Thursday, January 12, 2017

Doctor Who AND Roger Zelazny Review: Immortal Beloved

As the name suggests, this blog started off as a place to offer some commentary on the works of Roger Zelazny. That aspect has become less prominent, primarily because I’ve already reviewed almost everything he had ever written. So as that part waned, other aspects came to the fore, among them, reviews of Doctor Who, with particular emphasis on the Big Finish audio plays. Never once did I ever think these two aspects would converge. And yet, here we are.

Immortal Beloved has no Beethoven at all. Rather, it’s the story of spacefaring colonists from Earth, who use the technology from their ship to set themselves up as gods from Earth’s past on a new planet. When they get old, they transfer themselves into youthful cloned bodies.

If this all seems a little familiar to the Zelazny fans in the audience, the author has helpfully removed all doubt by naming a main character “Kalkin”.

Despite all this, the story never feels like a rip off, but rather as the homage as which it was doubtless intended. Doctor Who writers have never been shy about borrowing ideas from whatever works. Ben Aaronovitch wrote of the similarities between the People in The Also People and the Culture in Iain Banks’ Culture series. "I'd like to remind everyone that while talent borrows and genius steals, New Adventure writers get it off the back of a lorry, no questions asked." The recent Main Range title Maker of Demons is a riff on the Tempest.

Disclaimer number one: This review will have spoilers for Immortal Beloved and some minor spoilers for Lord of Light.

Disclaimer number two: Doctor Who fandom is huge and sprawling, and it’s going to be a rare fan who loves every single aspect. I don’t like the Eighth Doctor.  I would go so far as to say I dislike him.  That informs my review. Big Finish always tells a good story, but there are stories I don’t enjoy because they aren’t in line with what I want out of a story. They wrote and produced a solid story, just not one I’m inclined to like. That doesn’t make it bad; it makes it not to my taste.  These are two very different things.

I love Big Finish on principle, and I generally don’t listen to or review those stories I suspect I won’t enjoy. I’m making an exception here because of the Zelazny connection, and I’ll try to not confuse “things I don’t like about the story” with “flaws with the story”.

So, how does Immortal Beloved compare to Lord of Light?

Zelazny wrote Lord of Light as a series of seven closely linked novellas, reasoning that he could sell them individually if he couldn’t find a publisher for the entire book, and consequently,  it’s very large for a book of its era. Immortal Beloved is not quite an hour long, so right from the outset, you know it will lack the depth of a longer work.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing. I’m a big fan of Vonnegut’s advice to start a story as close to the end as possible.

Two lovers, Kalkin and Sararti have climbed to the top of a mountain for the purposes of killing themselves, but the Eighth Doctor and Lucie Miller arrive and prevent that.  They have a brief conversation, and at first Lucie thinks they are merely star-crossed lovers.

“Well, bless! It’s like Romeo and Juliet all over!”“Is that good?”“Actually no, come to think of it.”

They are, in a sense. It’s just that their parents are the gods. Their minions arrives in chariots (helicopters) to reclaim the lovers, but the head of the operation, General Ares is mortally wounded when capturing them. He’s medevaced away to Olympus.

There is a scene where Zeus contacts Hera which evokes the piece where Sam contacts Madeleine via the private line, but that’s about it for one-to-one correspondences.  He wakes her so that she may perform the process that will transfer Ares into his replacement body.  The biggest difference in the between Immortal Beloved and Lord of Light regarding the transference process is that they can’t vat-grow bodies in Immortal Beloved. The target has to be a clone of the original, and further, they develop their own identity as they grow older, which is overwritten when the mind of the original is transferred over.  (I’m not sure why they tell them this. It seems like a lot of the difficulties with Kalkin could have been averted had he not been informed about what his purpose was to be. )

Tayden, the man who will be replacement Ares, goes dutifully to the surgical theater with full knowledge of what awaits him. The last thing Zeus says to him is “See you in the next life.”

We get a really nice performance from Zeus. “Avuncular” is the word that springs to mind. However, the tone is a bit odd. Since they’re using fully self-aware clones as host bodies, there is no ambiguity, but they’re kind of playing as if there were, and it doesn’t fit.  The mind transfer machine is in bad shape after centuries of use, Zeus asks the Doctor to fix it but he declines and we carry as if this were a reasonable request, rather than the Doctor saying "Hell no, I'm not fixing your lobotomy machine, and PS, I'm bringing your whole corrupt civilization down around your ears."

Compare that to this exchange between Sam and Brahma in Lord of Light:
"As you are aware, I stopped attending the old Council meetings over a century ago, for they had become lengthy sessions calculated to postpone decision-making, and were primarily an excuse for a Festival of the First. Now, I have nothing against festivals. In fact, for a century and a half I went to them only to drink good Earth booze once more. But, I felt that we should be doing something about the passengers, as well as the offspring of our many bodies, rather than letting them wander a vicious world, reverting to savagery. I felt that we of the crew should be assisting them, granting them the benefits of the technology we had preserved, rather than building ourselves an impregnable paradise and treating the game  world as a combination preserve and whorehouse. So, I have wondered long why this thing was not done. It would seem a fair and equitable way to run a world."

"I take it from this that you are an Accelerationist?"
"No," said Sam, "simply an inquirer. I am curious, that's all, as to the reasons." 
"Then, to answer your questions," said Brahma, "it is because they are not ready for it. Had we acted immediately, yes, this thing could have been done. But we were indifferent at first. Then, when the question arose, we were divided. Too much time passed. They are not ready, and will not be for many centuries. If they were to be exposed to an advanced technology at this point, the wars which would ensue would result in the destruction of the beginnings they have already made. They have come far. They have begun a civilization after the manner of their fathers of old. But they are still children, and like children would they play with our gifts and be burnt by them. They are our children, by our long-dead First bodies, and second, and third and many after, and so, ours is the parents' responsibility toward them. We must not permit them to be accelerated into an industrial revolution and so destroy the first stable society on this planet. Our parental functions can best be performed by guiding them as we do, through the Temples. Gods and goddesses are basically parent figures, so what could be truer and more just than that we assume these roles and play them thoroughly?"

Brahma is the baddie, and he’s rationalizing his oppression of a world, but he’s at least got some sophistry to hide behind (even though I suspect the primary function of these arguments is to salve the consciences of the gods).  Zeus doesn’t even bother with the fig leaf. (“I mean, say what you want about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it's an ethos.)

After this, the Doctor and Lucie hang out as guests of the gods until Hera, whose current body is elderly, suffers a massive heart attack.  (The quiet exchange immediately preceding this, between Hera and Ares was probably my favorite part of the production.) The gods bring Sararti in as her replacement, and one could be excused for thinking that this would be the point where the Doctor would intervene, but he doesn't. Hera dies before the transfer can be completed, but everyone (except Lucie) thinks she's inhabiting Sararti's body. Sararti  pretends that she's Hera long enough to get close enough to Zeus to stab the shit out of him. This part bothered me a bit, because Lucie, and only Lucie, notes that Hera/Sararti is not experiencing the disorientation that Ares suffered when he transferred to Tayden's body. These people have been performing and experiencing the process for centuries, but they don't know what to expect?

Zeus is mortally wounded and Kalkin, under duress, acquiesces to be used in the transfer process. We later learn that Zeus threatened to clone Lucie over and over again and to torture each clone to death. That’s not bad as evil overlord plans go, except that they stated explicitly earlier in the story that they lack accelerated growth technology, so the goodies have, at a minimum, nine months to come up with a workaround.

But they go through with the process, and Zeus now inhabits Kalkin’s body. Or does he?! The baddies could be excused for not seeing through this the first time with Hera and Sararti, but come on! The exact same thing just happened.  A quick “Hey, ‘Zeus’, do you remember what you said to me before I transferred into Tayden’s body?” would not have been out of line from Ares.

We conclude with Kalkin as Zeus vowing to stop using the machine. Lucie is confident that he’ll do the right thing, but the Doctor is not so certain, and reminds her that Kalkin is just a younger Zeus. I liked that ending.

The story is followed by the CD extras, which were good, as always, but nobody mentions the Zelazny connection, which was disappointing.


The biggest change is the mythlogy is Greek rather than Hindu. That was probably necessary. I love Lord of Light. I think it’s one of the finest genre books of the 20th century. But it would look an awful lot like cultural appropriation today.  On top of that, the audience is much more likely to be familiar with Greek mythology. The story does have a rather short run time, and you don’t have to waste valuable time explaining who the gods are. We’re already familiar with Zeus, Hera and that lot.  (However, the reincarnation aspect of the story doesn’t seem like a natural fit like it did in Lord of Light.)

For Doctor Who fans: It depends on how much you like the Eighth Doctor and Lucie. I don’t, but plenty of people do. If you like them, then sure, pick it up. There are some plot holes certainly, but this is more about the characters than about the plot.  The dialogue is snappy and the cast has great chemistry.  We get some clever lines, such as when Zeus says of Kalkin: “He’s my heir…and my spare” or when Zeus calls his walkie-talkie an “Ether Trumpet, and I think the story succeeds in what it sets out to do. The fact that I don’t like it is beside the point. I’m not going to like any Eighth Doctor and Lucie story, because I don’t like the Eighth Doctor and Lucie.

For Zelazny fans: It takes the basic premise of Lord of Light, but diverges sharply almost immediately, so if you’re looking for “Lord of Light, but with the Doctor”, you’re going to be disappointed. Zelazny often drew on the Trickster archetype for his characters, and there is certainly a bit of overlap with the Doctor’s personality in that regard. On balance, I would recommend it. I think it lacks the intellectual rigor of Zelazny’s writing, but it’s a quality production. You’re not getting a Zelazny story, but you’re getting  an entertaining story inspired by a Zelazny story.  It’s $8.99 now, but Big Finish has sales with some frequency, so you can probably find it for five dollars if you’re patient.  I think it’s worth listening to for the novelty alone.

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