Category Archives: Lie Back and Think of England


Italo Calvino’s “Invisible Cities” and Doctor Who

For the past several weeks I’ve been slowly reading Italo Calvino’s lovely fever-dream of a novel “Invisible Cities.” I’ve been dipping into this book for three weeks now and I’m all the way up to page 30; it’s a very slender volume, but reading it quickly would make as much sense as gulping a fine wine, a waste in/to every sense.

The book imagines a conversation between an elderly Kublai Khan and a young Marco Polo, one of the people hired by the emperor to go forth and survey his empire. Most of the book consists of Polo’s dream-like descriptions of various cities, replete with extravagant imagery; the narrative is “structured around an interlocking pattern of numbered sections, while the length of each section’s title graphically outlines a continuously oscillating sine wave, or perhaps a city skyline.”

A sine wave. I like that. It’s like breathing. It is almost literally a waking dream in the shape and form of a book. You really have to sip from this and not gulp it.

So I hope this doesn’t feel trivial in the grand scheme of this grand book, but tonight, while engaging in my occasional evening “3B” (bath, book and bourbon) routine, I read this passage, which made me think of my beloved Doctor(s):

Marco enters a city: he sees someone in a square living a life or an instant that could be his; he could now be in that man’s place, if he had stopped in time, long ago; or if, long ago, at a crossroads, instead of taking one road he had taken the opposite one, and after long wandering he had come to be in the place of that man in the square. By now, from that real or hypothetical past of his, he is excluded; he cannot stop; he must go on to another city where another of his pasts await him, or something perhaps that had been a possible future of his and is now someone else’s present. Futures not achieved are only branches of the past: dead branches.

“Journeys to relive your past?” was the Khan’s question at this point, a question which could also have been formulated: “Journeys to recover your future?”

And Marco’s answer was: “Elsewhere is a negative mirror. The traveler recognizes the little that is his, discovering the much he has not had and will never have.”

…and with that I conjure an image of our Eleventh Doctor, realizing how much he has not had and will never have, and poor Clara as she darts among all eleven, watching the First steal the big blue box in the first place, and watching all of the unimagined possibilities that will never come true down all those timelines because every choice you make cements things in a very real way, every choice explicitly says that specific things will not happen. In the business world they call this “opportunity cost,” and my goodness, it is a cost that is extraordinarily high. Every single thing we do spells out a hundred things we will never be able to do.

Or, as Marco Polo puts it in one of his earlier reports,

… my eyes returned to contemplate the desert expanses and the caravan routes; but now I know this path is only one of the many that opened before me …

You should watch “The Singing Detective.” Let me tell you why.

Singing_Detective_PosterFor the past week or so, I’ve spent an awful lot of time laying on my couch, with a bag of frozen peas on my belly. You see, for the past two years or so, my body decided that it wanted to grow a golfball-sized rock in my gut, so it helpfully did, perhaps thinking it was giving me some of the joy I would never experience since I had not been born a woman who could grow a child instead in that near vicinity. Helpful. But the rock (and the gall bladder that birthed it) came out several days ago, and I’ve been laying around ever since.

During this time, I got to watch a fair amount of television. With some great recommendations from friends, I discovered some new favorites: I’m one-third through an amazing Canadian TV show from 2003 called “Slings & Arrows,” notable for being a very early role for Rachel McAdams, who had to be written out of the show because she hit the big time. It’s some seriously great television, in that sweet spot that is funny and poignant and sad, all at the same time.

But I also watched the 1986 BBC miniseries “The Singing Detective” during this time, and it was a deeply memorable experience. It washed over me like a six-hour fever dream, spread out over several days, and I still find myself thinking back on it.

Here I find myself challenged with how to describe this miniseries. I don’t want to tell you very much about it. I want you to have the experience I had. I watched it with zero expectations and next-to-zero knowledge. I knew that it was considered one of the great achievements in British television. I knew that people within the television industry considered its writer, Dennis Potter, to be a storytelling visionary. I knew that it starred a young Michael Gambon (Dumbledore the Second). And I knew that it was, as the title suggests, a musical.

It is indeed a musical, but there are no singing cats or lions or French people. It created a genre that is woefully under-used, the television musical. If “The Singing Detective” didn’t exist, then neither would “Blackpool” or “Cop Rock,” and that would be a terrible shame. Nor would there be a thing called “Glee.” I understand that one is quite popular with the kids these days.

It is a somewhat hallucinatory story, told backward for most of its length and revealing its secrets slowly. It has bits of film noir and it has dance numbers and it has wonderful music from Cole Porter and The Ink Spots and Bing Crosby and Vera Lynn (does anybody here remember her?). And at its core, it is a profoundly sad story of a father and a son, and maybe that’s why it resonated so strongly with me.

I don’t want to say any more about it, I just want to implore you to watch it, if you are at all intrigued by this little tease. It is currently not available on any on-demand services that I know of, but the discs are in the Netflix by-mail inventory, and it is of course available on Amazon. Would love to hear what you think of it.

Attention Whovians: “The Angel’s Kiss” is now an actual book

My fellow Whovians, a little reason to celebrate … remember the book that the Doctor was reading in the park during the wonderful mid-season finale, “The Angels Take Manhattan”? The one that turned out to be written by River Song, filled with dangerously accurate information about things that were about to take place, information that could either save or doom our heroes once and for all?

Umm … well, that book doesn’t exist. It still doesn’t. Of course not, and stop being silly.

HOWEVER, there is now an e-book called “The Angel’s Kiss,” and it looks much like the book you see Amy Pond reading in that there picture. But unlike the book in the episode, this one contains no supernatural foreknowledge of things that are about to happen to you. It does not tell you what you are having for lunch tomorrow, or whether or not your Yorkshire pudding will be so tough that you will break your wrist trying to cut through it.

HOWEVER ONCE AGAIN, this e-book is a charming novella (so far, at least, I’ve only just started it) that serves as a prequel to the episode. Even better news is that it is written by Justin Richards, who has written some of the very best Who novels. So if you’re a fan of the show, this is well worth the few quid they are asking.

Bonus challenge: I dare you to read this book and NOT hear it in your head in the voice of Alex Kingston. You can’t do it! Nor should you want to.