Forgotten Lives

Today I received an email with the final finished version of this, so thought today would be a good day to tell people about it. Forgotten Lives is an unofficial Doctor Who anthology, not licensed by the BBC but with all proceeds going to Alzheimer’s research.

It’s published by Obverse Books, and features the adventures of the Morbius Doctors — the Doctors before William Hartnell, whose faces were seen in the Tom Baker story The Brain of Morbius and more recently in the Jodie Whitaker story The Timeless Children.

Obverse Books, for those of you who don’t know, is a small press that specialises in Doctor Who spinoffs and non-fiction about science fiction TV — they’ve previously published a novel, two nonfiction books, two short stories, and some contributions to other charity anthologies by me. As well as my own story, “The Cross of Venus”, the book contains stories by Simon Bucher-Jones, Philip Purser-Hallard (who edited), Kara Dennison, Lance Parkin, Aditya Bidakar, Jay Eales, and Paul Driscoll. All of these are excellent writers, and most of them are friends or at least friendly online acquaintances of mine. All gave their stories for free.

There’s only a single print-run, and only a handful of copies are left, so go to https://obversebooks.co.uk/product/forgotten/ if you don’t want to miss out.

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Why I Think Elvis Was Autistic

This is a blog post I’ve been meaning to write for several years, but it’s one that’s fraught with difficulties, because I’m going to attempt here to apply a label to a historical figure, and specifically a label that is often medicalised.

There is a big taboo about applying diagnostic labels to people one hasn’t met, and for good reason — too often this is used as a way of simultaneously reducing the person you’re talking about to a medical label, and it’s also often a way to increase stigma against an innocent group. I’ve seen a lot of people, for example, claim that Donald Trump has dementia and that explains aspects of his Presidency. But there are tens of millions of people in the world with dementia, none of whom are Donald Trump. Unless you’re Trump’s doctor, statements about his health are there to serve a political agenda, not to provide accurate information.

But in the case of neurodivergence, I think there’s an important purpose that is served by highlighting historical figures who one thinks may have been neurodivergent. Almost every month we see a new film or TV series, created by neurotypicals, presenting stereotypes of autism in particular. Those stereotypes lead to many, many people going without diagnosis, because they believe that autism is something very different from their own experiences. The stereotypes also lead to the murder of many autistic people.

To get past those stereotypes, we need to show real autistic people’s lives. But there’s a problem with that — autism is a relatively new diagnosis, and even for the first few decades of its existence it was underdiagnosed in children and not diagnosed at all in adults. I’m autistic, I’ve known I was autistic since I was sixteen, but I couldn’t get a formal diagnosis until this year — I’m forty-two.

Autism is still underdiagnosed, especially in women and people of colour, but that goes even more for anyone born before 1990 or so. Basically, no autistic people born before then have ever been diagnosed. But we have always existed, and it’s important that people understand that.

But there’s a problem with identifying historical autistic people, and that problem is another one that affects people today. The official diagnostic criteria for autism are created by neurotypical people, and speak entirely in terms of deficiencies. While it’s true that autism is disabling, it’s also true that most of the ways that autistic people experience autism, and most of the things we consider important about our lives, are not captured by those diagnostic tests.

And that means I can expect two different reactions to this. I expect most neurotypical people reading this to react in much the same way as historians do when faced with two women writing love letters to each other, living together, referring to each other as their wife, and asking to be buried together — in most cases like that, you end up with the historians saying “what an inspiring example of gals being pals! This purely platonic friendship between two heterosexual women just shows how close friends who happen not to have got married for some reason can become!”

In the same way, I expect most people reading this to say “most of those are things that could apply to anyone! You’ve not presented any evidence that Elvis was actually autistic!”

But I expect any autistic person reading this who has spent time in the wider autistic community to say “My God! That’s the most autistic person to ever have autisticed!” or words very much to that effect.

(A note here, BTW — I think Elvis would most likely get a diagnosis of autism were he to be diagnosed today, but autism overlaps with, and is often co-occurring with, a lot of other neurodivergences, such as dyslexia, dyspraxia, and ADHD. There is some debate as to whether these are the same thing manifesting in different ways, or things that tend to cluster together but can occur separately, so it’s possible that Elvis wasn’t autistic but was dyspraxic and ADHD, or whatever.)

The thing that clued me in to Elvis’ neurodivergence, that unlocked this for me, was Sam Phillips talking about signing Elvis. Phillips is often quoted as having wanted “a white man who can sing like a Black man”, but when you listen to the earliest recordings of Elvis, there’s no sensible way anyone could have thought of him that way. What Phillips *actually* said was that “his insecurity was so markedly like that of a Black person.” In particular, in the South at that point, Black people didn’t look white people in the eye. Nor did Elvis.

Both Phillips and Carl Perkins said that Elvis was the most introverted person ever to enter a recording studio, in more or less those exact words.

As a young man, Elvis had very few real friends. He was extremely close to his parents, especially his mother, with whom he almost had a private language and could communicate in a way he couldn’t with anyone else, but had difficulty making friends his own age. He would often hang out with people like Johnny and Dorsey Burnette, who lived nearby. They would bully him, but they’d let him stand on the edge of the group and sing when they were singing.

Later in life, Elvis would surround himself with the “Memphis Mafia”, a group of people to whom he was intensely loyal, even though they were mostly taking advantage of him.

Elvis was known for being constantly in movement, fingers twitching and legs tapping all the time.

He was extremely poor at emotional regulation, and could swing wildly in mood.

He was a very naturally talented actor, who could lose himself in a role (though he was never given the chance to grow).

Before becoming a singer, he worked for a time as an electrician, but he was very bad at it. He kept giving himself electric shocks, and once said it was a miracle none of the houses he worked on had burned down.

He was very into martial arts, which he liked because it allowed him a sense of control over his body.

Some of his stage costumes in the seventies were patterned on his favourite comic-book character, Captain Marvel Jr.

He was a voracious reader and would bring three trunks filled with books on tour with him.

His famous hip-shaking actually started as nerves — he was trembling the first time he was on stage, and it made his baggy trouser legs shake, which the audience took as intentional.

He watched Monty Python and the Holy Grail thirty-five times, and could quote it from memory. He was also a particular fan of Peter Sellers.

He had a highly restricted diet, and had specific issues with textures — food had to be prepared a particular way, with bacon almost burned and eggs hard, and he would eat particular combinations of food many other people found disgusting. People to this day mock him for his taste for peanut-butter, bacon, and banana sandwiches.

He had real problems with sleeping — he was naturally nocturnal, and often had to rely on medical help to get onto a somewhat-diurnal schedule. Even with pharmaceutical help he rarely slept more than three hours at a time.

He had bad skin — the thing people note most about him as a young man was that he had terrible acne on his neck.

He had a near-photographic memory, and would learn and retain a song after hearing it only once. He had an encyclopaedic knowledge of music.

And perhaps most importantly, for much of the last few years of his life he was chronically ill but didn’t present that way. The prescription drug use for which he became notorious after his death was a combination of things to treat his sleep problems, and pain medication. The thing that eventually killed him was not his lifestyle, as reported — he had a variety of genetic, stress-related, inflammatory and autoimmune conditions which made him put on weight, including the hypertension that led to his eventual heart attack. These seem to have been inherited from his mother (who also died in her forties). Again, it’s not a formal diagnostic criterion of autism that one has autoimmune problems, but anecdotally the *vast* majority of autistic people have them (there’s a reason the average life expectancy for an autistic person is fifty-four).

But the pain medication… Elvis told his doctors, for years, that he was in a huge amount of pain. They thought he was faking, because he didn’t “act like” someone in pain — they thought he was after drugs. So sometimes he was prescribed real opiates, but other times he would be given placebos, made to look like the drugs that worked. When those didn’t work, he took more of them, so when he got the real stuff he took more than he should, which made the doctors believe he was just after drugs… 

After his death, when those same doctors re-examined X-rays of him, it was obvious he had arthritis, and had really been in unspeakable agony for years. But he’d just not seemed like he was in pain to the doctors. He didn’t act how a person in pain “should” act.

Again, nobody who isn’t neurodivergent will read the above and be convinced. But I think if you’ve any experience of the neurodivergent community, you’re going to read that, and come to the same conclusion as me.

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A DVD A Day: Doctor Who — Castrovalva

I forgot to post this one yesterday, so I’m already not living up to the title…

Castrovalva is the first Doctor Who story featuring Peter Davison as the Doctor, and for the first time in one of these DVDs I’ve come across something that I have quite a bit to say about.

While it was the first story of season nineteen, it has always felt to me like it was the last story of season eighteen. There are a number of reasons for that — one is that it follows directly on from the last scene of Logopolis, Tom Baker’s last story, whose ending it reprises before the credits. Another is that it was the ending of a loose trilogy (what Alex Wilcock calls The Master’s Doctor Plan) which started with The Keeper of Traken, the story before Logopolis, and all three of them are packaged together in the same DVD set (though with the new move towards making everything into season Blu-Rays, I wonder how the next generation of fans will view these).

But the most important reason is that this story is written by Christopher H Bidmead, who had been the script editor for season eighteen, had written Logopolis, and had been the principal creative force behind that oddest of seasons generally.

There is a lot to say about Bidmead, but perhaps the most telling is that he is the epitome of the creative artist who doesn’t understand his own work. In every interview, Bidmead talks about how he wanted to make Doctor Who into hard science fiction which taught kids about real scientific ideas, and which was firmly grounded in reality, not in fantasy. Instead, his season takes us through episodes on lizard Mafiosi, talking cacti and the mystical powers of Platonic solids, Lamarckianism, Hammer horror pastiche vampires, magic mirrors and the I Ching in a story that’s half Cocteau pastiche and half Adam Ant video, a Shakespearean riff on the idea of the Great Chain of Being, and then finally a world of monks whose chanting holds the universe together.

This from a man who thought that he was making something educational about science.

The scripts in season eighteen tend to hang together even less well as plots than some of those in the previous few seasons, yet what they do have is a tremendous thematic resonance. Whatever their ostensible writers, they all keep coming back to the same few themes — hidden knowledge from the past returning and upending a society; appearances not being what they seem; duplicates of people (so many duplicates); entropy and decay; worlds that operate according to pre-scientific philosophical worldviews; and recursion.

These motifs keep coming back in different forms, and so in Meglos for example the Doctor has a lookalike that’s a giant cactus, while in Logopolis there are multiple versions of the Doctor going round, and most of them seem to be tied to a particular late-seventies/early-eighties aesthetic, a post-hippie version of reality which is trying to decide whether the universe is really a giant computer, or if it’s a creation of our own consciousness, or both simultaneously. The reference points here are things like Cosmic Trigger by Robert Anton Wilson, The Dancing Wu Li Masters by Gary Zukav, Quantum Reality by Nick Herbert, and many other books which try in some way or another to unify quantum physics, parapsychology, cybernetics, and Eastern mysticism (the particular variety of Eastern doesn’t really matter, in this view — Buddhism, Taoism, whatever, it’s all that Ancient Eastern Wisdom stuff).

(I sound dismissive, but I actually have a lot of time for that kind of thing — those books are often very wrong, and a bit mush-headed, but they’re also the product of people trying to think about important questions and trying to use every tool available in their toolkit to find answers. When they’re wrong, they’re interestingly wrong, and occasionally they’re right.)

Another book that got read by the same people who read those books was Godel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter — a book which tries to use parables containing Alice in Wonderland characters, art by Escher, and discussion of some music by Bach, to try to explain Godel’s theorem, and also to put forward Hofstadter’s own hypothesis about one of those big questions — in this case, his belief that consciousness can be explained as a form of recursion.

Bidmead seems to have latched on to this book, and in particular to the Escher stuff, which appealed to his own aesthetic sense. Because one other thing about season eighteen that doesn’t get pointed out quite as often as those themes is that it’s often a season that’s explicitly about the spaces its characters inhabit, and that’s driven as much by the sets as by the characters — the sets tend (in the most Bidmeadesque episodes) to be reifications of the story’s themes. The logic of a lot of Bidmead’s stories is the place where the logics of early Doctor Who and of text adventure games meet. They’re all about exploring a physical space more than interacting with characters as such, and the exploration of the space leads to revelation of the story’s underlying plot.

And given that Escher, of course, drew impossible, recursive, spaces in his images, that made his work the perfect subject for a Bidmead story. And so we have Castrovalva, named after one of Escher’s etchings, but with a central revelation that comes straight from another one — the space in which the second half of the story takes place is modelled on Ascending and Descending.

The recursive space our protagonists are in turns out to have been created by the Master, using a kind of computation whose name Bidmead nicked from the instruction set of the Z80 microprocessor, but which in-story can only be performed by living minds — precisely the kind of quantum mysticism that all those books talk about (and which seems to have no basis in reality, given that to the extent that the human brain is a computer there’s no evidence that it’s not just a normal Turing machine rather than a quantum computer). The Master plants precisely the kind of false history we’ve seen time and again in the Bidmead-shaped stories previously, and everything in the story works towards a single aesthetic aim.

My favourite Doctor Who has always been the times when it seems to be grasping towards being about something much bigger than itself — that’s one reason I’m such a fan of the Faction Paradox series, which amplifies that tendency. It’s only occasionally done so on screen, and those are some of the oddest stories, the ones that can stand up most to repeated viewings — Evil of the Daleks, The Mind Robber, The Space Museum, The Deadly Assassin, Shada, Vengeance on Varos. There are only a small number of creators who seemed to view the series as something that could do this kind of thing — David Whitaker, Bob Holmes, Douglas Adams, and David Maloney seem to be the principal ones — and Chris Bidmead was the last one to do it consistently.

Many of the stories with which Bidmead was involved ended up not being very good, and if you ask him what he was trying to do, what he *thought* he was doing was something I would have no time for at all. But when you look at this, or Logopolis, you see something almost visionary, something I miss in later incarnations of the series.

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A DVD A Day: The Wrong Box

There’s a type of late-sixties British comedy film for which I have a fondness that is out of all proportion to its actual merits — films which are sort of a lower-budget and slightly more hippyish equivalent of American films like It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad Mad World. In these films, which generally have either Peter Sellers or Peter Cook in, a large cast of immensely funny people is used in place of a coherent script or any kind of real filmmaking ability. Examples include Casino Royale and The Magic Christian, but there are absolutely loads of these things.

The Wrong Box is one of the earliest examples of this kind of film, and thus the most coherent. Where most of these films have troubled productions, with directors and screenwriters getting sacked, and the star doing a runner halfway through the film (so for Casino Royale, for example, there are six directors and half of Peter Sellers’ scenes were never even filmed) this one has only one director and two writers, and has a plot that hangs together well — it’s a dark farce, based around people competing to be the heirs to a tontine — a sort of lottery in which several people put in a stake and the last one alive gets the lot.

It’s also one of the few of these films to actually feature people known as serious actors in the main roles — the two elderly brothers who are the last two heirs are played by Ralph Richardson and John Mills (and Richardson in particular is very good indeed as an oblivious old buffer who annoys everyone around him) while the hero and heroine are played by Michael Caine and Nanette Newman, both of whom unfortunately do the thing that straight actors often do when appearing in a comedy, of playing the roles just a little too broadly.

But the rest of the cast contains… well, it contains everyone you might think of for a British comedy in 1966. Peter Cook and Dudley Moore play the bumbling villains (and sadly, as is always the case when given a script he didn’t write himself, Cook is not on his best form — he’s still funny, but you wouldn’t believe from watching this that many people consider him to be the funniest man who ever lived), but the film also features Tony Hancock, John Le Mesurier, Leonard Rossiter, Irene Handl, John Junkin, Norman Rossington, Peter Sellers (in a relatively small but film-stealing role as an incompetent drunken doctor), Graham Stark (because Peter Sellers is in the film so of course Stark is), Nicholas Parsons… plus a few other character actors not usually known for comedy roles, like Tutte Lemkow, Dame Cicely Cortneidge, and Valentine Dyall. Basically every single person in the film, even if they’re only in it for a few seconds, is someone who’s always worth watching.

Plot-wise, it’s a rather conventional farce — two brothers, both of whom stand to inherit, live next door to each other and haven’t spoken in decades, someone else dies while wearing the coat of one of the brothers, mistaken identities, mistaken deaths, and general hijinks ensue as his heirs try to cover up the death, and then in the end the innocent heirs of the two brothers get engaged, meaning they’ll end up with all the money whoever inherits it.

The film actually inhabits a sort of halfway house between the earlier Ealing and Boulting Brothers comedies (there’s more than a hint of Kind Hearts and Coronets about it, though Kind Hearts is the much better film) and the Casino Royale type — the start, with the montage of accidental deaths, is straight out of Ealing, while the big chase scene at the end (with multiple horse-drawn hearses chasing each other around a crossroads while a workman sits in the middle, is more than a little reminiscent of the car chase scenes in every Pink Panther film (including the first one, which preceded this by a few years).

The film has few standout laugh-out-loud moments (my personal favourite is Sellers blotting a death certificate with a kitten), but it’s probably the most watchable film of its type, if you’re someone who, unlike me, didn’t have their aesthetic senses warped at a young age by too much exposure to third-rate Sellers vehicles like After The Fox. I’m quite surprised it’s never been remade as a big-budget Hollywood film — you could quite easily pitch it as “It’s Weekend at Bernie’s meets Ocean’s Eleven”, and the Victorian novel it’s based on is firmly in the public domain. But as it is, it’s a pleasant, if unremarkable, period piece.

The DVD (at least the version I own), incidentally, is the most bare-bones one I’ve ever seen. You know those DVDs that mention “menu” as a special feature? That’s because of DVDs like this one, which doesn’t even have that.

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A DVD A Day: Scars of Dracula

I’ve not written on here very much recently — I’ve been spending most of my writing time working on the podcast, which requires about 5000 words of writing from me a week, plus a lot of research time.

But now that the covid horrors have been happening for a few months, I’m starting to get my mental health back, and I’ve decided that one thing I’m going to try to do is write on here more. Specifically, I’ve decided I’m going to try every day to knock out a quick DVD review. I have several hundred DVDs, some of which I’ve not watched at all, and I recently reorganised my shelves, so I can now easily see them all. So I’ve decided every day to watch at least one DVD and to review it here. In many cases they’ll be ones I’ve seen before, some many times — my plan is just to watch anything I feel like so long as I haven’t reviewed it here previously.

Knowing how hard it is for me to keep up with plans like this at the best of times (and this is definitely not the best of times) I doubt this will last more than a week. But you never know.

Anyway, to start with, a few friends of mine are in a small online book club, and we’re about to start reading Dracula, so that’s been in my mind and I decided I felt like watching Scars of Dracula.

The Hammer films are very much like the other great British film series that started in the fifties, the Carry On films, in that when they started out, they were pushing against very restrictive censorship, and pushing the boundaries of what was acceptable. By the mid-seventies, though, those boundaries had relaxed enormously, and both series got caught up trying to compete with newcomers who had pushed things much further, and in the process lost something of what made them special. I’d recommend anyone watch Carry on Cleo or The Devil Rides Out — anyone who can possibly find anything to like in those sorts of films will enjoy those. I’d not recommend anyone at all watch The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires or Carry On at Your Convenience unless you have some weird kink for seeing elderly character actors looking very sad and wishing they were doing anything else.

Scars of Dracula is from 1970, and is seen by many as the precise point at which Hammer’s downturn began — though I actually think they made quite a few better films after this. I’d certainly rather watch both The Satanic Rites of Dracula and Dracula: AD 1972 than this one. It’s the fifth or sixth out of seven or nine Hammer Dracula films, depending on whether or not you count the two that didn’t have Christopher Lee in as part of the series, and it’s by far the most by-the-numbers of them. Much of the film feels like someone simply going down a list of things one expects to see in this kind of film, as if it was one of those “we asked a bot to watch every Hammer Horror film and then generate its own” posts. Mob storms the castle and sets fire to it? Check. Rubber bat flying unconvincingly through a window? Check. Inn where everyone goes quiet when the strangers walk in? Check. Sadistic manservant who falls in love with the beautiful girl and thus helps her escape? Check. Townspeople saying “you never go out after dark, and you should never go to the castle” without explaining why? Check. Pretty young protagonists played by people who can’t act very well (or indeed at all)? Check. Priest who tries to persuade the townspeople not to storm the castle, but says “Then I’ll come with you” after they say they’re going to anyway? Check. The most blatant day-for-night shooting imaginable, where everyone is pretending it’s the middle of the night while the sky is bright blue? Check.

All of it there, and all of it done in the most perfunctory manner possible. It’s exactly the kind of film that people who’ve never watched a Hammer film think all of them were like.

And yet, it’s still worth watching. While the heroic young cast are mostly incompetent (even Dennis Waterman, who I remember as having been OK in later years, if never spectacular), most of the supporting cast are great. I saw a tweet a while back — “the concept of character actors is so funny like. hollywood had to come up with a term to differentiate hot people and people who are good at acting” — and that’s certainly true here (though I know many people who would claim that Christopher Lee is also hot). Hammer’s supporting cast, people like Michael Ripper, were always good value, but in particular here the interactions between Christopher Lee as Dracula and Patrick Troughton as his sadistic manservant are absolutely priceless. The Mighty Trout was always magnificent, and he’s rarely been better than in this, where he goes from cringing servile lackey to screaming in agony as Dracula tortures him, to calmly whistling as he hacks up a body to make it easier to dispose of, as if he’s fixing a broken table-leg.

Most of the people involved in the film simply don’t seem to be trying very hard, but Lee is taking the role very, very seriously, and brings a gravitas and thoughtfulness to his performance that makes his Count a fully-realised personality (and that comes entirely from the performance, not from the script). Troughton, on the other hand, goes completely the other way, and is utterly gleeful as Klove, the loathsome manservant. Both performances, though (and those of other smaller parts like Michael Ripper and Michael Gwynne) seem to come from a much, much better film than the one they’re in, and any time Lee and Troughton are on screen together, the whole film comes alive.

Scars is, to my mind, by far the weakest of the seven Hammer/Lee Draculas, but even here there’s still enough to keep me, at least, watching to the end, and then watching again with the commentary on (in which, as with all Christopher Lee commentaries, he talks about how lovely every single other actor was, and how idiotic were the production people who insisted on making their own film rather than the one he wanted them to make). Not the place I’d start with Hammer, by a long way, but still far better than those Golden Vampires…

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