How NOT to Get a Literary Agent, by Stephen King

I’m coming to the end of my sixth annual read-through of King’s classic work ON WRITING. For any aspiring writer, I consider this book to be must-read material. There is much in this book I could quote, discuss, and speak about in glowing terms. But instead, I’m going to pick on its weakest point. In fact, worse than a weak point–it’s flat-out wrong, misleading, and will give today’s querying writer no end of trouble if he or she actually follows King’s advice.

To be fair to the maestro, ON WRITING was written in a different age. By that, I mean it is 18 years old, and 18 years ago, publishing was still very much a paper-and-ink affair. Most agents accepted queries by snail mail, and few accommodated email submissions. These days the reverse is true, and, the rules of the road have changed. Also, bear in mind that Stephen King hasn’t had to write a query letter in over 45 years.

The section in question, near the end of the book, asks how one goes about getting a literary agent. On more than one occasion, King states that one really ought to get an agent if one desires to be published. That advice is generally true today, though we would now make the distinction between traditional publishing and independent, or self-publishing. Self-publishing was a much shadier and riskier business back in 2000. These days, done properly (i.e., with a good editor and quality cover design), it’s a perfectly respectable approach to getting your work in print (paper or digital–an option that wouldn’t have crossed King’s mind back then).

Assuming, therefore, you want to be traditionally published, which means you want to have an agent represent your novel to publishers big and small, and for your publisher to handle seeing your work in print and in stores, here’s King’s advice, and why you shouldn’t follow it.

1, His fictional author, Frank, submits short stories to magazines so he can build a resume that would be attractive to an agent. This is not necessary. You don’t need a prior publishing history to get an agent. Of course, if you have a good publishing history, you will pique an agent’s interest. Three or four published short story credits will probably persuade an agent on the fence to take a look at your work. However, the agent’s ultimate concern is whether or not the novel you’re querying is any good. If the agent doesn’t like what you’re offering, or doesn’t think she can sell it, no amount of previous work will help you.

2. Frank’s short story submissions are made on a “good grade of white bond paper” with a cover letter on top. Again, most magazines take electronic submissions these days (though there are a few old-school hold outs that only want mail-in submissions).

3. Frank sends queries for his novel to agents before the novel is complete. This is a major no-no. When you query an agent, your novel had better be ready to go. And by “ready to go,” I mean complete, beta read, revised, revised again, and revised even more. If an agent asks to see your work, she will either ask for a partial (maybe the first fifty pages), or a full (the whole thing). You need to be ready to send the whole thing.

4. Frank’s query letter is a disaster. Let’s see if I can QueryShark it (apologies to Janet Reid):

Dear _____________ :

I am a young writer, twenty-eight years old, in search of an agent.

The agent doesn’t give a flying fig whether you’re eight, twenty-eight, or eighty-eight. Don’t even mention your age. This is only relevant when it comes to signing the contract. And she already knows you’re searching for an agent–that’s the point of the query letter. This is a waste of words.

I got your name in a Writer’s Digest article titled “Agents of the New Wave,” and thought we might fit each other.

This is actually good. Many agents like to know why you’re querying them. It elevates your query from a form letter to something more personal.

I have published six stories since getting serious about my craft. They are:….

As I mentioned, this is not necessary, but if you do have publishing credit, it’s good to provide it. Make sure you’re listing work that has been published by reputable magazines. They don’t have to be widely-known (e.g., The Atlantic, or The New Yorker), but she should be able to track them down and find your stories without too much difficulty. The line about “getting serious about my craft” is unnecessary and should be cut. And you don’t need to list how much the stories sold for. The agent doesn’t care. The value of the story is in the fact it was published, not how much you got paid.

I would be happy to send any of these stories (or any of the half dozen or so I’m currently flogging around) for you to look at, if you’d like. I’m particularly proud of “A Long Walk in These ‘Yere Woods,” which won the Minnesota Young Writers’ Award. The plaque looks good on our living room wall, and the prize money–$500–looked excellent for the week or so it was actually in our bank account (I have been married for four years; my wife, Marjorie, and I teach school).

King has now left query mode and is in story-telling mode, which is to say, most of this is a waste of space. The only useful piece of information is the fact that one of the stories won an award. That could be included with your listing of the story above. By now, if the agent is still reading the query and hasn’t hit “form reject,” she is yawning and wondering when we’re going to get to the story. You know, the novel. The whole point of the query letter.

The reason I’m seeking representation now is that I’m at work on a novel. It’s a suspense story about a man who gets arrested for a series of murders which occurred in his little town twenty years before.

At last! And… that’s it? The first sentence can be cut since, again, it states the obvious. Also, “I’m at work on a novel” means the novel is not finished. Automatic form rejection. If the novel is not finished, you are not ready to query. And how many suspense stories are there about a man arrested for past murders committed in his small town? Answer: lots. Where’s the conflict? Is the man innocent and needs to prove his innocence? What’s at stake? What entices the agent to read this novel over and above all the other murder-suspense stories in her slush pile?

The first eighty pages or so are in pretty good shape, and I’d also be delighted to show you these.

Again, don’t bother. No agent wants to consider an unfinished manuscript. Finish the novel and try again.

Please be in touch and tell me if you’d like to see some of my material. In the meantime, thank you for taking the time to read my letter.

I doubt any agent read this far. “Thank you for your time and consideration” is sufficient for those few who did.

If you’ve been following Stephen King’s querying advice, I hope I’ve persuaded you not to. I would like to think this portion of the book will receive a much-needed update sometime in the near future. But after 18 years, it’s unlikely.

My advice: if you want to query well, check out the websites/blogs of the people who read the queries–i.e., literary agents. They are your audience, and they know better than anyone what they’re looking for. I recommend, for starters, Janet Reid and BookEnds. A quick Google search will pull up many more.

Questions? Thoughts? Comments? Objections?

Who Review: Enlightenment

As our intrepid travelers in time and space wend their way through the universe, the TARDIS is affected by a sudden power surge. It seems the White Guardian is trying to make contact. Risking an overload of the TARDIS circuits, the Doctor boosts power in an attempt to stabilize contact with the Guardian. But all he gets are some coordinates, and a vague warning about danger and death, interrupted by a visit from the Black Guardian who tells the Doctor he’s doomed, then they both vanish. When the TARDIS lands, the Doctor and Turlough leave to investigate, while Tegan remains on board in case the White Guardian should attempt another contact. He does, and this time the message for the Doctor is “winner takes all.” Tegan leaves the TARDIS to tell the Doctor, and finds herself captured. The TARDIS has landed in what appears to be the hold of an Edwardian sailing vessel. The crew seem fairly cheerful and welcome the Doctor and Turlough. But there’s something up with the officers. One has taken a shine to Tegan in an odd, detached kind of way. Indeed, there’s something not quite right with the whole setup. As the TARDIS crew soon discovers, this Edwardian yacht is actually a ship–a space ship. And its crew are not from Earth, but are Eternals, using people from Earth in their game–a space race to Enlightenment, in which winner takes all. But at what cost to the Doctor, Tegan, and Turlough?

SPOILER ALERT!! My comments may (and likely will) contain spoilers for those that haven’t seen this serial. If you want to stay spoiler-free, please watch the story before you continue reading!

The finale of the “Black Guardian Trilogy” is probably the strongest of the three stories. Written by first-time Who writer, Barbara Clegg, who is also the first female Who writer (and probably one of the few women writing sci-fi for television in the early 80s), “Enlightenment” takes the TARDIS crew aboard an Edwardian sailing vessel that turns out to be a space ship styled like an Edwardian sailing vessel, crewed by Edwardian sailors, plucked from Earth and doomed to live and die on that vessel. The officers are “Eternals,” beings that live outside of time, who get their kicks playing with “Ephemerals,” like Edwardian sailors, and the TARDIS crew. As the story progresses it becomes clear that for all the power of these Eternals, their ability to manipulate reality, and read the minds of Ephemerals as if their thoughts were a Twitter feed, they have no real life of their own. They don’t know excitement, love, passion, joy, and have no imagination. So, while they seem to be superior beings, they, in fact, depend on Ephemerals to take the boredom out of their eternal existence. They need the Ephemerals far more than the Ephemerals need them.

And then there’s Marriner, an Eternal who has a creepy fascination with Tegan that becomes sort-of sweet but still a bit creepy. Unlike his fellow Eternals, he grows to care for her, and miss her when she’s not around. It’s not love–he doesn’t know what love is–but an enjoyment of her company, her energy, and her lively mind. It’s hard to avoid comparing his treatment of Tegan like a dog owner with his beloved pet, but it does seem a little more than that. He does seem to respect the fact that she’s a sentient creature with a mind of her own–which is one of the things he enjoys about her.

In short, Barbara Clegg has given us some interesting characters that have depth and nuance, which doesn’t always happen on Doctor Who. As much as we may want to like Marriner, he’s still an Eternal, and still treats the death of Ephemerals as of no consequence.

The story of the ship race for Enlightenment, which means so much to everyone involved, but is, in fact, a mere distraction for the Ephemerals, is a good idea that works. And Wrack’s plot to cheat through special crystals she gives as gifts to her competitors that turn out to be focal points for a devastating power source she transmits to them, is not too far-fetched for Who. And blowing up her rivals nearly wins for her, except the Doctor catches on to her plan and saves the day for their ship.

Unlike the previous two installments of the trilogy, the Black Guardian plot is actually relevant to the main story. Both “Mawdryn Undead” and “Terminus” could stand alone apart from the Black Guardian’s involvement. But here, the Black Guardian is the one behind Wrack and her schemes, almost delivering Turlough into her hands for his failure to kill the Doctor.

The performances are, on the whole, good, especially the Ephemerals on the Edwardian ship. However, the pirate ship is a little too pantomime–especially Leee John, who plays first mate to Lynda Baron’s captain. They both go a little over the top, at least for me, making it too much like a stage performance as opposed to being villainous bad guys.

The effects are pretty good for the time. In fact, the DVD comes with a special “director’s cut” movie-length version of the story, where the four parts have been pasted together, and new CGI effects added. In honesty, I think the original effects look as good, if not better.

At the end, Turlough accidentally outwits the Black Guardian, severing their contract. Turlough is free, though the Black Guardian might return. Someday. All Turlough wants to do is return to his home planet. Knowing the TARDIS, however, that might be easier said than done!

To sum up, “Enlightenment” is not must-see Who, but very good nonetheless, at least in terms of story and character. The acting is a bit hit-and-miss, but it’s still an enjoyable adventure. Definitely for the die-hard Whovian, and of interest to the casual viewer.

Better-Late-Than-Never End-Of-Year 2017 Wrap-Up

I’m over a week late with this post, but here it is. 2017 was, to say the least, an interesting year. But let’s just stick with this blog and what I’ve been up to and leave the wider world to bigger blogs.

Once again, the most popular page on the blog was my Graham Crackers in the UK Update post. It baffles me why this post is so popular. After all, this is a writing/books type blog, not a food blog. Is no-one else covering this topic? I’d like to think that the many people who check out that page stick around and read some of the other posts (1,236 of them including this one). But that’s probably wishful thinking.

The biggest thing that happened on the blog in 2017 was the focus-shift to writing. I’m a writer, no two ways about it, whether it’s novels, short stories, flash fiction, articles, essays, wish lists–I write. Yes, I do other things (music, theology, watch copious amounts of Doctor Who), and I love doing those things. But writing has been that thing I’ve always done even before I learned to play an instrument. While those other things will still have a home here (Who Reviews, Sunday School Notes, Music Monday), I’m determined to give this blog more of a writer focus.

Speaking of writing, one of the biggest writing events for me in 2017 was my first ever short story sale. I still love telling people that you can read my story in the October 2017 issue of Empyreome Magazine. It’s a good one, too–even if I say so myself. 🙂

Looking ahead to 2018, I’m hoping to write more short stories, and maybe even get a few more published. I already have one story due to be published in the February 2018 issue of Riggwelter, so look out for that. Hopefully there will be more to follow. I’d also like to finish another novel, but mainly I want to keep writing, keep producing stories, and improve.

I need to do a better job of keeping this blog up to date with writing stuff. I’ve let my Facebook page go stale since Christmas, so I need to fix that. And I’m still planning to start a Patreon sometime in the very near future.

Thank you to everyone who has been following my blog thus far. I hope you’ll stick around for the ride in 2018, with, hopefully, lots of exciting things to share!

Who Review: Terminus

Under the direction of the Black Guardian, Turlough tries to sabotage the TARDIS. Tegan nearly catches him when she comes to take him to his room–Adric’s old room. She leaves him to visit Nyssa who is busy with test tubes in her room, when an instability field opens up threatening to swallow her. The TARDIS’s emergency protocols kick in and they materialize on a space ship. Nyssa walks through, and when things stabilize, the Doctor goes off to find her. Things start to go downhill from there. The TARDIS crew discover the ship is full of Lazars, people infected with the deadly Lazar’s disease, on their way to Terminus, a space station serving as a sort of leper colony. It’s said that the people on Terminus are working on a cure, but so far no-one has returned alive. Then the Doctor and Nyssa are caught by a couple of raiders, the advance party of a raiding team that promptly abandons them. And then Nyssa falls ill, and is carted away with the other Lazars to join their fate. Is this the end of the line for Nyssa?

SPOILER ALERT!! My comments may (and likely will) contain spoilers for those that haven’t seen this serial. If you want to stay spoiler-free, please watch the story before you continue

“Terminus” continues the story arc began with the previous story in which new companion Turlough, under pressure from the Black Guardian, has to kill the Doctor. However, the more Turlough spends time with his victim and the TARDIS crew, the harder it is for him to complete his task. Not only is it nearly impossible to get the Doctor alone somewhere where he can bump him off, but he’s discovering that the Black Guardian’s description of the Doctor as the most evil being in the universe is not entirely accurate. But Turlough has no choice, since the Black Guardian promised him passage to his home planet if he is successful, and a painful death if he fails.

Unlike the previous story, “Mawdryn Undead,” the Black Guardian arc doesn’t interact with the main plot of “Terminus.” Certainly, at one or two points the Guardian gives Turlough some tips, but he is in no way manipulating events to help Turlough complete his task. The Guardian simply prods and pokes him into action, leaving it up to the boy to figure out how to get the job done. And yet very quickly, Turlough gets caught up in the story, with only a few moments here and there to have a quick chat with the glowing crystal.

The opening TARDIS scene has Turlough pleading with the Black Guardian when Tegan comes along. Turlough claims he was singing to himself, but Tegan remains suspicious of the newcomer. She shows him to Adric’s room, which will now be his. As a Twentieth Anniversary gift to the fans, the room is full of memorabilia from the previous season, including a Kinda helix necklace and the mask of the robot from “The Visitation.” When Tegan catches up with Nyssa in her room, she is experimenting with test tubes, getting back to her science roots from when she was on Traken. Not only does this serve as a reminder to viewers of Nyssa’s background, but it’s a plot point that will become important later.

Inevitably with three companions, the TARDIS crew gets separated fairly soon into the story. The Doctor goes off in pursuit of Nyssa, while Turlough and Tegan are teamed together. This was no doubt deliberate given their argument at the beginning. You might think that after all they go through, crawling around in vents and nearly getting sterilized, Tegan might begin to warm to Turlough. But any chance of that disappears when Turlough bolts for the TARDIS as soon as he makes a way back. I suppose this is a shame, but I don’t think Tegan is ever supposed to really trust Turlough, which makes for an unusual vibe on the TARDIS.

I thought it interesting the way the Turlough-Tegan plot intersects with the Doctor’s plot. Turlough, following a suggestion from the Black Guardian for making a way back to the TARDIS, inadvertently triggers a computer sequence that will result in the ship jettisoning unstable fuel. This will, in turn, trigger a “big bang” that could destroy the universe. The Doctor manages to prevent the explosion, completely oblivious to the fact that it was Turlough who was behind it. And he will never know, because Turlough is oblivious to the fact that his actions caused this emergency situation.

The effects on “Terminus” are pretty standard for BBC sci-fi drama at this time. Not bad, but not stunning, either. The Garn, a large dog-like creature, is not the disaster it could have been, though it clearly needs some CGI ear twitching, and a bit of realism around the mouth. The other costumes are not exceptional, and the guards’ armor seems a bit impractical. Probably the most eye-opening costume is Nyssa’s, since she loses much of her clothing (at least as much as is appropriate for 1983 family viewing). Apparently, this was Sarah Sutton’s idea, responding to complaints that Nyssa was too well dressed–no doubt from some of the show’s older male viewers.

The big upset of the story is the fact that we say goodbye to Nyssa. Not only was this an upset to Sarah Sutton, who had not asked to leave, and to Peter Davison, who thought Nyssa was a great companion and enjoyed working with Sarah. There were fans who didn’t think this was a good idea–me being one of them! Not only was Sarah Sutton excellent in the role, reminiscent of Elisabeth Sladen (“Sarah Jane Smith”) in many ways, but her character had depth and dimensions that had barely been touched on. After all, she’s a young scientist whose father was taken over by the Master, and the Master then caused her home planet to be consumed by entropy. Her race instinct is toward peace, thinking the best of people, and being hopeful about life and circumstances. And yet she nurses a deep sadness at having lost so much. The Doctor gives her an anchor, the TARDIS a home, and Tegan a friend. The tears she cries in her parting scene are genuine. Sarah cried those tears for real. And I think Nyssa did too. Which, of course, makes this one of the most powerful and moving companion departure scenes in Classic Who history.

“Terminus” is not a bad story. Not one of the best, but not bad. If you watch the trilogy (“Mawdryn Undead,” “Terminus,” and “Enlightenment”), most likely this will be the weakest, but the performances are good (again, Sarah Sutton is excellent), and the plot doesn’t drag. Certainly not “must-see” Who, but not a waste of time either.

Who Review: Mawdryn Undead

It’s 1983, and Brandon Public School boy Turlough is causing trouble again, this time crashing the car belonging to their maths teacher, Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart. As he lies unconscious, Turlough is visited by the Black Guardian who commissions him to kill the Doctor. Turlough refuses–all he wants is to go home. Earth is not his native planet, and the life of a British schoolboy is no life for one with his intelligence. The Black Guardian makes an offer he can’t refuse: kill the Doctor, and he’ll return Turlough to his home planet. Meanwhile, the TARDIS is caught in the warp ellipse of a ship. To avoid crashing, the Doctor materializes on board. The TARDIS crew now find themselves on what appears to be an abandoned starliner–except it isn’t abandoned. Turlough is there. The Doctor will soon learn that the liner has a crew, scientists who have been experimenting on themselves to discover the Time Lord secret of regeneration. However, all they’ve managed to do is mutilate themselves into a painful but eternal existence. They want death, but the only way to achieve it is for the Doctor to give up his remaining regenerations…

SPOILER ALERT!! My comments may (and likely will) contain spoilers for those that haven’t seen this serial. If you want to stay spoiler-free, please watch the story before you continue reading!

“Mawdryn Undead” is the first in what has come to be known as the “Black Guardian Trilogy,” since they all have the common story thread of the Black Guardian trying to kill the Doctor. Continuing the twentieth anniversary theme of returning characters, the Black Guardian was last seen in the Fourth Doctor’s “Key to Time” season in 1978, wherein the Doctor prevented him laying his hands on that powerful key. Clearly still bearing a grudge, the raven-hatted baddie is after deadly revenge, using a surrogate because he “mustn’t be seen to be involved.” That surrogate is a school boy named Turlough. Why Turlough? Perhaps because he was already a rotten egg, so he might be more amenable to the idea of murder? His attempts to resist give the impression he’s not all that bad, certainly not wanting the Doctor’s blood on his hands. Did the Guardian already know of Turlough’s compelling desire to return to his home planet? I’m not so sure. For much of the story, the Guardian appears to be improvising, as much as he accuses Turlough of not sticking to “the plan.” Whatever his reasons, the Guardian chooses Turlough, and exerts much mental persuasion to get him to comply to his wishes.

It’s not a bad story, though it comes off a bit fan-boyish, as if writer Peter Grimwade is deliberately trying to check all the True-Whovian boxes to keep the die-hards happy. Not only do you have the return of the Black Guardian and the Brigadier, but you have mention of old companions, flash-backs to previous stories, and even the Doctor using the line “reverse the polarity of the neutron flow”–an old favorite of the Third Doctor. The central theme of the serial is regeneration, and the fact that Mawdryn and his buddies had tried to become Time Lords through experimenting with the regeneration process. Now they are condemned to live forever in mutated form, and only a Time Lord’s regenerative power will give them sufficient energy to die. The Doctor reiterates the fact (since 1976’s “The Deadly Assassin” anyway) that a Time Lord can only regenerate twelve times. But he also states plainly for the first time that he has regenerated four times. As viewers, we regarded Davison’s incarnation as the Fifth Doctor, but the character himself only ever refers himself as “The Doctor,” leaving some ambiguity as to whether there might have been incarnations prior to the one we first encountered, William Hartnell. This story sets the record straight: Hartnell was the First, regardless of what previous stories might have suggested. Again, this would be the cause of much excitement and debate amongst Whovians, which is just the sort of thing you want in a celebratory year.

It does raise the existential question: Is being a Time Lord simply about being able to regenerate? Is regeneration the sole defining trait of a Time Lord, or simply one of many traits (including having two hearts, and a respiratory bypass system)? Does losing one’s ability to regenerate reduce a Time Lord to just another Gallifreyan, as the episode three cliffhanger would suggest? Before “The Invasion of Time” (1978), the only inhabitants of Gallifrey we had ever seen were the Time Lords. In that story, the Doctor’s companion Leela hooked up with a band of Gallifreyans who lived in the forests and wilderness surrounding the citadel. We don’t know much about these Gallifreyans other than, for some reason, they were not Time Lords. So there is a distinction. But could one become a Time Lord, and could one really cease to be a Time Lord? The show seems to leave both possibilities open. I’m not so sure, however, that merely losing the ability to regenerate makes all the difference. There seems to be much more to being a Time Lord, both physiologically, and in terms of education and social status.

It’s nice to see the Brigadier back, teaching mathematics at a public school (note for non-Brits, a British public school is actually a private school–think Eton, or Hogwarts). And not just one Brigadier, but two! One from 1977 and one from 1983. I thought the make-up for the younger Brig was quite well done. I can quite believe he’s six years younger.

As for Brandon Public School… I actually attended a British public school for seven years. A boarding school, no less, just like Brandon (though I didn’t board; I was a “day” pupil). From my experience, Brandon Public School is nothing like the average British public school in the early 1980s. It’s more of a parody of what a British public school would have been like in the 1920s! (See the Tenth Doctor two-part story “Human Nature”/”Family of Blood” for an idea of what that was like.) Surely someone on the production could have set them straight? I mean, the boater hats and “jolly wot-ho!” dialog? That was not the school I attended, I can tell you!

I’m a little confused with what exactly the Black Guardian’s plan is with regard to how Turlough should dispose of the Doctor. From the outset, it seems as if he’s given the young lad carte blanche to drop a rock on his head, or whatever it takes. But then as the Doctor gets tangled in the Mawdryn storyline, leading to where he will have to sacrifice his lives to save his friends, the Guardian acts as if that was his plan all along, and chides Turlough for not following it. Turlough might have been more cooperative if he’d been told about the ship, and what the mutated people wanted. Frankly, I think the Black Guardian’s totally winging this, and blaming Turlough when things go pear-shaped.

The story ends with the Brigadier saving the day. When he asks Nyssa what’s been going on, Nyssa replies, “The Doctor will explain later,” and a thousand Whovians chuckle (“I’ll explain later” was something the Doctor frequently said to his companions). And Turlough officially joins the TARDIS crew, though he is still under orders from the Black Guardian to kill the Doctor. It seems clear the Doctor, Nyssa, and Tegan don’t suspect anything seriously amiss with Turlough, though they do seem guarded. And rightly so!

What do we make of Turlough as a companion? He’s very different from previous companions, which is a good thing. I like that he has a bit of a dark edge to him, even beyond his collusion with the Black Guardian. After all, he went joyriding in the Brig’s car before the Guardian ever got to him. If he’s going to work, Nyssa and Tegan are going to have to warm to him, and that doesn’t appear to be happening anytime soon. Maybe as their adventures progress…

“Mawdryn Undead” is interesting, and as a Who celebration is fun. The story is a little convoluted, but not too much of a stretch if you pay attention. Certainly of interest, though not compelling. Worth watching, but not at all costs.

Who Review: Twice Upon a Time

The First Doctor, wearied by his adventures, complains that his body is wearing thin. Yet, while he knows he is about to regenerate, he doesn’t want to change. Instead, he ventures out into the harsh cold of the South Pole, where he comes upon a strange man in front of a Police Box very much like his own…

Fresh from his adventure with the Mondasian Cybermen (see “The Doctor Falls”), the Twelfth Doctor, mortally wounded, is also resisting regeneration. He too wants to continue on in this body and isn’t ready for change. A familiar figure approaches, also claiming to be the Doctor. Suddenly, time stands still, and the two Doctors are joined by a World War I officer, confused by his sudden dislocation. The three of them, along with Twelve’s TARDIS, are kidnapped and taken on board a spacecraft. When Bill steps out to greet them, the Doctor knows something is seriously wrong. Bill was converted into a Cyberman, and is now dead. How can she be there? And who is the strange glass woman piloting the ship?

SPOILER ALERT!! My comments may (and likely will) contain spoilers for those that haven’t seen the episode. If you want to stay spoiler-free, please watch the story before you continue reading!

In my review for the previous story, “The Doctor Falls,” I hoped that the Christmas story would be more than “just Twelve and One chatting about life for an hour.” I wasn’t exactly disappointed, but close to it. Perhaps the best way to understand “Twice Upon a Time” is to remember three things: First, it’s a Christmas Doctor Who, and the tradition is that these stories are generally lighter and feel-good. Second, it’s Steven Moffatt’s farewell story, not just Peter Capaldi’s. Finally, Moff was not planning to write a Christmas episode. His original plan was to have Capaldi regenerate at the end of Season 10, and that would be his last story. However, the new show-runner, Chris Chibnall was not planning to write a Christmas episode. Rather than give up the coveted Christmas Day slot, Moffatt came up with a way to hold off Twelve’s regeneration and wrote a Christmas episode around it. I think this explains a lot.

It explains why there is no bad guy, though I suppose you could say the bad guy in the story is death. Twelve and One are trying to avoid it, and the glass people are in the business of capturing the memories of the dying so they can live on while their mortal bodies perish. No-one wants to die. The thing that eventually convinces Twelve to regenerate is the fact that if he doesn’t regenerate, he will eventually die for good, and the universe can’t handle that. We’ll come back to this in a moment.

It also explains why we have Bill, Nardole, and even Clara coming back. At the end of Season Nine’s “Hell Bent,” the Doctor’s memory of Clara had been erased. But now the glass people give it back to him so he can see her once more before he regenerates. There seems to be a tradition now, begun with the Tenth Doctor, of the regenerating Doctor seeing all his old companions (this only happened one time in the classic series, when Four changed into Five, and that was more out of respect for Four’s unusually long tenure). And these glass people who can conjure up the dead from their memories are the perfect vehicle for bringing back the Doctor’s companions who are no longer a part of his life, after he had moved on. There was no purpose to this. Let dead companions lie, I say.

It also explains the Doctor’s pre-regeneration speech. This wasn’t the Twelfth Doctor letting go of being the Doctor. It was Steven Moffatt letting go of Doctor Who. And as poignant as it might be for Moff, it came across to me as self indulgent.

What we end up with is an episode that is pure padding. Yes, it was fun to have One and Twelve in a story together. The effects were superb, and the acting top-notch. But it was exactly what Moff planned it to be: a means to delay the regeneration so we can have an episode of Doctor Who on Christmas Day.

Chris Chibnall wrote the post-regeneration scene, including Thirteen’s first word, so he could give us a taste of where his first season as show-runner is going. We have deep symbolism with Twelve’s ring falling from Thirteen’s finger, which is something that happened when One regenerated into Two. That very first regeneration was a landmark event for the show, as is Twelve’s regeneration into the first female Doctor. I think the ring falling was supposed to underscore that parallel. I’m not exactly sure why the TARDIS has such a bad reaction to this regeneration, but it’s possible the reason has more to do with Moff wanting to give Chibnall a clean slate to work with (and possibly a re-design of the TARDIS?), just as Russell T. Davies gave Moff a burning TARDIS at the end of Ten’s time. Eleven (and Moff) started his first episode holding on to the TARDIS for dear life. Thirteen finds herself ejected completely, falling to the ground. “To Be Continued…” indeed!

Let’s come back to some of the philosophical points of the episode. First, this whole idea of the Doctor being a great hero without whom the universe will cease to exist. Thinking about Moffat’s time as show-runner, this is perhaps the most annoying aspect of his presentation of the Doctor. For the past seven years, Moff has given us an incarnation of the fan’s Doctor. Whovians love the Doctor. We think he’s cool. He’s the On-coming Storm. He is the one person all his foes should fear. But throughout the show’s history, the Doctor has never thought that of himself. Maybe a few times he hints at being “more than just a Time Lord” (as the Seventh Doctor put it), but ,on the whole, he sees himself as a wandering traveler trying to help out where he can. The last time he got notions of grandeur was at the end of Ten’s run, and realizing it caused him to sacrifice his Tenth persona to save the life of an old man, Wilf Mott. Because it’s people like Wilf that are important, not the Doctor. I think one of the reasons I like the Second Doctor so much is the fact he was happy for people to think him a bumbling idiot, because they would always end up underestimating him. The Fourth Doctor had a similar quality.

Finally, I can’t let this idea of people being the sum of their memories pass without comment. One simply has to ask: does this mean people with dementia, or Alzheimer’s, are lesser people? Is Moffat suggesting that our value as people is tied to our ability to remember? As a Christian, I see this as yet another humanistic fumbling attempt to explain what it means to be human, and why people are important and valuable. Need I point out how fallible the human memory is? I may remember some events vividly, but I don’t remember all events infallibly. And my memory of events is subject to the influence of time, and the influence of other people. And what about newborn babies, whose memories are only just beginning to form? As I age, my memory will fail, and I will start to forget things. Do I become less of a person as I get older? Biblical teaching is that every person has identity and value not because of what they remember, but because they are each created in the image of God. And we are image-bearers of God from womb to tomb, no matter how well we remember anything!

In short, while this is a fun episode for Whovians, aside from the regeneration at the end, there is nothing in this story that is Must-See. In fact, you can skip this and start watching Season Eleven having missed nothing. Given how much I enjoyed Season Ten, I had hoped for a more substantial send-off for Twelve. Perhaps a better plan would have been to regenerate Twelve at the end of Season Ten, and then to give us a special one-off Eighth Doctor story for Christmas. Oh well…

What did YOU think? It’s your turn to share your thoughts…

A Christmas FlashDogs Story: The Director’s Cut

Last Thursday, I submitted a story to the weekly FlashDogs challenge. Each week, the FlashDogs blog posts a picture prompt and a theme around which participants write flash stories. There’s a 2,000 character (a little over 300 words) limit, but aside from these constraints, writers are free to write what comes to mind. This was the picture prompt last week:

There was no theme prompt, so we were free to roll with the picture.

The original story I wrote was 514 words long. I liked it, but it needed some serious abridgment for the FlashDogs challenge. I agonized over every word I chopped, but I got it down to 338 words, which was just enough to meet the character count. While I’m pleased with the edited version, I still like the original. I like the slower build, each line stringing the reader along until we get to the punchline. The edited version doesn’t leave as much room for dramatic tension. At least, I don’t think so.

You can decide for yourself whether you agree. The edited version is on the FlashDogs site. And here is the original, longer version:

The girl stomped snow from her boots as she climbed the stone steps of the porch. She knocked on the door as hard as she could wearing fleece-lined leather mittens. It was more of a thud than a knock, but it would have to do. It was too cold to hit bare flesh against solid wood. She was sure her knuckles would break. Footsteps, then the door unlatched and creaked open.“Yes?” A plump lady with silver hair, round glasses perched on the end of her nose, and a rosy smile greeted her. The girl grinned, and the lady’s rosy smile blossomed.

“I’d like to see Mr. Claus,” the girl said. The lady chuckled.

“Of course you do, my dear! Won’t you come in?”

“No, that’s okay,” the girl replied, her smile disappearing. “I have some private business to discuss. Better outside, I think.” The lady shrugged her shoulders.

“If you insist,” she said. “But it’s a mighty cold day. Not that we’re complaining. Nothing like a good chill to spur on the reindeer…” Her voice drifted as she disappeared into the house.

A few moments later, a familiar figure appeared at the door.

“Ho! Ho! Ho!” said Santa. “And what can I do for you, young lady?”

“Let’s take a walk, please, Mr. Claus. I’ve come a long way, but this shouldn’t take long.”

“Very well.”

“Are you well, Mr. Claus?” the girl said as they walked.

“Yes, very,” Santa replied, clearly confused.

“And the reindeer? All ready for tonight? Rudolf’s nose glowing nice and bright?”

“The elves are polishing it as we speak. Supposed to be quite a blustery exit from the North Pole this evening.”

 “Glad to hear it,” the girl replied. Santa was used to childish enthusiasm from girls her age, and this girl’s lack of it disturbed him a little.

“What can I do for you… Anneka, isn’t it?”

“Yes, it’s Anneka, Mr. Claus. Did you get my list?”

“I did,” said Santa. “It was quite… um… extensive.”

“But it won’t be a problem, right?”

“Well… not everyone gets everything they want, you know. I don’t want to spoil you.” Santa tried to smile, but something about the steely look she gave made his mouth falter.

“But this time, that won’t be a problem.” Before Santa could respond, Anneka stopped and took out her phone.

“Oh, wasn’t that a present a couple of years ago?”

Anneka didn’t reply. She removed her gloves, swiped the screen a few times, then held it up for them both to see. Santa’s eyes nearly popped from his head.

“Last year, Mr. Claus. You didn’t notice, but… I saw mommy kissing Santa Claus. Underneath the mistletoe. See?”

Santa grumbled. “Umm… yes… but I can…”

“It’s simple, Mr. Claus. Everything on my list, or this picture gets sent to Mrs. Claus. Do we understand each other?”

Santa grumbled.

“I didn’t hear you, Mr. Claus.” Anneka glared at the old man. “Do we understand each other.”

“Yes… umm… yes.”

Anneka pocketed her phone, put on her mittens, and walked away.

“Merry Christmas,” she said without turning.

Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments. Original or Edited…?

Who Review: Snakedance

The TARDIS is off-course, and the only explanation is whoever read the destination coordinates made a mistake. Or did they? After all, it was Tegan who acted as navigator, and she is trying to take a nap, though her sleep is interrupted by bad dreams. The Mara is rearing its serpentine head again, and its dormant influence over Tegan is reawakening. It caused her to give the Doctor coordinates to Manussa, which was formerly occupied by the Sumaran Empire. It is there that the cult of Snakedancers still celebrate the Mara’s banishment, and conduct rituals to keep the Mara away. It is also the home of the “Great Mind’s Eye” crystal, which, when combined with smaller “Little Mind’s Eye” crystals can channel the mental power of the wearers to create matter. Meanwhile, on Manussa, the ruling Federator’s indolent son, Lon, has taken a sudden fascination with the legends of the Mara, and its prophesied return. But Ambril, an archaeologist and expert on the Sumaran period, is convinced the legends of the Mara are just that–legends. When the TARDIS crew arrive on Manussa, despite the Doctor’s best efforts, Tegan is overpowered by the Mara, and leaves to find the Great Mind’s Eye. The Doctor’s attempts to warn Ambril fall on deaf ears. Somehow, the Doctor and Nyssa must find a way to warn the Manussans and save Tegan, before the Mara returns and consumes them all…

SPOILER ALERT!! My comments may (and likely will) contain spoilers for those that haven’t seen this serial. If you want to stay spoiler-free, please watch the story before you continue reading!

For Doctor Who’s twentieth year, producer John Nathan-Turner wanted each story to bring back an old friend or foe (or both). The first story, “Arc of Infinity” saw the return of Omega, last seen in the Third Doctor story, “The Three Doctors” in 1973. For “Snakedance,” the production team didn’t reach very far back at all. The returning character is the Mara, last seen the previous season in “Kinda.” In that story, the Mara had taken over Tegan, and in the end was banished to the dark places. Banished doesn’t mean destroyed, and now its back with plans to stick around.

“Snakedance” was written by Christopher Bailey, who had written “Kinda.” He drew from the same pool of essentially Buddhist philosophy, but I think in “Snakedance” he did a better job making the ideas understandable to the layman. I particularly appreciated the lack of “Do you not see?” and “Do you not understand?” remarks that made “Kinda” come off as patronizing. Otherwise “Kinda” had some great acting, and was a good story. “Snakedance” also has some great acting (including a young Martin Clunes in one of his first lead roles), and is a good story.

Nyssa gets a change of clothes at last, sporting an 80s-style stripey skirt, red knee-length shorts, and blue-and-white wide-collar blouse. Martin Clunes is not quite so fortunate. His costume for the snake dance consists of a silky white tunic adorned with blue clouds, and a golden, sunshine headdress. I’m sure the symbolism is very meaningful.

I’m guessing the effects department learned some painful lessons from “Kinda.” The big snake at the end was a complete disaster (the CGI re-make on the DVD is excellent, which is a surprise–not all the CGI make-overs are that good). In “Snakedance” most of the snakes you see are fake, but they are small and used effectively. There is a big snake at the end, but it does look a bit more credible. Its death scene, with the strawberry and vanilla melted ice cream oozing from him, was a bit of a let-down. Though it would have catered many Manussan parties.

One particular oddity (at least to me) was the inclusion of the Punch and Judy show. The classic British puppet act involving acts of marital violence between Punch the Sociopath and his pan-wielding spouse was given a connection to the story by replacing the traditional crocodile character with a snake. But how on earth did Punch and Judy get to Manussa? Is there a Manussan legend of a traveling entertainer from Britain whose ship somehow ended up on Manussa, and, in exchange for the people’s hospitality, he gave them the gift of homicidal British vaudeville? Surely it would have been more appropriate to invent some kind of Mara-related entertainment that made sense to the Manussan culture. But no…

Complaints aside, the script is very good. Possibly my favorite part is when Ambril is showing the Doctor how ridiculously primitive the Sumarans were by holding up a headdress that is supposed to represent the six faces of delusion. “But look!” Ambril says, “There are only five faces.” To which the Doctor suggests Ambril try the headdress on. “Now count the faces.” Yes–the sixth face of delusion is the wearer’s own. A classic look of realization and foolishness on Ambril’s part.

In “Kinda,” we knew who was under the control of the Mara by the snake on the arm, and the pink coloring in the mouth (achieved no doubt by chewing one of those tablets they used to give us in school that colors the plaque on your teeth). This time, not only do we have the snake on the arm, but the victims face turns red. An interesting variation. I wonder if this was because the tablets tasted nasty?

At the end of “Snakedance,” the Mara has been destroyed, not just banished, but Tegan is shaken by the experience. The final scene, where Tegan is crying and the Doctor comforts her is not common in Classic Who. Recognizing that the audience mainly consisted of children, the producers didn’t often linger on the negative emotional consequences of the story. I think this is good, and the scene is well played.

“Snakedance” isn’t must-see Who, but it is worth watching. Despite their failings, this, and “Kinda” are good, thoughtful stories, with some excellent performances. And if you’ve loved Martin Clunes in anything else he has done since (e.g., “Doc Martin”), you ought to watch “Snakedance.”

Dr. R.C. Sproul, 1939-2017

This past Thursday, December 14th, Dr. R. C. Sproul went to be with the Lord. He was 78 years old and had been suffering with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease for some time. Over the last few weeks, his health had deteriorated to the point of needing assistance to breathe. He passed away surrounded by family and close friends.

There are few people in the church, especially of my generation, who have not been touched in some way by the ministry of R. C. Sproul. Without reservation or hesitation, I have often spoken of him as one of the most gifted teachers in the church today. He had a gift for clarity and engagement that has been unsurpassed in our day; the American C.S. Lewis, at least in that regard. This, coupled with his tireless and fearless dedication to the sovereignty of God and the authority of Scripture made his voice a compelling and refreshing voice in the midst of a confusing culture, and a church that seems to be losing its grounding.

I never had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Sproul, but all accounts indicate he was as engaging and humorous “off-camera” so to speak as he was behind the lectern. The church rightly grieves the loss of one of our most precious number, but our grief is his joy. Our loss is his gain. As his friend and co-laborer, Dr. Sinclair Ferguson rightly puts it:

We do not begrudge our friend the fulfilment of his heart’s desire to behold the Holy One. Long ago, by faith, he “saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up” (Isa. 6:1) and pursued “the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14). Now that faith has become sight and he sees the Holy One in all His infinite majesty. Those who loved him best will miss him most; we will all miss him. But we would not keep him back from that vision of God for which he lived and in which he has died. Soli Deo gloria!

If you’ve never had the pleasure of reading one of Dr. Sproul’s numerous works, or heard (or seen) any of his lectures, I can’t commend him highly enough to you. I don’t agree with everything he taught (he was Presbyterian, after all), but there are many things about which I would gladly stand shoulder-to-shoulder with him. One book I particularly recommend is THE HOLINESS OF GOD, a modern classic. There’s a lecture series recorded in the mid-1980s that accompanies the book which Ligonier (his ministry) has kindly posted to YouTube.

By way of tribute, here’s the third lecture in that series on “The Holiness of God” entitled, “Holiness and Justice.” It’s about 30 minutes long, but so well worth the time. May the Lord continue to use Dr. Sproul’s words to touch our lives for His glory.

Award!

I am honored that Friday’s article, “When Bad People Do Good Things” was deemed worthy of an award. Namely, Silver Fox’s Thrust Home Award:

The award is “Given to the Author of a Single Outstanding Blog Post.” Check out his blog for further explanation. Thank you, Silver Fox. This was unexpected, and very much appreciated. 🙂