Total Eclipse of the Blog

Yesterday (Monday, August 21, 2017) was Eclipse Day here in the US, with a number of places across this fair land getting the once-or-twice-in-a-lifetime opportunity to witness a solar eclipse. Of course, necessary precautions have to be taken to view an eclipse, like protective eyewear, special viewing devices, and excuses to be out of school or work. But nevertheless, it was quite a spectacle for an hour or so.

Contrary to my article title, we here in Eastern North Carolina didn’t get the total eclipse, but we got quite a partial. At the height of the event, there really wasn’t much sun hidden away. We didn’t go dark–which gives you an idea of how bright the sun is, that even a sliver of sunlight keeps the birds happy… not that you hadn’t figured that out already by having your retina burned from staring at the sun too long–but the light did dim a bit.

I didn’t have the equipment to capture the event as one might like (do I look like NASA?), but I gave it my former-British best. Swiping my boss’s cardboard Eclipse Glasses (the black market value of which competed with gold for about 20 mins prior), I held them up to the lens of my phone and took a picture:

 

Hmmm. Not very impressive. I mean, you can see the sun, but not much eclipse. Then I hit upon the idea that maybe the filter was too close to the lens. With the help of a co-worker who held the glasses, I took a picture through the filter at a distance of a few inches:

It won’t win a Pulitzer, but it’ll do. It looks dark because of the filter, not because it was actually dark. Trust me, it wasn’t.

The eclipse started around 1:25 pm Eastern Time, peaked at around 2:50 pm, and it was all over with a little after 4. For those who missed it, I believe there’ll be another in 2024. See you then! 🙂

Did you see the eclipse? Any stories to share? Or was it much ado about nothing for you?

Who Review: Nightmare of Eden

An interstellar cruise ship with many passengers on board materializes out of hyperspace to find its shipping lane occupied by a trade ship, causing the two to merge in a kind of dimensional crossover. It appears to be an accident, but the cruise ship’s navigator is clearly under the influence of some kind of narcotic. The TARDIS appears on the cruise ship close to the point of collision, and the Doctor immediately volunteers his services to separate the two craft. However, he is soon distracted from his task by the discovery of Vraxoin, a dangerous and addictive drug, on the ship. This is most likely what affected the navigator, causing the collision with the trade ship. The Doctor is also taken with a strange device brought on board by a couple of passengers: zoologist Tryst and his assistant, Della. The device is a C.E.T., Continual Event Transmuter, which the zoologist is using to store parts of planets in small, crystallized form, ostensibly for the purpose of preserving them. It was on one of these planets, Eden, that they lost one of their team, presumed dead when attacked by monstrous creatures called Mandrels. The Eden project interests the Doctor greatly, but Tryst and Della are reluctant to revisit that location. Nevertheless, both Romana and the Doctor make use of the C.E.T. to visit Eden. And what they discover is the stuff of nightmares…

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!

Bob Baker penned this story, his first solo outing from his regular partnership with Dave Martin, with whom he wrote a number of previous Who stories. This is one of those Who serials where there’s a good premise, and it’s not badly written but it suffers from lack of budget, some bad acting from extras, and, yet again in the Douglas Adams era, too much humor.

The central theme of the story is drugs. We have drug smugglers and drug abuse dealt with quite frankly, which is good, though the dialog can be a little preachy on the subject. The navigator is high on Vraxoin, which leads to the collision with the trading ship. Though it’s not all as it seems, since the pilot of the trading ship is in cahoots with Tryst, the zoologist, to smuggle the substance from “Eden” using the C.E.T. device. The Mandrel monsters from Eden are carriers of the drug, as the Doctor discovers when he accidentally electrocutes one of them, causing it to reduce to dust. In the end, the Doctor catches the bad guys as they are making off with their Vraxoin by containing their ship within the C.E.T., and projecting them back onto the cruise ship. As I said, this could make for a solid Doctor Who story, and if you can ignore a lot of the silliness, the painful acting (like I noted, mostly from the extras–the main cast is very good), the low-budget sets, and the pantomime monsters, it’s actually worthwhile.

But there’s the rub. It’s hard to ignore a lot of the flaws, many of which I’m sure had nothing to do with Bob Baker. And I don’t doubt the budget had a part to play, though the production team have managed better with as much before. Perhaps the most striking effects fail is when K-9 cuts a hole in a metal wall, and the Doctor and Captain Rigg strain to remove the piece of wall. Then a Mandral appears in the gap, and the Doctor swiftly replaces the wall on his own! The model effects suffer for being captured on videotape as opposed to film, and I’m sure the effects people were not happy about that. Film is simply more forgiving than videotape.

What can I say about the Mandrals other than, what exactly were they thinking? They don’t look at all frightening. I’m sure someone has described them as Muppets, and that would be quite an apt description. At the end when the Doctor leads them off the ship and into “Eden,” he does so blowing his dog whistle like the Pied Piper. And then he disappears into the woods, and all we hear are growls, and the Doctor’s moans and shouts, culminating in, “Oh my fingers, my arms, my everything!” This might be funny to some, but to me it’s more pantomime than serious children’s drama.

To sum up, “Nightmare of Eden” has potential, but that potential is overshadowed, and undermined, by the comedy. Add to that some wonky effects, and you have to wonder if anyone was taking the show seriously anymore at this point. Watch it if you want, but I wouldn’t insist on it.

Some Thoughts on Writing Rules

(Yes, I know this is a post about writing, but considering the feedback I received when I wrote about not giving writing tips any more, I feel a bit more emboldened to take the plunge. Feel free to comment your disagreements or alternative viewpoints.)

I’ve probably said something about writing rules in the past. If I have, it was long enough ago that I’ve forgotten, and you probably have too. In fact, I’ll probably repeat myself. Feel free to search through the blog archives to see if I’ve changed my mind on the subject. You can then quote me against myself and watch as I have an argument with Old Colin. It’ll be like watching a dog chasing its tail. On the other hand, you could just read on and argue with me yourself. 🙂

The earnest writer embarking on “serious writing” for the first time, will soon encounter “rules” they need to follow if they are to write well. These rules include such stalwarts as:

  • Show Don’t Tell
  • Avoid adverbs (totally, absolutely, completely, and wholeheartedly)
  • Don’t end sentences with a preposition
  • Don’t start with the weather
  • Don’t start with the protagonist waking up from a dream
  • Only ever use “said” as a speech indicator (“What?” he said)
  • Avoid clichĂ©s like the plague

… and so on. There are lots more you can find online, I’m sure.

Here’s my main beef with these rules. When you are writing fiction, or even narrative non-fiction (i.e., non-fiction that reads like a novel), there are no rules. Creative writing is just that: creative. It is an exercise of the imagination, and where the imagination is concerned, anything goes.

Let me make one thing clear. As a Christian, I believe wholeheartedly in absolutes. There are rules by which the universe operates, and there are standards of morality whereby we were designed to function best to the glory of our Creator. I am by no means a moral pragmatist. However, when it comes to artistic endeavors, I am totally sold on the principle that what’s right is what works.

These “rules” have a place. They can guide us to better practices. When a piece of writing isn’t working, try applying some of these rules. But don’t feel enslaved to them. Sometimes (probably more often that we’d like to admit), telling makes for better narrative than showing. Sometimes adverbs are not only unavoidable, but necessary. There are great stories that start with the weather, or a dream. There are times when “said” doesn’t say enough. And a clichĂ© might, on occasion, fit the prose better than an original saying.

But how do you know when to break the “rules”? How do you know when your writing “works”? That’s the tough question, partly because, despite what the MFA Police and the Grammar Gestapo would tell you, there is no universal standard of “good writing.” I’ve read best sellers that made my writerly skin crawl, and I’ve read freebie stories on the internet that make my literary heart sing. Even among the “Classics” there are books that people love to read even 100 years after they were first published, and books that are a struggle to get through the first 10 pages. Why these are “Classics” is an argument for the academics, and academics will disagree over which books belong in that blessed canon, which proves my point.

So how do you know if your writing “works”? In my experience… here it comes… the big answer… the key to unlock the mysteries of writing… you just know. What??! Yes, I know, that’s a bit lame, but it’s the truth. But how do I know? Because I read a lot, and I guess I have some facility with words (so I’ve been told), I know when a sentence rings true and when it clunks. I don’t always see it, which is why having beta readers is useful. But often I know when I’ve written something worthy of being read by others, and when I ought to just delete and start over.

How does that help you, O budding wordsmith? First, if you love books, and love writing, you probably have an intuition toward what makes a good sentence. You can feel the rhythm of the language, and you’re not afraid to spend minutes or hours mulling over the correct way to phrase something, or the best word to use out of two or three alternatives. In your first draft, trust your instincts. Write boldly, without fear of Strunk, White, or Elmore Leonard. Then review your work, and edit ruthlessly, giving in to that same urge that would take a red pen to a best selling novel. Then give your work to some trusted friends. They may agree with your choices, or they may disagree. Listen to their suggestions. If they say “You’re telling not showing here,” don’t immediately think you’ve done something wrong. Ask, “Yes, but is telling better here than showing?” Your friend might be hitting you with a rule simply because you broke one, not because the rule works.

Okay, enough of my waffling. Let’s have some other points of view. First, here’s an hour-long presentation writer Lee Child gave on the subject of writing rules and why he doesn’t believe in them. (It’s in two parts; watch them in the order I’ve linked them.) In some literary circles, what he says here is blasphemy, and would be cause to have him burned as a heretic. That alone makes these videos worth watching. I don’t agree with everything he says, but I urge you to hear him out and give what he says some thought:

Next, I recommend Jeff Somers’ Unconventional Writing blog, similarly packed with MFA-defying heresies, couched in Jeff’s incomparable wit and charm with a dusting of profanity:

Writing Without Rules–Unconventional Tips for Writing the Wrong Way

Now it’s your turn. What do you think of writing rules? Agree with me? Disagree? Comment below!

Who Review: The Creature from the Pit

While cleaning out Storage Bay number four in the TARDIS, Romana comes across a Mark Three Emergency Transceiver. Originally a part of the TARDIS, the Doctor removed it because it meant the Time Lords could send him off chasing distress signals. Romana reattaches it and immediately sends the TARDIS off chasing a signal. They end up on the planet Chloris where their attention is drawn to a what the Doctor believes to be a large metallic shell. They soon encounter the local rulers, led by Adrasta, who keep control through her Huntsman and the vicious wolfweeds, balls of plant life that attack upon command. On their way to Adrasta’s palace, their capture party is set upon by bandits who make off with Romana. She learns from her captors that metal of all kinds is a scarce and precious commodity. The Doctor, meanwhile, is concerned for Romana’s welfare, and from Adrasta learns about the pit that is the fate of all who oppose her. It seems there’s a creature at the bottom of this pit that deals with anyone unfortunate enough to drop in. Adrasta wants to learn more about the metallic shell, to know what the Doctor knows. The Doctor is far more interested in the creature, so when she leads the Doctor back out to where the shell and the pit are, rather than face her weapons, he jumps down the pit…

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!

David Fisher returned to write this story, though I detect the strong influence of Douglas Adams, especially in the humor. And there are a lot of one-liners, witty comments, and facetious remarks, which are not uncommon for the Fourth Doctor, but here perhaps too much. The story begins with K-9 reading “Peter Rabbit” to the Doctor, which is a bit odd. Very Douglas Adams (the incongruity of a computer dog reading a children’s story), but not very Doctor Who (at least to me). I don’t have a problem with the Doctor being funny, but there’s seems to be a tongue-in-cheek attitude that pervades the whole story, even to the supporting cast, which undermines the drama.

The premise of the story is that of an alien ambassador, Erato, coming to the planet to trade. The people of Chloris need metal, whereas the people on the ambassador’s planet, Tythonus, are in need of plant life. Adrasta, however, wants to keep control of the planet’s metal supply as a means of maintaining power, so she imprisons the ambassador in a pit. That way, metal remains scarce and valuable, making Adrasta rich and powerful. Adrasta uses fear of the creature in the pit to manipulate people, throwing them in with Erato if they disobey.

This isn’t a bad premise, and creates some interesting conflicts between Adrasta and her followers, the bandits and scavengers who will go to murderous lengths to get metal, and Erato, who simply wants to be set free to return home. Things get a little more complicated when the Tythonians shoot a neutron star at Chloris as retaliation for the capture of their ambassador, but the Doctor helps Erato neutralize the threat. The method he uses (having Erato cover the star with metal, and the Doctor then using a gravity beam from the TARDIS to pull it off course) seems preposterous, even though the basic idea was suggested to David Fisher by members of the Institute of Astronomy at Cambridge University. Of course, that doesn’t automatically make it a good idea. Which it isn’t.

Despite some iffy plot choices, the story isn’t bad, and might be forgiven much if it weren’t for a number of things. First is the overabundance of humor, which I’ve already noted. Second is the failure of many of the effects, particularly Erato himself. The big blob with a huge proboscis was a tall order for an effects team on a small budget, but what they ended up with was not at all frightening, or even intimidating. One of the effects people put a pincer on the end of the proboscis so it didn’t look quite so… um… rude. But it was beyond saving. Erato has to be one of the biggest Who monster fails in the show’s history (along with the dinosaurs in “Invasion of the Dinosaurs”).

The wolfweed perhaps look better than Erato, but move like they are being pulled by string (which they probably are). K-9 blasts one of them, but then is unable to continue blasting them when they start engulfing him. Surely he could have kept shooting at them to keep them off? K-9 is voiced by David Brierley, not John Leeson, who, for whatever reason, was not available this season. Brierley’s K-9 voice is much more animated than Leeson’s, sometimes sounding condescending and impatient. In other words, he sounds too much like a human doing a computer voice. It’s as if Brierley didn’t even try to mimic Leeson’s characterization, which is unfortunate.

I was a little perplexed by the episode three cliffhanger, in that I wasn’t sure exactly what the cliffhanger was. The Doctor puts the communication shield on Erato, which will enable him to talk. Adrasta screams, “NO! NO!” and that’s it. Did I miss something? In the following episode we learn why Adrasta doesn’t want Erato to talk, but at this point we have no clue as to how the Doctor, Romana, K-9, or anyone else is threatened by this shield being placed on Erato. Where’s the danger?

To sum up, if you’re a completist, or a die-hard Whovian, you don’t need my counsel, you’ll watch it anyway. For the rest, feel free to skip “The Creature from the Pit.” It adds nothing to our appreciation of the show, and it doesn’t do either David Fisher or Douglas Adams any favors.

Some Thoughts on Reading and Writing

A while ago, there was a discussion on Janet Reid’s blog around how much you should read in your chosen genre before you write that genre.* The received wisdom is 100 books. Yes, 100 books in your genre of choice, before you commit to writing that novel. Some of you can easily burn through a 300-page novel in an afternoon, so 100 books is a summer vacation assignment. For others who, due to time constraints, or other reasons, are not fast readers, that sounds like a six-month commitment. Maybe longer. I’m doing really well if I can get through 50 books in a year at the moment. What does that mean for the person chomping at the bit, eager to write their big crime novel, who has only read a handful of Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie stories, and maybe one or two Michael Connelly and Lee Child books? Must they wait?

Here’s my take on this dilemma, for what it’s worth. I’m an as-yet unpublished writer, so I offer these thoughts for consideration, not as proven method. Indeed, I invite discussion in the comments.

What’s the Point of the Rule?

Whenever anyone spouts a so-called “rule” of writing, I’m immediately skeptical. For every rule, there’s a successful (and talented) author who has broken it. But these “rules” end up in how-to books and Writer’s Digest articles, so there must be a reason for them.

Before embracing or endorsing the rule, I ask a simple question: “What’s the point of the rule?” Because behind every writing rule, there are scores of literary agents and editors throwing paper, pencils, and laptops around in frustration at yet another dim-witted wannabe writer who doesn’t know his apostrophes from his asterisks, writing boring, been-there-done-that, prose, thinking they’re the next Hemingway.

Behind this particular rule is the idea that in order to write something original, you need to have a good feel for what’s been done. Also, if you want to get a good idea of how your novel fits into the general canon of the genre, you need to have a familiarity with that canon. All this helps the agent and publisher sell your book. If you’re writing another re-hash of a P.D. James plot, then no-one’s going to be interested.

That’s all well and good. BUT

You and I know there are plenty of books out there with settings and plots that all ring familiar. And yet millions buy them and enjoy them. Why? I think because each writer brings something unique to the telling of the story. Whether it’s their style, their “voice,” or their characters, or their peculiar perspective on the familiar, or something else, there’s a reason we keep turning the pages. It’s like a Columbo mystery, where we know who did it and how it’s going to end up within the first ten minutes of the show. And yet we keep watching because we love Columbo, and we love watching how he solves the murder.

If you ask me, I think writers should definitely be readers, and read as much and as often as possible. Writers should also write, and write as much as they can as often as they can. As a writer you should feel free to imitate styles, try out different genres, and find your voice and perspective. Then write whatever the heckovellia you want to write. Even if you’ve only read a couple of books in that genre. The worst that can happen is no-one will read it. But have fun. Enjoy what you write. If you’ve got any talent, you’ll know if what you’ve written is worthless dung,** or if you’re onto something. After that, all the usual “rules” about getting beta readers and so on apply.

What do you think? Disagree if you want. After all, what do I know? 🙂

* I’ve realized that I’ve probably written more in the comments on Janet’s blog articles than I’ve written articles on my own blog! Okay, perhaps an exaggeration, but that’s an imbalance I ought to redress.

** As opposed to priceless dung? I’m sure flies and beetles can tell the difference.

Who Review: City of Death

The TARDIS randomizer lands our heroes in Paris, France, 1979, which is just as well since the Doctor and Romana are in need of a holiday. In a cafĂ©, a local artist attempts to capture Romana’s likeness, but runs away when she turns to look at him. Not impressed with his picture, the Doctor decides to take her to the Louvre, where she can see some real art. A strange disturbance in time affects them while in the cafĂ©, and again while they are in the Louvre. The Doctor falls into the arms of a strange woman, while Romana steals a strange looking bracelet from her wrist. The bracelet is not of Earth origin, but the detective pointing a gun at the Doctor certainly is–from England, in fact. Together, the Doctor, Romana, and their new detective friend, Duggan, investigate the strange time disturbances, which leads them to the Count and Countess Scarlioni, who are not pleased with their meddling. And our friends soon discover why: the Count is involved in selling copies of valuable works of art, but the forgeries look incredibly like the real thing. Not only that, but he’s conducting some volatile experiments in time travel. All is not what it seems with the Count, and the Doctor, Leela, and Duggan need to get to the heart of it, before the Count’s true intentions come to fruition–intentions that could bring life on Earth as we know it to an end…

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 original story for this serial was written by David Fisher, but re-written by script editor Douglas Adams and producer Graham Williams (Fisher was unable to complete re-writes himself). As a result, the script that was eventually used for the show was more Douglas Adams’s work that either Fisher’s or Williams. Given BBC policy that members of the production team could not also receive writing credit, the show was broadcast as written by “David Agnew.”

If you are familiar with Douglas Adams’s work (THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY, DIRK GENTLY), you can hardly fail to notice his fingerprints all over this serial. And of his contributions to Doctor Who, this story is by far the best. First, there’s the idea of an alien scattered throughout Earth’s history, trying to nudge the human race to the point where it develops the technology necessary for him to time travel back to when his spacecraft exploded so he can prevent that happening. And then the alien funds his experiments by selling art, his biggest project being the sale of six Mona Lisas, all painted by Leonardo DaVinci, and hidden away by his fifteenth century self for his 1979 self to find and sell. In itself that’s a fascinating premise for a story, but why should the Doctor get involved? Because that alien spaceship’s explosion all those years ago triggered evolution (Adams was an atheist and, hence, committed to the theory of evolution). If the spaceship doesn’t explode, the human race would never exist. This is why the Doctor has to stop him.

The alien, Scaroth, a Jagaroth, is disguised as Count Scarlioni, who lives in Paris with his wife, the Countess. Julian Glover, an actor who has played a Bond villain (in “For Your Eyes Only”), as well as having parts in “Star Wars,” “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” and “Game of Thrones,” plays Scaroth/Scarlioni, and does an excellent job. Catherine Schell plays the Countess, and she too plays the part very well. There’s a charming, understated quality to their performances that play off the Doctor’s humor and antics wonderfully.

The English private detective, Duggan, who is assisting the Doctor and Romana on this adventure, acts more like an American “hard-boiled” private eye. His character was actually originally based on the 1920s British fictional “adventurer” Bulldog Drummond. Again, a wonderful performance by Tom Chadbon, who plays Duggan with more muscle power than brain power, which, given the high-powered intelligence of the Doctor, Romana, and Scaroth, provides a much-needed balance.

Episode one opens with an amazing model shot that I’m not sure today’s CGI technology could better. The alien landscape of prehistoric Earth is perfectly captured on film, as is the Jagaroth ship taking off. For some reason, this same scene doesn’t work as well when we return to it in episode four. Maybe it’s the difference between film and video tape? I’m not sure.

K-9 gets left behind again. We aren’t told why–perhaps the Doctor hasn’t finished putting him back together again (see “Destiny of the Daleks”)? In any case, the TARDIS randomizer has dropped them in Paris, so the Doctor and Romana want to take advantage of this opportunity for a holiday. This also afforded the production crew the opportunity to film the outdoor sequences on location in Paris, France–the first time in the show’s history a non-British location has been used.

It does boggle the mind a bit how the Countess could not have known that her husband is really a green, slimy, one-eyed alien. He wore a mask to conceal his non-humanoid face, but what of the rest of him? Was she really only concerned with the trinkets and title he provided, and never with any intimacy that might have betrayed his true form? That’s a bit of a stretch.

There’s an interesting discussion toward the end, when the Doctor, Romana, and Duggan note that there are now seven Mona Lisas, six of which have “This is a fake” written under the paint in black felt-tip pen (thanks to the Doctor’s visit to DaVinci). Duggan feels this is wrong, that the Doctor has devalued the painting. Experts will x-ray the paintings and discover they are forgeries (which, of course, they aren’t since DaVinci painted them all). The Doctor makes the observation: “Serves them right if you have to x-ray it to find out if it’s good or not. You might as well have painting by computer!” His point is that the value of the painting is not determined by monetary value, based on its authenticity. The true value of the painting is in the eye of the beholder. Hence, whether or not it says “This is a fake” is irrelevant. As a work of art, it should be appreciated for what it is, not what it isn’t.

I would say this story is must-see Who. Douglas Adams only wrote three or four stories for Doctor Who, and while he was script editor for this season, script editing was not his forte. So, as an example of what Adams was really capable of, it’s well worth your time. None of the rest of the season really does him justice.

Who Review: Destiny of the Daleks

The new TARDIS randomizer takes our heroes to a planet of dust, rocks, and high radiation. With K-9 in pieces (and suffering from laryngitis), it’s up to the Doctor and the newly-regenerated Romana to investigate. The first curious thing they observe is a group of shabbily-clad people burying one of their dead under a pile of rocks. Next, they feel a series of underground explosions, like some kind of mining operation. Then they see a spaceship land, with its bottom half drilling into the surface of the planet. The explosions cause rubble to fall, trapping the Doctor, and burying the TARDIS. While Romana leaves to get help, the Doctor is rescued and taken prisoner by a party of white suited, silver haired people. From them, the Doctor discovers they are on the planet Skaro, and these white suited people, Movellans, are at war with natives of Skaro: the Daleks. Romana, meanwhile, soon finds herself a prisoner of the Daleks, and consigned to work the mines with the rest of the ragged people. It seems they are searching for something that was buried there a long time ago. Something they need to gain a tactical advantage in the war. However, the Doctor’s biggest concern is for him and Romana to somehow escape with their lives, which they may not be able to do without getting involved…

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!

A new season of Doctor Who kicks off with a new script editor–Douglas Adams. And while he is not the sole writer of any of the televised stories this season, his input and influence is clearly discernible. We see a marked increase in the humor, and that particular humor that Adams is well-known for, which doesn’t always work for Doctor Who.

Indeed, Adams’s mark is felt on the show from the outset with Romana’s regeneration. Mary Tamm decided to leave at the end of the previous season, but since Romana is a Time Lord (or Time Lady), there was no need to get a new companion. Romana could just regenerate. I daresay Mary’s departure was unknown to Terry Nation when he was commissioned to write “Destiny of the Daleks,” so it was left to the new script editor to take care of this scene. In the hands of Terrance Dicks, Robert Holmes, or even Anthony Read, we might have had a scene in which something fatal happens to Romana (a deathly illness, for example), followed by the traditional cross-fade change from Mary Tamm to Lalla Ward. But Douglas Adams is not one for sticking to convention. Instead, he chooses to riff on the Fourth Doctor’s costume change scene from his first story, “Robot,” resulting in a, frankly, ridiculous sequence where Romana tries on different bodies. That her new look is a copy of Princess Astra from last season’s finale, “The Armageddon Factor,” is less problematic than the fact that her regeneration has no rhyme or reason. Given that Time Lords only get to regenerate 12 times, you would think Adams would have provided a significant motivation for Romana to cast off her old form. There are Whovians who find this “regeneration” funny and delightful. I don’t. Sorry! Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of Douglas Adams’s writing, but I don’t think his humor always hits the right note at the right time. And this was a miss.

The observant viewer might also notice that K-9 doesn’t feature in “Destiny.” We’re told that he’s suffering from laryngitis (another Douglas Adams touch?). As I understand it, John Leeson, who usually voices K-9, was not available this season, so Dalek voice actor Roy Skelton provided his coughs and croaks for this story.

We get into the story proper once the Doctor and Romana leave the TARDIS. From here on, it’s not a bad tale with a fairly solid internal consistency. The core of the story is the idea of two opposing forces at a stalemate because they both operate on the basis of pure logic. To break the stalemate, they need to introduce an organic, irrational factor. For the Daleks, this means digging up their creator, Davros–the one they exterminated and left for dead at the end of “Genesis of the Daleks” four years ago. The android Movellans were initially hoping to find Davros first and prevent the Daleks gaining this tactical advantage. Then the Doctor comes along and, lo, they now have their own irrational factor–if he can be persuaded to join their cause. Since both the Daleks and the Movellans want the same thing–universal dominion–the Doctor’s not very keen for either side to win. His solution is to neutralize both sides, and work on the side of the oppressed slave labor that the Daleks brought in to help find Davros.

As I said, it’s a good idea, and works well. However, in the outworking of this, there were some problems. First, when the Doctor encounters Davros, he looks dead. Then, for some reason, at the end of episode two, his life support kicks in, his hand moves, and his little blue head light comes on. What triggered this? Did the Doctor accidentally flip a switch? Was it the mere presence of his old adversary that kicked his systems into life? Who knows! He just springs into life on cue for the episode cliff-hanger. And then there’s the Movellan power unit, which, for some wacky reason, is located on the waist, plain as day, waiting for someone to figure out what it is and pull it off, leaving a limp and lifeless android. You would think such a vital piece would be better concealed and protected. Finally, why is it that the Daleks are restricted to seeing through their eye stalks? I hadn’t really thought of this before, but watching “Destiny” made me realize that this is a serious design flaw. The Daleks are wandering around corridors searching for the Doctor and other intruders, limited only to what they see with their eye pieces. For all their fancy gadgetry, they don’t have radar, or heat sensors? If they did, they would have saved themselves a lot of time otherwise spent trundling down empty passageways.

On the whole, the acting is good. Tom Baker is superb, as always. Lalla Ward makes a good debut playing a Romana who is a bit more self-assured and playful than her predecessor. I thought she overdid the screaming when she fell down a not-very-long shaft, but otherwise she did a fine job. The original Davros actor, Michael Wisher, wasn’t available, so David Gooderson takes the role this time. He does a passable job, but his voice doesn’t quite capture the same intensity and sinister quality that Wisher gave it. One particularly creepy scene is when the Daleks are sent off as suicide bombers to destroy the Movellan ship. Seeing them with explosives strapped to their sides, like modern-day terrorists, is a little unnerving.

Overall, this is a good story, and worthwhile, though by no means a classic.

Dead Battery

OK, so I know Wolf-Link is not exactly a car, but it’s the best I could do!

Last week, our main vehicle–the eight-seater–wouldn’t start. My wife turned the key in the ignition and heard click-click-click-click. Dead battery? Or something worse? I am not a car mechanic by any stretch of even the most elastic imagination, and yet she turned to me to investigate. So I turned to the internet. Googled a couple of sites. Yes, could be the battery. Worse, it could be the alternator. What’s an alternator? What’s a battery? Kidding. I know what a battery is. The alternator is the piece of magic that charges the battery when the car runs. If battery’s dead, then you should be able to jump-start the car, leave it running for a while, and all should be well. If your alternator’s bitten the dust, then jump-starting the car might help for as long as the jumper cables are connected. As soon as you disconnect, the battery will drain and you’re back to square one. Batteries are relatively cheap and easy to install. Alternators are not.

Armed with this vital intel, I checked out the battery. I noticed white residue around the connectors. “What’s this?” I asked Google. Thankfully, I didn’t do the classic detective show move of tasting the stuff, otherwise I might not be typing this now. It seems this stuff is lead sulphate. I am no chemist, but that doesn’t sound healthy. Not like sodium chloride. it seems lead sulphate is highly corrosive, and toxic to inhale, let alone eat. Taking the advice of the online mechanics, I put on gloves and a mask, and attacked that white stuff with a wire brush and a mixture of hot water and baking soda. Seemed to do the trick.

I did not take this picture. This guy clearly has a death wish…

At last I was ready to try jumping the car. I hooked up our secondary vehicle using newly-acquired jumper cables (if anyone needs a jump-start, we’re ready for you!), attaching the clips in the prescribed sequence (red to dead, red to live, black to live, black to ground–i.e, some other metallic part of the car with the dead battery, away from the battery). The car started. Yay! I removed the cables, and the car continued to run. Double-yay! Probably not the alternator. I let the car run for about half an hour. Then cut it off, and tried re-starting. Click-click-click-click. *sigh*

It was evening, so I didn’t do anything else with the car, then in the morning we called our local mechanic. He said it was probably the battery, and to jump-start the car and bring it in so they can check for sure. I was able to jump-start the car again, and we got it to our wizards of all things vehicular. They confirmed the battery diagnosis, and assured us it’s only the battery. We put a new battery in, the car started, and all is well.

So, what’s the point of the story? Amazingly, there is one–aside from bragging about my new-found mechanical prowess fighting lead sulphate and wielding jumper cables. And it’s to do with writing.

You see, at the moment I’m feeling pretty uninspired. I started on a short story the other week, and it’s… boring. Dull. I like the idea behind it, but I’m not doing it justice. And I’m not sure I have the energy to right now. Work’s been really busy of late, and I’m sure having a head full of code and being tired play a large part in my current writing malaise. I’m like a dead battery. Occasionally I’ll jump-start myself and write a few lines, or something like this blog article. But then I’m drained. I probably just need the right kind of inspiration, something like being hooked to a healthy battery for ten minutes, where I can then run on my own for a while to get me going. I need to give my writing alternator a chance to power up my creative battery.

I’m just not sure what that inspiration is at the moment.

Anyway. In the event anyone else out there is feeling like a dead battery… here’s some empathy. Got some inspiration? 🙂

And the New Doctor Is…

As most people know by now, Peter Capaldi is stepping down as Doctor Who this coming Christmas. At the end of the Christmas special, Doctor Number 12 will regenerate into Doctor Number 13. As usual, speculation has been fierce over who will be taking over the role. Yesterday, the BBC announced the name of that person.

And it’s either a shock, or not a shock. Maybe a “Blimey!” moment (as it was for my brother). If you are trying to avoid finding out before Christmas (good luck with that), CLICK HERE NOW.

If you’re still reading, you probably already know that the new Doctor will be…

 

Jodie Whittaker. No, that’s not what she will be wearing. But, yes, the new Doctor will be female. First, for those who don’t know Jodie, probably the most internationally high-profile role she has had so far is as Beth Latimer in the series Broadchurch, which was written and produced by in-coming Doctor Who show-runner, Chris Chibnall.

Why is this a shock or not a shock? It’s a shock because for the last 54 years, the Doctor has been played by a man. This is the first time in the show’s history the Doctor will be played by someone of the female gender. Why is this not a shock? Because for the past three years, Steven Moffat has been toying and teasing the idea–one might say he’s been laying the groundwork–by having the Doctor’s Time Lord arch-nemesis, the Master, regenerate into a woman (“Missy”–short for “Mistress”), and making other subtle (or not-so-subtle) references to the fact Time Lords are not locked into a single gender.

Some will not take this news well. Especially for some long-term fans of the show, used to a male Doctor, this will be a step too far. They will talk about how it will change the tone of the show, or the dynamic between the Doctor and her companion, and how it’s like having the next James Bond be a woman. Some may even become TARDIS Vacantists (a little theological humor there, courtesy of one of my pastors. Thanks, Todd!) As someone who has been a fan of Doctor Who all his life (and that’s a long time, folks), I say… hogwash. There is nothing in the Whoniverse that says a Time Lord must remain the same gender with each regeneration. Yes, it will shake things up a bit. There will be a new dynamic in the TARDIS. More than likely a new companion. I hope they give her a male companion, just as they have tended toward giving the male Doctor a female companion. Though, frankly, I’m just interested to see how it works out.

As a fan, I hope it’s a success. I hope the Doctor’s gender is not an issue in the show. It’s “An Adventure in Space and Time,” after all, not “An Experiment in Social Engineering.” None of the Doctor’s traditional enemies will care whether the Doctor’s a boy or a girl. What difference does it make to a Dalek, or a Cyberman, or the clone-race Sontarans? The Master might get a kick out of it, but who’s he/she to talk (assuming Missy regenerates…)?

My final word on the matter is actually my brother’s (thanks Ian!):

“I hope she gets a lot of support and not just mad, foaming so-called Who ‘experts’ kicking off about what supposedly can and can’t happen in a fictional TV programme.”

Amen.

Welcome to the Whoniverse, Jodie Whittaker!

What do you think? Excited? Scared? Share in the comments!

Writing about Writing

You might notice that the tag-line to this blog says “Reading Writing Music Theology Etc.” If you’ve been following for any length of time (well, not any length–I mean, if you’ve been following for a few days this wouldn’t appy) you’ll have seen book reviews, Music Mondays, Sunday School Notes, Doctor Who stuff, and other things. But where’s the writing? Sure, I’ve posted some flash fiction from time to time. But you may have noticed I’ve gone quiet when it comes to writing tips and publishing advice.

Back when I started this blog, oh some six years ago now, I did a mini-series (a costume drama, I think) on querying agents, giving tips and suggestions. I was, at that time, querying my first query-ready novel. I had done a lot of reading, and I wanted to sum up all my research and offer it up to the world.

Since that time, however, I’ve done some hard thinking. You see, I am, and remain to this day, an unagented, unpublished writer. So my expertise in publishing is as good as my reading and conversations I’ve had with agents and published writers. I don’t have anything to offer by way of good, positive experience. When I look for query advice, there are two types of people I consider SMEs (Subject Matter Experts):

  • The people who read queries as a job requirement and necessity (i.e., literary agents and editors)
  • People whose queries have secured them multiple requests from agents, or, who have secured agency representation as a result of their queries. In other words, people who have written successful queries. Queries that have produced the desired result.

I am in neither of these camps. So why should anyone listen to what I have to say, when you have plenty of SMEs telling you what you want to know?

As for writing tips, sure I can tell you what works for me. But I have nothing to show for my writing so far, so why should you care what works for me? Clearly what works for me doesn’t yet work for many other people. Again, when I want writing tips, who do I turn to? Published authors whose work I like, people who have demonstrated ability with the craft of writing, and have, as a result, written work that is salable and/or critically acclaimed.

So, at least for now, until I have a credible enough platform from which to pontificate, I’ll gladly point you to SMEs. But unless, for some strange reason, you want to read my thoughts on writing, how I go about composing prose, or whatever, I won’t be posting “tips and tricks” here. Or anywhere else. It just seems a little presumptuous, and a bit arrogant, of me. After all, in the immortal words of the Eighth Doctor, “Who am I?” (Whovian in-joke). So here are some SMEs to get you started. You can easily Google for more:

Query SMEs:

Query Shark/Janet Reid

Carly Watters

Publishing Crawl (Pub Crawl)

Various Tips from Literary Agents

… and other Literary Agent blogs.

Writing SMEs:

Stephen King (his book ON WRITING)

Jeff Somers

Writer’s Digest

James Scott Bell