The daleks. Photo: BBC
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Spaceships and scampi: A L Kennedy’s Doctor Who adventure

Erica Wagner is whisked away by A L Kennedy’s The Drosten’s Curse.

The Drosten’s Curse
A L Kennedy
BBC Books, 368pp, £18.99

Which Doctor? The Fourth Doctor. How do we know? It’s 1978, for a start, in A L Kennedy’s Tardis jaunt. But as we’re talking about a Time Lord there are no guarantees – until, about 20 pages in, he appears: “. . . wing collar and something that might once have been a cravat, baggy oatmeal trousers, brown checked waistcoat, plum-coloured velvet jacket with bulging pockets, raddled shoes . . . an immense and disreputable scarf with a life of its own”. Lest you be in any doubt, jelly babies feature, too, but most convincingly, Kennedy’s dialogue rings with Tom Baker’s unmistakable tones. Whovians are in safe hands here.

Yet what has persuaded Kennedy, the prize-winning author of novels such as Day, The Blue Book and So I Am Glad, to write a sci-fi TV tie-in? Simple: she loves Doctor Who. She has called the series “funny, lovely, daft” in print and credited it as an influence in forming her sense of the moral world in her childhood. The show asked of her, “What happens when the oil runs out? What is personality? Is humanity evil or good? What is genocide? Even if you can destroy every last Dalek, should you?” Not bad questions to grow up with. And if you’ve been paying attention, you will have spotted that The Drosten’s Curse has its origins in a short story Kennedy wrote for Time Trips, a jolly collection of Doctor Who tales first released between 2013 and the beginning of this year as ebooks. For that series, Stella Duffy, Nick Harkaway, Joanne Harris and Jenny Colgan took on the Doctor, too, but only Kennedy has taken the bold step of expanding her piece into a full-length book.

And it would be fair to call it funny, lovely and daft. Kennedy is a fearless artist, as her short non-fiction book On Bullfighting, published in 1999, proved. Ten years ago, she began an alternate career as a stand-up comedian and if that’s not fearless, I don’t know what is. So it is hardly surprising that she has wholly entered into the spirit of Doctor Who in The Drosten’s Curse, which is an energetic romp set in . . . Arbroath. Why not? It begins on a golf course, at the Fetch Brothers Golf Spa Hotel, a place where things have taken a turn for the distinctly peculiar. Punters are being sucked into the sand of the bunkers, vanishing without a trace.

Bryony Mailer is a junior day receptionist at the hotel; she is both bored and put upon by her dim and demanding boss. (“There wasn’t a Senior Day Receptionist, because that would have involved Mr Mangold, the hotel’s manager, in paying Senior kind of rates.”) Poor Bryony, stuck in limbo in the ghastly Seventies: Kennedy is very good at throwing in the odd glass of Liebfraumilch, basket of scampi or safari suit to remind us how dire things were. Then that chap in the scarf turns up: “And Bryony Mailer thought  – This is it. This is what’s next.”

There’s a monster, but one with motivations that turn out to be pleasingly complex – as this is Kennedy’s novel, and not just Doctor Who’s. There’s another alien, a bumbling fellow called Putta Pattershaun 5, with a spaceship that looks like a Morris Minor. There’s even a moment of time travel back to 1914 that raises a real tear. I won’t say any more – spoilers, you know.

Who can blame Kennedy for wanting to enter fully the Doctor’s universe? It’s a welcoming place. For more than 50 years, the Time Lord has been saving human beings, not only from extraterrestrial threats (from Daleks to Weeping Angels and everything in between) but also from themselves. This is one of the joys of Doctor Who. More often than not, the Doctor’s adventures don’t happen in a galaxy far, far away: they ­happen right here, among us. If there is something familiar about the story of the Doctor – our friend, our salvation – it may be because we have heard other stories about a man who looks like us but is not like us, who might arrive at any time and who always, always, comes in peace. They bear retelling.

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 22 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, How Labour went mad for Jeremy Corbyn

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Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era