Shining Darkness.

Books Considering he has a ship which can travel anywhere in existence at any time (give or take a timelock or two), never mind his fondness for Earth, the Doctor takes very few trips outside of the Milky Way. So it’s also ways a novelty when he pitches up in the Isop Galaxy or Andromeda as in Mark Michalowski’s Shining Darkness. It’s a bit like those episodes of Eastenders which venture outside the comfort zone of Walford, though in Doctor Who’s case it offers the writer even more scope to create a world, since the usual laws of society or physics needn’t necessarily apply. Except, as Michalowski’s book demonstrates, more often than not, it’s problems are all too often like our own, which is as it should be probably otherwise what’s the point?

Wanting to show Donna a part of the universe even he’s not too aware of, The Doctor takes her for a visit to an Andromedran art gallery, but there’s not much time to decide if the work on offer beats this year’s Turner prize before they’ve each been misappropriated to the starships of two sides of a cat and mouse chase across the galaxy. The companion’s captors, The Cult of Shining Darkness, that galaxy’s equivalent of white supremacists are attempting to collect sections of some device to help in their fight against the mechanicals who as far as they're concerned are stealing their part of the universe from the 'organics'. Hot on their heals, the time lord hitches with the small band of fighters tasked with stopping them. It’s not the most complex of stories; both parties appear at various locations such as junk yards, fight over a thing then move on to the next one, battling to get the upper hand (cf, The Infinite Quest).

What makes it interesting and indeed a pleasure to read is Mark Michalowski. I’ve been very pleased with his comic strips in both DWM and DWA and enjoyed the cute overload that was his previous book in this range, Wetworld, and Shining Darkness offers a definite development in style, as the author very closely pastiches the kind of idiom of deviation and derivation usually perpetrated by Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams, with moments in which the story takes a break whilst he offers some background to events outside of the character’s point of view all the better to increase the humour quotient and where all the Doctor and Donna can do is look on whilst the petty differences which permeate our society are extrapolated onto, for example, a couple of robotic assassins.

Which means that a story which in other hands would be a fairly fun if predictable romp is at times laugh out loud funny. Some of this is self referential – there are tips of the hat to (deep breath) the spiritually similar unfairly-maligned-still Graham Williams-produced trad era as well as early parts of the new series. Much of the time it’s just that the author is trying and succeeding in being clever and assuming that his audience is looking for something with more depth than many of these books offer. There’s an amazingly gutsy passage which I’ll not spoil for you which plunges headlong into the debate about the viability of organised religion as well as pointing out elsewhere that in fact everyone is ultimately racist and there’s not very much you can do about it.

Some might find the treatment of that last point to be a bit heavy handed – and in the middle of the book to an extent the Doctor turns into a kind of timelord Louis Theroux coming to terms with the bizarre value system of the cult and how they can't understand why man and machine would want to live in perfect harmony. The supporting characters too are fairly functional with the cult pinioned on a familiar Pertwee villian trope of the bureaucrat with shaky beliefs and standards relying on someone who has both and neither being chased by Lost In Space’s Will Robinson and Robot (though the latter undoubtedly has a drier-wit). But Mark's overall wit and portrayal of the Doctor and Donna keep you reading as he perfectly captures their performances, particularly Catherine Tate, modulating the shrillness with the smarts, and demonstrating that when the history of this era of the show is written down, she’ll be considered one of the best companions, the Ginger Goddess indeed. And you’ll have to read it to find out what that means. Delightful.

iconic ironic glint in his eye

Obituary Before writing this, I was seeing which of the now late Paul Newman’s films I was yet to see. Whenever one of the great old actors dies, it’s good to look back into a career and see what you’ve yet to see and in tribute catch up – I’m watching The Verdict later. What’s surprising is that he didn’t appear in that many films. He wasn’t a journeyman like Michael Caine who at various points was making four or five or more films a year (though he’s cut back a bit lately), only averaged about one film every twelve months.

What earned him the title of great actor was the strike rate, the sheer number of classic films in which he starred. For a while, Newman’s presence in a work guaranteed that even if it wasn’t to be a seminal work, it would at least be entertaining. There’s also a fair few forgotten films. In the same year he shot up South America with the Sundance Kid, he starred in The Secret War of Harry Frigg which looks to prefigure MASH and Buffalo Soldiers in its satirical look at the armed forces and Winning, a riff on the race car formula. Neither has been released on DVD in the UK, are hardly spoken of and look intriguing.

And both probably benefited from Newman’s iconic ironic glint in his eye, his swagger but also his on screen graciousness, never overplaying or leaving his co-stars in the shade. Watch him in both Sundance and The Sting let his co-star Robert Redford have most of the best moments. But he’s was still able to judge when strength really was important and even in later years became the most memorable aspect of the likes of The Road To Perdition and The Hudsucker Proxy. Redford has said in tribute: "My life - and this country - is better for his being in it." Though that’s clearly also true of the whole world.

actually quite good

Elsewhere "I like to think of it as the universe making sure I'm in the right place at the right time. It has a habit of doing that." In which I review some new Doctor Who novel, which is actually quite good.

a cathartic cry

Precisely none of the films I voted for are in the Empire Magazine's Top 500, so job done. It's actually a very intelligent and knowledgeable list; Costa-Gravas's Z is as high as 148 and Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev is 36, which is frankly remarkable. I won't say what come's top, but I will say that someone has other ideas.

The International Association of Tie-In Writers
I wonder if any of Doctor Who's journeymen are members. Includes this range of articles on topics such as hammering out Murder She Wrote novels.

Free market ideology is far from finished
This is nearly a week old, a things have moved on a bit since then, but Klein's prose is always worth reading. Some it is like poetry: "During boom times, it's profitable to preach laissez faire, because an absentee government allows speculative bubbles to inflate. When those bubbles burst, the ideology becomes a hindrance, and it goes dormant while big government rides to the rescue. But rest assured: the ideology will come roaring back when the bailouts are done."

Large Hadron Particle Collider Launch: Official Schedule Of Events

Peanut Butter, This What?
"My grasp of Malay/Indonesian is shaky, not having done it in school, and with the sentence structures of a two year old and the vocabulary of a three year old, it’s frustrating to understand bits and nothing else. Though my dedicated efforts in reading signboards in Malaysia mean my abilities in this language are slowly improving (Me: “What’s faedah?!”, on an insurance signboard. Her: “Say it again! Hahaha!” Me: “Frown!”) it still counts for nothing. If anything at all I feel like an idiot. Watching TV affirmed this. I understood one in ten words. So an Indonesian comedy program, which I’m sure was very funny to the native audience, sounded to me like this: “Where!” “Here!” “There!” “Who!” “Mosquito” (Audience: “Hahahaha!”)"

Book Notes - Juliana Hatfield ("When I Grow Up: A Memoir")
Is it possible to say that you're a fan of someone on the basis of a single song? Hatfield's "Make It Home" from the My So-Called Life soundtrack has been the source of a cathartic cry on more than one occasion. I don't think she's recorded anything better.

How did we come to this?

Liverpool Biennial 2008 One of the most technically brilliant short films ever made is Claude Lelouche’s Rendezous in which a car careen through Paris’s many districts during one of the most exciting yet death defying eight minutes you’ll see (it was butchered recently to become a Snow Patrol video). Lelouche’s film was the starting point for Nancy Davenport’s Workers, a series of documentary videos flowing through the Open Eye Galleries. Employees are shown at a Jaguar car factory at work and rest, on the production line and in the canteen, lateral tracking shots almost creating the view from the window of one of the cars passing by. It’s an important work, because it demonstrates that in places like this, human beings and machines have become to a degree interchangeable, especially since these are the kinds of job in which break time is conducted in the premises which doesn’t seem to provide any respite at all. How did we come to this?

Similar apocalyptic visions at the Bluecoat and Tracey Moffat’s Doomed, a ten minute sequence of shots from disaster and action films, in which humanity loses against wave upon wave of destructive forces, natural and man-made and alien. I suspect someone whose seen less films than me will have a different reaction, since I spent most of the three times I watched this trying to guess where all of the scenes were from, to the point that the other people gathered around on Friday night were asking me. Doomed was originally created a few years ago, and since montage sequences just like it have proliferated on video sharing sites like YouTube, but there's a definite intensity to the sheer scale of carnage on view here, a chance to concentrate on those who buy it whilst the hero is dashing for higher ground or locking themselves in a bunker. Just why does that man keep reading his paper as water washes through New York in The Day After Tomorrow rather than dash for the library like everyone else? What’s the point in checking stock options if you’re not going to be around the spend the dividends?

At the Tate, Guy Ben-Nar’s Second Nature recreates Aesop’s fable of The Fox and the Crow, showing animal trainers attempting to coax the real life animals into giving a performance, for the bird to drop a piece of cheese to the predator on the ground. At the centre is a short section in which those trainers give a fairly good reading of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, even if this is rendered unintentionally funny because one of them mispronounces the name in the title to rhyme with ‘gobot’. In both cases we’re witness to repetitive, painfully fruitless acts – Didi and Gogo are never likely to see the man and there’s no way you’d expect the crow to give up the piece of cheese.

If there is a must see at the Biennial, especially if you are a film fan, it’s Omar Fast’s Take a Deep Breath, which blends aspects of Mike Figgis’s Timecode, Tom Dicillo’s Living in Oblivion and Steven Soderbergh’s Full Frontal in a work that experiments with the nature of reality in film and how our expectations of conflict, and in this case the story of a real world medic who attended the scene of a suicide bombing in Jerusalem in 2002. His narration and interview footage are intermixed with scenes featuring a fictional film crew as they recreate the scenes he witnessed and experienced, their narcissism dislocated from the grimness of the scene their art department has recreated.

What makes this work is the quality of the writing, its dark humour and characterisation better than some feature films can muster and performances, which hark back to the naturalistic heyday of indie productions. They’re unknowns, bit players from tv series and movies put in centre stage. I presume you’re not supposed to recognise any of them, and yet there I was on Friday night, blurting out ‘That’s Harry Von Gorkum!’ in the darkness. The suited man sitting next to be looked across and asked who and so I inevitably had to actually tell him. This English actor was the second choice to play the Doctor in the 1996 US tv movie. If Paul McGann hadn’t signed, the fate of the franchise would have been in Von Gorkum’s hands. He’s very good in this, and you can certainly see his timelord quality, as bluffs his way through asking one of the other extras out on a date.

Finally, if you’ve ever wondered how Harry Lime felt after going through the conditioning process in The Ipcress File (and if so, why?) pop along to FACT and try and sit for the duration of Ulf Langheinrich’s LAND. On entry you’re handed some 3D glasses and depending upon which end of the piece you are, you’ll either be lulled by the gentle waves across what looks like an ocean floor, or assaulted by the kind of sound and vision an average untuned analogue tv throws out, rendered in 3D with an extra layer of flashing strobes underneath. The effect creates particles which hang in the air, and though oddly captivating it’s also nerve and brain jangling, Langheinrich mission to leave you unsettled accomplished.

the bathroom of the country

Al Weiwei's 'Web of light'

Liverpool Biennial 2008 Liverpool has of course confirmed itself as the bathroom of the country. Just when we think we've gotten rid of one spider, another one comes along and makes its home. A bizarre co-incidence that just a couple of weeks after La Princess disappears into the Mersey tunnel, Al Weiwei strews a web across the buildings of Exchange Flags and drops a funnel web on top. This one lights up, though the artist can’t really say why he picked an arachnid and they are significantly different. This is called Web of Light and glows purple at night. La Princess also had bulk, but this is smaller and could make for swift competition. As Harry Hill might say, there’s only one way for find out which is better. Fight!

As ever, the Liverpool Biennial works best when its treats are unexpected, and they’re most unexpected in these public spaces. Look through a hole cut through flyposters in the old Kwik-Fit garage on Renshaw Street and there’s an apartment, of the kind you usually see on make-over programmes, middle class decor in slight disarray giving the impression of having been lived in. The experience of peering into this private world created by Mandfredi Beninati from a metropolitan thoroughfare is positively voyeuristic, though the experience shouldn’t be a million miles away from a visit MFI or flicking through an Ikea catalogue, since as in those examples this isn’t a real living space just the implication of one. You’d like to think you’re not the kind of person to fall for such soft furnishings, but would desperately like to have that couch in your living room.

Next door, at the bottom of Hardman Street next to Zorba’s Greek Restaurant, waste ground which I think has been vacant even longer than the cinema has been closed, architectural practice Atelier Bow-wow have created a small wooden ampitheatre tricked out in cedar wood (I think), which I really hope is kept in use once the Biennial has finished. I joined the audience on Friday night for a show of dancing and music and crap acting which as far as I can tell was the point and if the presentation wasn’t too good, the experience of sitting in that spot opposite St. Luke’s Church was breathtaking, the undercurrent of traffic on the outside not detracting at all, but enhancing a unique urban experience. There will apparently be a programme of different shows each weekend of the next two months at least and I’ll definitely be going back.

But my absolute highlight of the Biennial so far, for its sheer visceral experience, is Yayoi Kusama’s Gleaming Lights of the Souls at the fairly remote Pilkington’s factory. It’s difficult to put into words without spoiling the surprise (though the catalogue has a go). Um. Remember the Mike Nelson piece at last year’s Turner prize? The one with the mirrors and the lights and the sand and when you looked through the gap in the wall it seemed as though you were looking into infinity? Imagine being able to walk into it. That’s the experience Kusama has created. As I stood in the space with lights and copies of myself disappearing off into the distance, its one of the few times in life I’ve had a moment of total euphoria. I was giddy and kept giggling. The guide calls it ‘tardis-like’ and so it is, but when all of the lights turn green, it’s also what you envisage stepping in the The Matrix would be like. Well worth making the pilgrimage if you're in the area.

Next: It's all video, video, video ...

or is it three?

Liverpool Biennial 2008 Here then is the biannual Liverpool Biennial review. The theme for 2008’s International show is Made-Up which of course has the double meaning – the scouse term for being happy and the actual process of creating a piece of art. Artistic Director Lewis Biggs says it’s also “a celebration of the ways in which artists use imagination” and that he wanting to bring work which doesn’t just “traffic in information” but allows the artists to show their deep seated passion for what they do, and create something “totally new”. What is definitely new is that this definite structure has lent a coherence to proceedings so that everything feels unified and properly curated rather the individual venues doing their own thing under the Biennial banner.

So unlike previous years were the work has spread across the city and even with the help of leaflets it was difficult to get a fix on everything, this year a proper guide book come catalogue has been produced with an excellent clear map in the back and all of the different venues and public pieces placed on a trail, marked in pink and clearly signposted in the real world. I walked the trail today and it was a breeze if a bit of a slog by foot, the only times when I got lost having more to do with my lack of sense of direction than deficiencies in the map.

Unifying all of the venues in the one guide too means that even in the unofficial venues, information about the work is close at hand, the page on the right offering an excellent reproduction of each piece, and on the left a carefully judged explanation. Plus it's small enough to fit in the span of the hand and tactile enough to be flicked through. I quite enjoyed walking into each venue, guide in hand, the art lover's equivalent of a sword and shield, ready to do battle with whatever conceptualism the artist wanted to throw at me.

A new visitor centre has been installed at the old ABC cinema on Lime Street and though the Annette Messager piece in the old screen two (or is it three?) is interesting (a meditation on time and cinema with ghostly cloth flowing across seats and a sinister skeleton). There's a shop for refreshments and merchandise. Putting the Biennial’s embassy in such a central position is a great choice, somehow giving it a prominence lacking in previous years. It's also an excellent chance to enter the building for the first time since it closed ten years ago (has it really been that long?) and tut at the state its in.

Memories of seeing It's A Wonderful Life for the first time on the big screen and not wanting to see it on the small screen ever. Going on an almost date (neither of us seemed sure if it was one) to see Smilla's Feeling For Snow with a girl called Theresa who was on crutches after she'd fallen off a bollard one night when I was walking her home from night class. Spending most of The Lost World: Jurassic Park with a small child kicking me in the back trying to hear the thing over the din of the family sitting in front of me making sure they were all getting the same share of popcorn. Good times.

Next time: Art in public places