eleventh Doctor hurtles through the sky above London, narrowly avoiding Big Ben (thank you, show. Breaking it once was dramatic; breaking it twice would just be careless), a little girl called Amelia Pond is praying to Santa Claus. She needs a policeman to come fix the crack in her bedroom wall.

Right on cue, a police public call box crash lands in her garden.

Hurrying outside with a torch to investigate, she is almost impaled when a grappling hook comes flying out of the box. The Doctor hauls himself from the depths of the TARDIS, dripping wet and wild-eyed. “Can I have an apple?” is the first thing he says to her. “All I can think about. Apples!” Then he falls off the box and coughs gold light.

This is maybe not the sort of policeman Amelia had in mind, but he’ll do. She brings him inside and politely offers him an apple. He takes one bite but spits it out, demanding yoghurt instead, only to spit that out as well. He’s staggering about looking decidedly unwell so Amelia humours him with more offers of food, despite his proving to possess the worst table manners ever. Eventually he dives into the fridge for himself, emerging with a packet of fish fingers and a bowl of custard.

The food helps to stabilise him. It strikes him that what with crashing into the garden shed and throwing plates of unwanted food, they should have woken up Amelia’s parents by now. She explains shortly that she has no parents, only an aunt, who is out. The Doctor studies his new friend thoughtfully. “You’re not scared of anything! A box falls out of the sky, man falls out of the box, man eats fish custard – and look at you! Just sitting there. You know what I think?…Must be a hell of a scary crack in your wall.”

Oh, it is. If you knocked the wall down, the crack would remain, because it isn’t the wall that is cracked; it’s reality. When the Doctor leans close to listen, he hears a voice repeating the same words over and over. “Prisoner Zero has escaped.” On the other side of the crack, there is a prison, and they’ve lost a prisoner.

Grabbing Amelia’s hand to pull her behind him, the Doctor sonicks the crack wide open, hoping the forces will invert and it will seal itself. Through the gap, they see a vast eyeball descend to stare through. It zaps a message into the Doctor’s psychic paper just before the crack collapses: Prisoner Zero has escaped.

The Doctor has a very bad feeling about this. Something is wrong – something at the corner of his eye…

At that moment, however, the TARDIS cloister bell begins to peal. That’s not a good sign – the engines are destabilised and he needs to make a quick hop through time to stabilise them. Amelia wants to come, but the TARDIS is a disaster zone right now so the Doctor, who has his own version of the word ‘responsible’, promises to return. “Give me five minutes,” he assures her, and vanishes in a rush of air and wheezing engines. Stars in her eyes, Amelia runs to pack.

Inside the house, something is watching her.

When the Doctor rematerialises, his first warning is the sunlight: it’s morning. He has obviously been a bit longer than five minutes. He sonicks his way inside, calling Amelia’s name, and is met with a cricket bat to the back of the head.

Meanwhile, in the coma ward of the local hospital, nurse Rory Williams is trying to explain to his unnerved superior how a whole room full of patients can speak – let alone all speak at the same time. When they call out, “Doctor”, he thinks they mean her, but there’s someone else who uses that title in town…

And he’s waking up about now with a very sore head. His sonic screwdriver is missing, his wrist is handcuffed to a heater, and a young woman in a slightly unprofessional police uniform is standing over him. She is the one who whacked him with the bat and from the look on her face, she’d rather like to do it again. None of these things are a priority for the Doctor; he wants to see Amelia, a name that visibly disconcerts his captor. She tells him that Amelia Pond has not lived here for six months, that she lives here now.

And she’s not the only one. Something came through the crack that night, something that has hidden itself in plain sight, behind the protective shield of a perception filter. You have to know you’re looking for it to see it at all. At the corner of your eye…

The girl looks. There is a door behind her, a door she has never seen before. The Doctor tells her not to open it, which of course she does, and then to get out straight away, which of course she doesn’t. She finds his sonic screwdriver on a table in there and picks it up, but still she lingers, sure she’s being watched. The Doctor warns her not to look, too late. She turns fast and sees her secretive tenant for the first time – a silvery, serpentine creature with way too many teeth.

This is the point when she runs, taking the Doctor’s stolen sonic with her. “Will that door hold it?” she asks, backing up against the wall beside the heater. “Yeah, of course,” the Doctor retorts, trying and failing to sonic open his handcuffs. His screwdriver is on the blink. “It’s an interdimensional multiform from outer space, they’re all terrified of wood!”

Just to top off the situation, the girl confesses she’s not a policewoman at all – she is in fact a kissogram, and this was the best costume she had for tackling intruders.

The door smashes open. A man and a dog emerge. One is barking, but not the one you might expect; this particular multiform is not good at managing its mouths. Probably all those teeth don’t help. The Doctor is on full manic babble, trying to come up with a reason why it shouldn’t kill them on the spot, when a voice booms down from the heavens. “Prisoner Zero will vacate the human residence or the human residence will be incinerated.”

On the plus side: good distraction! On the negative: INCINERATION. The Doctor finally manages to get his sonic working, freeing himself from the heater, and races outside, only to be distracted himself by the garden shed. He accidentally demolished the last one, so how can there be another that’s had time to get so old? He turns on the policewoman/ kissogram/ wielder of cricket bats in indignant astonishment.

DOCTOR: Why did you say six months?

AMELIA: Why did you say five minutes?

Yep, this is Amelia, twelve years and four psychiatrists later. She has a few issues. The Doctor gapes at her, appalled; as far as he’s concerned, he was only five minutes and somehow Amelia the unflappable little girl has turned into Amy, an angry, leggy redhead with a penchant for short skirts.

But they have bigger problems. Every device within earshot, from a jogger’s iPod to an ice-cream man’s speakers, is blasting the same message: Prisoner Zero will vacate the human residence or the human residence will be incinerated. It hits the Doctor that this message may not mean what it first appears. To confirm his theory, he bounds into a nearby house and grabs the resident old lady’s TV remote, flipping from channel to channel. Every one shows a vast eyeball, and plays the same message.

It’s not Amy’s house they’re threatening to blow up, it’s her PLANET.

The Doctor makes the sort of calculations you only know if you’ve actually seen a planet get incinerated before and announces to his audience – Amy, the old lady and her baffled grandson – that they have about twenty minutes before Prisoner Zero’s erstwhile gaolers destroy Earth. Racing back out into the street, he assesses the village of Leadworth. No airport. No nuclear power station. There is a post office; it’s shut. This is not an ideal location from which to save the world.

Above his head, the first stage of destruction is already taking place. A force field spreads across the sky, sealing off the atmosphere and leaving the sun an unnatural orange. The good people of Leadworth respond by meandering into the park with their camera phones. One of them, however, is not aiming his phone at the sky. It’s Rory, and he’s more interested photographing the man with a dog who is watching events unravel from the street. The Doctor is about to leap into action, the beginnings of a plan taking shape, but Amy has had enough. She grabs his tie and slams it into the door of the nearest car, ordering its nervous owner to go have coffee while she sorts out whether she wants to help her captive Time Lord or deny all evidence of his existence.

He puts an apple in her hand. She gave it to him that night, five minutes ago to him, twelve years to her, the night he crashed into her garden babbling about apples. “Just believe me for twenty minutes,” he pleads. She glares at the apple, then at him, searching his eyes.

She lets him go.

Step one of the plan: accost Rory, snatch his phone. Amy introduces him to the Doctor as ‘a friend’; “boyfriend,” Rory tries to add, but the Doctor isn’t listening. The phone is full of photographic proof that coma patients are walking the streets of Leadworth, a situation hospital management have refused to investigate. The thing is, these people are all disguises for the same person. They are not even in comas. Prisoner Zero has established a psychic link with each one, allowing itself to use their forms. If it took its real form, its gaolers would detect it immediately. For that matter, their scans would detect any sign of extraterrestrial life. That was how they tracked the Doctor here, after all; they are only late because he is.

And what says extraterrestrial louder than a sonic screwdriver?

It’s a plan that really should work. Unfortunately, the screwdriver doesn’t. It explodes into sparks, Prisoner Zero melts down the drain and the Doctor to come up with a new idea. He sends Amy and Rory off to check out the hospital and returns to the old lady’s house to co-opt her grandson Jeff’s laptop, crash an emergency internet conference of experts and prove his cleverness credentials with outrageous genius and also by not letting anyone else get a word in edgewise. Within a matter of minutes he’s whipped up a computer virus and whizzed off, leaving the actual explaining to Jeff.

Amy and Rory, meanwhile, have arrived to find the hospital in chaos. Impersonating a policewoman, Amy manages to get herself and Rory into the restricted area where whatever happened, happened and in a wreckage-strewn corridor they meet a woman with twin daughters who babbles anxiously…in a little girl’s voice.

Wrong mouths again.

Amy and Rory run. They barricade themselves inside the coma ward, but that doesn’t hold Prisoner Zero for long. The Doctor proves he is capable of the odd incidence of excellent timing by arriving in a borrowed fire engine, smashing the ladder through the ward window and scrambling up to join the party. Well, take it over, actually. He tells Prisoner Zero to either take its true form or open another crack and escape that way. But Zero did not open the crack, only found it, and knows full well its gaolers, the Atraxi, will not risk another jailbreak. This time the sentence will be execution. “If I am to die, let there be fire.”

The clock above the door quietly clicks over. The Doctor’s virus has been sent out, and its effect is very simple: all numbers turn to zeroes. It takes the Atraxi no time at all to track that message back to Rory’s phone, which just happens to be full of photos of all Zero’s forms…The Doctor is all set to celebrate the first success of a brand new regeneration when behind him, Amy collapses. Zero has one last card left to play. The Doctor is facing himself, though it takes Rory to point that out; this new face hasn’t been near any mirrors yet.

DOCTOR: Why me, though? You’re linked with her. Why are you copying me?

ZERO: I’m not. (From behind the duplicate, little Amy emerges, seven years old and full of accusation). Poor Amy Pond. Still such a child inside, dreaming of the magic Doctor she knows will return to save her. What a disappointment you’ve been.

DOCTOR: (pause) No, she’s dreaming about me because she can hear me.

And if she can dream about him, she can dream about something else – something she saw in the hidden room of her house. Prisoner Zero is forced into its own snakelike shape and the Atraxi, incompetent in many other ways, are fast enough to notice that. A beam of light descends to secure and remove the prisoner. The force field dissolves, Amy wakes up, birds begin to sing. The world is officially saved!

But the Doctor’s not done yet. He rings up the Atraxi spacecraft and orders them to come straight back. “Did you think no one was watching?” Heading for a rendezvous on the roof, he detours into a changing room to pick out some new clothes. To Rory’s excruciating embarrassment, he then proceeds to strip.

Amy doesn’t mind so much.

Emerging onto the roof several minutes later, they are confronted by a vast eyeball set within a hovering spacecraft. “You are not of this world,” the Atraxi gaoler points out. “No,” the Doctor concedes, trying on ties, “but I’ve put a lot of work into it.” This world has been invaded many times. Who held back the tide? Who stands between the Earth and all those who would take it away? The Atraxi’s scanner swims with images of ten men who are all the same man, and the Doctor steps through it with a smile on his face and a bow tie around his neck.

“Basically,” he says quietly, “run.”

The Atraxi can’t run; no legs. It flies instead with all possible speed. Amy and Rory are still staring after it when the TARDIS key materialises in the Doctor’s hand. He’s already gone by the time Amy turns around, and she arrives in her garden just in time to see the TARDIS disappearing.

Two years later, she sits bolt upright in bed to a very familiar sound. She runs downstairs in her dressing gown and sees the Doctor waiting in the dark, leaning against his blue box, looking quite pleased with himself. He couldn’t resist giving his remodelled old girl a quick trip, he explains, but she’s all ready for the big stuff now. Is Amy? “I grew up,” she retorts. The Doctor beams. “Don’t worry. I can fix that.”

He snaps his fingers. The TARDIS doors fly open, revealing a glowing new interior spangled with every kind of shiny thingamabob. It even has a hatstand! And a new screwdriver! This is Amy’s childhood dream, and it’s terrifying to finally touch it.

AMY: There’s a whole world in here, just like you said. It’s all true. I thought – well, I started to think maybe you were just, like, a mad man with a box.

DOCTOR: Amy Pond, there’s something you’d better understand about me because it’s important, and one day your life may depend upon it. I am definitely a mad man with a box. Goodbye, Leadworth! Hello everything!

The Verdict: I had become a little disenchanted with Doctor Who towards the end of David Tennant’s run. Nothing drastically dreadful, and nothing to do with Tennant himself – it had simply gone too far for my taste. The Master had become a maniac, the Doctor a lonely god. The Time Lords had been tossed out of the universe, AGAIN. What with one thing and another, I was not at my most fannish.

Then came ‘The Eleventh Hour’.

This episode is pure magic from start to finish, and if you think I quoted too many lines, that is what restraint looks like because I wanted to quote them all. Matt Smith’s Doctor is immediately different from Tennant’s; he is younger and older at the same time, argumentative and diffident and ridiculous. He falls over things a lot. He’s adorable.

And AMY. Some people say bad things about Amy; they don’t like her short skirts or her job or the way she hits on the Doctor (spoilers!). Ignore these people. Amy wears short skirts because with legs like that, why the hell wouldn’t you; her job may not be a dream career, but it allows her to be as erratic as she wants; and she hits on the Doctor because he’s amazing and he’s there. He’s her hero, her imaginary magician, her crush, her best friend. She loves him, and over time that love takes different forms, but it never goes away, and it doesn’t mean she loves Rory any the less – in fact, in the end, it means she loves him more. Amy is proof that growing up doesn’t have to mean letting go of the things you love most. It’s also wonderful to see how as this season goes on Rory’s relationship with the Doctor goes from ‘tolerated associate of the real companion’ to a beloved friend in his own right.

I think what happened with them and River was a disastrous mess. I hated the whole pregnancy and abduction plot in season 6. Steven Moffat gets it really wrong sometimes, but when he’s at his best he’s remarkable and it’s thanks to him we got to know two of the best companions ever.

So that’s…it, I suppose. Only of course it’s not. Matt Smith might be on his way out, and I will miss him so very much, but there’s a new Doctor waiting in the wings and so many stories left to tell. Today, in about half an hour’s time, the next chapter will arrive on my TV screen.

I can’t wait.

The Mighty Jane Foster and other Asgardian legends

So I went to see Thor: The Dark World yesterday. I know virtually nil about comics but who doesn’t like a superhero movie and anyway NORSE MYTHOLOGY, THERE IS NORSE MYTHOLOGY ON THE BIG SCREEN. I watched the prologue of the first movie bouncing up and down on my sofa shrieking ‘Frost giants! Frost giants!’ – obviously I expected to enjoy this one. What I did not expect was to find myself writing a post about it the next day. But you see, I went into that cinema and saw an action film that got it right.

Beware: there are spoilers for pretty much everything.

The premise of the film does not include frost giants, sadly, but in their place as villains of the story are the ancient Dark Elves, who predate the current universe and seek to eradicate the taint of light with an almost infinitely powerful force called the Aether. Thwarted by the armies of Asgard, they have waited a long time for their chance. They get it when human scientist Jane Foster falls through a crack in reality to the place where the Aether was hidden so long ago. Knowing only that she is in danger, Thor returns to Earth to find her and gets there in time to see the Aether blast away the policemen who try to arrest her. It’s not just Jane who is in trouble. It’s everybody.

Let’s start with Jane. I love Jane Foster. I love that the woman Thor fell for is a brilliant scientist, that she has a passion completely separate from him and that this is not condemned by the narrative. I love that when she gets to Asgard she’s trying to figure out how everything works, and she guesses right, and that Thor thinks this is wonderful. After he left her in New Mexico, Jane tried to find him with science; it’s implied she only gave up after she heard about his very visible presence in New York and realised he’d been back to Earth without even bothering to make a phone call.

So what does Jane do? She tries dating again. And the guy she picks is actually really nice. Of course, their first date is interrupted by the joint misbehaviour of Jane’s friend Darcy and interdimensional physics, and then her Norse god love interest returns to apologise for his lengthy absence from her life, so a second date was never on the cards. But it could have been. And she’d have been okay.

I can’t tell you how happy that makes me.

Also, Darcy! Darcy, Jane’s snarky best friend, who hires interns behind her back and takes other people’s shoes to perform inappropriate scientific experiments! Not only do their conversations mean The Dark World passes the Bechdel test with ease, they are witty and intelligent and establish a friendship that is another thing Jane has entirely independent of Thor. Darcy is not there simply to hold out tissues during an emotional scene or provide romantic conflict. She’s a person in her own right.

In fact, the biggest thing I love about this film is how it treats its female characters. From Frigga’s development into a multifaceted heroine (and frankly a better role model for her sons than Odin), to the eternally capable Sif, to random Asgardian doctors who didn’t HAVE to be female, they just were, there are a range of significant speaking roles for women in The Dark World. Sadly, none of the big parts were given to women of colour (I can’t be sure about minor roles without a rewatch), but having this many women and treating them this well is a big step in the right direction that will hopefully lead to even better things in the future.

Now to the male characters – I’d better start with Thor, as it is his movie. He’s had to cope with an awful lot over the past two years, what with his brother’s multiple betrayals, the destruction and subsequent rebuilding of the Bifrost, joining the Avengers as their honorary god, and dealing with the outbreak of war across the Nine Worlds. None of this leaves any time for visiting Jane, so he gets Heimdall to keep an eye on her from afar. That would be creepy and stalkerish if he didn’t so clearly have her wellbeing at the forefront of his mind. I still don’t know if I’m entirely happy with it, but in general Thor is very respectful of Jane’s boundaries. I think the best word to describe his behaviour is courtly. What’s more, he genuinely thinks she’s wonderful. He doesn’t ever patronise or second guess her. If she says a weird gizmo on a stick will save the world, he will charge forward armed with a gizmo on a stick. There’s a guy worth falling in love with!

One of the things that frustrated me about the original Thor movie was the way Odin’s dodgy actions went largely unchallenged. In the scene where Loki learns his true heritage, he makes one very telling statement: I am the monster parents tell their children about at night. Loki’s later genocide attempt makes a lot more sense when you place that in the context of his upbringing; Odin may preach peace now, but the frost giants have always been the enemy, the ‘monsters’, not really people at all. How can it be a bad thing if you rid the universe of the monsters?

Essentially, Thor copies what his father says, Loki what Odin does, and I think that’s what lies at the heart of Loki’s sense of betrayal. He doesn’t know what he wants to be any more. Thor suffers a similar realisation in The Dark World. He loves his father, but he doesn’t want to be like him.

Loki, meanwhile, is a whole godful of angst. I do not blame Thor in the slightest for being sick of him, but Odin’s solution – rot in a transparent prison cell surrounded by other people I hate and brood on your wrongs forever! – doesn’t really help Loki’s ever precarious mental state. That leaves Frigga as the only member of the family still trying to connect with him, and the only one he doesn’t want to hurt. Seeing him care so much about her, particularly the aftermath of his grief in the cell, brought back that labyrinthine complexity of character from the first movie. He’s so magnificently screwed up! But everything he does makes its own strange kind of sense. I particularly loved how adorably manic he was when freed from his cell, bounding along at Thor’s side playing silly tricks and forgetting they were meant to be sneaky. He even got the chance to do something heroic, though only he would follow that up by taking over Asgard in disguise. It’s kind of sweet – Loki’s version of sweet – that he uses his ill-gotten position to give Thor his blessing. Odin might not have been so understanding.

Who even knows what he’s done to Odin. And what he plans to do with all that power now he’s got it. Watch out, universe.

Visually, this is a gorgeous film, from beautiful costuming to the glorious spectacle of Asgard. (Did a single one of the main female characters wear high heels even once? I think not. Bonus points for sensible shoes!) The plot mostly works, and what doesn’t make sense is held together with good pacing and excellent acting. It’s intelligent. It makes emotional sense. It’s fun. The Ninth Doctor turns into an evil elf! Things blow up! Jane’s team get together after saving the world and eat breakfast cereal!

I want more action movies like this.

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.67 – East o’ the Sun, West o’ the Moon

This telling of the Norwegian story comes from Angela Carter’s Book of Fairy Tales. A poverty-stricken father is visited one night by a white bear who offers to make him a rich man if only he gives up his youngest daughter. The father wins parenting points by going to his daughter with the offer instead of agreeing for her, but loses them all when she gives an unequivocal ‘no’ and he tells the bear to come back in a week for a different answer. Over the following days he works on her sense of family loyalty, eventually convincing her that going off with an inexplicable carnivore is actually a good idea. When the bear returns she goes with him obediently.

He has her climb on his back and for a long time they travel, until at last they come to a steep hill that opens at the bear’s knock and reveals a beautiful castle. The girl is given a bell and told to ring if there’s anything she requires; when she experiments, she finds herself transported to a luxurious bedroom, and lies down to sleep.

She is not, however, alone. In the darkness of the room a man comes to her and lies down beside her on the bed. He neither speaks nor touches her, and by dawn he is gone. Every night it is the same, while every day the girl is alone in the palatial rooms that are her gilded prison. She misses her family so badly that eventually the bear agrees to take her home for a visit, on one condition: she must not speak alone with her mother.

He brings her to a beautiful house – an upgrade purchased with her departure – and leaves her to be welcomed inside by her brothers and sisters. It’s an awkward visit. The girl doesn’t know how to explain her new life, or how to keep the bear’s secrets. This is her mother, for pity’s sake. At last the story comes out about the man who comes by darkness to her room, and naturally her mother is concerned. She sneaks her daughter a candle so that she can identify her secretive visitor, but warns her to be cautious of the dripping tallow. The girl hides the candle in her bodice.

When the bear comes to collect her, he guesses she broke their terms and tells her only ill luck will come of following her mother’s advice, but he’s so damn mysterious about it all that it’s hardly surprising when the girl doesn’t let that warning stop her. The man comes to her room that night as usual; she waits for him to fall asleep, then rises and lights her candle. What she finds in her bed is the most beautiful man she’s ever seen, and impetuously she stoops to kiss him. This is not a good idea for many reasons. Sure enough, the tallow of her candle drips on his shirt and the burn wakes him.

“What have you done?” he exclaims, horrified. It turns out that if she had only held out for one year, he would have been freed from the spell that keeps him a bear by day and a man by night. Now he must return to the wicked stepmother who trapped him this way in the first place, to marry her daughter in the castle that stands east o’ the sun and west o’ the moon.

Of course, if he had EXPLAINED HIMSELF, instead of dropping stupid hints, she wouldn’t have needed to resort to spying. I despise curses that punish girls for perfectly healthy curiosity by setting arbitrary standards by which they can only fail.

The next morning the girl wakes in a dark wood with only the rags she brought from home at her side. Her first reaction is to cry, as you might expect, but eventually she pulls herself together and sets off to find her prince. At length she comes to a crag and an old woman sitting underneath it, carelessly juggling a golden apple. The girl asks if she is on the right road to the castle east o’ the sun and west o’ the moon. The old woman knows of the prince and his stepmother, but not where the castle is to be found. Very kindly, she gives the girl a horse and and the golden apple and advises she ride on to her neighbour, who may know more. This is another old woman under another crag, who is in possession of a golden carding-comb. She does not, as it turns out, know any more, but she’s happy to donate her own horse and the comb to the cause of true love and the girl continues on her way to a third crag, where another old woman is spinning on a golden wheel. Breaking all the rules of the old lady spy network, she can’t give any better directions than her neighbours before her. Instead she gives the girl her spinning wheel and a new horse, and sends her off to ask the East Wind.

All this travelling is exhausting, but the girl persists. At last she reaches the house of the East Wind, and he doesn’t know either. To soften the blow, he offers to take her to the house of his brother the West Wind and inquire there. At least this time the journey is fast. From there she is shuffled to the South Wind, and from him to the North, who is a foul-tempered, loud-mouthed bully. The girl’s stamina is extraordinary, and she is finally rewarded when the North Wind admits he knows how to find the castle. She climbs on his back and they whirl away at a terrifying pace, across wild woods and stormy seas, coming in time to the fabled castle.

The girl has had a long time to come up with a plan; now she can put it into practice. The next morning she sits underneath a window and plays ostentatiously with the golden apple. The stepmother’s daughter, a princess with an remarkably lengthy nose, comes to watch and is so charmed by the pretty toy that she agrees to let the girl into her fiance’s room for the night. It’s all to no good, though, as the prince sleeps through all her efforts to rouse him. The girl tries again with the carding-comb, to the same result. Now all she has left is the spinning wheel. She knows it will be pointless trying to see her prince again, but what can she do except try?

Ah, and maybe it isn’t quite as hopeless as she thinks. The prince isn’t the only one to have been kidnapped; there are a pair of guests in the room beside his who have heard the girl’s tears and pleas, and they happen to mention it to him. He realises the princess has been drugging him and throws out the drink she gives him that night, so when the girl comes in expecting one last night’s fruitless watch, she finds her prince awake and waiting for her. What’s more, he’s come up with a plan of his own. Tomorrow is the day his stepmother has scheduled for the fake wedding, and he has every intention of thwarting her.

In the morning, he gives his terms. He wants to wear a very specific shirt to the wedding, but it is marked by three drops of tallow, and he has sworn to marry only the woman who can wash those away. The stepmother sees no reason not to agree. Instead of shrinking, however, the spots of tallow only grow. The princess tries, then the stepmother, then all their troll servants, until the shirt is a blackened greasy mess. The prince mocks their lack of laundry skills and calls in the girl to show them how it’s done. Well, the odds are stacked in her favour; no sooner has she dipped the shirt in the water than it’s restored to snowy cleanliness. The prince announces his love and his audience is so outraged that they all spontaneously burst. With that, the prince, the girl and all the other kidnapped guests strip the castle of its gold and silver and escape for their own happy endings.

Burst? Seriously, who came up with that ending? This story has much in common with the French fairy tale ‘Beauty and the Beast’, and even more so with ‘The Lady and the Lion’, but has a completely different vibe. The sexual tension between the heroine and her prince practically sizzles and nothing can match the evocative magic of those directions ‘east o’ the sun and west o’ the moon’. I don’t care if everybody there is evil, I want to move in right now and invite all the magic old ladies to tell me their life stories.

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.66 – Thumbykin

This Hans Christian Andersen story begins with casual magic and happily granted wishes, which means disaster must be soon to follow. A lonely woman goes to a witch for advice on how to obtain a child of her own, and the witch is all, “Nothing easier!” On the payment of twelve shillings, the woman is provided with a kernel that sprouts into a beautiful red and yellow bud, and when she kisses it, the petals unfurl to reveal a tiny girl at the heart of the flower. The witch misinterpreted what her customer meant when she asked for a ‘little child’ of her own, but the woman is too delighted with her adoptive daughter to care. She names her Thumbykin.

And it turns out she’s a great mum. She makes a bed out flower petals for her little girl, and a tulip leaf boat to be paddled about in a dish of water. Thumbykin spends her days singing and happily messing about in her miniature lake. Dream childhood! Which is, like I said before, a sure presentiment for tragedy in an Andersen fairy tale. Sure enough, one night a toad creeps in through the window and kidnaps the girl to be a wife for her son. Afraid Thumbykin will escape before the marriage can take place, the toad then strands her on a lilypad that is, to Thumbykin, the size of an island. Let me say it again, let me say it loud: ABDUCTION IS NOT A PROPOSAL.

Thumbykin wakes up, realises all of this is not a dream, and bursts into a storm of tears. In the midst of her misery, the toad returns to explain the situation, bringing with her the brainless toad boy she intends to be Thumbykin’s husband. Thumbykin cries harder than ever. Her distress catches the attention of some good-natured fishes, who comes to the rescue by nibbling away at the lilypad’s stalk until it breaks. The leaf sails away downstream, taking Thumbykin with it.

On the plus side: no wedding! Unfortunately, there’s also no getting home. And Thumbykin has caught the attention of another suitor – this time a cockchafer, who snatches her up and returns to his tree to show her off to his friends. They are not terribly impressed. “Why, she has only two legs! How ugly that looks!” “She has no feelers, how stupid she must be!” Most crushingly of all: “She looks just like a human being.” The cockchafer caves to the peer pressure and dumps Thumbykin on the nearest daisy.

So, to summarise, she has been kidnapped twice, cast out by her second kidnapper’s friends for being human, and abandoned in utterly unfamiliar territory. Somehow she survives the summer, living off nectar and dew, but as the weather grows colder the flowers disappear and Thumbykin is left homeless, friendless and without any source of food. As she searches for somewhere to shelter, she chances across the door of a field mouse hidden in the stubble of a cornfield. The mouse takes pity on her and invites her in. In exchange for housework and stories, Thumbykin is allowed to stay all winter.

But that looks too much like good luck, which means it’s time for a third suitor to force his way into her life. He is the mouse’s neighbour, a wealthy and sour-tempered mole who, despite being blind and unable to see Thumbykin, falls for her pretty voice. He is also more cunning than the toad or the cockchafer, and let’s face it, more civilised. His first step in courtship is to dig a tunnel between the mouse’s house and his own, so that it will be easier to go back and forth.

On their first trip through the new passage, the trio come across a body of a dead swallow. The mole, who thinks of the world above ground as vulgar and pointless, shoulders past disdainfully and the mouse follows his lead, but Thumbykin loves birds and is so upset that she later returns with a rug of hay to cover the corpse. When she lays her head against his chest, however, she hears a heartbeat and realises the bird is only mostly dead, numbed by the cold. That, she can do something about. Tucking him in with coverlets, she visits him secretly with food and water throughout the winter, and when the spring comes, widens a hole in the ceiling of the tunnel to allow in a wash of warm sun. By then the swallow is strong enough to fly. He asks Thumbykin to come with him, but she is too grateful for the kindness of the field mouse to abandon her now.

Her reward is to be shoved into an arranged marriage with the sneaky mole. The field mouse sees this as a big step up both socially and financially and overall an excellent match; the girl sees it as entombment. Though she obediently spins and weaves to make her wedding clothes, she takes whatever chance she can to slip outside, trying to catch a glimpse of blue sky through the distant canopy of summer corn. By autumn, her trousseau is ready and Thumbykin is so NOT. She tries to protest to the mouse, who threatens to bite her if she doesn’t go through with it. So much for kind.

On the wedding day itself, Thumbykin is permitted to go as far as the door to make her goodbyes to the sun and sky. As she fills her eyes with one last look at the world above ground, she is startled by a familiar cry – the voice of a swallow, her swallow, who has swooped in like the gallant hero to rescue her from a disastrous marriage. Thumbykin leaps onto his back and they soar away south, to a beautiful wood and a ruined castle where the swallows build their nests. For Thumbykin, there is a garden of flowers from which to choose a new home, but to her amazement the one she approaches is already occupied. A man the same size as herself – only with wings and a crown – comes out to greet her, and introduces himself as the king of the flower-elves.

It is love at first sight – for Thumbykin, particularly, this is nothing short of miraculous. Finally, a suitor of the same species! Also handsome, a monarch, and a big fan of flowers! He proposes on the spot, she says yes, and the whole court emerges from the surrounding flowers to welcome her with presents, including her own pair of wings. She is Thumbykin no longer; the king calls her Maia, Queen of the Flowers.

Look, I’m not sure this relationship is going to work out. Not to ruin a very pretty ending or anything, but Thumbykin isn’t exactly at her most emotionally stable just then and marrying the first man you find attractive is not really the best of policies. On the other hand, WINGS. Whatever happens to her now, she can escape if she has to. I wish her mother had been given similar resolution. The swallow could have easily delivered a message; instead, he goes off to sing Thumbykin’s tale to the world. I can’t say I think much of his priorities.