Sanctuary Between the Shelves

I made myself a small promise this year: I would write more blog entries. At least two a month. I’d also try and do some kind of quasi-podcast. There may be a test of this coming up.

But this means I must generate more content! So, I’ve decided to use some of my time at my favorite cafe to talk about a childhood sanctuary.

One of the truest moments in Stephen Gould’s novel Jumper is the first time our protagnist jumps. He leaps out of the grasp of his abusive father and into a safe place: the local library. When this book came out, I devoured it and kept it close to me. Gould captured something here that many kids from less-than-idea families would learn. Not teleportation – but the sanctuary of the Library.

For me, that library was the Little Falls branch of the Montgomery County library system. It was a fifteen minute walk from my home, straight down Massachusetts Avenue. My earliest memories were going through the books there with my family. There was a spinner rack with SF Paperbacks downstairs by the kids section. I would ignore most of the things there, and instead picked up my first real grown-up novel: Han Solo’s Revenge by Brian Dailey.

When my kindergarten class had a project to make books, I wrote one about a robot and his robot dog living on a desert planet. The robot’s dog was dragged under the sand by the evil creatures living there and he had to go on an adventure to save him. There were explosions at the end.

Half the book was filled with my scratchy drawings. The other with my little kid’s prose. When we took it to get copied before my Baba Jelka sewed it into a cheap cloth-covered binding, the librarian helped me with the copy machine. It was a huge, hulking thing. We talked about the Han Solo books and other science fiction works. She was impressed a five year old kid had finished the Han Solo book.

In later years, I’d discover there were gems in the kids section. This is where I developed my love for John Bellairs, which continues today. I still have the copy of The Mummy, The Will, and the Crypt I got from the Scholastic book sale with the Edward Gorey cover. It was my second read through. I devoured the hardback copy the library had earlier.

Upstairs, the other librarians helped me find Andre Norton’s space trader books. They had a very 80’s set of covers, with a big Discovery style space-ship on the front. This is where I also started my Michael Whelan reading list. I’d seen his art books in the Waldenbooks and B. Daltons. So, I started reading all the books he had illustrated. It’s how I read McCaffrey, Clarke, Clayton, Asimov, Heinlein, and Burroughs.

Back before the latest reconstruction, the SF Hardbacks were literally tucked away in a corner, by the water fountain. One alcove was completely enclosed, with a single overhead light, and a round wheeled stool you could sit upon. I lived there as often as I could. The alternate was going home to my family. I preferred this family.

To this day, I will hop back to Little Falls just to see how its doing. Coming back to Maryland, and Montgomery County in particular, let me reconnect with the libraries here. Now, I have access to the Rockville Memorial library, where one of my writing groups meet. The Germantown and Gaithersburg branches have hosted writing sessions.

The last writing session I had at Gaithersburg, I saw folks waiting out in the freezing air for the library to open up. Within ten minutes, it was packed with folks reading, studying, talking, using the computers, teaching others… Anyone who thinks they can be replaced by a mega website has never truly understood what a social hub and community center those big ole buildings of books represent.

Ripples in the Pond

Warning: This post will contain levels of Doctor Who geekery, discussions of current events, Communism, illegitimate children, and talk about how works can impact the future in unimaginable ways.

You have been warned:

For Doctor Who fans of a certain age, UNIT means something very deep and abiding. To the point where, when watching the Kennedy Center touring performance of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, I noticed the lead actor had a permanent UNIT tattoo on his shoulder. Not decoration. And not the post 2005 series logo, either. The John Pertwee era UNIT – defenders of the earth and international beacon of hope.

In the latest Doctor Who special, when faced with a Dalek loose on earth and Team TARDIS needs help, the Doctor calls on UNIT and Kate Lethbridge-Stuart for backup. Alas, though, she’s told UNIT operations have ceased due to ‘disputes on funding with international partners’ but domestic armed forces are available.

That’s right. UNIT was kicked out because of Brexit.

Of course, The Daily Mail and all the internet fanboys were up in arms about this bit of political commentary, just as they have been about Doctor Who being infected with girl cooties. Oh, how they long for the classic days, when Doctor Who was free of such things and he said things like, oh,

“[Grover] realised the dangers this planet of yours is in, Brigadier. The danger of it becoming one vast garbage dump inhabited only by rats…Its not the oil and the filth and the poisonous chemicals that are the real causes of the pollution…Its simply greed.”

Sorry, folks. Doctor Who has always been political. And if there was ever a reason for this, and why it continues to be, its’ because of an self-described illegitimate Communist named Malcolm Hulke.

Others have written some excellent articles on Mac Hulke. There’s also a great biography out there. But I want to talk about the impact this man had on the current generation of Doctor Who producers, directors, and creatives. During his time as a writer, first at the end of Patrick Troughton’s run and through John Pertwee’s tenure, he was part of a cadre of writers who introduced some rather interesting ideas in what was a children’s program. Looking back at the episodes, you see discussions of imperialism, environmentalism, militarism and the rise of corporate interests.

But no one did this better than Hulke in my view. The Silurians had the Doctor committed a radical act by introducing himself and trying to start a dialog with ‘alien’ creatures. Colony in Space, even with all the Doomsday Weapon and Master bits, is still a pretty blunt attack on corporate greed driving morality. “What’s good for IMC is good for Earth.”

My favorite of his episodes is still Frontier in Space, where he dared to have an Earth Empire run by a woman, explicit confrontations between militaristic authoritarians and civilians, the imprisonment of (a surprisingly multi-cultural) dissenting party, and – for me the most radical ideas – Jo Grant’s confrontation with the Master.

How was this radical? When Jo was first introduced as the bumbling but cute audience substitute in Terror of the Autons the Master promptly hypnotized her and had her try to deliver a bomb to the Doctor. This time around, the Master – mighty rival Time Lord – tried to do the same thing again. But Jo countered, blocking his hypnosis with techniques she’d learned after their last encounter. And when that failed, he tried turning a fear amplifying device on her.

Jo Grant fought. She battled through the monsters the Master’s device projected – a device which set two space empires to war based on their fear of ‘the other – and beat it. The simple audience substitute had beaten the big bad on her will alone.

In addition, Hulke wrote two books which would become bibles for future writers. One is his book on screen and television writing (still available today and still considered an excellent reference) as well as this tome:

I had a later version, with Tom Baker on the cover, but this book (written with friend and collaborator Terrance Dicks), sparked the imaginations of young Doctor Who fans everywhere. Maybe I could write for the show? Maybe I could work in TV?

Who were those fans? Here are a few names: Chris Chibnal, Stephan Moffat, Russel T. Davies, Peter Capaldi, Mark Gattis, Paul Cornell – I could go on. But all should be familiar to fans of the reborn version of the series. How many writers on this show, and others, think back to Mac Hulke’s episodes and think, “How would have he done it?”

We lost Mac Hulke nearly thirty years ago. But all he created, and all he inspired, lives on. And he would not have done so without taking risks, and working with others who said, as Barry Letts did, that stories should be about something. So any time someone complains about Doctor Who getting too radical, I just imagine Mac Hulke smiling behind a typewriter.

WWMHD: What Would Mac Hulk Do?