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 café, 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 café, 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

Who Review: The Doctor Falls

On board a spaceship that is so large, time travels faster at the bottom than the top, the Cybermen are building recruits at break-neck speed. Not only the old Mondasian type, but also weapons-grade Cybermen, fully armored and ready to fight. Their mission is to find all the humans on the ship and upgrade them. The Master has been helping them along, but his plan to kill the Doctor personally is foiled by the fact the Doctor updated the ship’s software, expanding the definition of human to include beings with two hearts. The Time Lords, and Bill, now a Cyberman, manage to escape with Nardole’s help to another floor. Here there are lush fields, woods, and a solar farm. But they need to prepare. The Cybermen are coming, and, being lower down in the ship, time is on their side. Can the Doctor possibly fend off a relentless attack of Cybermen? If the odds aren’t stacked against him enough, the Master and Missy have their own agenda. Will even Missy, who seemed to be turning to the side of right, abandon him in his hour of greatest need? With his own time drawing to a close, growing weaker by the hour, this might be the Doctor’s last stand…

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!

This was definitely an explosive finale, and a set-up for what could be an interesting Christmas episode. We’ll talk about that in a moment. My main disappointment was that the Doctor didn’t regenerate, so we still have no idea who Thirteen will be. We came close–we got the glowy hands and even a bit of facial fire, but no. He held it back like a full bladder in the movie theater. But he can’t hold off the inevitable, no matter how much he complains. And I guess that will be the theme of the Christmas story: letting go and moving on. But not until you get to the bathroom.

We start the episode establishing that the Doctor is not in good shape. He’s been beaten around by Master Missy, and hugged by a Cyberman that Bill put paid to with her snazzy new head weapon. One could ask how a laser on the head is an upgrade to humanity, rather than enhanced intelligence, for example, but maybe this version of the Mondasian Cyberman has moved beyond the portable light set they used to use for killing people (see “The Tenth Planet”). Missy tells the Doctor she was really on his side all along, and knocked herself out–I mean, knocked the Master out, to prove it, thus aiding their escape.

Throughout this episode, Bill is a Cyberman. But we don’t always see her as a Cyberman; much of the time, we see her as she thinks of herself–human. Except when she looks in a mirror, and then she sees herself as everyone else does: a Cyberman. It’s a good effect, and gives us one last chance to bask in Pearl Mackie’s amazing talent as an actress (at least in Doctor Who–I’m sure we’ll see her again in other things). The scene with the Doctor as he tries to break the news to her that she’s been Cyber-ized is so well played. Pearl owns the dialog and makes it emotionally real. I have to say, the whole Bill/Cyber-Bill switching was very effective, and managed to evoke sympathy for her, without losing sight of the fact that the Cybermen are really bad creatures that need to be defeated. Indeed, Bill gives the Doctor permission to kill her if and when the Cyberman programming takes her over completely.

Once more, Nardole is a gem, and provides the lighter touches to what is really quite a grim story. His parting speech was suitably Nardole, but also quite touching. “I’ll never find the right words” sums it up perfectly. Hats off to Matt Lucas, probably the biggest surprise of the season for me. I’ve said it before, but I didn’t expect to like Nardole, yet he grew on me. In many ways he reminds me of Ace, the Seventh Doctor’s companion for most of his tenure. Down-to-earth, witty, not afraid to question the Doctor’s judgment, but fundamentally loyal to the end.

I know Steven Moffat relished the opportunity to write for both the Master and Missy. And they were very good together, especially as Missy plays turn-coat on him-her-self. Just this past week I learned that Michelle Gomez had decided to leave the role, so with the demise of both the Master and Missy, that leaves open the question of whether the Master will return. How can he return? The Master shot Missy will a full dose of his lethal laser screwdriver which means she can’t regenerate. But this is the Master we’re talking about. How often has he come back from certain death over the past 46 years? Plenty. And, as if in parallel to that, the Doctor was shot multiple times by a Cyberman such that even he believed he was dying. The fact he didn’t regenerate until Bill’s tear triggered the process leads us to believe that, without Bill’s unintentional intervention, he would in fact be dead. Deceased. An ex-Time Lord. Could something similar happen with Missy? I imagine it will. And the next Master will come with a clean slate, and all this talk of standing with the Doctor long forgotten.

So Bill is dead… but not quite… or not really. The return of Heather the Pilot from episode one was a surprise, and she was a useful plot device to get the Doctor and Cyber-Bill back to the TARDIS. I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised; Moff likes this self-referencing, bringing back characters from earlier stories we had forgotten about, and using them to save the day. Maybe a bit deus ex machina, but I suppose we had to get the Doctor back to the TARDIS somehow, so I can live with it. In my review of the previous episode I said I hoped that was it for Bill, as much as I liked her as a companion. While Moff didn’t somehow magically un-Cyberman her, through making her a water-entity like Heather, he opened the possibility that Bill could return, though not as a regular companion. Moff’s intention was to keep Doctor Who an optimistic, positive show in the midst of so much negativity. Previous companions have died without a happy ending (Katrina, Sara Kingdom, Adric, Peri–at least for those who don’t buy the whole King Yrcanos story), but this is NuWho, and in NuWho, even companions who die move on to something nice (Rose with her human Doctor, Amy and Rory together, Clara with her diner). Some may object, but I’m okay with that–as long as they stay gone. Let’s have finality and closure. Of course, with Moff departing, it’s unlikely Bill will return, and I hope Chris Chibnall will only bring her back if a story demands it. Maybe the 60th anniversary story?

Now let’s talk about the ending, and the teaser for Christmas. The TARDIS has taken the Twelfth Doctor to a snowy wilderness. He stumbles out of the TARDIS, falls to his knees, and fights against regeneration. A figure in the distance comes closer. His voice is familiar. Why… it’s David Bradley reprising his role as the First Doctor from “An Adventure in Space and Time,” Mark Gatiss’s brilliant docu-drama on the origins of Doctor Who made for the 50th anniversary. The set up for Christmas, then, is the Twelfth and First Doctor… doing stuff! Since there will be a regeneration at the end, I expect the episode will be an hour-long dialog/adventure convincing the Doctor to let go and change. But I understand what Moff’s up to–at least I think I do.

One of the problems having a leading character who can regenerate when he dies is that the Doctor is never really in any life-threatening danger. Spider Man could be shot. Batman could fall and break his neck. Even Superman could overdose on Kryptonite. The Doctor would just change into a new person. What the new series has tried to do is introduce the idea that regeneration is not an easy way out. It’s painful. It means changing into someone you don’t know. The Doctor gets comfortable with each persona, so a change is like moving house: an enormous upheaval to go through, and it takes ages to settle in and get to know the new surroundings. The Tenth Doctor loved his incarnation, and didn’t want to leave it. Eleven seemed okay with the change, though he had just been granted a new regeneration cycle by the Time Lords, so it would have been a bit churlish to get uppity about it. Twelve, now, is resisting. He’s not done. Or maybe there are other reasons he wants to stay as Peter Capaldi. I expect we’ll explore this more at Christmas. I hope there’s more to the story than just Twelve and One chatting about life for an hour, as interesting as that might be. Good theater, perhaps. But as Steven Moffat’s final Who, I’m looking for a strong story, explosions, and plot twists. In other words, no Bill the Snowman. Please!

To sum up, I think this was a fitting conclusion to an excellent season. A “Must-See” for Whovians–this and the previous episode, and for everyone else, great acting, great effects, and everything you could want from good television. Definitely not a waste of your time.

What did you think?

Program Note: The Who Reviews are taking a break for the rest of July. We’ll pick back up with my review of the Classic Fourth Doctor story, “Destiny of the Daleks” the first Tuesday in August.

Who Review: World Enough and Time

The Doctor believes Missy really wants to shed her evil ways and become good, so he devises a test for her. The TARDIS picks up a distress call, and responds. Wherever they end up, the Missy will be “The Doctor” and lead Bill and Nardole in figuring out the problem, solving it, and saving lives, just as he would. Bill is not too thrilled about this plan. She doesn’t trust Missy and is afraid it’ll backfire. The Doctor assures her he will be monitoring the situation, and will intervene if things go awry. They land on a colony ship in distress. Missy, Bill, and Nardole determine that the ship is trying to pull away from the event horizon of a black hole, but there doesn’t seem to be anyone around. Then they are confronted by what seems to be sole survivor of a miles-long ship that was carrying hundreds of people. And he’s pointing a gun at them. The Doctor intervenes, but that doesn’t improve things. In fact, a shot is fired, and someone dies. They are taken to the lower part of the ship where they will be “repaired.” However, the ship is so long, there is a significant time difference between the two ends. But that’s not the only surprise waiting at the bottom of the ship. It seems the crew didn’t all die. At least not in the traditional sense. They too were repaired. And the ship isn’t from Earth, as they at first thought, but from a planet very like Earth–its twin, one could say. For both the Doctor and Missy, the past is about to catch up with them…

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!

The spoiler-free version of my review is as follows:

OH MY GOODNESS!! You… wh… huh?? Ha! Awwww!!! What?! Oh my! In other words, you will really want to watch this episode, and probably the next one too since it’s part one of a two-parter.

Now the spoilery version:

All season we’ve been promised the return of the Mondasian Cybermen–the original Cybermen from 1966–and John Simm as The Master. Steven Moffat decided to keep us waiting the whole season for the realization of his promise. And what a way to do it! I’ve said before in my reviews that Steven Moffat was by far the best writer of the Russell T. Davies era, but his writing suffered when he took on show-running duties. Some of his stories have been good, but others have been below par. His plots have tried too hard to be clever, and at times his attempts to be unconventional or surprising have resulted in stories that, to some degree, lack credulity. In this story, however, he gives us a Cyberman origins story (itself a daring move to make) that I can buy. On top of that, he throws in at least one twist that caught us all by surprise: Bill getting shot and turned into one of the first Cybermen.

There were other potential plot surprises: the return of the Mondasian Cybermen, and the return of the John Simm Master. If we had not known about these months ago, they would have been truly amazing surprises. The Master’s disguise as Razor is one of his best yet (some of his Classic Series disguises were quite… um… not impressive), and it took me a while before I started getting suspicious. Of course, if I hadn’t been expecting John Simm, I probably wouldn’t have been looking for him under the make-up, and that would have been a surprise of “Earthshock” proportions.

For his final finale, Moffat also took the opportunity to resolve an old issue among Whovians: “Doctor Who.” We know that’s the name of the show, but the title character has always been called “The Doctor,” except for a couple of instances where he is referred to as “Doctor Who.” The one that springs to mind most vividly is in the First Doctor story “The War Machines,” when WOTAN, the computer, says “Doctor Who is required.” So, which is it? Missy solves the problem for us: “Doctor Who” is his real name, or at least the name he originally chose. But it was too “on-the-nose” in the mystery department, so he shortened it to “The Doctor.” I think that’s as good an explanation as any, and probably better than most.

As we’ve come to expect with NuWho, the effects, scenery, costumes are all top-notch. I liked that the Twelfth Doctor’s sonic screwdriver doubles as a marker pen (watch for that in the shops in time for Christmas). The fact he carries a screwdriver around with him, not a gun, is so typically Doctor Who, so it only makes sense that there’s a pen hidden inside, not a knife. We aren’t told if the blue guy on the ship is of the same race as the blue people we met in “Oxygen,” but knowing Moffat’s penchant for arcs and self-referencing, I wouldn’t be surprised.

But what about Bill? Is that it for her? Is she now a Cyberman, i.e., for all intents and purposes, dead? Or will the Doctor do something to bring her back? As much as I’ve enjoyed Bill as a companion, as well as Pearl Mackie’s outstanding performance, I want to say that I hope not. I really do hope this is it for Bill. It was heartbreaking to see her get shot, and to be betrayed by Razor after all the time she spent with him while waiting for the Doctor. I think it would undermine the drama, and ruin the tone of the finale if she were to suddenly be brought back. And please… PLEASE… once she’s gone, let her be gone. All those Danny and Clara reappearances after their demises became really quite annoying in the last two seasons. Let them go, Steven. Kill your darlings and let them go.

This was an excellent episode of Doctor Who. I want to say “Must-See,” but it has a context. For the Whovians who know the show’s history, yes, this is “Must-See.” For everyone else, I would encourage you watch it. And I hope I can say the same for part two, “The Doctor Falls.” We’ll have to wait and see…

What did you think?

“No, Mr. Smith, I Mean… Where Are You *REALLY* From?”

This is a question I’m never asked, despite the fact I am an immigrant. I came to this country 25 years ago, and became a naturalized citizen 13 years ago (which is why I now spell “naturalized” with a “z”… which I still call a zed. What can I say? A leopard can’t change his alphabet). However, I came here from England; I’m white, and I look Western European, and English is my first language (albeit the Mother form of the American hybrid). Which, I believe, is largely why I don’t get asked that question. My original English accent has faded somewhat, but from time to time an astute listener will pick up on my enunciated “t”s, and that unmistakable sound of authority and intelligence, and infer that I’m not American born-and-bred. At that point in the conversation, the person might ask, “Where are you from?” But they often preface the question with a reference to my accent, and they never use “really“. Sometimes they hazard a guess that ranges from Australia to Scotland, with the more adventurous going for South Africa, though most of the time they figure it’s “the UK” or “Britain” (probably hedging their bets, just in case I’m actually from one of those weird sub-genres of English called “Welsh,” “Scottish,” or “Irish”). I don’t mind being asked, and I will talk quite freely and happily about my English-Irish-Scots-Welsh origins.

But not everyone feels that way. Especially if the person asked happens to have a non-English sounding name, and has English as a second, third, or fourth language, and is not white. I have to confess, I used to glibly ask people who don’t look or sound like me where they’re from, and would get a little frustrated when they would reply with some US city. I’m fascinated with foreign cultures and languages, and all I want to do is learn more about them first-hand. What’s the harm in that? After all, I don’t mind being asked about my British background!

To my surprise, there’s a lot of harm in asking. And I’m surprised that I’m surprised. Let me put myself in the shoes of someone who is a first generation immigrant to the US from a non-English-speaking country–maybe even non-white. I don’t look like everyone else, I don’t sound like everyone else, and all I want is to settle down, work, raise my family, and be treated just like everyone else. Then someone asks me where I’m from, and all of a sudden I’m different, foreign, maybe even not welcome. This feeling only intensifies if I’m second or third generation from a non-white country. I can sound like the natives, but I don’t look like them, and my name isn’t like any of their names. Still I get the “where are you from?” question.

Here’s my dilemma (speaking now as the white British-American dude): I want immigrants and their children to feel welcome, loved, part of society… but I also want them to feel good about their cultural roots, and be able to talk freely about being (or their family being) from China, Iran, or wherever, without at the same time feeling un-American. Watch Disney Channel for any length of time, and you’ll see their celebrities and viewers talk about their ethnic heritage, and celebrate cultural diversity. So why does this only seem to happen on television? How can I ask you “where are you from?” without making you feel uncomfortable?

The simple answer: I can’t. At least not when I meet you for the first, second, third, or perhaps even fifth time. The consensus opinion I have heard is that the only context in which I can get away with such a question is one of friendship and trust. I have to befriend you, so you know I care about you for who you are, that you are more to me than just an ethnic identity. Then, and only then, can we talk cultures and languages without anyone feeling judged. And the reason I don’t feel uncomfortable talking about my British heritage is thanks to a thing we call white privilege. That term is a hot potato in American society, but like it or not, in this case, it applies. Let’s be frank: because I’m a white English-speaking person, when someone asks me where I’m from, I’m not afraid they want to deport me, and I’m not afraid they think I’m a terrorist. The UK is a friendly country, and everyone loves the Brits and their wacky sense of humo(u)r and their Queen and Doctor Who and Monty Python, so I’m not going to get asked whether I’m from the “good” Korea, or whether I’m a communist, or what it’s like to live in a free country at last. The red carpet awaits me as soon as I open my mouth. Like it or not, that’s white privilege. I’m not happy about it. Not at all. It makes me boil, in fact. It’s sinful. But it’s real.

But what about my curiosity? People fascinate me, especially people who aren’t like me, and come from places that are strange to me. I want to learn. I want to understand. What’s wrong with that? Here’s what’s wrong with it: it’s fundamentally selfish. Is my curiosity more important than someone else’s feeling of security? Is my desire to learn more important than someone else’s desire to feel welcome and accepted for who they are? Maybe the answer is to treat people as fellow human beings first. When we love and appreciate one another as fellow creatures created in the image of God, maybe then we can celebrate our rich ethnic and cultural diversity without the shadow of fear and suspicion.

Just a thought. 🙂

PS: As I was considering this post, I came across an article on CNN.com by Tanzina Vega on the same subject. Here’s her take on “Where are you really from?”