Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Found Episodes Crisis

It is, of course, a commonly-known piece of Doctor Who lore that not every episode that was produced by the BBC can be seen today in its originally transmitted form. (See the previous essays for exact details on the many "lost episodes" of this long-running series.) But what is distinctly less known, and far more disquieting to some, is that certain episodes of Doctor Who were not, in fact, created by the BBC. These so-called "found episodes" created one of the biggest controversies in the history of the new series, and led to massive changes in the entire production of Doctor Who that still reverberate to this day.

The "found episodes crisis" began on Month DD, YYYY, late in the production run of Series Four. A series of production delays had caused massive disruption to the filming schedule; production documents indicate that the delay began when the make-up department ran out of styling gel, necessitating a costly stoppage of work as David Tennant's hair had reached the point where it could no longer hold up under its own weight. This stoppage, in turn, caused further disruptions as it meant that Catherine Tate became unavailable for shooting, as she had accepted a role in the soon-to-flop movie 'Gulliver's Travels', and needed to shed approximately 99% of her body mass in order to play her Lilliputian character. An attempt was made to create a CGI version of Donna Noble, but the budget for this expensive special effect had to be specially cleared by the BBC, and the Mill was already over-extended with their work on the highly elaborate "Billie Piper" sequences. (The actual Billie Piper had refused to return to the series, on the not-unreasonable grounds that it would mean going back to Cardiff again.) For the first time since Doctor Who had returned to the airwaves, it appeared that the two-part season finale would not be ready in time.

And yet, that evening, an episode did air. 'The Stolen Earth', as the title claimed, broadcast throughout Great Britain on Saturday night, to the absolute astonishment of everyone at BBC Wales. Frantic calls kept everyone in the production department awake late into the night, as they attempted to trace both the source of the broadcast and the source of the unexpected episode. Technicians at the BBC were utterly mystified--the show went out over their transmitters, but to this day they have not been able to determine how the episode was inserted into their archives. The entire cast has denied filming the episode, and although Davies has not made his original script available for perusal, he has made it clear to all concerned that even he wasn't about to bring the bloody Daleks back a third time in four seasons.

After a long meeting that took up most of Sunday, the top brass at the BBC agreed that they had no intention of publicly announcing that they took no responsibility for the most recent episode of their flagship series. It was decided that Davies would write a new script that followed on from the ending of 'The Stolen Earth', wrapping up the plotlines using as much footage as possible from the already-shot sequences of the season finale currently filming in Cardiff. Most of them had already been made aware of a potential delay in airing the episodes in question, and so a press release had already been prepared. It was modified to delete references to the "two-part season finale", and Davies sequestered himself in a hotel room in London to write the last episode of Season Four uninterrupted.

As with the original script for Part One of the season finale, Davies has never made the script for his version of Part Two available to the viewing public. Rumor has it, though, that it involved a hastily-invented “regenerative flux” to cover the fact that at that point, the Eleventh Doctor had not yet been cast. Davies planned to simply use special effects to “paint over” Tennant with a computerized regeneration effect for the entire episode, and was even looking into the possibility of reusing footage from previous stories to cover any odd gaps in scripting. The Mill was notified of the possible need to work extra hours to get the sequences done in time, and everyone prepared for several intensive nights of work. (Always mindful of the potential for leaks, Davies used his noted gift for understatement to inform the Mill of the problem with the code-phrase, “Trouble down’t the Mill.” The receptionist quoted Monty Python at him for a solid five minutes before Davies was able to get through to anyone who had actual decision-making power.) Thankfully for the BBC, the press release announcing the delays to Part Two went entirely unnoticed in the week that followed. If anyone in the media had actually been in the habit of reading the BBC’s press releases, they would no doubt have spent the following Sunday asking why the season finale of ‘Doctor Who’ had gone out exactly on schedule the evening of XXXXXX. This was certainly a question that network executives were asking, and not in polite terms, either. No less than the Director-General asked why exactly they felt the need to bring back Davros, pull yet another deus ex machina out of nowhere, and end the season with Rose getting her own pet Doctor to take home with her.

Davies protested that none of this had been his work, but many of those involved had their doubts. For one thing, the end of Season Three made it difficult to believe his protestations that he wouldn’t do something like that. For another, his name was on the finished product as broadcast, and a production like this would be difficult to mount without the resources of the BBC…and seemingly impossible without the actors involved. For a third reason, the end of Season One and the end of Season Two. The showrunner found himself in a very awkward position…as did the star.

Publicly, the BBC announced a hiatus in order to allow Tennant to perform in ‘Hamlet’. Privately, they began a comprehensive investigation into the entire incident, locking down the BBC Wales production facilities to prevent any further unauthorized production of the series until such time as they had satisfied themselves that all transmissions would be of stories that met with management approval. Sir Patrick Stewart was retained, at no small expense, to watch Tennant twenty-four hours a day until the cloud of suspicion was lifted. (He posed as a member of the company performing ‘Hamlet’ with Tennant, since at the time, it was not commonly known that service to the BBC’s internal investigations division was a condition of knighthood. It was not until two years later that Sir Elton John’s shocking exposé blew the lid off of that particular state secret.)

For his part, Davies cooperated fully with the investigations; having seen the finished product that appeared onscreen, he had every reason to want to prove that he was not responsible for it. He provided the BBC with all the raw footage they asked for, as well as internal documentation of the entire creative process from start to finish for his entire time on the series. While this did appear to exonerate him from any blame for the mystery episodes, it did expose as a lie his claim that he was in a coma during the production of ‘Daleks in Manhattan’. As a result, the BBC began to look for a new showrunner.

A more immediate concern, however, was the question of what to do in place of the Christmas special. With Davies under virtual house arrest, and Tennant exiled to the stage, there was no chance of being able to continue the tradition of a Doctor Who Christmas story. John Barrowman was contacted in the hopes of getting a one-off variety show out of him, but he was unfortunately booked up with every other television series in existence, as well as a number of guest-spots in film, conventions, stage shows, and personally introducing himself to the entire population of Germany. Reluctantly, the BBC scheduled a re-run of the previous Christmas special, ‘Voyage of the Damned’.

But as most of you are already aware, that was not what aired on December 25th, XXXX. Instead, ‘The Next Doctor’ was seen by much of Great Britain that day, sending the BBC into a panic and changing the course of Doctor Who history. Because, as we can now reveal, David Morrissey was by that point already deep in negotiations with the BBC to take on the role of the Eleventh Doctor, with only a few details remaining in the negotiation over the character’s wardrobe. (Morrissey favored an eyepatch as part of the Doctor’s costume, for some strange reason.) Needless to say, the actor’s apparent involvement in what was rapidly becoming the strangest and most infuriating scandal in the programme’s history scotched any chance of him actually being the Next Doctor. His career at the BBC finished, he took his eyepatch and went to America.

The Christmas debacle proved to be the point at which the BBC officially lost patience with Davies and Tennant. Despite their denials, it was assumed by all concerned that they had somehow managed to stage a number of “guerilla productions” designed to reduce public confidence in the series at a pivotal point in the BBC’s relations with the British government. Many assumed that Davies had been paid off by Michael Grade, who had harbored a deep grudge against the series ever since a production mishap in the 1970s ended with the TARDIS running over his dog. The two ensuing specials, ‘Planet of the Dead’ and ‘The Waters of Mars’, only served to cement the ire of senior management. (Although, off the record, many of them agreed that they would have approved of Catherine Tate in a leather catsuit if the idea had been presented to them.)

Steven Moffat was approached to act as showrunner, and began production on a new series with relative unknown Matt Smith as the Eleventh Doctor. Moffat carefully scripted his season opener, ‘The Eleventh Hour’, in such a way as to accommodate virtually any kind of storyline that led into it. “I don’t care if it’s got the Doctor’s mum playing bloody peekaboo,” he famously stated. “Ours will work just fine.”

Nonetheless, the transmission of ‘The End of Time’ proved a shock to all concerned. The BBC spent much of the Christmas Day broadcast attempting to trace the use of their signal, but the only thing they could determine was that it came from within the BBC studios itself. Giving up on hopes of catching the culprit, they instead decided to spend the intervening week beating the mysterious pranksters at their own game, creating an audacious plan for a regeneration sequence that would go out “live”, breaking into the pirate signal with a pirate signal of their own.

At first, it seemed that this scheme was doomed to failure. With only a brief window of time between the beginning of the mysterious broadcast and the regeneration, they had little hopes of actually being able to interrupt the signal. However, luck was on their side. The pre-regeneration sequences of the Tenth Doctor visiting his former companions, one by one, took such an extraordinary length of time that not only were they able to film the regeneration sequence (with a cooperative Tennant reprising his role), they were also able to do a sound mix, a post-production edit, add full special effects, and do an elaborate wrap party with appearances by many of Britain’s best-loved celebrities. Then, after a leisurely dinner and a break to learn macramé, they proceeded to break into the signal with Matt Smith’s first appearance as the Doctor. And the rest, as they say, is television history.

To this day, nobody has come forward to take responsibility for the episodes produced in XXXX. They remain one of the enduring mysteries of a series that, though well-known, still has a few surprises about it.

Monday, August 26, 2013

A Glossary Of Doctor Who Fan Slang

It is well known that every fan community creates its own vocabulary to refer to the series, its tropes and ideas, and even the community itself. Whether you are a "Buckster" (a fan of Buck Rogers), a "Lostie" (a fan of Lost) or a "Starbuckster" (a fan of Buck Rogers who works at a coffee shop), you have no doubt created a language all your own to talk about the series with fellow fans. But how does a new fan of Doctor Who (or, as we call them, a "Whobie") learn these common slang terms? Below is a list of definitions that should help you get into a "slanging match" (a common Doctor Who term for a discussion of the series on an Internet forum) quickly and easily.

Frock: A Doctor Who story in which the characters wear elaborate, impractical outfits. Most people consider the "frock" style to have its apogee in the late Hinchcliffe era; 'The Robots of Death' and 'The Deadly Assassin' are both considered to be extremely "frockish" stories, with Zilda's outfit as the crowning glory of fashion absurdity. The term was later incorporated into the "rad" style of the New Adventures, primarily due to the influence of Kate Orman; she remains to this day a lifelong surfer, and she incorporated Australian surfing traditions into virtually all of her novels as an inside joke with her surfing friends. Since these traditions involved surfing while wearing floor-length evening gowns (the origins of the tradition are not known, but are presumably related to the Australian superstition that they confuse the sharks that infest most Australian beaches) the two terms became conflated for much of the 1990s.

Gun: A Doctor Who story featuring projectile weapons. Some fans consider only stories in which physical projectiles, propelled by gunpowder, are fired from guns to be "gun" stories; others expand the definition to include any type of weapon that fires from a distance without human power, such as energy blasters. The definition is constantly argued about, and the utility of the definition is always in question; however, most are in agreement that these are the antithesis of "frock" stories, primarily because there's no place to conceal a gun in an evening gown.

Monopticon: A science-fiction convention specifically geared towards Doctor Who fans. The first Monopticon occurred in 1966, in Longleat; the convention occurred at the height of the short-lived "Monomania" craze that popped up after the first appearance of the one-eyed, mop-topped monsters from 'The Ark'. Not only did Monomania tap into the same vein of fan enthusiasm as Dalekmania, it also synergistically fed from the Beatlemania then taking place throughout Britain--for a brief period, the Monoids rivaled the Doctor for popularity, until it was pointed out that (like the Monkees) the Monoids did not play their own instruments. With the rumors that the upcoming story 'The Smugglers' would feature Monoids disguised as pirates (with a scene where the pirates would remove their eyepatches to reveal an expanse of blank skin underneath) the fans were at a fever pitch of excitement, and several made plans to meet and watch Part One when it came out. The plans grew into a formal convention, called 'Monopticon I', and fandom has called Doctor Who conventions Monopticons ever since. The line, "I wouldn't dream of interfering with your Monopticon," from the Doctor Who serial 'Four to Doomsday', was intended as a sly dig at fans who feared that JNT's involvement in fan culture would lead to his co-opting it.

Quarrier: A true fan of the programme. The term is taken from a group of fans who decided, as a mark of their devotion, to visit each and every last one of the quarries used to film exterior scenes for Doctor Who. Normally, this is easily done, as it merely involves visiting each and every last one of the quarries in Britain (as well as one quarry in Spain that was used for some pickup shots on location for 'The Two Doctors') but in this case, they complicated matters further by wishing to a) visit the exact location where the TARDIS prop was placed during the filming, and b) visit them in the same order that the series depicted them. This meant months of intensive studying of the video footage, matching the types of rock visible and the approximate state of the quarry at the time of filming to photos obtained from the quarry owners (who agreed to assist them after extensive financial compensation.) After finally determining to within a span of two feet where the TARDIS props were placed, they set out on their pilgrimage; the tour involved criss-crossing the country several times in order to visit each quarry once for every time it was used in a BBC production. The group visited one quarry in Wales six times, each time going back to a spot within twenty feet of their previous trips, in order to avoid seeing any quarries out of order. And even though the group was committed en masse to a mental institution not long after the completion of their tour, their abiding love for the series has been immortalized in this charming slang term.

Rad: Short for "radical"; this refers to a Doctor Who story whose tone evokes the free-spirited and adventurous surfer sub-culture of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Common tropes in these Doctor Who stories include extreme sports like skateboarding and windsurfing, and an acceptance of the sublime beauty of nature ("sublime" in the classical Romantic sense, that is, evoking both wonder and terror simultaneously) as a part of everyday life. Paul Cornell came to exemplify both the "rad" and the "frock" Doctor Who story after the novel 'Human Nature', which he famously came up with while on an Australian beach with Kate Orman. The two of them had completed a marathon surfing session, both wearing the traditional Australian surfing gowns as they crested wave after fifty-foot wave, and they brainstormed the novel while drunk with the adrenalin rush of surviving the beach's shark-infested waters. The book inspired much of the tone of the New Series, although most of the surfing material was lost when it was adapted for television.

Soldeed: A fan who takes advantage of the convention atmosphere to enter into carnal relations with a Doctor Who professional (whether in front of or behind the camera.) (The professional, that is, not the action, although the latter is not entirely unknown either.) It is not entirely certain where the term comes from; some have suspected it to be a play on "entering the Power Complex", while others suggest that these fans, like the character that inspired their nickname, are entering into a relationship they can't talk about with someone both powerful and horny. The name is not gender-specific; there can be both male and female soldeeds. In all cases, the act of sleeping with a professional is known as "doing the dirty soldeed", and the return to the fan's hotel room the next morning, still wearing the slightly rumpled costume they wore the previous day, is known as "the Great Journey of Shame". Some fans have attempted to label Who professionals who seek out hook-ups at conventions as "nimon", but the effort has been bogged down in a debate over whether the plural of "nimon" is "nimon" or "nimons".

Trad: A race of monsters from early 60s Who. The Trad came from the planet Tradoon, and resembled (according to reports at the time) anthropomorphic insects with tufts of fur at each joint. Fan rumor has long held that these were repurposed Ice Warrior costumes, but as no episodes survive from any of the Trad stories and no photographs exist of Trad costumes, it's impossible to be sure. In fact, one of the most notable things about the Trad is how little material survives of their appearances; the original episodes were wiped (see the essay, 'The First Lost Episode Crisis') and the surviving audio recordings are so garbled and distorted as to be incomprehensible. Even when the Trad were licensed for an appearance in the old TV Comics, a printing error rendered the strips illegible. With no pictures, film or audio recording of the Trad, they have entered legendary status as an "un-monster"; only the very early fans, those who remember watching the episodes as they came out, have solid memories of these lost stories. These Trad fans hold up the lumbering, slow-moving, easily confused monsters as an exemplar of a kind of Doctor Who that is sadly lost to us forever.

VidFIRED: Removed from canon. In the mid- to late 1980s, the Doctor Who Appreciation Society was one of the earliest and most influential fan organizations; at the time, it was considered to be the singular voice of Doctor Who fandom. At the height of its influence, it decided to perform a comprehensive review of the first twenty-five years of the series' history, removing from canon any video, or "vid" that did not live up to the expectations of the fan committee (chosen from a slate of respected fans old enough to remember the stories at time of first broadcast.) The plan began auspiciously, with only three stories "fired" from the Hartnell era ('The Edge of Destruction', 'The Web Planet' and 'The Gunfighters') and two from the Troughton era ('The Enemy of the World' and 'The Space Pirates'). The group fell to dissention, however, when they reached the Tom Baker era. Some on the committee wished to VidFIRE the entirety of the Graham Williams era, while others pointed out that the Key to Time series deserved preservation. In vain, the group wrestled with the issue, eventually deciding to return to it once they had decided the fate of the rest of the series. It seemed that they had reached accordance once again when they unanimously decided to VidFIRE the entire Sixth Doctor era; however, the effort broke down entirely when a small but vocal contingent demanded to "preemptively VidFIRE Season Twenty-Six". It was this dispute that ultimately led to the fragmentation of British Who fandom. It seems like every fan has one or two stories they wish didn't exist, but nobody can ever quite agree as to which ones they are.

Voord: A Who fan's collection of merchandise, novelizations, videos/DVDs, et cetera. Supposedly, this term got its start from the infamous East End "Whooligans" fan club of the late Sixties, a band of rough-and-tumble enthusiasts of the programme who liked nothing better than a few pints of lager, a saucy lass, and a brawl over whether the first story should be called 'The Tribe of Gum' or '100,000 BC'. According to fan lore, one of the group obtained as the prize item in his collection a prop from the serial, 'The Keys of Marinus' (the title was decided on after an infamous riot that left twelve hospitalized.) In traditional Cockney style, he called his collection his "Voord hoard", which was abbreviated to his "Voord" in everyday conversation. As he boasted to other fans about his "impressive Voord", others took up the term in their counter-boasts, until it entered general currency today.

Whobie: A new fan of the programme. Most whobies assume this to be a portmanteau of "Who" and "Newbie", which is one of the things that mark them as a whobie; the term actually refers to a Doctor Who fan club that sprang up in the early 1970s among a group of naval personnel stationed in Britain. Most of the Seabees (members of the US Naval Construction Battalion) stationed on the base were seeing Doctor Who for the first time, and while enthusiastic, their constant questions about the history of the show irritated British fans. They started to assume that any fan unfamiliar with the programme must be a "Seabie" (as most British fans were unfamiliar with the written form of the term "Seabee", they assumed it ended in "ie") and they started to use "bie" as a general suffix for someone lacking in knowledge and experience. ("Whobie" for Who fans, "Corbie" for Coronation Street fans, "Tribie" for Triangle fans, et cetera.) Even though the suffix has passed out of general use, inexperienced Who fans are still known as "Whobies" to this day.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Retrospective: Lawrence Miles

The thing that's most difficult, when reading through the work of Lawrence Miles (Christmas on a Rational Planet, Down, Alien Bodies, Dead Romance, Interference Books One and Two, The Adventuress of Henrietta Street and This Town Will Never Let Us Go) it determining whether he actually means anything he says. On the one hand, most of his works are highly polemical and charged with arguments guaranteed to infuriate his reading audience. On the other hand, his work is so densely packed with irony that it's hard to determine whether he's actually saying what he believes, or whether he's just enfolded his beliefs in yet another layer of deliberate controversy. When Sam Jones is swayed by the arguments of the Remote, is that because Miles legitimately believes that there's no underlying ethical structure to the universe and we all follow our cultural programming? Or is he just implying that Sam Jones has always been written as a straw woman by every other author, so why not take that to its logical conclusion and have her completely convinced by Compassion's eighth-grade debating tactics? How seriously can you take a man who suggests that pain and suffering is a necessary part of the universe when the story ends with Benny almost literally shoving the argument up the arguer's ass sideways? When dealing with someone who resolutely refuses to take anything entirely seriously, including himself, it's hard to say.

On the other hand, it's possible to be so sharp you can cut yourself. At this point, Miles is as famous for being "Mad Larry" as he is for any of his books; he's managed to alienate pretty much everyone in a position to get him more work, whether in 'Doctor Who' or anything else. His books are notorious for containing thinly-veiled cheap shots and insults towards his fellow authors, and his public statements are, if anything, even more controversial. Even if he is taking the piss, he's never managed to do so in a way that makes it clear to the people he's talking to or about. If your irony is so fine that the only person who knows it's ironic is you, you have probably failed at the task of communication, if nothing else. Even if Miles isn't sincere, he fakes it so well it hurts.

But then again, it's impressive to read someone who commits so fully to their narrative. Miles does an excellent job of getting inside the head of his characters, writing them with absolutely no efforts to impose his own views onto their narrative frame. The ending of 'Christmas on a Rational Planet' is absolutely brilliant in that both the Carnival Queen and the Doctor are fully committed to their respective worldviews, even though they're mutually incompatible and even though they're both entirely unreliable as narrators. The important thing isn't which one of them is "right", it's how they react to their beliefs. The same is true, to a lesser extent, of Sam and Compassion, of Christine and Chris, of Inangela and Valentine. Miles' books don't so much take a side as they throw the arguments up into the air and let you decide where they come down. As a result, you wind up thinking about his books long after you've finished them. (Even if one of the thoughts is, "Seriously, Sam? 'You don't care about people who die in car crashes'? You couldn't come up with an answer to that?")

Of course, all of these polemics and arguments and debates and philosophies would be boring if they weren't written in Miles' prose; for all that he's an infuriating and frustrating human being, he's at the top of the pack when it comes to writing style. 'Alien Bodies' is a fabulously well-written romp with some of the best jokes in the series, and a clear influence on the new 'Doctor Who' TV series. (In fact, I'd argue that it's the last truly influential Doctor Who novel.) 'Dead Romance' is one of the all-time best written novels in the entire range of 'Who' and its spin-offs. His prose drips wit, power, fury, sadness, and horror, sometimes all in the same sentence. Given that, it's no wonder that he was commissioned at least once even after he managed to piss off every single person he's ever worked with. (Although some of the blame for that should rest with the editors. Did Steve Cole never think about cutting the lines that were clearly aimed at other writers? Did Rebecca Levene never say, "No, we're taking out the cheap shot about 'Walking to Babylon'"? But I digress.)

Ultimately, reading Lawrence Miles is both an immensely frustrating and amazingly rich experience. It's difficult to read his books without getting upset, simply because so many of the points he's making are wrong-headed or insulting or insultingly wrong-headed (or wrong-headedly insulting). But at the same time, I've not read a 'Doctor Who' book that's done such a good job of making me re-examine my ideas; Miles has a way of getting under your skin, poking at you and asking if you've really thought about what you've been saying all this time. You wind up looking at the world a little bit differently after reading his books, and that's high praise for any writer. I may not agree with everything he says, I may not agree with anything he says, and I may not even be able to tell you if Miles agrees with anything he says...but it's well worth listening to him say it. It would be nice if, some day, he managed to focus and control his talent for irony and got back in the good graces of the BBC long enough to do another 'Doctor Who' book, because they are well worth reading.

Then again, maybe there isn't any irony at all and he means all the stupid things he's said. That's the problem with irony; there's always the danger that people will start seeing it even when it's not there.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Top Ten Things Lawrence Miles May Have a Right to Be Upset About

It's no great secret that Lawrence Miles has issues with the new series; his blog lets you know in no uncertain terms that he thinks that Steven Moffat is doing things he already did decades earlier, and doing them wrong to boot. (Combined, charmingly enough, with complaints that the production team isn't letting him write for Doctor Who anymore because they have some sort of grudge against him. At some point, you have to wonder if Miles even knows what "people skills" are.)

And yet...I'm doing a re-read right now of Lawrence Miles' Doctor Who novels, and I have to say, if there's one person who could credibly get upset about the new series taking all of his old ideas and doing an extended "house mix" of them, it's probably Miles. To wit:

1) The Time War. It's Number One on the list because it's the most obvious, but it has to be said. In 'Alien Bodies', the Time Lords got into a big war with a mysterious enemy that was also time-active and capable of operating on their level, and they were taking it on the chin. In the new series, the Time Lords had gotten into a big war with a mysterious enemy that was also time-active and capable of operating on their level, and they took it on the chin. The only real difference was that Miles thought that it would be stupid if the enemy was just "the Daleks" at the end of it all. (Mind you, it's easy to act smug if you never had to admit that the Enemy was really the Voord or something.) It's worth pointing out, by the way, that the original plan for the TV show when they weren't sure if they could get the rights to the Daleks was to have the Toclafane act as the destroyers of the Time Lords...and that the revelation that they were the human race from the distant future would have been the big revelation to end Series Three. Worth remembering in light of Miles' comments that the Enemy "came from Earth".

2) The Time Lords. In 'The End of Time', you discover that the reason the Doctor killed the Time Lords along with the Daleks is that they'd become just as bad as the Daleks by the end--the War had twisted them into monsters. Between 'Alien Bodies', 'Dead Romance' and 'Interference', it'd be hard to claim that this wasn't something that worked its way into the popular conception of Gallifrey.

3) 'The Name of the Doctor'. Oh let's see...a story where the Doctor's eventual future death in some vast battle too terrible to be imagined became known to his present self, and in which his future remains turned out to be vitally important to the future of the universe because his biodata--the traces of his entire lifeline--was so special and unique. Huh. And we thought Moffat was dropping an 'Alien Bodies' reference in 'The Impossible Astronaut'.

4)River Song. There's a throwaway line in 'Christmas on a Rational Planet' about Benny's potential child being shaped by exposure to the environment within the TARDIS, and how she would wind up being a potential next step between the human race and the Time Lords. That was a full thirteen years before 'Silence in the Library'. Just sayin'.

5) 'The Runaway Bride'. And speaking of 'Christmas on a Rational Planet', the idea of the ancient Time Lords fundamentally altering the very structure of the universe to make it more fit for habitation by the Time Lords was echoed here, with the "huon particles" that hadn't existed since the beginning of time.

6) The Sycorax. Creepy bad guys who wear skull-masks and use blood control like "a cheap bit of voodoo". You could almost hear Miles' blood pressure racheting up when they showed up on screen.

7) 'School Reunion'. Sarah Jane comes back, but she's older and she's independently investigating a threat to Earth. She gets tangled up with the Doctor again, and winds up discovering that she has a lot in common with his latest companion, who's a fit young blonde woman. I'm not saying that Lawrence Miles was the only person to come up with that idea, but it was a pretty prominent "event" story right before the books lost their claim to being the Official Continuation of Who.

8) The Moffat openings. You know what I mean--'Bells of St. John's', 'The Pandorica Opens', 'The Wedding of River Song'...those really rapid-fire openings that start off with a spectacular set-piece moment that leads into the episode in a totally unexpected way. Now go back and re-read 'Alien Bodies', which opens with the Doctor playing chess with a UNISYC general who tries to have him killed because they found something in Borneo that proves he can die...only to have the Doctor escape by jumping into the TARDIS which is parked sideways halwfway up a building. Moffat was, I don't think there's anything wrong with admitting, influenced by the narrative style of 'Alien Bodies'.

9) River Song escapes by jumping into the TARDIS which is parked sideways halfway up a building. The only real difference is that the Doctor didn't land in the swimming pool.

10) 'The End of Time'. Rassilon's plan is pretty much exactly what the Celestis did. Word for freaking word.

There you go. Ten ways that Lawrence Miles was an incredibly influential figure in Doctor Who on a level all out of proportion to the current recognition he gets for it, and I didn't even mention TARDISes in human form. I think that's pretty restrained of me, to be honest.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Thoughts On Peter Capaldi

In no particular order...

I was really amazed at the number of people who were frustrated with the amount of time that it took the BBC live special to get around to telling us that Peter Capaldi had been cast as the Twelfth Doctor. After all, they could guarantee that people would stay tuned in until the name was mentioned. After that, they could reasonably expect most people to turn off their sets. Is it any surprise that they waited until about twenty-eight minutes into the thirty-minute special to mention the name? And everything that led up to it was about what I expected, a low-key celebration of How Awesome Doctor Who Is, with a bunch of random talking heads from the series reminiscing. Anyone getting highly upset over the special needed better expectation management skills.

At this point, I expect a full, written apology from everyone who insisted that they'd totally heard from someone inside the production team that David Tennant was coming back because Matt Smith had done such a bad job with the part. Written in your own blood, preferably.

I have to admit, Peter Capaldi does look and sound exactly like the sort of actor you'd expect to play the Doctor. Not famous, but having built up a respectable body of work. Not glamorous, but charming and witty. Quirky and unusual, with a reputation for taking a part and making it his own. Eccentric as all hell. If you were to template the "Doctor Who actor" persona, it'd probably be Peter Capaldi. I expect he'll do well in the role, although as with pretty much everyone they've announced, I'll need to see him actually playing the part with live scripts and everything before I can really get a feel for him. (After that, it usually takes me about five minutes to settle in and decide that yes, this is the Doctor. For Matt Smith, the exact moment when I knew he was going to be brilliant was when he said to Caitlin Blackwood, "You know how sometimes adults tell you that everything is going to be just fine, and you know they're lying, but they say it anyway to reassure you? Well...everything's going to be just fine." Delivered not in a tone of reassurance, but with a manic glee that made it perfectly clear that he loved not knowing whether things were going to be fine or not.)

I am not one of the people, by the way, who was rooting for an older actor in the part. I feel like the Doctor should be someone young or at least youngish, because regeneration is a process of physical renewal and it makes no sense to me that Matt Smith's body is going to transform into Peter Capaldi's in a process of bodily renewal. I feel like the Doctor should get his money back for this body. (It's worth noting that the only times the Doctor has ever regenerated into a conspicuously "older" body, Pertwee and Eccleston, we didn't see the transition onscreen. I still think that there were decades of adventures of a younger Pertwee Doctor that we never saw.) That said, I'm clearly overruled here.

My one big disappointment with the whole process so far is finding out that Moffat made no serious attempts to audition anyone other than Capaldi. Given his statements that he believed a female Doctor or a minority Doctor would only work if it wasn't a stunt and the actor/actress in question legitimately won the part, it seems hypocritical as all hell to decide not to give them the chance because he'd already settled on the white male he wanted. I do feel that Moffat has a problem with gender essentialism--the "Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus" bull-hockey that evo-psych majors peddle to CNN on a slow news day--and I think that he just couldn't see casting a Doctor who wasn't a "traditional" Doctor as anything other than a gimmick.

Which is a shame, because I really feel like this would have been the perfect time for it. He needed to cast against Smith, so it needed to feel like a big change, but at the same time Smith was who his instincts were telling him was the best for the part, and deliberately going against your own instincts can result in some very bad decisions. (Colin Baker was molded as "angry, loud, and annoying" because it was the opposite of Davison's "charming, friendly and happy," without realizing that those were traits unlikely to keep an audience.) I think that a female Doctor, or a minority Doctor, would have been a very effective "pattern break" that would have given Moffat something completely different to do with the character and avoided repetition without having to consciously avoid repetition. And also it's the right thing to do after loudly and publicly insisting that the Doctor is a role that's color-blind and gender-neutral, because saying all that and then not auditioning a single non-white-male actor for the part makes you look like a lying bastard and not in the usual cute way that it does when you lie about how exciting the season finale's going to be, but that's going to be true anytime. This felt like the right time for a change beyond just "white man to white man", and I'm disappointed that it didn't happen.

Still, that disappointment will probably last until about five minutes into the Christmas special, when Peter Capaldi will show us all why there's never been a bad choice for the Doctor. Bad scripts, bad writers, bad script editors, bad directors and bad producers, yes. But never a bad Doctor.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Review: Blue Box

(Originally posted May 24, 2003 to the Doctor Who Ratings Guide.)

The tremendous advantage of setting a story in the past is that you can drop hints about the future and make them as accurate or as inaccurate as needed, given the knowledge of the characters involved; the even more tremendous advantage of setting it in the recent past is that, having personal memory of the period, you can make it authentic while still taking advantages of the "time travel" conceit that powers Doctor Who. Blue Box does exactly that by setting its story in the early 1980s, giving author Kate Orman the chance to evoke quite precisely the early period of computer evolution while showing just how far we've come in twenty-one years. To be honest, next to the vivid portrayal of early hacker culture and capabilities, the plot was relatively unimportant -- unimportant, but not uninteresting.

The Eridani computer functions as the MacGuffin of the plot -- it's a suitably world-threatening device that we understand that everyone concerned wants it, and wants it badly enough to do seriously dangerous things to get it. However, it's really nothing we haven't seen before. "Alien technology perverting the course of human history" is an old saw in Doctor Who, even if it is handled well here. What's important is the people who want it and the ways they're trying to get ahold of it, and that's where Blue Box shines.

Sarah Swan, the villain of the piece, is quite possibly one of the best-drawn character portraits we've ever seen in Doctor Who. She's not an evil megalomaniac (well, not until the end when things are getting way out of control), she's not a madwoman (well, not until the end, again), she's the sort of petty tyrant, control freak, and revenge-monger that anyone who's frequented the Net has run into on one occasion or another. She's not nice, she's not sympathetic, and she's the sort of person you just want to slap if you ever meet, but she's fully-realized and excellently developed over the course of the novel. She's also not the cliched "one step ahead of the heroes" villain... most of the twists involve the Doctor out-maneuvering her, and her increasing desperation to stay on top of things. She's a villain who just cannot accept that she's out of her league.

The other characters are well-done, too. Chick Peters gets a lot of development "hidden in the shadows", and Bob Salmon comes off as a great pseudo-companion. And Ian Mond... well, it's a trifle unfortunate that a relatively major part was given to a fan namecheck; like M. Night Shaymalan or Quentin Tarantino, these cameos pull the reader out of the story a bit and might be better off with very small parts. Of course, after Vampire Science, I can't complain too loudly about fan namechecks.

The regulars are well-done here, too, with the Doctor seeming to revel in playing with our antique, human technology. (If the stakes are as high as he says, I do wonder why he doesn't use something more advanced, though. As it is, by using contemporary technology, he does seem to be levelling the playing field with Swan a bit. Still, since his whole goal is to keep anachronistic technology out of human hands, he must have decided it wasn't worth the risk.)

The point where the novel shines, though, is in its careful, loving descriptions of hacking and hacker culture. Every plot point hinges on some clever use of computers, and it's fascinating to get glimpses of how the hackers of the time could make the systems sit up and beg. I'm of the optimistic and hopefully not too naive opinion that these days, security has caught up a bit with hackers -- the period described here was a sort of Wild West time, before anyone realized the damage that could be done -- but it's still amazing to read about this stuff. The style chosen fits perfectly with the material, too -- Chick Peters' journalistic writing reminds me a lot of the unnamed (but always, in my mind, Bernice Summerfield) historian who set down The Adventuress of Henrietta Street. Considering that a lot of my non-fiction bookshelves contain history books, this was right up my alley.

In sum, I loved Blue Box, with all the fervor of an 80s nostalgia freak; I recommend it as probably Kate's best book since Set Piece.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Retrospective: Simon Bucher-Jones

(Originally posted to the Doctor Who Ratings Guide on September 23, 2003.)

Retrospective: Simon Bucher-Jones

Many of the authors who have contributed to the various lines of Doctor Who novels (and their spin-offs) can be summed up in a single word. For Paul Cornell, it's "charming"; for Christopher Bulis, it's "comfortable"; for Ben Aaronovitch, it's "brilliant". For Simon Bucher-Jones, author or co-author of The Death of Art, Ghost Devices, The Taking of Planet 5, and Grimm Reality, it's "challenging". In fact, frequently the challenge implicit in his novels has turned off many a reader; that's a genuine shame, because he's got a lot of wit and style to offer to those who are willing to undertake those challenges.

Most of the challenge to Bucher-Jones' works comes from his plots. Bucher-Jones is a devotee of "hard science fiction", and virtually all his novels concern themselves with the intricacies of quantum physics and their implications. From the Quoth of The Death of Art, sub-atomic life-forms that feed on the psychic potential of the living mind, to the budding universes that breed from the super-structure of even larger universes in The Taking of Planet 5, a lot of Bucher-Jones' work requires a physics degree to comprehend on the first read. Failing that, one can simply read and re-read the book until it all makes sense, or take notes, but to the casual reader (myself included), it can wind up being downright impenetrable.

It doesn't help that Bucher-Jones doesn't slow down for the faint of brain. The Death of Art explains how the Brotherhood evolved from your bog-standard Masonic order into a group of powerful psionics that would go on to manipulate the galaxy's politics for centuries to come, but it's kind of shoe-horned in with the explanation of the breeding of the Quoth and the development of the Shadow Directory and the plots of Montague and Chris impersonating the Fifth Doctor and it never slows down for even a moment. Didn't catch any of that? Read it again, is the implied answer. The book's not going anywhere.

However, like Lawrence Miles and Ben Aaronovitch, two other controversial authors, being too clever isn't the problem it seems. What was a tough, incomprehensible read the first time around melts into a sharp, wickedly witty novel the second, and Bucher-Jones shows a flair for the poetic in his prose style that complements his gifts for plotting. Whether describing the Vo'lach, aliens ensnared in a temporal paradox that tricks them into racial suicide, or creating a monster that rips ideas out of people's minds (and for a truly inspired piece of writing, read page 223 of The Taking of Planet 5 -- my apologies in advance to Mark Clapham if that turns out to be one of his bits) -- Simon Bucher-Jones dazzles the reader with wild imagination coupled to a beautiful writing style.

Really, Simon Bucher-Jones is the complete package as a writer, even if it does behoove the reader to take notes (and, possibly, a class on quantum physics) before reading his novels. He's remained active in Who circles, and it'd be nice to see another novel out of him in the not too distant future. I just plan to read it very, very, very carefully.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

River Song: A Confession

(Originally posted to Fraggmented on June 8, 2011)

I know this is going to be a bit of a shocker, particularly to fellow Doctor Who fans, but...to me, River Song gets less interesting every time she shows up in the series.

I obviously don't want to give anything away for "A Good Man Goes To War", which hasn't officially aired in North America, but suffice to say that Big Revelations about River are in the offing. And like all the other Big Revelations about River Song, it seems to me to diminish her in my imagination just a little bit more. When we first saw River Song, she was a larger-than-life human able to hang with the Doctor on his own level, a woman who may or may not have been his lover (or even his wife) who has her own tremendous, exciting adventures that only occasionally intersect with those of the Doctor...and those not necessarily in consecutive order at that.

Now? She's that woman who lives in Stormgate Prison and breaks out every once in a while when the Doctor needs her. She's someone who lives life backwards to the Doctor, not sideways and upside-down and at crazy non-Euclidean angles. She's someone who, not to spoil "A Good Man Goes To War", has a specific and finite character arc that we have already seen, in a sense, the beginning and end of. It's hard to see her as an equal to the Doctor in that light. After all, he's a man with an unlimited past and a wide-open future. River is anything but.

I miss the River who wasn't anything but. I miss the River whose story couldn't be told on television because you can't hire an actress to time travel fifteen years into the future to pretend to be her own younger self. I miss the River who might only have lived into her forties (assuming she wasn't from an era where someone could live to be two hundred and still look like they were in their forties...) yet spent those years full of life and adventure, crossing paths with twenty-seven incarnations of the Doctor in her career as archaeologist, smuggler, burglar, professional jailbird, and dozens of other professions in a rich life filled with incident. Like the Star Wars prequels, River fails for me not because of any failings of Steven Moffat, but because the River Song in my head was mine and nobody else's is ever going to be as good.

I know that a lot of people aren't going to agree with this. They like Moffat's River Song, and I don't blame them. But I think if you could meet mine, you'd like her better too.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Retrospective: Christopher Bulis

(Originally published June 11, 2003 on the Doctor Who Ratings Guide.)

On the surface, Christopher Bulis is an unlikely choice for the label of "controversial author". Yet, in his own way, he's become something of a focus for controversy just as polar opposites like Lawrence Miles and Ben Aaronovitch have. To fans who enjoy the ground-breaking efforts of the aforementioned "rad" authors, Chris Bulis' work stands as an example of exactly the sort of pot-boiler the range should avoid. Yet he's been commissioned more than any author save Justin Richards, with twelve novels (Shadowmind, State of Change, The Sorcerer's Apprentice, The Eye of the Giant, Twilight of the Gods, A Device of Death, The Ultimate Treasure, Tempest, Vanderdeken's Children, City At World's End, Imperial Moon, The Palace of the Red Sun) to his name. So why, if he's a bland and boring author as some (myself included) claim, does he have so many champions, both in fandom and at the BBC? And if he's good enough to get commissioned twelve times, why do so many people hate his books?

Fundamentally, I think a lot of people dislike his books because they don't seem like Bulis spent a lot of effort on them. The characters never really rise above their own one-sentence descriptions; The Eye of the Giant is about a Disgraced Scientist, an Alcoholic But Likeable Movie Star, a Disabled Person Who Gracefully Handles It, a Cold-Hearted But Pretty Movie Star, and a Father Who Just Wants the Best For His Little Girl going out to a mysterious island, and those brief phrases are about as deep as Bulis ever gets. All of these characters feel as though they should have a stat block under their names, and instructions to the Game Master on how to play the characters. Even the Doctor and his companions come off as remarkably generic.

His plots, too, come out of the "generic" school. State of Change, the world where Rome never fell. The Sorcerer's Apprentice, the world where magic works. The Ultimate Treasure, the quest for a mysterious treasure that throws together unlikely companions. It's all so generic and cliched that by his third or fourth novel, he's having the characters themselves comment on how cliched it all seems, as though he feels a subconscious need to apologize. (The ultimate example of this comes in Imperial Moon, where Turlough and the Doctor find the diary of one of the main characters and Turlough laughs at how bad the concepts within seem, even predicting major chunks of the rest of the book based on the excerpts.) The worst part comes when his characterization and his plotting interact -- after all, one of the usual concepts of Doctor Who is that the Doctor shows up and solves the mystery/ends the deception that the society, expedition, refugees, whatever, are trapped in. Since Bulis' deceptions and mysteries are so simple, his only option is to make his characters progressively more idiotic until they can't solve the simple mysteries he puts before them, then lets the Doctor come in and tell them what the audience already realized 200 pages ago.

So, given all his considerable short-comings, why do people still like him? Why did I not commit suicide rather than read twelve of his books in a row? Why, in fact, would I recommend him again for the range?

The answer lies in his prose, I think. It's not brilliant, world-beating, white-fire-across-your-soul stuff like the Paul Cornells and Ben Aaronovitchs of this world produce, but it's pleasant, comfortable writing that feels like that old, worn sweater that you wear on cold days. He's a breeze to read -- whole books pass by in less than two hours, and even though the plot is old, it's still entertaining to hear it again. He's a good raconteur, I think; even as you chuckle at the same old tricks, you have to admire that he continues to use them. He's also got a reasonable sense of humor about his work, which helps.

So, overall, I wouldn't mind seeing another book out of Chris Bulis. I don't think he represents a good model for the range, and I'd hate to see his style of unassuming pot-boilers become the norm, but as an occasional diversion, or a rest between Lawrence Miles world-shatterers, you could definitely do worse.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Three Reasons Why Doctor Who Books Need To Come Back

(Originally posted to Fraggmented on December 29, 2012.)

Technically speaking, I should start by pointing out that Doctor Who books aren't actually gone. In fact, there's something like five lines of Doctor Who fiction out there--the basic novels, which have been a bit dormant but will see three new releases in April; a line of fancy hardcovers that have attracted jaw-droppingly good authors like Stephen Baxter and Michael Moorcock (I'm still holding out hope for a Harlan Ellison entry in this series, although I know it's not going to happen); a line of "Quick Reads" designed to be finished over a lunch-break; a kid's series of 2-in-1 novels; and a Choose Your Own Adventure-esque run of books. After all that, I can kind of understand why the BBC doesn't want a line of novels for the classic series cluttering up the works.

Nonetheless, I miss the books that were coming out before the TV series relaunched in 2005. Even though there was a fairly steep dip in quality during the changeover from Virgin to the BBC, the book series had recovered reasonably well by the end, and produced some really excellent work like 'The Tomorrow Windows', 'Camera Obscura' and 'Fear Itself'. It's a line that deserved to continue on its own merits and on the merits of its sales...but there are also three other reasons I'd bring back the Past Doctor Adventures book line.

1) There is a place for a line of Doctor Who books for older fans. I realize that this is a very fine line to walk, because Doctor Who is a family series and I don't want to see younger fans excluded...but at the same time, the genie's kind of out of the bottle, here. For a good fifteen years, the Doctor Who series was written with an eye towards the older fan, and we got to see stories written for a more mature reader...and I don't necessarily mean that in terms of sex and violence, either. 'Love and War', to choose a particularly excellent and seminal example, examines the Doctor's relationship with his companions and his ultimately alien perspective on the universe in a way that the TV series will never be able to do, simply because I don't think the TV series is willing to risk that kind of unsympathetic view of the Doctor. Not every book was that good or that mature (I'm looking at you, Chris Bulis) but there was a potential there that shouldn't be discarded.

2) The book line served as a laboratory for improving the series. Because the book line was for older fans, and because it wasn't under the pressure of being a flagship show on Saturday nights, they had a lot of license to experiment. The book lines came up with a number of interesting ideas, like a time-travelling archaeologist, or a human/Time Lord hybrid able to deal with the Doctor on his own level, or a view of the Doctor as a myth scattered throughout human history, or a Time War that would lead to the destruction of Gallifrey and the end of the Time Lords, or...basically, re-reading the books (like I'm doing here alongside my wife, just as a reminder) shows just how much of the concepts that became essential to the success of the new series came out of people trying new takes on a classic series and seeing what worked. That's the kind of thing that can and should happen again.

3) The book line gave a lot of excellent writers their first break. The Doctor Who book line had an open submissions policy, both in the Virgin and BBC era, and a lot of fans made the jump to pro through the book line. Paul Cornell, Mark Gatiss, Gareth Roberts, Gary Russell (whatever you may think of his work) and Matt Jones all went from fan to novelist to TV writer, and even some of the already established TV writers (like Moffat and RTD) started their work for Doctor Who in the novels. It didn't always work--we got the occasional Neil Penswick--but it really encouraged a lot of talented people and gave them an opening, which is something that I think feels appropriate for the BBC to do.

There are more reasons, some of which really can't be done right now due to the narrative primacy of the TV show...but I think there's a place for a line of well-written adult novels in Doctor Who, even now. I just don't know if the BBC will see it my way anytime soon.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

What Is Doctor Who All About?

(Originally posted to Mightygodking.com on May 3, 2013.)

I’ve thought for a long while that any long-running series eventually stops being about anything other than itself. Each individual story might be about something; “Let This Be Your Last Battlefield”, for example, is about the absurdity of racial prejudice. But that’s not what ‘Star Trek’ is about. Other episodes of the series were about friendship, or about sexism, or about obsession…until eventually, all you could really say about the series was that it was about the Enterprise crew and the things that happened to them. Each episode was like a color transparency, laid over each other episode until all you could see was a character-shaped hole.

You could say the same thing about ‘Buffy’, about ‘Highlander’, about just about every long-running series…in the end, the changes forced on them by circumstance and the need to keep the show creatively fresh made them less about high school or the Gathering or the alien conspiracy or the fall of the Greek gods and more, eventually, about a person to whom things happen. A season might have an arc, an episode might have a point, but ‘Buffy’ is about a young woman named Buffy.

I’ve come to the conclusion, recently, that ‘Doctor Who’ is (as always, it seems, among science-ficton/fantasy series) an exception. ‘Doctor Who’ is about something, all the way through its fifty-year history, and it’s not the Doctor. In fact, the key to realizing what it’s about is to realize that the Doctor isn’t really what the series is about at all. It’s about the people around him. The Doctor is a catalyst, an agent of change, and the show ‘Doctor Who’ is about the way that people deal with him (and by extension, the monsters he fights and the strangeness of his universe) being thrust into their worldview.

Because everyone has a worldview, a collection of concepts and information that forms the underpinning to their mental existence. Things fall down, cars take you places, jobs pay you money, and the world works the way you’ve come to expect it to each day. We all form an opinion about the Way Things Are…and crucially, we all deal in different ways when that worldview is disrupted.
Some people become angry. Obama becoming President, for example, created a kind of hysterical rage in a certain type of person, because in their world black people did not become President. Obama wasn’t just a man who disagreed with them, he was a sign that their entire existence had come to an end, to be replaced by a strange new world where all their old certainties had dissolved. These people have to believe that he somehow cheated his way into the Oval Office, because they can’t accept the fundamental idea of his legitimacy.

Other people become elated by the change. The unexpected fills them with delight, tells them that there are still surprises left in a boring and predictable world. Seeing a paralyzed woman pick up a cup with a robot arm controlled entirely by her mind elicits a sort of giddiness, a sense that you’re taking a step into a bigger and stranger and more wonderful universe than you previously knew existed.

And many people, to quote the ‘Doctor Who’ story “The Face of Evil”, “rework the facts to fit their views.” Information that changes their worldview too much becomes false, even if the logic required to fit the lie into their head becomes strained to the point of absurdity. People are willing to imagine vast and shadowy conspiracies of government coups and secret shadow agencies if the alternative is accepting that a President can get his head blown clean off by a stranger with a rifle and a grudge.

This is what ‘Doctor Who’ is about. It’s about the ways that people deal with situations that challenge their worldviews. Each story establishes a world, whether it be 1960s London or an alien planet thousands of years in the future, and then it drops the Doctor–a tiny piece of impossibility–into that world. Just to see what happens. (This is one reason why the series can run for so long on such a premise…it’s inherently new-viewer friendly. Since you have to establish the world before you can change it, you’re constantly creating entry points for people who’ve never seen the show before.)
Sometimes people cope with the changes. The first two seasons of the series were about Ian and Barbara, two normal 60s schoolteachers, dealing with situation after situation that was entirely outside of their experience. Rose gleefully embraces the strangeness, Dodo freaks out and leaves the second she gets the chance, and Tegan treats it like a package tour until the point where it all gets to be too much for her.

Other people try to slot the Doctor into their worldview. The new show makes it explicit with the psychic paper–when the Doctor shows it to you, you see what you expect him to be reflected back at you–but even in the old series, the Doctor was always treated like what he was expected to be. Authoritarians saw him as a rebel, police slotted him in as a criminal, scientists expected him to be a kindred spirit. People have tried, desperately and endlessly, to make him fit. Only to find, to their frustration, that’s he’s exactly what he says he is, and nothing else.

The people who can’t accept that, in ‘Doctor Who’, tend to come to unpleasant ends. If you can’t accept that a Dalek or an Ice Warrior isn’t something familiar and acceptable, something you can fit into your worldview by negotiating with them or threatening them or ignoring them, they will probably kill you. The only chance you have to survive in ‘Doctor Who’ is to keep an open mind, to accept that the universe is bigger and stranger and more wonderful than you previously imagined, and to believe the facts when they’re right in front of your face, even if they’re not pleasant. And that’s a premise big enough to last fifty years and then some.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Retrospective: Ben Aaronovitch

(Originally posted on 5/5/03 to the Doctor Who Ratings Guide.)

It's truly difficult to do a retrospective on Ben Aaronovich without lapsing into full-on "gush" mode; after all, we're not only talking about the writer of Remembrance of the Daleks and Battlefield, two of the most influential (and best) Seventh Doctor TV stories, we're also talking about the man who novelized Remembrance and turned out something even better than what was seen on-screen, bringing up the first appearance of the Rassilon/Omega/Other trilogy along the way. Even before he wrote Transit, The Also People, and co-wrote So Vile A Sin, he'd already earned a high place among the creators of Doctor Who.

So what did his Virgin novels add to his reputation? For one thing, they cemented his status as an inspiration to the leading lights of Who writers. Paul Cornell, Kate Orman, Lawrence Miles, Marc Platt, Jim Mortimore, and Lance Parkin, just to name a few, are all playing the game that Ben Aaronovich wrote the rules to; he'd already defined the main elements of the Doctor's character before the New Adventures even began, and his novels showed that a greater level of stylistic depth was possible in the books. (At this point, I'd like to remind everyone that I did warn them about going into "gush" mode.)

Aaronovich's books are dense, complex works -- each sentence is pressed into double, triple, and sometimes quadruple duty in order to squeeze the maximum amount of story out of each page. This can sometimes bewilder first-time readers (Transit winds up confusing a lot of people on the first read-through because it's simultaneously an action thriller, a character study of Kadiatu Lethbridge-Stewart, a history of the Hundred Days War, and a tragedy involving Blondie and Zamina, and that's skipping all the ancient Gallifrey stuff worked in there as well.) But if you're patient, the results are incredibly rewarding; the prose is so rich that even on your seventh (or eighth, or ninth) read, there's still new things to discover and old things to enjoy. The Doctor getting buried in the sand in The Also People ("it could be part of some cosmic plan..."), the Angel Francine playing chicken with a Vulture missile over the skies of Mars, the thousands of Doctors swarming out of a hole in reality to assault the Brotherhood -- Aaronovich just seems to overwhelm you with intelligent writing, to the point where it sometimes seems like drinking out of a fire-hose.

Each of his two solo books takes a very different approach to style -- Transit, naturally, is about motion, with short, choppy scenes and lots of transition from person to person, place to place, flash-backs and flash-forwards giving a sense of speed and urgency to the work. (Again, this can disorient a first-time reader, part of what gives Transit its poor reputation.) The Also People, on the other hand, is languid, lyrical, almost casual in its pacing and revelations; it's about a vacation, and it gives that sense of restfulness even during its big events. Yet it's never dull, an achievement that almost seems paradoxical.

I can't leave off his characterization, either, despite my knowledge that it's going to be more gushing; he does a surprisingly good job with Benny, considering that she's possessed for most of Transit, and his portrayal of Roz in The Also People remains the definitive characterization, its background details and emotional resonance shading every subsequent appearance of the character. He even handles Chris, a fairly shallow (but likeable) character well, by bringing out the puppy-dog enthusiasm of the character. And, of course, he remains one of the few authors to ever pull off scenes showing how the Doctor thinks.

His final (and I hope sincerely only in the sense of "to date") effort for the Doctor Who range was So Vile A Sin, and most fans know that he couldn't complete it. When I first read it, I suspected that he had finally set before him a task too daunting, a book that pulled together the threads of the Psi-Powers series, while also working in the N-Forms from Damaged Goods, sequelizing Original Sin, and depicting an interstellar war and the collapse of an empire as well. However, reading it right after his previous two works, I don't think it was too much for him; instead, I feel that his "somewhat loose perception of linear time as it pertains to deadlines" was all that was at fault. (Of course, the official explanation remains a hard drive crash, and far be it from me to cast doubt on such an august personality; however, given his habitual lateness in the past, I think we may safely be as suspicious as we like.)

Kate Orman essentially wrote the novel based on his outline and using what material he had finished, but the result is more noticeably Orman's than it is Aaronovich's; Kate Orman is, of course, no slouch herself at writing Doctor Who books, and the result is eminently readable, but it doesn't quite flow with the seamless ease that Aaronovich's two solo works do. Orman even admits in the afterword that she can't duplicate Ben Aaronovich's skills, and must simply do the best she can.

Ultimately, I believe that Ben Aaronovich is the finest author the Doctor Who novel lines have produced; whenever anyone questions me about why I read a silly TV tie-in series like Doctor Who, I simply lend them a copy of The Also People. I've never had to answer the question from the same person twice.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Review: To the Slaughter

(Originally posted to the Doctor Who Ratings Guide in May 2005.)

If you can imagine a story, any story, as a car, then you can imagine writers as auto mechanics. (I know this is a weird place to start, but work with me on this one.) The writer's job is to customize the story, trick it out with new features, improve its performance, streamline it, and give it a nice look.

If you can see To the Slaughter as a car, it's like it's one of those weird bullet cars they design just to see if they can break the world landspeed record. It might not always be pretty, it might not necessarily be elegant, and you probably wouldn't just cruise around in it to admire the way it handles, but man, that mother can move.

Cole starts the book with the Doctor, Fitz, and Trix hiding under a board-room table mid-meeting, and before you can say "interplanetary conspiracy" they're split up, on the run, in hiding, escaping explosions, racing against time, and cross-cutting from one thread to another at break-neck speed. The plot actually does hold together reasonably well under these stresses, and while characterization does suffer a bit, it's just because you're moving too fast to get to know anyone. (Trix, astonishingly enough, shows some signs of a personality shyly coming out to greet us, one book before she's written out of the series, but you'd still have a hard time caring if she wandered out of the book never to return.) There's some nice lines here and there, and I personally love the idea of realigning the planets to give the solar system better feng shui, but again, you're really just rocketing through the book for the adrenaline rush. And on that level it's fantastic.

Admittedly, it does steal some from '28 Days Later'... but then again, they stole their first big scene from The Dalek Invasion of Earth anyway, so we're owed payment.

Friday, June 28, 2013

A Thematic Chronology of the New Adventures

(Originally posted to the Doctor Who Ratings Guide on April 23, 2003)

I've been going on about this on Jade Pagoda for a while, so I do think it's time to set down my personal ideas of how the NAs wound up working in terms of their structure -- that is to say, even though it wasn't intended to have a unified, 61-book arc, it does seem that you can pin down various phases of characterization, theme, and so forth that exist in addition to and superseding the various different "story arcs" we see. There are, no doubt, a number of sub-phases this could be broken down into further, but I feel that simplicity is a virtue, so three it is.

Phase One: Birth Pangs
Timewyrm: Genesys-No Future

This first arc dealt with the baggage left behind by the TV series, with its new and radically different portrayal both of the Doctor (a more manipulative, "darker" Doctor who played bigger games with higher stakes) and of the relationship between the Doctor and his companion (trust and friendship, as with previous companions, but an undercurrent of manipulation and resentment that was entirely new.) Ace underwent significant change, turning from an angsty teenager to a violent and angsty adult, and we saw a new companion introduced in Bernice, who entered the series aware of the Doctor's manipulative nature, but very wary of it. As the series progressed through several "false resolutions" of the issue (Timewyrm: Revelation, Love and War, Lucifer Rising), tension levels rose among the TARDIS crew, finally culminating in the Alternate Universe Cycle, where an outside opponent used these tensions as a weapon against the Doctor. Defeating the enemy meant reconciling with his friends, and breaking the tension once and for all.

Phase Two: Smelling the Roses Tragedy Day-Happy Endings

After No Future, the Doctor and his companions finally and definitively reconciled with each other. The Doctor became somewhat less manipulative, but just as importantly, his companions grew to understand the pressures he was under, and come to accept their roles as occasional pawns. It even became something of a running joke (lines like "needs must when the Doctor drives" in SLEEPY, or the wonderful interchange between Chris and Roz in Death and Diplomacy). Every once in a while, hints of that tension rose up again (as in Head Games, where Melanie compares the Doctor she sees quite unfavorably with the Doctor she knew), but for the most part, the danger and tension came from outside of the TARDIS here, rather than inside. Even when Ace left, it was to take up the Doctor's role as protector of time, not because she hated him -- symbolically, at least, she'd become his daughter taking on the family profession. Her later appearances confirm and heighten this impression; witness Happy Endings, where she and the Doctor talk about the impending death of Danny Pain like two true professionals. Two new companions replace her, Chris and Roz, but they get assimilated into the TARDIS crew quickly, easily, and with the barest minimum of angst. All of this joy, happiness, and more straightforward adventures culminates in Happy Endings, Bernice's wedding and essentially a celebration and summation of the 49 previous New Adventures. It ends with the Doctor trying to leave his friends behind, only to be told, "Nobody should be alone."

Phase Three: Grave Reservations GodEngine-The Dying Days

By this point in real life, the television movie had already come out -- the Seventh Doctor, after gaining an extension to his life in print, suddenly found himself obsolete. From this point on, the New Adventures begin concentrating on connecting their stories to the FOX movie, and that meant preparing the Doctor for his own impending demise. Suitably for Time's Champion, the Doctor knew of his regeneration, and books like The Room With No Doors and Lungbarrow focused on his decision to face his future, and his own possible death, head-on. (It's important to note that the Doctor only knew of his future existence up through his seventh self -- as he puts it, he's the original Eighth Man Bound.) The Doctor wasn't the only person to face death, though; with So Vile A Sin, the series gave us the first companion death since Kamelion's in Planet of Fire, and the first meaningful companion death since Adric's in Earthshock. Like the Doctor, Roz knew that she faced death; her wonderful line, "This isn't history, it's family," could almost foreshadow the Doctor's trip to Lungbarrow. Ultimately, the books suggested that they were culminating this mortality trip the only way they could, as The Dying Days killed off the Eighth Doctor mid-way through the novel -- however, Lance Parkin saved the Doctor and ended the final phase of the New Adventures, an exploration of death, with a celebration of life. Regenerated and renewed, the Doctor continued on to a new series of adventures, if not to a series of New Adventures.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Review: Endgame (Graphic Novel)

(Originally posted May 31, 2006 at the Doctor Who Ratings Guide.)

"Why, yes," he said afterwards. "That was quite fun."

The first collection of Eighth Doctor adventures from DWM (Endgame, The Keep, Fire and Brimstone, Tooth and Claw, The Final Chapter, and Wormwood, with bonus strips A Life of Matter and Death and By Hook or By Crook) are basically, in sum, a mad romp of action-oriented stories that go for scope over substance, never letting the chance to pull off a big cliffhanger or huge visual concept pass them by. This is a lot more fun than it sounds on paper, primarily because this is what comics work best at: "And then space turned all white," doesn't sound great on paper, but when you can actually see it happening as the leader of the Threshold gestures to it, it's pretty freaking cool.

And Endgame is full of these moments. Reading these strips, for the first time I actually understood why someone thought Alan Barnes could write Doctor Who stories (something I'll admit I never got from Storm Warning, Neverland or Zagreus): these are stories suited to his style, big huge concepts that splash out over the page and make you want to gasp. Plus, he writes a heroic Doctor who does heroic things and is the prime motivator of the story (and wins at the end), which I have to give him props for, having ripped previous DWM comic writers for not doing so in the past (and previous other Doctor Who writers as well). But the name-dropping thing has to go. Please.

Izzy is... unfortunate. I think she worked better in concept than she ever did in the strip, the idea of someone climbing onto the TARDIS who's an actual sci-fi fan and familiar with all the tropes of the worlds the Doctor will encounter... in practice, she just seems to be a sci-fi quote generator stuck onto Generic Companion Template #1, The Plucky Young Lass Who Tries To Help. Fey is interesting, but gets substantially more so by the end of the story.

About which I honestly don't want to say too much, other than to say, if you've come at this through the graphic novels, you'll be really surprised at how far the stories have come since The Iron Legion in terms of integrating their storylines together into a coherent, planned work. Stories like The Keep deliberately set up things in Fire and Brimstone, elements dropped into Fire and Brimstone set up important plot points in Wormwood, and there's a huge twist in The Final Chapter that then gets another huge twist added onto it in Wormwood to great effect. (Although it would have been even better if they'd not put it on a right-hand page. It's something you should have to turn the page to see. But oh well. Layout is too complex for me to quibble over.) The Tides of Time did some stuff like this, but this book really does take it to a whole other level. (Plus, the Threshold get their comeuppance, which is nice for me because I really, really, really hated the story where they killed Ace.)

The art, by the by, is nice: not flashy, but clear and simple, a definite virtue for these stories.

On the whole, possibly my favorite collection yet, and I'm certainly looking forward to The Glorious Dead.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

This Is What Happens When I Miss a Post

So apparently, in the five days since my last post, we went from "Missing episodes...well, we can dream, can't we?" to "An eccentric African engineer kept a whole bunch of tapes from his career in broadcasting and we're getting all the missing Hartnell and Troughton stories!" back to "Missing episodes...well, we can dream, can't we?" Which means I missed my chance to be either precognitive or foolish.

In practical terms, I was probably a bit of both. The story sounded patently unbelievable, and I didn't for a moment buy that there was an eccentric African engineer out there who had been hoarding episodes. I also didn't believe that he had everything. There's some stuff out there that just will never be recovered, like the missing Episode Seven of "The Dalek Masterplan", which we will not see through anything short of time travel. And frankly, there've been enough "ZOMOG a Seekrit Benefactor has found all Teh Missings and will give them to us and we will have ALL TEH WHOS!" rumors out there that I take all of them with at least a shaker of salt until the BBC makes an official announcement.

But that said, I wanted to believe. Who wouldn't? I wanted to imagine that some third-hand game of telephone had turned a plausible-but-exciting truth, like "Someone has found the missing episodes of 'Evil of the Daleks'!" into a wild, unbelievable exaggeration, and there was a grain of truth to it. And the person who reported it was stating that they had multiple sources, which seemed promising. So yeah, I was at least fooled enough to be hopeful, which is probably enough to encourage the type of person who makes this shit up to yank Who fans' chains.

But ultimately, I think that the BBC is doing the next best thing. The animated reconstructions are great, and they make those old episodes accessible to a new generation of fans. Will we ever see another missing episode? I wouldn't say "no", not after we found 'Airlock' and 'Underwater Menace Part Two', but I'll say I'm resigned to "probably not". Resigned enough to play the doubting Thomas to the next hoax, at least.

But not so resigned that I'll ever stop wanting to believe them.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Susan's Shadow

(Originally posted at Mightygodking.com on 7 May 2010.)

Oh, dear. They’re at it again, aren’t they?

Sorry, that probably requires a bit of explanation. Um, and I’m going to deliver that explanation in a nice, long paragraph, so that those of you who don’t want spoilers for the new Doctor Who episode, “Flesh and Stone”, which has aired in Britain but not in America, can skip this entry if you like.

Basically, for those of you not familiar with the series (or at least, not over-familiar with the series) the Doctor, an enigmatic wanderer in time and space, tends to have a traveling companion with him on his journeys. (Primarily as a way of solving a lot of writing problems–the Doctor tends to already know a lot of things the audience needs to know, so having an inexperienced traveling companion is an easy way of delivering expository dialogue that doesn’t sound forced.) These companions tend, very frequently, to be pretty young women. (Again, this is done for rather mundane reasons; the series wants to appeal to a very broad audience, and there are certain elements of the viewing public that respond strongly to pretty young women…for one reason or another.) Thus, it’s become something of a running gag among viewers that we never actually do see what the Doctor does in the TARDIS with those pretty young women between adventures.

And in the relaunched series (we are now trending towards the spoilery bits, here) that element has become more explicit. Rose, the Doctor’s companion, has a very obvious crush on the Doctor, and while the Doctor can’t ever bring himself to actually say the words, “I love you,” at any point, David Tennant is clearly playing the part as a man in love. Martha, the next companion, has her own crush on the Doctor, but since he’s still mooning over the departed Rose, she’s got no chance (an element that’s rather overplayed in Season Three, but that’s another story.) The romance angle goes into full retreat for Season Four and the 2009 specials (excepting for the season finale to Season Four, where Rose comes back and we practically get swooping strings when the two of them see each other)…but now it’s rearing its head again. Current companion Amy Pond just about jumps the Doctor’s bones at the end of “Flesh and Stone”. But the Doctor doesn’t reciprocate…despite Karen Gillan being just about the prettiest of the pretty young women ever to join the Doctor in his travels. Why?

The question is actually pretty contentious, in Doctor Who circles. (It says something about Doctor Who that it is actually less contentious than the question of what year the Third Doctor stories took place in.) There are a lot of people who believe that sex is off-limits in Doctor Who, at least in regards to the Doctor himself. They feel the Doctor should be above that sort of thing, even if they can’t necessarily articulate why. (Or if they can’t agree on a reason why. Doctor Who has possibly the strongest gay fan following of any science-fiction series, precisely because he’s a male sci-fi hero who doesn’t lust after women. To a lot of fans, the reason he doesn’t hit on his female companions is the same reason Will doesn’t hit on Grace.)

There are a lot of people who make the counter-argument that the Doctor most certainly does have a sexual relationship with many, if not most of his companions over the years. They insist that the people who insist “sex shouldn’t be allowed in Doctor Who” are prudes at best, Puritans at worst, who never noticed the sexual subtext of the older stories and now get angry when they spot it in the newer ones. (A sub-set of these people feel that there’s a sexual subtext to some, but not all stories, and that the Doctor has a “true love”, who is {INSERT COMPANION HERE} and that this is the perfect pairing and the series hasn’t been any good since that true love left and he’s been forced to make do with pale substitutes. All of these people are twelve-year-old girls. Even the ones who aren’t.)

Me? I fall at least a little into the former camp. I feel that there’s a reason why Russell T Davies and Stephen Moffat, the people who’ve been in charge of the relaunched series, haven’t pushed the boundaries of the Doctor’s sexuality too far. (And they really, really haven’t. For all that the Tenth Doctor is much more lovey-dovey than his predecessor, he still won’t even say the words, “I love you.” Not even once. My standing joke is that all the times he says, “Rose…I need to tell you…” and trails off, he’s trying to find a way to explain that traveling in the TARDIS makes you sterile.) It really isn’t in the Doctor’s character to have a sexual relationship with his companions, and Amy Pond provides the key to why. (Well, half the key.)

When Amy makes her rather blatant come-on to the Doctor, his response (played magnificently by Matt Smith) is absolute horror. He can’t imagine sleeping with Amelia Pond, because Amelia Pond is the seven-year-old girl he was just talking to a few days ago. Sure, she had a rather inconvenient case of growing up, but as the Doctor said to her, “Don’t worry; we’ll soon sort that out.” He’s not looking for a lover. He’s looking for a daughter. Or, if we’re to provide the other half of the key to the Doctor’s character, a grand-daughter.

Because the first pretty young woman the Doctor traveled with, back when he was an old man played by William Hartnell, was his grand-daughter Susan. (Also more contentious than sex: Whether William Hartnell was the actual first incarnation of the Doctor, or just the first we’ve seen.) The two were inseparable, each one the only reminder the other had of their home, and the original stories tended to focus on the differences between them and the humans that shared the TARDIS with the Doctor. (When Carole Ann Ford, the actress who played Susan, left the series, some speculated it wouldn’t survive her departure.) Susan’s departure was a watershed moment, a coming of age as the Doctor finally realized that staying with him was preventing her from living her own life. He forced her to stay behind with the man she’d come to love in one of the most bittersweet moments of the show’s history.

And the subsequent episode makes explicit what all the subsequent stories would leave as subtext. Ian and Barbara, the Doctor’s human friends, convince him to adopt a young orphan woman they’ve rescued from a crashed starship as their new traveling companion. Vicki becomes a surrogate grand-daughter to the Doctor, someone who makes him feel young and alive as they share the wonders of exploring the universe together…until she also falls in love with a boy and leaves. And the Doctor found another surrogate for Susan, and another, and another…at heart, Doctor Who is a series about a lonely old man who’s lost his family, and who finds it again with an orphaned girl. (This is the one really big mistake the new series makes with Rose, I think; not that she loves the Doctor, but that she only travels with the Doctor by choice. All the best companions of the old series were running away from something.)

Not every companion is living in Susan’s shadow, of course; Romana, for instance, seems to be pretty blatantly shagging the Doctor off-screen. (Mainly because Lalla Ward and Tom Baker pretty much were blatantly shagging each other off-screen. But now is not the time to delve into the vast store of gossip about who was having sex with who on the set.) But that’s the model of Doctor Who. That’s the reason why all the jokes about “What is the Doctor doing with those pretty young girls between adventures?” miss the point. The Doctor has a father’s love for his companions, not a romantic passion. There is most definitely a difference.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Retrospective: David Bishop

There are some writers out there that are only as good as their ideas. When they come up with a good concept, all they need to do is get out of its way and let the story shine through. These writers tend not to be remembered as great wordsmiths, but that doesn't matter so much; their prose is nothing to write home about, but they've got such inventive, puzzle-box minds that you have to admire the purity of their plots even if none of the individual moments stand out.

In some ways, David Bishop (Who Killed Kennedy, Amorality Tale, The Domino Effect, Empire of Death) is the exact opposite of that kind of writer. He does come up with great ideas--in fact, I'd say that if you reduced every Doctor Who novel to a one-sentence synopsis, there'd be no question that these four would rank among the highest. "An outside-in view of the UNIT era, as told by an investigative reporter who believes them to be a sinister conspiracy!" "The Doctor teams up with the Krays to fight aliens in the East End in the 50s!" "Sinister aliens prevent the computer from being invented, and the Doctor has to free Alan Turing from the Tower of London to save humanity!" "Queen Victoria colonizes the afterlife!" All great stuff, but he doesn't seem to be able to develop them properly. It feels like he rushes through the follow-up work needed to turn a great idea into a great novel, and as a result books that should soar feel like they slog along.

'Empire of Death' is the perfect example. With the spiritualism craze going full-bore in the Victorian era, it seems like the perfect place to set a novel about the afterlife. (Arguably, it seems like a mistake to set it in 'Doctor Who', where you know you're going to have to undermine your own concept by hedging your bets on the exact nature of the Other Side, but let's grant him a bit of leeway on that because it's so easy to think that the Doctor can fit into any story concept and make it better.) Having a physical portal to the afterlife is also a great idea, because it allows you to contrast Victoria's obsession with spiritualism with her role as one of history's biggest imperialists. The scene where troops invade Heaven in order to conquer it for the British Empire is a fine piece of social satire.

But having come up with the idea, Bishop never seems to refine it. Long stretches of the novel linger on incidental characters and minor dramas, there's a strange anti-abortion sub-theme that's awkwardly shoehorned in and not allowed to develop logically (presumably due to concerns about controversy, but it seems odd to include the topic in the first place if you're going to remove any exploration of it) and the interesting parts of the plot don't really feature until the end, and then only tangentially. The characters are all stock Victorian archetypes who never inhabit their roles convincingly, the plot runs along on rails to a predefined conclusion, and at the end, the ghosts have to turn out to be aliens because it's a 'Doctor Who' novel. (As predicted at the beginning of the previous paragraph.) Ultimately none of it lives up to its potential.

A similar analysis could be performed for any of Bishop's novels (with the possible exception of 'Who Killed Kennedy', which succeeds primarily because it's a pastiche of a cheesy "true conspiracy" book and so the flaws in its prose and characterization feel like little marks of authenticity.) His characters always feel like they stepped whole out of TVTropes.com holding their Idiot Balls firmly with both hands, his actual plots run on forced coincidence and authorial fiat, and there's never any sense of surprise to any of his endings. (Admittedly, that's unfair in the case of 'The Domino Effect', which suffers from being part of an arc where none of the authors' books ever feel like they're part of the same storyline, but 'The Domino Effect' has other problems.) It's hard to escape the idea that Bishop is capable of writing a much better book than he has so far, simply because his ideas are so good; but that only exacerbates the frustration involved in reading them, because you're simultaneously rewriting them in your head to make the concepts involved work.

On the whole, I wouldn't say no to another novel by David Bishop, if for no other reason than 'Who Killed Kennedy' showed so much promise that I'd like to see him fulfill it someday. But I don't think his best work will ever be his 'Doctor Who' books, simply because I think he needs an editor who will challenge him to work harder on making his ideas click on the page, and I don't think that authors get that kind of personal attention from the editors in the 'Doctor Who' line. The deadlines are too stringent and the workload too great to force someone to go back for draft after draft after draft...and after reading all of David Bishop's output, I think the clearest impression I got was that his books had a draft too few.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

The Long, Sad Story of Penny Blake (Part One)

My name is Penny Blake, and I'm about to tell you the story of the saddest day of my life. Maybe you won't think it was sad, of course. Maybe you'll read it and at the end you'll think, "That was the worst thing that ever happened to you? You didn't die. You didn't lose a limb. You didn't even stub your toe on the front step. Nothing even really happened to you, but you're acting like the world ended. Now I've got real problems."

And I'm sure you do. We've all got problems. And no, I didn't die, or lose a limb, or stub my toe on the front step. But I did see the end of the world. All the worlds. Everywhere. Ever. I should tell it in the order I experienced it, or it won't make any sense, but I'm a journalist. And the first thing a journalist learns is, 'Don't bury the lede.' So yes, at some point in this story, the universe is going to end. And no, it's not a metaphor.

I should start with the journalism, because that turned out to be more important than it seemed when I woke up this morning. Because I say, 'journalist', but it's not like I'm a hard-hitting investigative reporter. I write up local events for the Blackwell Journal. It's eight pages on a good week, and that's with plenty of pictures. Put it this way: The morning started with me visiting a touring funfair and getting my fortune told by a gypsy lady, and that was front-page material.

(You're probably wondering what the gypsy lady told me, seeing as how this was the morning of the worst day of my life. But all she said to me was, "Your future, love? All your future is, is what's going to happen to you next." There's cryptic, and then there's bloody shite, you know?)

Then I went back to the office, and did boring journalist stuff for the next four hours. That's not the bad part. That's the boring bits. Every day is full of them, you know? I didn't really notice, before today, but there is boredom everywhere. It's like, even on Christmas Day, there's that dull bit around teatime when all of the presents are out of the box, and Christmas dinner isn't for another hour, and the telly's just full of boring stuff they've chucked on there because they figure we'll all just have it on in the background anyway, and...dull bits. The bits of life we can't skip.

But then there are the other bits. The good bits. I knew what tonight's good bit was going to be--Robin, he's my bloke, he has a birthday today. (Sorry, that should be in the past tense. That's the problem with today, it's mucked all my tenses up. Probably be weeks before I get back to talking about past, present and future like they always happen in that order.) Anyway, I spent weeks setting up a surprise party, came up with a whole bit about being stuck at a conference in Birmingham for the night, and instead I got all his friends over to the flat with a cake and balloons and presents and enough beer to sink a raft. I thought we'd give him the shock of a lifetime.

I suppose we did. Him and Martine. Bloody bitch. You know I didn't even finish shouting 'Surprise!'? Turned on the lights, saw the two of them snogging, and it was more like, 'Surwhatthebloodyfuck?' That ended the party pretty quickly. And not just the party, if you know what I mean. After that, I decided to take a walk. A long, sad, angry walk, because I wanted to give my now-ex-boyfriend time to gracefully see his boss off and pack up his shit. Or mine. Didn't much care at that point, really. Didn't much care about anything. If I'd been in the mood to care, I'd have noticed that it got dark awful early for a summer night. Or that there were no stars. No moon, either. There were some people looking up, but I walked until I didn't see people anymore. I wasn't in the mood for people.

Maybe that's why I found him. Maybe that was the instinct that led me down the back alley around the side corner back behind the pizza place in what passes for the shopping district in Blackwell. Maybe that was why I found the blue box. Because I wasn't looking for people...and the Doctor was anything but.