Posts Tagged ‘Doctor Who’

That's my Tardis, it's paintwork is blue!

That’s my Tardis, its paintwork is blue!

Have you ever read the That’s Not My… books? They’re for really little kids. They’re made of cardboard and have simple yet delightful pictures with textured areas for the kids to touch. Each one follows the same rhythm, so that for That’s Not My Dog the first page might read

That’s not my dog, his nose is too shiny [cue picture of dog with smooth shiny nose to touch]

Then the next is

That’s not my dog, his coat is too fluffy [again with a cute cartoon dog, and this time with soft strokeable fur – watch a toddler with one of these books, they’ll spend forever pawing at the furry pages, tiny pink deviants that they are]

And so on until the right dog is found. Or the right dragon, or pirate, or penguin, or whatever – seriously, these books are like kiddy crack, and the dealers are flooding the market with great product.

But you know what’s really weird? No, it’s not a thirty-six-year-old fantasy writer getting excited over That’s Not My Penguin, though that would be a good guess. What’s really weird is that I keep seeing those same books quoted in online discussions, and the people quoting them aren’t even getting it right.

Take Doctor Who. Pretty much everybody loves Doctor Who, in at least one of the show’s many incarnations. And it’s nice that people want to discuss which ones they like. So I could point at an RTD-era season finale and say ‘that’s not my Doctor Who, the resolution is too angsty’. I don’t do that, because it doesn’t give people much to work with as a conversation point, but other people seem to want to, they’ve clearly read their That’s Not My, and they’re ready to debate.

But they keep quoting it wrong. They miss out the ‘my’. So instead of saying ‘That’s not my Doctor Who’ they say ‘That’s not Doctor Who’, which is of course clearly nonsense. Any toddler with a fluffy dog to stroke could tell them that. Whether it’s Doctor Who or Star Trek or James Bond or the Marvel Movie Universe or whatever, the version you’re seeing, the version that’s not to your tastes, clearly is that thing. What’s more, it’s somebody else’s beloved version of that thing. Saying that it isn’t would just be kind of rude and belligerent.

Which is why it’s such a shame that people forget the vital ‘my’, which makes clear that they understand that they’re just voicing a perfectly valid opinion, and not trying to be a jerk to others.

I can enjoy my shiny-beaked penguin, even knowing that the less wonderful fluffy-bellied one is on the next page. I can enjoy Moffat’s first clever use of the weeping angels, even knowing that I’d get annoyed at what he did with them later. I can like both Chris Pine Kirk and William Shatner Kirk. And whether I like them or not, they’re all a penguin, or Doctor Who, or Star Trek, or whatever.

They’re just not my penguin.

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“You’re weird.”

That phrase has been directed at me a few times. I’m not sure what people intend when they accuse me of it, but I know it’s not often a compliment. “Weird” is one those murky distinctions – you can’t really say what it is, but you know it when you see it.

For instance …

When I was in college I took a life-drawing class. One of our models was this spindly, dark-haired fellow who, before he disrobed, I recognized instantly as the guy who walked around campus wearing a top hat and a cape.

He was weird. But that’s not a bad thing.

If I know anything about weirdoes it’s that we’re necessary. As uncomfortable as we make the world with our collection of antique medical instruments, or our library of biographies on serial killers, or our closet full of Marvel costumes, the world needs our off-beat way of thinking.

It needs people who don’t see the world in the same colors as everyone else.

My stories have been called weird. No matter what the topic, something is always … off. I have one about a Broadway actor turned zombie who’s auditioning for a post-apocalyptic theater company before his body completely decomposes. And another about a woman who learns she was a psychotic murderer in a past life. Then there’s a love story between a morgue attendant and a vampire that explores the purpose of love and death.

There are plenty of standard, cookie-cutter, five-minute stories I could write. But I’d be so bored. And if the world was filled with the same dry toast ideas, we’d all be terribly bored.

The world needs weirdoes –Salvador Dalis, Terry Gilliams, and Stephen Kings– simply because of how different we see things. We aren’t afraid of darkness, we like to twist the normal until it’s unrecognizable, we see the potential for magic and wonder in a humdrum world.

In everyday life, dragons, zombies and magic assassins aren’t real – but they are in Game of Thrones thanks to George R.R. Martin’s weird imagination. Who would’ve thought to combine mummies, outer space and the Orient Express? One of the weirdoes who writes for “Doctor Who.” And those horror movies you love so much? Written by people who ask frightening questions – like what would happen if we could express our darker natures by torturing people in a creepy, clandestine hostel?

When weird people search their minds for ideas, they open up doors to unexplored places. Places people blessed with “normal” minds – ones that don’t automatically turn down twisted alleyways – can explore safely. Weirdoes create worlds that are wondrous, unnerving and innovative, all at the same time, and bring spontaneity, variety and fun to life.

I’ll close with another story, about a young woman I know who also goes a bit off script. One day, she was walking down the street and came upon a stranger who was inside a store, washing the windows. She stood outside and watched the stranger for a while, then put up her hand and followed the stranger’s hand like a mirror image. And then she left, without even saying “hello.”

Only a weirdo would do that. And I like the way she thinks.

 

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Thanks to fellow writer JH Mae for today’s guest post. JH is a reader, writer and maker of pizza from Northern New York. You can check out her blog and links to her stories here. I particularly like her post on how to stay sane while working at home. Since reading it I have been giving myself verbal abuse and setting unreasonable deadlines for my Batman toy – it helps remind me of what I don’t miss.

If, like me, you’ve seen the internet, you’ve probably noticed by now that the new series of Doctor Who is pretty divisive. I’ve seen a lot of strong opinions expressed on why this episode was awful or that one was great, and even the hardcore Whovian opinions seem hugely varied.

This weekend’s episode, ‘Listen’, helped me pin down what I think’s going on. So in case you haven’t seen it already, spoilers ahead. Also, you should go watch it. Whether it fills you with hatred, admiration or a bewildering sense of ambivalence (like me) it’s still worth watching because it says something significant about where genre TV, and Doctor Who in particular, is at right now.

Steven Moffat’s a smart writer

Let’s start with the basics. Steven Moffat is a smart writer. ‘Listen’, with its exploration of fear and motivation, its closed time loop and its charming romantic scenes, was proof that the man can rub two narrative sticks together and make an admirable fire. I love smart writing, and this sort of thing is why I was so excited when he took over the show.

But as ‘Listen’ also reminded us, Moffat feels a constant need to show how smart he is. It’s as if some high school maths teacher tattooed the words ‘show your workings’ across the inside of his brain, and he’s been trying to live up to that ever since. Seriously, if we got in the Tardis and hopped back along his timeline we’d find some adult who gave Steven the need to prove his smarts over and over and over again. And I would have very stern words with that adult, because they’ve become the subconscious voice that’s ruining one of my favourite TV writers.

Moffat has other ticks whose charm/annoyance depends on your personal taste. Charlie Jane Anders has dissected a bunch of them over on io9. But the one that really troubles me is his attitudes towards sex and gender. Steve’s dinner party porn speech from Coupling, while a sharp and hilarious piece of writing, also reflects an assumption that men are one way and women are another. It’s essentialist and heteronormative and a bunch of other troubling and long-titled concepts, and I laugh every time but I shudder too.

(I tried to find a clip of it to include here but apparently YouTube doesn’t like it. If you have the chance, go watch ‘Inferno’, season 1 episode 4 of British sitcom Coupling to see what I mean. Content warning – the bit I’m directing you towards is a two minute diatribe about why pornography is good, and that reflects the tone of the show.)

Smarts in service to the story

If I like smart writing, why does a smartly written episode like ‘Listen’ not excite me?

In short, because I like a compelling story too.

I like smart writing to exist in service to the story, but ‘Listen’ seemed like a story in service to smart ideas. There was no compelling narrative to draw me along, no forward moving tension to engage with, no sense that the characters really had something at stake in the main arc of the plot.

And before anyone says ‘the art of storytelling can be about character, dude’, or something along those lines, I also watched The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford this weekend, and that film proves that you can focus on art and character while still having a compelling narrative.

In fact Joss Whedon does this all the time. He’s another incredibly clever writing, working in similar genres and industries to Moffat, yet he uses his smarts to craft exciting stories every time. Because those stories aren’t about Whedon being smart – Whedon is being smart about the stories.

Show runner as auteur

What I this reflects is that some TV show runners are now seen as auteurs, the creative geniuses behind their shows who should be left to express their distinctive voice.

I’m OK with that. It over-simplifies our understanding of creativity, but it also gives creators like Moffat and Whedon a lot of freedom. It creates television that is distinctive and individual and fascinating, rich with new ideas and of course flaws.

This means that I’m not getting the Doctor Who I want, or the Steven Moffat TV that I want, both of which would need a restraining hand pulling Moffat back in line. But I’ll pay that price for a genre TV landscape that’s richer and more interesting.

Because ‘Listen’ might be self-indulgent, but it’s also fascinating. And a TV industry that can create this will leave room for some other smart, story driven shows.

What do you all think of the new Doctor Who?

Personally I’m really enjoying it so far. Capaldi has that intensity we’ve come to expect from the Doctor. The first couple of episodes have been wildly imaginative, and I’ll forgive them a lot for that. The new credits are a nice mix of steampunk stuff and references back to the classic credits. And Strax was in the first episode – I want him to be the next companion.

All in all I’m enjoying it.

But I find myself completely incapable of critically evaluating what the show’s currently doing. I fear that Moffat might get self-indulgent in following his favourite bits, like with the weeping angels and River Song, both of which lost their appeal the more he leaned on them to keep us interested. He’s a really clever writer but sometimes his plots get so tangled they lose their coherence. I’m not sure yet whether he’s got that stuff out of his system or whether there are danger signs showing.

So, what do you think? What’s been good so far? What’s been not so great? What are you looking forward to? What have I missed?

Britain’s a funny old place. Lets face it, guidebooks can never quite capture the essence of a nation that gave us both Bilbo Baggins and the Rolling Stones. Fortunately our rich tradition of making stuff up, aka science fiction and fantasy, can help out.

Fellow writer Victoria Randall‘s daughter will be learning about Britain first hand later this year when she travels to Swansea, a town some of my readers are very familiar with. So to help her out here are a few valuable lessons on Britain, as shown by science fiction and fantasy.

Queueing matters

I know that in some other countries getting what you want is a mad scrum to get to the front. She who shouts loudest or pushes hardest gets her way.

Yes United States, I’m looking at you. Don’t try to hide behind Canada, even if they’re too polite to give you away.

No pushing, no shoving, no giggling at the back - these chaps know how to behave.

No pushing, no shoving, no giggling at the back – these chaps know how to behave.

In this country we are far too polite for that (sidenote: studies from the Centre for Made Up Statistics show that 63% of British politeness is just a cover for repression – more on that later). The cybermen may be brutal villains hell bent on destroying humanity, but at least they know how to wait their turn in line. Get out of line around cybermen and they will destroy you. Real Britains will politely dream about it, and then provide you with poor service and a look of disdain. Don’t take that chance.

Food = happiness

Sam cookingIs there any more British hero than Sam from Lord of the Rings? Diligent, home-loving, unsure of himself. And what does Sam do whenever he wants to cheer people up? He cooks.

The British love of a cuppa is well known, but it goes beyond that. Look at our traditional national cuisine – Yorkshire puddings, teacakes, milky tea, boiled potatoes and over-cooked vegetables. Some people might call it joyless and unexciting, but it’s really the opposite – it’s a sign of how much we love our food, that we can find comfort in it no matter what. That’s what makes Sam such a big damn hero – halfway up Mount Doom he’s still putting on the kettle and reaching for the breadknife.

Scepticism is not just healthy, it’s compulsory

How better to cope with an infestation than by having a nice cuppa?

How better to cope with an infestation than by having a nice cuppa?

We may be polite but that doesn’t mean we blankly accept whatever we’re told. Remember, we chopped our king’s head off long before other countries got in on the act.

That’s right revolutionary France, I see you jumping on our bandwagon.

Scepticism is the bedrock of the British mindset. It can be about authority, about ideas, even about whether this nice weather will last (it won’t, this is Britain). And it’s embodied in the works of one of finest fantasy authors, the amazing Terry Pratchett. Pratchett’s characters and the plots of his books challenge accepted ideas and authorities. They show that scepticism of which we’re so proud.

Though we do look askance at anyone who gets too proud.

Repression is so last century

Not as polite as they look.

Not as polite as they look.

All of this might leave you thinking that Britain is still the stiff upper lipped land of the Victorian age. But if you want to see modern Britain, and just how foul-mouthed and sneering that upper lip has become, then you should check out Misfits. The show about young people who develop super powers while on community service is full of imaginatively foul language and the worst sort of behaviour. Because after years of repression Britain is finally pulling out of the nineteenth century and the results are… lets call them messy.

Modern Britain has learned that it can get away with swearing in public, consuming drugs other than a nice cup of Assam, and loudly screaming its scepticism in the face of authority. We’re changing, which is not all good and not all bad, and as always science fiction and fantasy are there to show the world what it means to be British.

So anyway, that’s my guide to Britain, as shown by our science fiction and fantasy. Fellow Brits, add your opinions in the comments – what lessons have I missed? And those of you further afield, what have you learned about Britain from our national nerd culture? Or what would you like the rest of us to explain?

Doctor Who is going to face a villainous banker. Of course he is. Since the financial crash bankers have become a pop culture pariah, a go to baddie that guarantees an audience reaction. It’s fair enough – the creators of our culture have a duty to address current concerns, both for the good of public discourse and for the good of their own income. But are we really handling this issue right, in science fiction, fantasy and beyond?

Doctor Who

A villain as old as pantomime

Lets face it, the banker villain isn’t a new trope. Despite the efforts of It’s A Wonderful Life, bankers have turned up as bad characters more often than good, whether they’re foreclosing on the hero’s house or corrupting the values of the young with their materialistic ways. Even Mary Poppins, that childishly bonkers work of fabulous fantasy, has banker villains and a character whose arc is about learning not to be such a banker.

 

If Mary Poppins thinks you’re a bad egg then you really are in trouble. But bankers have hit a new cultural low in recent years, and that raises some complicated questions.

Not all banks are made equal

The cultural slum status of bankers undoubtedly has a lot to do with the financial crisis and the mechanisms that brought it about. The increasingly complicated and dubious techniques being used by hedge fund managers have rightly drawn criticism. When men in skyline offices are profiting from mechanisms that destroy years others’ hard work then something is amiss. Some of these people were literally living off the misery of others.

This is the image of banking picked up on by Joe Abercrombie‘s Valint and Balk, the shadowy, manipulative bankers who occasional peak out from behind the scenes of his fantasy world. Even in a world where banking is far less commonplace, the bankers have managed to make themselves villains.

Just before the crisis I worked in a company that published data on investment funds. It was a spirit crushing job, our work completely divorced from the real, productive world. I didn’t stay there long, but I have to keep reminding myself that a lot of banking isn’t about those funds. There’s a wide spectrum from the micro-finance idealists bringing money to poor Indian villagers, through the helpful mechanism of high street banking, to the bloated leviathan of high stakes investment banking.

The problem is that our culture seldom reflects that variety or that nuance. The grasping investment bankers are a minority, but they dominate the way we portray modern finance, and that’s starting to undermine those portrayals. The banker as villain is becoming a cartoonish cliché, and much as I love Doctor Who I doubt it will avoid that trap.

The pantomime villainy is making the message less powerful, causing people to react against the demonisation of bankers and forget that there is a real problem here.

Money is power

It’s a cliché but it’s true – money is power. And right now that form of power is in conflict with political power. The power of finance is eroding state institutions, investment bankers taking over from the politicians. It is, in my opinion at least, a profoundly undemocratic trend. At the ballot box we all have equal power, in the market place our power depends on our wealth, whether earned, inherited, stolen, or otherwise acquired.

This is an issue that science fiction in particular is well placed to address. It’s a big feature of Richard Morgan’s excellent Market Forces. Whatever your views on this change, it’s one worth exploring, and science fiction’s capacity to look to the future is a great way to do that.

More variety please

If that exploration is to have any impact then we need a more nuanced approach to portraying bankers and finance, one that acknowledges and explores the difference between the helpful little guy and the huge corporate villain. Literature, TV, films, games – these all have the power to change views and so shape the world.

Even an episode of Doctor Who.

For me, Doctor Who will always be Peter Davison.

It’s a matter of age. I was just old enough to be watching Doctor Who during his tenure, and to be traumatised by his near-death and regeneration at the end of The Caves of Androzani. As a little kid, this charming, energetic young man was everything I wanted to be. The fact that he beat alien menaces without resorting to violence really clinched it.

Seriously, how much cooler can a person get?

Seriously, how much cooler can a person get?

Of course I enjoyed Colin Baker, for all that I know now that he was controversial. And I loved Sylvester McCoy, with his erratic energy and weird, dark plotlines. Berty Bassett still gives me the creeps. I watched the older doctors on video, and took a particular liking to Jon Pertwee, for reasons I can’t even remember.

I was gutted about the McGann mess, for all the flare he brought to the role, and then immensely releaved when the RTD revival got it right. I’ve enjoyed Eccleston, Tennant, Smith and now Hurt, and I cannot wait to see Capaldi take on the big blue box. These days, the Doctor just seems to get better and better.

But for me, and I suspect many others, the appeal of Doctor Who isn’t in the quality of the show, which has swung wildly about over time. It’s in my emotional attachment. And that lies forever with the fifth doctor.