The Unique Power of Reading, Part 1

Most people in the world can read. About 98% of Americans are literate to some extent. Heck, you’re doing it right now! Unless you just came to look at the pictures. And if you say, “yes, I’m just here for the pictures,” then AHA! Caught you! You had to read that statement to agree with it. So, admit it: you read. Along with the vast majority of the people around you. Which means, like many of us, you probably take the fact you read for granted. Like many, myself included, you pick up a book, a magazine, turn on the internet (I know you don’t turn on the internet… it’s just there, like radio and bacteria…) and take in the words in front of you.

But have you thought about what you’re doing? Really thought about? Let’s do that for a moment.

What does it mean to read? Reading is the receiving end of an act of communication. Someone, somewhere, somewhen wrote something to entertain you, or to inform you, or to make you think. You read it, and, as a result, you are entertained, informed, or thinking about what was written. No other species on the planet can do that, which means you and I are very, very special. There are 8.7 million species on the planet (according to The Internet), but ours is the only one that reads. Sure, birds can sing to each other, and skunks stink love messages. But when was the last time a skunk captured their smell to send to their hottie? Birds don’t make mp3s of their music. And cats don’t send each other hate mail…

We humans have a complex variety of communication methods, most popularly using words (not discounting body language, sign language, and emojis). With these words we make each other laugh, express the deepest longings of our souls, sass each other, educate each other, and tell stories. We like that last one especially. And from Egyptian walls to parchment to the printing press, we’ve taken time to capture those words and ideas for posterity. Which means, I don’t have to summon H.G. Wells from the dead to hear his story about the Martians invading London. Or do I? Because when I open this book…

… and start reading:

“No-one would have believed, in the last years of the nineteenth century, that human affairs were being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own…”

H.G. Wells is speaking to me from the grave. His words from 119 years ago are alive in my head as I read them. The same pictures he painted in the minds of his Victorian audience begin to form in my mind. Wells’s body may be long gone from this earth, but his voice lives whenever I pick up and read his work.

Reading has the power to bring the dead to life!

Consider that next time you read a book by Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde, or Ian Fleming. They are still telling you their stories, even though their physical voices have been silenced. When you read their words, it’s as if they are sitting right there with you, speaking to you. Entertaining you. Informing you. Making you think.

More on the power of reading in the next post. Stay tuned!  🙂

Who Review: Full Circle

Romana’s in a funk. The Time Lords want their Time Lady back, so they have recalled the TARDIS to Gallifrey. After all, she was only on loan to the Doctor for the “Key to Time” adventure, and now she’s overdue her return. But she doesn’t want the adventures to end, and doesn’t fancy the prospect of the staid, safe life back home. The Doctor isn’t unsympathetic, but he’s in enough trouble with the Time Lords, so he dutifully plugs in the coordinates and sets course. But something goes wrong. There’s a bump, a shift, and when the TARDIS lands, the scanner doesn’t appear to be working. A careful examination of the coordinates reveals that they are negative. They are no longer in “normal space.” And they are not on Gallifrey. In fact, they are on the planet Alzarius, whose inhabitants live on a Starliner that crashed thousands of years ago. They have been gathering food and conducting repairs, ready for the day of embarkation, when they will leave for their home planet of Terradon. But not all of the Alzarians live in the Starliner. A group of youngsters, “Outlers,” have chosen a life outside, living in caves, and stealing riverfruit to survive. It’s a rough life, but better than the boring existence in the ship. Except when Mistfall comes. That’s when a noxious gas fills the air, and the marsh creatures emerge from the water to terrorize the land. Adric, a young Alzarian, one of the “Elites,” eager to prove himself to his Outler brother, finds himself outside and injured as Mistfall starts. The Doctor and Romana take him in, but the marsh creatures are coming. Finding themselves trapped in this strange world, our heroes need to uncover the mystery of Mistfall so that they can escape and find a way back to N-Space…

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!

“Full Circle” is the first installment of a three-part story arc known as “The E-Space Trilogy.” The next two stories, “State of Decay” and “Warriors Gate” continue and conclude the adventure. This story was written by a newcomer, Andrew Smith, who was only seventeen at the time. Andrew had been submitting ideas to previous script editors, but it wasn’t until this particular story crossed new script editor Christopher Bidmead’s desk that his dream came true. It needed work, which wasn’t unusual for new writers, but between them, Smith and Bidmead crafted one of the better stories of the season.

The first episode is mainly concerned with setting up the trilogy premise, and establishing Alzarius, its inhabitants, and the back story to the adventure. We spend at least half the episode with the Starliner and the Outlers, not the TARDIS crew, which is unusual. But there is a lot to explain: the various strata of society (the regular people, the Elites, the Deciders, the Outlers, the Marshmen), the planet itself, Mistfall, why they are there, and what they are doing. And all of these elements are important for the plot. They establish Adric’s character as an Elite with particular skill in mathematics and a strong connection to the Outlers, as well as giving clues to the true nature of the colony.

The plot rests on an acceptance of Neo-Darwinian Micro-Mutational Evolutionary Theory. As a Christian, I do not accept NDMMET, but for the purpose of fiction, I can suspend my disbelief because, frankly, it makes for a good story (NDMMET is useless for science, so it may as well be employed for fiction). There are three “big secrets” at the heart of the plot–so this is a huge spoiler if you haven’t watched “Full Circle”: 1) there is no Terradon–the colonists are on their home planet; 2) the Starliner is ready to leave at any time, except no-one knows how to pilot it; 3) the spiders, the Marshmen, and the colonists are all genetically linked as three stages of an accelerated evolutionary development over many years. Over the course of the story, various hints are dropped (Adric’s knee healing in a matter of minutes, the fact the Mistfall air isn’t poisonous but is rich in nitrogen, the affinity spider-bitten Romana has with the Marshmen, and so on), but the Doctor clearly has his suspicions, which he proves by microscopically examining samples from a spider and a Marshman. The way these threads are drawn throughout is well done.

“Full Circle” certainly doesn’t suffer in the story department, nor in the set design. Both the Starliner and the caves look good, and the choice of outside location works well for Alzarius. Even the mist on the water is believable, especially as the Marshmen rise up out of the watery depths. My only gripe in terms of the design is that the caves would have looked even better filmed as opposed to video taped (as they did for the jungle setting in “Planet of Evil”). Tom Baker is, once again, on fine form, as are most of the main cast. The younger actors give stage-y performances which is a little distracting. And while Matthew Waterhouse does okay as Adric, that assessment makes concessions for his youth and inexperience as an actor, which really shows when he plays against Tom Baker and some of the other more veteran actors. I have to say, Lalla Ward seems to tend toward the same kind of stage-y, overdramatic performance that we see from the kids, which is disappointing after a great run of actors playing Doctor Who companions. She’s a decent actress, but after the likes of Elisabeth Sladen (Sarah Jane Smith), or Louise Jameson (Leela), I expect more.

As I said, the Marshmen looked quite effective on film, rising from the murky depths, but on video tape and on dry land, the costume flaws are more than evident. As is always the case with Classic Doctor Who, the design team is working with a very tight budget, and you have to applaud the creativity behind what they accomplish with so little money. When the effects and costumes work, you don’t notice them (e.g., Davros in “Genesis of the Daleks” or Linx, the Sontaran in “The Time Warrior”). Here, the costumes are very noticeable.

There’s a nice touch at the beginning of the story when the Doctor mentions the Key to Time, and looks forward to seeing Leela and Andred where he left them on Gallifrey. Viewers might have forgotten this detail, and it provides some motivation for the Doctor to obey the Time Lords’ summons. At the end of the story, our travelers are trapped in “Exo-Space” or “E-Space.” They determine that they stumbled through a CVE, or Charged Vacuum Emboitment. Their only escape is to find another CVE that will take them back to N-Space (“Normal Space”). They also have a stowaway on board, a fact that will be revealed in the next story, “State of Decay.”

As with all the stories in this season, I think “Full Circle” is worth watching. Not classic must-see Who, but entertaining, and with a plot that keeps you engaged, and some interesting characters.

 

NaNoWriMo 2017, Here I Come!

NaNoWriMo–National Novel Writing Month–is soon upon us. For the month of November, hundreds, maybe thousands, of people will attempt to write a novel at least 50,000 words long. The novel can be about anything, and the author can approach it however he or she wishes (plot, edit as you go, “pants,” hybrid plot-pants (which has nothing to do with gardening), etc.)–in fact, there aren’t many rules. To do it “properly,” you must start the novel with a blank page, and complete at least 50,000 words by November 30th. You can plan, research, draw characters, create character bios, even cast the movie version of your story as much as you want prior to November 1. However, you are not supposed to begin the actual novel until day one of the challenge.

I did NaNoWriMo a few years ago, and completed a 70,000+ word novel. After editing and revising, it plumped up to around 80,000 words, and I even queried it, to no avail (obviously, otherwise I’d have an agent and maybe books published). But it was fun, and showed me how productive I can be if pushed. Given my renewed focus on writing, it seemed only right that I should give NaNoWriMo another go. So that’s what I’ll be doing for the month of November.

If you’ve never tried writing a novel, you may think 50,000 words is a lot of words. You’re right. It is. There are many who start NaNo and don’t finish. So you will excuse me if blog posts are a little light and perhaps not as frequent in November. I will try to post quick updates to Facebook and Twitter, so follow me there if you want to find out how I’m getting along.

If you’d like to give NaNoWriMo a try, go to the Official Site and sign up! If you’ve signed up, hunt me down (my user name is cds) and be my buddy. 🙂

Are you doing NaNoWriMo this year?

Some Changes to the Blog

As you might have noticed, I’ve made some changes to the blog. There’s a new banner, and I’ve moved the tabs around. Why?

For too long I’ve resisted promoting myself as a writer, despite the fact that’s what I do most of the time I’m not doing something else. Whether it’s stories, blog articles, or notes for my Sunday School class, I’m usually tapping away at the keyboard, or jotting things down on paper. So why deny the obvious?

Perhaps a good way to describe the point I have come to is by adapting a popular meme. I’m sure you’ve all seen the “Distracted Boyfriend” picture, if you’ve spent any time on social media. Here’s my take:

Get the idea? I can be comfortable, give in to my doubts, and put off promoting my writing and trying to establish myself as a writer in any professional capacity… but that’s hardly living. Sure, it may not work. It’s very possible no-one will want to read anything I have to say, or follow my social media accounts, or take me seriously at all as an author. But the only way I’ll know for certain is to try. And the fun of trying is what gives life its spice.

So the changes to the blog are my attempt to be more focused about what I’m doing here. What about the Music Mondays, the Who Reviews, the Sunday School Notes, and all the other non-writing/book-related stuff? I’ll still write those, and all the past posts can be found under the “The Rest of My Life…” tab on the top. However, the focus of the blog from now on is going to be more reader-ly and writer-ly.

But that’s not all that’s going on. I mentioned in a previous post that I’m setting up a Patreon page. I have also set up a Facebook “Writer” page–a “business” page for my writing. As well as blog articles here, I’ll post stuff there from time to time. If you’d like to follow me on Facebook, the link is at the side. It’s also HERE.

I think that’s everything. I hope you like the new look, and enjoy, or at least appreciate, the renewed focus. 🙂

Questions? Comments?

 

Who Review: Meglos

Finding himself in the vicinity of the planet Tigella, the Doctor gets in touch with his old friend Zastor, leader of the Tigellans. His contact is timely, since Tigella is having problems with its power source, the “Dodecahedron.” This mighty crystal is worshiped by one faction of Tigellan society, and used for its energy potential by the scientists of the other faction. The scientists (“Savants”) want to run tests on the Dodecahedron to find out why they are having power fluctuations. To the religious Deons, this is blasphemy, and they won’t let the Savants anywhere near it. Zastor invites the Doctor to come and help mediate the situation, and assist with their troubleshooting. But this isn’t the only problem for Tigella. The Dodecahedron is actually from neighboring planet Zolfa-Thura, and Meglos, the cactus-like last of the Zolfa-Thurans, wants to reclaim it and use its power to exact revenge. He has recruited a band of space pirates to assist him, but the Doctor’s arrival could cause problems, so he traps the TARDIS crew in a time loop. When they break free from that, Meglos uses a captured human to adopt humanoid form. He then takes on the likeness of the Doctor, and arrives on Tigella ahead of the TARDIS. Meglos know that the Tigellans anticipate the Doctor’s arrival, so they won’t be suspicious when the Meglos-Doctor shows up. And then, when the Meglos-Doctor steals the Dodecahedron, they will capture the real Doctor when he arrives, leaving the way clear for Meglos to complete his plan…

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 the eighteenth season of Doctor Who, as the show entered the 1980s, new producer John Nathan-Turner gave the aging program a much-needed overhaul: new titles, new theme music, more “modern” sounding incidental music. As part of this eighties renovation, Nathan-Turner and new script editor Christopher H. Bidmead were eager to find new talent to write stories for the show. This is how television newbies John Flanagan and Andrew McCulloch got the opportunity to write “Meglos” for Doctor Who, though it would be their only contribution to the series.

It seems Nathan-Turner wasn’t all that impressed with the story, but pushed forward with it due to time constraints. I don’t think it’s at all bad, to be honest. Sure, the science vs. religion thing is a bit of an old trope (and one that continues to annoy me), but that’s just one of the tension points in the story. Indeed, once the Doctor arrives, the Deons are more cooperative–at least until the Meglos-Doctor steals the Dodecahedron, at which point they capture the real Doctor and offer him as an appeasement sacrifice. Naturally, the sacrifice is drawn out, consisting of being tied below a large boulder suspended by four ropes that are gradually burned until the last one gives out and the boulder squishes the victim. I’m not entirely sure, and it’s never explained, why this elaborate process is necessary, other than to buy time for Romana and Zastor to come and save the day, which they do.

Another thing that bothered me is the fact that the Doctor suggested there was a “doppelganger,” and the Tigellans appeared to understand what this German word means. But how? This isn’t a unique phenomenon to Doctor Who, of course. I’ve seen plenty of sci-fi shows and movies where aliens throw around French and German phrases. Why would the Tigellans understand the word “doppelganger”? Why did the Doctor even use that word, as opposed to talking about a “double”?

Unfortunately, the plants are a bit of a design failure. A nice attempt, but they don’t look organic. The cactus is probably the best fake plant, and the best effect has to be the cactus-human and cactus-Doctor. It’s pretty creepy, actually. And Tom Baker relishes the opportunity to play the bad guy, which adds to the creepiness of the hybrid. Having the human inside the Meglos-Doctor struggle for control was a good twist, especially since the human in question appeared initially to be a bit weak. When Meglos is eventually forced out of the human, he resumes a cactus form, but this time he’s deflated and squirms away. A nice idea, but not very well done, I’m afraid. Again, the costume fails to look anything other than a costume.

At the end of the story, the Doctor is summoned back to Gallifrey. This gives us a link into the next story, and spells the beginning of the end for Romana…

As I said, “Meglos” is a good story, though not spectacular. While some of the effects leave a lot to be desired, many others are at least acceptable, if not good. Tom Baker’s performance is, as always, top-notch, though he looks a bit sickly (I think Baker was ill at the time). We have some glimpses of humor, just enough to remind us that he’s still the Doctor. Since I recommend the season, of course I recommend “Meglos.” But it doesn’t rise to the level of “must-see.”

Become a Patron of the Arts… for $1/month!

Do you know who this guy is? His name is Ludovico Sforza. He was Duke of Milan from 1494-1499, but most notably, he was a patron of Leonardo da Vinci. In fact, it was his money that enabled Leonardo to paint this:

Back in that day, artists relied upon patrons to provide them an income, freeing them to produce the works of art we have all come to love, and that enrich our lives. These days, however, art and entertainment has become so ubiquitous, few give a moment’s thought to how much time and talent goes into producing the music we listen to, the movies we watch, or the books we read. And often, those creators have to hold down other jobs so they can eat and pay bills while they create the things we love. If only there was a way for people to become patrons to artists today…

Enter PATREON.

Patreon was founded in 2013 by Jack Conte, a musician and YouTuber who wanted to provide a means for creative people to be able to create, and not have to worry about how they’re going to pay the bills while they work on their art. For a token amount every month (often as low as $1), you can help support an artist, and in return not only do you get the pleasure of knowing you have helped bring art into the world, but the creator will often offer “thank you” gifts for their patrons.

All this is leading up to an announcement:

I’m starting a Patreon for my writing. I’ll be launching the site soon, but I wanted to let you all know about it ahead of time so I can get some feedback.

Why do I feel like I need a Patreon site? After all, I have a full-time job. There are three main reasons:

  1. The Encouragement. Even the most seemingly self-assured writer lives in self-doubt. Stephen King will be the first to tell you he often feels a fraud, and is in fear of being “found out.” That’s why it’s always nice when people express genuine appreciation for my work. How much more encouraging it would be if people could back up that appreciation with some kind of financial investment! For published writers, that investment usually comes in the form of book sales. I don’t have anything published yet, so Patreon is the next best thing.
  2. The Extra Money. My job covers the bills, but doesn’t leave a lot of room for much else. I’d love to go to writing conferences, feel like I can afford to keep my computer working, or even just take time off work to spend writing, or relaxing with the family.
  3. The Discipline. I plan to offer patrons new flash fiction every month, and samples of things I’m working on. This means I need to have something to show for my writing efforts every month. What better way to help me keep focused than to think of all the people pledging money to help me write and looking forward to their monthly reward?

I’ll have two levels of patronage: $1.00/month gets you a free flash story, and $3.00 (or more)/month will get you the flash story, plus a sample of my current Work in Progress.

What do you think? A good idea? A bad idea? Do the rewards sound enticing? Your feedback, please!

UPDATE: Please note, comments and likes are NOT understood to be a commitment to patronize. Just let me know what you think. Also, I might not limit the reward to just flash fiction. Some months it may be poetry, or a song parody. Something special just for patrons. At the $3.00+ level, I might also throw in some cat pictures…

Who Review: The Leisure Hive

The Doctor misses the opening of Brighton Pavillion in England… again! So Romana suggests an alternative holiday location: the Leisure Hive on Argolis. They turn up in time to see a demonstration of the Tachyon Recreation Generator, a device that can duplicate and manipulate matter–a real draw for the tourists. And this Leisure Hive needs tourists. Thanks to the emergence of other leisure planets in the area, Argolis is close to bankruptcy. Their only hope is to sell to the Foamasi, reptile-like creatures against whom the Argolins waged a twenty-minute war some years ago. The Foamasi seem like ideal customers since they are able to live in the highly radioactive outdoor atmosphere of Argolis. But the Argolin leadership refuse to accept their offer. It seems someone is trying to force their hand as the Doctor and Romana witness an attempt to sabotage the Tachyon device, leading to the death of a tourist. This is only one of a series of deliberate attempts to disrupt Argolin equipment. The Doctor and Romana try to help, but find themselves instead the objects of suspicion. Their only hope of getting away is to discover who is responsible for the mysterious deaths, and why.

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 Leisure Hive” launched Doctor Who’s 18th season, and it did so with a kick up the 80s. New producer John Nathan-Turner decided the show was getting old and silly, and needed a breath of fresh air. He commissioned a new version of the theme, a new title sequence, and even a new wardrobe for the Doctor. Nathan-Turner didn’t like the overly-comical turn the show had taken over the last season, so he dropped much of the humor, and hired Christopher Bidmead to take over script editing duties. Bidmead sought out scripts that would bring a more serious edge to the show, employing “real science” at the service of science fiction. As the season progressed, Nathan-Turner’s overhaul of the show would see the departure of Romana and K-9… and eventually the Fourth Doctor himself. But that’s to come…

David Fisher penned this story, and, being the competent writer he is, came up with an interesting premise. The idea of “leisure planets” will be taken up again in the New Series, when the Tenth Doctor and Donna visit the “resort planet” Midnight. Argolis was built in response to the war against the Foamasi (an anagram of “Mafiosa”). That it was a twenty minute war demonstrates the show hasn’t completely lost its sense of humor. The Argolins want to dedicate themselves to peace, and the Leisure Hive stands as a reminder of their bloody past, and their determination to make a better future.

But not all the Argolins are on-board with this plan. In a clever twist, we learn that the Tachyon Recreation Generator is not about recreation (i.e., having fun), but re-creation. Pangol, the youngest of the Argolins, turns out to be a “child of the generator,” the only successful survivor of an old cloning experiment. He wants to use the machine to duplicate, or re-create, clones of himself that will form a new and powerful army. With this army, he intends to rebuild the Argolin race and defeat their enemies (which, to his xenophobic mind, are legion), starting with the Foamasi.

The Doctor puts an end to Pangol’s plan by using the TARDIS randomizer to destabilize the Tachyon Recreation Generator, thus producing an army that eventually disappears. In this nimble piece of writing, we are reminded that the Doctor’s travels have been guided by the randomizer for fear that the Black Guardian might catch up with him (see Season Sixteen’s “The Armageddon Factor”). Even the Doctor and Romana don’t know where they will end up when the TARDIS dematerializes. However, at the end of “The Leisure Hive,” the Doctor elects to leave the randomizer attached to the TRG. It seems he’s fed up of running from the Black Guardian, and wants to be able to go wherever he wants. The Doctor bypassed the randomizer to travel to Brighton and then to Argolis; this is a more permanent solution.

The concept of Tachyon Particles is a real scientific thing. These are hypothetical particles that can travel faster than light. In this story, the hypothetical is made real, thus delivering on Bidmead’s promise to re-anchor the show in “real science.”

The best effect of the whole story has to be the Doctor’s “old” make-up, when he is aged by the TRG. It looks quite convincing. The Argolins’ make-up and costumes aren’t bad, but I’m afraid that’s about it for the production compliments. The external models look like models, and the reptilian Foamasi look like costumes, complete with stitching and dry, solid eyes that don’t even attempt to look like living matter.

And I have to ask, why wasn’t K-9 aware that his sea water defenses were faulty? He’s usually pretty good with his diagnostic checks. I’m surprised he went head-long into the sea oblivious to  a problem that seriously compromises his safety. I suspect JN-T wanted rid of the dog no matter what–even if the excuse was seaweed limp. His opening shot is different–a slow pan of the beach that takes a couple of minutes to get to the TARDIS, and then the Doctor asleep on a deck chair. I’m not sure it works, though, especially for a young audience who would be getting restless after the first ten seconds. Perhaps the fact he never tried anything like that again says a lot.

“The Leisure Hive” is worth watching, if only for it’s historical value. I remember when it first aired, I was shocked at the new “star field” title sequence, and the synthesizer-based theme. The old theme and titles had been in use for ten years, so it was the only theme I ever knew up to that point. In fact, I believe my exact thought was, “What have they done to Doctor Who?!” Ironically, this arrangement of the theme ended up being my favorite. And this face-lift was long overdue.

Who Review: Shada (Untransmitted)

Professor Chronotis, a Time Lord posing as a Cambridge University lecturer, unwittingly lends an extremely powerful book to one of his students. The book is powerful because it reveals the location of the Time Lord prison planet Shada. Chronotis “borrowed” the book from Gallifrey, and, since he isn’t supposed to have a TARDIS (he’s retired), has called upon his old friend, the Doctor, to return the book for him. But when the Doctor and Romana arrive, he realizes he no longer has the book, and struggles to remember what he did with it. Meanwhile, an evil genius named Skagra wants to construct a “Universal Mind” filled with knowledge from all the greatest criminals. To complete the task, he must access Shada. His search for the planet’s location leads him to Professor Chronotis, and eventually the Doctor, who must prevent Skagra finding Shada. If Skagra completes his task, he will use this “Universal Mind” to take over the universe…

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!

“Shada” was supposed to be the season 17 finale, broadcast in six parts over January and February, 1980. The production team managed to complete outside filming, and made a good start on studio recording. But before the in-studio scenes could be completed, a technicians’ dispute at the BBC brought everything to a stop. Once the dispute was settled, Christmas 1979 was fast approaching, and a number of TV specials that had been put on hold were given studio priority. Doctor Who would have to wait its turn. And eventually time ran out. “The Horns of Nimon” broadcast as the season 17 finale, and “Shada” was shelved. In-coming producer John Nathan-Turner tried a number of times to have the story remounted, but eventually admitted defeat in the summer of 1980. The story remained a thing of legend until 1992, three years after the end of the Classic Series, when Nathan-Turner managed to procure the rights to the story from Douglas Adams, and released all the completed scenes, along with linking narration by Tom Baker, on video. This is all that remains of the original “Shada,” but it’s enough to give a sense of what the complete story would have looked like.

Many fans were excited to see “Shada” for the first time in 1992–even if close to half of the story is missing–having heard about it. But, as so often happens with the stuff of legends, the reality can be disappointing. At least it was to some. Not me, however. I think it’s a shame it wasn’t finished and broadcast, as it would have helped justify an otherwise dodgy season. “Shada” and “City of Death” were the only redeeming features of a lackluster and inconsistent season seventeen. It’s not Douglas Adams’s best, but close to it. The story has depth and the characters are interesting, with the final reveal about Professor Chronotis being perhaps the biggest surprise.

Adams was known for being a well-spring of creative ideas, and “Shada” is full of them. There’s Skagra’s invisible space ship, which was much beloved by the production team since it was very cheap. Also the ball that chased people and sucked out all their knowledge and memories. And then there’s the idea that a book can be dangerous, and the Professor’s study could be a TARDIS. Adams has Skagra initially wandering around Cambridge wearing a wide-brimmed hat and carrying a carpet bag–an odd visual that works because Skagra is an alien trying to “fit in.” Finally there are the Kraag, the monsters of the story, made of crystal with fire at their core.

There are some points that bothered me. First, when Chronotis dies, Romana isn’t surprised he doesn’t regenerate, even though he didn’t say anything about being on his last regeneration. In Cambridge, during the chase scene between Skagra’s knowledge sphere and the Doctor, we linger for a while on a group of singers. It’s a nice interval, but completely pointless. They add nothing to the story. David Brierley provides K-9’s voice, thankfully for the last time. As I’ve noted in other stories of this season, I don’t like his characterization of K-9. His inflections are too human, and give K-9 too much personality for a robot dog. And, lastly, there’s a scene where the Doctor gives Romana a medal for reminding him of something very important to the story. This comes across as patronizing, a bit childish, and, again, pointless.

A number of the special effects work quite well. The sphere that chases people and sucks their minds is well done, and the Kraag costumes aren’t bad either.

“Shada” isn’t must-see Who. Indeed, a number of fans weren’t able to see it for nearly thirteen years, so it won’t hurt your Whovian credibility if you never get around to it. But, given the opportunity, I recommend you take it. As one of Douglas Adams’s best Who scripts (as well as his last), it’s worth your time.

Who Review: The Horns of Nimon

The planet Skonnos was once the center of a powerful empire, but no longer. In an attempt to reclaim its former power, the Skonnans have made an agreement with the Nimon, a double-horned creature of great power. In exchange for weapons, and assistance with rebuilding their empire, the Skonnans give the Nimon tribute in the form of young people from the neighboring planet, Aneth, and hymetusite crystals that provide nuclear energy. However, the final shipment of tribute malfunctions and disappears from the Skonnan radar. The TARDIS materializes outside the ship, and the Doctor extends the TARDIS’s defense shields to provide safe passage for himself and Romana. Once on the ship, they encounter the tribute–a small group of boys and girls barely out of adolescence–and the nervous, self-serving co-pilot, who has taken command at the death of the pilot. Between them, the Doctor and Romana get the ship going again, using some of the hymetusite crystals. But when the Doctor returns to the TARDIS, the co-pilot sets off for Skonnos, leaving the Doctor stranded in the path of a fast-approaching, planet-sized asteroid. Somehow, he must reunite with Romana, and help the inhabitants of Aneth escape the clutches of the Skonnans, and the dreadful Nimon…

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 last broadcast serial of season 17, “The Horns of Nimon” makes the final case that the show needs a breath of fresh air. The silliness and goofiness that has pervaded the previous couple of stories doesn’t abate–in fact, it abounds. Watching the first scene with the TARDIS crew, you have to wonder whether this is a Doctor Who parody, or if the production team are still in pantomime mode (it was broadcast from December 12, 1979 to January 12, 1980). For a number of reasons, as I will soon enumerate, this is probably my least favorite Doctor Who story.

What’s sad about that assessment is the fact that the story itself isn’t to blame. Made during any other season, with a different production team and script editor, it would have fared much better, I think. The basic story is of a deal cut between the people of Skonnos and the Minotaur-like Nimon. Skonnos provides Nimon with power crystals and tribute (basically, young humans from which to feed), and the Nimon provides Skonnos with weapons and help restoring the empire. The Skonnans are represented to Nimon by Soldeed, a manic soothsayer-type, who also presents the Nimon’s requests to the people. Soldeed believes he is manipulating the Nimon, saying what he/it wants to hear and dutifully providing the tribute, meanwhile reaping the greater benefits of the relationship. At one point, one of the Skonnans questions Soldeed about this, noting that such an imbalance usually portends something ominous. Soldeed poo-poos the idea, but he is too quick to dismiss. As we later learn, there isn’t just one Nimon, but many, many Nimons, and they are utilizing the power of black holes to travel from planet to planet, draining them of their resources like parasitic nomads. They have about used up all the people and resources of their current base, Crinoth, and are set to invade Skonnos to do the same there. The tribute and crystals provided by the Skonnans are, in fact, the tools of their own downfall, as the Nimon makes use of them to give them the strength and power they need for their work.

As I said, this is a good premise for a Doctor Who story, and script writer Anthony Read (Douglas Adams’s predecessor as Script Editor) is to be commended for it. The main problem is there is so much whimsy, comedy, and hyper-melodrama added to the story, it’s hard to take it seriously. At one point, the Doctor, Romana, Seth, and Tika (two youngsters from Aneth) are hiding from the Nimons behind large consoles. The atmosphere of the show, and the way the Nimons move around, make me want to yell “Behind you!” like a small child watching pantomime.

The character of Soldeed is very theatrical, played with large gestures, and larger-than-life bravado and mischief. He is the classic villain, with an evil laugh, booming threats, and a showy, drawn out death scene. In short, he fits the mood of the serial. At one point Soldeed even calls Romana a “hussy”!

The Doctor makes an interesting comment, when he spins the TARDIS to make it bounce off an oncoming asteroid (whose idea was that?). He notes how he would have been “a great slow bowler.” This could be taken as an (unintended) foreshadowing of his next incarnation!

I have to say, Romana II is probably my least favorite companion. Mary Tamm’s Romana I was a lot more restrained, and far less like the Doctor, which was good. Romana II gets particularly shouty in this story. Excessively shouty, in fact. The dialog between Romana II and the Doctor can be witty, but often it’s nonsensical, and they sound like a pair of full-of-themselves undergrad students.

Amidst the budget-challenged effects (which includes model shots recorded on video, which never look as good, and some dubious firearms), there are some good and well-executed ideas. I like the corridors that change their configuration, so they are like an impossible maze. (Since the Nimon is based on the Minotaur, it only makes sense he has a labyrinth.) And the final explosion model shot, which was recorded on film, is probably the best effects shot of the whole story.

To sum up, don’t bother. Okay, if you’re the die-hard, completist Whovian, watch it, but you have been warned. For the rest, don’t panic. Things do get better. 🙂

Some Thoughts on… The Synopsis

So you’ve written a novel, and it has been beta read, revised, edited, re-written, and buffed and polished until it shines, sings, and dances tangos around your typewriter. (Okay, so you don’t use a typewriter. But your manuscript probably doesn’t sing and dance either. Stay with me on this.) In other words, you’re ready to query.

You start going down your agent list, and Agent Number One, the “Dream Agent” (which you really shouldn’t have, but you do–can’t help it… we’ll talk about that another time), wants this thing called a “Synopsis.” What’s that? Well, etymologically speaking, the word comes from the Greek words sun and opsis, which together mean something like “seeing together.” (The Greek verb horao means “to see”; its future form, opsomai, has the same root as the noun opsis. Yes, in Classical Greek two tenses of the same verb can have different root forms. Isn’t Greek fun?) The first three Gospels in the New Testament are referred to as “Synoptic” because they have many stories in common that can be read in parallel. Over time, however, the word “synopsis” has come to mean (at least in English) a compressed overview of something. “Don’t go into detail; just give me a synopsis.” This could be a summary of the results of some experiment. Or, more commonly, a heavily abbreviated re-telling of a story. So when an agent asks for a synopsis, she’s asking for a 2-5 page summary of the novel, including all main plot points, even how it ends.

What’s the difference between a synopsis, and your 250-word query blurb? Your query blurb is meant to entice the agent to read your novel. You’ll introduce the main character and briefly describe the driving conflict behind the novel. You’re not giving away plot points, or the ending. The point is to make the agent request the manuscript so she can read what happens. Your blurb will be engaging, full of voice, and reflect the style of the story (witty? dramatic? creepy?). The synopsis, on the other hand, will be a pretty dry recounting of the events, so the agent can see how well you work out the plot, and whether the ending is worth the effort.

Here’s a pictorial representation of the difference between a query blurb, and a synopsis. First, this is your novel:

Now, here’s the query blurb.

See? Aren’t you enticed to find out more? And this is the synopsis:

Get the idea? The synopsis gives you a rough idea of the picture without any of the color, detail, or artistry that went into writing the novel.

And this is why many writers hate writing synopses. I mean, who in their right mind thinks that depiction of the Mona Lisa does da Vinci’s original justice? Sure, you get the idea that it’s a picture of a lady sitting outside somewhere. But where’s the skin tone? Where’s the detail on the trees? And where’s that enigmatic smile? The synopsis doesn’t entice. There’s no character, no depth, no artistry. You might pay millions for the original Mona Lisa, but you wouldn’t give a penny for the synopsis.

Those who want a synopsis would probably argue that the reason they want one is because they have already been enticed by the query, and like what they see of the writing in the first few pages. Before they offer representation, however, they need to know quickly whether you can construct a plot, and see it through to a satisfying conclusion. They know you can write, but can you write a marketable story? Basically, the synopsis will tell them whether or not its worth taking the time to read the entire manuscript.

Personally, I don’t think that’s fair. If an agent likes the query, and likes the writing, he should at least read the manuscript and discover the rest of the story with all the voice and color the writer intended. If he gets to the end and isn’t satisfied, he may still love the writing enough to ask for a “revise and resend” (i.e., suggest changes and ask the writer to re-submit when those changes have been made). Or he may pass on it anyway. The point is, reading a synopsis doesn’t do anything more for the agent than would reading the manuscript, other than save time because it won’t take as long. This doesn’t do justice to the work as a whole.

But what can you do? Not much. If an agent asks for a synopsis, unless you don’t really want to be represented by that agent, you have to follow the submission guidelines. On the plus side, writing a synopsis of your novel can be a useful exercise. If there are weaknesses in the plot, a synopsis will show them pretty starkly. No fluffy language hiding the fact that the dead waitress in chapter 5 is alive and well in chapter 7. Or that the major piece of evidence revealed in chapter 20 couldn’t exist because of a plot point in chapter 3.

And, so I’m told, even when you get a publishing deal, the demand for synopses won’t go away. Publishers will want to see a synopsis of each novel you write, and you will be the one to write them. So my advice is to suck it up and get used to it. Who said this writing gig was easy? Not me. Probably Harvey Q. Brakklehauser. Heard of him? No? My point.

What thoughts do you have about synopses? Any advice? Horror stories? Or do you actually like writing them?